When Faith returned, Buffy grabbed her for a few seconds. "Tonight, I want you to take Will next door. She needs someplace quiet."
"She needs you," Faith said pointedly.
"Not tonight," Buffy said, and walked away. Faith let her.
Faith went upstairs and packed her bag. She found Willow's in the closet and put it beside hers on the bed. Then she sat, sighing. The decision being made didn't make her thoughts of what was to come any easier. Still, she wanted to do this one thing, to make the right decision on her own, without guilt or coercion or concern for her own self-interest.
She knew she would take Willow out of the house tonight, because Buffy asked, and because Willow would need the time alone to go over everything obsessively. Faith could feel Willow's anxiety without having to see her.
Her own voice startled her. "I told you, she's yours."
"Just go away," Faith said flatly without looking up.
"I'm going to kill them, and you're going to watch. Everything you thought was good and pure and noble is gonna be washed away in an ocean of blood. You better make sure you're not caught in the undertow."
The door opened, and the First Evil disappeared before Willow entered the room.
"There you are."
Faith looked up and smiled. "I was gettin' my stuff."
"Yeah, I need to do that, too."
"I'da done it all ready, but," Faith shrugged. "Anyway, it's gonna be crazy here tonight. You wanna slip out, go someplace quiet?"
"Where?" Willow asked cautiously.
"Next door. Houses are empty. Unless you want an audience," Faith teased.
Willow blushed. "No, uh, I'm not big on exhibitionism." She went to her dresser and removed a handful of underwear and bras. Faith held her bag open so she could drop them in easily.
They didn't talk while Willow gathered the things she wanted to take. Faith watched while she carefully rolled a large crystal in a blue shirt and placed it in the center of her bag. Willow added other clothing around it, then went around her room and removed photos from their frames and put them in the bag. She disappeared into the bathroom and came back with her shower kit. She closed the bag and looked at Faith. "Just need my computer."
"I'll get it," Faith volunteered, and picked up their bags. Willow followed her downstairs. Faith put their bags by the door and went to get Willow's laptop.
Dinner was the usual madhouse. Faith stood beside Willow at the counter and quietly urged her to eat, but Willow picked at her food. Faith finished eating, and went into the refrigerator. She pulled out sandwich fixings and made half a dozen sandwiches. They went into a plastic bag, and she searched the cupboards, grinning when she found one unopened bag of chips. She grabbed them and the bag of sandwiches and slipped out the back door.
Faith checked the houses on either side of Buffy's and chose the one with the most comfortable bed. She put the chips on the counter in the kitchen and the sandwiches in the refrigerator, which was empty except for canned drinks, before going in search of the bed linens. Then she stripped the bed and remade it with fresh sheets.
That done, she slipped out and got their bags from Buffy's porch. She put them in the bedroom before leaving again.
Willow was still in the kitchen, pushing food around her plate. Buffy was beside her, talking in a low voice. Faith saw Willow nod as she neared, and watched Buffy kiss her cheek before turning away.
Buffy nodded at Faith, and Faith nodded back, before Buffy stepped away. Faith slid in beside Willow. "You're not done?"
Willow sighed. "I'm done."
"All right. C'mon, we'll get outta here."
Willow nodded and let Faith leave her away.
Faith let Willow go over the spell for two hours before she closed the laptop.
"You know it."
"But what if I miss a word or something?"
"You won't," Faith said firmly. She took the computer and put it on one of the bedside tables, then scooted behind Willow. She massaged Willow's shoulders, working her way toward her neck, then back out and down. Willow sighed as the tension left, and when Faith finished, leaned back against her.
"You're welcome." Faith moved Willow's hair and began kissing her neck.
Willow sighed again, then turned to catch Faith's lips. They shared several kisses before Willow pulled away. "Promise me you'll be careful tomorrow."
"I'll be careful," Faith murmured, and leaned in again.
Faith stopped and looked Willow in the eye. "I promise. You too. Do your thing and get outside."
"Good," Faith said decisively. "No more heavy talk. Only thing I wanna hear from you is 'don't stop.'"
Willow giggled, then shifted again and straddled Faith's thighs. As she moved to kiss Faith, she made a conscious decision to focus on the moment. For once, the little voice in her head let her.
Buffy lay in her bed and stared at the ceiling. She listened as the voices throughout the house faded into silence, leaving her the last one awake. She tried not to think about Willow and Faith, or what might happen tomorrow.
She'd done what she told the others to do: pack a bag and prepare weapons. She'd gone upstairs early, and sat at the desk she hadn't used in months, and wrote letters she hoped would never be read. They were on the top of her bag, just in case. Their plans were set. There was nothing to do now except sleep.
Giles sat in his favorite chair, his second glass of scotch on the table beside him. A stack of old albums was on his stereo, replaying his life as they dropped onto the turntable.
This life wasn't at all what he'd planned. It wasn't even what his father planned, although he'd followed the old man into the family business. His father had been thrilled when he was assigned a Slayer. His mother warned him, obliquely, of the heartache ahead, but Giles brushed her warnings aside. He was sorry when he couldn't go back and apologize to her for his disregard.
Giles was proud of his Slayer, and prouder of her friends. Her family. His family. The children would make anyone proud. Buffy, unwavering in her duty; Willow, who found a way to become a power to balance the Slayer's own; Xander, who had nothing except the heart of a champion and unshakeable belief in Buffy. The three of them found a way to keep the world spinning on its axis, and asked for nothing in return.
