Disclaimer: I do not own BtVS, AtS, or any of the characters portrayed therein. They belong to Joss, Mutant Enemy, etc... of which I have zero affiliation. I'm just borrowing them to entertain myself for a little while.
Author's Note: I'm going to just warn you straight off that you're all going to hate me at the end of this chapter... I promise though that there is a method to my madness, and if you can find it in yourselves to forgive me, there will be a BIG pay off next chapter - but I'm not going to tell you what it is.
As usual, thank you for the many reviews!
Chapter 17: In His Clutches
Two days later, and Willow had yet to discover a spell that could help us. The reported cases of the fever in Los Angeles had grown exponentially, and some hospitals were already filled to capacity.
With what little information we were armed with, I decided it was probably best that I was back in L.A. with my team in order to, at the very least, act as damage control if the situation escalated.
I was back at the mansion, in the process of packing up a few things, when Buffy interrupted me unexpectedly.
She burst through the door of the mansion like a whirlwind, a sharp contrast to the hesitance she'd shown the last time she had stopped by. Upon seeing me standing in the middle of my bedroom, a duffel bag open on the floor, and my arms stacked up with a pile of books, she froze.
"So you are leaving..."
Her expression confused me, she looked almost panicked, "Yeah."
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" she asked.
"Things are getting bad over there, my team is gonna need me," I explained, shoving the books into my bag, "Willow isn't having much luck with a spell, so I figure I should make my way back before it gets worse."
"It's only been two days!" Buffy argued, "That's not really enough time to look for anything properly if you ask me."
"Well, if she does end up finding something, then she can cast it while I'm in L.A., we'll be doubly prepared." I countered, dragging the bag over to my dresser, and dumping some clothes inside.
"I'm coming with you then!" Buffy stated.
I felt the cold clammy hand of dread squeeze my heart at her words, and I spun around to face her. She looked a little frightened, but even more strange, she held that look of remorse and guilt again. After hearing her gripe about me to Giles, I was confused by her actions. Even more so, I knew there was no way I could let her set foot in Los Angeles, "No, Buffy. You're needed here."
"For what?" she chuckled, "The two fledgling vamps that dig their way out of the cemeteries every month?" she placed her hands haughtily on her hips, but her expression still betrayed her, she was feeling responsible for something, and I couldn't pinpoint what it might be, "There's nothing going on here, so I figure I'm more useful where something big is going down."
Abandoning my packing, I crossed to her, "I just don't think it's a good idea," I explained, "There's a good chance we won't be able to stop what's happening, if you stay here you can keep it from spreading."
"If I come with you maybe we can avoid giving it the opportunity to spread altogether!" she stepped towards me, challenging my decision.
"It's better if I go alone, you know that." I argued, giving her a pointed look. With the recent strain between us, I hoped she would pick up on what I was insinuating, and drop the subject.
Unfortunately, it did nothing but the opposite, and her regret only became more pronounced, "No... I don't." she replied, "Angel... what happened to us? I thought we were supposed to help each other out if-"
"I don't know Buffy," I sighed, "You tell me."
She looked up at me, sorrowfully. I had mulled it over in my mind, hundreds of times, and I still couldn't figure out what the breaking point had been. When we'd gone from getting along to being so awkward around each other. Had I really been that overprotective? Had I been giving her mixed signals or false hope of something more, something we both knew we could never have?
Perhaps I had, perhaps I had been away from her for so long that I had forgotten how easy it was for us to get caught up in each other. Perhaps I was too haunted by all the horrific deaths, and ways that I had previously let her down to notice that I was destroying our fragile friendship.
Needless to say, I knew it was pointless now to stick around and make things even worse.
"I-I don't know..." she stammered, rather unconvincingly, "I don't like what's happened, how we've drifted apart, and... and I don't want you to leave while things are still like this. Can't you stay just a little longer?" she begged.
I was so confused by her actions, just a few days ago she was wishing I would leave, and now she was here begging me not to. How did we get here, from deciding we would stay apart after we nearly lost control at our meeting on the cliffs? "I don't like leaving like this either, trust me," I began, "But I think if I stay any longer, it'll do more harm than good."
I never took my eyes from her, hoping she would realize that I was talking about us, and not what was happening back in Los Angeles. Finally, the resolve melted from her features, and she just looked contrite once more.
She nodded stiffly, "Alright..." she whispered, "I should've known better than to try and talk you into staying... it never works anyway."
I knew she was trying to play into my guilt, and it was working, but I wouldn't let her know as she spun quickly to rush out of the mansion. She paused suddenly, halfway to the front door and glanced back at me, "Stay safe Angel," she said quietly, then disappeared.
I stared into the empty space through the doorway where she'd stood, and suddenly felt like I'd made a terrible mistake.
