TITLE: Where Heroes Go
SUMMARY: They all know it's the end, so why do they fight? A character study of sorts.
DSICLAIMER: Angel and the associated characters do not belong to me.
SETTING: Set during Not Fade Away.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Just a one-shot that deals with the events in the final episode.
WHEN HEROES FALL
Wesley knows he is dying. The cold blade slid into his body, and he feels the razing fire growing around the wound. Warm fluid flows through his fingers, and he imagines it coats his hand a vivid red. He wonders whether the room was this dark when he had arrived. He believes there must be candles in the room, as shadows are flitting across his eyes.
It's becoming hard to breathe. His throat seems too constricted to gulp down the stale air, and it wastes too much energy to exhale. He must conserve his energy, if he is to live…
He knows that it is useless. It doesn't matter how much energy he uses anymore. He is dying. Illyria knows it too. She holds his head in her cold hands and admits to feeling concern for his wellbeing. She is perplexed by these emotions and he watches her struggling against the onslaught of grief. He is strangely proud to be the first one she feels human emotions for. Her sad, blue eyes flicker to his. He thinks her cheeks may be wet, or it might only be a trick of light.
"Would you like me to lie to you now?"
Yes, he does. He wants her to hold him tightly, to whisper that he will be okay. He wants her to fix his wound, to heal his failing body so that he can help Angel. He needs to help the others in the final battle, but he is so weak. Even the simplest movement hurts too much. His body is heavy, too heavy, so heavy…
He wants her to lie. He wants her to help him to his feet, to tell him how she killed the three she was assigned. He needs her to make him move, push him through the door, help him reach the alley behind the Hyperion and help the others. They will be fighting now, alone against the hordes of evil under the control of the Senior Partners. They need him fighting beside them. With them. For them.
"Yes," he replies, his voice barely above a husky whisper. Was it really this dark before? He blinks slowly, trying to clear his vision. "Thank you. Yes."
She gazes into his eyes, her cheeks peppered with tears, and Wesley finds himself falling in love all over again. Her playful, innocent, brown eyes shine with happiness, and he smiles. Her beautiful hair falls across her face and he wants to brush it away. But he can't lift his arm, because it's so heavy. He can't even feel it. He can't feel anything anymore. His body has gone numb. Should he be worried? Maybe he should call Illyria back, so she can heal him, and then send her away again so he can be with Fred. Always with Fred.
But he can't take his eyes off her for even a moment. She is everything he has always wanted, and she is the only good thing in this world that he had. Now she is gone, and it's been so long since he saw her smile. It's been months since he saw her face light up when she looked at him. Since he heard her animated babbling when she discovered something in her lab. Since he witnessed her fierce determination to be brave…
She has been lost to him for too long.
He wants to find her. He wants to let go.
He huddles in the darkness, clutching his knees to his chest. The darkness consumes him, watching him through millions of eyes, never revealing its secrets. He bites down on his lip, stifling the sob that threatens to escape. He can still hear the voices outside, and until they go away he must be silent. Must show his courage. Must be brave.
The darkness frightens him. He keeps still and silent. If he doesn't, the monsters will know he is here.
His father's voice fades, and he hears the sound of heavy footsteps and the slam of a door through the smooth, timber door. Suddenly, light floods into the closet beneath the stairs, and he can see again. He is safe. The door won't unlock until the sun rises, but the darkness is gone and he is no longer scared. His mother knocks gently on the thick wood of the door.
"Be brave, Wes. I'll leave the light on for you."
He feels the end coming. It's the sense of dread and fear trickling through his veins, the ever-growing hint of bravery and acceptance that is buried deep within his bones. His wound is too deep. Even if he manages to survive the suicide mission they're about to willingly enter, he won't live for long. And strangely, he finds this comforting.
As the hordes of evil stormed down the alley, Gunn feels the pain of his wounds fall away. The faint vertigo that is threatening to make him keel over disappears, and he is overcome with an eerie calm. A shriek echoes down the alley, punctured by the thunderous patter of rain on the ground. With every second that passes the mist thins, giving him a clearer picture of the faces that will most likely be the last he sees. The terrified confusion that has been embedded in him all day is gone; he is no longer afraid to die.
The battle axe is heavy in his hands, yet his fingers remember the smooth, wooden handle. His skin tingles with the memory of wielding the axe too long ago. Once, this axe was his third hand, his extra limb, his…life. This axe had made him feel welcome, had brought him home. It had been his calling, the signature of his life. He had slept beside it, woke with it in his fist, hunted with it sharp and ready. He used to fight with instinct. The axe- or whichever weapon he had handy- simply did what it was made for. Kill.
