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DeadWar: And Having Writ

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  • DeadWar: And Having Writ

    Disclaimer: All nonoriginal characters herein are property of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. You don't seriously think I could make money off this, do you?

    Rating/Warnings: PG-13 for substantial violence and character death

    Characters/Pairings: Ensemble; includes Dawn/Connor and Xander/Illyria content.

    Beta: frogfarm

    ‘But it did exist! It does exist! It exists in memory. I remember it. You remember it.’
    ‘I do not remember it,’ said O’Brien.
    --George Orwell, 1984

    Sometimes Clem wondered how he'd been so lucky. After twenty years as a small-timer on the Hellmouth, he'd pretty much come to expect that his life wasn't going to change much. Oh, every now and then he'd dreamed of winning enough at poker to start his own business, but somehow there always seemed to be plenty of kittens for sale on the human market; you could hardly give them away.

    Tonight wasn't one of those nights. Oh, Caritas was bustling, all right, making it all his wait staff could do to keep everyone's plates and glasses full, but still racking up the profits like mad. And unlike the previous Host, he wasn't obligated to be entertainment or read destinies. No, it was his other job that was bothering him, the one Rupert Giles, Watcher, had imposed as a condition of purchase. Ten smackers for one burnt-out nightclub and whatever work was required to make it operational; in return, Clem kept his finger on the pulse of demon society in Los Angeles. Specifically, at the moment, that meant reporting hypertension and a heart rate high enough to put a Siamese kit in cardiac arrest.

    "Boss," Tamen grumbled for the fourth time in an hour, tugging at his sleeves, "the debate's getting ugly." Tonight was a no-humans night, not that Clem had anything against them; Giles himself had requested in the last month that he provide a forum for this sort of thing, and having humans around would have thrown a spanner into the works.

    "It's been ugly all night," Clem groaned. It was what he got for having a Kwaini on the wait staff, he guessed. "The sanctuary spells'll keep anything bad from going down." Though he had to admit it was a little disturbing having a teenage Lister demon mount the podium and start spouting anti-human propaganda--well, anti-Slayer propaganda, but it amounted to the same thing at the moment.

    "No, Clem," Tamen insisted. "That's not what I mean." She pointed into the second-floor gallery, where three Thesulac had materialized, looking like an improbable trio of Sith Lords in their black cloaks. "They're not the only ones here, just the only ones full enough to materialize."

    "Ouch." Trouble was, keeping tabs meant, y'know, keeping tabs. If he kicked out the Thesulac, other paying customers would-- Paying customers! "Tamen, if they're full, then they've been eating. In my establishment. Right?"

    Tamen blinked, then grinned. "I'll present them with a bill for the 'all-you-can-eat buffet'."

    "And if they don't like that, they can tell it to the bouncers on the way out." It turned out that Fyarl mucus didn't count as violence, and there weren't many creatures it didn't immobilize.

    Not liking violence didn't make Tamen stupid. She grimaced briefly, then winked at him and trotted off to print out a bill. Crisis number 4812 averted. Now for 4813....
    "Harm, calm down. Since when do cheerleaders get stage fright?" Anne brandished a crutch at a bouncer and vamped out. "Yes, I'm a demon. No need to run me through the metal detector, okay?" The Fyarl muttered something unintelligible and threw up its hands. "Harm, show him your game face."

    "Everyone wants to see my game face lately. You, Faith...well, just you and Faith." Harmony waved the bouncer off. "I haven't been a cheerleader in years. Anyway, we're not the show here and I'm worried that somebody will freak out if she doesn't get listened to."

    "She can't do any more violence than we can." Anne hoped that was true, at least. Illyria sent most demon detectors into overload, and it was usually the really specific ones that didn't recognize her, but if she outclassed the sanctuary didn't matter anyway, she reminded herself.

    Illyria directed a glare at her, then another at the bouncer, and a third at the deactivated metal detectors. "We are here for open parley. Violence would be counterproductive, unless we are betrayed."

    Anne did her best to ignore Harmony's snicker and obligatory Johnny Depp remark. "Is that an Old One custom, then?"

    "It is pragmatism. I cannot recall a negotiation that was not betrayed by someone, in my time, but this weak era would not dare."

    "You might be surprised what we'd dare." Anne gathered herself and gestured to Harmony to step forward.

    Neither of them had a chance to speak before the Lister gesticulating onstage pointed directly at them and shouted "Slayer lackeys! Agents of the human oppressor!" She thought she recognized him from the last group that'd passed through; radical perspectives like that were one of the few ways to get expelled from a Lister clan. The bouncers began to move toward the stage--no one could attack them in here, but if they were dragged out that would change quickly. On the other hand, maybe it was a risk she should take, under the circumstances.

    "Hey!" It was Harmony. "Hello, do I look like I have a soul? It's only been a day since I was on the run from Slayers!" Anne blinked and let her run with it. "I'm nobody's lackey, and I'm here for someone--um, someone else who's nobody's lackey, and if you call her one I'm sure she'll be happy to take it outside and kick your heiny!"

    "We're here as entourage," Anne spoke up, "for Illyria, God-King of the Primordium, Master of Time and Lord of Vahla'hanesh, who deigns to share some very important information with all of you. It could be a little disturbing, but we ask that you please remain calm." That the information was second-hand from some semi-friendly Slayers was best left unspoken.

