He has led them to this moment and they have all come willingly, those who remain. Looking at their grim, bloody faces, he wonders for a moment if this is folly, if he has led them to ruin with this upstart battle. What they do here will only make a difference in the short term, but then that is all they have ever done. They've stopped singular demons, momentary transgressions, apocalypses, and saved the world one person and battle at a time, like trying to empty the ocean with a spoon. This will wound the forces of evil more deeply than any of those singular battles, and every person who stands behind him stands there because they believe in that.
There are others who should be here, he thinks, but he has little time to grieve for them. Somewhere in the background of his mind there is a warm, safe place where Cordelia, Wesley, Doyle, Fred and even Darla all come together, singing beneath white light, hand in hand in heart, watching down on them all even now.
He doesn't believe in heaven—at least, not for himself—but he has to believe that they're somewhere better than this.
The alley roars with the battle-cries of demons, and he can hear their eager mews as they leap forward to taste human flesh with their sharp claws and sharper teeth. It's a frightening sound, a cacophony of death and blood and mutilation, and it's the best sound he's heard in a long time. There'll be none of Hamilton's garrulous speechifying here, none of Eve's soft, razor-edged gloating. Blood sings in his veins and the sword feels good in his hands; natural, perfect. Every sense is alive with keen awareness, every nerve tingles, every muscle coils and poises on the edge of unleashing the fury that's been building in his bones for the last eight years or more. It's been too long since he fought like this.
The creature above him flaps its mighty wings with the sound of thunder, sluicing rain down upon him in heavy gouts, and then it swoops down in a single smooth motion, arcing gracefully through the air as it comes for him.
He runs toward the back end of the alley, leading it, and then makes his stand. He waits, willing his instincts to quiet their screaming, willing his legs to stay rooted to the spot. He waits as it speeds toward him like an arrow, the alley itself seeming to widen beyond its normal dimensions to allow the creature passage. It opens its foul maw, and he can smell the rancid death upon its breath, taste the promise of mortality and the faint scent of ozone, and still he waits. Milliseconds stretch out like eternity, each one straining like tiny horses beneath his skin.
He ducks beneath the seeking teeth at the last second and slices into the dragon's neck. The sword barely pierces its thickly scaled hide, and he shoves it deeper, seeking the tender flesh below the chin. Black ichor sprays and blurs his vision, but not so much that he can't see the single, malevolent red eye that turns toward him.
He doesn't know if he's going to live or die, and right now, he doesn't care.
Even as he strains and jaws open and fetid breath pours out over him, he's admiring the poetry of it. After all, he's been slaying metaphorical dragons for more than eight years running.
Slaying dragons is what he was made for.
Gunn is only dimly aware of the dragon as it drops like a bullet, winging past above his head and throwing down buckets of rain. He tosses the water from his eyes as he swings his body in a tight, fast circle, cuts a soldier demon in half with his axe and keeps swinging right through it into the face of the one next to it. The second demon slowly topples, half its head falling to the rain-soaked concrete before its body hits. Dumbfounded eyes stare up at him from the half-head at his feet, and Gunn kicks it up into the face of the next demon that surges, and kills that one, too.
Ten minutes, Illyria had said. He's gone on hundreds of missions in his short life, and he's learned to keep the clock in his head as opposed to on his wrist, where it can be broken or lost during the course of battle. He knows that it's already been three minutes, and though cutting down a dozen demon soldiers in almost two thirds of the time he has left is some of the most fun he's had in a good, long while, he can't quite squish the feeling that it's pointless.
His sister, Cordelia, Fred, Wesley; he imagines he'll be seeing them all soon enough, and it surprises him how little that scares him—how much, in fact, he's looking forward to it. No matter how much the animal inside him thrashes and screams to survive, his mind is a calm center amidst the storm of confusion all around him, and he wonders if it's just that he's lost enough blood that shock is beginning to set in, or if he's just fought so long that it doesn't matter anymore whether he lives or dies. He used to have a death wish once, before he met Angel. Now the idea seems less like something he wants to plunge headlong into than something that's taken on the golden hues of romanticism.
