Note #1: And now we reach the final chapter of this story! Thank you all for bearing with me through my author blocks and the demands of real life, and I hope you'll stay around for the sequel. As I said before, this series will go on and on (and on and on and on and on) for as long as there are people reading it.

Note #2: Those of you who haven't watched the last season of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" may find Phoebe's premonition rather confusing. It refers to a lot of things that happened in that show and will actually happen further in this series, and I can only assure you that it'll all be explained in due time.

Note #3: Those of you who have watched the last season of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" will notice that many scenes came straight from the last episode's transcript (a gazillion thanks to www . buffyworld . com . br for that). My advice is that you read them carefully, though, because even before the point where I took the reins and make it completely AU, there are some subtle (and some not so subtle) differences between the scenes shown on TV and this story.

Note #4: I have started two stories on other fandoms. In case someone is interested to read them, "Half the Size, Twice the Trouble" is being posted on the Angel section of , and "Turning Point" is on the "Nip/Tuck" section.

Note #5: Shel, I hope you enjoy the Ben fluffiness. :-)

x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x

"Strike!" Cole shouted when the ball hit his glove.

Ben giggled excitedly. Whenever daddy said "strike", it meant he was winning.

"Here, just one more," Cole said, smiling as he placed the ball in Ben's hands again. "To finish the game."

He was crouching on the ground before Ben, and the toddler opened his hands and let the ball fall on his waiting hand.

"Strike!" Cole exclaimed with great enthusiasm, making Ben giggle and clap his hands. "The Turners have won the championship, and all thanks to Ben Turner, ladies and gentlemen!"

He grabbed Ben and stood up, raising the toddler high above his head and making him squeal in delight.

"Ben was on fire this season!" Cole broadcasted, grinning as Ben laughed heartily. "He's an ace! He's a star, and the crowd loves him!"

As Cole placed Ben on his shoulders and started to make the victory lap around the back yard, Ben laughed and waved his little baseball cap in the air just like daddy had taught him. He and daddy had won; they were Turners and the Turners always won.

"Yay! Yay! Yay!" he hollered, beaming as mommy smiled proudly at him.

"That's why you shouldn't let him have so much sugar," Piper sighed, smiling as she watched father and son across the yard.

"I didn't give Ben any candy today," Phoebe said, her eyes locked on her two loves even as she poured herself some lemonade.

"I was talking about Cole."

Just then, Cole completed the victory lap and stopped before them, his face flushed from all the running and the jumping, while Ben bounced gleefully on his shoulders.

"Yay! Yay!" he exclaimed, trying to get daddy to start running again.

"Come on, champion," Cole said, lifting him from his shoulders and settling him into the crook of his arm, "let's eat. Or, at least, you'll eat," he added with a smirk. "I'll have to wait until Uncle Leo manages to light the fire."

"The fire is good!" Leo protested from his place by the grill. "And the first chicken wings are ready."

"And so is the garlic bread," Paige said, grinning as she proudly placed a basket full of her only culinary skill on the table.

"My!" Ben exclaimed when Cole reached out for the basket, but Phoebe shook her head.

"I doubt you'll like this. Here, have a chip," she said, taking a potato chip out of the bag and giving it to him.

Cole sat by Piper's side and placed Ben on his knee, where the toddler sat contently nibbling on his potato chip and occasionally babbling to himself. Piper handed him a glass of frosty lemonade, which he accepted with a grateful smile, while Phoebe helped Leo bring the chicken wings to the table.

"It smells good," Paige said, grinning as the chicken wings were placed on the table before them.

"Smells like oregano," Piper said, taking one out of the bowl. She paused, sniffing the chicken wing and added: "And lemon juice."

"And it's delicious," Phoebe added after tasting one. She handed another one to Cole and started to gingerly cut small pieces of chicken and place them on a plate for Ben.

x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x

Victor watched them through the kitchen's window with a gloomy expression. Ben managed to wiggle in Cole's arms and stick a drool covered piece of potato chip into his daddy's unwarned mouth, and Victor swallowed hard, seeing the others laugh at Cole's valiant smile as he chewed his slobbered snack.

