11. Willow

'Run!' Trix shouted. 'We'll lead it off.'

'Run where?' Anya shouted back.

The rat was practically on top of them. It was not very fast in and of itself, but its size meant that it could cover large distances in very few steps.

'Why couldn't you be a fire-breathing demon,' Drew asked Trix, 'or have some other useful power?'

'Sorry to be such a disappointment,' Trix retorted. 'But look on the bright side, kid. You're not going to be disappointed much longer.'

'You know, of all the ways I thought I might go,' Drew commented, 'being rat food wasn't even on the list.'

Trix grunted.

'Life's full of surprises.'

'You mean like that?'

Trix followed the line of Drew's finger. A car was roaring up the hill towards them. It swerved to a stop and Xander stuck his head out of the driver's window.

'Get in,' he ordered.

Ruth, Clem and Anya piled in and Xander floored the accelerator even as the doors were still closing.

'Hang on,' Xander said, 'I'm still not used to handling this thing.'

'I didn't know you could drive,' Anya said, 'I mean, not since your…accident.'

'What, you thought I was just going to roll off into the sunset?' Xander replied.

'But you never said.'

'You think I'm proud of this thing?' Xander demanded. 'You think I like being reminded that I'm a cripple.'

'Xander, you're not a cripple,' Anya insisted.

Xander shook his head.

'Guess I'd better get used to it.'

Anya reached across and brushed her fingers against the back of his hand.

'You came back for me,' she said.

'Yeah,' Xander replied, 'I guess I did.'

* * *

They pulled up in front of the house on Wigmore Street. Ruth needed a change of clothes and it was a good a place to regroup as any. While Ruth disappeared inside, the others gathered around Xander's car.

'Anyone got any bright ideas?' Drew asked.

'What we need,' Anya suggested, 'is a really big cat to eat the rat.'

'And what do we do with Kitten Kong once it's been fed?' Xander asked. 'Or do we have a really big dog waiting in reserve?'

'Well, I'm sorry,' Anya shot back indignantly. 'I was only suggesting.'

'No, I'm sorry, Ann,' Xander apologised tiredly. 'It's not like I've got any better ideas.'

'Well, I'm sure you'll come up with something,' Trix said as he revved the engine of his motorcycle.

'Hey, where do you think you're going?' Xander demanded.

Trix shrugged. 'Away. Be seeing you.'

'Hold up,' Drew shouted. 'You forgot your cards.'

He held up the pack he had found earlier.

'Thanks, kid,' Trix said, reaching out to take them back.

Drew kept a firm hold on them.

'What happened to paying your debts?' he asked. 'I saved your life tonight.'

'And if it wasn't for me, you'd still be down in that cave with fur-face,' Trix pointed out. 'I'd say we're even.'

He tried to pull the cards away, but Drew's grip was firm.

'Are you a gambling man, Trix?' he asked.

'What are you driving at?'

'A game,' Drew explained. 'If you win, you get to ride off with your tail between your legs, but if I win then you agree to help us.'

Trix shrugged.

'Why not?' he said.

'I don't believe you,' Anya said. 'You're going to let your life be determined by…by pure chance?'

'And your point is?' Trix asked. 'It's no worse than any other system I've found, certainly better than running your life based on a lady's favour.' He turned back to Drew. 'Let's keep things simple. Highest card wins. Deal?'

'Deal?' Drew agreed.

Trix turned over the top card of the pack. It was the Ace of Spades.

'Guess I won't be staying after all,' he said.

* * *

Ruth had barely stepped inside the door when Piv grabbed her.

'Hey, what's up, Dormouse?' Ruth asked. 'I'm in kind of a hurry to hit the shower.'

'It's Helena,' Piv explained hurriedly. 'I think…I think she's going to hurt someone.'

* * *

'Don't speak too soon,' Drew said, trying to sound confident. He reached for the next card. He hadn't lost yet, but the chances of him winning were…

He turned over the Ace of Diamonds and breathed a huge sigh of relief.

'Guess we try again,' he said. 'I'll go first this time.'

He flipped over the Seven of Clubs.

'Hmm, not bad,' Trix mused.

His fingers danced in the air above the pack, like an eagle circling its prey. Then they shot down and turned the uppermost card.

'What is it?' Anya cried. 'I can't see.'

Drew folded his arms triumphantly.

'Do you want to tell her or shall I?' he asked.

'Three of Diamonds,' Trix said flatly as he climbed off of his bike. 'Looks like I'm joining the ranks of the pest controllers.'

'Lucky us,' Xander muttered.

Ruth came running out of the house.

'Hey, I thought you were going to get changed,' Drew said.

'No time,' she told him. 'Drew, I need your help. Helena…my friend…she's gone crazy.'

'Helena?' Drew repeated. 'You don't mean Helena Joslin, do you?'

'You know her?'

'She's a friend of a friend,' Drew explained.

'Yeah, well, whatever,' Ruth continued. 'She's been going on about her sister and how she's going to make some guy pay.'

Drew considered.

'Her sister committed suicide,' he recalled, 'because of what her dad did to her.'

'You don't think she's going after him, do you?' Ruth said. 'Isn't he locked up?'

'His wife posted bail,' Drew explained. Ruth frowned at him so he continued. 'One of my other friends has a sister who's a lawyer. She's been keeping tabs on the case for us.'

'You know where this guy lives?' Ruth asked. Drew nodded. 'Then you're coming with me.'

She pushed Trix to one side.

''Scuse me, I need your ride,' she said.

'Sorry,' Drew offered to Trix as he jumped up behind Ruth.

'I didn't know you could ride a motorbike?' he said to Ruth.

'Yeah, because you know so much about me,' Ruth muttered. 'Just hold on tight.'

* * *

'I'll take it from here, little bit.'

Spike put a hand on my shoulder as he stepped in front of me. He was wearing black pants and a black shirt with several buttons undone.

'Who's that?' Janice whispered to me.

'You can see him?' I asked.

'Just about,' she admitted, 'but it's a real strain on the eyes. Is he a ghost?'

I nodded. 'That's Spike. Sometimes he's a friend, sometimes he's a murderous psychopath, but he was also Drusilla's lover for a hundred years.

'Some girls get all the luck,' Janice muttered.

'I knew you'd come back to me, my little Spike,' Drusilla purred. 'I knew that Slayer couldn't keep us apart forever.'

'More's the pity,' Spike retorted.

Drusilla hesitated.

'Why are you being so hurtful, love?' she asked, sashaying towards him. 'You're just teasing us, aren't you? Punishing me for abandoning you. But I've learnt my lesson, Spike, really we have.'

Spike laughed, causing Drusilla to take a step backwards.

'You really don't get it, do you, Dru?' he said. 'You were a mistake. You were the biggest mistake I ever made.'

'But…but I made you,' Drusilla pointed out.

'And that,' Spike replied, 'is the bloody problem.'