He turns, looks for his next target, and spies the tall hulking demon that's larger than most of the buildings around it, and grins. Its arms are long and ape-like, Ginsu claws tracing grooves in the concrete as it walks, and from here, on the ground, he can't even tell what its head looks like.
He always knew he'd go out fighting, and it's not gonna be from some lingering wound.
Six minutes left.
Plenty of time.
She plows through soldier bodies with the righteous anger of the Goddess she should have rightly become, killing with ease and a savage kind of grace. Blood of varying colors covers her hands, drips from her arms and face, painting in her violent hues like camouflage, and still, no matter how she dips her arms into their bodies, rends their organs and pulls out their hearts, she can still feel the innocent, red, human blood that coats her hands. It's this blood that troubles her. It's this blood that paints her mind with confusion.
She's witnessed death on much more massive scales than what she's seeing now. She's walked the ancient earth with armies in her wake, scourging and razing to the ground all that displeased her. Thousands have died at her hand or in her name, and yet, she thinks that she will never forget the vibrant red pouring from the body of the man who'd been her guide in this world. She will never forget the expression on his face as his life faded out, or the tears she'd shed in the form of her host's body, how new and shocking the pain of loss had felt, how unique the flavor of this emotion that humans carry with them every moment of every day. It is unsavory, she thinks, unworthy for the soul of an Old One, and yet it is this memory, the image of his face and the emptiness of her tears that fuel her passion for this battle. Once she'd killed for the joy of it, but now, there's not enough death, not enough pain, not enough blood, not enough vengeance even in this massive pile of dead around her to begin to fill the hollow space she feels in her heart.
She doesn't understand this feeling of 'grief'. All she knows is that it's a more potent weapon than any power she's ever wielded. She cuts down the one who faces her, then another, and another. She's willing to die for the transgression of Wesley's death, and probably will-but she's going to take as many as she can with her.
She's always thought humans weak and puny beings, beneath her notice, a plague upon the earth. She's never understood how they'd come to rule it in the absence of the Old Ones. The same moon still shines down, the same sky still opens above her and the same rain still falls, though its taste is more acidic now. She'd once thought herself as timeless and changeless as all those things.
Perhaps she'd underestimated the power of humans after all.
He doesn't like their odds, but then, he never was a betting man.
It's all so very heroic, so melodramatic with the pounding rain and army of demons. The heroes, few in number, straggling along on their last, already battle-weary legs, stand up to face and fight for what they believe in. Somehow, it appeals to the poet still housed in his heart, that innocent fount of hope that has somehow never died with all the passing of the years.
This would have made him laugh once. He would have stood nearby on the sheltered safety of some shadowed rooftop, and rooted for the army of demons to tear Angel apart limb from limb. Hell, he might have even picked up a sword and joined the demon's side.
But that man would never have fallen in love with a Slayer. That man wouldn't have gone up in a pillar of flaming light to save the world. That man would never have recited his poetry before the masses that'd once condemned him and mocked him for it. That man wouldn't have basked in every second of their booming applause as he burned in the spotlight. That man was long since dead, and soon, this one would be, too.
He faces off against some misshapen monstrosity. It's an easy fight; him quick and weapon flashing, the demon ponderous and slow. The sword cuts deep and fast, striking like a viper, and he smirks at the look of surprise on the creature's face as its entrails spill out onto the ground.
"They didn't tell you who you'd be fighting, did they mate?"
As he delivers the death blow, he senses movement behind him and feels a shard of wood pierce his back. It misses his heart, but he knows it's just a matter of time until someone doesn't. He turns and cuts his attacker nearly in two and pulls the makeshift stake from his back. In the split-second of silence after his assailant falls, he has a moment to wonder if he will regret anything.
He's never been one to think much about the future, if at all. It's the 'now' that thrills him, the feeling of skin on skin, fang to flesh, sword to sword. If this is it, if Angel was right and none of them are walking away from this, at least he's going out in style, covered in the blood of his enemies; bright, shining and wielding death as he pivots and turns in a killing dance with more than a century of skill and grace. He's had more than a hundred years of living, fighting, loving, drinking, shagging and killing, and when he'd died in Sunnydale, he'd thought it was forever. He hadn't been ready for dying then, but he'd done it anyway.
