Chapter Twenty-Six

Epilogue

When Spike's desperate sobs finally began to subside, Tara pushed him gently away from her, to inspect his injuries. She was horrified by the condition he was in. His exposed chest and stomach were a mass of severe burns caused by the holy water, and bleeding in places where the burns had been aggravated by Buffy's nails. He was bruised and battered and barely able to stand on his own.

"We need to get you taken care of," she told him gently, bestowing a gentle caress on his tear-soaked cheek as she looked into his eyes. "I teleported here; there's no way you can walk the whole way home." She paused. "I need to call Xander."

Quite dazed and a bit disoriented after the evening's chaotic events, Spike said softly (and a bit randomly), "Buffy broke your phone."

"What?"

He gestured toward the shattered bits of plastic and metal near where he had been chained. Seeing his meaning, Tara's eyes softened and filled with tears again at the thought of what he had gone through in this room. "We need to go upstairs," she said softly. This would be a place of painful memories for them both for a long time.

Spike's wide eyes came to rest on Buffy. "Is – is she…?" his voice trailed off.

Gently untangling herself from his clinging arms, Tara stood up, holding out a hand in a gesture for him to stay there. They had defeated Reyem; Buffy was no longer a danger to either of them, but she still felt a defensive urge to protect him. She went to Buffy and felt her throat for a pulse. Buffy still did not move, but her pulse was strong and steady.

"She's alive," Tara said with relief. "Just…knocked out." She smiled sheepishly. Just like an evil demon, she thought. Reyem had used Buffy to do his damage, and then left her to suffer the consequences – in the form of angry-witch-inflicted bruises and other injuries.

In spite of the fact that they both knew the danger had passed, leaving Spike here in the basement with Buffy, unconscious or not, was simply not an option. Carefully Tara helped him to his feet, and they made their slow, painful way up the stairs to the kitchen.

Two hours later, the uncharacteristically subdued Scoobie gang was gathered in Buffy's living room. Xander sat in the recliner, his head leaned wearily against the back of it. Anya sat on the arm of the chair, making a comforting fuss over his injuries. Tara had long since tended to Spike's injuries, treated and bandaged his many burns and cuts; and now she sat at one end of the couch, his head in her lap as he slept. Dawn leaned against the foot of the sofa in front of them, her little hand tightly clasping Spike's, as if she was afraid he was going somewhere.

Willow sat at the foot of the stairs, her head in her hands. She had not passed out when the ritual was completed – of course, she had not been magically punched by an uber-witch, either – but she had been terribly confused at first, unsure as to everything, even her own identity and that of those around her. That passed after a few minutes, and she remembered who she was, but not what had happened. The last several months were a blur to her, and she was unable to make sense of what the others were telling her.

Then, in an instant, her memories came flooding back. All the things she had done to her friends, to Tara, over the past few months. Oh, God! She wanted to sob, but it seemed selfish to her. She had hurt them all so badly. And they tried to reassure her, told her it wasn't her fault, it was that thing that had been inside her. But the truth that none of them dared to speak, that she could not deny, was that she had willingly taken that thing inside her.

And through her, it had tried to kill Dawn, injured Xander, and Tara…oh God, Tara! She remembered clearly her violations of her former lover's mind, repeated offenses even after Tara had pleaded with her not to do it. She had hurt so many people, caused so much damage. And that was not even considering Buffy.

She still had not awakened.

They had somehow managed to get her up the stairs to her bedroom and lay her down. Her breathing and pulse were still strong and steady; she almost seemed to be asleep. They assured themselves that she would be all right, she would wake up soon.

Someone should be with her, Tara thought. But the problem was, who? Obviously not Spike, even if he had been awake. The knowledge that his abuser had not really been Buffy did not really take away the massive trauma still associated with the currently still form in the bed upstairs. The same went for Dawn. Though she had claimed she just wanted to stay with Spike, Tara knew that Dawn did not want to be alone with her sister. Xander was injured himself, and Anya refused to leave him. And Willow seemed to be in a sort of trance – traumatized herself by the realization of the destruction she had caused. And Tara could not do it herself, either. Spike needed her, desperately, and she refused to leave his side for any reason until she was sure that he felt safe.

So Buffy slept on, alone in her bed, with no one to tend her. Occasionally, upon someone's request, Anya dutifully went up to check on her, coming back to report the lack of any change. But the truth was, none of them wanted to stay with her. Tara actually began to feel a bit of sympathy for Buffy, wondering what things would be like for her when she awoke, when she remembered the cruel, terrible things she had done. Would she be able to remember everything she had done?

Would they ever be able to forget?

Anya went upstairs to use the bathroom and to check on Buffy again, just as the phone rang. Reluctantly, Dawn got up to answer it. But when she heard the warm, safe, familiar voice on the other end of the line, she nearly jumped up and down with excitement. And then she burst into tears.

After a brief tearful conversation, in which the caller assured her that everything would be all right, and she was safe now, and he would be there soon, Dawn hung up the phone, returning immediately to her place by Tara and Spike.

"That was Giles," she informed them. "He's coming in at 3:00 on Monday."

There were mixed sounds and words of relief at her statement. Sometimes they all felt like they were still children, and the thought of a "grown-up" to come and help handle the enormous, unbearable aftermath of this situation was extremely comforting.

Suddenly, Anya came tearing back down the stairs, her eyes wide with shock and panic.

"She's gone!" she gasped as she reached the living room. "Buffy is gone!"