A/N: There was so much more I wanted to reference in this chapter, but none of it would fit. I wanted to touch on what happens to Buffy and Spike after, and what Angel decides to do, and where Wes and Illyria go; it's all there, in my head. It just had no place in this chapter. And the "Five Stages" are done - there's nowhere else to put it! So if it seems a little unfinished to you, that is why. It ended up more like a character study than an actual plotted story.
Let me know -- should I try to tie more of it up in an epilogue, or does this stand well enough on its own? There are still enough bunnies left that, given time, I could probably use this entire thing as a sort of prologue to a season-6 style story. I'm not really sure I want to commit my time to that yet, but it's always a possibility.
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