He thinks he might be ready now.
Will he regret anything?
Nope, not a single moment.
He shrugs off the falling rain with a ferocious grin and moves on to the next combatant.
Rain drips down around the edges of his hat, obscuring his vision, and he walks alone in the pouring rain through the trashy back alleys of LA. He could be a hero—a trench-coated silhouette cut from the shadows of night dealing out justice like he'd once imagined Angel to be—but he isn't. And he never will be.
The twin shots of the gun still resound in his mind, like an echo that won't quite fade away. He'd dropped the foul thing on the floor of the building, but he can still feel the oil from gleaming metal clinging to his skin, feel the ghost of the handle still embedded against his palm. He thinks that maybe it will always be there, like some unseen mark of Cain.
He'd left Pylea with the hope of finding a better world, one that understood the melodies that strummed the rhythm of his heart and played against the bowstrings of his soul. And for a while, he'd had that; peace, comfort, happiness, the full unbridled joy of singing and simply living. He'd even had a place in the world, and it had been enough until Angel had come knocking on his door and torn it all down. He'd never hated him for that though, no. He'd borne it all with his gentle, happy smile and taken up arms to fight against the bad guys at Angel's side. This, he'd thought, was more important.
He understands why Angel chose him. He's the weak one, the unassuming one, the one no one, not even a mind as cunning as Lindsey's, would suspect treachery from.
The music lies silent now, stilled, and he knows that as long he remembers the dying expression of shock on Lindsey's face, as long as he can feel that gun in his hand and hear the report of two shots and the thick, tearing sound they make as they shatter fragile skin and organs, it will remain silent. Today, in the karaoke bar, he knew he'd sung his last. Tonight, in the alley behind the Hyperion, his friends were singing their last song.
Even from several blocks away he can hear the sounds of the massive battle being joined. He knows they're going to die, and that might hurt him more if his soul wasn't already so badly wounded.
They're the lucky ones.
He has to live with what he's done.
On the other side of the city, more than a few blocks away, Connor crouches atop a roof and watches. He is awed by the sight of the dragon as it swoops down into the alleyway, and mesmerized by the height of a demon who stands taller than the building he sits atop even now.
He wants more than anything to go down there. Wants more than anything to join the battle and help his father fight. He knows that his father doesn't want that, that he wants Connor to live on because he won't be able to. He knows that if he goes down there, he can only die at his father's side and destroy Angel's dying wish.
Smooth fingers, free of the calluses from bearing weapons that he'd once prided, clench against the edge of the stone ledge in frustration.
He doesn't want to die. He likes his new life. But part of him still loves his dad.
With a leap from the rooftop, he makes his decision, landing cat-like on the building across the street. He bounds from one to another like a dancer, working his way closer to the sounds of battle.
He might not fight, but the least he can do is watch.
He has to know how it all ends.
In a bus station in downtown LA, Eve sits and fumes between crying jags, waiting for the bus that will take her away from this accursed city.
She'd taken on Angel to be with Lindsey, betrayed the Senior Partners and risked her life to be with him. She'd given up her immortality to be with him. And Angel had killed him; taken everything from her in the one instant they'd made the mistake of trusting him.
Angel thought Lindsey was too dangerous to let him live, but out of some twisted sense of chivalry, or maybe out some twisted sense of tormenting her, he'd left Eve alive. That was a mistake.
It might take a while for her to regain her strength, to finish mourning, but she has plenty of connections that don't relate to the Senior Partners. A year, maybe two, and she'll be back to deal with Angel—if he lives through this. She almost hopes that he does. She wants the satisfaction of seeing him turn to dust at her hands.
Her lips tremble on the brink of tears again, and she forces them to straighten into a thin line of anger and resentment. Focus on Angel, she thinks. Make him the focus like Lindsey did and make that bastard sorry for the day he ever—
The thought breaks off and she glances up as a shadow passes over her.
