At the edge of the camp, Xander lay on sweet-smelling grass, his hair still damp from a dip in the lake. He would've liked to have gone for a walk by his lonesome, but Illyria had reminded him that if and when the portal manifested it would be centred on him and his pretty bangle, so he'd settled for a sulk by his lonesome.
It had been a week. Or so he thought. The copper-tinged sun had risen and set seven times, but he had no idea whether time ran the same in this world. Still, he figured it should've been over by now.
Some of his fellow campers believed that the world had been destroyed or overrun by demons. But Xander entertained no such doubts. Though he was worried about his friends, he knew in his heart that the world was safe. Buffy didn't lose. She might die, but she didn't lose.
A few days ago Xander had approached one of their hosts to ask for help in returning to Earth. Sayah, a young, silver-haired sprite, had been sympathetic, but had advised him to wait and see; in effect, blowing him off. As he swatted an insect buzzing around his face Xander thought it might be time to talk to her again -- before he ran out of fingernails to chew.
The breeze picked up, wafting a sweet fruity scent over him. Hmm, smells like strawberries, he thought. A sudden strong gust caused goosebumps to pop up on his bare arms. Weird. The weather was usually warm and stable, even during the nights. He sat up and looked around, immediately spotting the purple glow emanating from his wrist.
Xander shot to his feet. He danced about, not sure what to do. The camp was still in laze around mode, with people eating, sleeping or swimming in the lake; it didn't look as if anyone else had even noticed.
No one paid any attention. He rolled his eyes and turned his back. The hell with them. He pulled his army boots on and waited, his eye darting around him.
A golden sphere appeared only a metre away, scaring the bejeezus out of him. It hovered at chest height, rotating. Xander backed off, wary but hopeful. The sphere split into five smaller balls which spread out to form an arch.
The balls glowed and an arched doorway sprang out of nowhere, anchored in the meadow. Through it, Xander saw Willow, Buffy and Giles standing several metres back. They were flanked by Faith and half a dozen slayers on one side and an army unit on the other.
Xander stared, relief washing over him; everyone seemed to be okay. He couldn't see Angel and Spike, but that wasn't surprising considering the bright sunshine. They were standing on tarmac, he noticed. He scanned the mountains in the background and realised he was back where he'd started: Burbank Airport.
Faith detached herself from the group and strode to the portal, the slayers trailing after her like baby ducks. He shook off his trance and loped across the threshold. Faith grinned as they passed each other, and he heard her voice boom behind him.
"Okay, everyone! Party's over. It's time to go home."
Ignoring the watching soldiers, Xander ran to Buffy and Willow and threw his arms around them, squeezing until they squealed in protest.
"Xander, let go," Buffy said, her voice muffled.
"I swear, you two are gonna be the death of me," he said, releasing them. He checked them over, making sure they had all their fingers and toes.
Smoothing her hair, Willow grinned. "We missed you too." He was happy to see that her cheeks were full and pink, and she seemed to have more meat on her bones. As his gaze shifted between her and Buffy, his throat ached and his vision blurred at the edges.
"Hello, Xander." Giles's voice was tinged with amusement.
"Oh, hey Giles. Uh, I was just getting around to you." Blinking, he gave Giles a manly clap on the shoulder.
"Glad to know I'm not invisible," Giles said.
"Listen, I'm gonna go help Faith, and thank the Milusians," Willow said.
"I'll come with you," Xander said, not quite ready to let her out of his sight.
She patted his arm. "Don't worry, Xan. I'll be fine. That portal's not gonna budge until I close it."
Nodding, he managed a weak smile. She trotted to the portal, stopping as Connor hurtled across the threshold looking frantic. Willow grabbed his arms and touched his cheek, soothing him like she would a child. She pointed to a hangar across the tarmac and Connor took off like a jackrabbit.
Xander watched him cover the distance as fast as a slayer. Connor reached the hangar in seconds. Just inside, sheltered from the sun, a tall figure moved to embrace him.
Damn it, his eye was watering again. Must be dust or something in the air. Turning away, Xander saw the first civilians being guided through the portal by the slayers, among them the little girls who'd given him Willow's note and their mother. They exchanged enthusiastic waves with Buffy before being escorted by soldiers to army trucks.
"Er, is that a good thing?" Xander said.
"It's okay, Xander," Buffy said, linking arms with him. "They're just going to the terminal." She looked sheepish. "We're kinda working with the military."