If Los Angeles was destroyed, this could possibly be the last time we would ever speak.
Could I live with that?
Later that evening, I found myself heading to the Summer's residence. For the rest of the day, I couldn't stop mulling over the conversation with Buffy, how beside herself she'd seemed about the state of our friendship – if you could call it that.
Nevertheless, the knowledge that after I left Sunnydale I may never again see her had left a hole in my heart. One I knew I couldn't fill unless I managed to smooth things over, if even just slightly.
Not having a Slayer to fight in this apocalypse could spell the end of me. Though Doyle said if I did not succeed, I would be forced to re-live the one hundred years of Hell once more, he never specified what would happen to me if I succeeded in keeping Buffy from becoming involved. I could only imagine that the Powers That Be would exchange a life for a life, and that if they needed a champion to fall, it would be me instead. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make, to know that Buffy would live, and would have a chance to correct all the mistakes I'd made last time, but if I did lose my life, I didn't want our last conversation to be a strained one. I knew Buffy well enough to know she would never forgive herself for it.
As I climbed the steps up to the front door of Buffy's home, I couldn't help but dwell on my conversation with Giles at her funeral, having to literally smack some sense into Spike, leaving the residence with Willow for the final time, and her tearful goodbye with Tara.
If I left now, I may never have to re-live those moments again.
Instead, my feet stayed rooted in front of the door, and against my better judgement, I rang the bell. After a few moments, I heard footsteps bounding towards the door, and a tiny brunette head peeked at me through the window before flinging the door open.
"Angel," she said, her tone sounding surprised.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
I frowned, "What do you mean?"
"Well, Buffy went out to patrol about fifteen minutes ago, and she said she was meeting you." Dawn explained.
"She did?" I asked in puzzlement. Why would Buffy lie about meeting with me?
"Yeah..." Dawn nodded. Her expression suddenly grew serious, "Oh God, something happened didn't it?"
"No! No, don't worry," I assured the teenager, "At least I'm pretty sure nothing happened... are you sure she said she was meeting me?"
It was Dawn's turn to frown, "Yeah, she did."
She studied me quietly as I silently mulled over what could be going on. Buffy was either too angry or too upset about me leaving town to talk to anyone about it yet. I knew my common sense would be ignored yet again as I went out to look for her.
"What's going on Angel?" Dawn asked.
"I'm not sure... did Buffy say where she was supposed to meet me?" I asked.
"Um... I think she said Restfield? To be honest I wasn't really listening... sorry." she confessed.
I couldn't help but smirk, "It's okay Dawn, thanks."
I turned, descended the steps and started to cross the lawn in the direction of the cemetery, when I was stopped by Dawn's voice, "Hey Angel?" she called.
I turned back to glance at her, and she continued;
"You guys should really stop fighting, it doesn't make sense."
I smiled appreciatively at her, "It's... easier said than done." I replied.
"Yeah, well, if you love each other so much, you should act like it sometimes."
I smiled slightly at her, and she disappeared back inside.
Though I was concerned for Buffy, and desperately wanted to find her now to figure out what was going on, I couldn't help but let my thoughts drift over to her younger sister. She may seem like a selfish teen from time to time, but I could already see her selfless spirit shining through.
The spirit that had led her to make the decision that had been my undoing.
A month longer, we continued on our way after losing Willow. A month, with no incidents. It seemed it was easier to move quietly with less company. That, or Dawn and I were getting the hang of traveling through the shell of the world.
I tried to stir up some pleasant banter for her every once and awhile, and she humoured me by smiling and attempting to make a joke here and there, but as soon as she fell silent I could see in her eyes that she was elsewhere. She lived mostly in her head these days it seemed, and I only had myself to blame.
We'd stuck to traveling through dried-out woods, coastlines, anything that was away from where people might be after the attacks on Giles and Willow. We both agreed it would be safer, however, I had forgotten that it would also mean less opportunities to search for food. It didn't strike me until I noticed her sunken cheeks, that Dawn wasn't getting what she needed to survive.
I'd gone ages without feeding, I hadn't had an appetite since Buffy died. The lack of blood wouldn't kill me; it drained my strength, and I knew I wouldn't be as useful in a fight, but I could keep going.
Dawn on the other hand was human, she needed something to sustain herself.
The next time we came across a town, I urged her to come explore with me. Frightened of running into someone like the old man we'd found in the woods, she'd fought me, almost in tears, but I could tell it was just exhaustion and malnutrition making her emotional, I finally convinced her we had no other choice.
The next town we came across, despite being relatively small, seemed promising. Though it was void of a population, the buildings were all still standing, and I had hopes that perhaps in addition to some food, we'd be able to find a few things to make our journey more comfortable again.
