Lorne looked around the room with kindness in his eyes and smiled at them all. 'Look at us, look at what we have. We're back together; the Old Team, we survived,' he looked at Angel and Spike, 'we came back,' his eyes flew to Fred and Wesley, 'We have the advantage right there. We're alive and we're together, and there's a reason for that kiddies, that's destiny. So for those of us who didn't make it let's do this right. We're the lucky ones.'
Twilight. The grey that looked like nightfall was actually the herald of the coming day but Sasha's winter drained the colour from the sun and left the gas station in pale and lifeless shadow. In its little bathroom Lorne stood before the cracked mirror and studied his own face. In the half light it too was washed of the bright greens and reds which marked out his features, causing darkness to gather around his eyes and lips hollowed out pits which pointed to the events of the last few years; they had taken their toll. He exhaled and a cloud of his breath gathered on the glass and faded slowly. Everything was cold to touch; it lingered in the air and nipped at his skin. Today they would bring an end to it all, one way or another.
For the twentieth time that night he closed his eyes and reached for her in the icy tower that was her palace not far from where they rested now. He searched for a trace of her in her fortress, for anything that he might feel of the woman he loved. Though he felt it, he refused to believe it, he refused to give up the fight that might salvage her from this disaster but deep down he knew. Despite his cheering words and peppy rallying of his team he sensed it like stone inside him. She was gone; nothing but a vessel for the evil she had taken from Novica. If he had only had a chance to talk to her, if things had happened differently it would be the god creature in that palace now, wearing his glamour, his own human face, and not his lover. Novica would have been so much easier to kill.
That's what it would come to. If Angel or Wesley had anything to do with it. Lorne might buy a little time, make a last ditch effort to rescue his girl but they all knew it would come to the kill. The slayer in her knew it, the woman she had been, the little trace of her that still remained, not in the palace but in him. The muscles in his jaw twitched in anxiety and slowly Lorne opened his eyes, his gaze in the basin below the mirror.
A shadow passed behind him and he caught its reflection, an image of himself and somewhere inside it, what was left of her. Novica's dark eyes look back at him in the glass with sadness.
'Is it time yet?' he asked softly.
'It's the end of the world as we know it,' Spike sang bitterly as he watched the sky turn from black to slightly less black to grey. 'It's the end of the world as we know it, it's the end of the world as we know it….'
'We get the picture,' Angel said.
'…And I feel fine,' Spike concluded forcefully.
Angel shot him a glance. A rising tension had been evident between them since earlier that evening. Lorne's declaration that the team would 'do this right,' had jarred Angel. He was aware suddenly of how much things had changed, his place here usurped and questioned after his disappearance the year before. Spike's immediate instinct had been to back Lorne, a growing respect evident in his manner whenever he addressed the demon. Angel could understand it, he himself had hardly lead them into victory the last time, he'd let them down, spent months feeling terrible about it, but at the end of the day what he and Lorne considered to be the 'right thing' were very different. Sasha would die in this process, Lorne had to see it was the only way they could finish Frenac. Wesley saw it. He doubted the others even considered it. Lucy had jumped on the bandwagon with the enthusiasm of a newly empowered slayer, let's save the day, she'd said, let's get Sasha out of there and finish the True God off like two birds with one big mighty stone. She didn't know about sacrifice, not yet. Buffy had learned so much faster; she'd killed the thing she loved, for the good of the world, she'd killed him. So he had to do this thing, he had to hurt them all in the process, make himself the enemy again, but it was the only way.
'I know what you're thinking,' Spike said. 'And it isn't… the only way…' he went on, dragging the toes of his boots in the ice at their feet. 'There's always another way, if we look hard enough, we're not giving up on her yet. She joined this mission around the time you abandoned it. Cleaned up your mess, got Lorne back on track with the hero gig…' he turned and looked at his grandsire, 'we're not giving up.'
Angel avoided his gaze, his eyes focused on the horizon where the pale light was beginning to filter through the clouds. He could see Sasha's palace in the ice.
'We'll do what we have to do,' he said quietly.
Spike snorted and scuffed at the snow about to shoot back a remark. Instead he peered down at the ground.
'Odd,' he said.
'What is?' Angel's thoughts were distant.
'Is it me or is it getting warmer?'
'Warmer? I… I don't know… why do you..?'
Spike drew a toe through the snow and brushed it to one side. Beneath him the browns and golds of the sands below burst through the white.
'It's melting,' he said.
'Sasha's weakening?' Angel said hopefully, 'her powers draining, maybe then we'd have a chance to help her?'
Spike looked up suddenly at the horizon, his hand reaching instinctively for his companion. 'I don't think she's weakening,' he said seriously, 'I think something is getting stronger,' he tugged sharply on Angel's arm and pulled him over, 'Get down!' he commanded.
At the base of the palace the ground heaved and broke, a jet of lava spewing forth, high into the air and splattering down over the frozen desert. It coloured the sky red with its heat and the air shimmered around it with ferocity. Spike spluttered, his mouth full of snow, and squinted up in time to see the creature erupt from the mud of melted ice. The desert convulsed and the first of his massive claws hooked over the side of a canyon carved in the earth's crust. A roar and its massive horned head emerged in anger, eyes bright and vicious in the darkness. Angel scrabbled to his knees, the air around him thick with embers and fire; it pitted his skin with dark scarring marks.
