Chapter Nine

Angels and Demons

As six o'clock arrived and her shift ended, Tara had regained most of her composure, as the Toradol helped blur the edges of the agonising pain. Ethan had wanted to drive her home, but she wouldn't let him; the staff were already too curious about what had been going in on Willow's room lately.

They had no idea. When Monday was over, would she still have a job?

Tara arrived at her home and solemnly walked up the stairs to her room. She would allow herself three hours of sleep before starting her three-hour drive to L.A. She could then meet her contact at midnight in a cemetery, as he had requested. Cemetery, why was it always a cemetery with him?

Sure enough, roughly three hours later Tara was speeding away from Los Osos with a sandwich and a coffee. She couldn't help regretting that she wouldn't be having a poker night with the girls. It was the first time such an invitation had ever been given, and she'd much rather be laughing and gossiping with the girls than meeting her stern and enigmatic witch doctor in a cemetery in the middle of the night. But her task was far too onerous, and she was now realising that it would take every ounce of strength she had to fulfill it.

The pain still lingered, like a deadening force around her back and head. As she drove into the dead of night, headlights from other cars streaking by her incessantly, she began to feel angry. It seemed that all anyone wanted to do was use her. The goddess just wanted to use her to heal Willow, likely killing her in the process. What about Tara, did she have any say in this at all? Couldn't she just live? Could she just turn around and refuse? Sure she could, and then she'd be the instrument of the apocalypse and her entire world would be overrun by evil. Not much choice there.

Even her brother had only wanted to use her, though lately she was confused by his actions. When they were both very young they had played as brother and sister ought, with tree forts and hide and seek and secret passwords. But the magic had welled up in her and Donny grew jealous. Also, his indoctrination under her father had worked obscenely well. She knew that Donny got beat up, too, and tried to hide under beds and behind furniture from the flying fists of her father. It was inevitable that Donny, who had so little power of his own, would find some in controlling and beating on Tara. He had to have some sort of control over his life, even if that control was evil. So, yes, Donny had used her, though he seemed to be trying to make up for it in recent years.

And her father used her, used her in ways

(Hush, little Tara, not yet)

She shook her head. Just another little machine. A tool, to be used up and tossed out in the trash.

So Tara fed on her anger as she drove, and ignored the pleas of the child-goddess who whispered in her ear, trying to turn her from this bleak path. Well, tried to ignore, as she felt the warm hands of the little girl encircle her head, and the child-goddess plucked out the memory of the dream, and force-fed it back to Tara.

(that's blackmail)

Tara remembered feeling Willow's arms go around her so tight, the comforting weight of Willow's head on her shoulder, the ecstasy that Tara felt as the waves of desire crashed over them both, heady and intoxicating. The feeling that Willow was hers, and only hers, and forever hers. And even more astonishing, the absolute truth to the knowledge that Willow loved Tara back, loved her with every breath in her body, every fibre of her being, and would do anything to keep Tara alive. That was what she felt as she held Willow in her arms, and she once again vowed to do anything to keep Willow alive.

Tara shook her head to banish the vision.

You're cheating. That's not real.

it could be.

How? She's my patient. If I even made one single advance on her, I'd get fired. Hell, I'd get sued.

patience, Tara. It will come right in the end.

And because feeding on the dream was more pleasant than feeding on her anger, Tara chose to calm herself, and imagine what life would be like with Willow in it. No more endless days of work, no more sleeping alone at night, only smiles and laughter and kisses. So the hours passed by, and she found herself in the vibrant city of Los Angeles, a city that didn't seem to care if it was day or night. It was midnight, and yet the streets buzzed with life, little people doing their little things that meant the world to them.

Would her sacrifice be for them as well?

Yes, oh yes.

She didn't know L.A. all that well and it took her a while to find the cemetery that her contact requested. She parked outside the gates and gingerly got out, holding her jacket close against a brisk wind. She had pulled her hair into a ponytail, but the wind whipped some tendrils loose and frisked them across her face. The gates to the cemetery had been busted open some time in the past and still hung there, a little bent. It lent a very ominous feel to the whole grave-visiting experience and she shuddered. She fished a flashlight from her pocket and started walking towards the mausoleum in the west end.

The building was softly illuminated by lamplight and when she arrived, she looked around, but could see no sign of her contact. She was about to walk inside when she heard his voice say, "You're late."

Tara spun around and there he was, leaning impassively against a massive headstone, hands in the pockets of a black leather jacket. He had an unearthly air about him, and he lounged with all the contained ferocity of a jungle cat.

"Angel, you startled me."

"I know. Permit me my pleasures, they are few and far between."

He looked sadder than the last time they met, when Tara had finally figured out the truth about

hush, little tara

Tara wondered what was going on in his life. Granted, he always seemed to look sad, perpetual airs of melancholy that he probably didn't even notice himself.

