Chapter One: Denial
As he hung suspended in the air, held captive and nearly strangled in the grip of Cyvus Vail's magic, Wesley wished for one brief moment that he'd ignored his instincts and brought his guns. One quick shot, one carefully aimed bullet, and this farce of a confrontation would be over.
Of course, it would never be that easy. Like the character Neo in that appalling film Gunn had inflicted upon him several summers ago, Vail could very likely stop the bullet mid-flight, then force it to reverse its course. It would all be over then, indeed, and far too quickly for Wesley to profit from the manner of its ending.
Vail circled him, a look of amusement on his red, wrinkled face as he inspected his victim. "Did you really think you had a shot at this?" he said, taunting Wesley. "I can bend the very fabric of reality to my will. Your parlor tricks could never kill me, boy."
Never bring a gun to a knife fight, Wesley thought wryly, remembering the old cliche. "Then... I'll just... have to do this... the old fashioned way," he responded aloud, struggling to get the words out through the crushing grip of the spell, then twisted his wrist to activate the spring release mechanism on the hidden sheath in his sleeve. The spellwoven dagger he'd concealed there was not very impressive, in either size or sharpness of edge, but it had been blessed by a local priest and enhanced in other ways that made it perfect for this one use. Should Vail divert it back upon Wesley as quickly as he would that hypothetical bullet, the elderly demonic warlock would be in for a nasty surprise.
The knife came free of the restraining cloth, a comforting presence in his grip. Vail was within arm's reach now, his attention on the conversation, not on Wesley's hands; it was the work of a moment to thrust forward as hard as he could, bracing himself for Vail's reaction. But it was not the one he had scripted in his head; Vail slapped the knife away, inexplicably failing to either impale Wesley with it, or obligingly fall on its point himself. Wesley felt his skin flush cold, then hot with the force of his dismayed emotions as Vail reached out a hand and summoned a weapon of his own.
So. That was that, then. Wesley had known coming in that he was outmatched magically and that the only thing more unlikely than his chance of winning was his chance of survival. The enchanted knife would have increased his odds and given him a chance of living through his own sacrifice, but apparently that was not to be. Ah well. Despite what he'd told Illyria, he'd been rather prepared for the day to end this way; that was, in fact, why he'd been so certain it would not. The universe was not known for giving Wesley what he wanted.
Ah, Fred... Wesley thought, then gasped as Vail's gleaming blade went in below his ribs and angled upward through vulnerable, vital organs. He knew the blow was mortal before the pain even registered, as the numbness began to sap all strength from his muscles, the rhythm of his pulse faltered and beads of sweat appeared on his suddenly chilled brow. He had a brief sensory flash of the gut shot he'd taken defending Gunn and the knife as Justine slashed it across his throat, before the damaged tissues began screaming their tale of woe.
Wesley gritted his teeth and braced himself as best he could, pushing the pain to the back of his mind. Then he cupped his left hand at his side and focused all his remaining will on creating another ball of the strength-sapping Merlin's Fire he'd so recently managed to master. This time he gave it everything, every last bit of magic and life's energy sustaining him. Heart's blood from a willing sacrifice was a very potent catalyst, and the magic, he knew, would answer to it. He'd taken that into account in his contingency planning.
A fist-sized ball of golden flames formed quickly, then flew from his hand. It had significantly more impact than his last attempt; Vail was knocked backward with considerable force into a wall. Wesley allowed himself a small moment of satisfaction at the sound of the collision, a counterpoint to the grasping fire of the wound. With any luck, the warlock would be dead; at the very least, he would be diminished enough that any of Angel's other allies could easily finish him off. Wesley had completed his duty as best as he possibly could, and now... now he was done.
His concentration faltered then as the dissipation of Vail's magics delivered him up to the laws of gravity and he fell to the tiled floor below. He managed to keep his feet for a moment, clutching at the wound, while the world blurred and faded in a haze of pain. It quickly swam back into focus, however, as he suddenly realized there was a third person in the room. Adrenaline could do wonders for a man who thought he had nothing left to give. But it was not an enemy, after all, or at least not any longer; it was only... her. Not Fred, despite the instinctive leap of heart he still felt at every sight of her. Illyria. The latest-- last-- millstone the Fates had seen fit to hang round his neck.
She was calling his name, an unexpected note of peturbation in her voice; she was at his side; she was easing him down, holding him with her inhumanly strong arms as the all-too-human strength began to leave his own limbs. It was growing hard for him to focus, to pay attention to anything but the pain, but he felt an unexpected twinge of gratefulness at the care she was showing. It wasn't like the last time. He wasn't dying alone.
"The wound is mortal," she announced by way of greeting, as she got her first clear look at the wound.
"Aren't we all," Wesley managed to reply, a little bemused. "It was good... that you came."
Even now, on the edge of death, he found himself wanting to guide her, to encourage the small signs of humanity in her behaviour. Who would do that for her, when he was gone? He knew he could never have forgiven her for destroying all hope of his ever seeing Fred again, but now that he had nothing left to lose, he could admit that without that mark against her he would have enjoyed the challenge she presented. Not since the days of the First Slayer had an Ancient walked the earth; the potential she embodied, on many levels, was incalculably vast. Had he had any lasting effect on her? Had this god-king that was, this ageless demon wrapped in woman's flesh, truly begun to understand and care on some level for the vermin she'd once scorned? If so, then perhaps there was hope for the world, after all.
"I killed all mine and I was..." Illyra said, then paused, studying his face, as if uncertain what word to use next.
"Concerned?" he suggested, quietly, trying to keep his breathing shallow. It hurt less, that way.
"I think so," she replied, glancing toward the blood dampening his shirt in an ever-widening circle around the wound. "But I can't help. You'll be dead within moments."
"I know." There was nothing else to say, and no time to say it in even if there was.
Illyria seemed to sense that he was beginning to fade, and changed the subject bluntly. "Would you like me to lie to you now?" she asked him, reaching to cup his cheek with one blue-tinted hand.
The pain flared, then ebbed again as he took breath to answer her. "Yes, thank you, yes," he replied, grasping at her offer like a drowning man offered a life preserver. What good was the truth to him now, after all, despite all his objections earlier? Why should he deny himself this last comfort? Truth or illusion, she was his reason, his cause, the affirmation that what he had done was all worth it. He could not help but smile as Illyria's form shifted and blurred obediently into his beloved's dear, familiar shape. This-- yes, there was his Helen, his Muse; he'd loved her for so long, much longer than the short time they'd actually had together.
"Hello there," he whispered to her.
"Oh, Wesley," she said, her voice wavering as Illyria called on Fred's memories. That look in her eyes-- oh, how he'd missed her. Tears ran down her cheeks as she tried to smile, touching him gently with those small, expressive hands, offering what comfort she could give. "My Wesley. It's gonna be okay. It won't hurt much longer, and then you'll be where I am. We'll be together."
It was all lies, he knew, but she pretended to be Fred so very, very well, and hearing those words in Fred's voice was a balm to his broken, fading soul. "I... I love you," he tried to tell her, tried to reach an arm up to touch her this one last time, but his body betrayed him, too heavy and weak to move.
She kissed his forehead, then his lips in a final benediction, and it warmed him even as the numbness spread to quench the last of the pain. "I love you," he thought he heard her answer, but he could not be sure; he could not see her any longer. "My love. Oh, my love."
The final words were drowned out by a rushing in his ears, and then the darkness swallowed him whole.
Illyria stepped back at last from the ruin she had made of the creature Vail, still clenching her fists helplessly against the onslaught of unfamiliar emotion that clenched in her chest and prickled behind her eyes. It ached; it numbed; it stole her breath; it enveloped her pathetic mortal body in a variety of sensations she'd never before experienced, and she was not quite sure what to do about it now that the immediate cause of the problem had been vanquished.
Grief, the remnants of the one called Fred whispered in the vaults of her mind. This... feeling... is called grief. This is what he felt, why he could not bear the lie so long as he believed he would survive; the pain was surely as great as the physical sensations of dying. This is what he felt to see her face when all hope of her was gone.