* * *

Dad was cruising slowly around Sunnydale searching for me. More than once he checked to make sure that the car doors were locked. Scenes like these were only played out on the news, not in a quiet little town like this. He had tried phoning the police, but the lines kept ringing out. Given what he was seeing, he suspected they had their hands full.

A brick crashed into his windshield, causing cracks to cobweb out across the glass. Dad slammed on the brakes and the car skidded to a halt at the side of the road. Blood pounded in his ears, nearly drowning out the shouts coming from outside. Now what was he going to do? He couldn't stay in the car indefinitely, but he wasn't about to step outside either.

Hands slammed down on top of the car. Dad could see bodies pressed against the windows. Then the car began to shake and he reached out to brace himself. Someone was pounding on the rear window, but it held. For now. Then the car tipped over.

Dad was hanging upside down, held in place by his seatbelt. And someone was kicking at the window of the driver's door. Dad unbuckled the belt with one hand, using his other arm to protect his head as he collapsed against the roof. Then he tried to crawl into the back of the car.

The window behind him shattered, spraying him with shards of glass, and hands reached inside the car and dragged him, kicking and yelling, out on to the street.

* * *

'Spike?' Drusilla said. 'Why are you being so mean? Bad puppy.'

Spike laughed again. 'Of course, it's all my fault, isn't it? Let me tell you a story, Dru, about a man named William. William was a poet. Not a great poet, but William was trying to create things of beauty.'

'Poor baby Spikey was a fool,' Drusilla snapped. 'We remember him, remember the taste. His blood was weak and thin, not rich like the prince we dreamed of.'

'Sorry I didn't live up to your expectations, love,' Spike replied, 'but if you will just drag anybody off the street…'

'Oh, but you did,' Drusilla purred. He hands wafted in Spike's direction, as if she were trying to stroke him without actually touching him. 'You were wonderful. You grew up to be a thing of dark beauty even better than we had imagined. You were the one, the perfect man. We always knew that.'

'That why you ran off with that Chaos Demon?' Spike asked.

Drusilla pouted.

'We can't all be perfect,' she said defensively, 'not like dear little Spikey. I was jealous and angry and upset and we didn't understand that that disgusting Slayer had used her powers to seduce you.'

'Too right,' Spike agreed. 'Should never underestimate a Slayer's 'powers'. She didn't want me, you daft bint, not at first anyway. I wanted her. I needed her so badly it hurt.'

'She charmed you with her wicked ways.'

'Wicked ways?' Spike laughed. 'Dru, pet, I know you don't exactly live on the same planet as the rest of us, but would you listen to yourself? Buffy was everything pure and good that I wasn't. But I want to be. She was one of those beautiful creatures William used to try and capture with words. She was a glimpse of the life I should have had, but never would. Thanks to you.'

'She would never have loved William,' Drusilla spat. 'No one would have ever loved William.'

'Maybe not,' Spike agreed, 'but at least he knew how to love.'

'We loved,' Drusilla insisted. 'The stars were witness to it. The cherubs danced and the lions told the crickets how much we loved.'

'No,' Spike told her. 'I don't know the word, but it wasn't love. Love is pure and giving and you and I were never pure, love.'

'We made you,' Drusilla snarled. 'We showed you sights of which you could only dream, the painted butterflies sipping from their floral cups, ignorant of the true powers in their midst. That was us. We owned the world, held it in our hands like a glittering Christmas bauble. Don't you remember how wonderful it was, like drinking champagne when all the bubbles go up your nose? It was magical. We were magical, like angels fallen from heaven. And I made it all possible for you.'

'You made me, all right,' Spike agreed. 'You killed all that was worthwhile and good in me.'

* * *

'You know, I envy them,' Anya said.

'And on behalf of everyone else here,' Xander replied. 'I say, huh?'

The four of them - Clem, Anya, Xander and Trix - were driving around Sunnydale in Xander's car. They weren't going anywhere in particular, but by unanimous consent they had decided that it beat sitting around in one place. Sunnydale looked like a war-zone. Fires burned, cars were abandoned in the middle of the street and spontaneous fighting was breaking out wherever they looked.

'I don't envy that teenager who had her head stoved in,' Trix added.

'Well, no,' Anya conceded, 'but just think about it for a moment. They're so caught up in their little bout of gratuitous violence that they are completely oblivious to what's really going on around them.'

'Whereas we get to revel in the full uncut version,' Xander said.

Clem raised a hand. 'Am I the only one clamouring for a PG-13 edit.'

The kitten in his lap mewed plaintively.

'Guess that means the motion's carried,' Trix commented.

'We should do something,' Anya said, her face pressed against the window.

'Like what?' Xander asked. 'In case you hadn't noticed, they outnumber us about ten thousand to one.'

'But the odds are getting better all the time,' Trix pointed out morbidly.

'But it's all so…horrible,' Anya protested.

'Horrible?' Xander repeated. 'This from the girl who spent the last thousand years inflicting grizzly vengeances on men.'

'That was different,' Anya insisted. 'I empower women. I allow them to act out their desires. But it's always their choice. This…none of them chose this. It's…it's just wrong.'

'I know, honey,' Xander said softly, 'I know.'

'Moving as all this is,' Trix interrupted, 'don't we have a bigger problem? And I do mean a bigger problem.'

'Ah yes, our friend Rizzo,' Xander agreed. 'Anyone got a swimming pool of rat poison stashed in their backyard?'

'A giant mousetrap?' Clem suggested. 'We could bait it with the town's entire cheese supply?'

'Now you're just being silly,' Xander told him.

'Sorry,' Clem replied. ' Just trying to enter into the spirit of things.'

'Whatever happened to the good old days of vampire slaying?' Anya mused. 'Then we just staked everything.'

The three guys stared at her, then turned and stared at each other.

'Are you thinking what I'm thinking?' they said in unison.

* * *

The wolf's howls became gurgles as a crossbow bolt lodged in its throat.

Wesley was crouched down on one knee by the entrance to the crypt, his crossbow cradled in his arms. The sky was filling with clouds, which obscured the moonlight. He had a torch with him, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to make out the wolves as they stalked closer. It would not be long before he would have to just fire in the direction of any sound and pray.

No sooner had he loaded another bolt than he aimed and let fly. He was rewarded by the sound of another wolf's death throes.

Then he tensed. He froze, not even daring to breathe. Something was close by. He could hear it padding through the grass, smell its fur. In one fluid movement, Wesley dropped the crossbow, scooped up his mace, turned and smashed open the wolf's skull.

He released the breath he had been holding and drew in a huge lung-full of air. Then he turned back to the rest of the pack.

They could sense it, sense that he no longer held the crossbow and could not hurt them from a distance. So they charged.

Wesley swung the mace. He could one beneath the jaw, shattering it, and then split open the skull of another wolf with the back swing.

But he was only one man against who knew how many wolves.

He backed up against the wall of the crypt so that they could not get round behind him and kept swinging, swinging constantly so that there was always a barrier between him and his assailants.