Her eyes survey the night, and the downpour of rain and mist from the heat of the ground make it hard for her to see very far into the darkness. For the first time, she realizes that she's sitting at this bus stop alone, huddled and miserable inside her jacket, like some poor victim just screaming to be attacked. She rises and pulls the thin jacket over her head, deciding to forsake the overhead shelter of the bus stop for the bright lights inside the terminal.
She makes it about three steps.
"Hello, Eve." The voice grates out from the gullet of an eight-foot tall demon, and the pinchers at the end of its arms click in time with the words. "The Senior Partners wanted to make sure you know they didn't forget about you."
By the time she opens her mouth to scream it's already too late.
Rain pours and demons howl, and the carcasses of the dead choke the alley with their sheer numbers. Atop their bloody and broken bodies, the battle still rages in a fever-pitch. Swords clash, claws rend, an axe falls, and battle-cries ring out in time with the sounds of steel and the cries of the dying. The heroes still fight against all odds, and on wobbly, battle-weary legs, they make their stand atop the hulking carcass of the demon Gunn brought down. Their feet slip on bile and blood, and the pavement of the alley itself has turned a deep crimson shade that even the heavy rain cannot wash away. Near the end of the alley, halfway through a building, the massive body of a dragon lies curled and cold and dead.
Beyond, street lights flash and electrical lines fall, and lightning cuts through the sky with vicious thrusts, and if LA ever lived in denial of the supernatural world around them, they can live in denial no longer.
Cars litter the streets at either end of the alley, deserted now by their occupants, lights on, engines running. Some have crashed into buildings, or been abandoned on the sidewalks where they tried to make their escape. It's like the most terrifying of monster movies ever made, and even in their nightmares most of the people of this city have never imagined such a scene. A few very brave souls (one among them a reporter who puts his camera to good use and covers the story of a lifetime) dare to see what lays beyond the monstrous dragon wing that covers most of the street on the East side, and those are rewarded by a sight they will never forget.
She'd scoured the newspapers all day on the beaches, avoiding probing questions from her sister, who, thankfully, was mostly distracted with keeping her daughter away from the deeper area of the water.
She doesn't know Angel all that well yet, but she knows enough of him to know that, no matter how angry she might be for being sent away, no matter how miniscule and unimportant it makes her feel, he'd never do it without a damned good reason.
It's an apocalypse of some sort. It has to be.
But the papers told her nothing, so when the sun set and they got back to the hotel, she'd flipped on the TV.
The news doesn't come on until later, but she sits through the silly sitcom reruns from America and watches every second, waiting for some sign. Her sister, still operating on LA time where it's now a little after 10pm, falls asleep almost immediately after the shows end. Nina curls up in the covers beside her, watching the news. It all seems so ordinary, so mundane and normal. The stories are all from the island daytime, in places where the sunshine is so bright, the beaches so inviting, the reports so free from violence and hatred that it's hard to imagine that several thousand miles away Angel might be—
"This just in!" The news anchor exclaims, his dark complexion seeming to brighten with excitement. "We have just received a tip from a major network in the United States that reports…" The anchorman pauses, looking to someone off screen. "Can this be right?" he asks. The camera cuts away from the bewildered anchorman, and suddenly the screen turns dark and filled with rain, its wide lens narrowed down to the remains of a decimated LA alley. The white words at the bottom spell out the station name, and below that, the words "live feed" blink on and off.
Nina's mouth falls open as she sees Angel and several of his friends fighting tooth and nail for their very lives against an army of demons, and she presses her fingers into her mouth like a two year-old, terrified by the scope of what she's seeing.
She's so afraid for him that she can barely stand it, and she wishes now that she'd been firm and stayed in LA and fought by his side. She understands now why he sent her away.
The camera zooms in on him in all his wet, dark trench-coated glory, and all she can think is how much she's going to kick his ass if he manages to live through this.
Angel's half holding Gunn up on his feet, the two of them swinging and cutting through the mass of demon flesh that swarms before them. He's still high on killing the dragon, covered in its black blood, and he feels like he could do this forever.
Gunn's swings are getting weaker, but he's still taking them out one by one, the grin never sliding from his face. It's been twelve minutes now, and he's still standing.