"A weakness of this species," she muttered to herself, brushing fresh tears from her all-too-human face. Why had she not stopped him all those weeks ago, when he had fired the mutari generator to reduce her to her present form? If she had prevented his actions then, if she had died and become a crater of a vastness befitting the extent of her power, he would still be dead now, but she would not have had this present... uncertainty... to deal with. Surely that would have been a preferable fate.
Slowly, Illyria knelt beside his limp form and laid a hand on his still-warm cheek. He had been dead for mere moments; his physical form had not yet visibly changed, but an emptiness had replaced the familiar spark of despair and determination in his open eyes, and she could not ignore it. She could not fool herself; Wesley had had the right of it, after all. Illusion was no substitute for truth, now that she no longer had the power to make the distinction between the two as nothing.
Suddenly, she could not bear the idea of Wesley decaying, rotting, becoming riddled with vermin, being hidden away in a box underground. He had been her guide, the closest thing she had to a Qwa'ha Xahn in this ridiculous excuse for an existence, and such a fate was surely beneath him. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and with a determined set of her jaw reached inward for the subdued thread of what power she had been able to retain in this mortal form.
Time gradually slowed, then stilled in a small, contained space that exactly followed the contours of Wesley's body. Illyria could no longer control the flow of the continuum throughout the whole of this dimension, but in this one, tiny pocket-- it was a significant drain on her energy, but it could be done. He would not crumble into pathetic scraps of slime and flesh as Vail and her other targets had done; he would remain this way, as he had been in life, for as long as she chose it to be so.
"My love," she murmured again, tasting Fred's words on her tongue one final time, and considered what to do with his body. They were supposed to have met the one called Angel and his lackeys in the alley behind a hotel to make one last stand against the forces of the Wolf, Ram, and Hart. The hotel would have to do; Wesley had told her that the vampire owned it still, and it stood empty. She would lay him there and purge her grief in a fresh wave of violence; she would dance on the skulls of their enemies and make trophies of their spines. Wesley would be avenged.
Swiftly, she gathered his body into her arms, then strode out of the hall of Vail.
Chapter Two: Anger
Connor stood in front of his bedroom window, staring out into the night. His father was out there somewhere, fighting whatever army the Senior Partners had called up, and Connor wasn't at his side.
They were going to destroy him. Connor shook his head at the thought, then started pacing back and forth in the small space between the window and his bedroom door. He'd said that very thing to Angel, just after the vampire had managed to finish off Hamilton, arguing that he should stay with him. Angel's reply had been, "As long as you're okay, they can't."
How was I supposed to argue with that? he thought, angry at himself for having given in, and at Angel for playing the guilt card to begin with. Perhaps in his other life, he wouldn't have fallen for it-- but then again, in his other life, he wouldn't have cared that Angel was facing certain death in the first place. But how was he supposed to just sit here and ignore what was happening? What kind of a son would he be, to let his father go up against impossible odds with only a couple of humans and another vampire for back-up?
My parents raised me better than that, Connor thought, then snorted at the irony. His parents hadn't raised him at all; their memories of him were as false as that sister of Buffy's Cordy had told him about. His life here wasn't real, as much as he loved his Mom and Dad. This was his father's dream for him, not his. He was supposed to be there, in the thick of the battle, defending the righteous against the enemy that opposed them.
His father had taught him that, too. His first father, that is: Holtz. The one who had taught him how to survive, how to track, and how to kill. He had put those lessons to use against Sahjhan, and again to save Angel's life when Hamilton was seconds away from staking him. It was time to use them again, no matter what Angel said. He couldn't be true to the man he was, the man all his fathers had made him, and not go back to help.
Connor turned and strode purposefully toward the door.
Buffy pushed down harder on the gas pedal, accelerating through the nighttime landscape of Los Angeles. A sense of unease was building steadily in her veins, feeding off of the urgent feeling left over from the last round of Slayer dreams. It had taken them a little while to identify just which of the many alleys in the world had been the setting for the upcoming show, and she was beginning to worry that they were going to be too late.
There just hadn't been enough warning. What were the PTBs trying to pull? All over the globe, for the last 24 hours, young Slayers had awakened screaming-- but before that, not a peep. What, did they have to wait until the bad guys actually started with the moving and shaking before giving their own side any useful information? Because last minute plane tickets-- not cheap. Even with the Council's resources.
"Left at the next light," Willow spoke up, looking up from the map to give her the next step in the directions. "And after that... Uh, Buffy, that light isn't... Buffy!"
The redheaded witch grabbed at the edges of her seat with panicked hands as Buffy ignored the light's color and sped through the intersection, taking the corner at speed and thanking God it wasn't rush hour. She'd finally made the effort to learn how to drive during her 'working vacation' in Rome, but she didn't think she was up to the task of dodging through daytime traffic.
Bodies thumped around in the back as she straightened out the van's course, and swearing drifted forward from the contingent of supernaturally gifted females packed into the bench seats like sardines.
"Sorry!" She tossed the lie back over her shoulder to them, then glanced over to meet Willow's worried gaze. "Tell me we're almost there, Will."
Willow swallowed, and looked forward again. "Just a few more turns. We're nearly..."
She cut herself off in mid-sentence as a sudden disturbance in the air obscured the street a block ahead of them, half filling the space between sidewalks with a gray sort of swirling... nothing. "Buffy, I don't like the looks of this."
"Neither do I," The Slayer replied, and jammed on the brakes as hard as she could. "I think this is as close as we're going to get."
The van screeched to a halt several yards short of the nebulous obstruction, and behind them Buffy heard several other sets of tires complaining as the other Council-rented vehicles followed her lead. "Make for the Hyperion," she yelled to the others, then flung the driver's door open and leaped to the ground.
She didn't stop to take the keys from the ignition-- honestly, she didn't think anyone was going to be stupid enough to try to steal it just now, and they might need to leave in a hurry. Nor did she rush to help the others out of the back; they were big girls, and could let themselves out on their own. Instead, she hurled herself toward the forming portal-- at least, she assumed it was a portal-- hoping to get around it in time to reach Angel's crew before the onslaught.
Who did she think she was fooling? She wanted to reach Spike. She wanted to yell at the sonofabitch for never telling her he was alive, and for not calling her when Team Angel made their plans for the latest end-of-the-world scenario. She wanted to slap him for every time someone had doubted her today, asking, "Are we sure it wasn't just a nightmare? I mean, Spike was in it, and we know he died in Sunnydale." She wanted to deck him for telling Andrew not to tell her about him back in January, and to kiss him for trying to find her in Rome last week even if he had only been there because of business. She wanted to cup those sharp cheekbones with her hands while she told him that yes, she really had meant it. But most of all, she wanted to be there to save him, to make sure there would still be an opportunity for the rest of it.
She didn't make it to the portal in time. With an earthshaking howl, a horde of gnarly armored demons began pouring out of thin air, heading away from her in a hurry. They looked a lot like those Urks-- Orcs?-- whatever-- from that really long movie with the cute elf, and half of them were carrying weapons. She came to a reluctant halt then, knowing that she would never get past them now without stopping to fight at least a few and that it would be stupid to do so alone.
"Goddess!" Willow gasped behind her as something flew out above the horde, something with a long sinuous neck and fire blazing from its nostrils.
"Is that a dragon?" Kennedy added, astonishment in her voice. "How are we supposed to kill that? Slayers don't come with wings."
"But they do come with crossbows," Buffy reminded her, and turned to her best friend. "Can you close the portal, Will? We're lucky they haven't seen us yet-- we're going to have to swarm them from behind, and we can't do that if we're worrying about falling through to their world."
"Gimme a second," Willow answered, then braced her feet and extended her hands upward to the darkened sky. She began calling out to various deities and other sources of power, but Buffy didn't pay attention to the details. As long as it got the job done, she didn't much care; she just wanted to be there, and this had to come first.
An unseen wind flirted with Willow's hair, blowing a few red strands into the witch's eyes, then gusted stronger as a bright light seemed to bleed out from the roots, bleaching it all white. It still scared Buffy sometimes to see her friend wielding so much power, but ever since her summer with the coven and the relapse when she had turned herself into Warren, she seemed to have kept a firm handle on it. Willow controlled the magic now; it didn't control her. And that, Buffy could trust in.
