Graduation

Disclaimer: Not my universe, not my characters, not even my story, really. Joss Whedon wrote the main part of this; I just embroidered around the edges.

Note 1: Miss Mason's quote about betrayal is actually my brother's and can be found in his wonderful fic "The Song of Christmas."

Note 2: I fudged on a few minor things to make this concept work. I realize there are inconsistencies, even though I did my best to avoid them. Call it a different way of telling the same story.

Graduation Day

By

HonorH

Joe Perry wasn't particularly worried. He'd heard a loud thump in the back of his truck a few minutes ago, but that was standard when one was transporting construction materials. Nonetheless, it was always a good idea to take a look at exactly what went thump, so as he pulled up to a stop sign, he put his truck in "park" and got out to take a look at his cargo.

In another second, he was leaping for his radio to call the police.

***

"Sir!"

Richard Wilkins, Mayor of Sunnydale, immortal, and incipient demon, turned from the wreckage of Faith's apartment as his aide called for him. The aide was holding a cell phone.

"Have they found my Faith?" the Mayor asked in a desperately worried voice.

The aide nodded. "A trucker found her, Sir. She's being taken to the hospital. No word on the other girl."

"Take me to her." The Mayor strode implacably out of the apartment, followed by his aide.

***

He was hot. Burning up. Willow swallowed her worry as she wrung out a washcloth and reached over to gently wash the sweat from Angel's brow.

He'd always been cool before. When he'd protected her with his own body from the mad Gwendolyn Post, Willow had noticed that he wasn't much warmer than the marble below her. Now, he was hot. It wasn't good. From what they'd read of the poison Faith had used, it literally burned vampires alive. His temperature would continue to rise until he finally combusted. Willow could think of few ways she'd rather not die. He was even breathing now, an unconscious response to the need to cool himself.

Angel moaned and stirred, opening his eyes. Willow tried to smile reassuringly.

"You're awake," she said.

"You've been watching over me?" Angel murmured. Willow was on the verge of starting to babble when the vampire gently took her hand in his and lifted it to his mouth for a kiss. His other hand moved to her upper arm in what could only be described as a caress.

"Well, we've been taking turns . . ." Willow offered uncertainly. She'd always liked Angel, and he'd always been kind to her (except when he went bad), but didn't that seem a little too friendly?

"I thought I'd never see you again," Angel breathed. "I can't leave you. I was wrong. I need you."

"Oh! You mean you need Buffy." The realization came at the same moment as her heart twisted at the romance of those few words.

Angel's brow crinkled, and he blinked. "Willow?" he asked.

"Yes. Right. Willow." She kept herself from congratulating him with some effort.

"Where is she?"

"She'll be back soon."

The hand on her upper arm squeezed gently, then relaxed as Angel fell back into his fitful sleep.

Willow watched him sleep for a moment with a lump in her throat. Another thing to dislike Faith for, she thought.

In a moment of total self-honesty, Willow realized she didn't merely dislike Faith; she hated her. Faith had had sex with Xander (not that Willow was totally excusing Xander for his participation, but she had a good idea who'd broached the subject) then had tried to kill him. Xander had walked around for a week wearing high-collared shirts to hide the bruises and had flatly refused to discuss the subject with anyone, going so far as to walk out of the room one time when the subject of Faith was raised. Faith had played viper in the nest, passing on who knows how much information to the Mayor before they'd caught on to her. She'd tried to strip Angel of his soul, even after having seen how deep the scars ran from the last time that had happened. And now she was hurting Buffy in the worst way she knew how: by killing Angel in the slowest, most painful way possible.

Willow wasn't proud of her feelings, but she wasn't about to try to change them. Faith may have had a bad time of it. She may have had a lousy childhood. Not everyone with a lousy childhood, though, turned out like Faith. Ultimately, going bad was a decision—unless, of course, one got turned into a vampire.

Quietly, the hacker-cum-witch collected her washcloth and basin and walked from the room, casting one last glance at the suffering Angel. Outside, Oz met her.

"Any change?" Oz asked in his quiet way. Willow would never again complain about his taciturn manner—not now that she knew what was underneath it.

"He's delirious. He thought I was Buffy," Willow said, her heart melting.

Oz grunted. "You, too, huh?"

Willow fought back a giggle as she visualized Angel mistaking Oz for Buffy. She'd have paid good money to see that.

"I hope she gets back soon. I mean, she'd better, if . . ." Willow couldn't bring herself to finish the sentence.

"Yeah," agreed Oz.

"I feel so guilty," Willow suddenly confessed.

Oz's brow crinkled. "About what?"

Willow gestured helplessly toward Angel's room. "It's just that everything's so terrible, and things are coming apart, and in some ways I feel like it's . . . the best night of my life." The last words came out shyly as she looked at her lover.

Warmth spread across Oz's impassive features. "The best?"

"The best." Willow moved happily into his arms. No matter what happened at graduation, they had this moment.

A quiet footfall caught her ear. Willow looked up to behold Buffy. Her heart twisted again as she realized fully just how painful it must be for Buffy to be separated irrevocably from Angel. She stepped away from Oz with some regret.

"I just checked on him just now. We're . . . watching." Willow wanted to be reassuring, but there wasn't much to say that was.

"Did you find Faith?" Oz asked.

Buffy said nothing. Her expression was bleak

A terrible feeling was growing in Willow's stomach. "You didn't . . . she's not here."

"How is he?" Buffy asked in a soft, flat voice.

Willow couldn't say anything. Oz answered. "He comes in and out. I think the . . . the pain's less."

"Would you guys . . . I'd like to be alone with him now." It was an order. Oz and Willow grabbed their coats and headed for the door.

"We'll try and find another cure," said Willow as they left.

***

Buffy looked down at her sleeping lover. He was so beautiful, even in this state. The heat suffusing his body had made his moonlight-pale skin flush. Tendrils of angry, swollen redness reached out in every direction from the wound on his shoulder. The arrow wound itself had already turned black.

He gasped a few labored breaths, then opened his eyes. "Buffy?" he murmured. "Is that you?"

"It's me," she whispered.

He smiled slightly. "I didn't want to go without seeing you."

Buffy placed a finger over his lips. "Angel, I can cure you," she said.

"It's okay," he murmured, obviously thinking she was trying to comfort him. "I'm ready."

A resolve that she'd been working on ever since killing Faith settled into place. "Angel, listen to me," she ordered. "Sit up."

Buffy tried to help him sit up, but he gasped in pain. His eyes found her again. "You're going to live." She took off her coat, exposing her neck and shoulders. "You have to live."

Angel was clearly puzzled. "What way?"

"Drink," she commanded. "Drink me."

Angel's eyes widened in horror. "No," he gasped.

"It's the only way," she insisted. "Drink."

"No," he said, and pushed her away. "Get away."

He forced himself upright and stumbled out of bed. She followed him into the sitting room, where he nearly fell over. Seeing him this way only strengthened her resolve to see this through.

"It'll save you," she pressed.

"It'll kill you."

"Maybe not. Not if you don't take it all."

He shook his head almost angrily. "You can't ask me to do that!"

"I won't let you die." She was almost angry herself. "I can't. The blood of a Slayer is the only cure."

"Faith," he moaned, leaning on a table. The heat radiating from his body seemed almost as intense as the fire. It wouldn't be long now.

Buffy swallowed. "I tried. I killed her." The words sounded strange coming from her lips.

Angel shook his head. "Then it's over."

"It is never over!" she almost shouted. "I won't let you die. Drink." She reached out and physically forced him to look at her. He swayed weakly in her grip.

There was desperation in his eyes now. "Please," he begged.

Buffy had thought it might come to this. There was only one way, then. She hit him.

Again.

And again.

A feral snarl raked her ears as Angel straightened, his face distorted into its vampire mask. This vampire wasn't strong, though. He was weak and hungry. Too hungry to resist an easy meal. Buffy stripped the tank top away from her shoulder, baring her neck to him. Then she reached out, pulling his head down to her neck.

For a moment, nothing happened. Then his mouth opened, questing for the blood vessels under her skin. She felt a surge of triumph and, as his tongue probed the juncture of her neck and shoulder, shivered with remembered passion.

His fangs sank into her.

***

Angel exploded into the ER.

"I need some help!" he shouted at the first medical personnel he saw. "She lost a lot of blood!" Buffy's tiny, limp form lay in his arms, seeming to weigh nothing.

Someone grabbed him, directed him as he babbled about her having lost blood, something bit her. He laid her on a bed.

"Was she conscious?" demanded a doctor.

