Summary: Buffy begins the task of starting her life over and rebuilding the Watchers Council without her two best friends at her side. (AU)

Pairings: B/OC. Hints of W/X. References to B/A, B/S, X/An, W/T. Hints of B/W/X, but nothing to hang your hat on and nothing you can prove, so there.

Rating: PG-13 for language, some sexual situations.

Spoilers: Spoilers for S7, up to "Dirty Girls." Beyond that, it's AU for the end of BtVS. (See note below since the AU element may be spoiler for outside North America.)

Warning: Character death(s).

Required legal disclaimer: I own nothing. Really, I don't. All characters, settings, and the basic reality of the Buffyverse is owned by ME and FOX. Don't sue me. You'll only get some pocket lint for your troubles.

Archive allowed: Please let me know if you want it for your Web site or to share on your mailing list. However, credit me and keep my name on it, otherwise I will be very, very annoyed.

Feedback: Yes! Yes! Yes! Private or public. Good or bad. While I won't remove bad reviews and will take constructive criticism to heart, I reserve the right to ignore you if your review boils down to two words: "It sucks." without telling me WHY it sucks. Trolls, on the other hand, will be summarily shot.

AU Element: What if Angel only brought himself and not the amulet to the final battle against the First Evil in "Chosen?"

Into the Desert

By Lizbeth Marcs

The man leaned against his car and watched the numbers of the gas pump change with alarming speed while he filled his tank with gas. The hot desert wind ruffled his dark brown hair reminding him that at some point he'd like to get it cut. It was one of the first things he planned to do when they got to where they were going.

Wherever the hell that would turn out to be.

He looked back at the convenience store/gas station with irritation. He wanted to get in some serious mileage before nightfall. Where the hell was she?

Almost on cue she popped out the front door bearing two gallons of water and a plastic bag dangling from a wrist. She paused when the door slammed shut behind her, squinting against the glare as she peered curiously up and down the abandoned two-lane road.

He could remember a time when she would've half-jumped, half-skipped her way out of the store just because the unknown spread out before her and adventure called. Now she walked with the tread of a much older, more cautious woman. He felt a brief pain in his heart as he tried not to compare her then and now. The man closed his eyes in a vain attempt to quash memories of the before.

Age and time had taken that sort of childish excitement and optimism from both of them. Now they were on the road and trying to reach a very specific goal, even if he couldn't exactly remember what that goal was. Damn, his memory was a sieve these days. He'll have to ask her if she remembered.

The gas pump gave a hard jerk indicating the tank was full. He replaced the nozzle and paused briefly to rub his fingers over his palms. Beneath the calluses that defined a blue collar life he could sense too-new blood on his hands.

"I didn't see anyone in the store so I left money on the counter to pay for gas and snacks."

He jumped, startled by the intrusion of her voice, and turned to look at her across the roof of his car. The bright light reflected off her red hair, giving the illusion that blood was pouring over her shoulders. He blinked quickly to shake the mental image from his mind.

"Ready?" she prompted.

He gave a quick, silent nod in return. They both opened the doors and unison and slid into the still-cool interior.

"Where to, m'lady?" he asked. The question had become a tired joke and a sacred ritual. He couldn't even bring himself to turn the key in the ignition before asking the question.

She answered as she always did. "Anywhere but here."

Buffy sat on the couch in her living room and dejectedly stared at the boxes that contained her entire life.

No. Not her whole life. Two big pieces of it were being left behind in one of Sunnydale's many, many cemeteries.

Funny how the old cliché turned out to be right: you don't appreciate what you have until it's long gone.

God, she didn't remember hurting this much after Angel left.

Then again, Angel walked out of Sunnydale on his own two feet, not as dust motes on the wind. Or buried under a tombstone shared with his bestest life-long friend.

"Ready to go, luv?"

Buffy looked up and tried to keep the hatred for this creature out her face. Yeah, soul now. Yeah, he got it for her.

Funny how she just didn't give a flying fuck about it or him anymore.

Willow Rosenberg and Alexander Harris were dead. There would be no resurrection. There would be no coming back from the great beyond. No prophetic Slayer dreams with the messages delivered by a man with Cheshire-cat smile or a woman with stunning red hair. A chapter in her life was ended and now she was someone new, someone who had loved and brutally lost.

The fact that her "loved and lost" didn't apply to Angel or to this sorry excuse in front of her struck her as irony on its highest level.

Although if she were being truthful, she lost them some time after she died the second time. It just took their physical deaths for her to realize that. She'll never get the chance to tell them that she loved them beyond all reason. She wonders if they know anyway, safely ensconced and waiting for her in whatever afterlife they found themselves.

She wondered if Jewish/Wicca heaven was the same as Slayer heaven. She wondered if normal humans could get entrance to either, even for only brief visits. Heaven without Xander and Willow greeting her with goofy smiles and open arms would simply not be heaven. It would be pure hell.

"Penny for your thoughts?"

And god, how he looked at her, head cocked at that angle to highlight his cheekbones and create the illusion that he gave a shit about anyone besides himself.

She wanted so badly to rip his eyes out of his head if only to make him stop looking at her.

Instead she numbly sat on the couch and watched him. She will never forgive Spike for saving her life. She will never forgive him for pulling her from the rubble of her last battle while Xander and Willow died in agony fighting until they simply couldn't fight any more.

"Almost," she said. "Tell Giles the movers will be here to get the boxes in storage around 5. I'll be ready to go first thing in the morning."

"It's a brand new day, innit?" Spike asked.

Buffy grunted and hoped Spike would get the hint and get out of her sight.

"A chance to rebuild the Watchers Council in your own image," Spike continued. "Faith active in the field, new Slayers to recruit, a better Slayer training program to develop. All and all a long time in coming if you ask me."

"I didn't," Buffy snapped. She used her last reserve for 'being civil with Spike' five hours ago.

Spike held up his hands to show his surrender. "Right. I'll be getting some shuteye. I'll be in the basement if you need me."

Buffy breathed a sigh of relief when Spike disappeared and sank into the silence. She checked her watch and silently cursed. The movers were scheduled to arrive in twenty minutes. She couldn't wait for them to be here and gone.

She had a schedule to keep. She had to say goodbye to some old friends staying in the cemetery before she got on the plane and embraced her new life in London.

They visited the Grand Canyon. The two of them sat on the Western Rim and quietly dared each other to get as close to the edge as possible, but fear of vertigo kept them away. They thought that maybe they'd hire donkeys and go down to the canyon floor, but they were too entranced by the view and the too close sky to make the effort.

"For a major tourist attraction, there isn't exactly a crowd here," he commented.

"Maybe it's a slow day?" she ventured.

He snorted. "A slow day on the Grand Canyon. Right."

"Hey, even major tourist attractions can have an off day," she lightly replied. "Still, how often do you get a view like this to yourself?"

"Not often," he allowed. He threw a companionable arm around her shoulder and she responded by leaning her head against his shoulder. "I could stay here," he commented.

"So could I," she said.

"Not forever, though," he said.

"No, but for now," she said.

"If you squint at the sky, I bet you could see heaven," he said.

"Almost," she agreed.

Buffy glared around her suite in the Watchers Council's new HQ.

"Is there a problem?"

Buffy sighed. "No, Giles. I'm just trying to come up with a list of things I have to buy to make it more homey."

"This isn't homey?" Giles asked.

Buffy tightly smiled. "For you maybe, you grew up with this, this…"

"Opulence?"

"I was going for 'stuffiness,' but I guess opulence will do," Buffy said. "Is there a particular reason why the new Watchers Council needs to be headquartered in a mansion?"

Giles sighed. "We need to project a certain image…"

"At an amazing cost," Buffy flatly said. "Looking around here, I gotta wonder if maybe the money we're paying on the mortgage wouldn't be better spent on a salary for Slayers."