The Scythe sang in her hands as Willow's efforts began to have an effect. The PTBs must have finally deigned to answer their prayers; the portal narrowed, then began to flicker in and out, and finally vanished with a roar that Buffy could barely hear over the shouts of the demons. "Good job, Willow!" she yelled, then lifted the Scythe overhead in a gesture to the girls behind her. "Let's get to work!"
Illyria stood over the unconscious form of the one called Charles, swinging an axe captured from a fallen foe at the horde of demons coming toward her. She had slain many enemies already; the blade of her weapon was slick with their multi-hued blood, and their corpses littered the alley around her.
The two half-breeds-- Spike and Angel-- had disappeared into the crowd several minutes ago, but she could still hear them yelling and the occasional body flew through the air to hint at their location. She was grateful that they still lived; Wesley had cared for them, even if she did not, and her grief for him still pulsed uncontrollably within her.
She growled in frustration. How could it continue to affect her this way? She was Illyria! He had been nothing but a weak, primitive human, not even worthy to kiss the ground she walked upon had he existed in the days of her magnificence. These feelings, these emotions he had caused to grow within her were less than useless; they distracted her and impaired her judgment.
Illyria dismissed the matter from her mind and took refuge in the violence, decapitating, gutting, or otherwise mutilating anything unfortunate enough to get within reach. None of these minor demons were a match for her individually, but there were so very many of them; she dared not let them swarm her. She refused to be vanquished by such pestilential slime. Let the Wolf, Ram and Hart come to face her without such intermediaries; she would not settle for anything less.
An inhuman scream split the air somewhere above her and to her left. Illyria looked up just in time to see the dragon's broken form come crashing to the ground, igniting several lesser beings in its death throes. Protruding from its corpse were several short lengths of wood-- arrows, she thought, identifying them from Fred's encyclopedic memory of human weapons. Their appearance was baffling to her; neither of the vampires had been carrying crossbows, and Charles still lay unmoving behind her.
The origin of the arrows became obvious when several small, human forms began dropping from the rooftops around them, armed with a variety of weaponry. "So, what's this all about?" one of them yelled, a female with short blonde hair. "You threw a party and didn't invite me?"
"We didn't want to drag you into it!" one of the half-breeds yelled in return. "This our problem, not Slayer business!"
"It sure looks like Slayer business to me," the blonde replied, laying about her with an edged weapon that sang to Illyria of power nearly as old as her own. "What were you trying to do, commit suicide?"
A Slayer? Illyria growled in renewed anger at the presence of the corrupted human, a wielder of borrowed power whose progenitors in her time had been far more trouble than they had any right to be. If the vampire had counted such as she among his allies, why had he not called her in earlier? Where the Slayer was, there were always magic users, attempting to control her. Had it truly been necessary for Wesley to die?
An abnormally large demon loomed up before her, distracting her from her questions. Illyria swung the axe at its knees, putting all of her considerable force into the blow, and had the satisfaction of seeing it topple to the earth, bellowing in pain. There would be time for questions later. There was still work to be done.
The first thing Wesley noticed when he opened his eyes again was the presence of light. It disoriented him for a moment; he could not fathom where it had come from, nor how he'd managed to find his feet again, when his last conscious memories were filled with darkness and pain. He blinked, taking in the blank whiteness that filled the space around him, then instinctively reached for the place where Vail's dagger had entered his stomach. He was startled further to find that the wound was still there. The pain had vanished as though it had never been, but the damage to his body had not disappeared with it.
"I don't understand," he murmured, staring down at the red stain still spreading across his shirt. "This obviously isn't Heaven... but surely it can't be Hell?" His idea of Hell-- at least, any version in which he might be cursed to spend his Afterlife-- was patterned after the Quartoth of his nightmares; brimstone and agony featured high on the list of amenities.
Wesley looked up in shock at the amused, intruding voice and found himself face to face with a woman he'd never thought to see again: his adopted sister, his confidante, the bane of his existence-- Cordelia Chase. Her avoidance of him had hurt nearly as much as Fred's dismissal in the aftermath of Connor's kidnapping; he had been almost grateful when he'd found out she had been a victim of Jasmine's plot even then. Everything she'd done after taking on the demon aspect, from blindly taking Angel's side to killing Lilah and making him think Angelus had done it, had diminished under the weight of that truth. That one last day with her in February had brought back so many fond memories of their friendship, but she'd disappeared again without even saying goodbye.
"I know you made mistakes, Wes," she said, smiling sadly at him. "And you got a little dark from time to time. But you don't deserve Hell. I know from evil, and you're not it. You've always been the guy that makes the hard decisions, who tries to do what's right, regardless of the cost. Some of us up here respect that."
He glanced away again, unable to bear the weight of her gaze. Angel had said much the same the day that Wesley had shot the robot posing as his father; it didn't make him feel any better now than it had then. Though he was touched by the affirmation-- he'd received little enough approval in his life-- he still had difficulty believing that anyone could look at the long list of his failures and conclude that he was a good man. Especially a being like...
Abruptly, the implications of Cordelia's last statement registered, jarring him out of his introspection. "Some of us?" He raised his eyebrows at her. "I thought that business about your becoming a Higher Power was all a ruse, set up by Jasmine to prepare for her coming."
She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, well. It's for real this time. I guess they figured I deserved some kind of reward, like hazard pay for all of the crap they put me through."
"I can't think of anyone better," Wesley said, sincerely. As unorthodox as Cordelia was, her influence could only improve the way the Powers treated their foot soldiers. "So... This is Heaven, then? It's... not quite what I expected."
The blank whiteness of his surroundings had resolved itself into an enormous, flat open space, emptied of all but a warm, pure light that seemed to come from everywhere around him. The surface beneath his feet was smooth and silvery-white in color, like the surface of a dull mirror reflecting only the blank sky above. He and Cordelia were the only people present, and she stood several feet away from him; they were separated by a dark chasm dividing the floor, several yards wide and so deep that when he looked down, he could not see the bottom.
"Ah, not exactly," Cordelia said, wrinkling up her face in that familiar way that meant either 'I smell something disgusting' or 'God, this is an awkward conversation'. "You're kind of, well, stuck."
"Stuck?" Wesley blinked at her, caught off guard. It was one thing to hear that he was not destined for Hell; another entirely to be told that he had no destination at all. Surely, she was not referring to some type of purgatory? It had been his understanding that that sort of thing only existed for Catholics.
"Yeah." Cordelia nodded, wincing a little. "Your little blue friend? She did something, some mojo that froze your body before your brain cells could die off. It takes like five minutes for that to happen. But you had already kicked the bucket; it's not like someone could have given you CPR and brought you back, like Xander did for Buffy the first time. You're not alive, not really, but you're not completely dead yet either, so you can't move on."
"You're saying I'm... mostly dead," he said slowly, suddenly besieged by memories of the last time he'd watched 'The Princess Bride', tucked up on a couch with Cordelia, Gunn, and a large bowl of buttered popcorn. He shook it off the incipient hysteria nibbling at the edges of his mind and focused, trying to put the idea into perspective. "I'm in some kind of stasis... and Illyria is responsible?"
"Yeah. As weird as it sounds-- I think she cares for you. As a person, I mean, and not just because of Fred's memories."
Wesley flinched away from her again, unable to bear the compassion and understanding in her gaze. Ah Fred … He glanced longingly out toward the horizon, remembering one of the last things Illyria had said to him in her voice. "You'll be where I am. We'll be together."
"I'm sorry, Wes," Cordelia added, and he flinched again. "I didn't mean to upset you-- but it's true, you know, and you're going to have to face it eventually. What's left of Fred-- well, Illyria is pretty much it. If you're looking for her, she isn't here."
"I know that," said softly. He could feel the tears pricking at the corners of his eyes as he looked up again, determined to keep going, to keep from breaking down entirely. He'd had a lot of practice at that, lately. "They told us... her soul was used up, converting her body for Illyria to take residence. But I suppose... I hadn't entirely given up hope that that it was a lie."
She paused a moment, then wrinkled up her nose again. "Well, I wouldn't say used up, exactly..."