'Frenac,' he said.
'You think!?' Spike carolled.
From behind them they heard the gas station doors wrench open and its inmates spill onto the desert. Groo, his burnished skin shining in the flames braced himself and gathered the others behind him.
'This is the True God,' he said, 'We shall attack him!'
Beside him Illyria sauntered almost casually, her eyes wide with pleasure at the sight. She tilted her head and gazed at Frenac with curiosity. 'He has grown,' she said at length, 'He feeds on the earth below, on the heat he finds there. We do not attack without the third power.'
In the doorway of the gas station Fred sheltered Aviline in her arms and Lucy's golden hair turned orange in the light of the fire. Everything was distorted and coloured. The world around them melting and changing. Frenac heaved himself from the canyon and turned to stare down at the little group. His head tilted backwards and from its mouth a jet of flame gush upwards into the sky with a roar.
'Plan?' Spike yelled.
The group looked around desperately, the heat was growing unbearable, searing and burning and they wanted to run. Away from the fire, away from the pain it caused, away from the thing in front of them. Frenac's roar turned to a frenzied scream and the first of his hoof like feet crashed down in anger. The desert shook and cracks flew from the ground in spokes, shooting towards them, LA, the palace. If he chose to he would make his way toward them faster than they could escape, bringing that flame and devastation with him.
In the shelter of the gas station Lorne looked past the others to the palace. Even from here he could see the ice that formed it was draining and melting, the towers shrinking, the windows falling in, shapeless and empty. He glanced at Novica whose head was bent in pain.
'What's happening?' Lorne asked him, 'What's happening to her?'
'I… don't know,' he rubbed at his forehead.
'You had that power once, what would you be doing about now?'
'I'd be running, he's too much for one of us, no matter how powerful we once were.'
'I forgot, you're basically a coward,' Lorne shot at him, 'had to work in threes, surround yourself with minions, get your kicks from trying to imprison young women with your magics because you weren't man enough to give them choice. So let me rephrase that question… what would a slayer with your powers do?'
Novica looked up at him, the sweat trickling from his brow as heat and fear combined. 'I'd try to kill him,' he said, and Lorne nodded sharply, 'But I'd fail,' he finished.
Lorne looked back at the palace, 'Maybe she won't,' he said.
The Thing that had been Sasha stood in the centre of its great hall and watched as the water cascaded from its frozen ceiling. The ornate decoration dribbled and melted around it, even the floor altered, its marble appearance turning to slush. It flitted from corner to corner in the blink of an eye, its fingers touching the walls lightly, the anger building in its blank and colourless face. Finally it reappeared in the middle of the room and held out its arms. Frenac tried to destroy the palace; he would try to destroy the realm. Sasha would destroy it first rather than have him take it.
The Thing felt the power build, course across its shoulders and enter its fingertips. With a blast it sent it hurling towards the disintegrating walls, punched through them and let it fight with the heat of Frenac's hell outside.
'We need to move now!' Wesley's voice cut through the chaos. At the sound of it Angel rushed forward into his path and the two plunged through the whirling flames and blizzards which raged across the desert. After a beat Spike joined them before a surge of frozen wind pushed the others back towards the gas station.
The Sasha thing had unleashed its power, blowing apart the palace and challenging Frenac who stood massive and powerful between the team and LA. A torrent of ice rained down on the True God who lashed out with claws and flame in an almighty battle. The power which had ripped from Sasha's body coiled back in blue reams and lunged forward again, choking the beast with a hangman's loop of frozen magic.
Illyria watched with detached interest, Groo hovering alongside keen to use the powers of Zeital inside of him.
'Do we fight it?' he asked enthusiastically, 'Do we side with the blue magic?'
'We do,' she said, 'But not yet. Let us take our positions.'
'She's doing it,' Lorne said, the light of the Sasha thing's magic in the depths of his red eyes. Novica stood by his side, the girls Lucy, Fred and Aviline behind him. 'She's containing him, she's going to do it.'
His old nemesis turned and watched the expression on his face. Lorne's lips were parted in something like awe as they watched Frenac's fire falter and blanch, rage again and fail. The speed and anger contained within the winter magic Novica has lost was beating him back, chaining him in icy bindings, releasing and recapturing. Sasha seemed to have the dominant side.
'It isn't her,' Novica said, 'It's only the power.'
'Whatever, she's winning!'
'No,' his voice was barely audible over the combat. Lorne turned and stared at his human self. Novica dropped his gaze. 'She isn't winning, the power is winning.'
'The power is in her.'
'Lorne…' he didn't know what to say. Lorne's hope was so obvious. A way to avoid the ultimate sacrifice. If she could defeat the True God with her borrowed powers then maybe they could save her in the process without the sacrifice of the three Old Ones. But Novica had felt it as the power had coursed from her body in the explosion that rocked the desert. The power was all, the power fought to defeat Frenac, but the power was the Old One, the God of Winter he had once been. Sasha was beyond that in the ruins of the palace. Or what was left of her was.
Lorne saw it and his face fell. He looked past Frenac to the receding figures of Angel and Wesley, Spike chasing after them. He glanced sideways to where Illyria and Groo moved apart to take up their places. A triangle forming between the three Old Ones, Illyria, Groo and Sasha's corporeal form.