    The Lister sneered, but stepped down from his podium. "I yield the floor to the kingdomless--ahem--King."

    Illyria met his stare, though her eyes narrowed a bit when he failed to back down, and mounted the stage. "My kingdom will recognize me in due time. As for you, my subjects--I offer this information as an act of goodwill." Her arms went out stiffly, attempting an encompassing gesture. "Our enemies are prepared to strike at any moment. This building is surrounded by Slayers, who stand prepared to dispatch any survivors of the bomb which now lies in the catacombs beneath. I have braved this danger to--" There was a moment of hesitation, marked by the abrupt materialization of another pair of Thesulac.

    Then the crowd went mad.
    "Please depart the building in--" Clem didn't have a chance to finish; a parasite demon slammed into him from the left. It wasn't even an attack; she'd been crashed into by a fleeing Skilosh, who in turn was only trying to get out of the way of a cluster of Kwaini, who--anyway, the upshot was, Clem was knocked winding and slammed into a table. Here and there various patrons were smashed aside as they got a little too rough trying to squeeze through, only to carom into others from the reaction (so much for the expense of that spell!). Clem watched detachedly as a Thesulac's face went from satisfied delight to confused anger; he had the notion that the fellow was being trampled by a group of terrified Brachen, but sailing over the table made it really hard to see clearly.

    To his surprise, he heard the announcement being shouted in Fyarl. Evidently the bouncers' training had taken better than he'd realized. He clawed his way over toppled chairs to spy "Mutt", "Dag", and "Redcloak" manhandling the crowd through the nearest door. Tamen and the wait staff began repeating the announcement in English and several demon languages, though only a couple were nearly loud enough to be really audible over the chaos.

    "Illyria!" Harmony staggered past supporting Anne, who'd lost one of her crutches. "Illyria, damn it, give Clem a hand!"

    The bizarre blue demoness' eyes bulged, and for a moment it looked as if she was going to test out the anti-violence spells herself. "Half-breed, I will not be spoken to in--"

    Clem was certain that Harmony was gaping out of shock at having addressed the "God-King" the way she had, but only for a moment. Then Harmony vamped out. "You came here to help. So help! You can drop-kick me off a skyscraper later. And if you call me a 'half-breed' again I'll steal that stupid Slayer pig-sticker and use it to replace the stick up your butt!"

    He didn't even have time to cringe. Illyria backhanded the blonde vampire in the face with enough force to shatter steel...

    ...and found herself skidding across the floor on her ass. Clem felt Harmony seize him by the arm--she was totally uninjured--and haul him up. Illyria's eyes had gone still wider in mortification; then he lost sight of her as an Ethros demon stumbled, cursing, over her prone form. "I can't believe you said that."

    Harmony's voice shook. "I...I can't believe it myself. But I spent the last couple of weeks standing up to Slayers, Buffy included. I figure if I'm gonna get myself dusted it doesn't matter that much who does it."

    "It's about time someone stood up to Illyria," Anne said, hanging on to Harm's other side. "Also if Kate isn't on the ball we'll all be lucky to get out of here in one piece anyway."

    "Miss Blue really screwed things up good," Clem groaned. "Though I guess the alternative would've been to keep quiet and let us get blown up."

    "They've got to have seen we're leaving," Anne stated calmly. "Something must be going right."
    This wasn't going well at all. Kate leveled her gun at Kennedy and tried to remain calm. "I've notified the police, and there's a crack anti-terrorist squad on the way here." She'd have been more comfortable keeping quiet and calling the police to bring a bomb squad, but Faith had confirmed that the device was designed to trigger if anyone tampered with it, and monitored from several locations. Whatever else these girls were, they were thorough.

    "You kids don't look like the terrorist type to me," Joe opined. "What say you disconnect this stuff and we all leave? No one has to get arrested over this."

    One of the Slayers--a tiny dark-skinned girl wearing a tight headscarf--fidgeted nervously and turned toward Kennedy, mouth opening. Neither had the chance to say a word. "It's not terrorism," growled a hefty blonde with an Aussie accent. "It's Slayin' demons. An' you can't stop us, neither, not without a lot more guns'n that."

    Kennedy glowered at the blonde. "Jaylynne, we can die just like anyone else. Stay calm and let me do the talking. Kate--you are Kate Lockley, right? I heard Giles and Angel talking about you--this is our job. We keep people safe. I'd have expected you to understand."

    "With bombs? That's a little more high-tech than I heard Buffy used to--"

    "Well, none of us is Buffy!" Kennedy leaned forward, and Kate felt herself flinch a little, but she kept the gun pointed steady. "New situation. New rules. The police can't stop us, and they definitely can't stop them. We can."

    "This isn't Sunnydale," Kate pointed out. "Maybe the LAPD can handle demons, and maybe it can't, but I guarantee you they'll find some way of dealing with a bunch of college girls holding a bomb trigger. Even if it means bringing out the automatic rifles and the snipers. I figure you have maybe three more minutes to come quietly before they arrive. Then it's a choice between being shot or being hauled off to Gua--" Sirens blared and lights began to flash. "Faster than they used to be. Time's up."