From where he stood he couldn't distinguish the words, but he could hear their laughter and see the looks on their faces, and it spoke volumes. Cole leaned forward over the table and said something to Leo, and Piper shoved her husband's arm in feign outrage while both men laughed heartily. Victor winced as Ben looked from his uncle to his father with a curious expression before joining in their laughter, the resemblance between him and Cole painfully evident.

"He does love them." -- the fact that he had been expecting his interlocutor didn't prevent Victor from jumping in place at the sound of her voice.

"Damn it, Patty," he said to his dead ex-wife between clenched teeth. "Can't you be a little less stealthy?"

"I'll make sure to drag some chains next time," she said with a smirk.

Victor opened his mouth to make a sharp retort, but he noticed that Patty's eyes had been drawn to her family gathered in the backyard, and the longing look on her face made the harsh words die in his mouth.

"Will you go talk to them?" he asked, almost gently. "I mean, after we..."

"No," she said quietly. She dragged her eyes off the window and turned to him again. "It wasn't easy to convince the Elders to let me come talk to you, and I won't risk losing their good will when the girls may need it in the future."

"They're fine, Victor," she sighed when he shot her an alarmed look. "But they have a penchant for getting involved in some rather... heterodox situations."

"Because of him," Victor said bitterly.

"Because of who they are," Patty corrected him. "If they were ordinary, 'go-by-the-book' witches, Cole wouldn't be here, in the first place. And neither would Ben," she added, eyeing him intently.

"Patricia, if you think for one minute that I would do anything to hurt our grandson..." Victor started to say, heatedly.

"Do you think sending his father to hell wouldn't have hurt him?"

"You know I never knew it would..." -- Victor sighed roughly, running his hand through his hair -- "I can't believe you're defending him! You among all people should..."

"I among all people should be here trying to talk some sense into your thick head," she cut him off, "especially when the alternative would be letting you deal with Cole's father. Believe me, he was very willing to come have a little chit chat with you, and it wasn't easy to talk him out of it."

"The demon?" Victor asked, frowning.

"The ghost, Victor," Patty sighed impatiently. "Cole's mother is the demoness, his father was a witch. Do you know anything about your son in law?"

"I know that he lured my daughter -- our daughter -- into being his evil mistress. He lied to her and he almost got her killed, and..."

"He was possessed," Patty said, cutting him off. "Unlike Phoebe," she added quietly.

"Are you now putting the blame on her??" he asked, outraged. "You're her mother, how can you..."

"I'm her mother, and I love her with all my heart," she snapped back, "and don't you ever dare to doubt that, Victor Bennet."

The blaze in her eyes struck him silent, and she proceeded in a quieter tone:

"I never stopped loving her, not even when she chose to follow him to the Underworld and be his queen. My love for my daughters isn't based on their being perfect, as much as I'd like to think that they are."

She turned to the window again, her expression softening as she looked at them.

"None of them is perfect, Victor. What happened to them two years ago wasn't just some unavoidable tragedy brought upon them by an outsider. It was first and mainly the Source's doing, but it was also the sum of their own mistakes. And I mean all of them, including Leo and Cole himself."

She turned to Victor again and said quietly:

"I can't say that I -- or anyone else, for the matter -- would've done better than they did. Ultimately, they did defeat the Source of All Evil, and I'm proud of them. But it took all of them to defeat the Source, just like it took all of them to fail to stop him before."

"And," she added, gesturing towards the kitchen window again, "like I said before, Cole does love them. Don't tell me that you can't see that, because I know you can."

Victor sighed and unwilling turned his eyes to the people gathered in the backyard again. Leo was standing by the grill again, sprinkling the hamburgers with parsley; he smiled when Piper placed a glass of lemonade on the table next to him, and leaned down to kiss her lightly on the lips. Victor sighed and uncomfortably shuffled his feet as he turned his attention to Phoebe and Cole; Ben was now sitting with Paige, and Phoebe had taken his place on Cole's knees. She was talking enthusiastically about something, gesturing with the hand that wasn't holding a chicken wing, and Victor couldn't deny the love in Cole's eyes as he listened to her, or the comfortable intimacy that they shared. Cole made a great deal of protesting when Phoebe drank the remaining lemonade from his glass, but refilled her glass along with his own, while she placed the last chicken wing on his plate.

"I'm doing this for Phoebe and Ben," he started to say before he realized that he was alone in the kitchen again.