'They wouldn't...' Lorne said, 'They have to give her a chance….'
'That power isn't Sasha, its rooted in her, it clings to this dimension through her being but its not her,' Novica said bluntly, 'It's what I once was, it's not a case of let it win the day on our behalf. If it does win, and Frenac is powerful so it may not, but if it does… it isn't her… it isn't a benevolent force. It will double its strength or more and destroy everything in its path. What we're seeing isn't a mercy mission on behalf of mankind, it isn't the force of a slayer defeating evil, it is evil. I should know…They can't let it win and we've run out of time to help Sasha…'
'They're going to kill her…' Lorne whispered.
Novica shut his eyes briefly and with hesitation reached out to touch Lorne's shoulder. 'Yes,' he said.
'Catch me,' Lorne said quickly and fell hard into Novica's arms.
They were slowed by the rush of water from the melting palace, heated by the earth below and Frenac's fire. It poured down the last remnants of steps from the building and scalded
them as they ran, the steam billowing upwards as the Old One's palace evaporated under the strain of the battle. Spike stumbled and catapulted himself forward again, gaining on Angel and Wesley who moved with fierce determination. Their clothes were sodden and the embers that surged in the air charred their skins.
Briefly Angel turned towards Spike and on cue Wesley continued forward, dragging with him a small bag of magics.
'Get back,' Angel called down at the other vampire, 'There's no choice.'
'There has to be a way of separating her from the powers, the way Groo is!'
'No, its different, it's her whole being now and right now Sasha isn't our concern…'
'That is…' Angel pointed behind him where Frenac could be seen rising twice as powerful as before. He lashed out at the chains of ice with which the Sasha thing had bound him and sent them shattering across the desert. Spike saw the blue magics recoil and drive forward weaker than before, the light changing from blues and whites to the red of Frenac's fire. He brought down one great hoof again and a river of lava shot out horizontally from the contact with the ground. The desert buckled and morphed; blacks and oranges heralding the crumbling of the earth's crust. Though it seemed impossible the heat seemed to increase until it seared the lungs of each creature on the plain. Spike shot forward into the palace.
'Are the others in position?' Wesley's voice called from the dripping steaming confines of the ruins, he coughed against the burning air. Angel turned his sharp eyes across the desert and spotted the figures of Illyria and Groo at equal angles to the palace.
Spike slipped and sent out a hand to catch himself but was rewarded only with a scalding burn to his palm. He looked around him, hot liquid pouring into his face and from the melting beams above, as he raised one arm to shield himself the central beam gave way, crashing to the floor only to melt back into nothing seconds later. And then he saw them, in the centre of what had once been a great hall, crouched by the mirror that had been Novica's, the fire dancing in its glass, Wesley, magics in hand and close by the motionless body of Sasha. The magic still ripped from her body, the powers of the winter god still at war with Frenac, but beneath its shimmering colours she was recognisable as the slayer.
Spike opened his mouth instinctively, 'Wesley, you've got to buy some time!' The watcher flinched, his hands already stained with the melted ice and powers he needed for the incantation. Spike saw his eyes flick to Sasha and then back across the desert where Frenac's sphere of destruction inched further with each second.
The hand gripped hard at his arm and the voice at Spike's shoulder overrode his request. 'There is no more time, do it Wesley.' Spike spun to face his old rival and Angel landed his first blow.
Fred screamed as Lorne's body dropped into Novica's grasp. The former god staggering at the sudden impact of his weight. Lucy dashed forward and took the burden, laying him down in the doorway of the gas station where the light from the flames moved over his unconscious features in orange waves.
'Not a great time to be on the other side Lorne,' Fred said quickly.
'We might have to make a run for it,' Lucy said, her eyes on the creeping lava just a hundred yards or so from their refuge.
'It won't come to that the others will stop it. Illyria and Groo are in place, they'll begin the spell,' she turned back to Lorne, 'Lorne wake up, we need you here, it's all going down… you know the big hero routine, you want to be here when we finish that thing off and get Sasha back right? Whoever you're guiding right now can wait.'
Novica looked back across the desert at the dim shadow of his palace. 'No they can't,' he said.
Illyria saw it hit Groo from her place in the desert, the young warrior's body unprepared for the rush of magic and power which would pour from him. He jerked backward and she thought she may even have heard his scream across the battlefield as Zeital's tornado took flight and wrapped its binding arms around Frenac. Groo collapsed, the magical herbs he had imbibed making certain that he would survive the birth of Zeital's fury from his body. It had been but a temporary residence for the magic.
Sasha would not survive, the Old One's eyes turned to the commotion by the palace with idle curiosity. The ice magic was wavering, beaten back by Frenac, and Wesley prepared even now to enact the sacrifice of the Sasha Thing's shell to bind those magics to the True God and incarcerate him.
Illyria looked up at the sky and then finally to the little group of creatures by the gas station. So vulnerable, so foolish and yet with the power between them to organise such a grand show. They would all lose from this, they would all sacrifice in their own way, and yet they went ahead for the good of this pretty little world she had once ruled. She smiled softly, if she felt she was capable of love, she would have loved them for that.