He squinted. "Boy, you go to another world and everything changes!"
"Well, the partnership appears to be working thus far," Giles said. "In fact, we have slayers patrolling L.A. with the army right now."
Xander decided to reserve judgement and kept a cautious eye on the soldiers. He noticed an older man observing the proceedings. With his iron grey crew cut and ramrod straight spine, the officer wore an air of authority consistent with a bigwig.
"Who's the stiff?" Xander said.
"That's General Bryce," Giles said. "He's in charge of military operations."
Buffy and Giles exchanged a glance before she shrugged. "He's trying, I'll give him that."
"He's nosier than Woodward and Bernstein," she said. "Keeps asking Willow how she neutralised the nuke."
Xander felt a frisson run down his back as her words sunk in. "So she really did it, huh?"
"Yeah." Buffy didn't elaborate. She flicked a brief glance at him, but looked away when he tried to catch her gaze. He made a mental note to ask her about it later.
Buffy pointed her chin towards the portal. "What do you suppose that's about?" she said.
On the other side, Willow and Faith were talking to Illyria. Willow had her back to them, but her hands were flitting here, there and everywhere.
"Bluebird's staying behind," Xander said.
Buffy blinked. "Where'd she get that bad idea from?"
He shrugged. "They invited her. Besides, maybe it's not such a bad idea. It's not like she belongs in our world any more."
"You're not concerned that she may disrupt their world?" Giles said, frowning.
"They use magic like we use electricity. I think they can rope her in if they have to," Xander said as he watched the three women.
The last of the civilians and slayers came through the archway, obstructing his view for half a minute before they were whisked away. When he saw them again Faith was talking to Illyria, the slayer's stance bordering on threatening. She ended her speech with a wag of her finger, took a last look round, and headed on back.
Willow pivoted and followed Faith, but a few steps short of the portal she stopped and ran back to give Illyria a swift hug. As Willow pulled away, Illyria's form briefly flickered to that of an elfin brunette with a sweet smile. Willow stilled, then turned and trotted through the arched doorway.
Glancing at General Bryce, Willow swivelled to face the portal. She held her arms out a little ways from her body, palms forward, and said something Xander couldn't make out. The portal began to close from the top down, as if a screen was being pulled over it. Willow backed up until she was standing beside Xander and grasped his hand. With Buffy and Willow flanking him, he felt the tension leave his shoulders for the first time in a week.
The doorway was only a few inches high when Willow snapped her head round to look at him. "Hey, what happened to the rental car?" she said.
Oh, man. It'd completely slipped his mind. Xander glanced at the portal in time to see it disappear into the tarmac. He flashed her a sheepish smile.
As Willow left the motel room, she spotted Faith and Spike fussing over their shiny new Yamahas. She smiled and strolled across the parking lot to join them. Warm evening air caressed her skin as she walked.
"Hey, I was just coming to find you," Faith said, shutting the rear compartment of her motorcycle. "To say goodbye."
"You're leaving?" Willow looked from one to the other.
Shrugging, Spike dropped his cigarette butt and ground it out with his boot. Wearing the new leather jacket he'd browbeat Giles into requisitioning, he looked like a bikie. "Figured we'd split before that army berk changes his mind."
"Oh." Willow frowned. "Does Buffy know?"
Faith raised her hands. "I already said my goodbyes. Spike, on the other hand..." She flapped her arms as if they were wings. "Pooock, pock, pock, pock."
"Ta, luv. I didn't get it the first five times," Spike said, throwing her a sour look. He glanced at Willow. "Buffy's made it pretty clear she's got nothing to say to me."
"Leave it alone, Willow."
She sighed. "So where are you headed?"
"Got some unfinished business in Santa Fe," Faith said. "After that I'm gonna take a nice long vacation."
Nodding, Spike threw his leg over his bike. "Santa Fe's a good place to start. Then I'll see what takes my fancy."
Faith gave Willow a tentative smile. "Listen, Will...thanks. I know you went to bat for me."
Willow shrugged. "All I did was mention that the president owed us a humungous favour."
"Yeah, but you could have asked for anything," Faith said. She averted her gaze with an awkward laugh. "You could have asked for something you wanted."
"I did," Willow said.
Faith stared at Willow, who wore a genuine, if smug, grin. Eyes brighter than usual, the slayer swallowed.
