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Cold Comfort in this Darkest Hour

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The thing about spending two weeks in hell was that it made everything else seem a lot easier.

Or maybe he was just numb and reeling. At least he wasn't cooped up in his office talking to hims--

All right, maybe he was. But it was definitely less "crazy talk" than "any shrink who could cope with this shit is on the payroll here, so it's me or nobody," and so he was still ahead of Wesley in the sanity stakes.

Of course, from what Gunn had seen, at least eighty percent of the inmates of any psychiatric hospital were ahead of Wesley in the sanity stakes, right now. Wes was trying to work with her--with it--with Illyria. Trying to talk to it. Trying to teach it about the world.

On the surface, not the worst idea anyone had ever had. But there were some ways he and Wes were a lot alike, and if Gunn couldn't look at it without seeing Fred, without seeing thing-that-killed-Fred, there was no way Wesley could, either. So the sane people of the world would let someone else teach Planet Earth 101 to the big blue god-king.

Gunn was sane, more or less, so he was going to try to keep out of its way. He appreciated it getting him out of that basement, even if he had no clue why, or what it was going to ask for in return, but that was as far as it went. But if he stayed in here looking at this paperwork for much longer, he just might lose that sanity, so maybe he should get out of here for a little while, find some kind of distraction. He was coping, but there was no point in pushing his luck.

Wesley was out--he was distracting, all right, but not in a good way. Besides, that kind of crazy had a good chance of being contagious. Angel--not right now. He didn't want to talk about work or Illyria, and he was pretty sure that was where any conversation with Angel would be headed. And Lorne was all too likely to ask how Gunn was doing, and Gunn didn't want to have that conversation until he had some clue of what the answer was.

That left Spike.

For once, Spike wasn't hard to find; Gunn just followed the sounds of somebody being thrown against a wall. He paused outside the room where Spike was supposed to be testing Illyria's limits, not wanting to go in. He didn't want to see it. Didn't want to think about it. That was the whole point of the distraction: to not be reminded that it was his fault that thing was in the world.

He didn't have to decide whether or not he was going in; he heard Spike call, "Back in a minute," and then he was out the door, leaning heavily against the wall and bent nearly double, his hands on his knees.

"Shit," Gunn said. "Are you okay?"

"Are we talking in general, or for someone who just got kicked in the bollocks by an ancient demon-god?" He raised his head after a minute or two, looking at Gunn. "She either doesn't get what 'sparring' means, or she thinks this is funny. No way to tell."

The door opened again, and Illyria stalked off without a word to either of them, in the direction Gunn had just come from. Good. That meant Wes would see it coming through. Let him deal with it, since he wanted to.

"And it looks like I'm taking a break," Spike said. "Tell me you've replaced the bottle in your office."

"It's half-full," Gunn said, and then looked at Spike suspiciously. "You drank my scotch. I was in hell, and you drank my scotch!"

"Wasn't like you were going to be needing it, was it?" was Spike's reply as he set off down the hall--not, thank God, in the same direction as Illyria. "Come on, Charlie, you're buying."

Despite his better judgment, Gunn followed.

***



"Let me get this straight," Spike said. Gunn wasn't sure that "straight" was the right word to be using. Spike was looking kind of tilted right about now.

Or maybe Gunn's alcohol tolerance was shot by mystical brain surgery, getting his ex-girlfriend killed, being stabbed by his former best friend, and then having his heart ripped out on a regular schedule for a couple of weeks. It made more sense than Spike actually being tilted at about a forty-five degree angle.

"You don't want to talk about Illyria. You don't want to talk about Fred. You don't want to talk about how Percy has been riding the crazy train lately. I don't want to talk about the poof. Exactly what does that leave us with?"

"You could shut up and drink," Gunn suggested. It sounded like one of his better ideas, so he reached for his glass.

Spike was too fast for him; he had the glass on his side of the table, out of Gunn's reach, before Gunn could touch it. "Think you've had enough." Spike knocked back the liquor himself; obviously, "enough" was a concept that didn't apply to vampires. He kept his hand curled around the glass when he was done, running his finger along the rim, and licked his lips to chase down a stray drop.

"Yeah," Gunn said. "Think I have."

"Oh, God," Spike muttered. "You're not going to get morbid and soul-searching on me, are you? I knew Angel was a bad influence."

"Enough to drink," Gunn clarified, and Spike's scowl lessened for a moment, only to return when Gunn went on, "How do you do it? I mean, that thing, it looks like Fred. It stole Fred's body."

"She's not Fred," Spike said, like that answered everything. "Plus, I get to hit the thing that killed her. Don't get to hurt her, but I'm working on that. I'll suss out her moves soon enough." He shrugged. "When you were out there, doing good and killing vampires, any of your mates ever get turned?"

Only Spike would think that was casual conversation, Gunn thought, holding onto that to keep himself from remembering Alonna too sharply. "Yeah."

"You stake them?"

"Yeah," again, the word being spat from behind gritted teeth this time.

Spike went on, oblivious or uncaring or both. "Felt good, didn't it? Hurting the thing that took 'em away from you."

No, Gunn wanted to say. No, it had felt terrible. No, he'd seen his baby sister's face crumble into ash. But there had been a flash of take that, fucker in the back of his mind as it happened, and so he shrugged.

"Well, there you are, then. Course, I don't recommend you tackling her royal blueness yourself, but you're welcome to watch."

"I might," he said, and realized he meant it. How fucking weird did his life have to get before he was bonding with Spike?

How much weirder had it just gotten, realizing that he'd spent half the evening watching Spike's hands and mouth?

He was numb, and he was reeling, and he'd just spent two weeks in hell, and that was why this suddenly seemed like a good idea. Yeah, he thought, and your point is what, exactly?

His point was that it'd been a long damn time since he'd been around somebody who got what he was talking about. Fred was gone. Wes was--as gone as Fred, in his own fucked-up way, and for longer. He and Angel hadn't ever been like that. "Come on," he said. "Let's get out of here."

"I need another pint before I let Illyria have another go," Spike argued, and Gunn knew he wasn't talking about beer.

"We're not looking for Illyria," he said.

He could feel those scales tipping a little more to the crazy side, but it didn't matter.

He got up, and Spike followed him.