But his arm was tiring and the mace was getting heavier and heavier.

And he fumbled the mace.

And he lost his rhythm.

And the wolves that had been waiting for him to make that one fatal mistake sprang.

Halfrek grabbed a wolf by the throat and snapped its neck. She threw the corpse down onto the ground and the other wolves backed slowly away from it.

'Miss me?' she asked, offering Wesley a hand up.

'You've no idea,' Wesley replied, steadying himself and taking a couple of practice swings with his mace.

'You're a wonder, you know that,' Halfrek laughed. 'Will you look at me?'

Wesley stared at her. 'And?'

'It really doesn't freak you out, does it,' Halfrek said, 'my going all…veiny when I use my powers.'

'Hallie, I always knew that you were a vengeance demon,' Wesley explained patiently, 'and I know what demons look like. And I know what friends look like, too.'

'I'm going to fight for you, you know,' Halfrek told him, 'so you better tell whatshername back in L.A. to watch out.'

Wesley laughed. 'I wouldn't have it any other way.'

'Where's Dawn?' Chrissie asked.

'I'm sorry?' Wesley hadn't even noticed that she was there and had missed what she had said in his surprise.

'Look, I hate to break up this moment for you, but where are Dawn and Janice?' Chrissie repeated. 'They need me.'

'Inside,' Wesley told her, gesturing towards the crypt with his free hand.

Chrissie nodded and darted inside, almost colliding with Zauriel as he came out.

'Need a hand?' he asked.

'Wouldn't say no,' Wesley replied. 'How's it going in there?'

'It's still undecided,' Zauriel admitted, 'but with the arrival of Dawn's friend they have a fighting chance.'

'Then let's give them the time they need,' Wesley said, clamping both of his hands around the haft of the mace.

Halfrek stood on his right, unarmed except for her demon strength. Zauriel flexed his wrist and a flaming sword appeared in his hand. He took up his position on Wesley's left.

The wolves howled.

'Let them come,' Zauriel said.

* * *

Helena's kick took the door off of its hinges.

'What the - '

Helena's father had barely got out of his chair when she came striding into the living-room.

'So, it's you, is it?' he sneered.

'Sam,' he wife warned.

'So you've finally decided to come crawling back with your tail between your legs,' Sam Joslin continued. 'I knew you would. Have you any idea how much trouble you're in, young lady.'

Helena's arms shot out almost too fast to follow and her fingers clamped around her father's throat as she hauled him up off of the ground.

'I'm not the one in trouble,' she told him, her eyes flashing yellow, like a cat's.

'Helena, please,' Helena's mother begged, reaching for her husband.

Helena backhanded her across the room. Her mother's head struck the corner of the coffee-table and she lost consciousness.

'Guess it's just you and me, Dad,' Helena remarked.

'Put. Me. Down,' her father commanded, struggling to force out his words.

'I don't think so,' Helena replied. 'I'm through doing what you want.'

Helena licked her lips and her father's face paled.

'What…what do you want?' he asked.

'That's right,' Helena said. 'That's really good, Dad. Remember who's in charge here. Remember who's got the power.'

'You have,' her father choked.

'How does it feel to be the one who's weak, the one who's powerless, the one at someone else's mercy?' Helena asked. 'Do you think that's how Alicia felt? Do you, Dad?'

'What's Alicia got to do with it?'

'You killed her, Dad,' Helena told him, 'sure as if you'd cut her up yourself. And I'm here to make sure you pay for that.'

* * *

'Timber!'

Clem leant against the telegraph pole and slowly it tilted before tumbling to the ground. The wires that had been attached to it snapped and flapped about in the wind. The wind had started to pick up and it was reaching beneath their clothes like icy fingers. A light drizzle had also begun to fall, but it was barely a distraction at the moment.

'There's an axe in the trunk,' Xander said.

'That and the rest of the arsenal,' Trix said as he opened it up. 'You don't believe in doing things by halves, do you?'

'I've learned it's always better to come prepared,' Xander replied.

Trix hefted the axe and began hacking at the pole, sharpening the end into a point.

'You really think this'll work?' Anya asked.

'We don't have any weapons big enough to do any more than just annoy it,' Xander told her. 'So we improvise.'

'It's all ready for you, Clem,' Trix announced.

The floppy-eared demon grunted as he lifted the sharpened tree trunk off of the ground and carried it across to Xander's car. He set it down on the roof, which bent and buckled, but held.

'Bet that invalidates the warranty,' Xander remarked.

Trix and Anya began tying their improvised weapon in place.

'So who gets to drive this thing?' Anya asked. She checked Trix's knots while he checked hers.

Trix and Clem looked at each other.

'We could draw straws,' Trix suggested.

'I'll do it,' Xander insisted. 'I've got the least to lose.'

'But…' Clem began.

'Is it ready?' Xander asked, cutting him dead.

'It's ready,' Trix replied solemnly.

'Then I'd better get going,' Xander said. 'We don't know how much more damage this thing has been doing while we've been playing at being The A-Team.'

He turned the key in the ignition and the engine roared into life.

'Xander…' Anya began.

'What?' he shouted back.

'I…nothing,' she said.

Xander turned away and then drove off into the distance.

* * *

Lydia jabbed at the telephone. She couldn't get a signal. Was the phone line down? All she wanted to do was get a taxi to the airport. Was that too much to ask?

She looked down at her hastily packed bags in the hall.

'Guess we won't be going anywhere tonight,' she said.

She sat down at the kitchen table and put her head in her hands. It wasn't that she wanted to leave Hank. She wanted him to come with her. But this whole life here in Sunnydale, she hadn't signed up for any of that.

It had been simple enough at first, just a fling thing after hours at the office. Sex on the boss's desk just to show they could. Of course, then had come the messy business of falling in love, something neither of them had bargained for. Love complicated things, but there were benefits, so they had taken their first fumbling steps into a relationship. After a while, Hank had suggested moving in together and Lydia hadn't been able to come up with a good enough reason not to. Some time after that, he had proposed.

They had taken the week off work and Lydia slept in that first Saturday. Hank was not lying next to her when she woke up, he was in the kitchen getting breakfast ready. His side of the bed was not empty, however. On his pillow were a single red rose and a small black box containing a ring and a note. The note read 'Marry me.' It was only after she had said yes that Hank produced the plane tickets to Paris and whisked her off to the airport. That man could be so sure of himself.

But Lydia had said yes and, though the thought of married life gave her butterflies, there was a kind of schoolgirl excitement at the idea of being Mrs Summers. Or there had been. She hadn't bargained on kids. She knew Hank had daughters. He kept their pictures on his desk. But she also knew that he and his wife were separated and that he hadn't visited in a long time. She never expected to even meet them, let alone end up adopting one. The simple fact was that Lydia didn't want to be a mom. At least, not yet. Maybe at some stage she would think about starting a family, but she didn't need that kind of disruption in her life right now. And she definitely did not need a rebellious teenage daughter.

