Amongst the Dead and Dying
The first time she sees him, she is in Brazil. The devastation there is staggering, even to someone like her, someone who thinks she has seen it all. She wonders how these areas will ever recover from the ravages of Mother Nature’s not-so-loving care, coupled with the attentions of a greedy humanity.
The once-lush forest has been clear-cut to within an inch of its life. But those trees and brush were the only things keeping the mud at bay. And when the torrential rains come, the mudslides are something horrific, turning one village after another into nothing more than wet, muddy tombs.
Willow works as quickly as she can, using her own strength, puny as it is, and her magic. The magic is what helps most, but without the intellect behind it, it would be useless.
She studies the area before her, sees the child buried beneath the rubble, kept alive only by a little pocket of air that is becoming increasingly smaller and fouler as each minute passes.
Usually she would try to lift him out or shift the debris in a way that the child could be removed by others, but she is alone. It is well past midnight and the others are exhausted, trying to catch an hour or two of sleep before they start the hopeless search again. And time is running short for the small boy.
Concentrating carefully, she closes her eyes and pictures him standing next to her, dirty and frightened, but still alive, nonetheless. She feels the wrench of translation as the energy flows out of her and into the earth, burning its way along her veins, and she staggers slightly. It has been a long day, full of physical and magical activity, and her weariness is only exceeded by her horror at what she sees around her. There is still so much to be done.
She sees the body of the small child as he materializes on the ground next to her, and gives a heavy sigh of relief. The steady rise and fall of his chest tells her that her efforts were in time; this child will live, unlike so many others she has seen.
Her hand is laid flat against the remains of the building next to her, but the debris shifts uncomfortably under her weight, so she struggles to remain upright with only her pitiful human muscles to help her accomplish this feat.
And in that moment, just as things begin to blur, just seconds before she falls to the ground next to the child and into a dreamless sleep, she sees him.
Had it been a dream? A manifestation of an imagination that is far too active for its own good? Some days she thinks she only imagined him, while at other times she is convinced that he was just as real as the tragedy around her today.
This time it is an earthquake. People lie dying in streets, in the crumbled remains of their houses, in what used to be shelters that they called home.
The tragedy of it is, even if they survive the actual quake, many of them will die in the aftermath. There isn’t enough food, or enough shelter, or enough water. She does her best, but knows it won’t be enough. And in the oppressive darkness of a night like tonight, the thought haunts her.
Movement catches her eye; another aid worker, probably, too haunted by all he has seen to find refuge in the forgetfulness of sleep. There are pills they can take, pills that will give them dreamless slumber, but she has shunned them.
If you make it too easy for yourself, then what is the point of atonement?
The sound of an oar hitting water splashes nearby, and she looks out across the river, curious to see who might be trying to cross at this time of night.
Just as the boat passes beyond the lights of the camp, she sees him. Angel. And this time there is no doubt in her mind. None at all.
“Angel,” she calls out, her voice huge, filling up the silence of the night and echoing back to her.
He hears her; she is certain of it. Even if he hadn’t turned his head and stared straight through her, she would still know it. But he makes no reply at all, merely turning his head towards the other bank of the river, his movements increasing until the boat is nothing but a pinpoint on a river of blue-black water. And then he is gone.
And she is left with nothing but the memory of him, and the questions that crowd her mind.
He is here as well, amongst the bodies of the innocents of war. She’s in a small town not far from the arbitrarily drawn line between north and south. This small plot of land is ravaged regularly by both sides in the bloody civil war. The sounds of the wounded assault her, but still she manages to sense his presence.
He takes one look at her, through her, just like before. And then he fades into the fog of late night, disappearing before she can even straighten up.
She thinks to chase after him, to insist that he talk to her, but the sound of a woman next to her, screaming in pain or fear, or maybe just loneliness, brings her attention back down to her reason for being here.
She will let him go this time, because somehow she knows she’ll see him again.
United States, 2007
It is Seattle this time. How ironic is that? California spends decades waiting for ‘the big one,’ and when it finally hits, it eschews the Golden State altogether, choosing as its target a place known for rain, coffee, and grunge rock.
It’s raining now. Large drops fall, soaking and chilling her to the bone, and yet she continues to work. The Alaskan Viaduct has collapsed. They knew it would. The city has been doing studies and having meetings, and instead of waiting for them to figure it out, Mother Nature got weary and took care of the problem for them.
Just like the Nimitz freeway in California, the double-decker Alaskan Viaduct collapsed onto itself, pancaking thousands of commuters in between layers of concrete and metal.
The litany is comforting in its familiarity. Not enough food. Not enough shelter. But at least there is plenty of water. It falls from the sky in bucketsful and the lakes surround them with it as well. And then there’s liquefaction, which is related to water, although altogether different, and not of the good.