    Kennedy's shoulders slumped; she released the trigger and started to hand it to Kate. "Okay, sewers, n--!" A blur of motion shot between them, and reflexively, Kate fired.
    "Everybody keep moving!" Anne shouted as the Fyarl bouncers hustled them out the door. "Keep moving!" They had to clear everyone out of the blast range as fast as possible, or there was a good chance someone would notice the exodus and set off the bomb. Some demons couldn't be killed except by odd things like silver or drowning, but most--herself included--were vulnerable to, say, fire or dismemberment, and if the bomb went off there'd be plenty of those. For her part, Harm was all but dragging her and Clem, which didn't leave them much of a choice in the matter.

    "Where's Illyria?" asked Clem.

    "We lost her in the crowd," Harmony said dismissively. "She'll be fine. She could be standing right on top of the bomb and it probably wouldn't hurt her."

    Anne estimated that maybe three-quarters of the patrons were outside, if not necessarily at a safe distance yet. In a few places it looked as if they'd smashed right through the walls, but that'd be nothing to worry about unless Caritas was still standing tomorrow.

    "Keep moving," Anne muttered. Her legs were already shaking, taking more and more effort to keep under control. "We need to get further away."

    Clem frowned--not that it was easy to tell, with all those folds. "Um, okay. Aren't we out of range yet?"

    They weren't more than fifteen feet from the building yet, and still in the way of people trying to get out. "Clem, you--"

    Something behind her roared and lifted her into the air like a jet taking off. A wave of bodies slammed against her back, setting off an eruption of cold pain that somehow coexisted with the rush of heat that swallowed her. The bodies covered her, twisted around her, tangling arms and legs and possibly a few tentacles, and for a moment she had no idea where the ground had gotten to.

    Her remaining crutch had been torn from her grasp, and her arms and legs felt as if they were burning up from the inside. Steeling herself, she pushed up, feeling sticky flesh beneath her hands. "Harmony? Clem?" Her voice was swallowed in a chorus of similar calls. Hands were pressing against her; someone's boot grazed her forehead and she realized that she had vamped out instinctively.

    Then she felt a hand seize her by the arm and pull her up. "Anne?" Harmony's voice wasn't one of her favorites, but she made an exception.

    "I'm okay," Anne mumbled. "More or less. Where's Clem?" Illyria could wait.

    "I don't know!" Harmony looked frantically around. "I can't see him!" Several bodies were shoved violently aside to Anne's left, revealing a red-suited arm.

    Somehow, even bruised, bleeding, her bodysuit ripped, Illyria exuded dignity--albeit wounded--as she dragged herself from the squirming masses. A trickle of reddish saliva leaked from the corner of her mouth. "I was unsuccessful," she stated mournfully, "again."

    "Yeah," Anne said, "and for once it's a real tragedy. Do you see Clem anywhere?"

    Illyria set her jaw and looked away, but at that moment a Fyarl wearing a red rain slicker pulled the wrinkly demon from the pavement a yard or two away. "Clem," the Fyarl said blurrily. "Hrrosh vah zo?"

    Clem's eyes were unfocused, and as she watched the left one drifted inexorably upward, while the right remained fixed. Very bad sign. Brain damage?...assuming Clem even had a humanlike brain. "Kitthies?" he mumbled. The Fyarl let go of him for a moment, and he sagged forward, revealing a chunk of brick embedded in the back of his head. The Fyarl grabbed his arm again and repeated its unintelligible question--presumably something on the order of "Are you okay?" Though Clem plainly wasn't, but perhaps Fyarls wouldn't understand that.

    Anne tried to move towards him and found her own legs hopelessly wobbling. Harm snatched her up again before she could collapse. "Clem?"

    Clem's right eye tried to focus on her, and his mouth moved. Then he began to sag forward again despite the Fyarl's grip. His arm came away, drooping like ice cream melting in the sun as the rest of his body fell to the pavement. The wrinkles of his face melted together, became mush. Clem was a puddle in the street, shrinking, evaporating...gone.

    The Fyarl bellowed, an inarticulate roar of rage and grief. "Oh god," Harmony wailed, and nearly dropped Anne as she bent down to pick up Clem's torn shirt. "Clem? Clem!"

    Anne wrapped an arm around her, as much for comfort as support. "Harmony...he's dead. Clem's dead. And we need to--" She stopped, looking up.

    An arc of Slayers was forming around the survivors.
    Even blocks away, even over the crack of her gun, Kate could hear the bomb go off. Jaylynne collapsed practically into her arms, holding the trigger weakly. Kate didn't have to think about it; she let the girl fall. She might be dead; she might not; Kate just couldn't bring herself to care. She addressed Kennedy. "Happy now?"

    "You seem to think the answer's 'yes'. No, I'm not happy. But we've done our job." A pounding began downstairs, police banging on the door of the warehouse.

    "I guess," Kate said with a shrug, "and I've done mine. So what's the plan now? Building's surrounded. Thinking of taking us hostage, maybe? Because I still have a few old friends in the department, and I promise you, that will not end well for you."

    "Not really." Kennedy looked each girl in the eye, one by one. "Fallback plan B. Don't resist. Kate, we're going to come quietly. You know why."

