Authors Note: This is the final chapter of this story. Many thanks for the kind words from the various reviewers.
Chapter Thirty One: The Road Goes Ever On and On
Buffy's first thought was that the cloud was back again and The First had not finished playing with them. The blackout didn't last long however and as things began to come back into focus she heard voices chatting away all around her.
"It's Buffy," said one female voice. "Is that good news or bad news?" Good news I hope thought Buffy although I suppose that depends on who's asking.
"It's all of them," said another voice, this time a male voice, in fact the voice of... Xander!
Now Buffy could see the people stood around her, every one of them a familiar face. As well as Xander the group included Anya and Cordelia and, and there was Giles. As Buffy continued to look around she realised that the final seven defenders seemed to have been transported to rejoin those who had fallen earlier in the battle.
It was not only those who had gone through the Hellmouth who were present however. Willow was stood next to her looking as bewildered as Buffy herself felt until Tara rushed forward and hugged her. So if everybody's here she thought where's...
"Buffy," said Dawn running forward and hugging her. "Did you do it? Did you stop the First?"
"Did we?" asked Buffy as she pulled back a little from Dawn. "I think we did. But what just happened?"
"What happened Giles?" asked Buffy, happy to once more be able to turn to him for the answers. "Why are we here? Why are you all here? We thought you were all dead. Are we all dead?" As she asked the question Buffy realised that she was back in the basement of Sunnydale High.
"I think we'd better hear from you first," said Giles. "About what happened after I uh, left."
It took a while for all the hubbub to settle down and for people to do more listening than talking. When it did it became clear that everybody who'd gone into the Hellmouth had come out again. Everybody that is except Glory and Jasmine. Even Darla and Drusilla had returned there along with everybody else.
Most people had thought they were dying and had been surprised to find themselves unharmed back in the school basement. Others however had been struck down so quickly that they had no memory of injury or death. Their last memory had been of when they were on the other side of the Hellmouth fighting demons, monsters or whatever.
Buffy and the other seven last arrivals had no memory of being killed but they couldn't be sure that they too hadn't been struck down so quickly that they had no memory of what had happened. However there was Faith.
Buffy knew that Faith was still alive when she disappeared and she had appeared back in the basement straight afterwards so it might mean that Buffy and the last arrivals had just been returned back to Earth after their job was done.
Faith's wish had been to be back with her friends and after her victory her wish had been fulfilled. She had gone straight to the school basement where most of her friends had already returned.
Wherever they had gone after winning their fights neither Glory nor Jasmine had returned to the school basement like everybody else. What Buffy and the others did not know was that Glory and Jasmine had each had their own wish fulfilled by their victories. Glory to return home and Jasmine to make her home in the hell dimension.
After listening to the last seven survivors provide details of the final conflict with the First, Giles, helped by Tara and Paige now did what tests he could and established as far as possible that there was no more Hellmouth.
"It looks like you did it," said Giles.
"We did it," said Buffy. "All of us."
"Yes," agreed Giles. "It looks like we did it. No more Hellmouth. That should mean no more danger from the meteor and with a bit of luck The First is locked away on the other side."
"So what's with all that fading away business?" asked Rona, "because if I'd known all you guys were OK it would have made things a lot easier back there."
"Yeah," said Caridad to a group of the other enhanced potentials. "Were you guys having a party back here while we were stuck in that awful fog?" The potentials now drifted away to the other end of the basement to talk about what had happened to them.
"Some party!" said Tara with feeling to Willow as the potentials moved away.
"Did something happen back here?" asked Willow. She was taking a rest sat on the ground with her back to the wall. Tara sat down beside her, put her arm around Willow's waist and snuggled close.
"After you guys went into the Hellmouth Leo called up a lot more Whitelighters," said Tara. "It was just as well he did because we needed them."
"Still some demons and vamps on this side huh," said Willow.
"Oh yeah," said Tara. "They thought everybody would have gone through the Hellmouth and they could open it up again from this side and take you all by surprise."