"Death hasn't changed you a bit, Patty Halliwell," he muttered, rolling his eyes, and he could almost hear her giggling softly in response.

Then he walked to the door that led to the backyard and placed his hand on the doorknob, taking a deep breath as he braced himself to face his daughters.

"Here goes nothing," he muttered to himself before finally opening the door and stepping into the backyard.

Victor flinched slightly when his arrival was acknowledged with a cloud of tension falling over the place. Ben looked around, puzzled by the sudden silence; when he spotted his grandpa standing at the doorway, though, he greeted him cheerfully:

"Hi!"

Ben tried to slip from Paige's knees to the ground, and Victor cringed his teeth when he saw her hold the toddler back, giving Phoebe a hesitant look.

"No no," Ben said, impatiently pushing Paige's hands away, and Phoebe stood up and took him from her sister's arms.

"Let's say hi to Grandpa Victor," she told him, her words unknowingly reminding Victor of the not so pleasant fact that now Ben had yet another grandpa.

Victor forced himself to snap away from that thought as Phoebe tugged on Cole's hand and, after saying something to Piper in a lower voice, walked towards him with her son on her arm and her husband by the hand.

There was awkward silence as they stood before him, which was broken when Ben reached out for Victor, calling again:

"Hi!"

Victor smiled in spite of himself, and gladly held his grandson when Phoebe placed him in his arms.

"Hi, you," he said to Ben before turning to Phoebe again.

"Phoebe..."

Phoebe's lower lip trembled just a little, but it was enough to make Victor's heart churn in a rather painful way.

"I didn't know, honey," he said contritely. "I was angry and half drunk, and I didn't mean..." -- he stopped and lowered his eyes to Ben, gently fingering the dark curls on the toddler's head -- "I did mean, but in that futile, will-never-happen, harmless way. If I had run into him," -- he looked at Cole -- ", you, on my way out of here that day, I'd have punched you in the nose and it'd probably have ended then and there."

"I wouldn't have blamed you," Cole said quietly.

"I would," Phoebe promptly said.

"Phoebe, can't you at least understand my anger?" Victor pleaded.

"I do understand, dad," she said. "It's just... you don't know the whole story: it's not that simple."

"Look," Victor sighed, not wanting to go down that road again, "I've already been visited by the ghost of Christmas past today. And I wish my own mother in law was so willing to jump to my defense," he added grouchily.

"Mom is here?" Phoebe squealed, Victor's wish momentarily forgotten. With the corner of his eyes he could see Piper and Paige perk up and stop pretending that they weren't listening.

"No, honey," he said gently. "The big shots up there only sent her to haunt me and then she had to go back to, uh, whatever she is now."

"Oh," she uttered, a little disappointed. Victor didn't fail to see the hand that Cole had kept on her shoulder during their interplay move to gently knead it. "So," she asked, giving him her best 'I'm-still-your-little-girl' look, "did you listen to mom?"

Victor sighed and smiled despite himself. She was indeed his little girl, and the thought that his harsh words had almost led to the events that would have broken her heart was enough to make his own heart break.

"I can't say I had a choice; you don't think that the stubbornness you and your sisters inherited from Penny skipped a generation, do you?"

She gave him a hesitant smile and he proceeded:

"If I promise never to do anything like that again, can you find it in your heart to forgive your old man?"

Phoebe's smile grew a little wider, but she just placed her hand over Cole's and stared at her father in expectation.

Victor sighed and looked at Cole; it was always more difficult to hate the man in person, when he could see his grandson's looks and mannerisms in him.

"I understand the curse was removed," he said, awkwardly.

"Yes," Cole said with a discomfort that matched his father in law's.

"Dada," Ben said out of the blue. Cole smiled at his son and he waved at him with a chubby little hand. "Mine," he proudly informed Victor.

Victor looked at the toddler's gap-toothed grin and managed to produce a faint smile before clearing his throat and turning to Cole again.

"Can we find the middle ground?" he asked. "We put past wrongs behind us and you stay out of trouble from now on. And I..." -- he cleared his throat -- "I'll wait until I hear your side of the story next time."

"It's a deal," Cole said, smiling as he held out his hand, understanding all too well how much that compromise meant for a father.

Victor's reaching out and shaking Cole's hand was rewarded with the sight of Phoebe's bright smile and a sensible reduction in the tension in the place.