She'd tried explaining that to Hank, but he wouldn't listen. He just blithely assumed she would come around in the end. Well, she wouldn't. Couldn't. She just wasn't cut out for this sort of life so she would have to up sticks and start over some place else. And if Hank wouldn't come with her, well, that was bad news for both of them, but there wasn't a damn thing she could do about it.

She was pondering these thoughts when a fist slammed through the glass pane in the back door. Lydia jumped, knocking over the chair she was sitting on. An arm snaked in through the shattered window and began search for the key that Lydia could see was still in the lock. She hesitated, part of her wanting to get close enough to snatch the key before the questing fingers could reach it, part of her wanting to stay as far out of harm's way as possible. She took a step forward, but by then it was too late. The door was already unlocked.

An elderly woman stood in the doorway, her cardigan caked in blood. Her thin, bloodless lips were pulled back from her teeth.

'G-get out of my house,' Lydia said.

'Not until you pay, dearie,' the woman said. 'Not until you all pay for what you've done.'

'I-I don't know what you're talking about,' Lydia insisted, her voice quavering. 'Why don't you come back in the morning and talk to my fiance.'

'I don't think so,' the woman said.

'I'm really going to have to insist,' Lydia said, placing a hand on the door and trying to force it closed.

The old woman jabbed a knitting needle through Lydia's palm.

* * *

Dad lay on the ground, curled into a ball and shielding his face with his arms. There were at least four people attacking him, kicking and beating him while he just lay there and took it. He had tried to fight back, but there were too many of them. And there was such hatred in their eyes. Were they on something? He felt something move within his chest. Had that been a rib snapping? How much more of this could he take? How much more before they got bored and moved on to their next victim?

And what if that next victim was his daughter?

He could feel his own blood running hot within his veins, pounding in his ears. He could taste it one his tongue. And mixed in with the coppery tang was the taste of anger, the scent of rage. It was bubbling over, clouding his judgement, but he was past caring.

One of his assailants lashed out with his book and, quick as a flash, Dad caught it and tugged on it, upending the attacked. Then Dad was on his feet, planting a foot in the guy's stomach to make sure that he didn't get back up. He turned and struck another of the thugs with a savage uppercut. Dad had boxed at school and he still knew his stuff. That guy was soon on the floor with his friend and the others followed in quick succession as Dad battered them with blows fuelled by the rage threatening to burst open his chest.

Thunder rumbled in the sky overhead.

Dad looked at the people lying in the street and moaning. He wiped the sweat and blood from his face with the sleeve of his jacket. Then he went to his overturned car and removed the tyre-iron.

He was going to make sure these kids never hurt anyone ever again.

* * *

'Chrissie, over here,' Janice called as our friend came hurtling into the crypt.

'What's going on in here?' she asked as she came to stand beside us. 'Who's the hunk with the cheekbones you could slice cheese on?'

'Now is not the time, Chrissie,' I protested. 'In case you've forgotten, we have a town to save.'

'So what's the plan?' Chrissie asked, all business again.

'We help people see the world as Dawn sees it,' Janice explained.

'Can we do that?' Chrissie asked. 'I don't want to sound negative, but every time we try and do really big magic, well, something bad tends to happen.'

'We can do it,' Janice said, fingering the pentacle around her neck. 'We just have to have faith.'

'The barriers are already weakening,' I said encouragingly. 'You shouldn't even be able to see Spike over there, what with him being dead and all. But you can so how hard can it be to make everyone else see him too?'

'Take my hand, Chrissie,' Janice said.

'Isn't that usually my line?' Chrissie asked with forced humour as she intertwined her fingers with Janice's.

I took hold of Janice's other hand.

'Well, I guess this is it,' I said, before taking Chrissie's hand in mine, completing the circuit.

There was a rush of energy through my body. It started at my feet and I threw back my head and opened my mouth as the energy shot upwards and escaped into the air. And suddenly I was above myself, looking down at the three of us holding hands and staring at the sky with sightless eyes.

* * *

'Helena, stop!' Drew shouted as he bounded into the room.

'Stay out of this,' Helena retorted. 'This is between me and him.'

'Helena, please, listen to me,' Drew persisted. 'This isn't you talking?'

'Of course it's me,' Helena replied. 'Have you any idea the things that this man did to me? Have you? He was supposed to be my father? He was supposed to love and protect me. Instead…You don't know what it's like. You can never know. He deserves whatever's coming to him.'

'I know,' said another voice.

The ghost of Alicia Joslin stepped through the wall and into the living-room.

'Now I've seen it all,' Drew muttered to himself, 'and I haven't got my camera with me. Typical.'

'I know what he's like, 'Len,' Alicia continued. 'I know what he's capable of.'

'Then you know why I have to do this,' Helena replied.

'Do I think he deserves to die?' Alicia said. 'Yes, ten times over.'

'What?' Drew exclaimed.

'But do I think you should kill him?' Alicia continued. 'No. No, I don't. The Helena I knew wasn't a killer. Don't let him turn you into one.'

'Well maybe you don't know me at all,' Helena snarled.

''Len, I…' Alicia began.

'Put him down, Helena,' Ruth commanded.

'No,' Helena replied.

'So what now?' Ruth asked, moving to stand beside Helena's father. 'Are you going to lecture me on how I can't possibly know what you're going through. Been there, done that. I'm with her over there. Scum like him deserve all they get. But this isn't about him, Helena, it's about you. He's a monster, what's your excuse?'

'Maybe I'm a monster too?' Helena replied. She turned to face Ruth, her yellow eyes boring into her as she displayed a mouth full of sharp, pointy teeth.

Drew took a step back, but Ruth forced herself to remain in place.

'You're not a monster, Helena,' she said.

'Then what am I?' Helena asked, her voice plaintive. 'What has he turned me into?'

'He hasn't turned you into anything, Helena,' Ruth insisted. 'He can't, not if you don't let him. Listen to yourself for a minute. You're saying that because he abused you, you can't be held responsible for your actions. That you get to act like a monster just because he was one too. But it doesn't work like that, Helena. You can break the cycle of violence and hatred, if you really want to. You're your own person. What I think or Drew thinks or your dad thinks, none of that matters in the end. You have to make your own choices in this world and you're defined as a person by the choices you make. So the question you should be asking isn't whether I think you're a monster. It's whether you think you're one.'

* * *

'I raised you up above the dreary mortal world,' Drusilla protested.

'You took away my bloody soul,' Spike shot back. 'Once I was a man who wanted to make things. You turned me into something that only wanted to tear them apart.'

'But we were happy together,' Drusilla said. 'You can't tell me we weren't happy.'

'Oh, we enjoyed ourselves, all right,' Spike agreed. 'We had a whale of a time revelling in other people's suffering and misery because that's the kind of people we were. And we were proud of what we did. Do you remember how Angelus and I used to compete, see who could come up with the most creative slaughter?'

'I remember,' Drusilla purred. 'And I remember how you were always so much more dynamic, more inventive.'