She sees him from across the width of the highway, covered in dust and anguish, an arm in his hand. Nothing else, just the arm. Their eyes meet, and she knows that he sees her; recognizes her. But he stares through her again, and then moves on to help a group of people clustered around what appears to be the remains of a small SUV, and the hope that someone there is still alive to be rescued.
Anger stirs within her at his casual dismissal. No, he doesn’t dismiss her. He ignores her very existence. But why?
There are few enough people out there that she can call ‘friend’ and that makes this—this treatment of his all the more cruel.
They’re all gone. All except Xander. He’s been there since the beginning, and she supposes he’ll be there at the end. But Buffy, Giles, Anya, Spike, even Andrew, all gone.
Xander is in Africa somewhere, doing whatever he can to dull the pain. She still sees him occasionally, when her heart can bear it, but the visits have gotten farther and farther apart. Seeing him drink himself into oblivion, following in the footsteps of his father and mother, it’s just too painful.
So she travels from one disaster site to the next, until the countries become a blur, and the pain so overwhelming that she can barely stand it. She tries not to become desensitized to the horror she sees, but there’s just so much of it, and every time that she feels like she’s seen the worst there is, she comes across something that affects her like a kick to the head, leaving her weak and faltering.
As far as disasters go, this one is rather tame. Yes, the death toll is pretty high. But other than the viaduct, the city is mostly okay. Chalk one up to modern building codes, she supposes. What it means to her in particular is that there isn’t much to do. She helps where she can, delivering food and making people comfortable, but most of the people who were on the bottom portion of the viaduct are dead. The ones on the top portion are shocked and frightened, with small cuts and bruises, and broken bones, but they can be helped just as easily by a normal human as by her. She tends to specialize, trying to save her energy for people who can’t be saved by ‘traditional’ methods.
She likes to think that there is a sense of symmetry in what she’s doing. These are the people she would have killed, if Xander hadn’t stopped her. So now it seems right to help them. They will be her penance. Every one of them that she saves will make the stain on her soul a little smaller.
Or at least that’s the theory.
In reality, she’s not sure if she’s making any difference at all. Maybe this is just a way to fill the lonely days; to make her feel like she belongs to something. And she supposes that that, in itself, is kind of selfish.
Maybe she just thinks too much.
Xander used to tell her that. Buffy did too. She misses them both so much.
And that’s why she can’t let Angel just walk off this time, not without trying. Not without knowing why.
She ducks down, cloaking herself in an invisibility that is impossible to penetrate, even for a vampire. He can probably sense her if he tries, but she’s hoping he’ll be so busy with his grizzly work that she won’t even be on his radar. Not until it’s too late for him to escape.
When he stops to take a break she makes her move. He stands right outside the door of a makeshift canteen, his eyes searching the night for something. Probably for her, she realizes. So she pops into sight standing right next to him, and watches curiously as he takes in her presence.
His eyes change first. They were tired and shadowed with grief, but as she watches, they become cold and angry. He glares at her, and the anger of his voice catches her by surprise.
“What do you want, witch?” he says, practically spitting the words at her.
She frowns. This isn’t what she expected. Not even close. Obviously he’s angry, she gets that, but she’ll be damned if she knows why.
“I—I just wanted to say hello. To—to see why you’re here.” The words sound frightened and weak, as if she’s melting under the heat of his anger. “And I wanted to know why you’re ignoring me,” she adds, trying to put some backbone into it.
The anger flares again, and she catches a glimpse of the demon before he subdues it and hides it deep beneath layers of civility. “You’ve got a lot of nerve,” he growls between clenched teeth. “You ignore us. You and Rupert and your slayers. You sit there in your ivory tower and let good people die. And then you have the nerve to—” he stops suddenly, looks around and notes their isolation, then lets the demon out to play.
His words shock her, both the content, and the white-hot anger that they’re laced with. But the sight of the demon scares her, and she backs away quickly, until her back is up against the brick wall of an old building. She can go no further, and she watches in fascinated horror as the demon stalks her, pacing before her, and then slams its hands down onto the brick wall on either side of her head.
“What do you want from me?” he demands, glaring at her with golden eyes.
It feels inadequate, and from the look on his face, she can see that he agrees. But it’s all she can come up with.
“They’re all dead,” he says, and for just a moment she sees raw pain in his eyes. “All dead,” he repeats, quietly.
“What do you mean, how? Because you wouldn’t come. Because you were too busy on your astral plane to help out friends who needed you.” He obviously thinks she should know this, but it’s the first she’s heard of it.
“Why didn’t you call? I—I would have come. Of course I would have. You just needed to—“
His hands grab her shoulders, shaking her angrily, and for a moment the world beyond him undulates and wobbles wildly. She closes her eyes until he stops, and then opens them again. His face is all she can see; it fills her world. “We did call. Giles told us you were too busy to help. You. Let. Them. Die.”
Each word is punctuated by another shake, and the dizziness returns. She refuses to close her eyes this time, truly afraid of what he might do.