Two magics in place binding Frenac but he showed no signs of weakening. She supposed it was time. Illyria would return again to the Other World when this was done but for this moment she would savour it. For her the onset of her magic was more gradual, she felt it curl in her belly and then send out its tendrils along the length of her limbs. It was a rich and sensuous pleasure to use her powers again. It built and built, the inevitable pushing forward onto every inch of her exterior from the ancient thing within. She felt her shape fluctuate, change and vanish and then she was pure energy at last, and even as she altered she felt every eye turn to her metamorphosis including those of the True God, Frenac.
Behold Illyria, behold your demise.
If he could walk time the way he could dimensions he would revisit that moment and change its course, but it was gone almost as soon as it begun.
Even as Lorne materialised in the ruins of the palace he saw Angel and Spike spin apart from where they fought and turn as one to witness Illyria's binding of Frenac. A rush of Zeital's furious wind, the blizzard of Sasha's winter blinding and freeing the True God in time for the magics of the Old One Illyria to halt him in his path, a thing of stone. The lava with spattered the God's angry body hardened and cracked, bearing down to hold it in place as the three forces worked to entomb him. But Frenac continued to move, slower than before, but with steady ability, the fire still gushed from his nostrils with a stifled and muted roar.
Illyria's being in this plane had emptied itself of magic. Groo had let go of Zeital's hurricane and only Sasha's body still tethered her powers. As his eyes fell on her marble skin and empty features Lorne's heart leapt hard in sorrow. The blues and silvers of Novica's spells still circled her, enough to keep her in this dimension, enough to prevent the total eclipse of Frenac. Unable to move he caught Wesley's eye in terror and his old friend bent his head in resignation. His soft English tones began to enact the enchantment which would tear the magics from Sasha and bind Frenac and almost at the same instant the room temperature dropped drastically.
Sensing the threat to its power source the Sasha Thing recoiled from Frenac and surged into the ruins. It beat back Angel and Spike, tossed Wesely roughly to one side and repossessed the pale figure of Sasha entirely. Outside the battle took a turn for the worse as Illyria struggled to control the True God with the aid of Zeital's hurricane. In panic Angel tried to move forward against the whirling blizzard the Sasha Thing sent forward to protect itself but he hadn't the strength. It rose and stood centrally, its eyes flicking first to Frenac's war and then to Lorne.
It was eerily quiet in the astral plane, and though he was aware that the others, each touched by death, could see him, his own view of the world through the window of dimensions was quite different. While the battle raged outside he could hear little of it, muffled and distant, and the colours of the ruins were less bright. Only The Sasha Thing shone rightly with preternatural whiteness in each of its features. The skin hard and cold, the eyes translucent, its movements halted and unnatural.
In the corner of his eye he could see the dark shape of Wesley edging closer and in his gut his instinct showed him nothing but fear. This wasn't her; this sculpted shell that had once been Sasha contained nothing of her now. It was worse than Illyria who had always had Fred; there was nothing of humanity here. It gazed at him with emptiness and evil, unfeeling, uncaring, hungry only for power and disturbed by their actions from its war. It resented them, would end them with a sweep of its hand because they cluttered its path to victory and dared to challenge its authority. It vanished and reappeared, first in the face of Angel, then winking out of sight to stand by Spike. He lashed out trying to aim a blow but it merely vanished again to appear before Lorne with the coldest of smiles. Its hair wafted gently in its own breeze, white and cold and for a second a strand touched his face. Even through the astral plane it burned like frostbite on his lips. As its frozen breath cast over his mouth he saw Wesley's shadow move again and Lorne did nothing.
He did nothing as Wesley took her from him.
He did nothing.
The dagger drove solidly through the Sasha Thing's back and the last of its powers burst forth flattening the room and everything standing in it. As the others crashed to their knees Lorne reeled from the blast but remained protected in his astral form. He stood long enough to see the frozen chain of ice return at speed to Frenac and join with Illyria and Zeital binding, incarcerating, freezing him solidly like a statue of worship, high and massive in the desert which no longer burned. The final embers drifted down onto the earth and the world became quiet.
The others began to crawl to their knees and as the muffled sound of their movement reached his ears Lorne looked down to the spot where she had been. For the briefest of moments her shape clung to existence, a curled body of marble and ice, the features colourless and the eyes empty but the image of her nonetheless. He stepped forward meaning to sweep it into his arms, the last trace of the woman he had loved and lost for the mission, but even as he knelt he saw it change and it crumbled on the slightest breeze from outside.
If he could walk time the way he could dimensions, he would revisit that moment and hold her, but it was gone almost as soon as it had begun.
In the gas station across the desert Novica fell to his knees.
'It's over,' Fred's voice was soft against the backdrop of silence. 'Frenac's gone.' Her big eyes roamed over the desert and over the monument to battle that was Frenac's stone clad body.
'The others?' Lucy joined her by the doorway.
Fred peered across the landscape. In the distance she could see Groo climbing to his feet, exhausted but unbeaten. Where Illyria had been there was nothing and beyond that in the ruins of the palace she saw no movement.
'I don't know,' she said, 'I guess whoever made it… I guess they'll make their way back.
'And them?' Lucy nodded towards Lorne and Novica. Fred glanced at the pair. Lorne still unconscious, Novica close by, the strength gone from him, tears glittering on his lashes in the half light of the rising sun which filtered through the windows.
'I don't know what will happen to them,' Fred said sadly.
The two women turned back to watch the sunrise.