Wesley had thought himself already too emotionally worn to bear any more, but that one word in Cordelia's hesitant voice sent a jolt of-- hope? excitement? fear?-- flashing through his veins. He snapped immediately to attention, like a hunting dog on point, and stared at her intently in a wordless demand to continue.
"Not so much used, as, say, fused," Cordelia finished, shrugging a shoulder at him in apology. "I'm not the best person to explain it, but... well, it's kind of like the difference between Angel and Liam. With a millenia-old Ancient in place of Angelus, and no chance of ever separating the soul and the demon. Fred's personality is gone, Wes, but Illyria needed her soul to stick to that body, and you already know that some of Fred's memories stuck with it. I'm not sure she's even aware of it yet, but the person in that 'shell' isn't really Illyria any more than she is Winifred Burkle. She's something else, something new, and the Powers aren't quite sure what's going to happen to her yet."
"My God." He didn't know what else to say.
"Not anymore," Cordelia said, trying to lighten the mood, and gave him another compassionate smile. "She's more like a slightly over-powered Slayer these days. We're just not sure what side she'll come down on at the end."
"But if she dies in this battle..." The unpalatable idea of something of Fred ending up consigned to Hell hardened into a cold lump in the pit of his stomach. "You can't... You can't send her... She was making progress, she was beginning to learn..."
Cordelia shook her head. "Calm down, Wes. It doesn't look like it's going to come to that." She pointed down into the chasm between them, still smiling. "Don't worry. You'll have plenty of time to nudge her in the right direction."
Wesley looked down, and discovered that the chasm was neither dark nor bottomless now. He could see a scene playing out far below them-- a ragtag army of Slayers, Watchers, and the remnants of his co-workers standing in a quiet alley filled with the corpses of their enemies. There was some kind of intense discussion going on, but their side had clearly won... and at the fringe of the crowd, striding quickly toward the front doors of the Hyperion, he could see the blue-striped form of the woman in question.
He opened his mouth to ask Cordelia another question-- how was he supposed to guide her from wherever-this-was?-- when the bright light around them suddenly flared up to blinding intensity, and he found himself sliding dizzily toward unconsciousness once again.
Angel had no idea how long he'd been fighting. It felt like it had been an eternity since he'd told his crew to get to work; Buffy's arrival with her Slayer reinforcements was a dim and distant memory. It couldn't really have been all that long, of course, since the sun hadn't yet come up, but it had been more years than he could count since he'd fought this kind of protracted battle. His world had narrowed to the next punch, the next swing of whatever weapon he had to hand, and the next column of vertebrae snapping in his overpowered grip.
What irony that was. Hamilton, mouthpiece for the Senior Partners, had given him the means to carry the battle back to them just that little bit further and just that little bit harder. The rush of power the liaison's blood had given him was even better than the legendary high that made Slayers such a tasty treat; dangerous, perhaps, since the scintillating darkness of it appealed more to the Angelus in him than his gypsy-bound soul, but that didn't matter when all he had to worry about was what he was going to kill next.
The latest ugly on his target list-- of a species he didn't recognize, long on odor and short on intelligence-- was in the middle of a sword-fight with him when it suddenly dropped its weapon and arched its back, choking off a strangled scream. Angel flinched in surprise, but he'd already put his full strength behind the thrust of his sword and it was too late to pull back now. The blade pierced straight through the demon's flesh, protruding from the other side to menace whatever had attacked it from behind.
"Hey, watch it!" a familiar voice complained as the demon slumped over Angel's sword arm, adding yet another splash of ichor to the various bodily fluids staining his clothes. "You almost got me with that!"
The sound of his son's voice sent a jolt of adrenaline through Angel's system, clearing away the 'fog of war' that had been clouding his thought processes. "Connor!" he yelped, then braced a foot against the corpse to dislodge it from his blade. "You could have been killed! I thought I told you to go home!"
"Aw, come on." Connor grinned cheekily at him, tossing shaggy brown hair out of his eyes. "I've survived worse. Do you really think I could just sit at home and let you have all the fun? Besides, it's not like there'd be much point in finishing that resume if the world ended before I could turn it in."
Angel shook his head wearily at the boy and dropped his sword-point to the pavement, leaning on the weapon like a cane as he cast a glance over the blood-soaked battleground. Angel and his allies had been forced to retreat a few times over the course of the engagement, but each time they moved they had left mounds of rapidly-decaying corpses behind them. Those makeshift barriers had served as macabre obstacle courses for each successive wave, and every group of demons that had made it through had been smaller than the last. Finally, it seemed as though they had run out of things to fight.
Here and there, he could see-- and smell-- Slayer blood on a wounded young woman, and toward the rear of the group a few shrouded forms hinted that they'd lost a few warriors, but the majority of the fighters were still on their feet. They were exhausted, but they had won the battle. Against all odds, he was still standing; he, Spike, Connor-- and it looked like Illyria also, hunched over a body in the triage area where the dead and wounded were being ministered to by Willow and Buffy's sister Dawn.
The slight thread of optimism that had begun to take root in Angel's spirit unraveled at that sight. With the dim lighting in the alley and the light rain still dampening everything, it was impossible to see the face clearly, but it could only be one person: Charles Gunn. Another casualty. Another member of Angel Investigations, crossed off of the rolls of the living. Doyle had been the first to go, then Cordelia and Fred, followed by Wes; Gunn was the last of them. Even Lorne, ever supportive, had left him. What had that ancient king said? 'One more such victory, and we are undone'. Despite today's success, he couldn't help but believe that they were going to lose the war.
"So, what happens next?"
Angel turned to see the weary form of his first true love brushing strands of blonde hair away from her forehead with one bruised, bloody hand. "Next?" he repeated tiredly, then sighed, glancing back toward his son. "I really don't know. We didn't expect to survive this. We took on the Circle of the Black Thorn to make a point, to show the Senior Partners they didn't own us and that we still had the ability to choose. But there will always be more minions, and I think we've pretty much put ourselves on the top of Wolfram & Hart's Most Wanted list. That's why I didn't want anyone else involved."
"Tell that to the Powers That Be," Buffy snorted, "and their full-color, surround-sound Slayer Dreams."
That startled him; he hadn't thought that the Powers might choose to get involved, after that one last vision Cordelia had passed to him and the total lack of help they'd been in other areas. He opened his mouth to ask her a question-- but he was interrupted before he could even get the first word out.
"You healed the one called Charles! I saw you touch his wounds and knit the damaged flesh together. I demand that you do the same for Wesley! You will put him back the way he was!" The angry shout echoed through the alleyway, attracting everyone's attention, startlingly loud in the quiet that had fallen after the battle.
Angel immediately turned back toward the triage area. Illyria had gotten to her feet sometime during the last few minutes and apparently struck up a conversation with Willow over her healing; of course, Willow hadn't known about either Illyria's nature, or her loss, so she would have had no idea what to expect. The Ancient demon had fisted her hands in the witch's shirt and lifted her bodily from the ground, dangling her above Gunn's still-prone form.
"He wasn't dead!" Willow protested, a note of panic in her voice. "Wesley is! You said so yourself! I don't do that kind of thing anymore, and even if I did, there aren't any Urns left to cast the spell with!"
"I did not ask you for excuses," Illyria said, with a sneer of disgust. "You will make him whole again!"
"I wasn't making an excuse!" Willow responded, the panic seeping out of her voice as reflexes trained in her shy-geek days gave way to the self-assurance of the powerful young woman. "I don't know who you think you are, walking around with Fred's face and super strength and that stupid blue hair, and I don't care-- you can't just go around grabbing people and demanding the impossible!" Willow reached out with both hands, latching on to Illyria's wrists, and a flash of white light flared from her palms. The two combatants were immediately flung several yards away from each other, colliding with opposing walls.
Angel winced and darted forward, slipping and sliding through the unidentifiable sludge of rainwater and less pleasant things underfoot, hoping to insert himself between the two women before things got even more out-of-hand than they were already. It was a relief to know that they apparently hadn't lost Gunn after all, but he really didn't want to see what might happen if the strongest witch in America and an embodied Ancient demon decided to settle their differences over the body of one of his colleagues.