'The last vestiges of William, I suspect,' Spike said bitterly. 'My poetry expressing itself the only way a vampire knows how.'

'I've missed you, Spike,' Drusilla said. 'Life's not the same without your spark to light the pyre.'

'And doesn't that just a kick in the teeth to the gods of irony,' Spike said. 'You tear yourself apart over me and my death, but you haven't shed a single tear in a hundred years for all the deaths we caused. Did it never occur to you that each and every one of our victims might have had somebody somewhere that loved them and missed them and felt as if they'd had their heart torn out just because we needed to be entertained?'

'Pfah,' Drusilla spat. 'Cattle don't count.'

'But, Dru…'

Spike was cut of by the fork of lighting that smashed through the roof of the crypt and left a smoking hole between the two vampires.

'Light, bright light,' Drusilla sang. 'The light of truth, burning away the lies. We see it all now. We see everything.'

She was pointing and Spike turned to see what she was pointing at. It was the three of us.

'You thought to trick us,' Drusilla said. 'Naughty Spike. We shall have to punish you later. You'd like that, wouldn't you? For now, we must put a stop to the nasty witches and their nasty magic.'

She and Willow raised their arms into the air and began to chant.

* * *

'I think that's the last of them,' Zauriel announced as he set another wolf's fur alight.

'About time too,' Wesley panted, doubling over and retching.

'Couldn't you come up with a less flashy way to kill them?' Halfrek scolded Zauriel. 'Fricasseed wolf stinks.'

'I think that's the least of our problems,' Wesley remarked, hands on his knees. 'Look!'

Across the cemetery, the ground was moving. Hands burst from beneath the ground, and bodies began hauling themselves out of graves. Then the zombies began to shuffle down the hill towards them.

'Once more unto the breach,' Wesley remarked.

'But, Wes,' Halfrek began, 'there are so many of them.'

'Brave heart, Halfrek,' Wesley said. 'I'm sure things aren't as bad as they look.'

'I fear that the demon may be right,' Zauriel said. 'We are sorely outnumbered. I do not see how we can prevail.'

'Then it's a good thing this isn't the fight that matters,' Wesley snapped. 'I know we're going to die. Do you really think I hadn't worked that out? I just hope and pray we can last long enough to give Dawn the time she needs.' He turned to Halfrek. 'Hallie, you can teleport. Get out of here while you still can.'

'And leave you to face this lot on your own?' Halfrek asked. 'Not a chance.'

'There's no sense in us both dying,' Wesley protested.

'I don't know,' Halfrek told him with a smile. 'If we've got to go, I'd rather we went together. I think it's kind of romantic.'

'I'll never understand your sort,' Wesley said resignedly.

'What, demons?' Halfrek asked.

'No,' Wesley replied. 'Women.'

* * *

'I…I don't want to be a monster,' Helena said.

She opened her hand and her father fell to the ground, clutching his throat.

Helena still had her arm stretched out in from of her, so Ruth took hold of it and gently lowered it to her side.

'Then don't be,' she said. 'Be whatever you want to be and I'll be with you every step of the way.'

'Thank you,' Helena said softly and the two girls embraced.

Drew bent down to speak to Mr Joslin.

'A word to the not terribly wise,' he began, 'mention any of what happened tonight to anyone and I personally guarantee that ghost-girl over there will be back to haunt you every night for the rest of your life. You get me?'

Sam Joslin nodded, his throat still too sore for him to try and speak.

Drew stood back up.

'Let's get out of here,' he said.

'Good idea,' a woman said. 'You're needed.'

A tall blonde woman floated into the room.

'What is this,' Drew protested, 'a spooks convention.'

'You've no idea,' the ghost told him. 'I'm Tara Maclay. You must be Drew.'

Drew's brain worked furiously. All sorts of facts and figures were filed away up there and he was cross-referencing as fast as he could.

'Tara? Dawn's friend, right? The one that…well I guess you wouldn't want to talk about it much.'

Tara smiled.

'I find trying to avoid the issue just leads to more embarrassment all round,' she told him, 'but we'll have to chat another time. Dawn's in trouble.'

'Where?' Drew asked.

* * *

I've never felt so alone. I was surrounded by people. More people than I could count. More people than I could even imagine. But there wasn't a single face amongst them that I recognised. I was looking at the faces of the dead, all of the people that had died in, well, ever, from the very first death right through to whatever had happened in the space of the last few seconds. Death was no discriminator and I could see people of all races and colours, all ages, from newborns to those ravaged by time. Some bodies were whole and well and showed no outward sign of their method of passing, but many did display the horrors of their death and I was struck by just how many different ways there were to die.

Was there anything we could do, any action we could take, where we wouldn't potentially be dead at the end of it? Cross the street, you might get hit by a car. Mow the lawn, you might run over the flex and electrocute yourself. If you were careless in the kitchen you might cause a fire. And if you just went to sleep you might never wake up. Death was with us every second of every day, each breath tainted with the thought that it might be the last, but all the sweeter because of it. And surrounded by all that death, hemmed in and crushed by it, I was struck by just how lucky I was to be alive. Even if this crazy plan failed, I still had a few minutes more of life to savour and that was the most precious commodity in the world.

And while I was having all of these profound thoughts, it was slowly sinking in that they were all staring at me. I cleared my throat. Then wondered how I could do that seeing as my physical body was somewhere down below me. Then I realised that I was changing the subject so that I didn't have to talk to these people.

Time to step up to the plate, Dawn.

'Um, I guess you're all wondering why I've called you all here tonight,' I began.

'Actually, Dawn, we already know why we're here.'

I turned to face the speaker and did a double-take. It was Justin, the senior-slash-vampire I'd gone out with the previous year. It was a date that had ended badly for both of us, though probably worse for him since I put a stake through his heart.

'That wasn't me,' Justin said.

'What? Like since when did ghosts become mind-readers?' I protested defensively.

'No mind-tricks,' Justin assured me, 'but it was pretty obvious. That thing you staked, it wasn't me, so there are no hard feelings from this direction.'

'Er, right. Sure,' I said hurriedly. 'So, if everyone knows why they're here, what are they hanging around for?'

'They're waiting for you to give the word,' Justin explained.

'Oh, well in that case,' I announced, 'the word is go.'

Immediately, the ghosts began to disperse. Justin hung back.

'You know, I reckon I know what my demon-self saw in you,' he said to me. 'See you around, Dawn.'

Oh my god? Was I being hit on by a ghost? Probably best not to think about it.

* * *

Dad held the tyre-iron so tight it was gouging grooves in the palms of his hands. He couldn't even feel it. All he could focus on was the head of one of the men who had attacked him and how he was about to split open that same head like a melon.

He raised the tyre-iron.

'Hank Summers, what do you think you're doing?'

Dad paused in mid-swing.

'Joyce?' he asked.

'Who else?' she replied, stepping over the bodies as she walked towards him.