Spike and Angel stood by the entrance to the palace ruins and watched as the sun moved
across the desert, the beginnings of a new day.
'I guess it worked,' Angel said quietly.
Spike's jaw twitched. 'I guess your plan panned out the way you wanted it to.'
Angel dropped his eyes to the floor. He couldn't argue right now. The palace echoed with misery. Behind them Wesley gathered his things, his gaze flickering over the crumbled figure of Sasha which lay destroyed by the mirror.
'We could have lost many more,' Wesley said, 'She would have understood.'
'Slayers do that,' Spike said, 'They're heroes, but I've got a nasty feeling we lost more than just her.' He watched as Angel nodded slowly.
'What do you mean?' Wesley asked, moving to join him.
'Well for starters,' Spike said, 'Where's Lorne?'
They looked around the ruins; Lorne's astral self had vanished.
Night fell and peace fell with it. The two vampires strayed back to the gas station under cover of darkness and with them Wesley. There had been no sign of Lorne since the battle had ended and they concluded he must have returned to where is body lay. But in the gas station things were almost as silent. Fred and Lucy waited quietly in one corner, their minds occupied with the whereabouts of the others until at last the doors opened and Angel entered. The reunion was one of relief but not of joy. The embraces were brief and awkward and after a few seconds the group scattered to different parts of the building. The same thoughts in each mind, What now?
In the store room to which they had moved Novica crouched against one wall and never moved his eyes from Lorne. He sensed it wouldn't be long before the demon ended his trance and returned to this plane and when he did he felt what was coming. He felt her inside, waiting. In her makeshift crib Aviline shifted restlessly and let out small noises akin to sighs, not quite a cry but tinged with misery.
And in the Other World Lorne rested by the Pool in the Greater Hall, the sound of its waters lapping the only thing to soothe him. He knew what he must do next too and the pain of it was insurmountable. As he watched darkness fall in the waters he felt the need become more pressing, he had his task to do and it could not be avoided. At last the Pool gurgled and churned, sending him out on his mission.
'Do me a favour,' he asked the waters softly, 'make it my last.'
Lorne stirred in the store room and opened his eyes to find Novica's gaze meet his. Painfully, stiff from his trance, Lorne sat up and drew himself to sit crossed legged before his mirror image. The two faced each other without word of instruction, just the darkness and the sound of their breath. Lorne lifted his hands and took Novica's.
'Time to let her go,' he said.
Novica nodded and felt the squeeze of Lorne's fingers.
'I guess I should thank you,' Lorne said hesitantly, 'For keeping her safe… but it seems… its hard… to thank you for that when…'
'Destiny doesn't make it any easier to accept,' Lorne said. 'I've read so many destinies, seen so much pain ahead for so many people, seen it for myself too and seen it change. I can sense when something is supposed to be… even if I didn't see it coming I can tell if it's right. And this…'
'This wasn't right,' Novica said bitterly.
'You're wrong,' Lorne's eyes flashed in the gloom, 'What I witnessed in those ruins today, it convinced me this was right. This was what she was all about. The sun rose again today. This was right.'
Novica closed his eyes and cleared his throat harshly, the lump there choking him. 'So what now, how do I find her?'
'Sing for me, the first thing that comes to your mind.'
'Go on sweetie you can't expect to help me run a karaoke bar and not get up there and sing!'
Lorne pottered around the bar at Caritas, checking supplies, mixing himself a drink. The club was empty, yet to be reopened, a fresh new start for him and his girl and their little one. He heard Sasha clatter on the stage awkwardly. Superhero she might be but she was nervous as hell near that karaoke machine. But she'd said yes immediately when he had suggested rebuilding Caritas. Caritas reborn. She knew what it meant to him, after everything they'd been through with Novica, with Levinia, Lorne needed to ground himself in familiarity and they needed a base. He looked up at her there on the empty stage and smiled encouragingly.
'I don't wanna,' she pouted. 'Can't I go kill a few vamps?'
'What have I told you about murdering my clientele?' Lorne chided, 'If you must stake 'em make sure you get the ones who run up an unpaid bar bill first.' He polished a glass and pointed at her, 'Come on.'
'No reading me, last time you read me we ended up smashing mirrors and getting lost in hell dimensions and all sorts, can we just avoid that this time?'
'I can't not read you honey that's how it works, but I promise not to look too deep if it makes you nervous, ok? No big old destinies, I'll keep it to what we'll be doing a week Tuesday. Deal?'
'Just being on this damned stage makes me nervous,' she grumbled and pushed the hair behind her ears as she sulkily grabbed the mike.
'You've a beautiful voice cupcake, when you chose to use it,' he smiled. 'Come on test out the sound system for me.'
'What do I sing?'
'First thing that comes to mind, or first thing that comes to the machine's mind if all else fails,' he stacked the glass with a chink that echoed off the newly painted walls. 'Something pretty,' he added.
There was a squeak of feedback and then the first bars opened. A light piano tune, sweet soft sad notes cutting through the air. She began hesitantly and then her light childlike voice crept into the room. Lorne closed his eyes and pictured the first time he had heard her sing, back in the alleyway in Chicago, where he had hidden from his own destiny before finding hers. She had seen him on this path as he had set her on hers. That time it had been Somewhere Over the Rainbow, a song about bittersweet hope. This time she had picked something much sadder, a slow melancholy lyric of blame and regret, betrayal and loss.