"I do agree, Buffy. That's why we're setting up a trust fund to provide a stipend for Slayers in financial need or who make it to the age of majority," Giles assured her. "The new regime…"

"Meaning you," Buffy interrupted.

"Myself and a few of the younger, more worldly surviving Watchers," Giles corrected her. "Let's just say your experiences showed that with everything else that rides on a Slayer's shoulders, money problems shouldn't be one of them."

"That's good, I guess," Buffy glumly replied.

After an uncomfortable silence, Giles said, "You'll be pleased to know that Spike is already installed in his rooms. Unfortunately we had to convert some space in the basement. It's a short-term solution until we find more suitable quarters."

"Spike must be pleased," Buffy snorted. "He'll never have to work for his blood, booze, and smokes again. He's managed to latch onto quite the gravy train. Who would've thought the Watchers Council would become his ultimate sugar daddy."

"I think you're hardly being fair…"

"I think I'm being more than fair," Buffy snapped. "Once upon a time you would've agreed with me. Now let me think, who was it that tried to help get him staked only a few months ago?"

"All I'm trying to say, Buffy, is that Spike has shown a willingness to work with us. Given his extensive experience with both the demonic world and Slayers it would've been foolhardy for us to turn him down." Giles sighed. "I know the two of you have a…a…complicated history, but you do really need to keep the venom down to a minimum."

Buffy crossed her arms, steadily refusing to look at Giles. "I still say including him in on rebuilding the Council is a massive mistake," she said.

"So you told me in the most colorful language possible when I mentioned it back in Sunnydale," Giles said. "I promised he wouldn't have any real power to direct the Council's activities, but he will be an invaluable combat instructor for any new Slayers we can find and bring here."

Buffy said nothing because she knew Giles had a good point, much as she didn't want to admit it.

Giles shifted uneasily, sensing that if he stayed he and Buffy would get into a full-blown argument. She clearly had not recovered from the necessity of reverting Dawn back to her Key form as part of the effort to lock the First Evil back into its own dimension. Even though everyone's memory had reverted back to the original timeline prior to Dawn's arrival, the fact was Dawn was a part of Buffy's life for two years. He figured that Dawn's loss served as a harsh sting.

"I'll leave you now to unpack," Giles said. "Buffy, much as I hate to rush you, we really do need you into the swing of things next week. We have a lot of work to do."

"I'll be ready," Buffy dully said. She didn't bother to walk him to the door. When she heard the click of the lock behind him, she knew he was gone. She sunk to the floor, grateful that she was alone. In her mind's eye she could see Xander inspecting the ornate carving in the woodwork and wondering aloud how the builders fitted together the parquet floor. She could hear Willow running through the suite exclaiming and commenting on every surprise and object that took her fancy.

As the ghostly echoes sounded in her ears, Buffy dropped her head into her hands and began to weep.

They decided to take Route 66. She was attracted to the notion of the interstate highway's romantic history. He just wanted to see all the tacky roadside tourist attractions and couldn't resist any sign promising the world's biggest something or the world's only anything.

The road wound its way through the flat, grey landscape, interrupted only by forlorn signs recalling a better, more innocent age in American history before people stopped believing that the good guys would always win and the hero would always save the day.

It was the perfect route for the two of them to travel.

"It's sad," she commented as she sipped from a tub of soda.

"What is?" he asked even though he could guess what she was about to say.

"No one uses Route 66 any more," she said. "All the tourists abandoned this road for something bigger and better just so they could get from point A to point B faster. All these towns were left to die on the vine."

They passed a shell of an abandoned gas station, an illustration of her point.

"Explains why there are no cars on the road," he commented before taking a sip from his own tub. "Oooooh, a diner up ahead."

"I could eat," she said. "It's 3 o'clock and we didn't stop for lunch."

They pulled into the empty lot, jumped out of the car, and tried the door handle. They exchanged a look of relief when the door opened, grateful that this particular stop hadn't been abandoned. They took seats in a corner booth; all the better to see the view outside, not that there was much view to see.

As if by magic, food appeared on the table along with the bitterest coffee either one of them could remember tasting. They didn't remember giving their orders, or the waitress approaching their table for that matter, but still they must've ordered. Proof was on the plates in front of them.

They ate in silence. When they were finished they glanced around the diner in hopes of attracting the attention of the waitress so they could pay their bill.

No such luck. Both the waitress and the short order cook were nowhere to be seen.

"Probably out back having a quickie," she giggled.

"You've developed quite the dirty mind." He couldn't resist smiling. There was a time that the very thought would've caused her to stammer and blush furiously.

"Nah, just more aware of human nature," she said. "The menu's posted there. I guess we'll just have to do some math."

"Ugh, math. Flashbacks to high school are giving me the wiggins," he said.

They eventually figured out the bill. After a brief discussion about how much sales tax the state imposed on diner patrons, they left the money on the table for the waitress. The amount was enough to cover the menu prices, a 10 percent sales tax, and a 20 percent tip.

After a final look around the diner in an effort to find someone, anyone, to tell them the money was tucked under a dinner plate, they gave up. They left the diner, the ringing of a bell the only sign of their passage back into the daylight.

"Merry Christmas, guys," Buffy said to the picture on the wall. It was her favorite of the three of them—the Three Musketeers as Cordelia called them; the Scoobies they called themselves.

Xander was lying on the ground with a wide grin for the camera. She saw her younger, more innocent self sitting behind him making the universal sign of the bunny ears as she looked down with fondness at her goofy friend. Willow grinned her own sunshine smile at the camera from behind her.

Buffy took the picture off the wall and curled up in a comfortable chair, struck by the insanely bright light that washed out the picture's background even as it brought the three human figures into sharp focus.

She didn't recall the light ever being that bright in London.

For a brief moment she wondered what it would've been like to make love to Xander. If Faith were to be believed he wasn't half-bad, considering she was his first. If Anya were to be believed, Xander was nothing if not imaginative and adventurous in the sack. She wondered what it would've been like to make love to Willow. Would it be gentle and laconic, the kind of lazy touching that lasts all night? Or would it be frenzied passion as the redhead let down her inhibitions behind a closed door?

Buffy snorted and hugged the picture close to her chest. She felt stupid having such thoughts because she never had any sexual interest in Xander and certainly not in Willow. So why even ponder the notion when they weren't even around to answer the question?

The Slayer picked up her glass of red wine and silently toasted her apartment and the fire roaring in the ancient fireplace. She absently sipped at her glass feeling slightly guilty about turning down Giles's invitation for a Christmas Eve get-together. She promised she would make it for Christmas dinner when she saw his disappointed face.

She just wanted to be alone. It was her first Christmas Eve in London and the first Christmas Eve without her friends. The occasion seemed to call for some serious alone time. No Englishmen or undead of the souled or unsouled variety need apply to keep her company.

They trudged into the seedy motel room tired from the long drive from Marah Lake in the Yukon to, well, wherever the hell they were now. They collapsed onto the bed and stared up at the ceiling.

"Sometimes I want to stop," she said.

He didn't say anything. They've had this conversation before, not often, but often enough. Sometimes he started it, sometimes she did.

"Why can't we just stop?" she pleaded.

He didn't answer because he knew she wasn't asking him.

"What are we looking for?" she asked. "Why do we do this to ourselves?"

Ritual questions that amounted to nothing more than words. He knew it and she knew it. Asking them didn't make anyone feel better, but sometimes the questions had to be asked.

He saw her roll over to face him out of the corner of his eye and braced himself for her next question.

"Are we that evil?"

"I don't know," he replied. "I just don't know."

