Disclaimer: The characters are the property of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. No profit is gained from my writerly endeavors and no copyright infringement is intended.
The smog is thick, air cracked and brittle with death and soot and unrivaled carnage. It reminds her of the Hellmouth, its denizens felling girls left and right with their talons and fangs. Here, in this alley, an army of Slayers stands again. The true heroes, a few broken stragglers of a war that didn't want them, make their peace that all the ends they tied up and all the business they finished may be unraveled and reopened if they walk away from this.
Girlish shrieks and cries of glee hit the air like a chorus of demented songbirds as she trots through the crushing mass of bodies. She's pretty sure her own howling battle cries join the cacophony too as she slashes her way into the middle of the fray. Her eyes catch a glint of gold, a swirling battalion of black leather rushing past her. She smiles to herself and wonders if she'll come back for a second chance too after she kicks it.
The whizzing glint of her blade attracts his attention. His head whips her way and he stares at her, half-crazed and drunk with the fight. Over the twirling of his battle axe his leonine face looks hideous as he regards her with amber eyes through the driving rain. Joining in the dance, she salutes him and falls in step with his symmetrical slashes. A pirouette of decapitation sends dust and grit flying in her wake. He shouts something, shakes his head at her, but the roaring boom in the alley drowns out anything he has to say. When recognition fails to light her eyes, he points heavenward and jerks his chin up.
That's when she sees it. Heat cascades through the alley like a convection oven, orange flame throwing shadows on the haggard faces of the demons they fight. The thwap thwap of dragon's wings blows her off her feet. A figure rides the beast, swerving and hitching along its flank in an attempt to stay on. She sees the man’s sword making quick work of the base of the dragon's wing, sawing and chopping away at the scaly flesh.
When she turns back to Spike, she realizes what he's been shouting. Angel.
Springing into action, she leaps onto a garbage bin, scaling her way up a creaking fire escape as she ascends to the murky gloom hanging above the alley. She coughs on the smoke cutting a dark swath over the rooftops, and grips her chest when the burning in her lungs doesn’t abate with her rapid breaths. The whole place stinks of sulfur and wet, dead memories that come crashing down on her with each heavy step her muddied boots make along the melting tar of the rooftops.
A flourish of green and brown sends her sailing against a ledge, an audible crack vibrating through her where the force of the blow breaks her collarbone. The dragon’s tail whips wildly back and forth in its attempt to shake its rider. A cascade of fire forces her up and over the ledge even as her eyes are trained on Angel’s lurching frame. She smells her hair burning; the stink putrid as it’s rapidly extinguished, but she ignores it. She has to time this just right.
The tip of one leathery wing beats past her just as she swings herself sideways, her sword outstretched like a grappling hook as it imbeds itself in the monster’s side. She calls Angel’s name, a hoarse scream under the dragon’s screeches of pain. It’s hard to keep her grip with all the blood and gore pouring down on her. Bracing herself solidly, she vaults up the creatures back until a charred hand is grasping hers. Angel’s clothes are nothing more than grilled shreds of threadbare fabric hanging from him in strips. She sees him mouth her name, a smirk touching the corners of his mouth as he looks at her with a touch of surprise.
“Let’s finish this!” she yells and points toward the dragon’s mutilated wing, cut to streaming ribbons. Hacking away at the stump like overzealous lumberjacks, the two of them work in tandem, eyes flicking up occasionally to squint at the others progress. A sudden lurch sends them skidding down onto the dragons haunches as the wing falls to the earth and the creature swings backward in a whirlwind descent to the ground.
Embedding their swords deep into its hide, they brace themselves for impact. At the last moment, Angel covers Faith’s body with his own as they slam to the ground, brought back to earth with the enormous kill. The last thing she hears is the dragon’s death cry as it seizes and writhes in a gurgling spasm of blood. Then, everything goes dark.