"Thank you, dad," Phoebe murmured, hugging him while Ben was transferred to Cole's arms.

"My!" Ben demanded, tugging on Cole's shirt and pointing at the table with all the chips and Aunt Paige's funny smelling (and yucky tasting -- he had managed to stick one into his mouth earlier) bread. "My, my, my."

Cole planted a kiss on his son's cheek and turned to Victor again:

"So, hum... are you staying for lunch?"

"Of course he's staying for lunch," Phoebe answered on her father's behalf. She slid her arm through his and snuggled with him as they walked towards the others.

"Cole will stay out of trouble," she assured Victor while Piper stood up to greet him. "The Elders made Leo his Whitelighter, too."

"Isn't that wonderful," Victor somehow managed to grunt while Phoebe let go off his arm and Piper went hug him.

x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x

Later that day, Phoebe was in her new house, brushing her teeth before she went to bed when a golden glimpse caught her eye. She finished brushing her teeth and put her toothbrush back into the cupboard, and reached out to pick up the bracelet that Buffy had forgotten there two days before. The moment she touched it, Phoebe gasped as she was drawn into the most powerful premonition she had ever had.

x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x

Buffy watched as Giles parked the school bus as close as possible to the main entrance of Sunnydale High. She glanced at the sky, then at the blankets piled neatly next to the door.

"Are you sure it's close enough?" she asked Spike for the third time. "I mean, the sun isn't very bright now, but what if later..."

"Tell you what, pet," Spike said with a small grin. "How about we now focus on the getting the job done down there and living to tell the story, and worry about the later, say, later?"

"You know the rules," she said, awkwardly shoving his arm. "No one dies unless I say so."

x-x-x-x-x

"So that leaves me and the dungeon master in the north hall?" Anya said, giving Andrew a critical look.

"We will defend it with our very lives," he said solemnly.

"Yes, we will defend it with his very life," she said with matching fervor.

"And don't be afraid to use him as human shield," Xander told her, pointing at Andrew.

"Good, yes, thanks," she said, nodding her head.

x-x-x-x-x

Buffy used the knife that Faith had handed her to cut the palm of her hand. After Faith and the potentials had done the same, all the girls held their cut hands out over the seal, activating it and revealing a staircase that led down into the Hellmouth.

x-x-x-x-x

"Come on, Red," Kennedy whispered. "Make it happen."

x-x-x-x-x

"I'm not worried," Buffy muttered, looking down at the Turok-Han army down the cliff, "as long as Willow can work her spell before they..."

One Turok-Han looked up at them and snarled.

"... see us."

x-x-x-x-x

"Oh... my... Goddess..." Willow whispered, breathless, power surging through her as she used the essence of the scythe to turn hundreds of potentials all over the world into Slayers.

x-x-x-x-x

Buffy and Faith exchanged a look while around them the potentials inhaled sharply, the power of the Chosen One suddenly becoming the power of many.

x-x-x-x-x

"Anya?" Andrew called, uncertain.

Anya blinked a few times and turned to him with a slightly dazed look before her eyes focused again and she asked, tilting her head to the side:

"What?"

x-x-x-x-x

Erzsebet gasped and brought her hand to her stomach.

"Legion," she whispered. "They are now legion."

x-x-x-x-x

There was a commotion in the lobby of Wolfram and Hart as the head-seer suddenly stopped in her tracks and threw her head back, letting out a long, blood-freezing scream.

People covered their ears with their hands and a few faint hearted ones blanched when the blood started to pour from the quivering woman's eyes.

x-x-x-x-x

"I think they're coming," Andrew whimpered, taking one step back and away from the sounds of battle.

"Oh, God," Anya said, holding her sword so tight that her knuckles were turning white. "I'm terrified. I didn't think. I mean, I, I just figured you'd be terrified, and I would be sarcastic about it."

"Picture happy things..." Andrew suggested, helpfully. "A lake, candy canes, bunnies..."

"Bunnies!" Anya muttered, narrowing her eyes. "Floppy, hoppy..." -- she perked up, raising her sword -- "... bunnies."

x-x-x-x-x

"Everybody out, now!" Faith commanded, rushing the newly empowered Slayers upstairs and out of the Hellmouth, while Buffy ran to Spike's side.

x-x-x-x-x

"Anya!" Xander screamed out as he and Dawn ran to the door. "Anya!"