He remembered they once stopped outside a very fancy resort in a remote corner of the Rockies. It was near the end of the summer tourist season so there weren't many people around. They sat in the car while the engine idled and debated whether they should stay the night. They had stayed in so many cheap motel rooms and had camped out under the stars so often, what would be the harm of spending at least one night in five-star comfort?

Money wasn't the issue. They always had enough cash to pay for a place to sleep, gas, food, whatever they needed, really. They knew they had plenty of money to cover a night in a fine hotel with several fine restaurants, room service, a clean pool that actually had water in it, and beds that didn't sag when you lay down on them.

Was it too much to ask for clean sheets and towels, confidence that you wouldn't scare a colony of cockroaches away when you turned on the light, and a spotless bathroom with a shower distinctly lacking mold?

They knew the answer to that, of course. They knew it even before they pulled into the parking lot. They knew it before they even laid eyes on the resort.

When they pulled back onto the road they didn't even glance back at the piece of heaven they left behind.

"I'm glad you're with me," he blurted out.

She raised herself on one elbow and looked down at him.

"I mean, I'm not glad you're with me as in, you're with me here. I'm glad that I'm not alone and that you're on the road with me. Wait, that didn't come out right…"

"I know what you mean," she smiled. "If we have to be here, I'm glad we're here together."

He nodded, feeling the lump in his throat. "Do you think we'll ever find whatever it is we're looking for?" he asked. It was his turn to plead with the unseen force that kept driving them; that kept them on the road in a never-ending search for, what? Home? "Do you think we'd recognize it if we found it?"

"I don't know," she sank back down to her former position, staring at the ceiling. "I just don't know."

"Know what I think?" he whispered. "I think we're afraid to find it."

After a beat she said, "I think you're right."

Buffy stretched the full length of her body and luxuriated in the pull of her muscles before relaxing. She glanced at the clock and silently swore. She overslept. She rolled out of bed with a practiced move and began searching the room for her clothes.

"Leaving already, mon cher?"

"Yes, business to attend to," Buffy said. She found her bra hanging from a lamp. She desperately tried to remember his name. It was embarrassing. They met several times in the past few months for some recreational sex, but she could be damned if she could remember his name.

"You and your mysterious jobs," he said. "Are you a spy? You must be with your strange hours."

Buffy chuckled. "Not a spy. My life would be so much less complicated if I was."

"I bet the CIA trained you to say that," he said as he threw the sheets off so she could get a look at his nude form.

"And you're the double agent come to teach me the error of my Yank ways," Buffy joked. Where the hell was her blouse?

"Double agents have better jobs than art restoration specialist," he said as he rubbed a hand across his chest.

"You're forgetting something else. I can't be a CIA agent because I'm a British citizen," Buffy lightly said. His name was something like a girl's name. Evelyn? No, that was the guy she occasionally saw in London. She met him when the Council called him in to oversee construction of the new wing. Carol? Oh, wait, that was a girl she experimented with in Poland. She had the most beautiful red hair…

"MI5, then," he teased, snapping Buffy out of her thoughts. "You have a perfect cover with your California ways."

"Jean!" The name was out of her mouth before she could stop herself.

"Ahhh, I'm warm, then?" He slowly began to stroke himself, keeping his eyes fixed on her. "Stay and see how hot I can get."

Buffy giggled, partially from the ridiculous sight of an occasional bed partner masturbating while she got dressed to leave, partially from relief that she finally remembered his name. "Tempting as you make the offer, I think Mrs. Palmer and her five daughters will be able to keep you occupied."

He stopped, his brows drawing together. Jean's English was almost perfect, but some idioms flew right over his head.

Now fully dressed, Buffy leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. "What I meant to say is that you looked like you were about to have fun without me," she said.

He burst into a wide grin, the kind that lit up his eyes and threatened to overtake his face. The sight transfixed Buffy. That smile was the reason why she dragged him back to her hotel room the night she met him, why she always looked him up whenever she hit Paris.

"You are an amazing woman," he said.

"You say that to all your little groupies," Buffy lightly replied.

"Ahhh, you wound me to my core," Jean said with hand over his heart for emphasis.

Buffy's cell phone rang, causing both of them to jump. She fished it out of her coat pocket, looked at the number, and groaned. "A friend," she explained. "Probably calling to make sure I'm on my way." She flicked open the cell with a practiced move and greeted, "Giles, I'm on my way. I overslept…"

"Buffy! I'm so glad I caught you before you left," the Watcher interrupted her.

"Usually you're irritated when I'm running late," Buffy said. "What's with relief mode?"

"We just got word that you were walking into a trap," Giles replied. "Turns out the book you've been negotiating for is cursed."

Buffy sat up. "You mean booby-trapped. Anyone could be hurt if they get their hands on..."

"The curse is keyed to activated Slayers," Giles interrupted her. "The second you opened the book to inspect it, you would've been transported to Quor-toth."

"Quor-toth?" She saw Jean's confused look at the unfamiliar language and waved him to silence before he could ask the question. "Isn't that where…"

"Yes, yes, it is where Connor grew up," Giles said.

"But I thought there were no existing…" Buffy paused as she looked at Jean's increasingly confused expression. "…roads to get there," she lamely finished.

"Ahhh, you're not alone. I see." Buffy could hear vague disapproval in Giles's voice.

"Girl's gotta have some fun," Buffy lightly replied, giving Jean a wink. The mild flirtation worked and Jean settled back on the pillows. "Answer the question, Giles."

"Apparently when Holtz and Connor ripped open the fabric of reality to return here they thinned the dimensional walls that separated our world from Quor-toth," Giles explained. "You still can't directly get from here to there with a simple portal spell, but a magic user with enough power can manage the trick of it with the right spell."

"And the right target," Buffy added. "Great. Do we know who's responsible?"

"We're working on that. We have a few suspicions, but nothing concrete," Giles responded.

"How'd you find out?"

"One of the bookseller's assistants overheard her boss talking to someone about it and immediately contacted your 'import-export office' number," Giles said.

"Ahhhh, how nice that people occasionally use my voicemail," Buffy responded. "So I best get going to meet my contact and teach him a lesson about…"

"Not necessary," Giles said. "We have a wetworks team on it. Plus, we sent one of the inactivated Potentials to retrieve the book with her aura magically altered so the shop's wards will read her as an activated Slayer."

"But when the book opens, nothing will happen resulting in a nasty surprise for our guy." Buffy nodded her approval even though she knew Giles couldn't see it. "I still should be there."

"Best if you're not, since the cover story is that you were seriously injured in an auto accident and are hanging on to life by a thread," Giles said. "We do want you here to help question the bookseller when we drag him back to London. How soon can you come home?"

"First flight I can get out of De Gaulle," Buffy promised. She sighed. "It never ends, does it?"

Giles chuckled. "It really doesn't." A pause, the fond tone staying in his voice, "Enjoy your R&R for the rest of the night, but make sure you make it back tomorrow."

"Will do," Buffy promised. She flipped her phone shut and fixed Jean with a look. "You're in luck, my seller backed out and I get to stay until I can catch a flight outta Paris."

"Ahhh, be still my heart," Jean teased as he began playing with a strand of blonde hair. "A whole night with you must mean I'm in heaven now."

"Flatterer," Buffy commented. When his smile lit up his face again, she dove in for a kiss.

She never could resist a perfect smile.

Well, almost never.

They didn't stay long in Chicago.

At first, Chicago seemed to be as good a destination as any they could pick.

The excitement in the car's passenger cabin was palpable when the impressive skyline began dominating the horizon. Neither one of them had spent any time in the Big City. They were both products of white bread suburbia with all its attendant boredoms and small-mindedness.

Chicago spelled opportunity, late nights, jazz clubs, a vaguely shady and violent past, and the anonymity of a crowd.