At the same time she tries to understand what he is telling her. “You…you called me? But Giles—he never said anything.” She doesn’t get it. Why wouldn’t he have told her? “I don’t get it,” she repeats, aloud this time.
Confusion rolls over her like fog, and she can see a similar emotion in Angel’s eyes as well.
“You didn’t know? Giles never…” He pauses in his confusion, trying to decide whether to believe her. Anger is hard to let go of; sometimes it can be the only thing that drives you.
“You had to have known. He wouldn’t just not tell you,” Angel insists, grasping at straws.
“Angel,” she reaches up to touch his cheek, bringing him out of his thoughts. “You know me. If I knew you were in trouble, I would have been there.”
He stands in silence, eyes unfathomable, as he considers her words. Maybe he believes her, maybe he doesn’t. It’s hard to say. Finally his body relaxes a bit, releasing the tension and putting the demon away for now.
“I should have known,” he whispers, taking a half step back to let her breathe again. “I should have known,” he repeats. “Spike insisted that you wouldn’t be like that. But Giles, yeah, I can see it. Petty little dictator, wanting revenge against Angelus. He would have kept the plea for help from you, until it was too late.”
She wants to protest, to tell him that Giles would never have done that, but she can see it. There had always been that edge of ruthlessness to Giles that they tried to ignore or justify. And then something else hits her. “Spike? But Spike—he died. When we lost Sunnydale, we lost him too. I’m sorry, Angel.”
Angel shakes his head, anger beginning to build again. But this time she senses that it’s not directed at her, but elsewhere. Towards Giles, she supposes. For all the good it will do him.
“I can’t believe he didn’t tell you,” Angel mutters. “I know he hates me, but to let them all die. That’s just too cruel.” He closes his eyes for a moment, and she knows he is struggling for control. “He’ll pay. I’ll make him feel the pain I felt as I watched them die, fighting for hours against all the evil Wolfram and Hart could throw at us. Where is he?” he demands, shaking her again.
“Westminster Cemetery,” she answers emotionlessly, watching as satisfaction and disappointment cross his face. “They’re all dead,” she tells him, feeling like she should add her name to the list of those departed.
She feels dead inside; she can’t even dredge up bitterness or anger. And she should be able to. They were her friends, after all.
And he seems not to care one bit.
“How?” he asks finally, a small bit of the compassion that she always used to associate with him is back in his eyes, and it makes her feel better. For a moment.
She can see them all, whenever she closes her eyes, which is why sleep is something she tries to avoid as much as possible. She can bring back the scene of their deaths, each new horror shocking her speechless.
“They were beaten. Butchered. Violated. It was a trap. Someone angry at the Immortal. Someone powerful.” She shudders again as she remembers it all. “Everyone’s dead except Xander. He and I were in China. We came back and found them. Xander’s still not over it.” Not that she is either. She just copes with it better.
She closes her eyes for a moment, wishing she could simply shove the images from her mind into his. Make him walk in her shoes for a few miles, she thinks bitterly.
Oh, it’s not that she lacks the power to do it. She could quite easily. But that is a violation in and of itself, and she knows she cannot do that to him. Even though she would like to replace the anger in his eyes with the shock and horror she lives with every time she remembers that scene.
“I’m sorry,” he murmurs, the hands on her shoulders pulling her forward now, holding her as she breaks apart, as the tears fall from her eyes.
She did not realize that tears were something she was still capable of. She has seen so much tragedy, so many horrors. She likes to pretend she’s numb to it.
But apparently she’s not.
“How did—what happened to the others? To—Spike? How?” The words come in jumbled half-sentences, as she tries to be considerate, to remember that she is not the only one who has lost loved ones.
He thinks for a moment, and then shakes his head quickly. “It’s a long story. Not enough time to tell it before the sun comes up. I need to find a place for the day.”
She’s feeling strong today; she hasn’t used magic in hours, so she closes her eyes and pops them back to her hotel room. Angel slips into gameface as the transition takes place, and she realizes she should have warned him. “Sorry,” she offers shyly.
His features melt back to human, and he gives her a glance filled with surprise and a bit of respect.
“I had no idea you were so…”
“Yeah,” she agrees. “It wears me out, but sometimes it’s just easier.”
“You take the first shower,” she insists. When he looks like he wants to be chivalrous and argue with her, she persists. “You’re dirty and sooty, and I bet you could really use a warm one. Don’t argue, or I’ll pop you back to Brazil.” She picks the name out of thin air, but her subconscious reminds her that it was the first place she saw him.
He glances at her and the beginning of a smile tugs at the corner of his lips. “’Kay,” he agrees, ducking into the bathroom and leaving her alone.
But as the sound of running water reaches her, she finds that she doesn’t feel quite so alone anymore. Maybe they can help each other. Maybe he can help her fill that empty space inside of her that threatens to eat everything else, until she’s left with nothing.
Maybe this is the start of something new. Something better. Stranger things have happened.
End of Amongst the Dead and Dying