She’s brought back to awareness at the sound of doors slamming as girls rush to and fro, herding the injured and wounded into their safe house on the outskirts of the city. Andrew helplessly shouts orders to the mob of Slayers, his frightful whinnying eliciting a mental eye-roll. She tries to open her mouth to speak, but dried, bloody hair is caked across her face in stiff, cemented clumps. Her lips burn, her face a pulsing mass of pain.
“A-Angel?” she groans, her eyes cracking open in the too-bright lights. Everything is a wash of color, indistinct and hazy through her teary, half-lidded eyes. The young girl carrying her whispers something, shushing her.
“No, listen. Angel…”
“He’s here. Somewhere. You’re going to be okay.”
She wants to laugh, to tell the girl she’s going to be in for a shock. Nothing has been ‘okay’ for the last seven years, not after she signed on for the Slayer gig. Not the manipulation, murder, negotiating good and evil, incarceration, or the pain. There are glimmerings of silver lining here and there, moments that don’t quite suck as much as the rest, but none of them come remotely close to okay.
Best not spoil the girl’s optimism though. She’ll have to face reality like any rookie at some point.
As the young Slayer veers off the main corridor and jogs down the hall, her bouncing gate jars Faith’s injured clavicle. Pinpricks of sensation morph into an explosion of pain when the girl accidentally slams Faith’s shoulder against a doorframe as she barrels across the threshold of an empty room.
“Jesus! Easy!” Faith grits out, her hand clenching around the girls sleeve. “Set me down here.”
“You’re bleeding,” she says looking over Faith’s bloodied clothes. “I’ll help. Just lie back and – ”
Faith bats her hands away. She has no time for this nonsense.
“Get out. Bring Angel.”
“But Andrew told me to tend to you.”
“Do I look like I give a fuck what Andrew said? Get me something to patch myself up with. If Angel isn’t in here within five minutes there’s gonna be hell to pay.”
Shoving the wide-eyed Slayer from her, Faith collapses down onto the queen size bed, an exhausted groan filtering out of her. When the girl’s indignant murmurs fade down the hall, she exhales and counts backward from ten. Meditation has done her some good the last few months. She uses it to center herself, slowly taking stock of the aches and pains, mentally ticking off where to expect the bangs and bruises. Glancing down her body, her eyes fix on a thick shard of shrapnel sticking out of the denim along her calf, and her belly gives a familiar twinge. It always does when she’s run through like a pin cushion.
Propping herself up against the headboard, she pulls her sullied boots off and grimaces at the deep gash. She uses the short blade still strapped to her thigh to cut the pant leg clean off. Even a Slayer of her advanced years screams when she yanks the metal out of her flesh.
Her name is whispered quietly as a searching hand reaches across the sheets. The voice is dry and raspy, so unlike his. She imagines that it’s from disuse, that he just sounds like this when he wakes, but she knows it’s from smoke inhalation. She painfully swallows, working up a wad of spit to ease her throat. What’s-her-name could have at least left a glass of water on the nightstand.
As she stirs and turns, the feel of his fingers laced through her hair jars her back to wakefulness. Angel's hand ghosts along her swollen face, tracing the shallow cuts and nicks, carefully mapping out the abrasions marring her skin. The evidence of war is clotted and dark, and she flinches when the calloused pads of his fingers press into a violet bruise. She keeps her back to him, minding her shoulder. It radiates angry heat.
"Where is everyone?"
"Slayerettes are outside with Andrew," she mumbles, dropping her head back onto the pillow.
"No… I mean my people. Spike and Gunn and…" Angel's voice trails off on a choked whisper, the gravity of the situation only just now coming back to him. She hears the covers shuffle behind her, so that he's sitting up and facing her. She hesitantly turns to look at him, but she immediately closes her eyes when she does. His hair and eyebrows have been singed away in uneven patches, his skin raw and pink from the burns. His wheezing breaths let her know how much it hurts, and she bites her lip to keep from crying.
