They fought the influx of demons for three days before Willow and her coven managed to close the inter-dimensional portal. Three days where Buffy divided her time between commanding a legion of slayers--rotating them so everyone was fresh and alert, arranging medical support and food, and keeping the world safe, all with minimal casualties--and fighting the endless fray of demons. Buffy danced, her sword a blur, carving a path through the demonic army. She was forty-two years old and still a force to be reckoned with.

Buffy actually found the fighting strangely relaxing. She'd gotten stronger and faster, her senses honing to razor sharpness as the years progressed. While Faith had experienced the changes as well, though to a slightly lesser extent, the slayerettes born of Willow's hellmouth spell seemed to plateau at twenty and mature slowly after that. But Buffy continued getting stronger; at first is was slow, but now she seemed to be getting stronger with every day that passed. There wasn't anyone she could spar with any more, not at full strength. She healed minor injuries in a matter of minutes, and major ones with in a day. Short of cutting off her head or cutting out her heart, Buffy Summers no longer received mortal injuries. It was amazing how much one enjoyed a good brawl when survival was a sure bet.

Buffy's thoughts were interrupted when she suddenly found herself without any thing to fight. The ground was charred and sickly where the intense influx of dark magic used to open the giant portal had destroyed the earth. Buffy turned and watched as her slayers began surrounding the last remnants of the enemy, surrounding them, cutting off any means of escape. Her critical and well trained eye saw the group's weak points, pleased that most of them were quickly filled and shored up, as well as individual differences. Buffy felt an incredible weight lift from her shoulders. She smiled in satisfaction; her kids were ready. She slowly made her way to their base camp, taking time to reexamine the last twenty years of her life.

It had taken almost four months for the impact of Sunnydale's destruction to really hit her. The move to Europe, helping Giles reform the Council (albeit with a few major changes), and searching out new slayers had kept her busy in the immediate aftermath. But as soon as she and Dawn had relocated to Rome, she'd had nowhere to hide, nothing to distract her. She'd been in the training room one day, taking the day's frustrations out on her punching bag, when the kicks and punches had turned vicious. She'd decimated the bag and proceeded to tear up the entire room. Drywall and plaster lay scattered on the floor, the walls taking the brunt of her intense anger. When she'd finally collapsed in a sobbing heap, the room had been beyond saving. At some point Dawn had come in and held her, comforting her older sister whose heart had been broken for so long. And Dawn's heart broke right along with her.

They'd never talked about that day; there were no words that could do justice to the memory of the man they'd lost to the Hellmouth. But the understanding was there, and Buffy had woken up to Dawn crawling into her bed late at night on more than one occasion...just as Buffy had done to her. They weathered the Scooby's barrage of well meant suggestions, including not-so-subtlety setting Buffy up with "friends." She'd politely spurned them all, becoming increasingly frustrated with their growing attempts and stern disapproval. The final straw had been the time Giles had called her up specifically to ensure she was moving on.

And so, in a ridiculously childish move, Buffy had 'moved on' to the Immortal. As soon as the news hit the demon grapevine, Giles had called up demanding to know what the bloody hell she thought she was doing, cavorting with the Immortal of all people. She'd calmly informed him that she was moving on as he requested and had hung up, refusing to take his calls for a month after. Willow had actually flown in from England, Resolve Face firmly in place, and been calmly informed by Dawn that Buffy was out on a date, and wasn't expected back for several days. Buffy had watched Willow's Resolve Face shift into Fish Face from the upstairs window. Xander hadn't been in contact with anyone for almost eight months at that time, relocating somewhere in the Midwest last Buffy had heard. The travesty with the Immortal had lasted three months to the day. Buffy felt that was a sufficient length of time to drive her point well and truly home.

And then she'd learned about Spike and the Black Thorne. She'd had all the Slayers and fighters she could muster on their way to L.A. in two hours when the warning had come in. They'd made it there in time to clean up the demons that had slipped by the L.A. gang. They found a strange blue creature named Illyria who had recounted the battle without emotion, except when she mentioned Wesley's rather brutal end. But Buffy had been numb to it all; Spike had been alive. For months, he'd been here on Earth, and she had been none the wiser, wasting her time foolishly revenge-dating the Immortal...when she could have been with HIM.

It had taken a long time for her to forgive him for his apparent betrayal, a long time of searching for wisdom and acceptance. She'd spent a long time just being angry. She was mad that he had left her--twice she emphasized in her more vengeful moods--mad that he hadn't told her he was back, mad that he had gone into a fight their little army could not possibly have won...but mostly mad at herself for all that she had put him through; for lost time, for making him feel he couldn't tell her where he was, what he was doing, and that he couldn't trust her to respect his choice. But she'd finally realized that he had the right to make his own decisions, and he had chosen to save the world over her--again. And she forgave him while spiraling into a destructive self-hatred.

