Come Pouring Down Unified (Chapter One)

In the end, it wasn't nearly the battle Angel had been hoping for. The truth was that he'd needed something longer, fiercer, something that gave him more chances to kill…or be killed. A part of him hadn't wanted to save the world so much as it wanted to die trying. Because he'd lost so much; because he'd failed too greatly already; because he was angry at the oblivious and the cruel and the cold and wanted them gone.

But that wasn't the way it went down. Instead, he was standing in a rain-soaked alley, surrounded by the bodies of enemies and the glow of fading magic, expected to be grateful to a gaggle of strangers – and one who wasn't. "Willow," he said, his voice neutral-over-hate, "Nice of you to drop in."

She said nothing. Not like she hadn't expected the attitude. Heck, she couldn't see why he should feel any other way. It wasn't as if he knew the whole story – what he did know meant that what she'd done today in no way evened the score in his eyes.

Now wasn't the time for explaining, though. She turned inward, feeling the power swirling through her. Was there enough left? She hoped so.

Gunn was lying on the wet, dirty pavement, eyes open, breathing shallow, his blood black in the oily puddles. Spike knelt beside him, only the tic in his jaw giving away how much he didn't want to lose another friend and how helpless he felt knowing that he was about to do just that. Not like turning the man was an option – Angel would stake him if he tried.

Spike glared as Willow suddenly knelt beside him, reaching out and putting her hand on Gunn's chest. For a moment he thought about snatching it away, telling her that her mojo was too little, too late. But this was Gunn, a man whose life meant something to him, and Spike wasn't that bloody stupid – besides, she'd already whipped out her bag of tricks in battle and he'd done fuck all to stop her then. Let her save Gunn. Then he could tell her to drop dead and go straight to Hell...serve her right for abandoning Fred.

And didn't seeing Illyria standing off to the side, head cocked and eyes blank, just bring it all home?

"It's not too late," Willow said softly, her voice a prayer. She closed her eyes and mumbled a few words, drawing on what was left of her power, feeling flesh knit together and life return, feeling herself grow weary. She stopped, though Gunn was still unconscious. There was more she had to take care of and she couldn't do it if she drained herself completely. "He needs some rest," she addressed Angel and Spike as she stood up without looking at either of them, "but he should be good as new in a few days."

Twenty young Slayers stood around, most of them girls Willow didn't know by name, waiting to be told what to do. Right now, Willow wished she had the strength to teleport them all back to Cleveland. She wasn't a general. Commanding an army, especially after the battle was over, was not exactly her forté. It sure didn't help that the creature who'd taken over Fred's body was staring at her.

"You are powerful," Illyria said, and the not-Fredness of her chilled the blood in Willow's veins.

It was obvious that Willow was upset by Illyria. Was it wrong of Angel to hope she felt that way forever? Because it was… Maybe not exactly her fault, but if anyone could have done something to stop it, it was Willow, and Willow hadn't even had the decency to refuse them herself when they'd asked for her help, instead letting Giles make her excuses for her.

Of all the people he'd known and lost in his centuries of unlife, he felt the loss of Fred most keenly. Her suffering, the fact that none of what she endured was remotely deserved, Illyria's presence serving as a grotesque, daily reminder…

"I know it doesn't help much – or at all, I guess – but I'm sorry." Willow's words may have been spoken softly, but they still stung like a slap in the face.

"You're right," Spike said, beating Angel in the race to give voice to the bitterness they shared, "It doesn't help one damn bit."

"I didn't know," she said. "Not until…," she looked over at Illyria, "not until it was too late."

"Too busy partying in the astral plane?" Angel snapped.

Willow had known that was coming. "I was never in the astral plane."

"Colour me shocked," Spike shot back. The look Angel gave him was the closest thing to approval he'd ever gotten from him. Guess neither one of them had bought that lame excuse. "Just for the ducks of it, where the hell were you really? Standing next to ol' Rupes? Feedin' 'im the lines?"

"Hey! She was in Africa. With me. Helping out with a new Slayer." Xander's voice startled her and Willow jumped.

"Xander," she chided him. "I thought you were going to wait until…"

"Yeah, well, I got impatient. Decided to do some recon. It's not like I ever doubted you were gonna win this thing." His smile was the second best thing that had happened to her all day.

"Nice to see your timing hasn't changed," Angel said. He wasn't exactly happy to see the boy.

"And hello to you, too, Deadboy."

She'd wanted to have a chance to talk to Spike and Angel, to explain what had happened, but it didn't look like she was going to get it. The girls were getting restless, Xander was here…Willow turned inward again, using her re-activated link with Buffy to tell her that the battle was over – the good guys had won.

Illyria was staring at Willow strangely, which made Angel realize something was going on, even if all it looked like was Willow closing her eyes and breathing rhythmically. "What are you doing?" he asked sharply.

Willow started, nearly jumping backwards. "I was just telling the others that everything was okay."

"The others?"

Angel's manner put her on the defensive. All these years and all the power she now had and she could still be cowed by him. "There's sort of a back-up team. You know, in case things didn't exactly go our way."