Why does it always come to this? She likes to think that she's done and seen it all these last few years, that she's hardened into a strong leader. But with each month that goes by she sees the devastation this life wrecks on its fighters. It has softened something in her, tapping into a piece of herself that she has never felt before. Losing Robin stirred up a whirlpool of regret. She has no interest in being the bringer of bad news and wishes she could throw it off on someone else who can say it with a straight face, an air of sympathetic disinterest. But she knows what it is to lose those closest, knows how it eats at you. Knows how it will consume Angel.
"You need blood," she says, turning over onto her back to look at his shattered face. One cheekbone in need of resetting bulges forward under the skin, the left side of his face so swollen that his eye is shut. He took a lot of the fall, and guilt pricks her. She reminds herself that thems the breaks, but she still can't shake the fact that she's never seen him quite so banged up.
"Faith... Is Gunn - "
"Gunn as in Charles?" she asks.
"Yeah…" he trails off, glancing down at the hands in his lap. “Yeah.”
Better get it done quick. No use evading or dragging this out any longer.
"I'm sorry, Angel. He didn't make it."
He was the first person to teach her to say sorry and mean it, to feel genuine compassion for the suffering of others. At the time it seemed like one of the hardest things in the world for her, forcing those words out, apologizing. Standing in his old loft’s kitchen, watching his face fall with devastation when she let slip that B had moved on, her apology had bubbled out of her with unexpected sincerity. But sorry hadn't been enough then to assuage how badly the news had cut Angel and it certainty wasn't now. It never was.
When the inevitable flash of pain breaks out on his face, she grabs his hand. There has to be something, a concession, a victory she can steer him toward. There has to be hope.
"Blue-haired girl’s doing alright though." The look he gives her is less than comforting.
"All in one piece."
Angel takes in the information, his eyes fixed on the bloody comforter between them. He led them to their deaths. Doyle, Cordy, Fred, Gunn, and -
Like lightening, he snaps up, his hands bunched in his hair. When he staggers sideways, a low animalistic whine rattling out of him, she moves.
Alarm drives her forward and she stumbles off the bed to hold Angel around the waist as he hunches over the dresser.
"Angel? What? What's happened?” She knows. It’s always the same. But she has to ask, has to let it play out.
Shoving her away, his shoulders climb up to his ears. She moves quietly behind him, catching her own reflection in the mirror, but just hers. When she tries to touch him again, he lets loose a frightening, feral howl. She jumps back when his fists slam into the dresser, the wood and all the clutter on top of it splintering. She checks to make sure none of the pieces are sturdy enough for him to use as a stake. She’s not looking forward to a suicide watch.
"Wes…” he gasps. “Oh, Wes," he wails, childlike and horrified. Her brow knits. She wants to ask what happened to Wes, didn’t see him fighting the good fight with the rest of them. But she’s pretty sure she knows. Somehow it doesn’t surprise her. Dark and deadly didn’t seem like a persona he was going to be able to maintain for long. He didn’t have it in him. Not like her. Not like Angel.
Sliding into a heap along the floor next to the destroyed dresser, Angel bends his head and cries in deep gasping sobs. The big wet tears clear away the sooty residue on his cheeks, painting his face in uneven pink and black stripes.
In an alley in the pouring rain she had given up the fight, had begged to die. The things she had done… she deserved no less than death. Sinking quietly to the floor next to Angel, she cups his face in her hands and tilts his head up.
“Do you remember what you said to me, Angel?” she whispers, fingertips smudging his tears across his lips, his chin. “Back in that alley? When I thought it was over for me?”
He stares at her vacantly, depleted, exhausted. When she runs her hand along the back of his head, he closes his eyes. Drawing him in to the circle of her arms, she folds him against her as best she can and rocks his hulking frame, her own demons blooming to life as she recalls the words.
“It’s not going to be easy,” she whispers against his neck.
The tears come again, oozing from his closed lids and he grabs her around the waist anchoring himself to her. She squeezes back and stares at the mirror hanging across the room from them on the closet door. The reflection tells her she’s holding a ghost.
Folding her legs under her, Faith’s whispers become a mantra, a lullaby to draw the torturous day to a close.
Part III (Coming soon...)