Questions assaulted Angel's ears. He had an impression of answering them and of the doctor barking orders, but nothing made sense. More questions.

"Just help her!" he finally snarled. Something gave way under his hand, falling to the floor with a clunk.

The doctor stared at the empty space the door handle had once occupied. "You two been doing drugs?"

Angel stared at him, not comprehending why this was important.

"You want her to live, you have to be straight with me," insisted the doctor.

"She's clean," Angel bit out. Then he was being ushered outside.

As he spotted the phones, the vampire knew he needed to call her friends. Her mother—no, Buffy had said she sent her mother out of town. Call the library. Giles. Giles would want to be here. Angel picked up the phone.

He would never recall exactly what the conversation was. As he hung up, there was some sort of commotion, someone yelling for security.

From Buffy's room. Angel was in the room in a moment, yanking the Mayor away from the unconscious Slayer. The vampire placed his body between them.

"Don't do that!" he told the suddenly crazed Mayor. The change from the times Angel had been in his office was remarkable—and alarming.

"I will," snarled the Mayor. "I will do that and worse. Murderous little fiend! Did you see what she did to my Faith?"

"Hadn't made any plans to weep over that one," Angel growled softly, cruelly.

"Well, I'd get set for some weeping if I were you. I'd get set for a world of pain! Misery loves company, young man, and I'm looking to share that with you and your whore!" shouted the Mayor.

Angel's hand shot out, sending the Mayor flying across the room. It was with great difficulty that he kept the vampire from coming out.

The Mayor suddenly laughed. "Well, looks like somebody's been eating his spinach."

Angel glared. So the Mayor knew what he'd had to do to get his strength back, did he?

Security people and the charge nurse rushed into the room. The Mayor stood and smiled genially, giving no sign he'd just been thrown across a room hard enough to shatter reinforced glass.

"No, it's okay, folks. It's all right," he reassured the gathered security and nurse. "The show's not over, but there will be a short intermission. Don't want to miss the second act. All kinds of excitement!" With that, the Mayor left.

"I'll be there," Angel promised. He turned back to the doctor examining Buffy's still form. "Is she okay?"

The doctor took the unconscious girl's pulse. "She seems to be. Her pulse is getting stronger."

"Will she be all right?" Angel asked, almost pleading.

Something in his voice made the doctor take a longer look at him. "She should be. She's young and healthy, and with a few more units of blood and some time, she'll be okay. It was lucky you got her here so fast."

"Lucky," Angel murmured. He backed out of the room, feeling lost. For a time—he never knew how long—he just crouched by the phones, not noticing anything that went on around him.

"Angel!" It was Willow's voice. She, Giles, Oz, and Xander were all hurrying toward him. Angel stood up and closed the gap with a few steps.

"How is she?" demanded Giles.

"She's fine. She's asleep," answered Angel, knowing it was true but feeling almost that it was a lie.

Oz's brow wrinkled. "Well, you seem all right, too."

Suddenly, the full impact of what he'd done hit Angel. He couldn't bear to look at the others as he murmured an affirmative.

"What happened?" It was Xander, of course.

"When we left her she was fine," put in Willow. "Did Faith . . ."

She doesn't get it, thought Angel with some disbelief. "Faith's out of the picture. Buffy put her into a coma."

"And?" prompted Xander.

Damn you, Xander, Angel thought. "Buffy cured me. Made me . . ." He couldn't finish the sentence. It sounded too much like an excuse. It was impossible for the vampire to look at the rest of them.

"You fed off her." It was Giles' voice, stony and implacable.

For the first time, Angel looked up at him. He owed Giles that much. "Yes," he answered helplessly.

"How much?" Giles again.

There was no good answer to that question, no way Angel could answer it directly, so he settled for "She's gonna be fine."

"She won't be a vampire?" asked Willow worriedly.

Angel looked down again. "No. She didn't feed off me."

There was a long moment of absolute silence in which Angel stared at the floor, even more horrified at his actions than Buffy's friends were. It was broken by Xander's voice.

"Well, it's just good to know that when the chips are down and things look grim, you'll feed off the girl who loves you to save your own ass."

Angel could say nothing to that.

Another silence was broken by Giles' voice, sounding curiously neutral. "You better go, Angel. We'll watch over her."

"I don't want to . . ." Angel began, but Giles interrupted him.

"The sun will be up soon."

Thus exiled, Angel walked away.

***

Buffy laid next to Angel, watching him in fascination. They were at the mansion, on the rug in front of the fire. She smiled and sighed in contentment as he cradled her in his arms, then slowly, lovingly sank his teeth into her neck.

"You played me!" shouted Faith. She grabbed Buffy's shoulders and kissed her hard on the mouth. "Judas," Faith hissed as she released Buffy.

Miss Mason wrote the word "Betrayal" on the chalkboard and began lecturing. "Betrayal is the great human crime."

Willow cradled a sobbing Buffy in her arms and whispered, "The pain won't last forever."

Buffy watched as Willow and Xander danced together at the Bronze. Oz-as-werewolf howled, and Cordelia's drink fell from her hand, shattering on the floor.

"All people," continued Miss Mason, "all people, no matter how honorable, have the capability to undercut the whole of their beliefs for one small gain,"

Angel struck her, then bared his neck. "Drink from me," he ordered implacably.

"All dressed up in big sister's clothes," Faith taunted.

"You'll be in love 'til it kills you both," said Spike.

Giles stabbed her through the heart as Hank and Joyce Summers looked on with approval. "The pain won't last forever," Giles said.

" . . . one moment of pleasure," continued Miss Mason.

Buffy and Angel fell to the floor, her teeth buried in his neck.

"You kill me, you become me," said Faith.

"The pain won't last forever," whispered Angel as he and Buffy made love.

"Love isn't brains, children, it's blood—blood screaming inside you to work its will," said Spike.

" . . . one measure of pride," continued Miss Mason.

A funeral service was in session. Buffy walked up the center aisle toward the altar. A coffin laid open there.

"Kyrie eleison . . ."

Her family and friends lined the aisle, looking at her. Jenny Calendar pushed back her veil as she stood beside Giles.

"The pain won't last forever," Jenny told Buffy.

Buffy walked up to the coffin, laying a deep red rose on the breast of the girl inside. The girl, she noted dispassionately, was herself.

"Kyrie eleison," intoned the priest. It was Angel. "Christe eleison."

" . . . or one instant of rage," finished Miss Mason.

"They're beautiful, dearie," said Drusilla, inspecting Buffy's fangs. Buffy, Drusilla, Spike, and Angel sat around a table at the Bronze.

"Now, aren't we all a lot happier this way?" asked Spike.

Buffy couldn't disagree.

Buffy twisted the knife in Faith's stomach.

"The pain won't last forever," Buffy said.

Images whirled, people's faces and voices registered for a moment and then were gone, and finally, Buffy found herself in Faith's loft. It was daytime and curiously peaceful. Faith was present somewhere, and a cat was washing itself on the bed.

"Who's going to look after him?" Buffy wondered.

Faith walked into the room. "It's a she. And aren't these things supposed to take care of themselves?" She walked to stand beside Buffy.

"A higher power guiding us?" suggested Buffy.

"I'm pretty sure that's not what I meant." Faith wandered off to contemplate something else.

There was something niggling at Buffy's consciousness. "There's something I'm supposed to be doing."

"Oh yeah," said Faith. "Miles to go. Little Miss Muffet counting down from 7-3-0."

That made about as much sense as the rest of it. Buffy grimaced. "Great. Riddles."

Faith wandered over to look out the window they'd broken during their fight. "Sorry," she apologized. "It's my head. A lot of new stuff."

Buffy smiled. The cat on the bed changed to Faith lying supine in a hospital gown then back to a cat in the blink of an eye. That was something important, wasn't it?

"They are never going to fix this, are they?" Faith said sadly.

Suddenly, Buffy was worried about Faith. "What about you?"

Faith turned around, smiling reassuringly, and gestured at her head. "Scar tissue. It fades. It all fades."

There was something wrong about that, too. Buffy looked down to find a bloody knife in her hands. Then it, too, was gone.

"You want to know the deal?" asked Faith. "Human weakness—never goes away. Not even his."

"Is this your mind or mine?" asked Buffy. Not that it really seemed important.

Faith laughed. "Beats me."

Buffy laughed too, suddenly feeling both better and worse.

"Getting towards that time," Faith reminded her.

Buffy looked around at the boxes in the apartment. "How are you going to fit all this stuff?"

"Not gonna. It's yours," said Faith.

"I can't use all of this!" protested Buffy.