Does he remember how to use it? It doesn't matter, because this is the last time he will use it anyway. He's not stupid. He knows this will be his last night. He glances up quickly, not comfortable taking his eyes off the approaching enemy. But this will be the last time he sees the night sky, and he wants to remember it. It doesn't look different. He thought there would be something special about it, something that makes this night better than any night sky he's ever seen before. But the darkness is still black and heavy, and the clouds still roll calmly across the sky, and the stars and moon still provide meagre light to counter the darkness.
He is in pain again, but he stands up nevertheless. They are closer, and all he wants to do is remember. Remember when this was second nature. Remember when he hunted evil every night, when it wasn't simply a job but his life. Remember when he decided that saving people and fighting for what was right was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
They all turn as one as the dragon roars and slices through the sky above them. He cracks a joke, trying to make this easier on himself and the others.
"Okay. You take the thirty thousand on the left…"
He tries to smile.
"You're fading. You'll last ten minutes at best." When Illyria speaks her words almost release the terror and panic locked inside him. But he holds the barriers strong because the others need him sane, even if it only gives them another thirty seconds to live their lives.
"Then let's make them memorable."
So he does. He fights like he used to, like the fate of the world rests on this one battle. He kills four demons before they even see him coming. He allows the axe to guide him, allows the flow of the fight to push him. They surge around him and he doesn't care because he is going to send as many of these demons to hell as he can before he goes. The more he takes down, the less left in this world.
That is what will always matter to him. The safety and protection of those who can't look after themselves. It is what he has done his entire life, what he will do until he is finished. Even if that is now.
When the sword plunges into his chest, he is satisfied. He lasted longer than he expected, and now he is ready. He has done his job, his duty, his calling, and all he wants to do is die with the dignity he always dreamed. He doesn't scream or cry. He falls to his knees, and instead of the demon's face, he sees Alonna and smiles.
A soft bundle is placed in his arms, and he protectively pulls it to his chest. He gazes down at the beautiful face of his baby sister, amazed at the gurgling sounds coming from her tiny mouth. Her button nose twitches, and he gently sways her. She is so tiny, so vulnerable…
There is something pounding on the door, and he hears snarls and bad words. His mother kneels in front of him, clasping her hand around his and the pink blanket. Her eyes are frantic, but when they rest on him all he can see is love and a sense of pleading.
"Baby," she whispers. "Daddy's not coming home. There's something in the house, and it's trying to hurt us. I need you to take your sister and run."
"Run where?" he replies, keeping his voice soft like hers. "And where's daddy?"
Her eyes fill with tears, and he's sorry he hurt her somehow. "Daddy's somewhere safe. Nothing can hurt him there and he's very proud of you. But baby, I need you to go now. Out that window. Promise me that you'll run as fast as you can, and don't stop running until the sun is shining. Okay?"
He nods, but he's so scared now. Why can't she come with him?
She kisses his forehead and does the same to his sister. "I know you'll look after her, Charles. I know you'll protect her. I don't need you to promise that. You're my little son of a Gunn, aren't you? Destined for great things. Now go."
He turns and runs, and doesn't stop when he hears a crash and his mother's scream. He doesn't stop because he promised his mother he wouldn't. But he promises himself that after this night he will never run again. Destined for great things. He will never run again.
Spike believes he is a reckless man. He prides himself on it, actually. He leaps into things without looking and prays in the precious seconds before that he won't be killed. He lives life blindly, because he hates the knowing. He doesn't like the understanding and comprehension of what the consequences are. He hates being aware of what he stands to lose, or what he may win. It's the unexpected, the surprises, that makes life so interesting.
So he doesn't know why of all times he wants a plan now. Needs one. There is no chance of coming out of this mission. It's the end for him, bright and dazzling clear. He's almost begging Angel for a plan.
"In terms of a plan?" he asks, grateful that his voice wasn't shaking.
Angel's reply is typical; cryptic and redundant. "We fight."
He wonders why he fights. It used to be because he fell in love. Because he couldn't control himself and fell rock bottom for the Slayer, his enemy. Back then it was all about proving his worth, showing her that despite what she may think he was a man. He was a man locked inside a demon's body, but feeling true emotions for her nevertheless. He did it all for her. Everything was for her.
But now? He had been given the chance to run, to chase after the blonde like a lap dog, or to start again. He could have become the unremorseful, dangerous killer he had been. If he could fight against his own nature without a soul, surely he could give into it with a soul. It would have only taken minimal effort to hightail it out of Los Angeles and started killing again. He would have become another nameless and faceless vampire, getting his fill of blood and mayhem.