The first few houses we explored, we didn't get very lucky. It seemed the people had taken anything that wasn't perishable with them, however I did find a new sweater for Dawn, since she had ripped the sleeve off of hers to bandage Giles' hand, and the weather was starting to get colder.
After a couple more houses, Dawn seemed to be more at ease, and started trying to have fun with the fact that even though it would only be briefly, we had shelter. She even took a short nap on someone's couch.
"So this isn't so bad, is it?" I asked, as we entered another home, and I began to poke through their cupboards. Dawn moved instantly into the living room, and began to survey the surroundings.
"No, it's actually kinda fun." she answered, crossing to a shelf and pulling off a large photo album. She cracked it open, and grinned for the first time I'd seen in aged, "Hey, you want to make fun of people's naked baby pictures with me?" she giggled.
"Dawn, that's not very nice," I said, suppressing a grin.
"Come on, I think we deserve a bit of entertainment, don't you?" she asked.
"Of course, but it's a bit disrespectful."
"Why?" she asked, "It's not like..." she suddenly trailed off, and the grin disappeared from her face as she slammed the album shut, "... like they'll ever know... Because they're probably all dead." she finished somberly, sliding the album back onto the shelf.
I frowned, I hadn't meant to remind her of what was happening outside, "I'm sorry Dawn." I muttered, turning back to her.
"It's okay," she sighed, "I mean, this is reality now, right? We can't forget that, or we might end up dead."
I continued to frown, this was not how a normal teenager should have to think, "...Right," I answered hesitantly.
She nodded, "Any luck?"
I held up a box of saltines, "I found some crackers, I know it's not much, but it's something we can take with us."
She nodded again, "Sure."
We left the small home, and the photo albums behind, and Dawn paused for a moment on the steps, looking up and down the street. If it wasn't for the brown grass, and the dead trees, you'd never know that anything was amiss, it just looked like a quiet day in a quiet neighbourhood.
"I wonder how many other towns are like this," she mused.
"I bet the next one we come to will be fine," I answered. I wasn't sure why, she certainly didn't need me to lie to her.
"You don't have to pretend for my sake Angel," she replied, "I know we might never get anywhere safe."
I watched her sadly as she climbed down the steps, and I wondered with which one of her friends had her youthful optimism died.
We checked a few more houses, and still came up empty handed. I was beginning to worry, crackers would not be enough to sustain her, and we definitely weren't sure that we would come to another town that would be in any better shape. Dawn looked equally discouraged, and I was running out of things to say to keep her motivated.
We were nearing the edge of the small town, when suddenly a chill crept into the air. Dawn huffed, and pulled her new sweater tighter around her, when suddenly the sound of hooves beating against the pavement began to echo around us.
Dread washed over me, and pulling Dawn closer to my side, I turned around to find him there again.
The sallow horse stamped his hoof into the ground temperamentally as the rider surveyed us stonily from underneath his cloak. They did not move, or attempt to draw closer, they just watched us.
My mind was spinning, I didn't know what to do. We were weak, unarmed, and alone, we had no chance.
Though I had expected Dawn to start panicking, she remained frozen, in what I thought was fear, until she quietly took a step away from me, her eyes still fixated on the rider.
"Dawn, don't move," I whispered.
Staring a moment longer in the direction of the Horseman, she finally turned to me, her tired blue eyes filled with understanding, "It's me he wants," she whispered.
I surveyed her in horror, "What?" I muttered.
"He wants me to go with him... it makes sense now." she said.
"No, Dawn, it doesn't make sense at all..." I rambled.
"When Giles attacked him, he showed up while I was finishing up my turn guarding the van... he wants me." she explained calmly, as though it was the most logical thing in the world.
"I won't let him take you," I swore, trying to pull her towards me again, but she shook off my hand.
"I have to go with him," she whispered.
I froze, the horror of her statement had all but caused my mind to completely shut down, "What?"
"I have to go with him because... because he took Buffy... and I'm part of her." she murmured, "I shouldn't be here anymore."
I shook my head frantically, the thought of that horrible creature taking the one and only link I had left to humanity terrified me, "That's nonsense Dawn, no."
"It's not. It's true." she said, "The Monks made me out of Buffy, and now I have to go back to her."
I could feel my resolve and my strength crumbling. I couldn't conceive of continuing in this nightmare on my own, with the knowledge that the one person I'd swore to Buffy that I would protect had willingly surrendered to the powers that had torn this world apart. "You're not... you're a real person Dawn, you... you're real." I stammered helplessly.
"I know." she answered gently, "And that means I won't last out here much longer, Angel."
I knew she was right, but I couldn't bring myself to let her go, "Yes, you can... you can..."