"So what's the emergency?" he asked.

Tara's head was throbbing, and she sat down on the gritty steps of the mausoleum, feeling the cold faux-marble through her jeans. She thrust an inquiring thought out to the goddess, and was pleased to hear a response. Good, she wouldn't be doing this alone. And even though she knew it was highly unethical, and illegal, to talk about her patients, she knew she must. She needed answers. "I want to talk about Sunnydale, the Slayer, and Willow Rosenberg."

The words seemed to hit him like blows to the chest, and he even staggered a little on the headstone. His face, which had been a calm mask of weariness with life, now turned almost savage.

"How do you know these things?" he asked.

"Willow Rosenberg is my patient," Tara said.

"Willow Rosenberg is dead, along with everyone else," Angel replied.

Now Tara was confused. She knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Willow was alive, but why would Angel think she was dead? "I can assure you, Willow is alive. She was hurt terribly, and spent a week here in an L.A. hospital, and then she was sent to me."

"Who sent her?"

"Some British fellow."

What had been merely a curiosity for her sent Angel into paroxysms of anger. He whirled off his perch and stalked around. "The Council! How dare they? They must have hid her from me. We looked for her!"

Tara could only stare at him, questions flooding her mind. "You know about Willow and Sunnydale?"

"It's a long story," Angel replied. But he succinctly laid it out for her, how he had been Buffy's ally, how Willow and Xander started helping Buffy with the slaying, incorporating themselves into something called the Scooby Gang. She knew he was leaving out a lot, but he covered seven years worth of history before concluding with him giving Buffy an amulet and watching her fight the preacher who was imbued with the ancient power of the First.

"Preacher?" Tara interrupted.

"Yeah, a piece of work named Caleb. One of the meanest and most dangerous foes we've ever faced. Yet Buffy had to take him on alone." His face held a hint of a smile in the memory, yet Tara could see that he was deeply sorrowing Buffy's loss.

Pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place in the landscape of Tara's mind. There was no doubt that this Caleb was the same thing holding Willow's mind hostage. Bemused, she listened as Angel explained the implosion and how he and a few others had come after nightfall to scour the canyon, looking for survivors. They had found none, and Angel's voice grew huskier as he told Tara how he had found the bodies of Buffy, Xander, Dawn, and Giles. But no sign of Willow or Faith. "We went to all the hospitals, and asked about either of them, but they lied to us. If I'd known Willow was alive, I would haveā€¦" and he paused, angry.

Tara felt the first pricklings of jealousy bite into her, but she held her tongue. Angel had evidently run out of words, and the pause between them lengthened, until the goddess pricked Tara into telling Angel her entire tale.

Which she did, and she could see the wonder in his eyes as she related Willow being sent to her, the appearance of the Goddess Aranaea, and the shocking revelation of Caleb holding Willow hostage.

"You're sure Willow will live?" Angel asked.

Tara felt another wave of jealousy. This man had parts of her Willow's past, parts of her memory, and Tara felt excluded. "Yes, she will live," Tara replied, rather shortly. Her headache had gotten worse, and the mean little gremlin in her back hooted in glee.

Angel had turned his back to her and wandered the headstones, apparently lost in thought. He finally turned back to face her and she lifted her weary head. "So what part are you supposed to play in all of this?" he asked.

(the lamb, I am the lamb)

She gave him a quirky smile and said, "I'm going to save her." Swiftly she told him of Aranaea's plan for dealing with the preacher and healing Willow. At the end they were both winded and buzzing with thoughts.

"No wonder you need this," Angel said, drawing the amulet out of his leather jacket. He held it out to her and she took it. It had a large circle of amber, with rays sticking out like rays of the sun, and it felt heavier than it should be. She could feel the latent power within and for the first time that night she actually believed she could accomplish her task.

"I should warn you," Angel was saying, and she looked up from her scrutiny of the amulet. His face was deadly serious, and not for the first time she wondered why he was so pale. Must not be the surfer type. "You stay with this group of people too long, you're going to get yourself killed. Everybody else does."

Tara reflected on the pain in his voice, on how he must have felt to pick up Buffy's dead body, how he may have cried over her and cursed the gods.

"You're still alive," she said in a low voice.

"In a manner of speaking," Angel replied, frowning.

Tara had only a moment to contemplate the weirdness of that sentence when she heard a crashing and a bellow. Into the lamp lit circle surrounding the mausoleum, Tara could see three beastly shapes emerge. Their faces were red and horribly misshapen, with long tusks growing out of their jaws, heads and bodies covered in wiry hair. They were wearing long and tattered robes of burlap, and in the glinting light she could see that fresh blood was on their long claws. One of them roared and ran straight towards her.