The tyre-iron fell from Dad's grip and clattered on the ground. He barely noticed.

'I…what are you doing here?' he asked.

'Making sure you don't do something stupid,' Mom told him.

'But you're dead?'

'That's never stopped you talking to me before,' Mom said. 'Late at night, when you're troubled. And you always knew I was listening, didn't you, deep down.'

'I hoped, but I never dreamed…'

'Never dreamed I might actually be there the whole time? Well here I am, just when you need me most.'

'What's gotten into me?' Dad asked, staring at the bodies around him.

'The same thing that's got into everybody else,' Mom explained, 'but don't worry about it. Everything's going to be fine. Dawn's got it all under control.'

'Dawn has? What's Dawn got to do with any of this?'

'Now, stop worrying, Hank,' Mom said. 'That daughter of ours is more capable than either of us give her credit for.'

'But…but I should be there, helping her,' Dad protested.

'You can't be everywhere,' Mom replied. 'Even if you could, this is one fight you can't help her with.'

'Have you any idea how much that scares me?'

'Have you any idea how much that scares me? And I'm dead.'

Dad looked away.

'What is it, Hank?' Mom asked him.

'I never got the chance to say goodbye,' he said. 'Why didn't you call me? You know I'd have dropped everything to be there for you.'

'That's why I didn't say anything,' Mom said. 'I didn't want anyone to worry.'

'Didn't want us to worry,' Dad repeated. 'You're a marvel, you know that?'

'I remember a time when you used to tell me that a lot.'

'Do you miss those days?' Dad asked her. 'We were a happy family, for a while.'

'It couldn't last,' mom said. 'Some things just aren't meant to be no matter how hard you try and make them work.'

'But we could have tried harder. I keep thinking that maybe if we'd done things a little differently.'

'There's no point crying over spilled milk, as my mom used to say,' Mom told him. 'We're not the same people we were back then. I'm dead for a start.'

'Don't joke,' Dad said. 'It's not funny.'

'No, no it's not,' Mom agreed. 'But my point is that you need to move on with your life. You've already started to, with Lydia.'

'By now Lydia will be on a plane back to Europe,' Dad said. 'We had a fight. I…I handled it badly.'

'You were worried about, Dawn,' Mom consoled him.

'That's hardly an excuse for not caring about my fiancee,' Dad insisted. 'Still, I don't suppose it matters anymore.'

'I don't know, Hank,' Mom remarked with a trace of a smile, 'she may surprise you.'

Then her face darkened.

'What is it? Joyce, what's wrong?'

'Go home, Hank,' Mom ordered him. 'Hurry. Before it's too late.'

* * *

The ghosts spread across town, seeking out their loved ones and explaining to them what many of us already knew in our hearts. The dead are always with us. Whether you believe in ghosts or just in memories, those we love don't leave us when they die, not completely. We always carry a little something of them around inside of us.

That was what the banshee, the gestalt, had exploited. Just as we carry around the memory of those we have loved, so we carry the pain and the grief and the resentment at their deaths. It's all too easy to put death and misery in the same sentence.

What the ghosts set out to show people was that there is more to it than that. The people we love aren't defined by their final moments, they're defined by the way they lived. And if that's how we choose to remember them then where is the misery?

When I think of Buffy, should I remember cradling her in my arms, watching the last of her life trickling away? When I think of Mom, should I remember the cold naked body lying in the morgue? I'd be lying if I said that those images aren't going to stay with me, but there's so much more to them than that. I remember the first time Buffy took me clothes shopping with her and I drove her out of her mind by insisting on trying on absolutely everything. I remember Mom trying to teach me to make cookies and then the pair of us sitting at the table resolutely sampling my creations, both praying that I would never, ever try this again. I remember Mom's 'tickle-torture' and the way she called me her little pumpkin belly. And I remember the night after someone broke into our house and how, when I insisted on sleeping downstairs because I couldn't face my room, Buffy came held my hand and I knew I would never be alone.

And when I think of Mom and Buffy, I don't want to cry or to lash out at things because of the cruel way in which they died. I want to smile and to laugh and to sing and to dance and to celebrate the way they lived. And that was the message we had asked the ghosts to send.

* * *

The rat must have been able to hear him coming by now, but it still had not reacted, preferring instead to keep ploughing its inexorable path towards the centre of town. Xander was not concerned. Whether the rat was moving towards him or away, all he needed was one clear shot.

He shifted up a gear and heard the car begin to complain as he pushed it harder and harder.

'Going to ramming speed, captain,' he muttered under his breath.

'This is so cool!'

The voice made Xander jump and he banged his head against the roof.

'Jesse?' he said, turning to face the guy that had just materialised in the passenger seat. 'What are you doing here?'

'Oh, nothing much,' Jesse confessed. 'I got drawn here with all the others, but once I arrived I didn't really have anything to do so I figured I might as well check up on my buddy Xander. By the way, don't let me interrupt what you're doing. Looks important.'

'Jesse, I…man, I don't know what to say. There's so much stuff, I don't even know where to begin.'

'Take your time,' Jesse replied. 'I've got an eternity.'

'But that's just it,' Xander said. 'I haven't. I'm kinda on a suicide mission here.'

'Bummer,' Jesse said. 'Still, hope it works out for you. Have you made your peace with God or whoever?'

'I'm not sure if I believe in that stuff anymore,' Xander admitted, 'nit after all I've been through. Jesse, I'm so sorry. I mean, I'm the one that killed you.'

'I was already dead,' Jesse reassured him. 'Seven years fighting vampires and you still have problems with that. Still the same old Xander, I guess.'

'So, what's it like,' Xander asked, 'being dead I mean?'

'Well, I'd sure rather be alive,' Jesse replied. 'To get killed during puberty, that sucks, man. To go through all that and never get to find out where you were headed. I could have been an astronaut or a pop star or something. Guess we'll never know, huh?'

'I'm sorry,' Xander said again.

'Will you quit apologising,' Jesse said. 'It's not your fault I ended up snack food for some creature of the night. But…'

'But what?'

'Oh, it's nothing.'

'What?' Xander repeated. 'Come on, Jesse, you can't not tell me.'

'You're not going to like it.' Xander glared at him. 'Okay, okay, I'll spill. I was just thinking about you and about your life.'

'Yeah, because that's been going so great lately.'

'Don't knock it,' Jesse told him. 'There are a whole lot of people worse of than you are. And you have so much going for you. You've got a great job for one, not to mention a hot girl who loves you.'

'Used to love me,' Xander corrected.

'Xander, I know you were never the sharpest tool in the box, but I never knew you were so dense.'

'What interest is it of yours how I live my life anyway?' Xander demanded.

'I thought I was your friend, Xander,' Jesse said. 'And as a friend, I'm begging you not to throw your life away, not if there's an alternative. I didn't have that option. You still do.'

'Jesse, I…' Xander began, but his friend had already faded away.

The rat roared.

It had finally noticed the vehicle racing towards it and had decided to meet the charge head on, bounding down the road towards Xander.