I won't disown, those things my heart has sown,
The blame is mine alone,
I made this fickle heart my own,
and how am I supposed to see the stars,
How am I supposed to see that far?
As she sang Lorne fought hard not to see the darkness, closing his mind to the psychic channels which tried to lead him through her destiny.
'I won't see, I won't see, I won't see,' he repeated to himself, 'Please don't let me see.'
'How am I supposed to see,
The stars you say are meant for me,
How am I supposed to praise,
Those stars with eyes I cannot raise….'
It was her voice. Novica's light tenor giving way to the tones that were so familiar to him, and yet so far away. Lorne opened his eyes and found himself in the Other World, by the Pool in the Greater Hall, the water separating him from her. She stopped, the last notes echoing away in the vast chamber, and for a moment they were silent.
She looked as she had always looked. His beautiful, beautiful girl. The warmth was back in her eyes, the colour in her hair, each mark and scar of battle removed from her skin which shone with the pale honey tones it had always held. He remembered the touch of it, the softness of her when she curled against him in sleep, the ring of her laughter first thing in the morning. He remembered it all, each detail, in those few seconds and felt the pain, hope and misery settle in his throat.
The pool between them lapped once insistently and he remembered his purpose but before he could speak she was ahead of him.
'I guess you're the guy to see about an afterlife?' she said, trying to affect cheerfulness and failing.
'I guess I am, I don't get to chose though, they've already chosen for you.'
'Story of my life,' she said, 'Slayers don't get to choose.'
A beat and he finally plucked up courage to make his way slowly around the edge of the pool towards her.
'I think I have to guide you now,' he said, 'set you on your path, send you to where you belong.'
'Great,' she said with the mildest defensiveness, 'Bring it on, what's next? Battle with a demon nemesis, spell in a hell dimension, where's the place of the moment for a dead slayer anyway…' her voice trailed away as he reached her and he felt her resilience go.
'Why is this happening? Why did I do this?'
'It's all my fault and I don't even understand why? What was I thinking? Why did I hurt you, why did I choose that path… because I did choose Lorne, I chose to cross sides and give up on the mission, I just lost all hope. But I don't know what I was trying to prove and now I've lost everything, now it's all gone.'
He felt the tears come to his eyes in time with hers. 'It isn't,' he said, 'it's all still there. Nothing really ends it just changes or moves. Look.'
The waters in the pool flickered and the desert appeared before them, quiet, damaged but intact, the gas station nearby and inside their friends. 'It's all still there,' he said, 'Each move we make is really preordained, it hurts, but it works for a reason. Everything happens for a reason sweetie.'
'Is that what you believe?' she asked sharply, 'Or are you just being the guide, is it some Other World spiel you have to trot off when a new arrival crosses the dimensions?'
He let out a sad laugh, 'Something like that,' he confessed. 'I have a whole bag of tricks and reassurances at my disposal. Somehow they don't seem to be enough here…'
Sasha looked down into the water. 'I'm glad they're ok, I'm glad they're safe. It's because of them that I took his powers, I knew he was trying to bind me, kill me, keep me with him somehow and I realised too late I couldn't escape so I thought if I could weaken him… but it went too far. It poured through me so fast, there was so much of it and I made the leap into
Novica and left that thing stronger than ever. Old One plus Slayer powers… I just made you one super enemy to deal with.' She swept her hands over her face.
'You did a brave thing,' Lorne said.
'Did I? Brave or foolish?'
'You didn't let it destroy you.'
'If I had I wouldn't be feeling like this,' she said. She perched on the edge of the pool, never taking her eyes from the scenes which unfolded there. Fred fixing herself a snack in the gas station, Spike lighting a cigarette, his eyes lost in darkness, Aviline peaceful in her crib.
'Lorne, I'm barely starting,' she said softly, 'There's so much I wanted to do, so many things I wanted to see, places to go. Things I wanted. You and Aviline, maybe a dog,' she laughed quietly, 'Hell why not throw in a convertible and a house with a white picket fence. I wanted it all, Lorne, and it wasn't really much to ask. Friends, family, a future. And I know as a slayer we don't get one of those guaranteed but I'm sure there was more in store for me, if I hadn't taken such a wrong turn, there was so much out there waiting for me to find it.' She leaned forward and let her fingers trail through the water, breaking the image. 'It would have been nice to find out,' she finished.
He waited, a dozen sentences beginning and vanishing in his head. He didn't have the reassurances she needed, and he didn't have any hope to give. The decisions were all made. She was twenty years old, she didn't want to die but the Powers had spoken and destiny was near completion. Lorne felt the atmosphere in the Greater Hall alter and knew he had to finish his task. She felt it too.
'Where will they send me?' she asked.
'I don't really know sweetie, I tend to just take people to the gates.'
'Are they pearly ones?' she asked raising a small smile.
'Not usually no, they're not actual gates baby, I just kind of deliver folks to the right spot and then…'
'Then what do you do?'
'I watch them go in… watch them meet with their family or friends, see them forget about all the hardships of living. They're made free by all the happiness that waits for them. They walk away and I'm left standing there alone and then… well then I leave them to it. I'm not part of that world.' He paused. 'It's quite beautiful…'
She nodded, 'Then why do you sound so sad?'