The illusion quickly fell apart in the face of reality.

Try as they might, they couldn't wrap their minds around the strict grid-like pattern of the streets or the certain Germanic order that imposed itself even in the junkyards where piles of rubble seemed neatly organized. Bi-lingual signs were not the expected English/Spanish duality, but English and some Eastern European language that may have been Polish, may have been Lithuanian, or may have been Martian for all either one of them knew.

The city canyons were too dark for comfort, especially in the bright light of day, and the incessant wind off Lake Michigan remained a confounding surprise as it snatched at anything they held in their hands.

Most unnerving of all was the stunning silence that stalked the streets, even in the midst of the noisy crowd and traffic. The pair moved among the populace feeling like they were walking in the city of the dead. They sensed, more than saw, other pedestrians walking around and through them as if they were not even there or worth noticing if they were.

The worst were the screams in the dead of night: women that somehow got lost, men that got trapped, children with no way out. They clutched at each other and huddled in their shared bed, staring wide-eyed at the cracked and peeling paint on the wall as the sighs and sobs of millions of lost souls snatched greedily at them.

Less than a week later they were back in the car and on the road. Plans to visit New Orleans, Atlantic City, Toronto, and New York were shelved with little debate.

From now on big cities were for driving through, not staying in.

Despite the fact it was in the dead of night, the emerald landscape glowed in the pulsing light of more than a dozen police cars. Buffy blinked hard against the harsh glare and silently urged her eyes to quickly adjust.

A uniformed member of An Garda Siochana approached with one hand outstretched as the other clutched at the precious cup of coffee that served as a talisman for lawmen the world over. "I'm glad you could make it, Miss. Summers," he said.

"Ms.," she automatically corrected.

The police officer blinked in surprise. "Ah, yes. I understand," he hastily apologized.

The lilt and overwhelming hospitality in his voice had 'Welcome to the Republic of Ireland' written all over it. She idly wondered if once upon a time Angel had the same accent. When this was over, she should call Angel in L.A. and tell him she visited his homeland.

"I didn't mean to snap," Buffy quickly apologized. "It's been a very rough night."

"That it is," the officer agreed.

Buffy tried her best to stifle a yawn and only partially succeeded. "I got a brief outline of what happened, but only some sketchy details. Can you flesh it out for me?"

"I'll getchya someone from the NBCI." The officer scampered off, leaving Buffy alone in the overly bright area just shy of the Garda roadblock.

"What have we here?" a male voice said behind her.

"Spike," Buffy acknowledged. "When did you get here?"

"Helicopter had me in the air about 20 minutes after you left," Spike said as he moved to stand next to her. "What happened?"

"Local law enforcement is telling people it's a pack of wild animals." Buffy shrugged. "As for the real story? Looks like something went on a rampage."

Spike peered into the gloom beyond the roadblock. "Understatement of the century, I think. I don't see a stick of the village out there still standing."

A man approached the blonde pair. Even though he wore street clothes, his bearing screamed 'career cop' to Buffy's mind. "Buffy Summers and William Smythe, glad you both can make it," he nodded. "I'm O'Rourke."

"I read the file you zipped to the Council, Mr. O'Rourke, but it doesn't give me much to go on." Buffy could hear Spike hiss his irritation with her bluntly admitting to the existence of the Council in public where any number of civilian normals could hear her. She ignored the vampire. Something big and ugly was trouncing the Irish countryside and she wanted to stop it before more lives were lost. Four years' worth of experience taught her that life was so much easier if she laid her cards on the table, especially when the person across said table already knew the truth about Slayers and things that go bump in the night.

"Sorry it wasn't detailed," the NBCI officer shrugged. "Never know who'll intercept."

"No worries," Buffy assured him. "I'm here. Lay it on me. Leave nothing out."

"This way," he ordered. He led Buffy and Spike through the Garda roadblock. The mass of police cars with their headlights, flashing overheads, and spotlights cast a ghostly pall over the ruined village.

Buffy heard Spike let out a low whistle as they surveyed the full extent of the heartbreaking damage. She silently agreed with the assessment. She remembered being trapped in Turkey when an earthquake measuring 8.5 on the Richter scale tore through Izmit. The damage suffered in that natural disaster had nothing on the complete devastation of the village now around her.

She could hear the voices of rescue workers as they dug through rubble. The lights on their mining helmets kept revealing one disappointment after another as yet another corpse was removed. Trained dogs flashed through the darkness, whining and snuffling in the desperate attempt to find someone alive.

"Jesus," Buffy said in a tone that could've been mistaken for a prayer.

"Amen," O'Rorke agreed. "We have one survivor."

"How?" Spike asked. The vampire was fidgeting and Buffy was suddenly struck by the notion that her investigation partner was probably reacting to the overwhelming smell of human blood.

"Our witness's car broke down and he was walking over that hill," O'Rourke pointed vaguely in the direction of the west. "He saw the whole thing. He claimed he saw a monster, about three meters tall, literally tearing down the houses."

"Did the 'monster' seem like it was looking for something?" Buffy asked.

"Hard to say," the officer shrugged. "Our man was barely coherent when we questioned him."

"I think your first guess is right, Buffy." Spike speculatively looked around. "This looks like a straight up rampage. If it was looking for something the rubble would've been spread out a little bit more."

Buffy nodded her agreement. She indicated a pile that was once a home. "May I? If I can get a look at the kind of damage it caused, I might be able to figure out something about your monster."

"Do what you need to, Ms. Summers," O'Rourke said. "We called your people for help because, frankly, this is a little outside our expertise."

"Thanks," Buffy said. She headed over to what was probably once a small cottage. She circled the area, noting marks on stones, scratches on the support beams, rips and tears on the landscape, in short, any physical clue that would indicate her target's strength and native weaponry.

Spike ghosted up to her and whispered in her ear, "I smell blood."

"I'd be more surprised if you didn't," Buffy said. "There are a lot of dead people here."

"No, I smell blood underneath the rubble here," Spike urgently added. "Judging by the freshness of the scent, the blood may still be coming out of a live body."

"Where?" she hissed back.

Spike indicated the northwest corner of the house, an area Buffy had just passed.

Buffy scooted over the tangle and noticed that this area was heavy on wooden structures and blessedly free of masonry. It gave her hope that someone might still be alive, if gravely injured, under the pile. She desperately snatched at the debris, tossing chunks of wood and plaster away from her, not caring that the Garda and rescue workers might notice her freakish strength. Spike pitched in at some point to help her.

When she cleared the area she stopped, breathing hard, heedless of the blood dripping from her hands.

There were two bodies.

Buffy could dimly hear Spike's voice over the roar in her ears telling her that he was sorry. He was sure they were still alive. They must've only died very recently. He was sorry, so very sorry.

Spike's words were just noise. His apologies were always just noise.

She could see the woman's red hair was matted with gore. What was left of her face was a mask of agony. Covering most of her body was that of another, this one belonging to a brunette male. His position indicated that he had thrown himself across her in a vain attempt to ward off the killing blow. Something had punched through his back, leaving behind the vague impression of a clawed hand.

She didn't have to see his face to know that he bore a matching death mask.

Buffy choked back a sob and slowly backed away. They were dead. No saving them now. She would never be able to save them.

She wanted to look away, but couldn't quite get the willpower to do it.

A loud, enraged scream echoed off the rolling hills. Buffy snapped her tear-stained face from the scene at her feet and scanned the landscape.

There.

The demon tromped down the road, attracted by the bright lights and the crowd of fresh victims-in-waiting. The armed Garda drew their guns and opened fire.

The rock-like horned creature didn't even slow down.

"Stop!" Spike shouted over the din. "You're just pissing it off!"

"Fall back!" shouted one of the Garda officers. "Fall back to defensive positions!"