Yet he remains. Spike stands beside Angel, Gunn and Illyria, ready to fight a losing battle. He still mourns the Watcher bloke, bowing his head in respect for the loyal, ruthless hero the man had been. It seems such a stupid emotion, grief. This soul stuck inside him has brought him nothing but pain, regret, guilt and grief. Normal people find happiness, contentment and some will eventually find peace. He, on the other hand, is damned to feel nothing but darkness.
Spike still wants a plan for some reason. "Bit more specific?"
This time Angel's response is so unlike him that Spike is certain he's gone completely insane. For a man who prided himself on being controlled, deliberate and the complete opposite to rash, his answer comes as quiet a surprise.
"Well, personally, I kind of want to slay the dragon."
Huh. Fair enough.
Then they go to work, and when the stake slams home and he stares at his crumbling body in a curious silence, Spike finally understands why he fights; because they don't expect him to. And Spike has always been one for breaking the rules.
"I want to eat the pretty princess," Drusilla moans, tears streaming down her cheeks. The bonnet is secured tightly around her head, and she tugs at it viciously. He thinks she is the most beautiful thing he's ever seen. She is his saviour from the pesky feelings that came with being alive, came with being human. He is finally free to do what he wishes, and she, the truly marvellous creature that she is, has given it to him.
"And I will watch," he replies, snaking his arm around her waist and pulling her against him. She giggles and wriggles free, dancing away beneath the street lamp. He follows, silently and smug, careful not to get too close in case she throws another fit. A child suddenly lurches from the alleyway, dressed in nothing but rags and hungrily snatching a piece of bread half buried in mud.
He stops. Watching the child devour the pitiful meal, he is overcome with dread. Something settles in his stomach, something wrong… The child wipes its mouth of crumbs and lifts its head. Haunted, blue eyes stare back at him, and he feels dirty. Spike bursts into action, cutting off Drusilla just as she pounces from the shadows. He catches her in his arms, dragging her back into the darkness. He peers over his shoulder once more, and catches the child's grateful nod and half smile. Then it turns and runs.
"Disgusting," she wails in his arms. "I didn't want you. White knight. Why can't you do what you're supposed to?"
She is new to this world. She does not understand it. There are so many paradoxes and contradictions and confusions. Not even the lowly humans who have reigned here for centuries can comprehend the chaos that is their world. They say one thing, yet do another. They strive to prove something yet throw it away with the ridiculous concept they call courage. They think they are brave. They believe they are heroes.
She did not believe them at first.
Illyria was above them, and still is. She is only forced to lower herself to their level because of this body, this… shell. Fred. Winifred Burkle. They loved her. They saved her from another dimension, where she was treated like humans should be treated. She came here and joined the pointless fight these humans seem determined to win. Illyria does not understand this. Fred should have gone home, where she would be safe. But she risked her own life for people she barely knew. Fred seeps into Illyria's mind, claws her way into Illyria's memories and soul. Some days she detests this. Others, she clings to it.
Wesley is dead, and she is not happy. She tells the others and feels their grief in waves. It is stronger than with Fred's parents, even stronger than with Wesley. It takes her a while to realize that the stench of grief comes from her too, and this angers her. Emotions she can't control have never entered her soul before.
"I wish to do more violence," she says, and it is true. She is feeling the need for what they call revenge, vengeance for Wesley's lost life, lost spirit. Her only friend (she struggles to use that word) was taken from her and she is not pleased. She enjoyed his company, his way of talking and researching. She tries to sort out another strange emotion that permeates her, but she does not understand it. She is not happy that he is dead, yet she feels glad that he died in such a way. Not painfully, but doing something for his friends, doing something important. It borders on pride.
She will stand and fight beside these mortals, for she wants vengeance for Wesley's death. She does not understand the people she is with, nor does she believe she ever will, but it does not matter. Because she can see why they fight. They fight for what they believe is right. They fight for those they lost. They fight because they must. They are worthy humans to face battle with.
She wonders whether they will be grieved for. Will other people mourn their passing? Illyria hopes so. To be forgotten is the only fate worse than living in the state she is in. For so many years she lay in her sarcophagus, hidden from the world. But she was never forgotten. She feels slightly sad that possibly no one will grieve for her. Who is there left to do so? But this doesn't deter her from her mission.
She will kill as many as she can, and then she will go join Wesley again. He will be with Fred no doubt - the part of her nothing can destroy- yet just to see him gain will satisfy her.
She follows the two souled vampires and the injured but brave man into battle, and fights until she is torn limb to limb.