Spike had apparently had the same thought; the younger vampire had been watching Angel's interaction with Buffy with an unreadable expression, but as soon as the argument had begun he had started threading his way through the ragged group of weary young Slayers on a bee-line for Illyria.
Another flash lit up the alley, and Angel suddenly recognized a few of the other faces he was passing. Not all of them were Slayers, after all. Faith was there, leaning heavily against a tall black man he didn't recognize, and he thought he saw Xander's eye patch somewhere back in the crowd. Some of the girls were familiar from the group Andrew had brought to fetch Dana, and he thought he'd seen another of them in a recent photo, laughing in Willow's arms. Andrew himself was nowhere to be seen, nor Giles, but Angel was willing to bet that they were somewhere nearby... Probably handling the general public, since he hadn't yet noticed any television cameras or rubbernecking onlookers. With an event this big, someone had to have noticed, even if they thought it was just another gang war.
Spike reached Illyria's side as the flash subsided, leaving ghostly afterimages on Angel's retinas. The Old One shook him off without ceremony, eyes fixed on the witch across from her, and the look on her face would have made any ordinary human quail in terror. Before she could start another tirade, however, a voice Angel hadn't heard in eight years spoke up out of the shadows.
"Now there's a face I haven't seen in a very long time. Gotta hand it to you, Angel, recruiting an Ancient to your team? Not something anyone expected."
Angel groaned. Just perfect. As if things weren't complicated enough already.
The crowd in the alley seemed to go still at the addition of a new voice, complaining to Angel about something. Dawn had been crouched next to one of the wounded Slayers, wrapping a length of bandage around a badly gashed thigh and hoping Willow's throw-down with the blue girl wouldn't move in their direction, when something about the guy's tone of voice caught her attention. Whoever it was, he sounded strangely familiar; she was pretty sure she'd met him before, but she just couldn't place him.
"I'd applaud you," the guy was saying, "but you know, it's not like I didn't have enough to do already. Do you guys have any idea how much the lot of you have messed with the balance of things in the last three years alone?"
"Yeah, well, it's not like we had a lot of choice." Buffy spoke up next, and she sounded pretty pissed. "Would you have rather we let the world go to Hell?"
"Actually, we'd rather you hadn't had anything to do with it," the guy snapped back, and Dawn stiffened, her fingers half-way through a temporary knot. Who was this guy? She shot the young Slayer an apologetic look, then gave up on the bandage and got to her feet, craning her neck to see what was going on.
"Your coming back left a pretty big imbalance on the scales," the guy continued. Dawn could see him now; he was short and badly dressed, with a bowler hat on his head, and from the way he was standing it looked like he was squaring off with Angel and Buffy both. "It was enough to let the First get a toehold in this reality, and things pretty much snowballed from there. The First was the reason we let you Call up all those Slayers at once, you'd never have stopped it otherwise, but after the First went back underground the scales were overpowered again."
Dawn stared as recognition kicked in at last. It was that guy! The one who'd told Buffy how to kill Angel, back when Mom was still clueless and Giles was still a librarian. No wonder she'd had trouble remembering his voice; he was from one of her monk-created memories, not a real one. Most of those memories had been pretty much cloned out of Buffy's with Dawn's presence tacked on like an afterthought, and they weren't always very clear or very organized. She sure remembered his face, though. When the police had been looking for Buffy and Mom had thought she was out with Willow, Dawn had snuck out, having a pretty good idea that Giles would know where she had gone. She hadn't found Giles there, but she had seen her sister-- she'd been hiding upstairs when Whistler asked Buffy what she was prepared to do.
Angel interrupted the demon's expository musing, his mouth twisting bitterly as he spoke. "Let me guess," he said. "The Senior Partners picked up the slack."
"Got it in one, Angel, my man. You know, you're a much snappier dresser these days than the last time that I..."
"Whistler!" Buffy growled, interrupting the balance demon before he could get off on a tangent. "Two words: Ribcage. Hat."
The nervous feeling in the pit of Dawn's stomach began creeping up the scale toward full-blown panic. In all the years they'd been in Sunnydale, with all the apocalypses they'd been through, this guy had only shown up once. If he was here, something was wrong-- something was really, really wrong.
Whistler winced at Buffy's comment, throwing a mock-glare in her direction. "You know, that threat doesn't get any prettier with repetition. How 'bout I skip right to the end, then. It's like this: we're going to take the powers back. There will be one Slayer, and one Slayer only, and that Slayer is going to be Faith."
"What?" Dawn blurted, her objection joined by a chorus of other voices. They couldn't do that!
"I don't think so!" the Boston-born Slayer's voice rang out over the crowd, and Dawn caught a glimpse of leather and dark hair as Faith pushed her way toward the center of the crowd. "The baby Slayers, I can see that. But B? She's been doing this longer than I have. You can't just take that away from her!"
"It's all or nothing, babe," the balance demon said, shrugging again. "As in, one Slayer, and the rest of you all go back to your normal lives, happy and alive; or none of you live. Even the non-Slayers. The Senior Partners will keep coming until every one of you is dead."
"I'd like to see them try." Kennedy spoke up, scowling back at him, her tone defiant and proud. For the first time in... well, ever... Dawn found herself agreeing with her. How could the Powers think this was a good idea?
"Believe me, you don't," Whistler argued, shaking his head. "You think this was hard? You ain't seen nothing yet. And we can't do anything to stop them as long as this imbalance continues."
"I do not understand." The blue girl, the one that had tried to strangle Willow, had got back to her feet and was staring at the demon as though he were a wad of gum on the bottom of her shoe. "You implied that my presence has altered the intended outcome, yet my return to the mortal world was foretold eons ago. I do not see how my existence could be in any way unexpected."
"Your existence, yeah, but not that you'd fight on Angel's side," Whistler pointed out. "If you had left Wolfram & Hart after they fixed your power problems, you wouldn't have been there for any of this. Cyvus Vail would still be alive, and Angel and Spike would have been dust long before the Slayers got here. Half of the girls would have gone down under the onslaught, and the ones that lived would have been a much more acceptable counterweight than the lot we've got right now. We didn't count on you starting to care."
"Nobody saw you coming," Dawn remembered, sick at heart. "Now he's a creep again. Now, what are you gonna do?"
"Do not insult me by attempting to ascribe human emotions to my actions," the blue girl snapped back, glaring at him. "I do not appreciate being blamed for your masters' inability to manage their domain properly."
"That's just the thing," Whistler said, exasperated, spreading his arms wide and raising his voice. "This ain't their domain. You know Angel's reason for fighting? To show the Partners he still had a choice? Well, that's pretty much what the battle's all about. As long as we can keep the whole mess on an even keel, people are pretty much free to choose without undue pressure from either side. Too many heroes, too many villains, and things get way out of hand."
When haven't they been? Dawn wanted to say, but the words died in her throat when she saw the look on her sister's face.
"So I give it up," Buffy said quietly, her expression a calm, resigned mask. "Period. The end. I get the normal life I used to think I wanted, and all these girls go back to Mom and Dad. So what about all the rest of them?"
"You mean Angel," Whistler said more loudly, winking knowingly at her. "Sorry, kiddo. He signed the Shanshu away. We'll glue his soul down as compensation, but he's pretty much stuck as a vampire forever."
Dawn winced at the mention of Angel's name-- honestly, didn't the Powers even keep up on their Champions' love lives? It was no wonder they kept misjudging people-- then widened her eyes at the comment about Angel's soul. If he didn't have his curse anymore, he'd be like Spike; he could... Spike! She craned her neck again, looking for that trademark thatch of platinum blond hair, and sighed in relief when she saw him. She'd been on edge all day, ever since the Slayers started reporting their visions, not sure whether or not she wanted to believe them. In all of the mayhem, she had forgotten to check for his presence until now.
"No, I mean Spike!" Buffy spoke up, exasperated, echoing Dawn's line of thought. "He's not exactly normal. Neither is Willow, or Angel's son over there, or Dawn, or whoever this is." She pointed at the blue girl. "Are you going to neutralize the rest of them, too, for the sake of your mystical balance?"