    "Faith was in a minimum-security women's prison," Kate shot back. "Holding a Slayer may be hard, but if you think it's impossible, think again." Surely, locked in individual rooms in solitary confinement, under heavy guard.... It could be done. She had to believe it could be done.

    "There aren't just the five of us," said a young redheaded girl who had been silent until now. "Right now there are a dozen surrounding Caritas. And that's just the beginning. If they have to, they'll come to spring us."

    "Then they'll be shot on sight," Kate said, half-bluffing. She'd tried to warn the police that Faith should be considered armed and dangerous even when she was in the shower, but evidently no one had listened. She kicked Jaylynne, and was only slightly surprised when the girl stirred.

    "...hero..." Jaylynne mumbled. "...died like a Slayer."

    Kennedy bent over her, but Kate didn't allow her the chance to speak. "If you die now," she spat, "you die a criminal. I don't care if all you're charged with is destruction of property; I will see you and your friends in jail." Maybe Jaylynne understood that, or maybe the expression on her face had more to do with the pain. Good enough.

    Someone kicked in the door.
    Anne recognized them all, and they recognized her. Deann. Kimberly. Ingrid. One or two she couldn't name, but she knew all their faces. She'd worked with them, a little. Somehow she wasn't seeing a lot of respect in their expressions.

    "Come and fight me," Illyria spouted. "Come, and wear your own spines as garlands." It was Illyria's way, but it was also the worst possible tactic. You didn't challenge a Slayer head-on like that, because they would always, always call you on it. Harmony's response was no better; she was fidgeting and chewing at her nails.

    Anne pushed herself away from Harmony, feeling her legs threaten to crumple beneath her. Good. Let them see it. "You've come looking for easy meat, haven't you? You brought your special weapons for the handful of us who couldn't be killed by the explosion. Only, silver is soft and I don't drown, and there are at least a hundred of us to a dozen of you."

    "We're Slayers!" shouted an unusually-tall Chinese girl. "We could take you all down if there were a thousand."

    "Maybe you could," Anne allowed. "Probably some of you will die, but you don't care about that, do you. I don't see the Scythe with you, but there's probably some other way to take out Illyria. Eventually. I don't expect to last five seconds, personally, but that's how it goes. What I'm worried about is how you plan to deal with them."

    The sound of sirens and glare of flashing lights filled the air. Anne tried not to jam her fingers in her ears.

    "We're the good guys here," Kimberly shouted. "You're a bunch of demons, and the police will see that!"

    "Yeah," Harmony said derisively, "the good guys always blow up buildings."

    "The police monitor places like this one," Anne pointed out reasonably. "Some of them don't know why, but they know they can be trouble spots. Most of them have at least a few human patrons, most nights. I can pass for human. So can Harmony. Heck, Illyria, would you testify to the police as Fred, if that were what it took to punish these little 'vermin' appropriately?" Illyria gave a deeply reluctant nod, and Anne pressed on before she could do more than open her mouth. Illyria hadn't done so well with the diplomacy tonight. "We're not the only ones, either. I suggest you get out while the getting is good."

    The sirens grew louder. "We will find you, demons," Ingrid growled, "and we will slay you. But not tonight." With a handful of muttered insults, the Slayers turned and vanished into the darkness.

    "They're pretty good at that, for humans," said a Kun'gai demon through a thick accent. The tip of his horn was broken off, but only the tip; she suspected it'd heal. "You really expect us to trust to human justice? Be glad we were all so shaken, then. I think the Fyarls would've attacked anyway if they weren't being held back."

    "Human justice is good for some surprising things, if you let it be. I meant that about testifying. Help me tell the others: anyone who can look human should. We're going to tell the police exactly what we saw and heard. Then we're going to court, and if you ask me...I think we're going to crucify them."
    "You can't be serious!" Mr. Giles was appalled. "As much as I deplore their methods, the precedent it would set to testify against Slayers in a court of law for performing their duties--"

    Anne leaned back in her wheelchair--thankful for the chance to rest--and folded her arms. "So now blowing up buildings with innocent people inside is a Slayer duty?" Mr. Giles began to splutter questions about "innocent" and "people". "I'm not a person to you, is that it? Because I was under the impression that I was when I agreed to share information with you. Not to mention you've been helping take good care of me, for which--thank you again."

    "Well, of course you are, but not even you would claim to be precisely innocent, and you were only there because of--"

    "No," she said softly, dropping her head for a moment. "I'm not innocent. But you know Clem had Kwaini on the wait staff, right? They're pacifists. They wouldn't hurt a fly, though I admit Tamen looked mad enough to throw a punch afterwards if it'd do any good. Everybody's got a breaking point, I guess. There were Brachen in there, too, and some others. Aren't they innocent to you, or aren't they people? I mean, come on, Mr. Giles, did you tell Clem you didn't care if he lived or died when you bought up Caritas and handed it to him?"

    "She's got a point, Rupert." Kate Lockley was probably contributing to Mr. Giles' discomfiture, sitting in the office chair while he had to stand. "I've never cared much for demons, but I think the real threat from them isn't so much what they are as the fact that they aren't held accountable under the law. There are some that I don't know what the hell we'd do with--the really powerful ones, or the types that have to prey on humans to live--but if Anne can find a way to make a start here, I'm sure not gonna get in her way."