"Run, Tara!" Angel said, but it wasn't Angel anymore, his own face had shifted into a hideous mask, his eyes turned yellow, and his mouth sported long fangs.

Angel was a vampire.

Even as her mind petulantly said, "He never told me he was a vampire," Tara began to run. But running in a cemetery in the middle of the night when you're being chased by demons doesn't normally lead to fancy footwork, and after a hundred yards Tara stumbled over a low headstone and pitched headfirst into the grass.

Clutching at her hurt ankle and looking behind her, heart burning in fear and exhaustion, she could see that Angel had successfully attacked two of the demons, laying into them with astonishingly hard punches and kicks. But there were three demons, weren't there?

From her side she saw the demon stop and sniff the air, only to roar once again when he saw her. Tara scrambled up and began to run, but there was a massive stitch in her side, her ankle lurched with every step, her head was about to explode in pain, and she wondered, oh she wondered was this to be the end?

The beast lunged for her legs and tackled her, bearing her down to the ground. She turned to face him even as she lay on the ground with his hideous weight on her. Tara lifted her hands to protect her face, but it wasn't fast enough, and his three-clawed hand sped for her cheek. Contact was made and Tara felt three lines of polished smoothness rip from her brow, across to her ear, then down to her mouth before she felt the intense pain. Clapping a hand to her face, valiantly trying to staunch the crimson flood, Tara desperately tried to recall any spell that would send this beast away, but it was too late. Far too late for that.

The beast raised his paw again and slashed her chest, cutting through her jacket and blouse, leaving another three-pronged line of viciousness from her shoulder to her sternum, and her baffled eyes could see her shredded skin flapping in the breeze, inundated in her blood.

And all Tara could do was scream. So she opened her mouth and tried to scream, but it was just like in her nightmares as a child, as her throat closed up and terror overtook her like a speeding train on fire. Her mouth was all bricked up, and she remembered that feeling of helplessness, and could only imagine the jubilation in Caleb's eyes as he watched her die. Even her limbs turned into so much mush and she trembled as she looked into a face brimming with madness and death.

Their eyes locked, and in the beast's eyes Tara could see herself, a reflection of her ripped and bloodied cheek, and she prayed that this would not be the last thing she would ever see.

The demon was raising his hands and in a startling moment of clarity, Tara realised he was about to take her head in his huge paws, then he would twist it in a single deathly motion, and her neck bones would break, and her windpipe would be crushed, and she would be dead. Demon fodder.

Hopeless.

So she raised her arms as if she could possibly fight him, and put her fingers on his hideous face. The moment her trembling fingers contacted his skin she could feel a pulse throughout her body. A cascading flood of oily blackness seemed to shudder from her fingers, hammering into the face of the demon with catastrophic force. She could feel that flood rising up inside her, and in the reflection of the demon's eyes she watched, horrified, as her own eyes turned completely black.

Gods, no. I am not like the preacher. Stop this!

But she was powerless to stop, and felt a heady sensation of bloodlust and raw excitement that sickened her to the bone. And the flood continued, and as the pain swiftly left her body, Willow's gut wound, her headache and backache, she could see the skin under her fingers blister and blacken, and the demon howled in agony. She barely knew what she was doing; it was some abominable act, not the gentle murder of animals but a deliberate slaughter. She felt horrified and sickened, and burst into tears even as she kept up the nauseating flow of darkness, watching the demon's eyes as they burst, showering her in bits of goo, watching as the demon's hair caught ablaze.

With a mighty shove she pushed the demon off of her, stumbling away to miserably observe the demon's death throes, as the fire from his hair caught on his tattered robe until he was entirely ablaze. A sickening stench arose, a charnel smell, a death reek, a demon barbecue, and for the second time that day she retched up her dinner.

As the pulsing force of adrenaline slowly faded throughout her body Tara could feel the exquisite pain of her wounds, but it was an almost welcome pain, a surface pain, not the bone-deep agony she had felt only this afternoon in Willow's room. She clapped her hands to her chest, feeling a white blanket of unconsciousness threaten to overtake her. She looked at the demon and tried to reconcile herself, telling herself that it was better to off a demon than to take a rabbit. And it worked the same way, or seemed to.

No use. She had never used her power as a weapon before, and she felt defiled. And though she had nothing in her stomach to lose, she dry-heaved on her hands and knees for long minutes, the sickening smell in her nostrils and endless agony in her heart, stars dancing on the edge of her vision.

She heard running footsteps and knew it was Angel. She lifted her head, dimly noticing that her brown hair was streaked with her own blood, long tendrils of it stuck in her cheek and brushing against her shoulder. "How?" he stammered, looking at the smoking corpse of the demon, and she could see a bruise lifted on his normal again cheek, and he walked with a limp. "How did you do this?"

Tara fainted.