'Because I'm not ready to let you go,' he said.
Her eyes flew to his and before he could respond she was clinging to him, the tears flowing down her cheeks as she begged him.
'Then don't, please don't, I'm not ready, please don't make me… please…'
Lorne bit his lips and held her as she sobbed and even then he knew it was all too late. He wouldn't walk her to her place, he wouldn't see her happy, the Other World grew impatient, time had gone too quickly, she was leaving him now. The powers stepped in and did the job he couldn't complete alone. He felt the light gather around her, even as his fingers tangled in her hair, even as he held her to him, the light gathered and her voice faded, the sound of her tears echoing in the hall.
'Please don't leave me here… I'm not ready… Please Lorne… Please I love you…'
He couldn't hold her there, that wasn't his job, he was just the guide. His hands collapsed in against his own body until he wrapped them around himself and felt the last of her spirit leave him. His legs gave way and he crashed against the edge of the pool as the darkness gathered in corners and crept across the chamber. He hugged himself and felt the tears stream down his cheeks, dropping from his bent head onto his chest where her face had been buried moments before. The Pool behind him sighed in sorrow. The greater hall was empty. Sasha was gone.
Novica opened his eyes after what seemed like hours. His hands were still in Lorne's and the gas station was in darkness. He sensed the demon was still in his trance and he settled again to wait. Inside he felt different. The part of Sasha she had transferred to him when she had taken his powers was gone; he had felt it rise from him as he had sung. He didn't know the song, didn't recognise its slow tune but as the images had come to him he recognised that it was her memory and not his. Her memory now given over to Lorne so that they could say goodbye.
He swallowed hard and tried to control the sadness which filled the space she had left behind, aware that across from him Lorne's face glistened with silent tears. Even as his spirit led her to the safety of the Other World, his body began to mourn. Novica squeezed the fingers between his and rubbed them gently with his thumbs, powerless to do anything else in the face of this most human emotion.
As more time passed Lorne stirred and his trance lifted, but the silence between them remained.
Angel put the last of the weapons in the trunk and moved to the driver's door. He looked up expectantly at the rest of the team. Spike stood to one side smoking, his body language set enough to tell Angel he wouldn't be joining him. Wesley took his place in the passenger side and looked at Fred. She looked away quickly but without malice. It was just too much to handle too quickly, she needed time and there were people here that needed her more than Wesley did.
People like Lucy. Now the apocalypse was over she had to face the reality of being alone in
the world and Fred wouldn't allow her to be by herself. It was an experience she had had in Pylea for years and she couldn't wish that on a young girl. Fred would go with her to Italy, debrief to the watchers council and introduce her to the world of slayers. And if it wasn't what she needed they would travel back to the states, figure out something else. Right now nothing was set in stone, too much had changed and new rifts were obvious in the team.
But first there was the question of Lorne and Aviline. As Angel drove away the two women went back into the gloom of the gas station and found Groo seated by the door to the store room.
'Anything?' Fred asked, joining him to one side.
'It has been quiet,' Groo said. He rubbed his shoulder and tried to ease out the pains which still filled his body after the conflict. 'I believe they are thinking.'
'There's certainly a lot to think about,' Lucy sat crossed legged at their feet and joined them in looking at the door. 'But they have to come out sometime; Lorne has to tell us what to do next.'
'I don't think he wants that role anymore,' Fred said unhappily.
'If Lorne no longer wishes to lead you then I would be happy to assume the role of a champion and make the difficult decisions regarding battle,' Groos smiled brightly, 'This would help you, yes?'
Fred placed one hand over his, 'I guess so but let's not rush into electing a new leader or anything. I'm hoping we won't have anything to battle for a while and I just want to know Lorne's OK.'
'What about him?' Lucy asked.
'Novica,' she said.
Fred nodded in realisation. 'Well I don't know I don't get any big bad vibe coming off of him now.'
'Surely that's not the point,' Lucy said, 'it's cos of him that Sasha's…' she stopped.
'It's up to Lorne,' Fred said, 'He's the one hurt most by this, he needs to make the decision.'
'Lorne is still the leader,' Groo clarified. He smiled and then as the two girls fell quiet the smile faltered. 'Lorne is wise, he has much experience of reading beings,' he said, 'He will make the right decision and we will support him because he is our friend, yes?'
'Yes,' Fred whispered.
They were sleeping; he could feel it in their auras, the unsuspecting flicker of dreams and nightmares and the subconscious which could not be controlled. As they slept they processed the events of the past few days and months, the human brain's way of dealing with things; his own brain, perhaps being less human, wasn't so sure a few nights rest would help him deal.
But he was sure of one thing and that was that he was done, finished. He didn't regret it, returning to LA with Sasha all that time ago. The world still stood in one reasonable piece and his friends would be OK. He had meant what he had said the day before while rallying the others. He was proud of them all, it gave him only pleasure to think that Fred and Wesley were back in this world, even if Wesley… well he could even stretch to understand that. Good old Krevlorneswrath, always seeing both sides of the joust.
It would continue to hurt if he stayed. He would always see both sides, he would always be forced to take one or the other and witness the hurt on the opposite side. Nothing was black and white, pure and good or evil incarnate. He had always believed that, and before all this business he had lived according to that belief. It was time to go back to hat he knew, somewhere far away. Time to hide again in the shadows of a city where no-one knew him.