    "Ms. Lockley," he started again, overly reasonable, "surely you know why this can't work. The mass of humanity simply is not ready to confront the reality of demons. There would be panic, mass persecutions. Possibly even wars. You would not believe what I have seen people close their eyes to, because they could not bear to admit openly what they saw. But to force the issue in a courtroom...."

    "All right," Kate said flatly, "if not now, then when? Wouldn't believe you? I've seen it happen myself. I lost my place on the force because people wouldn't accept what I told them, Rupert, or did you forget? But if it's really because we're not ready, when will we ever be? You told me yourself, people knew more than we do in the damn Dark Ages! Were they ready then, and now we're not? How does that work?"

    "Perhaps," Mr. Giles suggested, "the Dark Ages were dark because we knew, and were not ready."

    "Mr. Giles," Anne put in tiredly, "anyway it doesn't matter. We're not going to be talking about demons, unless the Slayers start it, and then they'll look crazy. They'll be held accountable for their actions, but I'm not trying to expose anything. I'm not looking to wind up staked by some wannabe vampire hunter. You'll probably get the Hyperion back. Didn't you want that?"

    "Not this way." Giles looked almost as tired, suddenly. "Anne, dissension in the Council is not unheard of, but these fights have always been waged in secret, with quiet influence or under the Council's internal jurisdiction and rules."

    "Have you considered the possibility that that's the problem?"

    "We're in the middle of a disastrous conflict. Can we really afford to risk crippling our Slayers?"

    Anne clenched her jaw. "Sorry to burst your bubble, Mr. Giles, but after tonight I'm tempted to say yes. And if you're determined to keep treating humans like mushrooms, stop being so surprised when they act that way."
    Sometimes Illyria didn't move. It meant she was overwhelmed. And while Willow suspected it was possible for that to happen in a good way, the handful of times she'd seen or heard of had been despair.

    Right now Illyria was sitting crosslegged on the roof. No tears. No huddling. She was just sitting there. Whether that was better or worse than lying prone on the floor, or if it even made a difference, Willow didn't really know. But being on the roof probably meant she'd felt closed in.

    "I'm sorry the apartments are small," she started. "Mr. Nabbit thinks that legally, we can evict the Council from the Hyperion, but they might not cooperate. We'll get your room back somehow."

    "No. You will not."

    "Illyria, trust me. These things happen. I know you're--"

    "You will not, because I will not be among you." Illyria looked up into Willow's eyes, her expression utterly unreadable. If not for the blank, bleak misery in her voice....

    Willow sat down in front of her. "You're one of us now. We don't abandon our friends."

    "To imagine that I am your friend displays monumental arrogance. I will not be among you."

    "You're going to leave?" Willow had always expected it, really. Calling her a friend had been sort of a stretch. The Old One's only real tie to the group had been Angel, and now he was gone. No one she'd reached out to--mostly Dawn and Xander--had really reached back, and likewise Illyria hadn't responded much to Willow's attempts either.

    "I will never have been here," Illyria said, almost too softly to hear, and produced a vial of sand. What did she use for pockets, anyway? Did she--? Never mind that. "Because you will make it so."

    "I don't know what you're talking about." Though something about the sand.... Illyria unfolded a sheet of paper, revealing a printed photograph of Fred, and set it beside the vial.

    Illyria gazed at her reproachfully. "You do. It is obvious." A third item completed the arrangement.

    "Illyria, I don't know what you expect me to do with an Orb of Thesulah and...and we can't waste those, where did you even get that?" In spite of her best efforts, a diagram had begun to form in her mind. It was like the time she'd tried to plan out making a globe of sunlight, or how to raise Buffy from the dead, and that was probably the worst possible sign, the way those things worried at the edges of her brain....

    " of no concern to you. I understand now that I do not belong here. Had I realized, I could have done this myself...before. But you have the capability, if only you recognized your own power."

    "I think you'd better tell me what you're thinking." Because it couldn't be that. It was outrageous, audacious...insane. And it just might possibly work, and....

    "You will speak to Eryshon the Endless, and you will restore the shell's--" Illyria halted, seeming to gather breath. "You will restore the soul of Winifred Burkle from before the moment of her death."

    No. Just.... "No. I can' don't know...I've told you what I saw. It tapped into some sort of hell dimension."

    "It tapped into the alternate timeline the vengeance demon created. Your description made that plain. No such thing will happen if that which you seek was not lost there. Yet again you seek to deny what you have become. What you fear is power. What you fear is yourself."

    "You really believe this. You believe I can bring Fred back."

    "I have known this for some time. I have even desired it, in moments of...weakness. But if you will not, I will ask the Key. The power lies within her as well, though she has only just begun to make use of it."

    "Leave Dawn out of this. She might...Illyria, why? Why now? I don't believe this is about Fred, not to you."

    Fred's face turned away from her. "That is not your concern. I demand that you restore her."

    "Why just her soul, then? Why not bring all of her here?"

    "There is...if she does not wake me, another will have. I do not desire...that."

    The sour note of falseness swelled over everything else. "Illyria...what happens to you if I do it?"

    "That is not--"

    "You're making it my concern. What happens to you?"