It took much longer and a great deal more pain for Buffy to forgive herself, and to truly understand that it wasn't just her decisions that kept them apart, but Spike's as well. Learning to live with the pain--for it had never gone away; time doesn't heal all wounds, though it does teach you to live with them--was a harder lesson, one she wasn't sure she had perfected yet. There were still some nights when she awoke with an ache in her chest only Spike could have soothed, but she made it through them, because there were still things she needed to do before she could rest.

She had reformed the council, placing Giles at its head. A little of Willow's computer magic and they had access to the Council funds. Buffy smiled as she remembered the temper tantrum she'd thrown when she saw the numerous bank accounts, each with well over a million dollars each, ranting about salaries and stingy British wankers. The first thing she'd done was order Giles set up a stipend for each slayer. He'd shown her some complicated equation the accountants had come up with that rewarded 'years in service' but still left every slayer a fair amount of money each month. It also left Buffy a hell of a lot of cash in back payments.

With the council under good management, Buffy had set about structuring her army. She'd personally hand picked and trained ten protégés, ages ranging from sixteen to twenty-four, to be her generals, her personal eyes and ears wherever they were sent. At least, that's what she had told them and the rest of the world. None of them could guess their real function, why she had really trained them. But they would. Soon.

But that wasn't her concern anymore; she'd trained them, and well at that. But it was over, done. She had averted her last apocalypse, and it was Time. She'd known the day she woke up, prepared for battle. Her budy had hummed, and she'd felt the anticipation on the air. Buffy took one last look around the camp, tents and supplies disappearing at a surprising rate now that the battle was over. Dawn was the only person standing apart, the activity flowing around her. When Buffy was close, she pulled her unresisting sister into a giant bear hug, refusing to let go. Buffy closed her eyes and savored the feeling as, one by one, the most important people in her life surrounded her.

Giles, old and grey, leaned heavily on a table, his eyes tired. He was, in every every way but blood, her father. And they'd both shed enough together for that not to matter. They'd hit some rough patches over the years, but Giles was the only father she'd ever really known. She was glad he was here; the others would need him.

And there was Willow. Buffy's bubbly, effusive, geeky best friend had developed into a powerful witch, self-assured and commanding. She was a priestess of her coven, well respected and liked by all. She was being trained by the current High Priest to succeed him in leading the coven.

Faith and Robin Wood had been married some nine years now. Though they had never intended to get married, but both got exceedingly drunk one night in Vegas and ended up being ushered into wedded bliss by an Elvis-impersonating Martian. Buffy's only thought on the entire matter had been that Spike would have thought it incredibly fitting for the sultry dark-haired slayer. Faith, with the stabilizing influence of Robin, had turned out to be an extremely effective general and teacher. Buffy had been glad that the younger slayer had finally found her place in the world, no longer feeling like she lived in her elder's shadow. As a wedding gift to the new couple, Buffy had made peace with Robin soon after.

Buffy looked at her inner circle, a small smile on her face. She clasped Dawn's hand as tightly as she dared, seeking strength. Buffy turned slightly misty eyes to her sister. Dawn had grown up into a drop-dead gorgeous woman. Her blue eyes and dark looks, long legs and killer body had drawn many an admiring eye. But she had fallen for a young collegiate boy named Conner, who had put off his senior year at UCLA to travel Europe. The two had met at a discotheque in Rome and hadn't looked back. Connor had finished his degree early, and then moved to Rome to be with the youngest Summers. The two had four children with no plans to stop yet. Their third child, and first boy, had been named William. Dawn was her only misgiving, her only regret, despite the fact that Buffy knew, of all her friends gathered here today, she would have the easiest time; Dawn had helped Buffy come to terms with her knowledge, and her own destiny.

"You'll make sure the letters go out?" Buffy could hear the tears in her voice, and Dawn's own eyes were suspiciously moist. Her sister simply nodded, unable to trust her own voice. "Good. Don't forget to wave." The attempt at levity only produced a strangled, sobbing laugh from the brunette.

"I love you," Dawn whispered, her voice thick with emotion. The others gathered around their general wondered at the display of emotion. Giles felt his stomach sink; something was off with his slayer. Buffy turned and looked at her friends one last time.

"Bye, guys. I love you." And she finally, finally, got to rest.

Buffy watched her friend's reactions, wishing she could do something more to ease their pain. Willow ran over to her limp body, crying and pleading with her; Giles was frozen, the shock and loss evident on his deeply lined face. Robin was gently lowering a shaking Faith to the ground, though he, too, looked like he was having trouble processing the most recent turn of events. The greatest slayer in history didn't just...die. Not without a mark on her, in perfect health, and a premeditated good bye.

Dawn looked up, and for a disconcerting moment Buffy thought she could actually see her. With a sad grin, she waved cheekily, and Buffy knew they'd all be OK. Strong arms banded about her waist, and for the first time in years, Buffy felt peace.

"'allo, luv."