Please, God, no, Dawn thought, startled, crossing her fingers. Things were bad enough as it was-- it had taken Buffy years to get over being called in the first place, then to recover from her second death, and now that everything was going well they were going to take it away from her. And not only that; all the Watchers and all the junior Slayers that had spent the last year settling into their new routines were going to be torn out of their places, scrambling to restructure the Council yet again. Buffy would need all the support she could get, and if all the rest of them went down, too...
Please, God, just let her be safe and happy, Dawn added silently. If you have to take the rest of us-- I wasn't real in the first place, I always knew this might happen. I don't want to go, but if you have to take me... please, let her be safe.
Whistler let the silence hang for a moment while he studied each of them in turn, then shrugged and turned back to Buffy. "I wouldn't worry," he said. "They all have prophesies of their own; I don't muck in that kind of thing, I just pick up the pieces when it all goes wrong. So what do you think? I need an answer in the next couple of minutes. Oh, and I ought to tell you, you might want to see to your friend in the lobby pretty soon, too. That time-out bubble ain't gonna hold him forever."
Chapter Four: Depression
The first thing Spike noticed, after the smug wanker in the ugly suit delivered his ultimatum and stepped back to await an answer, was the trapped, distant look in Buffy's eyes. He'd seen that expression fairly often in the early days after her resurrection; seeing it again now made his borrowed blood boil with the desire to flatten the man who'd put it there.
Did the Powers honestly expect to strip their chief warrior of her defenses, when every minion of evil in the dimension knew exactly what she looked like and what she'd done to their fellows? The other girls had only started making a splash after Willow's trick with the Scythe, and for the most part weren't individually well known. They might be able to fade into the woodwork somewhere without making targets of themselves. For Buffy, though, it wouldn't be possible. The first time she heard a scream in an alley and followed her instincts toward the sound, she would be demon snack food, and that would be that.
She wouldn't see it that way, though. This was the girl who'd shut Giles down full-stop when he'd told her she might have to kill Dawn, the rest of the world be damned. This was the girl who'd balked at slaying an ex-lover-- two, if he were honest with himself-- no matter what they'd done to hurt her. This was the girl who'd held on to her family and friends no matter what the Council ordered. If it came down to a choice between giving up her power and condemning everyone to die-- well, he knew what she would choose.
The littler Slayers weren't making the choice any easier on her, either. He could see Willow, a few yards down the alley from where Buffy stood, trying to hold back her girl as Kennedy bit off harsh words about the eldest Slayer's decision-making skills. The others had begun organizing themselves in rough groupings, some behind Kennedy, some behind Buffy, all watching the argument with worried faces and muttering amongst themselves. Even Faith and the Bit were caught up in the tension; Dawn was pale as a ghost, hovering back behind Willow, and Faith was glaring at that Whistler chap with murder in her eyes.
"Right, then," he said, rolling his shoulders back, and started forward through the crowd. The tattered remnants of his leather duster fluttered like streamers as he moved, slinging drops of water and less pleasant things in fragmented arcs around him. Kennedy gave him a irritated look when he stepped into her visual range-- not-so-unintentionally blocking her view of the object of her wrath-- then did a double-take as she recognized him.
Willow turned quickly when her lover suddenly lost the thread of her tirade, a puzzled wariness wrinkling her brow, then widened her eyes in appreciation when she caught sight of his face. "Hey, Spike," she greeted him, lips curved in a tired smile. "Long time no see, you hero, you."
Spike nodded to her, coming to a halt within arm's reach. He'd always liked Red, even if they hadn't always been on the best of terms. It seemed fitting that the girl whose first instinct had been to comfort a biteless vampire should be the first Scooby to welcome him back. "'Lo, Red."
He turned a little to his right and found himself staring deep into his beloved's green-hazel eyes. The lostness had left them, undoubtedly locked away deep inside her where she thought no one else would find it; something frustrated and determined burned under the surface now instead.
"Slayer," Spike greeted her calmly, and reached out to lay a careful hand on the exposed, bloodied skin of her right shoulder. She trembled a little under the touch. It belatedly occurred to him that his being here would have reminded her uncomfortably of the First and how exactly it had been able to copy them; until he'd actually made contact, he could have been anything from malevolent entity to incorporeal ghost.
"What say we get in out of this rain, luv?" he suggested, pitching his voice so the others could hear him. "Peaches' hotel is just round the corner; you can get the wounded in out of the wet and have a quick shower while you think." For good measure, he gestured vaguely at the blood, slime, and decaying corpses piled around them, polluting the damp air with scents that were better left undescribed. Now that the action had quietened down, he had noticed more than a few of the younger girls fighting the gag reflex. This was not a good place to hash out an argument, or try to make any serious decisions.
Buffy stared at him a moment longer, several emotions-- longing? despair? anger?-- flickering through her expression. Finally, she sighed and looked away, distancing herself from him as effectively as if a wall had come down between them. "Do you know," she said quietly, "I told Giles once, I don't know how to live in this world if these are the choices. I still don't. What guarantee do I have, except his word, that we're all gonna die if I don't take him up on this? But if I don't, and I'm wrong... A shower's not going to help me make up my mind. There's only two answers to the question, and I can't risk saying no."
"You can't risk it? What about us? Shouldn't it be our decision?" Kennedy exploded again, reminding Spike of the audience around them. "We took down the First Evil, Buffy. The First! What's a few more demons after that? Look around us! They sent a whole army, and we're the ones still standing! Why are you even listening to this guy? He's not even human!" She threw out an arm toward Whistler, her entire body vibrating with indignation.
Buffy looked up, and Spike could almost see the leader's mantle falling over her. Her spine stiffened, her face hardened, and any hint of despair or uncertainty disappeared from her body language. "It doesn't matter that he isn't human. What matters is why he's here. The last time I saw him, he told me that Angel should have been the one to stop Acathla-- but because I screwed things up, because I let my emotions get in the way of my duty, I was going to have to stop them both.
"Do you want to know what happened next? Or haven't you heard the story already? I stopped them, all right-- I shoved a sword through Angel and sent the man I loved to Hell. Decisions like this aren't easy, Kennedy, but someone has to make them, and whether you like it or not, whether I'm right or not, the Powers chose that someone to be me."
Several people flinched during her little tirade-- Connor, in particular, had looked more than a little shocked and intrigued-- but Kennedy didn't back down. "Did he say it had to be you? I didn't hear him say that. He just said he needs an answer. I think we should vote on it."
"Because the last time we tried that was such a wild success?" Dawn broke in, elbowing her way through to her sister's side. "God! Now I remember why I was so happy when Willow left for South America-- she took you with her!"
"Dawn!" Buffy reprimanded half-heartedly, her lips drawn in a tight, unhappy line.
"Hey, hey," Xander's voice came from the back of the crowd. "Come on guys. Look, the longer we stand here, the grosser this gets... why don't we just do like the man said, and go inside. The last thing I want is to still be standing out here when the sun comes up."
Spike shot the one-eyed carpenter a quick look; he hadn't been expecting any help from that quarter, but Xander didn't look to be mocking him, and he could use all the help he could get. "Buffy..."
She cut him off. "No, this has to be done now," she said. "Let me tell you why it has to be me," she spoke up, glaring at Kennedy, then sweeping her gaze over the crowd of younger Slayers behind her. "Because if he asked us all one by one, you'd say no, and you wouldn't be the only one. You think this power is something you deserve; you think it's your right, and now that you have it, you don't want to give it up. But you know what? That's all part of that job title you're so proud of. Whistler asked me a long time ago what I was prepared to give up. Well, I'm prepared to give this up, if that's what it takes to keep all the rest of you safe. Can you say the same?" She pulled a stake from her pocket-- Mr. Pointy, if Spike wasn't mistaken-- and balanced it across the palm of her hand.
The tableau held for a moment, as Buffy stared at the other Slayer and Kennedy stared right back. Then the silence was broken by a slow clapping sound. "Bravo, Slayer," Whistler said, re-introducing himself to the conversation. "So, is that your final answer?"
Buffy flinched and closed her eyes, refusing to look at him. For all her bravado, it seemed she still wasn't quite ready to utter the fateful word; not that Spike blamed her. He'd let go of her when she first turned to face Kennedy, but he reached out again now, settling a wide hand between her shoulder blades for support. "Do what you gotta do, luv," he said, quietly.