"Just take what you need," counseled Faith. She reached out to Buffy. "You ready?"

And she touched her.

***

Buffy opened her eyes and realized she was in a hospital bed. Her neck and shoulder screamed with pain, and she had a headache, but she knew she was healing. Outside, at least. Inwardly . . .

She slipped from the bed. A few steps took her beyond a partition and into the room of another wounded young woman.

Faith looked even worse than Buffy had imagined. Her skin was pasty where it wasn't covered in bruises and contusions. Even her hair, her thick, glossy, almost living hair, laid limp about her shoulders. And her face, always so alive with emotion and passion, now seemed childlike and hurt.

Buffy realized she wasn't nearly up to full strength. Even that short walk had left her feeling woozy. But Faith's clue was not to be ignored, and there was too much to do. Quietly, Buffy padded up to the other Slayer's bed.

I'm so sorry, she thought. So sorry we couldn't reach you, sorry we didn't try harder. Sorry I was willing to sacrifice you. Sorry for what you must have gone through to make you turn out like this.

Forgive me, my sister. I betrayed you.

Buffy leaned down and kissed Faith's forehead, forcing back her emotions. There would be time for grieving later.

Right now, there was work to do.

Buffy headed back to her own room and found where her clothes were stashed. She was halfway dressed when the doctor came back into the room.

"What are you doing out of bed?" he asked bluntly.

"Leaving," Buffy answered, equally blunt. "I'm eighteen; I can check myself out of the hospital, and that's what I'm doing."

"You're not well enough to go," the doctor insisted.

Buffy thrust out an arm. "Check the blood pressure. I'm fine."

The doctor complied, clearly certain he'd be proven correct. That particular look faded into incredulity.

"It's . . . it's a bit low," he hedged.

"But I'm basically okay. Yeah, I know. Now: get me the papers so I can satisfy the bureaucrats and get out of here. I've got miles to go."

***

The Mayor sat in his office, thinking. About the Ascension, about his plans for the world, but mostly about his Faith. Rage and hatred burned like lava beneath his calm exterior as he thought about what Buffy and Angel and their friends had done to Faith. It just wasn't right.

Well, the Ascension should take care of them. As for Faith—she would be all right. It might take her some time, but she'd be okay. She was stronger than them. Stronger than even she knew. There would come a day when his Faith would rise from that bed. He would be waiting for his sweet girl then.

But what if he wasn't? The thought dogged him. There was that possibility, remote as it might be. Faith would be lost without him. No one understood her like he did. She would be alone in an uncaring world, poor thing.

No, that couldn't happen. She couldn't be left alone. There would be no place for her without him.

But . . . there was a way for her to take her place in the world, even without him. The more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea. He had to provide for his little girl if he couldn't be there for her, and he knew just how.

He opened his cabinet and rooted through the varied talismans and occult items inside. Most of them were tacky things with ostentatious powers, but he kept them around in spite of their poor taste. After all, one never knew when one of these things would come in handy for appeasing a demon or so. There was one such object, though, that would make the perfect gift for his Faith.

Finally, he found it. Curious little thing it was—more like a parlor trick than the dark magicks he'd practiced for one hundred years (give or take). But it was exactly what Faith would need if she found herself alone in the world.

Although he really wished he could give her something new. It seemed so boorish, somehow, gifting her with this old, used thing. She'd been so pleased with that beautiful knife he'd given her. The memory of the smile on her face when she'd seen it brought a tear to his eye. Now the knife, too, was lost. All he had left to give her was this paltry little object.

Ah, well. No gift was perfect.

He put it in a nice jewelry box. Then he set up his video equipment (no easy task—with these machines nowadays, you needed an entire software engineering team to make sure you got things right) and recorded a little greeting for Faith. He purposely kept it upbeat, feeling that she'd probably be in need of some cheering up whenever she saw it.

Then he put both the videotape and the jewelry box in a package and sent it off with a demon with instructions that it was to be delivered to Faith upon her recovery. Fortunately, the demon was a reliable fellow. The Mayor had been using him as a courier for over fifty years, and come rain or shine, the mail always made its way through.

Feeling much better now that Faith was taken care of, the Mayor sat down to practice his speech.

***

In the hospital hallway, Willow was blaming herself.

"I should've seen it coming," she fretted. "When she asked Oz and me to leave, I should have guessed what she had in mind."

Xander, meanwhile, wasn't happy. "Yeah. Who cares that the world is ending tomorrow? Give her boyfriend a snack, nearly get killed . . ."

"I knew." The soft words came from Giles. The other three students turned to look at him, Willow surprised, Oz accepting, Xander flattened.

"I think I must have had something in my ear. You what?" demanded Xander.

"I knew," repeated Giles, and he sighed. "When I heard what the cure was, I knew Buffy would offer herself if she couldn't get Faith. Moreover, I knew I would never be able to stop her." He took off his glasses and polished them quietly.

"What I don't get is, he took her up on the offer," Xander pointed out angrily. "That's love?"

"I doubt she made it easy for him to refuse," said Giles.

That made Xander take notice. "You're defending him?"

Giles gave Xander a look. "Xander, I've got far more to hold against Angel than you do," he said crisply, "but I also have to admit that he does love Buffy. His leaving proves that. No matter how I feel about him, I can respect that."

"Buffy!" Willow suddenly cried. All four turned to behold Buffy, pale and drawn, but on her feet and dressed and looking rock-solid.

"Are you okay?" "How do you feel?" Xander and Giles asked almost simultaneously.

Buffy looked around. "Is Angel here?"

"He had to go," said Oz. "It got kinda sunny."

"Get him," said Buffy. "Get everyone."

The Slayerettes exchanged worried glances.

"What exactly is up?" asked Xander.

"Buffy, are you sure you're all right?" inquired Giles gently but worriedly.

Buffy looked at him, eyes focused and determined. "I'm ready."

Willow looked as perplexed as the rest of them felt. "Ready for what?"

"War."

***

Angel walked into the mansion just as the sun broke over the horizon. A mixture of emotions so complex he couldn't sort one from the other nearly strangled him. Frustration, guilt, anger, pain, passion, love, need . . .

As he entered the sitting room where he'd taken Buffy, the last nearly overwhelmed him. The memory of feeding on her was so vivid, so real, he could close his eyes and feel everything again. He saw the crushed vase, the overturned table, and knew as if he'd been inside her body that the damage had been done in something like ecstasy.

With that knowledge came hunger. Not just for blood, though. Cold cow's blood would never satisfy this craving. The sensation of warm blood flowing into him tasting of human passion and emotion had awakened something within him he'd hoped had been buried with Angelus. Something that frightened him more than any monster from without.

This was the vampire's hunger. A vampire wanted not just the blood of his victim, but their human passions. Angelus had thrived on fear, hatred, and anger. Angel was now tormented by love, strength, and desire. The Slayer's blood had been rich like strong wine, and he desperately wanted its flavor again.

"You will drink from her," the First Evil had taunted him.

"I did," he moaned, despairing.

He was hearing it again, like he had before: the voice of his inner demon.

It was all you were good at, being a demon. You haven't found happiness with your soul, have you? Oh, wait—you did. And lost it. That's your curse. You'll never be happy. You can never have her again. Make love to her, and you'll destroy her. Feed on her, and you'll kill her.

He tried to push the thoughts back. "No," he said aloud. "I won't hurt her. Not ever again. I'll leave."

Sure you will. You'll go, then be drawn back to her. You can't ever truly leave her. Her blood is within you now. What was it that boy said? Oh, yes—that you'll feed from her to save yourself.

"Infant!" Angel roared, fury overwhelming him. The low table went flying across the room, splintering as it hit the corner.

How dare he say that? Ignorant boy, stupid child. He has no idea. He walks in the sun, sees her in the sun, is able to love and have happiness without hurting those he loves, and he dares to judge me? He won't sneer anymore when I drain the life out of him—

Angel's hands came up to his face to discover his vampire mask in place, fangs fully distended. With effort, he pushed the demon down.

What's the point? You know there's no happiness for you here. Why fight it? Are you really having so much fun now? 'Cause I can tell you—it doesn't look much fun from here.

"That's not the point," Angel told the voice within. "I'm not doing this for fun. I'm doing this to redeem myself."

Redemption is a fool's game. You know the curse; you can't ever be happy without losing your soul. What's redemption to that?

You know the cure. You can even have her with you, if she's so important. In fact, it's the only way you two can ever be together.

Take her; embrace her; bring her across.

Angel realized he was kneeling in the place where he'd fed on Buffy. A few drops of her blood, dry already, still stained the floor.