The Garda scrambled for safe cover. As one of the non-uniformed men ran by her, Buffy reached out a hand and jerked him to a stop. "Tell them to hold their fire unless and until I say otherwise," she ordered. "They're not equipped to handle this."

"But…" the man began.

"You called me in," Buffy harshly reminded him. "This is what I do."

The man nodded and scurried away to relay her orders.

"Ready?" Spike asked.

"Stand back if you know what's good for you," Buffy growled. "The demon is mine."

He waited for her to check out of the White Mountains Motel, leaning against the car while he read the Boston Globe. The headlines screamed it for him: the Southie Slayer had struck again.

The story had been dominating the nation's headlines for weeks to the point where there was no escape. Everyone in the nation now knew Southie was slang for South Boston, the names and faces of the victims, and the killer's m.o. They knew it even if they didn't want to.

Since this story was a local one for the Globe's readership, he wasn't surprised to see the Southie Slayer owned not just the front page, but also the entire front section of the newspaper. He idly wondered if the Southie Slayer was getting a kick out of the attention and now was killing as a form of performance art.

"Why are you bothering?" asked a voice in his ear.

He shrugged in response. He was obsessed with keeping up with the news in a way he hadn't been before they took to the way of the car. He needed to know the world still existed in some form while they traveled forgotten roads and found vanishing landscapes.

She leaned against the car and peered over his arm at the newsprint fluttering in the breeze. "Nothing like good ol' human evil," she commented.

"So how much did we get dinged for the roach-infested room?" he asked to change the subject.

"No idea," she replied absently while she scanned the headlines. "I found a notice about the nightly rates and hotel tax. I rang the service bell, but I got sick of waiting for someone to come out so I left the cash on the counter."

He snorted. "The usual, then. You'd figure in a place like this they'd be hypervigilant about people skipping out without paying."

"I don't think we're their usual kind of customer," she said.

"The kind that pays?"

"The kind that doesn't pay by the hour."

"Ah," he responded. He tried to fold the newspaper shut, but only managed to mangle the pages as the insistent breeze made the task harder than it should've been.

She snatched the paper out of his hands and began paging through it as she scanned the articles.

He took comfort in the ritual passing of the news. Every morning she acted as if she didn't care about the world, but she always devoured whatever newspaper or newsmagazine he was reading the second he was done with it.

"This is sick," she commented as she continued her scan.

"Agreed," he said.

Neither one of them asked the question that everyone else asked: How could someone do something like this? They already knew the answer to that question and so didn't torture themselves or each other by asking it aloud.

He felt the blood on his hands begin to itch. He shoved his hands in his pockets in response to the tingling sensation. No need to go there. No need to think about the before.

She barked a quick laugh. "Did you see this? Some business leaders are pooling some money together for a reward, payable to the person who gives up the key piece of information that leads to the arrest and successful prosecution of the Southie Slayer. Guess what companies they own." Her eyes shined with amusement.

"Lemmie guess: the owner of a trash hauling firm, owner of a construction firm, and owner of a trucking firm. Oh, and the president of the local Teamsters chipped in, too," he replied.

"Awww, no fair, you read it," she pouted.

"Read it, laughed about it, started preparing my tasteless jokes to spring on you after you read the same article," he said.

"You know it's bad when the Mafia wants a piece of this guy," she said.

"Alleged Mafia to you, missy," he huffed, his smile giving away his agreement. "Still, you have to admire the poetry: a bunch of killers want to find a single killer. They must view him as some serious competition to the murder franchise."

"Maybe the Mafia is trying to clean up its act and become a good corporate citizen," she wickedly grinned as she folded the paper. She did a slightly better job than his poor attempt. "Wonder if they pay their taxes."

He snorted what he thought about that.

He watched her walk away to put the newspaper in the motel office. As she walked back to the car, he saw her rubbing her hands.

He knew she wasn't trying to rub off the ink.

He wondered if her hands sometimes itched as much as his did.

She stopped when she stood in front of him, her face showing a confusion of emotions as if she were trying to drown out the sound of a single male scream echoing through a California wood. "I hope they catch him," she said softly.

"So do I," he agreed. He glanced up at the sun, trying to capture its heat on his face in the vain hope that it would warm the icy darkness at his core. "We should go. We have to go. I was thinking maybe Nova Scotia or Arcadia National Park. Someplace with no news. What do you think?"

"It doesn't matter," she said. "Anywhere but here."

Albania was lousy with vamps. Their presence was almost missed in the chaos that ruled the country. They were only discovered because Buffy was attacked while retrieving a detected inactivated Potential from a small town in the countryside.

Her overnight mission turned into a three-week crusade. By the time the Slayer was through the dust of more than a hundred vampires littered the roads. The rest wisely fled the country.

Buffy had no doubt they'd be back as soon as she and her charge were safely bundled onto a plane and winging back to London.

Still, it felt good letting loose like that. It had been too long since she used all of the Slayer abilities at her disposal. She couldn't ask for more deserving targets on which to take out her frustration with the past six years. And a hundred less vamps in the world, more or less, can only be counted as a good thing, right?

Rebuilding the Council took a ton of administrative work, something she never excelled at, and required long-range planning and careful research to rebuild all of the Council's resources. The Council desperately needed suitable people to serve as Watchers. Uncounted lifetimes' worth of books and other assorted occult items needed to be found and acquired to replace the staggering intellectual capital that was lost when agents of the First Evil blew up the original Council.

All of this endless planning and strategizing was constantly interrupted as Buffy jetted off to various exotic locales, sometimes to lure a new Slayers and inactivated Potentials to a "special boarding school" in London, sometimes to deal with grave demonic threats, and sometimes to retrieve one of the aforementioned books or occult items. There were days when she thought she should just slap the title "Buffy Powers, International Woman of Mystery" on her forehead and be done with it.

She entered her hotel room and a smell of cigarette smoke caught her nose. "Spike," she clipped.

"William," he corrected, drawing on the nicotine stick as he stretched out on her bed.

"When did you get here?" Buffy asked. She frowned at him.

Spike miraculously got the message and got off the bed, stretching like a cat as he did so. "Got here before sunrise. I'm to fetch you back to London since you basically told Rupes to piss off when he called two days ago."

"I was busy," Buffy snapped, shedding her coat. "It's over now. I'm grabbing Anna and we'll be on a plane back to London tomorrow like good little girls."

"What's this all about?" Spike asked, eyes narrowing. "Rumor has it you took on the entire vampire population in this country."

"I won, didn't I?"

"Temporary victory at best," Spike corrected. "They'll be back the second you're gone."

"Really?" Buffy's voice hardened around the question. "I love it when you speak from personal experience, Spike."

"William."

"Spike," Buffy insisted. "So, what's next? Gonna tell me about the good ol' days when you ate an interior decorator? No. Wait. I heard that one. How about the time you slurped up a nursing home full of little ol' ladies? I'm sure that's a crowd-pleaser."

"Vampires are serial killers. On some level you know this even if you don't always see it," Spike said. His voice sounded weary as he rendered this statement. "Part of their nature, unless you forget. I'm not that anymore. You know that."

Buffy snorted. "So you're a reformed serial killer, then. Last I checked death by lethal injection was the only cure."

Spike looked at her, his expression blank as he regarded the blonde in the room with him. "Is there ever going to be a point where you'll stop blaming me for saving your life?" he quietly asked.

"I'm not blaming you for saving my life," Buffy stated. "I'm blaming you for saving my life and leaving everyone else to die."

"No, you just hate the idea that owe me," Spike said. "Admit it: it still burns that I ruined your own personal Waterloo. You had your last stand so perfectly planned. No one but me caught on that you were trying to commit suicide because you're still yearning for heaven, Slayer Valhalla, the great beyond, or wherever the hell it was you stayed after you died."