    "If the shell is empty...if it has no animating force...there will have been nothing for the fires to burn. The resurrection will have failed." Illyria's voice dropped nearly to a whisper again. "And I will have...ceased to be. Utterly."

    "Oh my god."

    "No longer. And never." Illyria reached out and placed the vial of sand in Willow's palm. "End this farce. End me."

    "You're asking me to--"

    "I returned to restore my empire. I have failed. I am already nothing. A shameful husk of myself. A pauper monarch. I concede the loss. Now let me abandon the game."

    "You're asking me to become Knox. I won't do it."

    "I am not human. You care nothing for my existence."

    A part of her cried out agreement, and Willow shoved it viciously down. That impulse wasn't worthy of a voice. "That's not true. Maybe if I'd known right after, I'd have done it. But not now. You're here, and Fred is gone, and I can't do this to you. I don't care what you are. You are."

    "You will do as I--"

    "No. You made me take you to Vahla'hanesh, so you could see your city again. You let me see what happened there. It was horrible, and if...if someone did that, if it wasn't just a disaster, or was evil. You can't ask me to finish it. I won't."

    "I would have led that army to destroy your world. They would have crushed your precious humanity, everything you know, because I willed it so. I would have annihilated you."

    "And if you'd tried to do that, I'd have fought back. We'd have done what we had to to survive. But it didn't happen that way. It never could have, because they were gone."

    Illyria's face contorted. "Obey me!" She could have reached out, snapped Willow's neck like a twig....

    ...and even so, Illyria was powerless. That was why she was angry, and all Willow could feel was pity. "No."

    She found one more card to play. "You can restore her. She is your own kind. I have been told, over and over, that humans care more for yourselves than us. Cease your lies."

    Willow dropped her gaze. "I...maybe. A little. But you've given me time to think it through, and it won't work." She could see it, now. "Without you, Angel wouldn't have stood a chance. So no matter when I restored Fred to her body, she'd be dead by now. She definitely couldn't have lived through that fight in the alley."

    "But she would be. You value that."

    "Not enough. And if Wolfram & Hart really took over, for all I know she wouldn't. Neither of us can see what would've happened after that. I'd like to think that there's some way to get her back...somehow. But this isn't it. I'm sorry. I can't give you what you want. Why would you want this? Why now?" Illyria had had plenty of chances to ask for this before today.

    "Once again I have been reminded that I do not belong here. My empire is gone, and I cannot rebuild it. No one here will serve me." She essayed a smirk; it looked horrible on her. "Perhaps I should have accepted the Scourge's puerile servility. If they believe purity, they know nothing."

    Willow made no attempt to suppress disgust. "Very bad idea. Utter badness, I promise."

    "As I have heard humans say before...the denizens of this era will not follow me even to save their lives. All that I have done, forward from my plans to sleep--all has been futile."

    How to respond to that? Nothing ever went the way you planned it. It was the human condition. Illyria wouldn't appreciate that comparison, though. "People change, Illyria. You're thousands of years behind the times. I know you don't like to adapt, but...nothing's stopping you from being a leader except you."

    "You truly believe this?"

    "Come to Clem's funeral, Illyria. Listen. Pay attention to how we motivate each other. You might learn something."

    "If you suppose that it will make a difference...." Illyria still hadn't moved an inch from the spot she was in.

    Willow tried to stand, to work life back into her snoozing feet. "It can't hurt to try."
    None of this had happened. It couldn't have.

    Xander could feel the bones of his face melt and change, his fangs sink into Cordelia's neck. Willow's chill presence beside him. He could smell Cordy's expensive perfume, the fear in her sweat, the blood as it spurted from her arteries and flowed down his throat, warm and coppery and alive.

    It was too detailed to be false. It was too much, and yet he couldn't stop himself. He'd never been this. It never happened.

    "Shows what you know," Cordelia said, rising back to her feet. The mark of his fangs was fresh on her neck.

    Xander reached up toward his face...stopped. He didn't want to feel that. "I think I'd know if it had."

    "Well, no, you'd be dead, right? You wouldn't know anything. Isn't this just a demon? Nothing at all to do with you?" Cordelia shrugged. "I would have expected Anya to tell you. She told you everything else, didn't she? But maybe this one was a little too close for comfort."

    He understood, then. "This is the other timeline. Where she lost her powers."

    "You bet. Neat, isn't it? You and Willow as vampires. At least she's halfway cool. You, not so much, but I guess even a demon needs something to work with. Oh, and the Master's about to take over the world. Even Buffy can't beat him now."

    "But it didn't happen. Not really."

    "Oh, it happened. You'd better believe it happened. Anya made it happen, for me. Hey, at least Angel gets dusted. That should make you happy, right?"

    "It got undone. I didn't kill you." Thank God for that. Just because things hadn't ended so well didn't mean he wanted Cordy to die.

    "Tip of the iceberg, Xander. But you know that. Hey, did she ever tell you she slept with the guy, back in the day?"

    Or maybe he did. She seemed way too enthusiastic about this...whatever-it-was. "What guy?" He'd managed to keep Anya from going into too many details about those. Most of them had been demons, after all.

    "What guy d'you think? Bat-face. Though he didn't look it back then. Not much older than Angel. They actually sorta made a cute couple, if you like veiny and fangy."