Willow took pity on her. "Hey, it's not like this is a freebie. You earned that pardon and that's exactly what I told General Bryce."
"Thanks, Will." Taking a step forward, Faith reached out to take Willow's hand. Willow would've liked to segue into a hug, but she held back, respecting Faith's boundaries. Instead she squeezed Faith's warm hand in return.
Glancing at Spike, Willow set her hands on her hips. "Don't think that you're getting away without giving me a hug, mister."
Though he moaned and grumbled, Spike obediently hopped off his bike. As they hugged she breathed in the familiar scent of cigarette smoke and leather.
"Tell Buffy I'll see her around, luv," Spike said before pulling away.
Willow smiled, blinking back tears as she watched Spike and Faith straddle their bikes. She couldn't help making a last attempt on Buffy's behalf.
"Spike, are you sure you don't wanna--"
The roar of Spike's motorcycle drowned her out. She shot him an exasperated look, but he merely grinned before peeling out of the parking lot. With a jaunty salute, Faith jammed her helmet on and set off after him.
Willow watched them until they were out of sight and sighed. She hated goodbyes.
"San Francisco, huh?" Buffy said, plopping down on one of the beds. She blinked, her eyes adjusting to the gloomy motel room. For obvious reasons, the drapes were closed against the afternoon sun.
Nodding, Angel sat down on the other bed. "Eventually. I mean, Connor and I need to talk to his 'family' first, but he'll be going back to Stanford in the fall. I wanna stay close for a while and since Giles is assigning slayers to L.A..."
"Yeah, us working with the military. I get goosebumps whenever I think about it."
"The good kind or the bad kind?"
Buffy tilted her head. "Jury's still out."
Angel chuckled. "You can always threaten to sic Willow on them. That oughta keep them in line."
With a nostalgic smile, Buffy remembered the general's face when Willow explained what had happened to the nuke; he'd looked as if he couldn't decide whether to kiss her feet or pee his pants. Good times.
"I don't know what the demon population's like in San Francisco," Angel said, "but I'm sure I could get away for a few weeks." His shoulders tensed. "Maybe even...visit Rome?"
Buffy smiled. "Maybe you'll actually stop and say hello next time."
Angel relaxed, and smiled too. "I'll do that." He gazed down at the patchy maroon carpet. "So you and the Immortal, you're really not..."
He hesitated. "From what Andrew said, it seemed like you were close."
"It was heading that way," she admitted. "He's an interesting guy. Not to mention an incredible kiss--"
"Okay, okay, I get it." Angel swatted the air as if to ward off the mental image. "So what happened?"
"He made the mistake of trying to tell me what to do, or rather what not to do." Buffy gave a rueful shrug. "He thought it was undignified for his girlfriend to go chasing past lovers. Wanted me to let him handle it." She snorted. "As if."
"Oh good." He caught himself. "I mean, sorry...that it didn't work out."
"Yeah, I can see you're real broken up about it."
They smiled at each other, enjoying the moment. After a minute Buffy stood.
"I guess I should let you finish packing," she said.
Angel rose. "I don't have much."
"I know, but..." Buffy made a vague gesture, leaving unsaid that she didn't want this farewell to get any harder.
Angel nodded, understanding. "Right."
He walked her to the door, and as he placed his hand on the knob, she rose on her toes, intending to peck him on the cheek. At least, that's what she thought she'd intended, but whether by his design or hers, her mouth met his cool lips.
She froze. His mouth moved against hers, soft and firm, but he didn't press. Always the gentleman. After a moment Buffy relaxed and kissed him back, sliding her arms around his neck.
Heat spread through her belly and down her legs as his hands stroked her back. She was tempted. Oh boy, was she tempted. But this wasn't the time or the place. Buffy licked his inner lip and regretfully broke the kiss.
Panting, she rested her forehead on his unmoving chest. "Uh, you know what I said about the Immortal being a good kisser? Never mind."
She felt Angel chuckle. Stepping away, she smiled up at him. He wore what could only be described as a cat that ate the canary grin.
He leaned down and kissed her forehead before opening the door, careful to stay in its shadow.
Buffy stood drenched in sunlight. "So I guess I'll be seeing you."
"Definitely," Angel said. As she started to leave he added, "Oh, by the way, tell Xander we're even."
Dazzled by the sunshine, she couldn't make out his expression, but he seemed sheepish. "What are you--" she said.
