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: Hello again kind readers! I'm back after a pretty craptacular weekend last week, with an update. Sorry for keeping all of you waiting, but then again I've seen authors go MIA from here for months at a time, so one week isn't really that big of a deal, right? You don't all hate me yet, do you? )
To those who have been asking questions about the story in the reviews; I'm not ignoring you by not answering, I promise! A lot of the things people have been speculating about are going to be answered as the story progresses, just keep reading (and I hope I don't disappoint)!
Chapter 7: Sacrifice
Waking late the next afternoon, I dialled L.A. I had my fingers crossed that the call wouldn't confirm my fears that Wolfram & Hart was behind the looting of Whitlock's crypt. Though optimism wasn't my strong suit, I was still praying that the Valkesch demon was simply a coincidence, and that the scroll that had caused so much devastation the first time around hadn't been sitting in Sunnydale the whole time.
After the phone had rang enough times for me to consider hanging up, I heard someone fumble with the receiver, "Uh... Angel Investigations... we, uh, help the hopeless?" came a deep voice through the earpiece.
"Gunn?" I asked.
"Hey! Angel-man! How's your vacation goin'?" he asked cheerily.
"It's not really a vacation... where's Cordy?" I asked.
"She's got a hair appointment or some other girly thing like that... she'll be back in about an hour."
"Right..." I answered, "Listen, I need you to do something important for me," I began.
"This demon popped up here in Sunnydale, and I'm worried it might be working for Wolfram & Hart." I explained.
"What would W n' H want in Sunnydale?" Gunn questioned.
"We're not entirely sure yet, I'll explain when we have more information, but I need you guys to keep an eye out, make sure it doesn't turn up at their offices. If it does, you need to call me immediately – especially if it's got anything with it."
"Alright Boss... don't get all worked up! We'll get on it... so what's this thing look like anyway?" Gunn answered coolly.
"Get Wesley to look it up, I'm sure there's a book lying around with a picture of it; it's called a Valkesch Demon." I recounted.
"Valkesch..." there was silence on the line, "Do I need to spell it?"
"Nah, nah... Val-kesh, Val-kesh. Got it."
"Good. Call me if there's anything. And be careful."
"You sound worried, man... should we be panicking?" Gunn chuckled, an attempt to break the tension evident in my voice.
"No... not yet at least. I'll keep you all posted once we're sure what's going on." I assured him.
"Alright. Take care, pal."
"You too Gunn." and I ended the call.
It was strange hearing Gunn's voice after all these years. Given everything that had happened, how I'd let everyone down, his death had been one that I'd felt more guilty about; it hadn't been an accident, or unstoppable... it had been a sacrifice.
With the demon's of all conceivable dimensions suddenly having free-range of the surface, we'd collectively decided perhaps our journey would be safer if we'd used the sewer systems underground. The creatures that had been unleashed on earth were too busy and distracted picking off all the humans that were running scared that they hadn't turned to those who had been quick-witted enough to go into hiding – at least that was what we'd initially thought.
As we made our way through the maze of tunnels, I began to notice we encountered fewer and fewer humans the farther along we trekked. I immediately began to worry, and considered herding the group back to the surface, however, the tunnels were relatively small, and I reasoned whatever we may encounter would probably be easier to take down than whatever lurked above.
With only a torch which I carried to lead the group as lighting, the others were all on edge, but after taking a few more twists and turns without any trouble, my mind eased slightly. Still, I didn't let my guard down. Perhaps we were simply on the right path, and would be able to escape the wreckage of Los Angeles sooner than I'd expected.
It was then, in the dim lighting, that Cordelia tripped over something, falling to the ground with a slight squeal, and I turned swiftly, bringing the torch with me to make sure she was alright.
"Cordy? Are you o-"
"Oh my god, oh my god!" she exclaimed as soon as the torch light fell on her, trying her best to keep the volume of her voice to a minimum. She scrambled off of what she fallen on top of, and crouched against the side of the wall, a look of pure horror on her face.