I won't, he suddenly thought, quite calm. I won't destroy her. I love her the way she is now; to pervert that would be pointless. If I have to be miserable forever, so be it, but I won't ever hurt her again.

He could practically hear the frustrated growl from within, but the demon subsided. Suddenly exhausted, Angel laid down on the floor and slept.

Some hours later, the phone woke him. It was a cell phone he'd purchased in order to be accessible to the Slayerettes. He picked it up, thumbing it on.

"Hello?"

"Angel, it's Buffy." Her voice was so strong, so solid, that Angel's forever-stilled heart gave a leap.

"Buffy," he breathed. "Are you . . ?"

"I'm fine," she said, cutting him off. "We need you. Come to the library as soon as the sun's down."

"I'll be there." He paused. "Buffy, I'm . . ."

"Don't start," she ordered, cutting him off. "If you start apologizing, so will I, and I really don't have the energy for that right now. Just be at the library after sundown."

"I will," he promised. He hung up and looked outside. Dusk. He grabbed his coat and headed out.

***

The gathered Slayerettes stared at Buffy. What she'd just said sounded like utter insanity.

"Am I crazy?" she asked.

"Well, crazy is such a strong word," hedged Willow.

"Let's not rule it out, though," said Giles.

Buffy hadn't. If her idea to dress Willow up as her doppleganger had been "really bad," this idea verged on the horrendous. But Buffy honestly didn't see any alternative.

"You don't think it can be done?" she asked Giles.

"I didn't say that," he said, then added, "I might, but not yet."

"I personally don't think it's possible to come up with a crazier plan." That was Cordelia, of course.

"We attack the Mayor with humus," suggested Oz. Everyone looked at him.

"I stand corrected," said Cordelia.

"Just trying to keep things in perspective."

Buffy smiled and shook her head, not blaming Willow at all for her choice in men.

"Thank you." Cordelia gave a shrug. "My point however is, crazy or not, it's pretty much the only plan. Besides, it's Buffy's, and she's slay gal, you know, Miss Little Likes-to-fight. So . . ."

Xander interrupted her before she could disclaim herself out of her own opinion. "I think there was a 'yea' vote buried in there somewhere."

Thank God for small favors, thought Buffy. "Well, I'm going to need every single one of you on board." The Slayer looked at Xander. "Especially you Xander. You're sort of the key figure here."

Xander perked up. "Key? Me?" He took a deep breath. "Okay—pride, humility . . . and here is the mind-numbing fear." He sighed. "What do I have to do?"

"Do you remember any of your military training from when you became soldier guy?" Buffy asked.

Xander lit up like it was Christmas morning. "Ooh! Rocket launcher?"

Buffy shook her head. "Rocket launcher not going to get it done. I mean, it took a volcano to kill one of these things last time."

Giles stood and walked toward her. "Um, Buffy, all of this is rather dependent on your being able to control the Mayor."

Can't blame him for being skeptical of that part of the plan, Buffy thought. "Faith told me to play on his human weakness."

Willow's brow wrinkled. "Faith told you? Was that before or after you put her into a coma?"

"After."

"Oh."

There didn't seem to be any follow-up to that.

"His weakness," Giles finally said.

"Right." Buffy really wanted to avoid the question she knew was coming next.

"Which is?" Giles asked. There it was.

"You know I do all this planning," Buffy said, giving her best impression of her mother's most put-upon voice. "I'm in charge here, even though I am really not at my best . . ."

Giles put his glasses back on. "Well, let's, let's, ah, let's think." Great. He was stammering.

Oz looked across the room to where Angel stood in the shadows. "Well, Angel, you hung with him the most. Is there something that he's afraid of?"

Buffy silently blessed Oz for drawing Angel in. For some reason, she was unable to look at him.

"Well, he's not crazy about germs," Angel told them in his quiet, gray voice.

With that, Cordelia was off and yammering about attacking the Mayor with Ebola. The rest of them just stared at her.

Xander leaned over to Oz. "I'm starting to lean towards the humus offensive."

"He'll never see it coming," murmured Oz.

"Faith." The single word came from Angel.

Buffy forced herself to look at him. "Faith?"

"At the hospital, he was grieving," said Angel. "Seriously crazed, and not just in a homicidal 'I want to be a demon' way. She is his weak link."

"Faith." Buffy nodded, trying to suppress her feelings. "I can work that."

Wesley entered, walking quietly up behind Buffy. "You haven't an enormous amount of time," he stated.

"Hey, it's Mr. States-the-Obvious," announced Xander.

Buffy didn't even turn around. "The council is not welcome here," she told him. "I have no time for orders. If I need someone to scream like a woman, I'll give you a call."

And faced with the Slayerettes' (not unearned) hostility, Wesley said simply, "I'm not here for the council. Just tell me how I can help."

"That is so classy!" gushed Cordelia. "Isn't he just so classy?"

Xander rolled his eyes.

For the first time since she'd known him, Buffy looked at him with something like respect in her eyes. "It's a start."

There was plenty for everyone to do.

***

First came the research. All the books containing anything having to do with Ascensions were broken out as Buffy refined her plans.

" 'Darkness will follow and day becomes night,'" Wesley read from one of them.

"An eclipse," deduced Buffy.

"That puts me back into the game," noted Angel, standing next to her. Xander was standing by him.

Buffy looked at them. "Yeah, it does. You and Xander are going to have to work together now. Can you guys handle that?"

Neither one looked especially enthusiastic.

"But I'm still Key Guy, right?" asked Xander.

Buffy gave an inward groan. "Right."

Xander looked a little too gleeful at that. "Then Angel, in his non-Key Guy capacity, can work with me."

Angel gave him a dark look. "What fun."

"Hey! Key Guy is still talking."

An impatient breath escaped Buffy's lips. She'd about had it with those two. "Oh, that's good. Start bickering. That's going to look great for us." She walked past them and up the library stairs, tossing one last potshot at them. "You guys are like little old ladies!"

Xander and Angel exchanged one more less-than-friendly look before getting back to the subject at hand. "When the sun comes back out, I'll need someplace to go," said Angel.

"Or it's dust time," put in Xander cheerfully, earning another Angelic glare.

"Inconvenient," murmured Oz. He brightened almost imperceptibly. "My van?"

"Windows?" asked Angel

"Nope."

"It works."

"It'll be unlocked."

"Thanks."

Willow gave Xander an "Isn't he cute?" look over Oz. Xander's eyes rolled yet again.

A short while later, Buffy walked over to Oz and Willow. "So, how are we coming on volcano detail?"

"I think we can work it out," said Oz.

Willow grinned. "Fun with chemistry."

"Xander said he should be able to get the materials," said Buffy. Xander had, in fact, gone to do exactly that.

"Who's going to stoke it up?" asked Oz.

Buffy turned to Giles. "You feel up to it?"

Giles gave a resigned sigh and removed his glasses. "I suppose it should be I. It's strangely fitting in a grotesque fashion." He didn't sound too happy. Buffy didn't blame him.

More students were filling the halls outside the library every second. The next phase of the Slayerettes' plans was about to go into effect. One at a time, students were approached by one or another of the Slayerettes. Each received a simple yet intriguing message. Buffy was hoping they'd bite.

***

About an hour later, the majority of the senior class was jammed into the band room. All were curious, some more than others, and a great deal of speculation was going on. Standing at the front of the room were Xander Harris, Willow Rosenberg, Cordelia Chase, and a rather stuffy British twerp in a suit. Oz was sitting at a projector in the middle of the room. The British guy kept trying to get the students' attention but was roundly ignored.

Suddenly, the double doors to the band room opened. Buffy Summers, recently named Class Protector, walked in, flanked by Mr. Giles, the librarian, and a man a few recognized as Buffy's date to the Prom. Something was different, though, about all of them. Buffy suddenly didn't look anything like a high school girl. She was carrying herself differently, in a way few could put their fingers on, but the look on her face shut everyone up. Mr. Giles looked different, too. Intimidating, in a strange way. And the dark man standing at Buffy's right was downright scary.

Buffy stood at the front of the room for a moment, managing to look both vulnerable and determined at the same time. Finally, she spoke.

"A few weeks ago at the Prom," she began, "you all voted me the Class Protector. You weren't wrong. I . . . can't give you all the details, but I can tell you that I was brought here to do just that." She swallowed and went on. "Over the past three years, I've fought every kind of monster you can imagine, some within the walls of this school. Some of you have gotten hurt. Some have died. But you've all noticed that something is wrong here.