"And who would that be?" Spike scoffed. "Xander and Andrew?"

"Not unless Andrew's suddenly a hot chick with super powers."

Faith. She was here. Why couldn't it have been her fighting alongside them? At least she was a friend, although if she was taking orders from Willow, there might be some doubt about that.

Angel turned and saw her…and she wasn't alone.

"Hey," Buffy's tone and manner were casual, ostentatiously so – which she hoped came off as genuine because holy god was this awkward. It would have been so much easier if she'd been able to come in all sword-brandishing and ready for battle. Handling stuff as the Slayer always seemed to go her way. As a woman? That was a completely different story. She shuddered at the memory of the Immortal. Like she'd really needed a second Parker.

Spike's eyes narrowed as he saw his ex-lover approach. She had nerve, he'd give her that. At least she didn't reek of that bastard Immortal. "You goin' soft?" he asked, ignoring Faith. "Never figured you for one to wait 'til the war was over to come charging in."

"As awesome as the insults and sexual tension are," Faith interjected as she briskly walked over and joined the group, pulling Gunn up the moment she got there, "I think we better get Gunn somewhere where he can recuperate, don't you?"

"Where are the other Slayers?" Willow asked.

"Told 'em to go back to the motel," Faith grunted as she slung Gunn's arm over her shoulder and began to drag him towards the mouth of the alley. "You know, I may be a Slayer, but that doesn't mean I couldn't use some help."

Much to Spike's shock, Xander immediately took Gunn's other side. "We'll take him back to the motel," he said. "It's safe there."

Illyria suddenly spoke. "I will go with him."

Angel was going to argue – wanted to argue – but he knew it would be both bitter and counterproductive. He might be angry at Willow, but she had just saved Gunn's life. He had to trust that she and Faith and Buffy would take good care of him. And as much as Illyria was a hated interloper in Fred's body, he knew she'd guard Gunn, too. It wasn't as if Angel had a better place to take him than a motel packed with Slayers. If any demons were left, they'd be a lot more likely to attack the Hyperion.

Funny how he'd never thought about after…never thought there'd be an after. He caught Willow's eye and an eerie fellow feeling washed over him. He'd heard from Spike how she tried to end the world when her lover was murdered. Of course, this meant that nothing made sense at all now. She knew what loss was – real loss. Why the hell hadn't she been there for Fred?

While he was lost in thought, three people and one god-king left the alley.

Spike would have gone with them, but Buffy stayed behind and… Oh hell, he wanted to talk to her. Perfectly normal to wonder how an ex was getting on, wasn't it?

"How are you paying for all those motel rooms?" he asked. As ice breakers went, he thought it was pretty good.

"Giles's credit card," Buffy replied. "After what he did…," there was a brief flash of pain in her eyes as her voice hitched, "We kinda figured it would be only be fair for him to help fund the battle and all."

"What are we supposed to do now?" one of the Slayers still hanging back at the mouth of the alley whined.

Buffy rolled her eyes as Willow shrugged sheepishly. She loved Willow dearly, but now she understood why she had been reluctant to lead a mission. Her best friend wasn't really cut out for giving orders. "Just go back to the motel, okay?" The authority in her voice belied the casual words.

There was much groaning, but the girls turned and began the walk to the local Best Western. Why they were so grouchy escaped her. Even if Faith hadn't taken the only car, it was way too small for twenty girls. Besides, they were Slayers – how hard was a mile walk? Buffy knew Willow's power too well to think they were worn out from battle. They'd probably just stood around and watched while Willow worked her mojo. Sheesh. Slayers today were nothing like the ones in her…

Oh god. She was one of those people now – old people. Sitting around complaining about these kids today and their loud music and nose rings – not that she thought nose rings were bad, except for that huge one that Veronica wore that looked like the one on the bull in the Bugs Bunny cartoon – and… Okay, why was Spike staring at her?

"And then there were four." Was it just Spike or had things become suddenly rather awkward?

Angel thought about what Buffy had said about Giles and what Xander said about Africa while his eyes stayed fixed on Willow. Maybe he'd been wrong about her; maybe she hadn't refused to help Fred after all. They needed to talk. "Why don't we head inside?" he said, tilting his head towards the building.

"Okay," Willow said. It was the first word he'd heard from her in what seemed like an eternity. She and Spike and Buffy followed him around the corner and into the hotel.

It didn't have the feeling of home that it once had, but the Hyperion was his and he supposed it was as good a place as any for a talk. With Gunn safe elsewhere, if there were demons left who wanted to wage another battle, they were welcome to bring it on.