Buffy smiled a nasty smile. "Spike? Once upon a time, I thought sure you got me on a level that not even Angel could understand. That little speech? Just proves that you never knew me at all."

"Truth hurts?" Spike asked, certain he'd hit the target.

"You're so far off the mark that I can't believe it," Buffy smirked.

"No, I've got you dead-to-rights," Spike said. "And you know it."

She suddenly laughed. "Here's a clue, Spike. If I died tomorrow, I'm not all that sure heaven would let me back in. Trust me when I tell you, this isn't about death. It's about life. I plan to still be dusting your kith and kin even after I need a walker to get from my bed to the bathroom."

Still chuckling, Buffy turned on her heel and walked into the bathroom, abandoning a confused Spike in the middle of the hotel room. She needed a shower.

She made sure to lock the door before she got undressed.

Sometimes he's trapped by his reflection in the mirror.

It's not anything he can put a finger on, but there's something inherently different about his face. He thinks his face should be fuller. He thinks his ears should stick out more. He thinks he maybe has an extra eye.

The last bit is the bit he finds the most disturbing. How can someone have an extra eye? He has two, the two he was born with in fact.

His dark eyes stare back at him from the mirror as he tries to catch a glimpse of himself. Not the himself he sees in the mirror, but the ghost of the himself he thinks might be lurking under the surface: the himself that is beaten down, lost, and bearing a few too many scars.

The himself that is…

No. He won't think about the before. All that really matters is the now with the car, the open road, and her.

He remembered the first time he was trapped by his reflection. It was two weeks after they started their road trip. He remembered looking for the extra eye, running his fingers obsessively through his hair and checking every nook and cranny on his body in a desperate search, the motel's cheap fluorescent light in the bathroom providing no help. She found him the next morning lying bruised, scratched, and sore on the moldy floor.

She didn't ask what happened. She just kneeled on the floor and pulled him into her lap while he sobbed.

Sometimes he's captured when he sees her. When it happens, he freezes as he considers her form. It doesn't happen often, but when it does it happens after those rare long nights when he can't sleep, slides out of her arms, and goes to stare in the mirror in an effort to find himself.

Sometimes he thinks she should have black hair, black eyes, and a look of rage stamped on her features. Sometimes he thinks he catches a glimpse of her face pinched in disappointment and distaste, usually because of something he said or did. Sometimes he hears her breathing through her mouth as if she's gasping for air.

And yet, her hair is red. It's always been red near as he can remember, never black. Her eyes have always been that perfect shade of green, never dark like his eyes and never black like a nightmare. She's never looked at him as if he's beneath her consideration and has always been his friend.

Sometimes he remembers one truth. Sometimes he remembers another.

Sometimes he sees her looking at him with that same speculative look he sees when he stares into the mirror and tries to figure himself out. He doesn't have to wonder what she's thinking. He knows that sometimes the same vague thoughts that plague him plague her.

She had her breakdown a week after he did. He woke to hear her sobbing as if she were lost and wouldn't be found. He reached out to hug her close, only to discover the space next to him in the motel bed was empty. He sat up and looked wildly around the room, desperate to see her.

The sound of a shower reached his ears and he was out of bed and in the bathroom in the blink of an eye. He found her huddled on the floor of the shower stall, water from the showerhead pouring over her. He dove in to gather her up in his arms, not caring that he would get wet, not caring that the hot water was now cold.

He didn't have to ask why she cried.

Sometimes he thinks there's someone missing, a person who resides just at the edge of his memory. Sometimes he turns to look at the backseat to say something to someone who isn't there. Sometimes he can see a flash of gold and a California smile lurking in the shadows.

Sometimes he even remembers a name.

Sometimes he sees her turning to talk to someone who isn't there and he knows she's looking for the same ghost he's looking for.

But it's just the two of them, and always has been since they started driving. They never fight. Oh, they argue, they disagree, they debate, but at the core is that solid bedrock of love and friendship that links the two of them together in comfortable companionship. Him and her. Her and him. They are two against the world trying to find a place in the world.

Except the world doesn't seem to want them.

Sometimes he thinks he's going crazy. Sometimes he thinks that he's completely sane. Sometimes he's not sure which of these options scare him more.

"It's sad."

Buffy looked at Angel in surprise. "What is?"

Angel shrugged in response. "Felt like something to say."

"Sad is the wrong word. Strange is more like it," Buffy said.

Angel ruefully chuckled and shook his head. "I have to admit, I never thought I'd see the day when anyone would have a memorial service for a vampire."

"Especially the Watchers Council," Buffy agreed with a grin. "Complete with a bishop from the Church of England."

Angel laughed out loud, but Buffy could sense a certain heaviness to the sound as if he were holding back his true feelings on the matter.

"William was well-loved around here," Angel said. "Seems like a lot of people will miss him."

"I won't." The words were out of Buffy's mouth before she could stop them.

Angel looked at her with surprise. "I thought you two were on good…"

"Yes and no," Buffy rocked a hand to illustrate her point. "Good working relationship on those rare occasions we worked together, yes. Friendly? No."

"Ahh," Angel responded. "You and I are on good terms and we used to…"

"You and me are very different," Buffy responded. "Once I got over the whole romantic thing, I found out that I actually liked you."

Angel half-smiled at the backhanded compliment. Buffy had changed drastically in the years after she left Sunnydale. She was guarded, more prickly in her interactions with others, hard to get to know, and even harder to befriend.

Just the same, he could see that Buffy was well-liked in the snug world inhabited by the Council. They found her funny—if sometimes off-putting—refreshingly blunt, and generally a fine woman. Years in London had not changed her basic 'American-ness' as Giles once put it. Angel on his rare visits to the Council could see Buffy was like a rare tropical bird amongst button-downed Watchers.

"You didn't like William?" Angel asked.

Buffy thought for a moment. "I could've learned to like Spike, I guess, if things in Sunnydale didn't end the way they did."

"William came through for you in the end," Angel protested. He didn't know why, but he felt the need to defend the now dear departed. His inherent Catholicism whispered that he shouldn't speak ill of the dead. Spike was a screw-up, but William was a decent sort if the tearful eulogies were to be believed.

"He remained focused on me in the end," Buffy corrected.

"A little self-centered, aren't you?" Angel asked. "Seems to me that William had a long-term relationship with…"

Buffy waved a dismissive hand. "I'm not talking about after we immigrated. I'm talking about the fact that he couldn't be bothered to look out for others who needed his help when it counted."

Angel's eyes narrowed and studied Buffy's profile in the moonlight. It had been so many years since he'd seen that vulnerability that he almost missed it.

"You miss them," he stated. He didn't have to specify whom he was talking about.

Buffy whipped her head around to face Angel, her eyes widening in surprise.

"You do," Angel answered his own statement. "All these years…"

"They didn't get a memorial service!" Buffy exploded. "There were no eulogies. No kind words. No bishops. Nothing. Xander's parents couldn't even bother to show!"

"I was there," Angel quietly reminded her.

"They were buried like dogs." Buffy began to pace. "They died because Spike couldn't be bothered to go back for them."

"He was saving you," Angel reminded her.

"He had time! Don't you get it? He had time!" Buffy insisted. "Know what he did? Once he got me clear, he sat there. He sat there and held my hand until I came to an hour later. By then it was too late!"

"Buffy, it would've been too late even if he dumped you and ran back," Angel patiently explained. "You forget, I was trying to reach them when they got surrounded and I got cut off by the…well, let's just say if you're going to blame anyone, blame me for failing."

Buffy sadly smiled. "I don't blame you. You tried. Spike didn't have to succeed. All he had to do was try, hell, even a half-hearted try. He didn't even attempt it. He couldn't be bothered."