Once Cordelia was no longer casting a shadow, I could see what had tripped her.
It was a body.
The others all fell silent, as they stood around the poor victim. It was a boy, not much older than Dawn's age, his eyes still opened wide in fear, his skin ashen.
"Wh-what do you think killed him?" Dawn whispered apprehensively.
It was then that I noticed the absence of something, something that had kept me from noticing the body to begin with; it was the scent of blood.
"Vampires," I whispered remorsefully, "He's been drained."
No one spoke for another moment, as we silently gazed at the poor young man. It was hard to turn away, to keep trying to escape, knowing that innocent people like him, who until a few short weeks ago, had no idea such horrible creatures existed, were being attacked, and dying alone and frightened.
"We should keep moving," Giles urged gently, placing an arm around Dawn's shoulders, and turning her away from the boy.
"Yeah," I agreed, "Everyone stay close."
I extended my hand to Cordelia, and helped her up from the ground, she eagerly grabbed into my arm, and cast one last pitiful glance towards the crumpled body before letting me lead her further into the tunnel, "Poor thing..." she whispered, and wiped at her cheek with the back of her hand.
Suddenly, she pitched forward again, this time with her hand gripping her forehead as she hissed in pain. I shoved the torch at Xander, who fumbled slightly as he took it, and I grabbed Cordelia by the elbows to support her.
Her head snapped up suddenly, and she looked at me with an expression of sheer terror.
"What did you see?" I asked her.
"We-we need to get out of here... now!" she panicked.
"What was it?" I urged, as I helped her to her feet.
"Vampires... a lot of them..." she panted fearfully.
I helped her back to her feet, and snatched the torch back from Xander, scanning the connecting tunnels swiftly, "Which way did they come from?" I questioned.
"I... I don't know..." she winced, "I couldn't tell, everything looks the same to me down here!"
I placed a comforting hand on her shoulder, "It's okay, don't panic" I whispered, "Everyone, stay alert. The first man-hole we come across, we're going back to the surface."
"We can't go back out there!" Xander exclaimed quietly, "We stand a better chance with the vampires!"
"Not if we're outnumbered, it's too cramped down here." I explained.
"Willow! Willow can't you do something?" Dawn begged, "I don't want to go back up there!"
Willow cast a worried look towards Dawn.
"Performing an offensive spell in such a small tunnel like this one could be disastrous." Wesley whispered.
With a sigh Willow nodded in agreement, "There's not enough space, it could ricochet and hit one of you guys."
"We need to get moving," Cordelia pressed, her face still twisted in pain.
"Cordy's right. Come on, this way everyone." I ordered, then turned down an adjacent tunnel, quickening my pace as I continued to take every twist and turn imaginable.
"Over there!" Gunn called from the back of the group, and I turned to my right to find a rusted ladder, sticking out of the wall up ahead. Rushing towards it, I looked up; the cover had already been removed, and I found myself staring up at the blood-red sky.
"Willow, you take Dawn up first." I extended my hand to the two women, and watched in anticipation as Willow climbed through the hole above our heads.
A moment later, her face reappeared in the opening, "It's clear guys! Hurry!" she called down to the rest of us.
I pushed Dawn up the ladder, when suddenly a chuckle coming from the darkness further along the tunnel pulled my attention away.
"Well, well, well, looks like we found ourselves a feast!" the voice laughed.
The others froze in fear, as a wall of vampires, eyes glinting in hunger, fangs bared, began to emerge from the darkness. Reacting purely on impulse, I morphed into my game face, and stepped forward towards the gang, "Back off!" I growled, "They're mine."
The vampire at the front of the pack, a man of average height, stocky build, his dark hair pulled back into a ponytail smirked, and looked me up and down, "Nice try Angel... we know all about you and what team you play for."
Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder, and a mouth next to my ear, "Get the others out of here, I'll hold 'em off." It was Gunn.
"No," I whispered, never taking my eyes off the mass of vampires, who had begun to take slow steps towards us.