Spike stands behind Angel and Gunn, his back to theirs, picking off the stragglers that try to slip through and kill them from behind. He's bleeding from half a dozen wounds, but he's so lost in the thrill of the fight that he hardly even notices that he's beginning to tire.
Only Illyria stands alone, far off and to the left, head imperiously high and shoulders slanted. She tosses back her hair, matted blue strands slinging water, and squares her shoulders, cocking her head at the newest enemy who steps up to face her. It's huge and almost pitifully ugly, and it reminds her of the days when she used to walk the earth on slithering, tentacle feet. She hates it on sight, as if the tiny spark of humanity that still remains inside her cannot abide the horror of its countenance.
Moments pass, and more bodies fall, and Angel feels Gunn begin to slip from his grasp. He glances around, sees Spike swaying on his feet, sees Illyria go down beneath a mass of tentacles and come out screaming and bloodied, and he knows that this is it. They can't last much longer. They've done almost all the damage here that they can. Even if he wanted to leave now, to pull them out and try to save their lives, he knows that he couldn't. They're surrounded on all sides, and the mass of demons, though smaller than it was at first, is still large enough to easily lay waste to them.
"You and me, Spike," he says, pressing his back closer against the other vampire's.
"Just like old times," comes the answer.
He stands over Gunn and defends his friend's unconscious body, knowing he can't hold the demons off for longer than a few seconds more. Demons press in from all sides, and he feels his spine begin to fuse against Spike's with the weight of bodies bearing down on them. Spike grunts in surprise as something cuts into him, and Angel feels a blade push against his throat—and suddenly, the entire battle comes to a screeching halt, demons backing away so rapidly that Angel and Spike almost fall on top of each other as the pressure against them is released. Something is glowing by his feet, and he looks down to see Gunn suffused in blinding, bright white light that burns his retinas like the fire of the sun.
When it's gone, Gunn's back on his feet, smiling and healed and whole, looking at his belly as if he's never seen it before.
"Anyone wanna tell me what the hell just happened? Not that I'm complainin'."
Angel's left speechless, and he opens his mouth in the hopes that some sort of explanation might tumble out. But it's someone else all together who answers for him.
"We heard you might need some help."
Buffy steps from the shadows, her hair a shining golden cap plastered to her head, her smile grim and determined and possibly more beautiful than anything Angel's ever seen in his entire life. All around them, the battle-eager faces of over two-hundred Slayers spill from the alleyways, women and girls of all ages, all armed, all ready for the fight of their lives. Willow and five other witches stand in their midst, darkness flashing in their eyes, and suddenly Gunn's speedy recovery makes total sense. The redheaded witch winks and sends him a smile that makes him feel, for the first time, like maybe this is going to turn out okay.
The demons are still reeling, mesmerized by this sudden turn of events, become statues in the light of revelation of what they're now facing. Angel knows it won't last long, though, and he turns, sword held high, taut mouth stretching into a grin.
"Let's finish this!" he calls, and the Slayers surge into the alley, breaking through the first rank in the wave of demons and slaughtering them with ease.
Angel slices the throat of a demon, and just as he's finishing his swing, another demon takes advantage of his split-second of overbalancing and lunges in, claws set to gut him. He braces for the searing impact, and then feels a rush of air as the claws miss his belly and the demon falls to the ground, headless. He turns to see Faith standing at his side where Gunn had been a moment before, bloody machete in hand, a hard, mirthful grin on her face. Another person comes up fighting close on his right, killing the demon who'd been about to blindside him, and he sees the face of his son, smirking from beneath the slant of his hair.
"Couldn't let you do it alone," he says.
"Did you know we're on TV?" Buffy asks as she punches a demon with one fist and skewers it with the sword clutched in the other. She gives an appraising look down the alleyway to where small, round faces peer over the dragon's bulk, one of them holding what is obviously a local news camera.
"Then we'd better make this look good," Angel says, shoving his sword through another grimacing demon face.
"And me with my worst hair ever," Buffy grumbles, spinning her fist into the face of another demon, and Angel can't help but laugh at how natural it all seems.
And there, beneath the pouring rain, side by side while the world watches on, they fight together, they bleed together, and together, they do the impossible.