"Today, something's going to happen at graduation itself. Something really bad—worse than anything I've faced before. I'd love to be able to tell you all to get away, but the truth is . . . I need you. I need everyone here to fight beside me. I'm asking you to trust me—and to help me. The evil we're facing today is counting on you not fighting back, and we can't afford that anymore.

"This is going to require a lot of faith on your part. If you're too scared, you can leave. If you decide to stick this out with me, you may die. I won't kid you there. But if we don't stop this thing, a lot more people are going to die. No one will be safe. So I'm asking you to stand with me."

As Buffy finished her speech, there was silence. Then one person stood up.

"I'm with you, Buffy," said Jonathan Levinson.

Someone guffawed. Buffy, though, just smiled and said, "I know you are, Jonathan."

"This is crap," came another voice. It was Darin Hadley, one of the swim team. "You're talking about some big Evil with a capital 'E', and we're supposed to take this seriously?"

"So how do you explain the weird stuff that goes on here?" asked Jeanne Montrose, a drill team member. "We all know what this town is like. I'm thinking we should be paying attention."

"Come on!" yelled Darin. "Monsters, vampires, demons—it's all a big joke!"

Angel took a minute step toward Buffy. "Think they need an object lesson?" he asked quietly.

Buffy was considering it when another voice spoke.

"You want a joke, Darin?" It was Annie Vaughn, the daughter of the pastor of Sunnydale First Baptist. Buffy hadn't had many classes with her, but she'd always liked Annie. She was a nice, gentle girl who paid so little attention to the high school social world that she'd been willing to go to the Prom with Jonathan. "Here's a joke. A priest, a minister, and a rabbi came to Sunnydale. Five years later, only one of them was still alive." Annie was trembling with emotion. "Rabbi Greenberg is dead. Father Marchant is dead. My father's still alive, but he's in and out of the hospital at least once a year from accidents, illnesses, and attacks. We've had two houses burned down around us. We've watched other clergy pack up and leave because they couldn't take the fact that there is something in this town that does not want good men and women to fight back. Take a look at the town records and you'll find the average tenure of a member of the clergy in Sunnydale is three years. Three!"

Her voice broke on the last word, and she had to gather herself to go on. "You can think whatever you want, but I know what I've seen and experienced. My whole family has suffered attacks, including myself. I could show you my scars. Take a look at the records for my church and you'll find that of the last five pastors, only two are alive. One left not only the ministry but the country, and the other's in a mental institution after having his family slaughtered in front of him. No other town I've heard of has that kind of lousy record with clergy. Not one! You may have been able to be blind to what lurks in the dark in this town, but I don't have that luxury. I never did." She turned to face Buffy. "Buffy, I'm with you. Show me how to fight this thing."

Buffy looked at her very seriously. "I will."

Larry stood up across the room. "I'm with you, too, Buffy."

Jeanne stood. "So am I."

Percy West waved from where he stood in the back. "The basketball team's with you. Willow explained things to me, and we're ready to kick some evil ass!" A few of the team cheered at that.

Freddy Iverson, the angst-ridden editor of the school newspaper, suddenly stood. "Okay, so we can show up and not fight and die, or not show up and probably still die, or show up, fight, and maybe still die?"

Buffy gave him a level glare before finally answering, "That's the general idea, yes."

Freddy shrugged. "Okay. I'm in."

"Thanks," said Buffy dryly.

Derrick Forbes, a mountainous defensive back for the football team, stood up. "Hey, if it's up to me, I wanna go out fighting."

That got even more students—mostly guys with testosterone to prove—up on their feet. By ones and twos they stood, until finally, the whole senior class was on its feet.

Buffy watched them with tears in her eyes. These people were trusting her with their very lives. If they died . . .

She shook that thought away. She'd just have to make sure as few died as possible.

"Giles," she said, "show them what we know."

Wesley turned out the lights, and Oz fired up the projector. Giles walked over to the screen.

"This is Richard Wilkins, the Mayor of Sunnydale," he said, pointing to the slide. "The only problem is, this picture was taken nearly 100 years ago." There was a ripple of sound from the students. "You all know that Sunnydale is a different kind of town. That's because it's located on a Hellmouth. I won't go into the full explanation for that, but what it comes down to is that all sorts of evil forces and creatures are drawn to this place. You've seen some yourself. Vampires, zombies, hyena people . . ."

"Don't forget Snyder!" someone yelled. The seniors laughed.

"Even we can't explain Snyder," Buffy said wryly.

"You expect us to believe this?" Darin asked rudely.

"I'll settle for a temporary suspension of skepticism," answered Giles a bit sharply. Darin subsided. "However, you can find this photo in any Sunnydale newspaper archive." With that, he pulled out an old newspaper and passed it to one of the students in the front row. "Richard Wilkins founded Sunnydale 100 years ago. He created it as a feeding grounds for demons, and he was rewarded with both immortality and the highest power in the city. Today, he is being rewarded again. At the graduation ceremony today, the Mayor will become a demon himself."

"Holy crap!" It was Jeanne's voice. She was looking at the paper. "This is real, isn't it? I mean, I knew this was real, but this is really . . . real!" She looked up. "Sorry, Mr. Giles."

Giles smiled at her. "Perfectly all right. At the moment, the Mayor is invulnerable; nothing can harm him. After the Ascension ceremony, in which he becomes this demon, he will again be vulnerable. We've found a way to kill him, but we need all your help to do so. Xander?"

Xander Harris stood forward. "All right. Percy, you and the basketball team will go with Angel here. That would be the charming gentleman in black." Said gentleman gave Xander a withering stare. "The rest of you, stay here. I'll explain what we're going to do."

Angel stepped forward and looked at Percy, cocking his head toward the double doors. He then left, taking the basketball team with him. After they were gone, Xander addressed the students again.

"All right. Here's how things will go down. We got any archers out there?"

***

Percy followed Buffy's scary boyfriend through the halls toward the gymnasium. He noted they were taking an oddly indirect route. If he'd been paying more attention, he'd also have noted that the hallways they were taking were, without exception, windowless.

Right now, his attention was almost entirely on the man Xander had called Angel. Percy had met some intimidating people in his life, but this guy was something else. He reminded Percy of no one so much as Willow that one night at the Bronze when she'd beaten him up. Percy also noted, with some irritation, that the British dweeb was along for the ride and currently struggling to keep up with Angel while carrying a large piece of posterboard.

The gym was empty except for a few wrestling mats and a large easel that looked like it had been appropriated from the art room. The dweeb went straight to the easel and set up the posterboard on it.

Percy swore under his breath. From the look on British Guy's face, it was lecture time.

"If you'll all give me your attention," called British Guy. No one paid attention. British Guy cleared his throat. "Excuse me. May I please have your attention?" The team continued to talk amongst itself.

"Quiet!" snapped Angel. The team shut up.

Mr. Irritating Brit looked pleased. "My name is Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, and I'll be explaining our strategy to you today." Percy heard a muttered rude comment from behind him. "If you'll look at this diagram, you'll see the graduation venue here" and he pointed at the map. "The graduates will be here, the Mayor will be at the podium here, and the parents here. Once the Ascension begins—that is, the Mayor turning into a demon—we believe there will be a force set here to keep the students from escaping. That force will be, if the Mayor continues to follow pattern, made up entirely of vampires."

Percy raised his hand. "Graduation's outside. Don't vampires kind of burn up in the sun?"

"They do," Wesley acknowledged. "However, there will be a solar eclipse during the ceremony. Therefore, the vampires will still be a threat. It is our job to remove that threat."

He lost the team at that point. The all started talking at once.

"Vampires aren't easy to kill," said Angel suddenly, shutting the team up again. "The student archers will drive them back at us, which should make them disorganized as well as taking out a few. The ones that are left, we'll have to deal with. We'll probably have the advantage of numbers. That won't mean much."

Wesley picked it up again. He pulled what looked very much like a wooden stake out of his suit. "You'll all have wooden stakes or other weapons. Vampires, you see, all have a weakness—a vulnerability, if you will—over their hearts. It's relatively easy to put a stake through their hearts. Of course, getting close enough to do so . . ."

"Hey, I fought in gang wars," interrupted Rafael Ramirez, formerly of L.A. "How tough can vampires be?"

"Tough," said Angel. "Strike hard, strike fast, or you're dead. They're a lot stronger and faster than you."

Rafael sneered at him. "No sissy-boy vampire's gonna take me down."

"No?" Suddenly, Angel was even scarier than he'd been before. "Want to find out?"

Wesley stepped quickly over to Angel. "Are you sure this is a good idea?" Percy heard him ask.