Angel didn't argue the point because the heart of the matter was this: she was right. He had lost more than a few people he cared about in his time fighting the good fight, so he could more than relate. Sometimes people died. It couldn't be helped and it couldn't be stopped. Sometimes trying was all you could do even if you knew you wouldn't succeed.

"Still, it's a little harsh holding this against William all these years." It was a terrible defense and Angel knew it, especially since he'd been known to hold some killer grudges of his own.

"They died for nothing," Buffy said, looking up at the moon. "That's the real kicker. They died trying to protect all those girls and all those girls died anyway. All Xander and Willow did was buy them, what? An extra minute, two? I lost both of them for nothing and now the only thing that proves they ever existed is a granite tombstone half a world away."

Angel swiftly moved to her side. "That's not true," he assured her. He placed a hand over her heart. "The proof is here." He touched a finger to her forehead. "And here." He waved an arm at the Council building, "And there, in the Chronicles. Whenever future generations read about Buffy Summers, the Chosen One, they'll also read about her loyal friends, Alexander Harris and Willow Rosenberg. They'll know that they were brave and strong and willing to shoulder a burden that so few are willing to admit needs shouldering. They didn't die in vain and they will never be forgotten."

Somewhere in the middle of Angel's eulogy, a eulogy given nine years too late, Buffy began to sob. She collapsed into his arms; the full weight of an ancient loss crashing down her carefully constructed defenses.

While Angel held her in her grief, his mind reached back to his half-forgotten Catholicism. His demon growled in protest while he silently prayed, Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord and let Perpetual Light shine upon them; Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord…

He prayed for William, he prayed for his own departed friends and allies, but mostly he prayed for Willow and Xander who were still horribly missed and never forgotten.

He woke to the sound of his own screams.

She threw her arms around him in a practiced move to prevent him from jumping out of the bed and running straight into a wall. She determinedly hung on to his waist until his locked muscles relaxed. He felt her slightly loosen her grip, but she didn't let go.

"Which one?" she asked.

"The one where I killed her," he said. He buried his face in his hands partly from sorrow, but mostly from shame.

"You didn't have a choice, you know that."

"Didn't I? Am I sure?" he asked. "There had to be another way. There's always another way."

"We've been over this," she sighed. "When I killed, I had a choice. When you killed, you had no choice at all."

He bitterly laughed. "I ran away from her because I knew I'd eventually kill her spirit before I murdered her."

"She made her choice," she insisted.

"I could've talked her out of it."

"No, you couldn't," she said. "We've been over this. She decided she didn't want to die and made a deal with her old boss. If you didn't act when you did, thousands of people would've been dead."

"One life for the many." He collapsed back on to the bed, staring at the cracked ceiling. "If I did the right thing, how come I feel…"

"Because you loved her." A statement delivered without malice, even if the words pierced him to his core.

"Did I? I'm not sure. I don't think I ever loved her. Not really."

Her eyebrows shot up in surprise. This was a new twist on a conversation they'd had too many times in the dark.

"If I loved her," he explained. "I would've found another way to stop her besides beheading her with an axe. I could've just disrupted the spell she was casting…"

"It wouldn't've worked," the redhead insisted. "I know from spells and she had finished doing everything that needed to be done. The only way to stop it was killing her."

He fell into a brooding silence. She sighed, laid back down, and rested her head on his chest. He started stroking her hair, something he always found oddly comforting after a round of wrestling with a guilty conscience.

"I thought we had settled our differences," he whispered. "I thought she decided to embrace humanity. How did I read her so wrong? Am I really that stupid about people?"

"Hey, you're not the only one she fooled," she said, fingers lightly brushing along the bare skin of his stomach. "I never liked or trusted her, so if anyone was really blind it was me." She sighed again. "I thought she'd do something to hurt you. I never thought she'd decide to betray all of us to ensure her own safety."

"I should've seen the signs. She was so angry."

She began to shiver.

He rolled over on to his side, dislodging her from her position. He pulled her close and lightly brushed his lips across her forehead. "Don't," he said. "Don't do this to yourself. You're not like her."

"Why do we have nightmares?" she asked. "If it isn't you, it's me. Has either one of us ever had a full night's sleep?"

"Not since we hit the road," he said. "You'd think getting away…"

"Maybe we deserve this," she said.

"I deserve it," he said. "You don't."

She offered a bitter chuckle in response. "I think you have that backwards." She sighed. "I hate talking about the before. It always hurts when we try."

"Yes, it does," he agreed.

She reached out and stroked his jawline. "Help me forget?" she asked.

He answered as he always did by capturing her lips with his.

Giles touched the dog-eared photograph with something akin to reverence. The picture showed Buffy, Xander, and Willow in a group hug. He tried to guess what year the picture was taken. Judging by Buffy's and Willow's clothes and Xander's hair style, he guessed sometime during Buffy's junior year. Judging by the bright smiles, he could further narrow it down to 'before Angelus.'

The picture fell into his lap when he opened Buffy's latest journal. It had been tucked in the page bearing her last entry, written just shy of her 36th birthday.

He looked around her quarters, staring dejectedly at the boxes that contained the contents of her life. Her will was very specific: anything that would be of no use to the Watchers Council archives was to be given to charity.

In his humble opinion, everything about Buffy Summers, be it anonymous clothing from a trendy boutique shop to the pile of journals in front of him, should be enshrined in the archives.

He had such hopes that he, Rupert Giles, would outlive his Slayer. She managed to fight for more than twenty years, a record by any reckoning. She was the daughter he wished he could have, no matter how often they disagreed on her style, approach, basic philosophy, or even what to order for dinner.

Yet as open as Buffy was about most things since she moved to London, this she kept hidden from him; this part of herself that she left behind in journals that he didn't know she kept.

The first journal was started before she left Sunnydale, the day Willow and Xander were buried in fact. The pain and loss illustrated by those words hit Giles so hard that he forgot to breathe. Time dulled that loss, but it never completely went away. Not an entry went by where Buffy didn't mention one or the other, usually both, in some fashion.

I saw this art exhibit today with this ornately carved chest. Everyone ooohhhhed and aaahhhed over it, but I bet Xander could've put the artist to shame…

My contact used this crystal to locate the Ankh of Amarrah. I don't think Willow ever used crystals in her locating spells…

Xander and Willow would've loved this place. It had all these crazy funhouses. I'm pretty sure they would've been less thrilled with the S'hard demon playing hide and seek in the Hall of Mirrors…

And on and on…

Sometimes entire entries were devoted to them, usually during the rare dry spells where Buffy had no mission calling her away from home and she was forced to sit in on meeting after endless meeting.

Giles began to understand why Buffy would suddenly smile a small odd smile at inappropriate times during those meetings. He wondered what the Xander or Willow in her head said to make her smile like that.

He suddenly and desperately wished to know.

He held the picture in the palm of his hand as he stood up, his bones creaking as he did so. A sudden memory crossed his mind. Willow, Xander, and Buffy were in the high school library and gathered around the computer and giggling about something they saw on the screen. He remembered being irritated because they were supposed to be researching some demon or another and that meant books, not playtime.

He planned to tromp over and order them back to work but he stopped himself just shy of his office door. It was so rare to see the three of them acting so much like the teenagers they were and for a moment the sight entranced him. For everything they knew, for everything they did, these three were still somehow able to hold on to their basic innocence.

Even then it broke his heart because he knew it wouldn't last. Sooner or later the last of their childhoods would be ripped from them and all that would be left was this moment.

He retreated back into his office and watched them while the trio continued to giggle and softly crack jokes.

Giles looked down and noticed that the hand holding the picture was clenched in a fist. He startled and dropped the crumpled picture on the floor. He quickly picked it up and gently placed it on the table, straightening the edges with care. The picture was dog-eared enough that it returned to its natural wrinkled state.