"But they got the big surprise then," said Willow.
"You should have seen me with my extra flamey sword," said Tara waving her arm around in mime of swordplay. She then went on to describe how she, Paige and the Whitelighters had dealt with the demons and vampires in their own battle back on Earth.
"Were we really there?" asked Buffy. "Or was it just our spirits or astral thingies or something?"
"You were really there," said Paige. "Or at least you didn't leave your bodies behind back here or anything."
"I think it's because you were all fighting on the side of Light," said Leo. "I suppose you can't stay dead in a Hell dimension when you're fighting on the side of Light."
"So we couldn't really lose then," said Xander.
"Oh no," said Giles. "What Leo said might be right, I don't know, but I do know that if we'd lost one of those battles the demons would have come into our world and destroyed it."
"Instead of us keeping the Hellmouth shut they would have been keeping it open," said Wesley.
"And the meteor would have hit," said Prue.
"So if we'd lost there and come back here alive we'd probably have been killed here soon after when the meteor hit." said Willow getting back to her feet again with Tara to rejoin the group.
"So does that mean we're safe from that meteor then?" asked Buffy. "Is there some way we can check?"
Leo orbed away to check with Whitelighter Central. He took with him all of the other Whitelighters apart from Jenny and Tara and of course Paige. Tara orbed Fred and Willow back to Castle Buffy to do a computer check, through the on-line connections that Fred had used before. Phoebe and Cordelia worked together to see if they could obtain a vision or message giving the all clear.
The first to obtain information were Fred and Willow. They were orbed back by Tara.
"No worry from the meteor," Fred announced. "It hasn't changed its course. It's still gonna miss us with a lot to spare."
Leo arrived back and similarly confirmed that as far as he could establish with the elders the danger had now passed.
Despite their best efforts Cordelia and Phoebe received nothing in the way of further visions or messages which Prue announced was a good sign.
"I mean Phoebe only gets messages about bad things coming," she said. "She never gets an all clear message afterwards. No message, no bad."
"Same here," said Cordelia. "It's like the TV or the newspapers, only bad news allowed."
"So no mystic thank-you or well done," said Xander. "I think we need a better agent."
"Well there's gonna be a big thank you all right," said Buffy. "We'll thank each other. After we've all had a chance to rest there's gonna be a big party at my place."
Buffy turned to lead the way upstairs into the school and off home when she met Wood coming downstairs.
"You're not gonna believe this," he said. "But Sunnydale has returned to normal."
"Normal," asked Dawn. "What's normal for Sunnydale?"
"The school's back in business up there," explained Wood. "No damage, no bodies, no fallout from the battle at all. Normal classes are in session. Rather than everybody walking through the school perhaps Tara and her friends could take you all away quietly."
Piper and Phoebe exchanged glances. "It looks like the Cleaners have been called in," said Piper. She explained to everybody nearby about the Cleaners and the previous experiences of the Halliwells with them.
Leo and Paige orbed the Halliwells back home after they had all promised to come to the planned celebration party. Everybody else was orbed back to Castle Buffy in groups by Tara and Jenny except Wood who went upstairs to once again take over as School Principal.
Over the next few days it became clear that it wasn't just the High School which had returned to normal but the whole of Sunnydale. The general population had no awareness that anything unusual had happened. Nobody seemed to know that the town had been evacuated for a time and only those involved knew anything about a big battle taking place to save the world.
A phone call by Angel to Lorne in LA revealed that all was quiet in the city from a demon and vampire perspective.
"I think you got through several years' worth of bad guys," said Lorne. "The ones who are left are keeping a pretty low profile at the moment. If my club wasn't already out of business I'd be going out of business."
Lorne was given an invitation to the party. As it was quiet in LA the rest of the LA people decided to stay on in Sunnydale until after the party. The only other person who was invited apart from those involved in the big battle was Kate. Gwen insisted on telling her everything that had happened, especially as by then there was no longer any problem about Faith.