"You need to look out for Dawn, it was the last thing Buffy ever asked of you," he whispered, his hand gripping my shoulder tightly.
My heart clenched, and without even realizing what I was doing, I relinquished the torch to him as he reached for it, "When you get up top, run for the coastline." I whispered.
He nodded, then in a flash had lunged towards the vampires, ferociously swinging the torch in front of him, "Stay back you filthy bloodsuckers!" he shouted, as a sea of growls began to crescendo in the darkness.
I turned back towards the others, still frozen in place in front of the ladder, "GO!" I shouted, shoving Anya towards the ladder. She grabbed the rungs, and began to climb as quickly as she could. Once she was almost halfway, I motioned for Cordelia to follow, as I cast a glance towards Gunn.
The vampires had gotten more daring now, some were trying to reach out to knock the torch out of his hands. He would throw kicks and punches at the ones who didn't get burned, and didn't fall back trying to pat out the flames, but they were still drawing closer.
Next I sent up Giles, followed by Xander.
A vampire in Gunn's periphery, close to the side of the wall lunged towards him, but Gunn caught it in time, and turned and threw the torch at him. The vampire roared as he was engulfed in flames, and Gunn kicked him backwards, into the others. The fire slowly began to spread, and the shrieks of pain multiplied and grew louder, as the ones untouched by the flames began to rush him. He continued to punch, and kick, and slam them into the walls.
Wesley was the next up the ladder, and I waited on the bottom rung, watching Gunn fight valiantly, "Gunn! Come on!" I shouted over the screams and roars.
"No! You first!" He yelled.
"I'm not leaving anyone behind!"
"You need to get outta here Angel! The others won't survive without you!" he cried, "Go!"
He continued to rage against his attackers as I started to make my way up the ladder, almost to the top, I glanced back down; for as many vampires that were burning, more and more seemed to surround Gunn, "That the best you got assholes?!" I heard him shout amidst the chaos, and I pulled myself through the manhole.
The others all stood around the hole, their eyes wide in fear, "Come on!" I ordered, surveying our surroundings, and happy to see that my sense of direction wasn't completely off - we were not to far from the coastline.
"Where's Gunn?!" Willow shouted.
"He's coming!" I replied, taking her arm and forcing her to run alongside me.
"We can't leave him down there!" Cordelia sputtered.
"He's fine! Come on!" I urged.
We all began to run towards the edge of what used to be the beach, glancing behind us occasionally to check if Gunn or the vampires had followed us. Suddenly, Cordelia screamed, and fell to her knees again, her head clutched between her hands.
"Keep going!" I shouted to the others, as I doubled back to help her.
Wesley was already by her side as I reached her and knelt in front of her. She was shaking, and when her body finally relaxed, she slumped forward, pulling her hands in front of her face.
"Cordelia?" Wesley asked gently, his hand on her shoulder.
Abruptly, she sat back up, and let her hands fall to her sides; there were tears in her eyes, and she was breathing heavily.
"Cordy? Are you alright?" I murmured.
A tear began to slowly roll down her cheek, and she raised her hand to wipe it away as she'd done after we walked away from the dead boy in the tunnels, before pushing herself back up to her feet.
"Gunn's dead." she whispered, as she began to slowly walk in the direction the others had gone.
Wesley and I both watched her walk away silently. Guilt twisted in my stomach; we should have all fought those vampires together. It was an impossible battle, he should have known that, and I should have resisted him. Was my desire to protect Dawn and see through Buffy's final wishes so strong that I was willing to let my friends sacrifice themselves for me?
"We should keep on moving," Wesley's voice cut through my thoughts.
I turned to him, he'd become a lot less stoic over the last couple of years, but I still found the tears he was fighting to hold back surprised me. "Yeah." I answered, as I painstakingly climbed to my feet, Wesley followed suit.
Neither one of us said another word as we slowly made our way to where we could see the others standing in the ashen sand, the blackened water lapping at the edge of the beach. There, Dawn was hugging Cordelia as her shoulders shook with sobs. The other stood around them, their heads bowed.
