Title: The Five Stages of Grief

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Disclaimer: All your Angel are belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, & Etc.

Rating: PG-13

Summary: The legends rise; the heroes fall. Of course, there's more to the story than that. (Set during, and just after, "Not Fade Away").

Spoilers: Angel 5.22 "Not Fade Away" (Aired US 5/19/04)

Notes: I started this story the day after "Not Fade Away" aired, in shock from the way it all ended. It was brilliant in places, utterly senseless in others, and completely devastating overall. I know everyone and their sister is writing "fix it" stories for the end of the series, but I just had to throw in my own two pence. (Chapters 1-4 edited and reposted 7/17/04)

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.

TBC (1/5)