    "She dated the Master? What--no, never mind. I don't want to know." Even Anya must have realized this was TMI. She'd never told him. And anyway, this was a dream. He was dreaming. It hadn't really happened.

    "He killed some girl whose wish she wanted to grant. They had a fight. It happens. Might've even been for the best. I think she was, like, Charlemagne's niece or something. Could've taken out half of Europe that way." Cordelia winked at him conspiratorially. "She did things like that, you know. Oh, yeah--she told you. Over and over. Never quit talking about it, right to the end."

    "Damn it, Cordelia, just shut up!" They're not on the street any more. He's not a vampire. They're standing outside Sunnydale High together. "Fine, she told me. But she quit. She was human. She couldn't have done that kind of thing any more even if she wanted to."

    "Right. Because humans don't start wars or revolutions or even kill people, do they? I think she told you about Anastasia. That one made Anyanka kind of a legend, you know. Because--guess what--it almost never happens that way. It's overreaching. People find out, they get desperate, and the vengeance spell gets broken. Humans pretty much have to do that kind of thing themselves." Cordelia glanced over at another version of him as Anya approached. "She got away with that one. Scary stuff, if you actually bother to think about the results."

    "What're you saying, Cordy? I shouldn't have forgiven her?" Vampire Willow slunk past, leering at him, and was gone. Anya was asking the other him to the prom.

    "Maybe she didn't deserve it." The past Xander made a face he hadn't and began to tell Anya where to go instead of the dance. "It could have gone this way. This is how you treat demons, after all. That's what she used to be, what she wanted to be again at this point. She just didn't get the chance. You go stag. Nobody dances with you. But you feel good about yourself, 'cause you stuck it to evil vengeance girl. How's it sound?"

    "Not so great about the prom part. But maybe she'd still be alive."

    "And fighting the good fight?" Cordelia seemed to think that was funny. "She did that part for you, stupid. At first, anyway. Because it was what you cared about. But you never know. How about a typical future for this one?"

    The dream blurred. "This is a dream, isn't it?"

    "Oh, definitely. I'm dead, remember? PTBs not big on dead people running around in the real world."

    The dream settled on one of Sunnydale's churches. He thought the him from this time was still outside; Buffy was here, waling on Faith. Or was it the other way around? "You're disgusting," Buffy--no, Faith--grated.

    "This is when they switched bodies." Xander remembered this. It was one of the crazier, more twisted things that'd happened on the Hellmouth. "That's Buffy in Faith's body."

    "Uh-huh." Cordelia seemed to be concentrating on the fight. "Here it comes." Buffy grabbed Faith's hand--there was a flare of light between them. "Back to normal now, and...."

    "I hate you," Faith snarled. "I wish you were never born."

    "Done," said a deep, distorted voice. Anya--no, Anyanka had materialized to one side of the pulpit.

    "Oops," Cordy mused. "Guess somebody didn't quit looking. Oh, and that? Looks scary and sorta painful." Buffy screamed. Her clothes began to loosen; she seemed to be shrinking out of them.

    No. That was absurd. "But--but Anya only granted the wishes of--"

    "Scorned women? Hello, Xander, wake up and smell the K-Y. Seriously, you're telling me you missed it? All that tension between those two? Are you sure you're a guy?" Faith was staggering backwards, raising her fists toward the unexpected arrival. A tiny girl draped in Buffy's shirt stared in horror at her pudgy hands.

    Slowing. White flash.

    Cordelia was turning to run. Xander felt the bones in his face melt and shift. "...enjoy this," Willow was saying beside him.

    Together, they sank fangs into Cordy's flesh.

    "I don't think that worked out so great," Cordy said. "And this go-round, no Buffy to even try to take out the Master. Think Kendra coulda done it? Or Faith, maybe?"

    "Yeah, ri--you know what? I don't buy this. It's too convenient."

    "It's one possibility, Xander. I lied, this look actually works for you. But Anya doesn't figure as a big damn hero in any of these, and I think you know why. Also...she does still kinda like this place for some reason. Not too thrilled with it myself."

    "I don't get it, Cordy. You read me that act about the things she did. But--"

    Cordelia nodded. "She killed more people than Angelus ever did. She didn't deserve your forgiveness, Xander. And she told you, over and over, whether you heard it or not, because she was human enough to realize that. Only, if her entire life isn't enough to clue you in: payback? Not always the right answer. You took a risk. You took a monster and you helped her become a hero."

    "It can't always work like that."

    "No, it can't. You're right. But sometimes, if they want it, there's a chance."

    Xander reached up and put a hand to his face, feeling the ridges. He made them vanish. "This is supposed to be a clue-by-four, isn't it? Lot of people hitting me with those lately."

    "The dream, yeah. Not so much the vampire you. But could you do that again? I admit used to it, okay?"

    Ridges. Fangs. "I heard that story. Thought you'd made a big mistake."

    "Didn't turn out for the best. But it wasn't Angel's fault. One for old times' sake?"

    "Is this a vision thing?"

    "Xander. Already done that part." Her lips brushed against his. "Just saying bye. Oh...don't talk about this, okay?"