'That's right, big boy,' Xander murmured, 'come and get it.'

Saliva flew from the rat's mouth as its jaws snapped on empty air. It's paused crashed down upon the tarmac, causing the ground to shake.

Xander looked it straight in the eye.

'Guess you've never played chicken before, huh?' he said.

Then he opened the door and threw himself out of the car. The car continued onwards, barely slowing, and the sharpened tree trunk tied to the roof impaled the underside of the rat. The giant rodent screamed, and ear-splitting wail of pain, then fell to the ground, crushing the car beneath it. It's claws scrabbled frantically at the road for a moment, but then it was all over and the rat lay still.

* * *

'Too…many…of them,' Wesley gasped, too tired to swing his mace anymore.

'We did all we could,' Halfrek sighed, collapsing next to him. 'Do you think they'll eat our brains.'

'That's actually a myth,' Wesley began, but Halfrek shushed him.

'I was joking, honey. Figured the situation could do with some humour.'

'Yes, I suppose it could,' Wesley mused.

'One last kiss for old time's sake?' Halfrek inquired.

'I thought you'd never ask,' Wesley said, pulling her close.

They locked lips, drinking of each other as if it were the last draught on the planet. Then Wesley's eyes widened and he stepped away.

'What is it?' Halfrek asked. 'It wasn't that bad.'

'Look,' Wesley said. 'The zombies aren't attacking us.'

'But I thought…'

'They're ignoring us and going straight into the crypt,' Wesley continued. 'They're going after Dawn!'

'Gangway!' Drew shouted.

Halfrek shoved Wesley to one side as a motorbike laden with three teenagers shot passed them and into the crypt.'

Halfrek looked down at Wesley. He was lying on his back in the grass. And he was laughing.

'I don't get the joke,' she said.

'Oh, no joke,' Wesley assured her. 'I was just thinking that maybe we've still got a chance after all.'

* * *

I could see the zombies come pouring into the crypt like maple syrup spilled on the floor. Unfortunately, from my vantage point high above events, I could do nothing but watch. Chrissie, Janice and I were locked in place for the duration of the spell and, therefore, vulnerable.

Spike had obviously realised this too because he turned away from Drusilla and tried to tackle the zombies. There was one minor problem, though. As a ghost, he was intangible.

'Bloody hell,' he cursed. 'What in blazes were you thinking, little bit? I'm not good to anybody like this.'

I had a nasty feeling that he was about to be proved right. Naturally, this was the point at which the reinforcements arrived.

Growling deep in her throat, Helena leaped right into the midst of the fray, tearing the zombies apart with her bare hands. They tried to fight her off, but she was like a wild animal and I doubted she would have noticed their blows even without her healing factor.

Drew picked up the sword I had dropped. It seemed that plenty of practice stage-fighting was about to pay off as he dived in after Helena like a junior Errol Flynn.

'No!' Willow and Drusilla screamed. 'It can't end like this!'

'Why not?' Spike demanded. 'What's so special about you?'

'But we've been wronged,' the banshee protested. 'We're entitled to due payment for our loss, for our pain. That's only fair and just.'

'And this is your justice, is it?' Drew asked. 'Inflicting the same pain and misery on other people. If it was so wrong when it was done to you then why is it suddenly okay now? Aren't you guilty of the same crimes or are you somehow a cut above the rest of us?'

'I know what it's like to lose someone you really love,' Chrissie said. 'And I know about feeling powerless to stop it. And yes, I've let it colour my behaviour towards other people. It took me a long time to realise how wrong that was. Part of me is still learning. I owe it to…to that person I loved to go out and live my life, not to live in shadow and pain and grief for the rest of it. Think about why you're doing this. You feel that the deaths of the people you cared about were unjust. Fine. I'm not going to argue with you. But would they want this. If they were such good people, why aren't you trying to continue their good works rather than just spreading around your misery for everyone else to feel?'

'It's easier to blame someone else,' Helena continued. 'They've hurt you, hurt you deeper than you can ever explain to anyone else. Sometimes you feel that the pain is all you've got, all that defines who you are. But it isn't. We're all individuals. We all have the capacity to choose, to shape our own destinies. You can blame it one someone else, say that they made you do it, but at the end of the day, we both know that that isn't true, don't we. You can choose to act like a monster or you can choose to be better than that, stronger.'

'How we act ourselves impacts on other people whether we like it or not,' Janice said. 'We're reflected in those around us. That's why the dead still have such a big impact, because they live on inside of the people they were close to. We have a responsibility in the way we shape the world around us. You've chosen to inflict your rage and pain on innocent people and it's being reflected right back at you, escalating the circle further and further. But imagine what would happen if you chose to share love and joy instead. Imagine that reflected back off of the people around you. Isn't that a better world? If everything you do returns to you threefold, don't you want to make everything you do worthwhile? All of this, well, what's the point really. What do you hope to gain by encouraging suffering except more suffering. You could do so much more with your powers, so much good, if you just chose to do so.'

'You know how we could end all wars?' I asked. 'You know how we could put an end to hunger and to poverty? It's a simple little thing really. All it would take is for everyone to be nice to one another. No fighting, no arguing, more co-operation, more sharing, a little helping hand when you're in trouble, that sort of thing. Never gonna happen, of course, but it's a dream I have. You know, before she died, Buffy told me something, she explained what it meant to be a Slayer. She said it's not about the slaying, it's about the saving. Do you see where she was coming from, because it took me a long time to get my head round it? Killing should be a last resort. Violence should be a last resort. Sometimes it's necessary, but it can never be a good thing. What is a good thing is saving lives and saving souls. I don't want to have to kill you. If you force me to I will. Weigh up your lives against the entire population of Sunnydale and it's a bit of a no-brainer. But I'd much rather not have to destroy you because I think you have a shot at redemption. What do you say?'

'You made me what I am, Dru,' Spike said, 'but that doesn't excuse what I've done. I revelled in being a vampire, took pride in it. It's something to be ashamed of. And it took the Slayer and her sister to show me that. I thought I had a shot at redemption in this life, went as far as to find me a bloody soul, but it wasn't to be. I was still too twisted up inside to sort out right from wrong. I didn't give Buffy a choice. I accept that. I don't hold her responsible for my death. I brought it on myself.'

'No,' Drusilla protested.

'Oh get a grip, Dru,' Spike retorted. 'Evil, remember, Buffy gave me a shed-load of chances to reform and I just kept throwing them back in her face. Everything's so much clearer now. You made me what I am, but I forgive you, love. Come with me. Take responsibility for what you've done and we can start over. Please, pet, we both want this.'

Drusilla stared at his outstretched hand and spat at it.

'Little Spikey thinks he knows the clockwork ticking of heaven, but he doesn't, does he, Miss Edith, and he'll never lead us down that bramble path. Never, never, never.'

Drusilla turned and ran to the back of the crypt where she was swallowed up by the shadow.