The witches had all got together a couple of days before the party to carry out the forget spell to clear Faith's record. The spell that was finally carried out was not in the end a world changing magic monk type of spell. What was done was to insert into the public record an official pardon which declared that Faith had been wrongfully convicted and had been legitimately released. Everything about her being a wanted fugitive was officially written off as an administrative snafu.
The return of Tara, Prue and Jenny was tackled in a more mundane way. There were no witnesses to the deaths of any one of the three women outside the circle of friends and relations. It was therefore decided to keep any magic track covering in reserve in case of future problems.
For the time being the group decided to offer a vague explanation of mistaken identity to any query. This was backed up by a few changes to certain gravestones plus the alteration of a few official computer records carried out by Willow.
The party itself five days later was a big success, well a big success for everybody who didn't want things to be livened up by soulless vampires, demons, zombies or worse.
"I think if any surviving demons or vampires heard about this party and who's here they wouldn't stop running," said Angel.
"Is that running towards us or running away from us?" asked Buffy. "With my record for parties I should have just called another party every time I wanted to find a big bad. It would have come to the party. My parties always turn out bad."
"Until now," said Xander.
"Don't say that," chorused Buffy, Willow, Cordelia and Anya. Angel, Tara and Giles just smiled.
"Every time somebody says something like that something bad always happens," said Buffy.
"Buffy!" called Dawn from across the room, "Buffy!"
"I knew it," declared Buffy glaring at Xander as she went looking for Dawn. "This is your fault, whatever it is."
But of course it wasn't Xander's fault. Dawn and the other potentials were discovering that their upgrade to slayer power had just run out. They were all back to being potentials again.
Over the next two weeks the potentials, apart of course from Dawn, all left. Many of them went back to live with their families but not all of them had family to go back to. Wesley agreed to become watcher to Sophie and Ingrid who went with him and the LA people to live in the city.
Giles returned to England to start to rebuild the Watchers' Council. He took Molly and Lakshmi with him. Jenny also announced that oh so coincidentally she had been assigned to work in England for the time being and might be able to drop in on Giles from time to time. Darla and a very subdued Drusilla stayed long enough to attend the party but had disappeared from Castle Buffy by the following morning, destination unknown.
All three of the souled vampires had refused offers by Cordelia to try to make them human. Angel still felt that his job was not yet done and he would not be able to perform it as a human. Darla couldn't stand the thought of growing old after so many years of being ageless and anyway didn't want to risk what had happened to her before when she had returned to being human. Drusilla did not reveal her reasons to Cordelia. She loathed being a vampire but her power to know something of the future told her that she should stay the way she was, at least for the time being.
Buffy and Angel had a few nights together and some long talks before he went back to LA with the rest of the LA crowd. One impediment to renewing their relationship had been removed now that Angel no longer had the 'perfect happiness' curse hanging over him. Angel however remembered that it wasn't the curse that had caused him to break up with Buffy. He was still ageless and she wasn't.
Buffy was aware that she was no longer the same person she had been four years before. She wasn't sure that she wanted to be that person again. As always between Buffy and Angel nothing was finally decided. They would keep in touch, in better touch than they had for the past few years but they would continue to live separate lives for the time being.
Willow and Tara were in no doubt about their future plans. Willow would go back to college as would Tara at least to the extent that her Whitelighter duties allowed. Since Tara's witch charges were Willow, Cordelia, Amy and Anya plus keeping an eye on Dawn if she went in that direction she would be spending most of her time in Sunnydale anyway.
The days after the big battle was over showed no local vampire or demon activity at all. Tara's Whitelighter contacts revealed that activities by dark forces were at a low level world wide, possibly because of all the casualties they had sustained in the big battle. There was no trace of the presence of The First Evil anymore. For the foreseeable future it seemed that Tara would be called away very little from where she wanted to be.
Anya and Amy set about getting the Magic Box back up and running. Anya mentally revived her plans for future expansion beyond the confines of a small Californian town and asked Willow for help in setting up a new and improved Magic Box website.