"I'm sorry," Willow said again. It wasn't as if it was something she could say too many times. She really was sorry and she always would be. She knew what the takeover of Fred's body had done to her...the excruciating pain she must have felt. It was impossible not to hate Giles for letting his hatred of Angel condemn Fred to… If ever the phrase 'a fate worse than death' was appropriate, it sure was when it came to that. "I know that's not good enough, but…"

"You didn't know." It was a statement, not a question, and the tension in Angel's face told her just how much it cost him to let go of even a little bit of the anger he felt towards her. She understood that. Sometimes anger was the only thing that kept you going, the only reason you got out of bed. If you didn't have that…

"I wish I had. I would have come. I would have done…anything I could." Memories of a cute girl with a delightful accent washed over Willow…she'd flirted with Fred. There was something about her that had reminded her of Tara – another life the universe had refused to allow her to save. Why were her powers not allowed to do good where she most wanted?

"She would have, Angel," Buffy chimed in. "When she found out – when we all found out…"

"I'd like to talk to Willow alone."

It was funny – before they'd arrived in Los Angeles, what had worried Buffy most about dealing with Angel and Spike was their reaction to having seen her with the Immortal and her fear of having to admit that he'd been the biggest mistake of her life. Now, though… Now was a big reality check. Everything hit her the moment the plane had landed – and even more so when she'd had to hand over the role of hero to Willow for the good of mankind.

A world full of Slayers and the knowledge that it was Willow alone who could have saved Fred – Willow who was needed most to win the battle with the Black Thorn… It was hard not to feel small and futile and not very special anymore. She wondered how Spike saw her now…and Angel, too (right?). But then she looked over at Willow, who looked tired and careworn and not very mighty at all. She looked a lot like the way she used to after an all night research session way back in what Buffy was now disturbingly prone to think of as the good old days. It made Buffy realize that she had friends, friends who looked up to her and still saw her as The Chosen One. She didn't know how she would cope if she lost Willow or Xander. Was it as painful as that for Angel and Spike? Losing Cordelia? Losing Fred?

Speaking of losing good friends, where was Wesley? She would have to ask Spike when they… "We'll just go…"

"To the office," Spike finished. He led Buffy towards that very room.

Willow watched as Buffy and Spike disappeared into another room. She had hoped to talk to Angel and Spike together, but if this was what Angel wanted, then yeah, she'd do it this way.

It occurred to her that it might be hurting him more to be assured that help would have been there if she'd only known, but then again, Angel also deserved to know that he had friends, friends who wouldn't fail him ever again. "I guess you have stuff you want to ask me." She could suddenly feel the magical drain and the loss of adrenaline combining into an imminent crash. Hopefully, she'd make it through this talk.

Angel's eyes had never left her and he decided to start with a summary of what he already had pieced together. Willow was looking shaky. "You were with Xander in Africa when I called Giles. He lied to me and you weren't told what happened to Fred. That about sum it up?"

"Yeah. It does. I wish… But there was a new Slayer, Louama…she had dormant magical powers and it turned out they were activated by becoming a Slayer. She got pretty freaked out what with all the different kinds of power she was dealing with and Xander figured maybe I could help her." She paused for a moment, stopping herself before she interjected some personal details into the conversation. Angel wouldn't care about her love life, or the collapse of it to be more precise. "In the end, there wasn't anything I could do to help her balance both sides. We ended up getting the help of the Coven and her magic was bound, but when we talked to them…that's how we found out about Fred."

"We?" Angel wasn't sure why he asked that.

"Me and Xander. And of course, then we called Giles, and he just…" Willow stopped herself before quoting her one-time mentor. The anguish was still fresh and what caused it did not need to be shared. "It doesn't really matter what he said. But that's when we heard about what was happening here with the Black Thorn and I called Buffy and…" Again she decided to keep the details to herself. There were things Angel didn't need to hear. "Anyway, she stole Giles's credit card and called Faith in Cleveland and we gathered all the Slayers who were loyal to Xander and Faith and Buffy had this really brilliant idea to split into teams just in case, so that's what we did and...well, you kinda know the rest." She took a breath as she sat on a dusty couch. "I really wish... I liked Fred a lot, Angel. I mean, I know I didn't know her very well, but… I would have saved her. I wish I could have saved her." She began to cry. She was too tired to keep her emotions in check anymore.

Angel stood for a moment, processing everything he'd been told…and so much he knew he hadn't. There was only one villain left, it seemed, and now Rupert Giles alone bore the brunt of Angel's hatred. There would be time for revenge later, however. He had much to mourn – not just Fred. Wesley was dead, his son was lost to him (again), as was Lorne… Cordelia…and there was something else, an emptiness he couldn't quite understand yet, a place where something had once been, though he couldn't remember what right now. Nothing made sense, not even the fact that they'd saved the world.

Willow wasn't the only one worn down by the day. Angel sat down beside her. Ten minutes ago, he would rather have greeted the sunrise in a vat of holy water than touch her in anything but anger, but now? Now he looked into those tear-filled eyes and put an arm around her, drawing her head down to his shoulder. "I know you would have helped her," he said softly.

The dam broke and the tears turned to sobs. Angel let her pour out her sorrow onto his rain-damp shirt until she was overcome by her fatigue and fell asleep beside him. He stayed there, lost in thought, and somehow forgetting that there was anyone else in the hotel at all.

Tbc…