"They may find out anyway. Better they know now." Angel never stopped looking at Rafael. As he did, his features suddenly twisted, distorted. Ridges appeared around his eyes and on his forehead. His eyes turned feral and yellow. Fangs protruded from his mouth.

The basketball team took a collective step back, some with shouted expletives. Angel was a vampire.

"Still want to fight me?" Angel asked, golden eyes fixed on Rafael.

It took Rafael a moment, but he collected himself and jumped forward with a yell. He never reached his target. Angel's arm shot out, catching Rafael in mid-leap and sending him flying. The fall he took would have been nasty if he hadn't landed on the wrestling mats. It looked like it had taken no effort for Angel to do that.

Dominic Hagen, a very large center, was the next to try his luck. He made it closer than Rafael, but it took all of two seconds for Angel to block his punch, grab him by the shoulder and whip him around, then catch his chin and hold him immobile with neck exposed. While the team looked on in shock, Angel released Dominic with a contemptuous shove. The ridges and fangs receded, and Angel's eyes returned to their normal color.

"That's how fast it'll go," Angel said. "You let just one in and you're dead or, worse yet, one of them. Your only hope is to attack with numbers and with weapons. Try to be the lone hero and you'll be lunch." The vampire waited a moment for that to sink in. He had no trouble holding the team's attention. "I can give you a crash course in vampire-slaying, and I will, but the most important thing you can remember is to stick together."

Percy looked around at the team, swallowed hard, then stepped forward. Angel shrugged out of his jacket and tossed it aside.

"Act like you've got a stake in your hand," Angel ordered. Percy curled his hand like he was holding a stake point-down.

The demonstration began with Angel walking Percy through some simple martial arts. They quickened the pace bit by bit, and in the end, Percy succeeded in thumping his empty fist against Angel's chest.

"Good," said Angel approvingly to a thoroughly winded (and bruised) Percy.

Percy nodded. "Buffy does this?" he asked incredulously.

"Buffy's . . . special." Those two words told even someone as inherently insensitive as Percy all he needed to know about the vampire and the Slayer.

The lesson continued, with various members of the team going up against Angel or practicing with each other. As Angel explained, the vampires they were going up against would most likely be brawlers rather than martial arts experts. A knowledge of some simple blocks and throws might give the team just that much more of a chance.

About a half-hour later, as Angel was busy bruising Matt Green, Percy spotted Xander Harris looking in. Percy went over to him.

"How's it going?" asked Xander.

"Great," said Percy with great enthusiasm. "Angel's showing us how to fight vampires."

Xander winced at Matt took a hard fall. "That's funny, it looks to me like he's beating the crap out of Matt."

"Green can take it," Percy said dismissively. "Angel's a pretty cool guy. Did you know he's a vampire?"

"I heard that. Would you tell Mr. Cool Guy that the weapons have arrived, and he needs to come get some stakes?"

"Sure." Percy looked back to where Angel was facing off against Hogan Martin and shook his head. "You know, we really coulda used him on the team."

***

Xander left the gym with an explosive sigh of exasperation and downed the rest of his Mountain Dew. He'd just left one of the art rooms, where a bunch of girls were making stakes, and Angel had been the hot topic of conversation there, too.

" 'Angel's sooo dreamy,'" Xander mocked. " 'Angel's such a cool guy.' Makes me want to ralph!"

"Xander!"

It was Larry, the former bane of Xander's existence whose disposition had been greatly improved by coming out of the closet. The big football player jogged up to Xander.

"Buffy said to tell you Oz's van just arrived," said Larry.

Xander paused at a vending machine just long enough to buy another caffeinated drink. "Great. It'll need to be unloaded."

"Can do."

"Grab someone and a cart and get out there, then. Not much time left to do this in." Xander gulped down half the Coke he'd purchased without so much as a breath.

"You okay, Xander?" Larry asked.

"Fine. Just fine. I haven't slept in the past two days on account of having a friend in the hospital and planning a battle against a demon, my folks aren't showing up for graduation, I'm fairly certain I'm going to die today, my shoes are too tight, and on top of everything else, I'm having to listen to everybody talk about what a terrific guy Angel is. What's not to love?" With that, Xander finished off his Coke and tossed the can in a random direction. The way he figured it, messy hallways were going to be moot by this afternoon anyway.

That brought Larry up short. "What's wrong with Angel?"

Xander glared. "Nothing, apparently. Angel's so gorgeous and such a great guy, and why didn't we ever see him before, and does he have a girlfriend?"

Larry gave Xander a patient look. "I get it. Xander, you shouldn't be jealous. You're a great-looking guy, and while granted, Angel's beautiful, there's no need for you to . . ."

That was too much. "I am not jealous of Angel!" Xander snapped.

"Really?" Larry gave Xander a puzzled look. "Then why . . ." A light of understanding and sympathy suddenly washed over Larry's features, and he grasped Xander's shoulder in a ham-sized fist. "Oh, I see now. Isn't it a bitch when the best ones are taken? I feel for you, man."

Larry clapped a stunned and sputtering Xander on the back once, then left to help unload Oz's van.

***

Within fifteen minutes, Oz's van was empty. Oz and Willow watched Larry and Jonathan nervously wheel the cart of fertilizer away, then shut the door.

"I guess that's it," said Willow. "Won't be long now." She wished, she truly did, that she could make her heart stop thumping quite so hard. If only it were time. If only it were over and done with, and she knew all her friends had survived.

Oz looked at her, concerned. "You nervous?"

Willow swallowed. "Only in a terrified way."

"We'll make it through this," Oz said comfortingly, taking her hand.

"Are you sure?"

Oz considered it. "I sound pretty sure, don't I?"

That made Willow smile. "Yeah."

"Then I must be sure."

Willow frowned as a suspicion hit her. "Is that just a comforting way of not answering the question?"

Oz shrugged lightly. Willow leaned forward to kiss him, and he kissed her back. Quite thoroughly.

Willow opened her eyes. "How long till graduation?"

"A little while," was the answer.

Willow decided to kiss him again. What better time would there be?

***

Buffy had gone beyond tired some time ago. Her nerves were frayed to the breaking point, held together only by the knowledge that if she fell apart, an unspeakable evil would be loosed on the world. She had been making rounds, checking on preparations, trying to keep her mind on her immediate duty. Trying to ignore thoughts of Angel, or of the small bundle she carried.

As she entered the library and saw who was in Giles' office, her resolve to stay in the moment nearly failed.

I cannot be seeing Angel right now, she thought, and turned. Then she reconsidered. She needed to know what their state of readiness was. Resolutely, she walked in.

Just don't ask me how I'm doing, Angel. And don't apologize. And whatever you do, don't say goodbye.

"Did you get what you needed?" Angel asked without turning around.

Buffy forced herself to move to his side. He wasn't looking at her. "Yeah, I did," she said, and looked at the table where the weapons were set out. "This isn't going to be enough."

"Giles is on it," Angel told her. Buffy nodded, then turned to leave. As she did, he asked, "How are you?"

Silently, she cursed him. Out loud, she said, "I heal fast. Like you." No, she thought. Not going to let this get to me. Talk shop. "So, are we sure that everyone knows what their position . . ."

"I'm not going to say goodbye."

The quiet words stopped the world. Buffy had no idea how to react to them.

Angel looked at her, though not completely in the eye, for the first time in the conversation. "If we get through this, I'm just going to go."

Then that was that.

"You understand?" asked Angel, his voice pleading for understanding. She forced a nod. "There's just too much . . ."

Of its own accord, her hand came up in a catching gesture, cutting him off. Too much to say, too little time to say it, and if they said anything else, neither of them would be able to let go. And if she heard one more word from his mouth, she would fall apart.

Angel set down the crossbow bolt he'd been fiddling with and left the room. Once alone, Buffy pulled from her coat a piece of cloth shielding Faith's bloodstained knife. She set it on the table, shaking with emotion. She knew what she had to do, but when it came time, would she be able to do it?

"Forgive me, Faith," she whispered.

***

More weapons were arriving every second. Xander had them all placed in the band room, which was serving as a sort of staging area for the graduates. One group at a time, the seniors were herded into the band room and equipped, and the weapons were concealed under their robes.

Now, Xander headed back to the library. As he turned a corner, he was nearly run down by Angel carrying an empty gym bag. The vampire seemed oblivious to Xander's struggle for balance, asking brusquely, "Where are the stakes?"

"Art room. E hall. And I'm fine, thank you. Your boys will be ready, won't they?"

"We'll be there."

"Good. I'd hate to think you were just beating on them for fun."

Angel glared. "I said we'll be ready."