She stands on her dais, watching the masses bow beneath her. They swarm like a plague, vying for her attentions and pleasure. They disgust her, yet she needs them to worship her. Without them, she is not a God. She has no power without those she can wield it against. They bow beneath her, press their mouths to the dirt in reverence. Her name is chanted, her name is silently feared…
Illyria hears a battle cry and turns to face her enemies. In less than a minute she overcomes them and they crumble to dust, leaving a blood and fire- ravaged plain. Cries and cheers explode behind her and she disbands her followers with a shriek. They scatter as fast as they can, and she strolls through her realm. It is wonderful. Screams of agony pierce the air, the smell of charred flesh and blood stain the wind, and the distinct taste of fear swirls around her. This is how it should be.
She falters. She smells the air, cocking her head slightly and listening. Something is wrong. She storms through her realm, her followers fleeing from her path in terror. Then she comes across the object of her fury.
A child is kneeling beneath the burnt trunk of what used to be a tree, playing in the mud. She is humming, creating tunes that hurt Illyria's ears. The child sings of light, murmurs words of play and enjoyment and happiness. Illyria covers her ears. The child lifts her hand and allows the dirt to sieve through her fingers. Yet she scoops more up and allows the same thing.
Illyria reaches out to destroy the abomination, but hesitates. While the sight disgusts her, she is curious. Why does the child hum? Why does the child play with mud and dirt? Singing does not bring blood and cause pain. Playing cannot harm anything else. Yet Illyria watches on, until the child finishes its game and stands.
She destroys the child with a flick of her wrist, yet she remains intrigued. Why did the child play?
He knows it ends tonight. He can smell it. The stench of evil clings to the night air. He can hear it; the thudding footsteps of evil, marching towards them to smite them down. He can see the hordes of vampires and demons and all of evil's creatures, hunting him because they believe him a threat.
He will become one.
This is his moment. He was born, those many years ago in Ireland, to be here. He was turned into one of evil's creatures to come here. He was gifted with a soul and conscious to lead him here. He was made into a champion for this very moment. And he will not waste it. He will fight tonight for all those he lost along the way. Buffy, who pointed him in the right direction. Doyle, who laid out his path. Cordelia, who kept him on the right road. Fred, who showed him how precious life really was. Wesley, who made him feel worthy to be a leader. They are the reasons he stands here now. He will not make their absence in vain. He will fight for them.
But he has others who are still with him. They give him more of a reason to wage war than anything else. Gunn, Spike and Illyria stand beside him, and he wouldn't have it any other way. Nina is safe, and the thought of the beautiful woman makes him grip his weapon tighter. And the most important reason in this battle is Connor. He is fighting tonight so that his son can live. He will kill anything that moves because it gives his son a better chance of surviving to graduate college. He will destroy any evil the Senior Partners throw at him because that is one less evil Connor will have in his world.
He goes to work.
He stakes five vampires in succession after watching a demon run a sword through Gunn's chest. He decapitates two demons with one swing of his sword after he sees the stake protruding from Spike's crumbling chest. He punches his fist through a demon's stomach and rips out its insides after witnessing Illyria torn limb to limb. More come to replace those he kills. Yet he fights on, and waits for what he knows will be the only end to this battle.
He sees the stake coming. It glides through the air and he watches it come with morbid fascination. This thing, this tiny fragment of wood, will end him. He welcomes it.
Death is more painful than he thought it would be. He thought he knew death; he had caused it for centuries, turned it into an art form, gained pleasure from bestowing it on those unfortunate few that crossed his path. But as the stake pierces his skin, slides through his muscles and scrapes his bones, the pain is like nothing he's ever felt. And never before has he ever felt such remorse for his victims. The thought of those people, those innocent lives he took, spurs him into action. He rips the stake from his heart and throws it into the night sky as hard as he can. It spins through the air, higher and higher until it slams into the dragon's throat. He slays the dragon as his body crumbles to dust and his remains scatter through the alley.
He slays the dragon when all hope is lost, when he could have glanced at the stars once more, or smelt the crisp air, or screamed for the last time, because that's what he must do.
That's what heroes do.
"Liam, why are you my big brother?"
"Because that's what God chose."
"Why does father beat you?"
"Because that's what father chooses to do."
"Why do you take me away from him?"
"Because that's what I choose."
"What will you be when you're older?"
"I don't know."
"What will I be?"
"You'll be a guardian angel. You'll watch over me and anyone who needs your help. When they're in trouble you'll save them. And in many, many, many years someone's grandpapa will point to the stars and say "Do you see that angel?" and the children will gather around and beg for tales about your adventures."
"Why would I be in the stars?"
"Because that's where all the heroes go."