"Yes," she said hoarsely, then opened her eyes again, staring Whistler down. "Do it. Just... could you tell them to wait five minutes so we can carry everyone inside? This isn't exactly..."
"Sorry kid." Whistler shrugged, then looked up toward the sky as if communicating with someone unseen. "Now or never, like I said."
"No!" Kennedy yelled out, accompanied by a chorus of other young Slayer's voices, and the crowd started pressing in again.
A light began growing in the alley, not bright enough to be the morning sun's first rays, but not artificial enough to have any human source. The Slayers gasped almost as one and stopped in their tracks, collapsing against walls or bending over, arms wrapped round their midsections. Some leaned against their Watchers for support; those without, sank slowly to the ground.
Buffy turned toward Spike again, the despair finally resurfacing in her eyes as shudders began to wrack her small frame.
He couldn't stand it any longer; he reached out toward her with both arms, pulling her against the grimy remnants of his duster, holding her tight as the magic ran its course. Whatever end he'd expected to this adventure when Angel had asked them if taking down the Black Thorn was worth dying for, this certainly hadn't been it.
Illyria stared down at Wesley's body, at the hand still cupped over the killing wound and the lines that even death could not erase from his features. When she had heard the words of the Agent of Balance-- when it had spoken of the time barrier she had created as if it had arrested not only his body's decay but also his spirit's departure from this plane-- everything had suddenly seemed so clear. She had but to lift the stasis, to command the witch's healing powers to restore Wesley's damaged flesh, and this ordeal of grief would be over.
She had bolted away from her position in the alley while all of the others were still focused on the blonde Slayer and the decision to be made; the fates of a few lower beings were irrelevant to her plans. She had rushed into the hotel, falling to her knees beside the body of her guide, prepared to lift his still form and carry it out to the red witch. Wesley would be returned to her, as if his defeat at Vail's hands had not occurred; her world would resume its accustomed course, no worse the wear for her unexpected introduction to the putrid depths of human emotion.
And yet... several minutes later, she knelt there still. If she herself had been frozen in time, she could not have been any more uselessly immobile. She knew what must be done; the sequence of necessary actions and their results was as clear to her mind's eye as the scene before her, but something-- or, perhaps its lack-- was preventing her from transforming thought into action. It was as though her very will had been broken.
What emotion, then, was this? The burning, tearing fire that had empowered her after Wesley's broken body had expelled his last breath had left her; in its place had crept a crushing blankness, a numbness that stole the inhuman strength from her limbs, leaving her weaker than even the shell had been when it had suffered the fires of her resurrection.
Than Fred had been, Illyria reminded herself, instinctively summoning the woman's features again to the fore. "Be blue," Wesley had ordered her, once; "Be anything. Don't be her." She had disobeyed him, at the last. She had promised him that this shell would join him again in the afterlife-- and he had smiled and spoken of love. "The most devastating power you have," the half-breed, Spike, had spoken of her mimicry; at the time, his words had puzzled her, but their truth was clear to her now. If this force, this unimaginable weight that pinned her down, could not be described as devastation then she did not know the meaning of the word.
She could waken him, yes. She could summon him back to the world of the living-- but he would not thank her for it. He would open his eyes and see only what she had found in her Vahla ha'nesh: the ruination of his dreams. He would look at her again, as he had used to, with hatred and despair... and she did not think she could bear it.
How strange, to think of something insubstantial, without magic or shape to give it form or weight, as something that must be borne; yet indisputably, it was so. What these primitives lost in strength and size, they clearly made up in spirit. It was no wonder, then, that the Wolf, Ram, and Hart sought to crush them so vehemently when they refused to come to heel. A being that could feel thus stood in clearer opposition to the demonic lords and their goals for this world than even a god-king's armies would have been, had they survived her imprisonment in the Deeper Well.
Stranger yet that these emotions had infected her. She, Illyria, ruler of all that was, she who had bowed to none and cared not for the petty concerns of those beneath her. She knelt among the shreds of her dignity and hesitated over the mere prospect of rejection from the shell of a human. She did not understand-- but it did not seem to make any difference.
"I am not what you want," she whispered hoarsely, remembering.
She would not wait for the witch, she decided suddenly. She would lift the time-barrier and let the human's mortal processes terminate completely, as they should have done hours before. She could not face his anger, and she would not bear this weight, this indecision one moment longer.
Illyria reached out toward Wesley one last time, stroking Winifred's soft fingers over the stubble on his chin. Then she lifted her hand, and a shimmer of energy distorted the air around him.
Chapter Five: Acceptance
A couple of times in his life, Charles Gunn had come mighty close to crossing that last finish line and reaching for the arms of Baby Jesus. He'd spent his teenage years roaming the streets in a vamp-fighting gang, then spent his young-adult years roaming the streets in a vamp's sleuthing gang; he knew what it felt like to wake up the morning after the fight before, thanking God for the pain 'cause it meant he was still alive to feel it.
He wasn't feeling any pain now. Instead, there was light: a hell of a lot of it, bleeding through his eyelids and seeping in through his pores. It wasn't warm like sun-light, but he could feel just the same; it chilled and tingled and penetrated in a way he'd become all too familiar with over the course of the last year.
Either he was in the White Room, or Heaven was a lot more like Hell than it had any right to be. Either way, he was a dead man.
Gunn frowned as the faint words tingled at the edge of his awareness, plucking at the strings of recognition. He groaned, turning his head a little toward the source of the sound...
... and suddenly became aware of the rest of his body, all the other sensory data clamoring for his attention. There was something firm under his back; asphalt, probably. He'd been in the alley last thing he remembered. His face was a little damp, too, like he'd been lying there long enough to get rained on. The light had disappeared as soon as whoever-it-was had spoke up, but the tingly feeling had stuck around. The skin over his stomach was starting to twitch in reaction.
More memory surfaced: he'd been wounded, fighting, trying to make his last ten minutes count for something. Had reinforcements come? Had someone really healed him, or was he just too far gone to feel it any more? They'd been losing, he remembered that much, drowning in a flood of demon soldiers. He hadn't been able to see any of the others when he'd finally lost his footing, collapsing to his knees, grabbing at the ground with the hand not holding his guts in. He vaguely recalled wondering if it had been that way for Wes, or if the other man had died too quickly to feel it coming. Then his world had faded to black.
The demons seemed to be gone now-- or at least, if they weren't, he couldn't hear them. A couple dozen upset voices were cluttering up the air instead, all of them unfamiliar as far as he could tell. The three he'd come with were either staying silent, or... he didn't want to think about the or.
"No, no, no! Let go of me, just let... don't touch me! You let her do this to me!" A young, anguished voice sobbed nearby.
"Kennedy, baby, no..." another girl tried to soothe her, her own voice rough with distress.
"Slayer..." a third voice began, in a tired, familiar British accent, then cut the sentence short with a distressed exclamation. "Buffy, luv, are you all right?"
For the second time since Spike's first ghostly appearance at Wolfram & Hart, Gunn felt a rush of relief at the vampire's presence. His worst fears had not been realized; he wasn't the only survivor, after all. But who were the others, then? Slayers? Something about that thought prodded at him, stirring him the rest of the way to full awareness. He opened his eyes, suddenly anxious to see what was going on around him.
The first thing he saw was a forest of legs, cluttering up his immediate field of view. The legs seemed mostly female, though every last one was covered ankle-to-hip in jeans or leather, and all were splattered in varying depths and shades of muck. Damn, Gunn thought, and felt a brief whimsical touch of dismay. If he had to be flat on his back looking up at so many women, couldn't he at least have little peep as compensation?
There was nothing whimsical, though, about the slightly hysterical laughter coming from the blonde girl in Spike's arms, or the row of shrouded corpses off to his right, or the slumped figure of Angel making himself small against the nearest building. So many of the other girls were collapsed against each other or their companions-- Watchers?-- that it gave the darkened alley almost a funereal air: they were grieving. All of them. He'd seen enough death in his life to read their body language loud and clear.