Xander returned his look steadily. "Why'd you go and tell them you're a vampire? Let me guess: you thought it would help them trust you."

Angel made an impatient sound. "As a matter of fact, yes. If I go into game face in the middle of the fight, I don't want them turning on me. Letting them know up front seemed like the best option. Or should I have consulted Key Guy first?"

"Might not have been a bad idea." Seeing nothing else to be gained (except a broken face), Xander turned and started to walk away.

"Xander."

The teenager turned, ready for a fight. Angel was looking at him steadily, but not in a challenging way.

"I . . . grudge you every second you spend with her," the vampire said slowly. "In some ways, I hate you, because you can be her friend. That's one thing I'll never be. You'll always be good for her; I'm not. I hate that more than I can say."

Xander stood, a million sarcastic comments running through his head, none escaping him. Angel continued to look at him for a moment, that same, steady gaze.

"Don't ever stop being her white knight."

With that, Angel walked away.

"Gonna miss that guy," sighed Xander to himself as Angel disappeared around a corner. Only this time, he wasn't sure if he was being ironic or not.

It took Xander a few more minutes to track down Buffy. She was looking frayed around the edges, but basically solid.

"How we doing?" she asked as she saw him.

"Okay. Forty-five minutes until everything goes down, and I'd say we're right on schedule. The graduates are getting armed and suited up, the basketball team's ready to rumble, the library's stoked, and Annie Vaughn's holding a prayer meeting."

Buffy smiled slightly. "Well, we can use all the help we can get." She paused thoughtfully. "You know, it never even occurred to me how rough this town must be on clergy. Think I might chase Annie down after all this and ask her about it. Assuming we survive, of course."

"That seems to be the word of the day." Xander paused, puzzled. "Or phrase. Whatever. How are . . ."

Buffy held up a hand, stopping the question. "Please don't ask, Xander. I'm trying not to think about it."

Something in her voice was dangerously fragile. Xander tried to think back to the last time he'd heard her laugh and found he couldn't remember.

He made a decision and drew in a breath. "Here's food for thought. I ran into Larry a little while back, and we had an . . . interesting chat."

Buffy grinned marginally. "He never did get the picture you're straight, did he?"

Xander shook his head. "Actually, he thinks I've got a new crush. Guess who?"

"Um, I don't know—himself?" Buffy guessed. Xander shook his head. "Oz?" Another shake. Xander was beginning to think this hadn't been such a great idea. "He doesn't—not Giles?" Xander made a face. "Okay, not Giles. Um . . . 'kay, can't think of anyone else. Toss me a clue."

It was all Xander could do to make himself say it, but he figured it was the best way to get Buffy laughing. "Try tall, dark, and depressing."

It worked. Better than Xander would have liked, it worked. Buffy didn't just laugh; she howled, she guffawed, she gasped for breath as her lungs forgot their primary function, was forced to sit down on a bench as tears of hilarity ran down her face, and ended up with a hiccup five minutes later when her lungs resumed working.

"Feel better?" Xander queried, thoroughly humiliated, yet strangely satisfied.

"Much." Buffy wiped her face and looked at him with shining eyes. "This doesn't go beyond the two of us."

"I'd appreciate that so very much." Xander squeezed her hand. "You ready?"

Buffy smiled and squeezed back. "I'm ready."

***

"Pomp and Circumstance" had never been so boring. Although Buffy was near the end of the line of graduates, the music seemed to go on forever even after she was seated. She wondered where Willow was. The music finally stopped, and Principal Snyder took the podium. Buffy could feel the collective tension of the graduates around her.

"Congratulations to the class of 1999," said Snyder unenthusiastically. "You all proved more or less adequate. This is a time of celebration, so sit still and be quiet. Spit out that gum." He glared around at the seniors before going on. "Please welcome our distinguished guest speaker, Richard Wilkins III." Snyder's beady little eyes fastened on one of the students. "I saw that gesture. You see me after graduation."

Buffy rolled her eyes. Obnoxious to the end, the little troll.

The students applauded with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. As they did so, Willow suddenly scooted in beside Buffy. She was flushed and a little disheveled. Buffy had an idea of what she'd been doing. She also had a feeling there would be a slumber party with lots of girl talk tonight. If they survived.

The Mayor stepped up to the podium and began speaking. Buffy had a horrifying revelation.

"Oh my God," she murmured. "He's going to do the entire speech."

"Man, just ascend already!" muttered Willow.

"Evil!"

The Mayor continued blathering on about the students and the town. The only thing that penetrated the buzzing in Buffy's brain was a comment about some not being there who should have. As he said it, he stared straight at Buffy. In that moment, she knew her plan would work.

"Nothing will ever be the same," the Mayor said. "Nothing."

A shadow fell across the graduates.

***

"It's getting dark!" yelled Rafael in the gym.

"Time to move," Angel said, and the basketball team headed out toward the graduation venue.

***

It was indeed an eclipse. Buffy felt herself going into what she called "Slayer mode": her breathing became deeper and more regular, her heartbeat increased, her limbs tingled with anticipation of action, and her mind became glassy-clear, totally focused on the task at hand. It had saved her life several times.

The other students weren't as lucky. Buffy could hear their panicked breathing and a few soft moans.

And the Mayor flinched. He tried to resume his speech.

"And so as we look back on . . ." He stopped, grunting with pain. ". . . on the events that brought us to this day . . ." Another pain seemed to hit him.

Buffy took her cap off. "Come on," she urged softly.

"We . . . we must all . . ."

And he screamed in pain. The students sat bolt upright, tensing for action. The faculty looked confused.

The Mayor suddenly straightened, speaking with some effort. "It has begun," he announced. "My destiny. It's a little sooner then I expected—I had this whole section on civic pride. But I guess we'll just skip to the big finish!"

And as the students watched in abject horror, the Mayor's form twisted and writhed, growing and distorting into the form of a sixty foot-long serpent.

***

Xander had seen pictures of the demon the Mayor was becoming, but facing the reality was even more frightening than he'd imagined.

You're a soldier, he told himself. Do your job, soldier.

"Now!" shouted Buffy.

The graduates rose. Caps and gowns were stripped away to reveal weapons and crosses. Xander stood on his chair and looked at Buffy.

"Flame units!" she yelled. Larry and Derrick, on opposite sides of the graduates, fired up their flame cannons at the demon Mayor. He screamed in pain

"First wave!" yelled Xander. "Fire!"

Willow took the lead in firing metal lances at the demon Mayor. They flew fast and thick. The demon screamed again in pain and frustration before suddenly lunging down and snatching a student from the first row.

That did it for Darin Hadley and a few others. They broke and ran down the steps . . . and straight into the vampire mob that had come up behind them.

"Xander!" It was Oz.

"Arm bowmen!" ordered Xander over the crowd's noise.

The bows came out. Arrows were set to string, then lit afire.

"Fire!"

Flames roared from the cannons in the front, and in the back, flaming arrows dusted vampires.

It was pure chaos. The flames and lances were keeping the demon Mayor off-balance, but he was still lunging at the students.

"Fall back!" cried Buffy.

Xander turned back to the archers, who had re-armed. "Fire!"

This time, the arrows cleared the road. The vampires fell back, running away from the deadly projectiles . . .

. . . and straight into the basketball team, led by Angel and carrying crosses, stakes, and baseball bats. Only Angel was unarmed. He took point, leaving wounded and unconscious vampires scattered across his wake.

"Stay together!" shouted Percy as the team attacked the vampires.

Xander turned from them back to the front. The flame units fired again, only this time, Larry's wasn't working. As the big football player was distracted, only for a second, the demon Mayor's tail whipped around. Larry was thrown high in the air. Xander watched in horror as Larry hit the ground with a crunch and didn't move again.

Snyder was yelling something off to the side. It caught the demon Mayor's attention. A moment later, the principal was gone.

"Fall back! Get back!" yelled Buffy. She turned to Willow. "Go!"

Willow threw down her lance, as did the others.

"Xander take 'em down," Buffy ordered.

Xander pulled a stake out of his back pocket. "Everyone! Hand to hand! Everyone! Let's go! Move! Move!"

The students turned as a group and ran for the stairs. Below them, the basketball team was still grappling with the vampires. They were making headway. Xander watched as one staked a vampire Angel had left prone. Angel tossed another aside and lit into two more, while Dominic staked a vamp trying to feed on Percy. The vampires were being driven back toward the stairs. One of the vamps yelled to "Get the kids!"