He didn't see her lying limp on the floor behind a fallen beam, half covered by rubble. Dawn tugged on his hand and pulled him toward the exit, and he followed her while the building collapsed around them.

x-x-x-x-x

"I love you," Buffy said, looking into Spike's eyes.

"Then get the hell out of here, pet," he replied. She hesitated and he added: "Don't die here with me; live for me."

The earth shook beneath their feet and he urged her:

"Go!"

x-x-x-x-x

Xander was helping the Slayers into the school bus when he spotted Andrew sitting on a seat in the back, staring blankly ahead, the front of his T-shirt covered in blood. Xander ran towards him, the question he didn't dare to ask written all over his face.

"I-I'm sorry," Andrew said in a whisper. "She..." -- his voice faltered and he shrugged helplessly -- "I'm sorry."

Xander didn't answer and just stared at him, suddenly oblivious to the teenagers stumbling past him, to Giles' voice as he ushered them into the school bus, to Willow, Kennedy, Faith, all coming out of the collapsing building and running towards them.

When part of the building came crumbling down with a roaring sound, Robin started the engine.

"What are you doing?" Willow asked him, startled.

"If we don't get out of here now," he said between clenched teeth. "We're going down with the Hellmouth."

She turned to Giles, but he gave her a helpless shrug.

"We can't wait any more," he said. "We must..." -- the Watcher's voice cracked, and he took off his glasses and started to clean them with shaking hands, turning his back to Willow.

Just as the school bus started to move, though, Dawn shrieked:

"Wait! It's Buffy!"

Everyone looked in the direction she was pointing, and they saw Buffy jump out of the school building just in time to avoid being crushed by a falling beam.

The school bus screeched to a halt while she ran as fast as she could towards it and away from the collapsing building, trying to shut the voice in her head that told her to turn on her heels and go back for Spike, drag him out of the Hellmouth even if she had to knock him unconscious. She resolutely ignored the cries of this voice, though, knowing that this wasn't what Spike wanted. When he had told her that he'd stay behind to do the cleanup, deep down she knew that he wasn't just talking about the Hellmouth and the First's army; by sacrificing himself to close the Hellmouth, Spike was also making amends for his own crimes. And even as the tears rolled down her face Buffy was smiling, because she knew that the good man Spike had once been had overpowered the monster he had become, and in the end he had finally found his peace.

As soon as she reached the bus door, she was pulled inside by her friends, and Dawn threw her arms around her neck in a fierce hug.

"Uber-vamp!" Vi screeched just as the bus started to move again.

For a second, Buffy actually thought that the Hellmouth had released yet another monster, which was now quickly making its way towards them. Then she realized that what made the creature who was running towards the school bus look so strange was the blanket pulled over his head and wrapped around him, which was flapping wildly as he jumped to avoid the falling pieces of what had once been the Sunnydale High building.

Spike gritted his teeth as a sunbeam grazed the back of his hand, leaving a scorched mark on his white skin. It'd be much easier if he could use both hands to wrap the blanket tightly around himself, if he wasn't holding Anya's limp body tight against his chest. The bus seemed to be miles away, and going back to the school building was no longer an option.

He glanced down at Anya; she still hadn't moved since he had found her lying on the floor, and even his heightened vampire senses could barely perceive her heartbeat as he held her close to him. And there was too much blood. As he flared his nostrils and inhaled the acrid scent of the blood, though, Spike could tell that not all of it was hers. Slain your share of baddies, too, haven't you, luv? The blanket fluttered about and yet another sunbeam made it's way to Spike's skin, making him curse out loud and increase his pace, but he could feel the blanket slowly yet inexorably slide down his head, and he knew that he wouldn't make it to the bus. He braced himself for the pain, hoping that the fall wouldn't do much more damage to Anya's already battered body when the sunlight turned him into ashes.

And then the blanket was pulled over his head again and Buffy was by his side, helping him to the school bus while Xander took Anya from his arms. Buffy nearly lifted Spike from the ground as she dragged him to the back of the bus, where the windows had been painted black earlier and more blankets hang from the seats and across the corridor, forming a tent that provided shelter from the sun. While Spike huddled in the furthest corner of the bus, out of the sun's reach, Xander stormed into the bus, calling at the top of his lungs:

"THOMAS!!"

