Spoilers: Very general, up to season 5.
Disclaimer: Buffy characters, plus a couple of quotes in here, belong to Joss Whedon and the BtVS team.
This is the way the world ends.
Giles and Wesley, books held high, chanting together. Willow and Tara, linking hands. The spell. The light. The Hellmouth. Always the Hellmouth.
Xander and Angel, side by side at last. Crossbows. Swords. The light. The Hellmouth.
Screams, shouts. Steel, magic. Eyes. Angel's eyes. Fear, love, acceptance, peace. The light. The Hellmouth.
Wesley. Faith. Cordelia. Oz. Xander. Giles. Willow. Angel. Angel...
This is the way the world ends.
Buffy rolls off the hard bed and onto her feet. She's already dressed. She straps on her sword, reaches for the crossbow and checks it's loaded. Nothing can get in here. She checks it anyway.
The nightmares linger; they always do. It's been seven years, and the nightmares linger.
It's the end of the world. Everyone dies. It's rather important really.
She leaves her room and walks through the mansion. Checking, always checking. Checking who didn't come home last night.
Raven, asleep in the corner, dagger in hand. A pretty girl, fourteen years old. Not a child. No children anymore.
A young man with an arm in a sling. He smiles, says her name. She nods back. She doesn't remember his name. They come and go. All of them, come and go. No one stays for long.
Down in the weapons room, two young men spar with swords. One of them looks a bit like Xander, floppy hair, the start of a moustache. Their swordsmanship is weak. She can't teach them; what she has, no one else can learn. If she sends them out to fight, they'll die. She knows she'll send them out anyway.
It's gone dawn, but the sun hasn't risen over the horizon. The sun doesn't rise anymore. The sun doesn't rise, so it doesn't matter that he isn't back. He'll be back.
Gemma sits with her candles and her books. Her magic is tiny; the barest fraction of the power Willow, Tara, Giles had at their command. Her magic is all they have left. The wards Willow drew in the last hours keep the darkness at bay - one day the wards will fail. And what Gemma calls magic won't be enough.
Nowadays every girl with a henna tattoo and a spice rack thinks she's a sister to the dark ones.
A commotion, the main doors. Is he back? No. Two more young men, nameless, featureless. Just people. But then the cry, the only cry that matters.
Human survivor. A man, alive. Brought in from the darkness. The others rush forwards, something like hope stirring again. Buffy just watches. Hope doesn't stir for her anymore.
He's cut up badly. What hurt him? He doesn't know. Not a vampire. Hardly any vampires anymore. Hardly any people for vampires to feed on.
The man is sick, he's raving. They bind his wounds, and he sleeps. Perhaps he'll live. Probably he won't.
They crowd around the sick man, and Buffy counts bodies. Fourteen. More than the Scooby Gang; but these aren't Scoobies. They're not even soldiers. They're just the last of the resistance movement.
Nine went out last night. Six came back. Perhaps the others will. Perhaps not. But he'll be back. He always is. Everyone else comes and goes, but he always comes back. The only constant.
Time to patrol. Always time to patrol, now. No college, no job, no daytime life. No more Buffy Summers; just Buffy, the Slayer. Just the Slayer.
...no weapons, no friends, no hope... Take all that away, and what's left?
She checks her stake, her crossbow, her sword. She has the cross necklace, the one that Angel gave her. She wears his claddagh ring, his jacket. Angel is always with her. The others fade, no matter how tightly she screws up her eyes and tries to remember, but Angel is always with her.
Are you mad at me for being around too much, or for not being around enough?
As she leaves the safety of the mansion, she looks at the photograph. It stands by the doorway, to remind her. A picture of a fairytale world, a story she used to know once where the sun shone and the monsters could be beaten and people were still there when you woke in the morning.
...the good guys are always stalwart and true, the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies, and everybody lives happily ever after.
Lie to me, Giles. Lie to me.
She stares into the photograph as the door swings shut, burning the faces into her mind. The faces of her imaginary friends in that perfect world she dreamed about once. She still dreams those faces, every night, every day. She still hears those voices. But they don't smile anymore, and they don't laugh. All they ever do is scream.
This isn't some fairytale. When I kiss you, you don't wake up from a deep sleep and live happily ever after.
This, this is the real world. The night, the dark, the monsters. Patrol. Here at last, she can simply be; simply be the Slayer, momentarily freed from the ghost of that other Buffy, the one who used to be.
She steps outside, away from the wards. Hunts the monsters.
...werewolves. Zombies. Succubi. Incubi. Everything you ever dreaded was under your bed and told yourself couldn't be by the light of day.
They're all out here. She'd rather face the monsters that live outside than the ghosts that live inside.
Who knows what she'll meet? The books are nearly all gone. There are no more Watchers. Funny how you never knew you needed them until they were gone.
You have no respect for me, or the job I perform.
The injury almost comes as a relief. The demon cuts her, she bleeds. Part of her just wants to keep bleeding, keep on bleeding until everything goes away. Until all the pain goes away.
If she dies, they die. They can't survive without her. It doesn't matter if she lives or dies; it matters if they do. They're innocent people.
No such animal.
She stumbles home, stumbles back to the mansion. Once it was where the evil vampires gathered to plot. Now it's the last refuge of the resistance against the darkness. The world is inside out.
Very inside out. As she staggers back inside, she has no eyes for her injury, for the worried people that crowd around her. She's only looking for him. Is he back?
These are good people. They're fighting the good fight. They should be the ones she turns to, the ones she leans on. But they come and go, and she barely knows their names. So she leans on him. Not because she should, not because it's right, but because he's the only constant. He's the only one that always comes back.
He's not back.
They drag her to the infirmary, insist on treating her wounds. Why should they bother? She's the Slayer. She'll heal. The only scars she carries are the ones on the inside.
She doesn't know how long she sits. It's the same all the time. The nights are a swarm of nightmares; the days are nothing, disappearing while she doesn't even notice. She only stirs when the main doors slam back on their hinges. He's back.
Two people went with him last night. He's back. They're not. She doesn't know how to feel when she realises she doesn't even care. She's lost them as people; they're just soldiers to her now. They're just there to fight, and to die.
You're waging a war, she's fighting it. There is a difference.
He finds her instantly. He only has eyes for her. He takes her injured arm, gently. Why is he gentle? He shouldn't be gentle.
Those incredible blue eyes fix on hers, worried, questioning. 'Soulful' is the word she wants to use, but they're not. There's no soul behind them.
A vampire isn't a person at all. It may have the movements, the memories, even the personality of the person that it took over, but it's still a demon at the core; there is no halfway.
She looks into those eyes, and tries to see what lies behind them. What makes them shine? What is it that animates his face, draws it into a look of compassion, tenderness, concern? What is that thing that looks like love, but can't be?
She shouldn't need that, that almost-love, that false thing. That emotion that she knows isn't real, but looks real, sounds real, feels real. She shouldn't let his fingers slide down from her injury to close around her own hand, squeeze briefly in a gesture of closeness. She shouldn't sit there and know that the only one who keeps her going is the one who should matter least to her.
She shouldn't trust him. She shouldn't lean on him. She shouldn't rely on him.
But he's the only one who ever comes back.