No one even looked up as we approached.
Being left alone with my dark thoughts all afternoon had put me on edge. Doyle hadn't showed up for an unannounced visit, which had disappointed me as I could have really used a lighthearted conversation to keep me from wallowing in my memories.
Unable to stand my own company any longer, I'd decided to leave for patrol early, and sweep through one of the cemeteries on my way to the Magic Box. The sweep yielded nothing, however, and I was finished even earlier than I'd anticipated.
Wondering if I was making a huge mistake, I decided to head over to Revello Drive, and meet Buffy at home. Given the events of the two evenings prior, we were really walking on eggshells around each other, and I wasn't sure she would appreciate me showing up at her home, but it seemed now that I once again had the option of human companionship, I was finding it harder and harder to spend time alone. It troubled me; I'd always been a solitary creature, even though in the two years before the apocalypse I'd become much more accustomed to having people around, I'd still had no problem being by myself. I wondered if psycho-analysis worked on a three-hundred-plus year old vampire; if maybe my fear of watching those I held close to my heart fall around me once more was affecting my mental state.
As I reached the front door of 1630, I opened the screen, and knocked hesitantly. I hoped Buffy wouldn't be too upset with me showing up unexpectedly.
I didn't have too long to dwell, however; mere moments later the door was pulled open by Tara, who stood sheepishly in the doorway.
"A-Angel, hi." she greeted with a shy smile.
"Hi Tara... um... I was wondering if Buffy was here?" I asked.
"O-oh, she's already at the Magic Box, I just got back from there. I came home to feed Miss Kitty." she explained
"Miss Kitty?" I asked.
"Mine and Willow's cat." she explained, her cheeks burning red.
"Right," I replied, with an amused grin.
"She was talking with Giles, I-I think about that Whitlock crypt." she explained.
"The cat?" I questioned in puzzlement.
"No, Buffy." Tara clarified, she looked like she wanted to laugh, but held it back almost as if she were afraid of upsetting me.
"Right, thank you." I replied, a little embarrassed, and was about to hurry away when I thought of something.
"Tara?" I asked, she'd stepped back to close the door, but looked back up at me quizzically.
"Have you... have you noticed Buffy acting strangely at all?"
She quietly considered my question, her brows knitted together in thought. She frowned before answering, "It's hard to say," she began, "I-I mean, she's been through an awful lot in the past year."
"She definitely has," I agreed.
"Not to mention, I'm sure it's hard to re-adjust after... a-after... well, you know."
I knew she was referring to her returning from the grave. I merely nodded stiffly in response; Buffy had been adamant about not wanting Willow to learn the truth about where she had been. Which by extension, meant that indicating anything to Tara was strictly forbidden.
"She seems a bit depressed, but I think she has every right to be," Tara continued sympathetically.
"Absolutely," I agreed, keeping my eyes averted to the ground.
"Although..." she began, but trailed off almost instantly. I brought my eyes back up to her, and she looked hesitant to continue. I must have had an extremely pleading expression on my face, because after looking away, she began again, "Sh-she gets these looks... I-I'm not sure how many of the others have noticed... but she just looks so sad and far away, like she's not even on this earth anymore."
"I've noticed too," I confessed.
"Has she said anything to you?" Tara asked.
I shook my head, and after a moments consideration I chuckled morosely, "I don't think she's really keen on opening up to me right now."
Tara smiled sympathetically, "I think it was really nice of you to come back here. Willow told me most of what happened between you two... it can't be easy to be around her."
"You have no idea," I grimaced.
"I'm sure if she was more herself, Buffy would appreciate it."
I smiled gratefully at the blonde witch, it didn't seem like there were many people who were happy I was around, "I should get to the Magic Box, I don't want to keep Buffy waiting."
She nodded, "No problem, have a good night Angel."
"You too, Tara."
I turned, and descended the steps as the door clicked shut behind me. Once I reached the end of the walkway, I turned to look back at the Summer's home with a sad smile. Tara was a sweet girl, empathetic and kind hearted. Though I'd never questioned it the first time around, I felt I had even more understanding for why Willow sacrificed her own happiness to save her.