Taking the cue, Willow promptly added her voice to his, calling for her Whitelighter even if she knew that he couldn't hear her:

"Thomas! We need you here!" She looked up and proceeded angrily: "We fought the battle on our own, just like the Elders wanted! We defeated the First and we need you." -- she stomped her foot to the floor -- "Here." -- she stomped it again, her anger rising as she looked at Anya's ashen face -- "NOW!"

She knew that he'd come if he could, if the Elders hadn't made sure no Whitelighter would be able to orb into Sunnydale during the weeks that preceded the final battle against the First. The magical shield that had been placed over Sunnydale was so powerful that even the Power of Three hadn't been enough to break through it, either by orbing, shimmering or even walking through the city's borders, as the Elders claimed that this was the Slayer's battle. They had only managed to talk by the phone, and even that had become impossible after the power had been cut off in Sunnydale and the phone lines had been shut down.

"THO-MAS!!!!!" she hollered again and then, to her surprise and utter relief, she heard the chiming sound that announced his orbing.

The blue orbs hadn't settled completely and Thomas was already being unceremoniously pushed towards Anya. Without asking any questions, he reached out to heal her, and there was a collective sigh of relief when his hands started to glow softly and the ominous wound on Anya's stomach started to close.

"She's not moving," Xander said anxiously.

"She will..." Thomas started to say when Anya suddenly jolted up.

"Die, bunny, die!" she yelled, hitting the Whitelighter hard enough to send him flying across the bus.

Before she could say anything else, Xander pulled her into a bear hug, shaking uncontrollably as hot tears ran down his cheeks and onto her shoulder.

"Xander?" she said, alarmed, trying to pull away from him. "What happened? Why are you crying? Did we lose? Are we dead?"

"I am," Thomas said, sitting up and rubbing his bruised chin.

"Me too," Spike chimed in from his place on the back of the bus, and Buffy elbowed him lightly.

"We won, Anya," Buffy said. "It's over," she sighed.

But Anya had already turned her attention to other matters.

"Thomas is here!" she exclaimed, managing to break free from Xander's embrace and grabbing Thomas by his arm as he prepared to heal the others.

"British Whitelighter," she demanded, tugging on his arm, "heal Xander's eye!"

"Let him heal the poten... uh...Slayers," -- Xander corrected himself with a sheepish grin -- "first. I can wait. I feel fine," he added, smiling at Anya.

Buffy watched with a smile as the Whitelighter worked his magic, healing the teenagers and talking to Willow all the while. She'd have to talk to him later, too, to know how Leo and the others were doing. "Later, though," she thought as she leaned back with a sigh, allowing herself to finally relax her sore muscles and acknowledge the fact that the fight was over for good.

"What made you change your mind?" she quietly asked, glancing at Spike, who was sitting on the floor by her side. "I mean, about staying behind to go down with the Hellmouth."

"I didn't chicken out, if that's what you're thinking," he said defensively.

"I'm not."

"Good." -- Spike took the amulet that still hung from the chain around his neck and gave it a puzzled look, frowning slightly. "It just stopped shining all of a sudden. Do you think I broke it?"

"The First's army is dust, and the Hellmouth is closed for good," she pondered, looking at the once beautiful gem, now scorched and dull. "The amulet did whatever it was that it was supposed to do."

She sighed, closing her eyes and rubbing the back of her neck.

"I'm glad the Elders didn't remember -- or didn't know how -- to shield Sunnydale against Angel, too. I don't think we would have made it if Phoebe hadn't been able to send the amulet through him."

The words had barely left her mouth and Buffy already wished she could take them back; she looked at Spike with the corner of her eye, expecting him to start another rant about the kiss she had shared with Angel on the previous night, before he traveled back to Los Angeles, but for once Spike was too concerned about other matters to peeve about Angel.

"Do you think," he asked, casting her a somewhat sheepish look, "that maybe I should of stayed behind anyway? You know, the amulet having to be worn by a champion and all?"

"You are a champion," she said. "My champion."

His eyebrows shot up in astonishment and she proceeded:

"You were ready to stay there if that was what it took to stop the apocalypse; I think the Powers That Be found it good enough."