He lifted the little bag he had packed and slung it over one shoulder. He armed himself with a light weapon and buttoned his overcoat, drawing a hat down over his forehead and hiding his horns. Around LA the authorities were probably still on the lookout for demons and under-worldlings, but if he moved far enough he could slink into that underworld and vanish.
At last he bent and lifted Aviline to him. His most precious daughter, the last of her mother, the last of Sasha. When she had been trapped in the ruined city he had vowed to shift his priorities. He wasn't a fighter or a champion, right now he was a daddy, and if keeping her safe meant living low profile then he welcomed that. He kissed her cheek softly and let her snuggle against the lapel of his coat. Her fingers picked sleepily at the material and he heard her gurgle gently. For a moment he leaned his head against hers and let his memories drift in the direction of her own. The psychic bond between them would always keep her mother alive and just as the tears threatened to spill over his lid again he took hold of the door handle and slipped from the room, padding softly past his sleeping friends with a lingering glance.
Outside the day was still an hour or so away, but dawn was already rising slowly; time to get a little distance and work out where to go from there. LA smouldered on the horizon so he turned from it and wandered east to where the faint pinks and blues of sunrise were forming. Behind him his shadow streamed darkly towards the city that had given him so much, and cost him more.
'Just you and me kid,' he said softly, his voice smooth. 'You and me in the big old world. No more nasties, no more bad stuff, I promise. I'll keep you safe sweetie,' he kissed her lightly as he walked. 'Just you and me and…' he stopped, certain of what he felt behind him, and half turned back in the direction of the gas station.
One hand raised against the rising sun, his back to the building, his skin pale and clothes dishevelled he stood waiting. He dropped the arm and returned Lorne's look with a mixture of shame and sadness taking a few hesitant steps forward until he was a dozen yards away.
Lorne raised his eyebrows and Novica stumbled for words.
'I heard you leave…' he said.
'I think you felt it,' Lorne corrected. 'You've a bit of the psychic in you.'
Novica nodded miserably, 'I got that from you.'
Lorne looked down at Aviline and back at the man who had stolen his face and at one point his soul. He tried to move away but felt compelled to hear him out. 'What will you do?' he asked.
Novica looked about him helplessly, at the destruction rained down on the city and desert, at the gas station that contained not enemies but not quite friends. 'I don't know,' he said, 'I'm not a god, I'm not quite a person, I don't feel evil but I'm not entirely sure I'm good… I have all these… feelings… I miss her,' Lorne flinched but Novica continued. 'I feel connected to her and to you, and to Aviline… I know I shouldn't but I shared a soul with you all once and I…' he hesitated.
'…You've nowhere else to go?' Lorne finished for him.
Novica shook his head slowly, his brown eyes picking up the first rays of morning. Lorne studied him for a moment considering how to say what he felt.
'When she died, a part of me died with her,' he said, 'But then I found that in its place a part of her lived on in you. You gave me hope, you kept her safe, and you felt why that was important. Something in you changed and I couldn't hate you for what you did.'
Novica said nothing for a moment and then, 'That's gone now, she's moved on, I can feel she's gone. I don't know what I am now.'
Lorne turned to face him completely and took a step towards him. 'I don't know what you are either. Person? Glamour? Unemployed hell god with a grudge? But you know what I don't quite know what I am right now so I can't hold it against you. So much has happened, I barely recognise me or the things I feel, I don't know why I've done some stuff or what I'll do next. But I'm certain I know one thing about you and about me. She's in us both,' he said, 'and she's in this little one.'
Lorne adjusted Aviline's blanket in his arms and watched as the child smiled up at him. Novica inched closer and her eyes flicked over to take him in. No fear, no crying, just recognition. Lorne stroked her hair softly and turned his attention back to Novica.
'For whatever reason you're a part of this now,' Lorne said, 'I don't know how I feel about it really, I don't think I feel too much at all at the moment and maybe that'll change but…'. Lorne held out his free hand, 'Come on,' he said.
Novica looked up at him startled.
'You want me to come with you?' he asked.
'I think the word 'want' is probably a bit strong, but I think it's probably what should happen
so I'll put up with it. Besides I trust my daughter's judgement and she seems to like you,' he looked down at her thoughtfully, 'Children can see through all the history and baggage that comes with it. They can see the person hidden underneath and they don't judge. They're instinctive, empathic. I used to be that way; I want to be that way again maybe,' he said quietly.
Novica edged closer to Lorne and then looked out into the sunrise ahead of them. 'Thank you,' he whispered. 'Do you know where we're going?'
'Well you could sing me a tune and that would probably tell us,' Lorne said lightly, the golden light warming his face and casting playful shadows from the brim of his hat. 'Or we could just start walking and see where we turn up. Either way, destiny will have something in store.'
He moved forward a few steps and then stopped, swinging round with his bag in one hand and tossing it to Novica with a gentle laugh. 'If you're coming peach pie, make yourself useful and carry the luggage; I don't do heavy lifting, fist fights, sports, or slaying of any description. I don't run unless I'm being chased, I only wear the best French viscose, I won't drink anything that isn't well mixed, I get up late, I won't tolerate poor hygiene and sweetie? If you dare to murder any number by Streisand within range of my delicate ears please be aware that ex godly hell demon or not I will have the right to smack you down….'