"I can't." she argued tearfully, "There's not enough clean water, there's barely any food... I'm afraid to sleep because I'm afraid something will attack me... or it'll attack you and I'll wake up alone..." she sniffled, and wiped away a stray tear, "But if I do this, he'll leave you alone. And maybe... maybe you can find a way to stop this."
"There's no point in stopping this alone," I almost wept.
"That's not true," she urged me, "Who knows what's happening in the rest of the world... someone needs to find out! Someone needs to help and I know it can be you!"
"No, Dawn, no," I begged, "Buffy, Buffy wanted-"
"Buffy will understand," she stated firmly, "Buffy knows how hard you fought... for all of us. Now she needs you to stop this."
She took a step backwards, away from me, but I lunged out to grapple for her arm, "No, I can't let you do this."
Tearfully, she pulled me into a hug, "I have to, I'm sorry," she whispered in my ear, "Be strong, Angel, keep going for the rest of us." she pulled herself out of my embrace, and casting one last sorrowful look at me, she smiled sadly, and turned back towards the Horseman.
"No... no..." I muttered, as the tears I was never able to cry finally came pouring out, "Dawn, please!" I begged, falling to my knees as she continued to move away from me.
She didn't look back, or pay attention to my wails as she continued towards the rider, the horse still snorting and stomping his hoof angrily as she approached.
"Dawn don't do this!" I cried, "Come back!"
Finally, she reached them, and the rider slowly turned, to look down at her. He extended his skeletal hand to her, and she took it, letting him hoist her up and onto the horse behind him.
"No!" I howled, "No, you can't take her!"
The rider barely looked at me as Dawn wrapped her arms around his waist, he turned his horse, and began to slowly trot away.
"Dawn! Dawn, come back!" I sobbed, watching her now-stringy brown hair swing with each step the horse took. She finally turned to look back at me, an apologetic and mournful expression played on her features, before she turned away again.
"Dawn!" I cried, "Dawn, please! Please don't leave me!"
The horse began to slowly fade away, disappearing into whatever dimension or plain it came and went from.
"Don't leave me!" I sobbed, "Don't leave me here alone..."
And she was gone.
"I don't want to be alone..."
When I finally arrived at the gates of Restfield cemetery, I was almost frantic. I had let Buffy down so many times, in so many ways. I wasn't willing to let things end that way now.
I knew I had made this harder on her than it had to be. I knew now that staying here, thinking I could pull her out of herself, and erase the fact that she'd been ripped from paradise to fight and suffer, had been a foolish notion. It was one thing to save a helpless soul, one who didn't understand what was out there, who didn't know the terrors that lurked in the dark, but Buffy wasn't one of those, nor was she helpless. What she needed... truthfully, I didn't know what she needed. I was willing to admit that now, as I wove aimlessly through the tombstones, I had no idea what I was doing.
I had been thrown back here with a mission, but I'd never really stopped and thought out a plan. My thoughts had simply rested with spending every moment possible with Buffy, with making up for lost time. I'd been selfish, instead of keeping her safe I'd been trying to heal my own wounds, and I needed to apologize.
I knew the Powers wouldn't be impressed if I told her what was happening, but I would find a way to make this right.
I had wandered into the heart of the cemetery without seeing any signs of Buffy, and I began to worry that perhaps Dawn had been mistaken. I hadn't wanted to search through every cemetery in town, I was hoping to resolve this quickly so that Buffy could get back to her life, and I would have enough time to get back to Los Angeles.
Overwhelmed, and emotionally exhausted, I was about to give up and return to the mansion. I thought perhaps I could catch her before she left for patrol tomorrow, when suddenly the sounds of a struggle drifted through the leafy canopy to my left. Knowing that beyond the trees was a path lined with mausoleums, I wondered if it might be Buffy, having found a vampire or demon milling about.
Even if it wasn't, I wasn't about to ignore a sound that could possibly indicate that someone was in trouble, so moving as slowly and stealthily as possible, I headed in the direction the noise had come from. Should it only be a demon, I was sure I could use a fight at the moment, anything to help my shaken state of mind.
When I did arrive at the path, however, there was nothing that could've prepared me for what I found.
It was in fact Buffy, but she was not putting up much of a struggle as far as I could tell. I felt my insides knot painfully as I watched her being pushed up against the side of a crypt, her hands clawing frantically at the back of a long leather duster, as her mouth feverously attacking another man's. A man, whom despite the fact that I couldn't see his face, I knew exactly who he was.
The long leather coat, the slicked back, platinum blond hair.
It was Spike.
I finally fought my way through the shock, and managed to find my voice again.
"Buffy?" I muttered in disbelief.
She froze, and her eyes shot open.
Not even the look of pure horror etched into her features was enough to ease my pain.
*Runs and hides behind a very large rock*