She hesitated then added, looking into his eyes:

"I know I found it good enough."

"For what it's worth," -- they turned their heads to look at Xander, crouched at the entrance of the makeshift tent -- "so do I."

He held out his hand and, after a moment of hesitation, Spike shook it. Just then, the bus made a sharp turn to the right and Xander had to use his free hand to grab the closest seat for support. What Spike saw then almost made him forget the searing pain when Buffy's arm brushed his badly burnt hand; as soon as he regained his balance, his hand shot forward and he grabbed Xander's left hand, looking from the golden band on his ring finger to Buffy with a puzzled expression.

"For how long exactly was I down there?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

When Buffy just shrugged and gave her friend an inquisitive look, Xander said, blushing as he stared down at his wedding ring.

"It's nothing. I just..." -- he sighed -- "I was terrified, okay? I don't have any super powers, and I needed something to help me through the battle."

"I understand," Buffy said gently, placing her hand over his.

"Y'know, lad," Spike said, cocking his head to the side, "I think you should get back there now," -- he pointed to the front of the bus with his chin -- "and take a better look at her hand."

At first, Xander just stared blankly at Spike. Then, as comprehension sank in, he stood up abruptly and ran back to where Anya was sitting, telling Andrew that if he thanked her one more time for saving his life she'd throw him out of the bus. He interrupted her in mid-sentence and unceremoniously grabbed her left hand, staring at her own ring.

"It's nothing," she snapped, blushing as she snatched her hand back. "I just... I didn't want to die alone there," she said in a whisper, averting his eyes.

When he reached out to take her hand in his again, Anya opened her mouth to protest, but then she saw his ring and she just gave him an astonished look.

"I didn't wanna die alone, either," he said, hoarsely. "And I..." he lowered his head and gently fondled the small hand he held in his. "I don't wanna live alone, either, An."

"I know I have no right to ask you to trust me again," he proceeded with his eyes still down, "but I must, because there's no one else for me but you, and there'll never be. You know that I called the wedding off because I was afraid that I wouldn't be strong enough, that we'd end up hurting each other just like my parents did, but now I understand that nothing can possibly hurt more than being apart from you, and I know that I'm only weak when you're not there, because you're my strength, my soul mate, my everything..."

With his head down, Xander couldn't see Anya frantically nodding her head up and down, her own eyes welling with tears, and he might have kept babbling all the way to the state border if the entire bus hadn't shouted out in unison:

"SHE'S SAYING YES, YOU DOPE!"

His head snapped up and he gave her an incredulous look as she smiled through her tears and said in a choked voice:

"I'm saying yes, you dope."

When Xander pulled her to his arms for a long, loving kiss, the bus shook with the cheering and the clapping. Faith put two fingers in her mouth and whistled shrilly, and even Giles smiled at them through the rear mirror and honked twice, in a very non-Giles way.

"Do you want to go congratulate the happy couple too?" Spike asked, looking at Buffy.

"Nah," she said, resting her head on his shoulder. "I don't think right now they'll appreciate company, anyway."

After a moment of hesitation, he put his arms around her shoulders, glancing warily at her friends gathered a few steps ahead of them. The bus slowed down as they crossed the city border, and Spike saw Faith stand up from her place by Robin's side and walk towards them.

"So, B." she said, sitting cross-legged on the floor and leaning lazily on the seat next to her, "what now?"

Buffy straightened up, but didn't pull away from Spike as she gave Faith an interrogative look.

"We've already left Sunnydale behind," Faith explained, "in more ways than one, courtesy of theredeemed Big Bad over there." -- she motioned her chin towards Spike with a small grin -- "Which way now? I mean, I know where I am heading for, but..." -- Buffy gave her a puzzled look and she snorted softly -- "Hasn't Willow told you where I was before she found me in Los Angeles, B.? Northern California Women's Facility. Murder 2; 25 to life."

"You'll turn yourself in?" Buffy asked, baffled.

"It's not that I've missed the place all that much," Faith said, shrugging. "But I don't feel like spending the rest of my life hiding away, either. Besides," she said, reaching into her pocket and drawing out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, "you do the crime, you do the time, and all that crap."

"Do you have a lawyer?" Buffy asked quietly.

"I was assigned one when I was arrested," Faith said, lighting the cigarette. "Not a very tough guy, though. Took me only forty minutes to make him cry."