Much to her disappointment Dawn went back to school. She found it a struggle at first having to pretend that everything was normal and she had just been absent with the flu but at least she didn't get any hassle from the Principal.
Xander went back to work and began to think about dating again. It was while he was sat quietly in a corner eating his lunch on site one day that he overheard a nearby conversation that made him aware for the first time of the reputation that he had acquired in small town Sunnydale:
"Xander Harris?" said the first man. "Oh yeah, I remember him from High School. A complete loser."
"This can't be the same Xander Harris," said a second man.
"That's right," said a third man. "Our Xander must be the hottest guy in Sunnydale as far as the chicks are concerned."
"Yeah," said a fourth man. "Every time you see him in the Bronze he's surrounded by beautiful women. I don't mean good looking I mean seriously beautiful women, like Playboy or Hollywood beautiful and he's usually the only guy with them."
"I heard he goes to parties where he's the only guy there," said a fifth man. "Man, whatever he's got I want some of it myself."
The voices drifted away leaving a stunned and buoyant Xander.
For a while the slayers continued with regular patrols around Sunnydale but with no Hellmouth to attract them there was no reason for demons and vampires to come to the town and every reason for them to stay well away. It was while patrolling together one quiet evening that Buffy and Faith discussed future plans.
"I was thinking about going back to college with Willow and Tara," said Buffy. "What about you?"
"Never graduated High School remember," said Faith. "I don't think they'll let me in college. Anyway I'm not the college type. Nor are you."
"What do you mean?" asked Buffy. "I so am college material. Did I ever tell you my SAT results?"
"Hey," said Faith putting her hands up. "I'm not saying you don't have the brains. I'm just saying you're not the college type. Neither of us are college types."
"Just because you're not the type to finish High School doesn't mean I shouldn't go to college," said Buffy.
"You never got that did you?" said Faith. "You and Willow and all the rest. You all just thought I was stupid."
"Not stupid no," said Buffy. "But I think you should have finished High School."
"That's why you're different to other slayers Buffy," said Faith. "You think differently. You never thought through what being a slayer meant did you?"
"Spit it out Faith," said Buffy, now getting a little annoyed. "Just what do you mean?"
"OK," said Faith. "It goes something like this. The Chosen One, one girl in all the world, de dah, de dah. Fights the vampires and the demons yeah?"
"Yeah," acknowledged Buffy.
"A slayer's life is short, that's what I always figured," said Faith. "How long did Kendra last, a year?"
"About that I suppose," said Buffy.
"That's probably longer than some," said Faith. "How many people do you think would carry on going to school if they thought they only had a year or two ahead of them?"
"Well, some people enjoy school," said Buffy.
"Yeah," replied Faith. "But there aren't many Willows around. I once stayed up all night fighting vamps, killed about four of them, saved some lives and got it in the neck the next day at school for not handing in an essay on 'What I did on Holiday'. That's the day I dropped out of school. I figured I didn't have time for any of that crap."
"OK," said Buffy. "But everything's calmed down. There's no reason why I shouldn't go back to college. No reason why you shouldn't finish your education."
"No more Hellmouth so you're saying Sunnydale looks like it'll be a quiet little town from now on," said Faith. "OK, could be. But you're still the slayer and it's a big world. One day soon Giles or Angel or somebody else will call about some big emergency somewhere else. If you're in college you'll have to drop out again to deal with it. What'll you do? Are you gonna leave it to me and Kennedy?"
"Why not?" replied Buffy.
"Hah!" said Faith in complete disbelief.
After a while the patrols were stopped as no longer having any purpose. Buffy was back working at the school but had not given up on her plans to go back to college when the new college year started.
Faith was receiving an allowance from Giles and Kennedy had her family money behind her but both of them were becoming restless. When therefore they heard from Giles several weeks after closing the Hellmouth that he needed them in England to deal with an escaped 'Old One' and its minions they caught the first plane out. Buffy went with them leaving Dawn with Willow and Tara. However all that's another story...