A knock on the door startled him. "Come in," he barked a little too harshly.

A young woman poked her head in the room. "Mr. Giles? I was told to ask if you needed any assistance packing away Ms. Summers's things."

"Everything is under control," Giles said. "I'll be finished in a few days." The woman looked as if she wanted to say something, but Giles beat her to the punch. "For god's sake, girl. I want to do this alone. It's not like we have anyone waiting for these rooms."

She nodded quickly and shut the door.

Giles sank on the couch. Somewhere in Buffy's apartment he could hear three voices giggling. The words were indistinct, but the joy was impossible to miss.

Giles began to smile through his tears.

Buffy wasn't sure how long she walked along that dark road. She was on the outskirts of a city and yet not one car had passed her. It must be very late, then.

She checked herself for injuries and found none. Slayer healing strikes again. She thought sure she was dead, although she would be damned if she could remember how she escaped.

She was tired. She needed to find a place to call Giles and tell him that she probably wouldn't make it home in time for her 36th birthday party. Then she needed to find a place to sleep.

She stumbled into a pool of light and looked up. A sign advertising the name of a motel and the legend "Vacancies" stared back at her. She strangled her relief at the unexpected sight and berated herself for not being more aware of her surroundings. It was a big sign, so it was a wonder she missed it.

She must be more tired than she thought.

She wandered into the parking lot and wrinkled her nose with distaste. Seedy, cheap, run-down, all perfect adjectives for her oasis.

Beggars can't be choosers.

She was halfway to the motel office when she saw it. She stopped and stared. The car looked so very familiar. It couldn't be. It couldn't possibly be. It looked brand new, which Buffy knew was well nigh impossible.

That car was more than ten years old, yet it gleamed a perfect silver in the dark.

She cautiously approached the car and peered into its interior. There was no sign of human habitation. No discarded wrappers, no stray pieces of paper, no luggage, not even a map to indicate that someone drove the car here and would drive it away in the morning.

She looked up and saw the car was parked in front of a room. Did she dare?

She was being stupid and she knew it. It just wasn't possible. He was dead and so was she.

She had to know.

She walked up to the door and hesitated, hand hanging in the air. Yes or no. At worst, all she'd get is some annoyed john furious that his hour had been interrupted. At best…

She didn't want to think about the at best. The hope was too hard to bear.

Of its own volition, her hand knocked at the door. She heard the sounds of stumbling and a few muttered curses from inside the room. She heard the locks fumble and her breath caught in her throat.

The door swung open revealing the room's two occupants.

They hadn't aged a day.

Buffy heard herself give a loud cry as she launched herself at them. She wasn't surprised that they caught her and she crushed them close.

She couldn't stop crying. "I found you, I found you, I found you, I found you…" she repeated. Her mind screamed that it wasn't possible even as her heart believed.

"Buffy?" he asked.

"Is…is…is that you?" she asked.

They pulled back from her and studied her with matching intense expressions. "How did you find us?" he asked.

"I don't know," Buffy said. "I thought you were dead. You guys haven't changed a bit."

"Neither have you," she replied.

The three of them froze.

"What do you mean?" Buffy whispered.

"You look exactly the same," he explained, eyebrows drawing together.

And that's when it hit the Slayer. "You don't, Xan."

"I don't?" he asked.

"You have both your eyes for a start," Buffy said with wonder as she reached out and touched his face. She turned to his female companion, "And Willow, you look…you look as beautiful as you did when you first fell in love with Tara." She suddenly moaned. "But it can't be you. It can't. You're both dead. I watched them put you both in the ground."

The brunette and redhead looked at each other, as if uncertain about the truth of Buffy's statement.

"Dead," Xander said, as if tasting the word.

"I don't feel dead," Willow uncertainly said.

"I don't care!" Buffy pushed her way into the motel room. "I don't care. I'm here and you're here and everything is going to be alright." She spread her arms, laughing in a way that she hadn't laughed since high school. She spun once, taking in the water stains, the threadbare curtains, the peeling wallpaper, the broken-down beds.

God, it was beautiful.

She stopped her turn when she once again faced the confused couple standing by the door. Her smile threatened to split her face. "Yeah, everything is going to be perfect."

Willow and Xander exchanged a glance. They turned to look at her, half-forgotten emotions flickering over their faces. On a silent cue, they cautiously stepped forward, studying her as if she a ghost. They circled around her, looking at her from all angles.

Not once did Buffy's smile dim as tears stung her eyes.

Next thing the Slayer knew, she was attacked in a tight hug, the kind of hug she forgot she missed until the day came when she was sure she would never get them again. Willow rested her head on her right shoulder while she could feel Xander's chin resting on the top of her head, leaning in from the left.

Hard to tell who started giggling first. Before long, the three of them collapsed in a tangled heap onto the bed clutching each other. The growing laugher was loud enough to wake the dead.

Several hours later, Buffy was showered, wearing one of Xander's oversized t-shirts, and sitting cross-legged on the bed. Willow was similarly attired, minus the wet hair, and leaning against Xander. Xander was clad in a pair of sweatpants, leaning against the headboard.

"So you really walked the Appalachian Trail?" Buffy asked. "Was it nice? I heard it's nice."

"And long. And sometimes a hard climb." Xander grinned at her.

"But the stars at night are so close you can touch them," Willow enthused. "It's almost like you can reach out pluck 'em right out of the sky."

"C'mon, Buff, we just banged around North America," Xander said. "You've been all over the world."

"I didn't get to do a lot of sightseeing," Buffy said. "It was always on business. Minute I was done in one place I had to get back to London or had to jet off on another mission. Work, work, work."

"Doesn't sound like much fun." Willow made her 'sympathetic face' to make her point.

"Couldn't shake vacation time out of the Council, hunh?" Xander said. "See, this is why Slayers need a union."

"Know what I want?" Buffy suddenly declared. "I want ice cream."

"Now?" Willow sat up. "It's the middle of the night."

"And we're not exactly dressed for the occasion," Xander added.

"So?" Buffy bounced off the bed. "Let's get out of here. Let's get ice cream. Let's go walk the Appalachian Trail. Let's go see the Grand Canyon. I want to see Chicago, I mean, really see Chicago, and I want to swim in a Great Lake, and drive Route 66, and maybe…"

"Take a trip to the moon?" Xander finished.

"Why not?" Buffy spread her arms. "There's a big world out there and the three of us."

"The world doesn't stand a chance," Willow commented. "I'm in."

"Me, too," Xander hopped out of bed. "But I'm not going out dressed like this."

The three of them changed at the speed of thought. Fully dressed and ready to make their escape, the three raced for the motel door, all three hands touching the doorknob at the same time.

"Hey, Buffy?" Willow's voice sounded tremulous. "What do you think is on the other side? I mean, really on the other side?"

"Will everything be okay?" Xander quietly asked. "I mean us, will we really be okay?"

"We are going to be fine. Better than fine," Buffy assured them. After all, she tread this road before. Twice. "We're going together. What can be better than that?"

Willow and Xander exchanged a glance before focusing back on Buffy. They nodded in unison, trusting her to lead them out of the desert.

"You guys ready?" Buffy asked in an excited whisper.

"Let's do it," Willow and Xander whispered back in unison.

They flung the door open. They paused a moment at the threshold, staring in wonder at the world outside. The trio exchanged looks, grinning from ear-to-ear. They linked arms and stepped through the door.

It's time to go. The Ferryman is waiting. You can't put it off; you can't stay here forever. Now, close your eyes. It's but a short step to the boat, a short pull across the river. And then I promise you, you'll dream a different story altogether.

--The Sybil preparing Claudius for death, from "I, Claudius"