The student body surged down the stairs just as the vampires turned. Crosses, baseball bats, axes, and stakes held high, they literally trampled the vampires coming back up the stairs. Jeanne threw a bottle of holy water in one's face and it fell, screaming. Jonathan jumped on another as it made a grab at Annie. LeeAnn Axton of the softball team nearly took another's head off with a perfect swing of a baseball bat.

The vampires fought back as hard as they could. Harmony screamed as a vampire grabbed her hair and sank its teeth into her neck. In her panic, she grabbed the hand that was holding her chin and bit it . . . hard enough to draw blood.

"Right flank close in. Close!" shouted Xander over the melee. A vampire grabbed him, and Xander was forced to fend it off. "Jason and Paul, you guys are right flank!" Someone staked the vamp, and Xander was up again.

The battle continued. Angel grabbed a vamp that was attacking Jeanne and threw it a good fifteen feet. Cordelia staked one like a pro. Xander yelled for Derrick to get the rear guard up here now.

Everything was chaos, blood, screams, and fire.

***

Buffy waited only a moment after the students started their retreat, then jumped into the demon Mayor's line of sight.

"Hey!"

The snake reared back as it saw her.

Buffy held up Faith's knife, mottled with dried blood. If she'd been able to think, what she was doing would have appalled her. "You remember this?" she taunted. "I took it from Faith. Stuck it in her gut." She looked at the knife almost contemplatively. "Just slid in her like she was butter."

The demon Mayor gave a snarl of rage.

The Slayer held the knife up a little higher. "You want to get it back from me . . . Dick?"

It did indeed. Buffy turned and ran, ran faster than she ever had. She wove in and out between the pillars, barely keeping ahead of the enraged demon. She ducked through the doors and ran through the familiar halls in a familiar route. Behind her, the serpent broke through walls and doorways.

Buffy wheeled on a dime, running for the library. She ran in, up, and between the empty stacks, and the demon Mayor came right behind her.

***

The demon Mayor stopped in his pursuit of the girl who had hurt his Faith as he realized something was very wrong. What was all that stuff stacked around the library?

Well, strike him pink. He wouldn't have thought it of those kids. Why, they had some gumption after all!

"Well, gosh!" he said, right before he was blown back to Hell.

***

The explosion shocked the combatants outside into temporary immobility. Cordelia cried out and Jonathan threw himself over her, protecting her from the blast as best he could.

As the smoke rose, Xander noticed the light was coming back. He turned, eyes connecting with Angel's for just a moment.

"Move!" Xander yelled.

It seemed to jar Angel out of his immobility, for in the next moment, he had wheeled and was closing the distance to Oz's van faster than was humanly possible, capping his run off with a magnificent twenty-foot bound before he disappeared inside, leaving a tiny wisp of smoke behind.

Xander breathed a sigh of relief.

Percy shook his head in amazement. "We really could have used him on the team!"

Xander gave a snort of disgust. Bright sunbeams shot through the smoke from the explosion and over the battleground. The remaining vampires screamed and tried to escape. Very few made it back to the safety of the sewers. One young man got his shirt caught on fire when the vampire he was struggling with combusted. In seconds, ash and dust were all that was left of the vampire mob.

It was over.

***

Buffy wandered, mind almost completely disengaged from what was going on around her. She knew time had passed—the afternoon had given way to evening—but it seemed remote, somehow. There were fire trucks and ambulances and police cars, there was smoke and mist, and there were people. Lots of people. Some large, some small, some wearing uniforms, and she was certain she knew some of them.

A girl walked up to her and wrapped her in a hug. This had been happening quite a lot lately.

"God bless you, Buffy," the girl whispered. "God. Bless. You."

That was Annie. Annie would say something like that. That was nice of her, wasn't it?

"Thanks," Buffy murmured.

Annie pulled away, wiping tears. Close on her heels was Jonathan. He shuffled forward, cleared his throat several times, tried to say something, then gave it up and hugged Buffy, too.

They left quickly, leaving Buffy to her thoughts. There were entirely too many of them. Larry, Faith, Angel, and the face of every student whom Buffy knew had died. On top of too little sleep, severe blood loss that she hadn't really recovered from, and the fight, it was too much. Buffy's mind and emotions had simply short-circuited. Too much to deal with right now.

"If I could . . . could just get something for the pain. It's rather a lot of pain, actually. Aspirin? If you would, uh, ah . . . . Perhaps I could just be knocked unconscious."

It was Wesley's voice. Buffy looked over to where he was being loaded onto an ambulance and wondered idly what had happened to him. Xander was suddenly by her side.

"We got off pretty cheap considering," said Xander. His voice was a bit hoarse from shouting orders, and it carried the terrible weight of someone who felt like he could have done more to prevent the deaths they'd seen today.

Buffy knew what he was feeling, but was unable to help him. "Seems like we did," she finally said. She realized she was looking around her. Something was missing.

Xander stopped, shoving his hands in his pockets. "He made it through the fight." Buffy looked at him, suddenly realizing who she was missing. "Guess maybe he . . . he took off after."

Buffy looked away, and after a moment, Xander withdrew. So Angel was gone. Buffy thought back, trying to figure out when she'd seen him last. Not during the fight—it was before, in Giles' office. She fixed that moment in her memory, knowing she'd want it when her emotions returned. Right now, she was too exhausted to feel anything.

Giles was beside her then. "Are you all right?" he asked gently.

She considered it. "I'm tired," she finally told him. That seemed to sum things up.

The ex-Watcher smiled. "I should imagine so. It's been quite a couple of days."

"I haven't processed everything yet," Buffy said, and surprised herself with a short laugh. "My brain isn't really functioning on the higher levels. It's pretty much fire bad; tree pretty."

"Understandable. Well, when it's working again congratulate it on a good campaign." Giles looked at her proudly. "You did very well."

Even in her current state, that meant a lot to Buffy. "Thank you. I will."

Giles put his glasses on. "I, ah, I managed to ferret this out of the wreckage. Now, it may not interest you, but" and here he reached into his jacket and produced a rolled-up piece of paper "I'd say you earned it."

It was her high school diploma. Buffy looked at it, knowing that even if her emotions had been working, they wouldn't have known what to do with this thing. She decided to save it and try to work it out later.

"There is a certain dramatic irony that's attached to all this," Giles continued, looking at the school. "A synchronicity that borders on predestination, one might say."

Buffy had no idea what he was gassing on about. "Fire bad; tree pretty" she reminded him.

Giles looked at her, affection playing across his features. "Yes, sorry." He put his glasses back on, expression suddenly impish. "I'm going to attend to Wesley, see if he's still . . . whimpering."

He left, leaving Buffy with her non-thoughts again. She felt something now, a strange pang that seemed to call her. She looked around, searching.

He was there. Angel stood, dark against the floodlit mist. She saw his face, his eyes staring at her with undisguised longing. Deep within her, she felt the same longing welling up. For a long moment, they stood looking at each other, communicating in a language deeper than words.

Then he turned away, breaking the spell that had held them. She watched as he faded into a shadow in the billowing mist, then as even that shadow was swallowed up. The longing settled into her soul, and something like peace washed through her.

***

Later, Buffy found her friends gathered by a bench. Xander, Willow, Oz, and Cordelia acknowledged her with their eyes as she approached.

"Well, that's the most fun you can have without having any fun," commented Cordelia.

Willow grinned. "How about the part where we kicked some demon ass? I didn't hate that." Oz stroked her hair lovingly.

"Hear, hear!" said Xander.

Buffy finished her approach. "You guys want to take off?" she asked them. "I think we've done pretty much all we can."

"I'm for it," said Cordelia with some feeling.

Willow looked at Buffy. "Are you okay?"

Buffy nodded. "Yeah, I'm okay. I could use a little sleep, though." She rapidly decided that was the understatement of a lifetime.

"Yeah" agreed Willow emphatically.

Buffy sat down beside her, legs feeling like they wouldn't support her much longer. "If someone could just wake me when it's time to go to college, that'd be great." She wasn't sure if that was a joke or not. At the moment, she felt like she really could sleep all summer.

Willow smiled at her gently. Buffy decided to get her alone and ask her to spend the night. Buffy's mother was still out of town, and sleeping by herself in an empty house wasn't at all what she wanted to do. And her neck ached.

"Guys, take a moment to deal with this: we survived," said Oz suddenly.

"It was a hell of a battle," agreed Buffy.

"Not the battle." Oz looked at her very seriously. "High school."

For a moment, all five were silent, images from the past three years passing through their minds.

Oz continued. "We're taking a moment." Buffy and Willow got up to leave. "And we're done."

The teens walked off, away from the burned-out school and the memories it held. Away from their own personal battlefield, in more ways than one.

Graduation was over.


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