"It's nothing...important." Angel shuffled his feet. "Just...tell him, okay?"
"Okay." She shook her head as she stepped outside. Men.
Xander grinned when Buffy relayed the message the next morning. "Hah. He wishes."
"What am I missing?" Buffy said as she tossed her backpack into the SUV. She glanced back into the open motel room. "Willow, come on!"
"Oh, it's a man thing. You wouldn't understand," Xander said. "Let's just say that he's going to regret foiling my plans." Twirling an imaginary moustache, he let out an evil laugh that went on and on and on. Half a minute later he caught sight of Buffy's face and stopped. "Too much?"
She lifted her eyebrows. "Ya think?"
Lugging a duffle bag, Willow appeared in the doorway. She looked disappointed. "Oh. I thought I heard your evil genius impression." She shut the motel door and came over to offload her bag. "I'll just drop off the keys. Be back in a sec." She trotted over to the office.
Xander slammed the rear hatch and leaned against the vehicle, his eye on Willow. Nestling beside him, Buffy rested her head against his shoulder.
"Relax, Xan, she's not even leaving the parking lot."
"I know, but she almost..." He swallowed and glared at her, his eye like onyx. "And I wasn't there."
"And you should've been, I know." She looked up at him. "But you don't know what it feels like to know that it was my decision that cost you your eye. I'm sorry, I just couldn't risk you getting hurt again."
He opened his mouth and closed it, then looked away and shook his head. When he looked back his expression was sympathetic. "Okay, I get what you're saying. But you're not my mother, Buffy. I made my choice a long time ago, and if you have any respect for me at all, you need to honour that choice."
Her mouth fell open. Xander goofed around so much she tended to forget what an impressive man he'd grown into. When she didn't answer straight away he cleared his throat expectantly.
Buffy shook herself. "You're right. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..." She took a deep breath and looked Xander in the eye. "I'm sorry."
He stared at her. "Accepted."
"And the next time we risk death and dismemberment, I'll make sure you're right there with us."
Willow exited the office, Giles in tow, and they made their way over.
"Morning," said Giles. "You're ready to go, then?"
"More than ready," Buffy said. "Chomping at the bit...except without the bit."
Xander squinted. "You sure you can handle General Bryce and his band of merry men?"
"I'm sure we'll be fine. Besides, I believe there's a deadline to consider," Giles said, raising his eyebrows at Willow.
She pouted. "I don't think that general liked me."
"Yes, well, I believe that had more to do with your power than your personality."
"You did take out one of their most powerful nukes, Will," Buffy said.
"Still, kicking me out of the country? That's not gratitude. That...that's the opposite of gratitude," Willow said, her voice high and indignant.
Buffy patted her shoulder. "Don't worry. Once they see you haven't levelled Europe to the ground, they'll let you back in."
"You know," Xander said, rubbing his chin, "maybe you should've asked for more free stuff."
"Xander, that wouldn't have been ethical," Willow said.
"This is America. If you can't cash in on saving the world here, where can you?"
Willow eyed the Hawaiian shirt he was wearing. "We got plenty of free stuff, not to mention a presidential pardon. I think we came out ahead."
"Yes," said Giles. "It was very generous of you to put Faith's needs ahead of your own."
"Well, I do kinda owe her. But, more importantly, she deserves it."
Buffy swallowed. "She brought you back."
"No, Buffy," Willow said with a serene smile. "Faith made me listen. You brought me back."
"Really?" Buffy perked up.
"Yep. You reminded me that there are still people in this world that I care about." Willow's eyes flitted to Xander and Giles.
Buffy smiled, looking round at her dearest friends. They were all so busy these days it was rare to be in the same place at the same time. It had been nice while it lasted.
Willow coughed, breaking the spell. "I gotta say, though, I think Faith missed her calling as a motivational speaker."
"She's way scarier than Tony Robbins, that's for sure," Xander said, grinning.
Giles cleared his throat. "Xander, before you leave we need to discuss the Masai slayer you recruited. Apparently she's been giving Rona quite the headache."
"Sure thing, Boss Man."
"Xander, if I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times, don't call me..."
The two men strolled away, deep in conversation.
Buffy's gaze drifted to the spot where Spike's motorcycle had been parked. "I can't believe he left without saying goodbye."