"I think," Buffy said with a small smile, "that I know just the guy for you."

Before Faith could question her, they heard Thomas clear his throat, and looked up to see the Whitelighter standing behind Faith.

"I'm sorry to interrupt," he said, "but Willow said that you might want to send these girls back home now, and we figured it'd help if I orbed them."

"Does that mean that the embargo has been lifted?"

"Yes," Thomas said. "And, Buffy," he added, sitting on the floor by Faith's side, "for all it's worth, I'm awfully sorry about that. I came as soon as I heard Willow calling; I would've come earlier if I could, but I couldn't make it past the city border..."

"I know," she said gently. "And it's worth a lot."

"Did Piper yell at them?" she suddenly asked, with a mischievous glint in her eyes.

"You have no idea of how much," he said, smiling. "We all did. There was a lot of yelling, and crying, and pleading, and the only reason why things didn't get really ugly was the fact that Phoebe had some kind of premonition about this one year ago and she assured everyone that you'd all make it through it."

"I'd like to talk to Piper," Buffy sighed. "Would you ask her if it's alright if I make a collect call?"

"I'm sure she won't mind," Thomas said. "She's been worried sick about you all and will be glad to hear from you. But I'll ask her anyway, if it'll make you feel better. I want to stop by the manor anyway, to ask Leo and Paige to help me orb these girls home."

"Thank you."

"My pleasure," Thomas said. Then, turning to Spike: "How are you coping?"

"Us British dead," Spike said, shrugging, "we're tough."

"Oh well, what can I say?" the Whitelighter said with a smirk. "We are."

After he orbed out and Faith went back to Robin's side, Buffy and Spike just sat silently for a while, until she turned to him again and said:

"I'd like to spend some time in San Francisco now that this is over."

"Seems like a good idea to me, luv," Spike said, gently fingering her hair. "You could use a vacation."

"We all could," she sighed, resting her head on his shoulder again. After a brief hesitation, she asked, crooking her neck to glance up at him: "So... does it mean that you're coming with us? With me?"

"Do you want me to?" he asked, uncertain.

Buffy took a deep breath and straightened up again to look him in the eye.

"Remember what you said to me two days ago, after you spent the night watching me sleep, and you asked me what that night had meant to me?"

Spike silently nodded his head, watching her intently.

"What I said then..." she proceeded. "It wasn't entirely true. It does mean something. And I..." -- she hesitated, staring down at her fingernails -- "I'm not sure what it means. But I'm willing to find out."

She glanced up at him and added in a voice that was little more than a whisper:

"If you still want that, too."

Spike tilted his head to the side and at first just stared back at her. Then he straightened up, saying in a very deliberate voice:

"I'll take this as a rhetorical question."

Buffy shuffled her feet, annoyed; somehow she had expected his reaction to be more... enthusiastic. I mean, it's not like she was asking for fireworks and a quartet of strings; a simple "Yes" would have done!...As she opened her mouth to make a caustic retort, though, the words suddenly died in her throat. Because he had said "yes". A hundred times. He had said that he loved her, loved what she was, what she did, the way she tried. He had loved her when he didn't have a soul, when he was unable to love anyone. But he had. With a fierceness and a passion that would have consumed a weaker man, he had loved her to the point of madness, the kind of love that only a noble heart could harbor trapped inside the unbeating heart of a creature who had no soul at all. And when that unsustainable paradox threatened to devour them both, he had willingly brought upon himself what had been imposed on Angel as castigation. For her. To be a better man, the man he thought she deserved.

Without a word, Buffy reached out and took his head between her hands.

"I'll take that as a yes," she whispered with a smile, before pulling a very astounded vampire into a long, passionate kiss. She didn't have to open her eyes to know that half of the bus was staring at them. And, quite frankly, she didn't care.

x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x

As the premonition gradually faded away, Phoebe found herself standing in the middle of her own bathroom again, breathing hard and grasping the edge of the sink for support. She realized with great surprise that she couldn't remember almost anything about the premonition, and yet she somehow knew that ultimately everything would turn out fine. She also knew that Cole had to start studying the parole laws of the state of California. And that she needed to find an amulet for Buffy's champion.

The End
(next installment: "A Matter of Balance")