It was just after dusk, and I was upstairs packing up the rest of Buffy's weapons for the journey out of Sunnydale. Signs of the turmoil in Los Angeles had begun to spread, and we'd decided that the Hellmouth would definitely not stay safe for long. After coming to the consensus that heading north would be our best option, we began to pack up whatever necessities and supplies we would need to ensure our survival.
I placed the last of Buffy's stakes into a large sports bag, and gingerly closed the lid of her weapons chest, running my hand over its sleek surface lightly. Rising to my feet, and hoisting the bag over my shoulder, I took a minute to look around the room one last time.
No one had dared to touch it since she'd passed, with the exception of myself now rifling through her weapons. Her bed was hastily made, a few worn articles of clothing lay strewn about the floor, and one of the drawers of her vanity had been pulled open just an inch, as though she'd been in too much of a hurry to close it properly.
Crossing over to the vanity, I studied the framed pictures that scattered it's surface; Buffy, Willow, and Xander at graduation, Buffy and Dawn smiling behind a large cake that read 'Happy 14th Birthday Dawn!', The two Summer's girls again with Joyce at the Art Gallery... The happy moments in Buffy's life, the ones between all the pain and suffering that Slaying had brought her. To anyone looking at these photos, they would never be able to tell that the cheerful blonde was forced to risk her life on a nightly basis.
With a sigh, I turned away from the photographs; scrutinizing them wouldn't bring her back, and bringing memories of a life that no longer existed wouldn't do any of us any good on the road. Steeling myself, I said a goodbye in my head, before marching out of the woman I loved's bedroom for the last time.
As I made my way down the stairs, I could hear faint whispering from the living room. As I came to the bottom step, I found Willow kneeling beside the fireplace, her back to me.
"Tabula rasa... tabula rasa..." she whispered, and I saw her arm move to throw something into the fire.
"Willow?" I called softly.
She spun around, her eyes wide as they fell on me, "Yeah?!" she asked shakily.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
Her eyes suddenly became glassy, and she cast them to the floor, "Nothing..."
I didn't press the matter further, there were more important things we needed to take care of. Dawn was over at Giles', she'd been staying there since after the funeral, finding it too hard to stay at the house, even with myself, Willow and Tara present. We were heading over there now, to meet them, as well as Xander, Anya, Cordelia, Wesley, and Gunn, before trekking north.
"Where's Tara?" I asked, unable to sense anyone other than the two of us in the home.
"I told her to wait by the car," Willow replied quietly, as she rose to her feet, shoving a small crystal in her pocket, and picking up the overnight bag that sat at her feet.
"We should get going then,"
She nodded, and crossed the room slowly, as I pulled open the front door. I held it open, for Willow to pass through, and she paused once out on the front porch. She stared out, past my car parked in the driveway, to where Tara stood. Her back was to us, her bag on the ground at her side, and she glanced up and down the street cautiously.
I closed the door behind me, and stepped next to Willow. Taking another sidelong glance at her, I noticed that the glassy look of her eyes was now tears threatening to spill down her cheeks, as she silently watched Tara at the end of the driveway.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
She nodded stiffly, and blinked back her tears.
"Ready to get going then?"
She reached back down into her pocket, and pulled out the crystal again. Though I could've sworn it was clear when I saw her slip it into her pocket inside, it was now a dark onyx black. She smiled sadly before closing her hand around the crystal, "Yeah."
We walked down the steps side by side, and crossed the lawn towards my car. I rounded it to the trunk, and popped it open to throw the bag of weapons inside. I turned, to take Willow's bag from her, but found instead that she'd passed me, and gone to the end of the driveway where Tara stood.
Digging around in her bag, I saw her pull out what looked to be a plane ticket, and clutch it in her shaking hand.
"Excuse me?" She called, stopping behind Tara.
Tara turned to face her, her face painted with confusion as she studied the young woman in front of her.