Willow shuffled to the SUV and propped herself next to Buffy. "I think he was feeling hurt...you know, cause you were being all avoidy."
Buffy made a face. "I didn't know what to say."
"Okay, but you still owed him a little one-on-one time. Buffy, this was the first time you'd seen each other since he died."
"I was working my way up to it," Buffy said. Willow gave her a knowing look. "I know, I know, I'm a cowardy custard. But how was I to know he was just gonna take off. And with Faith!"
"Jealous?" Willow said with a toothy grin.
"Shut up," Buffy said, pouting.
Willow chuckled. "Well, he knows where to find you. And if you ever wanna find him, you've got your handy dandy Spike detector."
Buffy raised a quizzical eyebrow.
"Me," Willow said.
"Right," Buffy said, nodding. "Cause of the magic."
"That's what I'm known for." Willow frowned. "Buffy, are you okay?"
"Why wouldn't I be?" she said in a casual tone.
"Cause the last couple weeks you've been walking around with this intense look on your face, like you're trying to use your heat vision or something. I figured you'd talk to me when you were ready, but..."
Buffy glanced at Xander and Giles; their animated discussion didn't look to be ending any time soon. She took a deep breath and pushed off the SUV to face Willow.
"You're right," Buffy said. "Something has been bugging me."
"Is it Spike?" Willow scrutinised her. "Or Angel? It's not Xander, is it? Cause I know he's been ups--"
"It's you, Will."
Her eyes widened. "Me?"
"That night in L.A...you really scared me."
Shifting her shoulders, Willow shot a nervous glance at Xander and Giles. "Well, that kinda comes with the territory, Buff."
Buffy shook her head. "It's not how close you came to dying, it's how close you came to giving up."
Willow bit her lip. "It didn't feel that way. It felt like...like I was doing a good thing. I mean, I tried to destroy the world. That's a lot to make up for." She shrugged. "I guess I went a bit overboard."
Buffy nodded in sympathy. She hesitated. "So this wasn't about Tara?"
"No," Willow said with a sad smile. "I still miss her, I always will, but...I'm moving on. I think it's what she would've wanted."
"I think you're right." Buffy rested her hand on Willow's shoulder. After a moment she said, "And for what it's worth, I think what you did here earned you about a gazillion Brownie points."
Willow brightened. "Thanks, Buffy."
Buffy smiled back. Everyone she loved was safe, and it looked like it was going to be a beautiful day.
Life was sweet.
Bertha was having a crappy day, and it wasn't even noon. First Maria had called in sick, leaving them short a staff member, then her supervisor had taken off for a long lunch (translation: she was at a motel boinking the lover her husband didn't know about). To top it all off, John had called to cancel their date tonight.
So when two young women came in to return a car, or as it turned out, to not return a car, Bertha was not happy.
"You lost the car?" she said.
The redhead nodded.
"You mean it was stolen?"
"Nope," the blonde said.
Bertha sighed. Why her? "How in God's name do you lose a car?"
"You wouldn't believe us if we told you." The blonde woman examined her fingernails. "What does it matter? We're covered by the insurance, right?"
Grinding her teeth, Bertha gathered the necessary forms. "Fill these out," she said to the redhead, who accepted the proffered pen with a nervous smile.
While the redhead filled out the paperwork, the blonde treated Bertha to a vapid smile. As soon as the young woman had signed everything, Bertha snatched the forms away and checked them over.
"So...we're done?" said the redhead.
"Yes," Bertha said, inwardly adding "you brainless bimbos".
As if she'd read her mind, the blonde responded with an amused look. "Great. Thanks a bunch."
"Yeah, thanks," said the redhead. "Um, sorry 'bout the car."
Bertha stopped herself from rolling her eyes. "Right." She plastered a fake smile on her face. "Have a nice day."
The pair turned and walked away in the direction of the departure terminals. Watching them go, Bertha saw the blonde put her arm around the redhead's waist.
"You know, Will, there's something I've been meaning to give you," the blonde said, slipping her hand beneath the other girl's waistband.
As they rounded a corner Bertha heard a loud yelp.
Bertha pursed her lips. So they were one of those couples. Shaking her head, she filed the paperwork away.
A/N: Thanks for reading, everyone, especially those of you who've been reading this story since I posted the very first chapter. It's been a long journey, I know. Huge thanks to everyone who reviewed, I can't tell you how much I appreciated your comments.