He blinked, then half-propped himself up on his elbows to get a better look, careful not to jar his stomach. Then it sunk in again; it still didn't hurt. Carefully, he prodded at the skin through the bloodstained rip in his shirt, then lifted his other hand and turned it over, inspecting the palm for splinters. The haft of his axe had shattered at some point during the melee, driving several small pieces of wood right through his hand, but there wasn't even a scar left to show what had happened. It was like he hadn't been injured at all.
"Rona? Vi?" He looked up and saw a familiar-looking guy with an eyepatch hovering over two bewildered girls, standing a few feet away from him. One was dark, the other fair, and both of them looked badly shaken. "How do you feel?" the guy asked them, sounding deeply concerned.
"It's gone, Xander, it's gone..." the fair one said, in a trembly little woebegone voice. "What am I gonna do now?"
"It's gone," the other one said, echoing her friend in words but not in tone. "I don't believe it, it's actually gone," she continued, studying her hands with a faint, sad smile of relief.
What's gone? he wondered, watching the three of them clutch at each other, then suddenly blinked as the phrase hit home. What isn't gone? Pictures of the Wolfram & Hart building flashed through his mind: the stacks of legal papers piled up on his desk, Wesley kneeling on a floor shuffling madly through his research papers, Fred walking around in that little white labcoat of hers. Cordelia, that one day she was back, rolling her eyes as she snarked at them.
He'd made his peace with the idea of dying. Accepted that everything he'd worked for these last few years was over. So, what was he supposed to do now that he'd survived? He was pretty sure the days of Angel Investigations were a thing of the past. He couldn't see himself stalking the streets with Spike and Angel, not when his dark memories of this town were all too fresh. That fire inside him, the one that had kept him fighting all these years, had been doused when Fred was killed and now even the embers were gone.
"Shhh, it'll be okay, luv," Spike's voice carried to him across the crowd. "You won't be alone."
"It's not the end, it's a new beginning," Xander's voice overlapped him. "Think about it. You've got your whole life ahead of you now."
My whole life, Gunn thought, still feeling a little shell-shocked. And what will I do with it?
He'd asked Annie pretty much the same question, earlier that day-- no, yesterday, now. If someone had told her the 'good fight' had no meaning-- 'What would you do?'
'I'd get this truck packed before the new stuff gets here,' she'd replied. 'Wanna give me a hand?'
Thinking about it again, he found that he still did. I wonder if the shelter could use cheap legal help?
The chaos outside had not penetrated the Hyperion's lobby. It remained quiet inside, filled with a dark, listening stillness, as though the walls themselves were bearing witness to what happened there that day. Illyria had slowly become used to the boxy structures humans lived in, but sometimes-- at this time-- she could not help but feel hemmed in by the smallness of their world. In her time, this would have been done in the open air, under a sunset sky, on a battle plain amidst the corpses of their enemies... that is, of course, if he had not been a lowly human. She was not sure when she had stopped automatically assigning him that label.
"There are things worse than walls," she whispered as the shimmering faded around Wesley's body. He had spoken those words to her in an unguarded moment, while his grief was still fresh and her purpose uncertain. "Terrible... and beautiful."
Things like death, loss, grief; such had been Wesley's meaning. She understood him, now. 'If we look at them for too long they will burn right through us.' Intangible things: things that had been indefinable to one such as she, for whom nightmares had walked the waking earth and to whom mere echoes in mortals' minds were not worthy of comprehension. 'We are so weak,' she had replied, turning her thoughts to the more immediate pains of her shrunken form and of her long-gone army. She had been weaker than she had known, not to have seen-- not to have imagined this.
Terrible: his wounded spirit, honed down to sharpened steel, all softness left far behind him. Beautiful: the lean muscle of his form, decisive movements and piercing gaze, those of a once-tame creature taken over by the wild. All of him stilled now, and gone.
He had been right. It burned to look at him.
She could not resist lowering her hand to touch him one last time, settling her fingers atop his own over his torn abdomen. She had known death before, had dealt it, had lived it; this was the first time she had ever known what it was to regret it. To wish for its reversal, to long for the return of her mastery over time that she might leap back to save him. Such a human concept, this lingering obsession with beings who could no longer be of any use. Yet another behaviour she had learned from his example.
And who will guide me now? she wondered, startled to realize that her eyes had begun to leak fluid. In the weeks since she had first manifested in this form, only Wesley had dared treat her as anything but a dangerous entity, something to be respected, terminated, or controlled. In truth, only Wesley had been allowed to do so. She could not bear the thought of turning instead to the half-breed that had served as her pet, nor to the one whose commands had sent Wesley to his death, nor any of the other inadequate beings of her recent acquaintance. But neither was she pleased by the idea of abandoning his teachings, of ceasing her attempts to blend with humanity and reaching again for the glory that was once hers. Illyria, god-king, had no future in this realm; no matter how the alternatives continued to confuse and sicken her, the truth of the matter could not be denied.
"I will remember the things you have taught me," she whispered, making a decision, closing her eyes and shifting back to her blue leatherclad form. "I will learn the ways of humans and continue to assist them, no matter how pitiful and repugnant I find them to be." Gutteral syllables slipped from her mouth, shaping a word in a language never intended for human tongues. "In the name of my true form, I swear it."
Silence fell again, and Illyria felt strangely as though a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. She did not understand it; she knew that it was likely she would never truly understand human emotion, despite her promise to her dead guide. However, she was not foolish enough to quarrel with the results. For the first time in many hours, she felt as though she could breathe without risking explosion or collapse.
"You will not be forgotten," she promised him solemnly, then moved her hand to close his still-open, empty eyes.
As the final words left her lips, a sudden, bright light began to pour from his skin, illuminating every inch of his body from within. The touch of it stung against the palm of her hand as she touched him and she flinched back, rising to her feet and backing away in surprise.
"Show yourself!" she commanded angrily, whirling around to scan the empty lobby with her senses. "Who dares to taint the body of my guide with their magics? I demand that you desist at once!"
No being spoke up to answer her defiant cry, nor showed itself to her watching, vengeful eye, but the brilliant whiteness faded immediately as if in response to her declaration. She waited a moment longer, disgusted at herself for having been caught so unaware, then turned back to Wesley to see what the light had done.
At first glance, nothing appeared to have transpired. He lay there still, stretched out upon the floor with his face turned upward and his limbs arranged as if he were merely resting. Yet something had changed. Somewhere in the midst of her confused emotional state a sense of anticipation-- of hope-- had begun to grow, and though she did not know its cause, she trusted her instincts.
"Wesley?" she said uncertainly, continuing to scan his form with her eyes.
"Illyria." The response was faint but unmistakable. His chest lifted-- he breathed! That was the change that had been wrought-- without the constriction that had been imposed by the wound. He turned his head toward her, an expression of confusion on his face, and met her gaze without hesistation. "I'm here," he said quietly, his voice at once wondering and assuring.
"You are here," she repeated numbly, temporarily unable to form a response. Then something broke free inside. A laugh bubbled up within her, tangling her emotions into new and complex knots, and streaks of wetness traced down her cheeks once more.
She hated the mess it made of her, and her complete inability to control or understand her reactions-- but Wesley had been returned to her by an agency not her own, and he gazed at her now not with disgust or anger, but with concern. She could bear nearly any inconvenience in the face of that gift. She did not know who had given it to her, nor why they had done so, but she vowed she would not treat him so carelessly this time.
"Your death displeased me," Illyria said sternly, lifting her chin and attempting to regain her composure. "Never do it again."
Wesley's brow wrinkled a little as he watched her brush the tears from her cheeks, then smoothed out as he seemed to find whatever it was he searched for. "As you wish," he said, smiling faintly, his voice almost too quiet for her to hear it. Then he gathered his feet beneath him and stood.
Grief is a tidal wave that over takes you,
smashes down upon you with unimaginable force,
sweeps you up into its darkness,
where you tumble and crash against unidentifiable surfaces,
only to be thrown out on an unknown beach,
It is the ashes from which the phoenix rises,
and the mettle of rebirth.
It returns life to the living dead.
It teaches that there is nothing absolutely true or untrue...
Grief will make a new person out of you,
if it doesn't kill you in the making.
- Stephanie Ericsson