    "Don't...?" He was talking to the pillow.
    "It seems strange, having a funeral without the body, doesn't it?" Anne spoke simply, and just loudly enough to carry. She knew she wasn't a great speaker, because once or twice she'd had to do this before. "But it happens all the time. Explosions. Cave-ins. All kinds of things. If anything, it makes the loss harder. We keep looking for the people we've lost, but they aren't there to find.

    "I didn't know Clem that well. And normally, I wouldn't be the one speaking for him. But I insisted, because I think this is important. Clem didn't leave a will, because he couldn't be sure it'd matter. And that's not right. It's not fair.

    "I expect to die too, one day, and there's a bit of a poem I want read when I do. It wouldn't be quite right for Clem, but we don't know for sure what he wanted. He didn't get the chance to tell us. So this is from T. S. Eliot's 'Four Quartets':

    "'Ash on an old man's sleeve
    is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
    Dust in the air suspended
    marks the place where a story ended.
    Dust inbreathed was a house--
    the walls, the wainscot, and the mouse.
    The death of hope and despair--
    this is the death of air.'

    "I don't know what Clem believed in, if he believed in anything. I don't know where Clem is, if he's anywhere. I don't know what his life was like, or if anyone could say he deserved a heaven. But he deserves this much, at least--he deserves to be remembered.

    "Remember us, when we're gone."

    She turned and wheeled away.
    Dawn didn't know what to think when Xander came in and sat down next to her. So far, no one else had, even with the limited space available in Kate's office. Illyria never welcomed that sort of thing.

    "You gave her advice," Connor whispered back. "I thought you wanted to see her try."

    "Try, yes. Succeed, no." Illyria sat stiffly. Xander sat stiffly. They didn't look at each other. Maybe it didn't mean anything but Xander burying the hatchet, which wasn't so bad.

    Connor wrinkled his eyebrows. "You know she can probably hear us. Didn't you tell me you couldn't afford to have anything against demons when you're not sure what the Key was?"

    "I don't have anything against demons. The nonevil kind, anyway. Not so big on hellgods, though."

    "But you said, about Jasmine--"

    "I know what I said about her. And I don't really want to not like Illyria, exactly. But she keeps trying to be friends, or something, and I just...I can't do that. I don't know if I'll ever be able to do that. The way she talks about the Key--except for not wanting to use me, she sounds like Glory. Only nice, and I don't know how to take it. As far as I know, the Key was a thing. I'm not a thing, I'm Dawn Summers, but she makes it sound like it's the other way around."

    "So what you really mean is, it's personal."

    Of course it was personal. But then Anne went to the front to speak, and all Dawn could think of for a while was playing Monopoly. Clem had wanted to bet kittens on that too, but they'd only had the one, and Miss Kitty'd had serious objections. In the end he'd agreed to playing by her house rules, except for the part where Dawn started with Park Place for being the youngest. It'd been time to lose that rule anyway.

    "Sometimes I think I'll disappear too," she whispered at the end, "when I die. All of me. And nobody will remember I was ever here."

    "I'll never forget," Connor said. "I swear I'll never forget you."

    "Don't make promises you don't know you can keep." She could hear Xander apologizing for something. To Illyria, and that wasn't like him at all.

    "Then I should start making sure now. Dawn?"

    "No, I mean it," Xander was saying. "Look...I don't know if either of us can be what the other wants. But life's too short."

    "It is," the hellgod answered. "The fire comes for me." Xander just looked baffled.

    "Dawn? I said, maybe I should look into memory charms. I mean, I doubt any of us can do the sort of thing Cyrus Vail did, but one person, just in case. Are you listening?"

    "Mm. Something separate. Sounds good to me."

    "You also desire to control your destiny," Illyria said. "That much, if nothing else, I admit we have in common."

    Xander didn't quite manage not to laugh. "There's that. I just decided, if they don't want me and you do, what's it hurt to try?"

    "She could cut your head off to open a hellmouth," Dawn muttered.

    "What? Dawn, are you with me here?"

    "Sorry. I got distracted." She kissed him on the cheek. "I know you're talking about, like, my entire existence here. I'm sorry, I don't mean to ignore you." Illyria was staring at her. She hated when that happened. "I'll ask Willow about the memory thing, but I don't know what she'll say. It's a sore spot. I have a feeling doing it myself won't work."

    "Well, we're talking about remembering, not forgetting. That ought to be different." Now Illyria was staring at Xander. "Look, maybe we should discuss this in private."

    Uncertainly, even...timidly?... Illyria leaned towards Xander and brushed her lips against his cheek, then immediately recoiled. For a moment Dawn thought that Queen Smurfette had gasped, then realized she'd done it herself. "Maybe that's a good idea," Dawn said. She'd been over Xander a long time since. It was a stupid teenage crush!

    Connor took her hand and started leading her away, a little too fast for her to think he hadn't noticed. "...the most distasteful thing I have ever done," Illyria was saying.

    "Oh." That one syllable from Xander conveyed a world of disappointment and relief. Or maybe the relief was hers.

    "It was also the most pleasure I have known in months."

    "Oh. ...Well, I guess you never got to see Ghostbusters, then, did you?"

    Dawn walked faster. She didn't want to hear the rest.
    DeadWar: Burden of Proof
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