'Dru, wait,' Spike shouted. He ran after her and vanished as well.

Willow stood in the centre of the room, rubbing her hands together nervously.

'And what about me?' she asked Tara. 'Am I responsible for making you what you are?'

'Of course you are, silly,' Tara said, stepping forward and taking Willow's hands in hers, 'and that's something to be very proud of. She leaned over the smaller girl and they rubbed noses. 'You're a really special person, Will. Now, are you ready to come and join me?'

'You mean I can?' Willow asked. 'I thought…well, after what I did…I thought maybe I'd be stuck in limbo forever.'

'Don't be silly,' Tara told her. 'Everything's about choices. You're only stuck for as long as you think you deserve, as long as you want to keep punishing yourself.'

'Well, then maybe I shouldn't go,' Willow insisted, her words coming out in a rush. 'I mean, I've done some really bad things and now I've gone and made them worse and I think I should probably be punished for a really long time. If not longer.'

'Willow, I forgive you,' Tara said, 'but in the end you still have to forgive yourself. But maybe, if you come with me, I can help you with that.'

'You mean it?' Willow asked, eyes wide and hopeful.

'I mean it,' Tara confirmed.

I was in my own body once more and, like Chrissie and Janice, was working the kinks out of my stiff limbs.

'Did it work?' Chrissie asked.

'Listen,' Tara said.

'I don't hear anything,' Drew replied.

'Exactly,' Tara said. 'Peace and quiet. Just the way it should be.'

'In that case,' Ruth said as she helped Helena up, 'we'd best be getting back. We're already well late for curfew.'

'Somehow,' I said, 'I doubt anyone will have noticed.'

Tara looked at Helena and then turned to Ruth.

'Take care of her,' she said.

'I intend to,' Ruth replied.

Then Tara and Willow faded from sight.

I looked around the room. Ruth stood by the entrance, leading a still dazed Helena by the hand. Drew stood off to one side, taking practice swings with the sword. He looked to be quite good, but obviously not good enough judging by the nasty bruise on his temple. Chrissie was leaning against a wall, trying to appear nonchalant, but the dark circles beneath her eyes told a different story. Janice was sitting cross-legged on the floor, meditating to recover her lost strength.

'I just wanted to say thanks,' I said. 'I couldn't have done this without you guys.'

'Too right,' Chrissie responded.

'Dawn, we're your friends,' Drew said. 'Where else would we be?'

* * *

And now we reach the point in the tale where I'm supposed to tell you that things went back to normal. No dice. Firstly, I've never been too sure on what constitutes normal for Sunnydale anyway, and secondly, things weren't going to be normal again for a very long time.

The Sunnydale authorities, in their usual remarkable way, had managed to come up with a pseudoscientific explanation for the previous night's events. Apparently, the earth tremors we had all felt had release pockets of naturally occurring hallucinogenic gas beneath Sunnydale and it was this gas that had triggered the sudden outbreak of violent behaviour. The authorities then went on to say that the danger had passed and that there were no lasting side effects from exposure to the gas. Always good to know.

But that still left the memories. Sketchy memories usually, but enough to remind people that they had done something terrible. I doubt many people slept well for quite a while.

Lydia turned out to be okay. She had barricaded herself inside the cupboard under the stairs and it had taken a lot of gentle persuasion by Dad to get her to come out. And I do mean a lot. He was still at it when I returned from the cemetery so I decided to creep upstairs and save the explanations for the following morning. Strangely enough, he's never actually asked me about it. Somehow that bothers me more than an interrogation would.

Lydia still claims to want to leave, but as yet she has yet to make good on her promise. As a favour to Dad, I am trying to be a bit friendlier towards her. Not easy.

And then came the day of Xander's leaving (postponed due to lack of car). The gang turned up in force to give him a decent send-off.

Xander took me to one side.

'There's something that's been bothering me,' he said to me. 'You don't think I'm running away, do you. Because I'm not. If that is what you think.'

I laughed.

'I don't think you're running away,' I said. 'I think it's way past time you went and got a life.'

'Hey!' he protested, but he was laughing too.

'Xander Harris, you weren't thinking about leaving without me, were you?'

Anya was striding down the street towards us. Clem was trailing behind carrying her luggage.

'Anya,' Xander fumbled, 'I, um, I didn't think you were coming.'

'Somebody remind me what I see in him.'

'You've coloured your hair,' I pointed out.

'I fancied a change,' Anya explained. 'I don't want anyone thinking for a minute this has anything to do with Xander.'

'Of course not,' I agreed. My keeping a straight face was made all the more difficult by the sound of Janice and Chrissie giggling behind me.

'So who's going to be in charge of the Magic Box now?' Wesley asked.

'That would be telling,' Anya replied, with an enigmatic smile, 'but I think you'll like the new management.'

And with that they were off, riding off into the sunset just the way it should always have been.

'And what about you?' I asked Trix. 'Will you be leaving too, now?'

Trix looked at Drew.

'I think I'll stick around for a while,' Trix said. 'See how long my luck lasts.'

So there you have it. Drew and Chrissie are still dating and Chrissie looks happier than I remember seeing her in, like, ever. Janice has been initiated as a member of the witches' coven. She's made some good friends there and occasionally talks me into helping her babysit Caitlin for Jerry and Ellie. Clem has had to move back into his old place, since there's not a lot left of Spike's crypt. We've all promised to keep a look out for a better home for him. Wesley is still sticking around. There are still unanswered questions about Helena so his assignment is still ongoing. Halfrek is sticking around to keep an eye on Wesley.

And then there's Helena herself. Part of me says I should be devoting more time to trying to figure out what's up with her, but, temporarily at any rate, that's on hold. For the moment, I just want to enjoy spending some time amongst friends and revel in what it is simply to be alive.

But there's one member of our gang I haven't talked about. The angel Zauriel. After the battle at the crypt, he disappeared. Five whole weeks passed before I saw him again. And then, one night, I heard a tapping on my window and there he was. I had to help him clamber inside. He had been badly beaten. There were cuts and bruise across his torso and what looked like burn marks too. His wings had been shredded and I was amazed that he could still fly.

'What the hell happened?' I asked. 'Who did this to you?'

He sat down on the corner of my bed and looked me in the eye.

'They have declared war in heaven,' he replied.

The End

Afterword

One of the most common things I'm asked, by friends who know I write, is where do I get my inspiration from. In the case of Finale and Prelude, it was a discussion with my Dad of all people. At the time of writing, I'm still none the wiser if Sarah Michelle Gellar is staying or going at the end of season seven and this begs the question: can the show survive without her? Yes, I argued. The show is bigger than any one character. In fact, I continued to argue, you could write out all of the original characters and the show would still work.

It's true what they say, things are a lot easier said than done. But, having said it, I felt compelled to try and prove my point and so began a twenty-two part series that would write out Buffy, Willow and Xander as well as setting up a way forward for future stories. Did I succeed? Well, I think that's more for you to say than I, don't you think?