"I-I think you dropped this." Willow finished, holding out the ticket to Tara.
Hesitantly, Tara reached out, and took the ticket from Willow's grasp. She opened it slowly, "New York... I don't remember buying this..." she muttered with a frown.
"Well, is that your name on it?" Willow stammered, I could see her face was flushed as I stepped closer to the two of them.
"I-it is." Tara confirmed.
"Then I guess you did!"
Tara let a half-smile creep across her face, "I've... I've never been to the East Coast before." she confessed.
Willow tried her best to smile back, the attempt was watery, "Then it must be exciting for you."
Tara nodded bashfully, but then frowned again, "S-something... something bad is happening... right?"
Willow nodded, "Right," she whispered.
"That's why I'm leaving." Tara continued, she sounded lost, as though she were trying to sort out her own thoughts.
"Right," Willow repeated with another nod.
The frown on Tara's face grew more pronounced as she took in her surroundings, "I... I-I think I'm lost..." she confessed sheepishly.
"Well, if you go that way," Willow began, pointing down the street in the opposite direction from where Tara was facing, "about three blocks and turn left, then stay on that street until you get into town... there'll be a bus station that can take you to the airport."
Tara smiled gratefully, then bent to pick up her bag, "Thank you!" she sighed, "I-I'm Tara, by the way."
I saw tears spring to Willow's eyes once more, "I'm... I'm Willow." she replied, her voice cracking. She motioned to where I stood behind her, "And this is Angel."
I waved stiffly, still not sure what was unfolding in front of me.
"What nice names." Tara answered, "W-where are you two going?"
"Up the coast." Willow explained.
Tara nodded again, "Well, I don't w-want to miss my flight."
"Of course not." Willow agreed.
"It was nice to meet you, Willow. Good luck." she smiled.
"Y-you too, Tara" Willow wept.
"Don't worry, I'm sure everything will be alright," Tara assured her, before turning and beginning to make her way down the street.
"Goodbye..." Willow whispered.
Tara must have heard, because she turned, and waved briefly, before continuing down the street, and shrinking in the distance.
Once she was almost out of sight, Willow crumbled to her knees, her arms wrapped around herself tightly, as her body shuddered with heaving sobs. I rushed to her side, and placed my hand gently on her back, "Willow? What happened?" I asked.
"I-I-I erased myself from her memory..." she sobbed, "Everything... everything about u-us... and all the scary, horrible things that she had to experience b-because of me... they're all gone..."
I felt my eyes widen in shock, "Why?" I whispered.
"Because I couldn't lose her... n-not after what Glory did... I couldn't... I couldn't watch her suffer again... I-I knew she wouldn't leave me behind... a-and I thought... I thought maybe this way she would escape from all this... that she would be safe..."
I could feel my heart breaking for the young sorceress. I thought back to Thanksgiving two years earlier, when I watched Buffy walk away after erasing That Day from her mind; I recalled how much it had hurt to let her go, how long it had taken for the pain of giving up what we'd finally had to stop crippling me... I couldn't imagine having to erase her memory completely. Though we had our share of painful memories, I wouldn't have traded them for anything.
I gathered Willow into my arms, and stroked her hair gently as she continued to let her anguish pour out of her, I knew she wouldn't want the others to see her this way, especially not Dawn, it was better to let her finish her mourning here, we could afford to be a bit late.
"Shhh, it's alright," I soothed, "You did the right thing, it was very selfless of you."
She simply buried herself deeper into my chest, and the tears continued.
"You did the right thing."
So I've never written Gunn before, hence why I unfortunately chose to off him in the flashbacks so soon... I was worried the more he appeared, the more evident it would be that I have no idea how to write him, hahaha. Don't worry, that's not the last you'll see of him though!
As for Tara; as much as the Willow's-addicted-to-magic storyline was probably the only part of S6 that I liked, it was just too much going on to try and incorporate it into this story. I decided instead to give her a chance to redeem herself. It actually made me really sad to write it!
I'm going to try and post another chapter mid-week to make up for missing last weekend.