In the morning, they would set out once more, returning to the place where they first joined forces. There was a welcome sort of symmetry in that. The older he got, the more Giles appreciated the cosmic irony that seemed to rule his life.
He'd seen this coming for months, and his bookshelves were bare. The few volumes that hadn't been shipped far away for storage were on Buffy's dining room table. He planned to pick them up in his last sweep of that place.
Another album fell onto the turntable, followed by the quiet scratch of the needle into the grooves. Giles drank his scotch and stared into space and tried to not think about what they would face tomorrow.
Buffy took one last look around the first floor. It looked nothing like the house her mother moved them into almost eight years ago. It barely looked like a house. Still, it was full of memories.
A loud horn got her attention, and Buffy turned for the door. She didn't bother to lock it this time. Win or lose, there was nothing of any real value in there. Everything she treasured was on the school bus she walked toward. Scythe in hand, she smiled while boarding.
The drive was only a few minutes. They disembarked and entered the school quietly. When everyone was inside, Buffy started giving orders. "OK, potentials, in the basement. Follow Faith and Spike. Kennedy, you too."
As they went by, Xander said, "If you have to go to the bathroom, it's to your left. If you don't have to go to the bathroom, picture what you're about to face. Better to go now."
Buffy ignored him and turned to Willow. She pointed at a door. "Principal's office is through there. It's right over the seal." She nodded at Xander.
"We got all the entrances blocked yesterday, so don't mind the explosions," he grinned. "They're on timers," he added, and checked his watch. "We got half an hour left, so we should get moving."
"Xander, I want you and Dawn with Willow."
Dawn nodded and took Willow's bag. She headed for the office without saying anything.
"I want you three here in case anything decides to come in," Buffy told Giles, Anya, and Andrew.
"We will defend it with our very lives," Andrew said solemnly.
"Yes," Anya agreed, "we will defend it with his very life."
"And don't be afraid to use him as a human shield," Xander told her.
"Good, yes," she nodded. "Thanks."
"I just want to say how proud I am to die for this very special cause with you guys," Andrew said. He pulled a folded piece of paper from his pocket and began to read. "There's some, um, there's people I'd like to thank, both good and evil. Um, a shout out to my brother Tucker, who gave me the inspiration to summon demons and also"
Anya poked him. "Nobody cares, you little monkey," she said, and pulled him away.
Buffy looked from Giles to Xander to Willow. The silence between them stretched into half a minute before Buffy broke it. "So, what do you guys want to do tomorrow?"
"Nothing strenuous," Willow said.
"Well, mini-golf is always the first thing that comes to mind," Xander opined.
"I think we can do better than that," Giles said.
"I was thinking about shopping," Buffy told them, then grinned. "As per usual."
"Oh! There's an Arden B. in the new mall!" Willow said.
"I could use a few items," Xander added.
"Well, now aren't we gonna discuss this? Save the world to go to the mall?" Giles asked.
"I'm having a wicked shoe craving," Buffy shrugged.
"Aren't you on the patch?" Xander asked.
"Those never work," Willow told him.
"Here I am, invisible to the eye," Giles said.
Xander, Willow, and Buffy turned toward the office without Giles.
"See, I need a new look," Xander said. "It's this whole eye patch thing."
"Oh, you could go with full black secret agent look," Buffy suggested.
"Or the puffy shirt, pirate slash," Willow began.
Giles looked at them and sighed. "The earth is definitely doomed."
Buffy, Xander and Willow entered the principal's office. "Dawn," Buffy said softly.
Dawn looked up at her. "No," she said firmly. "Anything you say is gonna sound like goodbye." She returned to her task.
Willow and Xander looked at her, and Buffy nodded. "See you later," she told them, and walked out, pulling the door closed behind her.
She walked quickly through the empty halls. The others were waiting for her around the Seal of Danzalthar. Buffy stepped into the only open space, beside Faith. Faith handed her a knife. "You first, B."
Buffy took a deep breath and took the knife. She drew it across her palm and handed the knife, keeping her cut palm up for the moment. Faith sliced her palm and handed the knife to Kennedy. They passed it until the knife was returned to Buffy's hand, then turned their bleeding palms toward the seal.
After a few seconds, it glowed and began changing. When it finished, they looked at the stairway into the Hellmouth. Buffy started down it without hesitation, and the others fell in behind her.
Xander watched intently as Dawn finished lighting candles. Willow sat cross-legged in the circle Dawn drew around her, the scythe on the floor in front of her.
"They should be in place," Willow said nervously. She placed her sweaty palms on her knees and looked at Dawn and Xander. "OK, magic time."
"You can do it," Xander reassured her.
"You know what to do if I go dark?" she asked him.
"Good. Fun. Great. Brace yourself." She wiped her palms down her thighs one more time and began the spell.
Faith looked down at the amulet, then to Buffy. "Are you sure this thing works?" she asked. "Cause right now, it's just bein' ugly."
"I'm not worried," Buffy answered casually.
"I'm getting zero juice here, and I look like Elizabeth Taylor," Faith complained.
"Cheer up, Liz," Kennedy said. "Willow's big spell doesn't work, it won't matter what you wear."
They walked to the edge of the cliff at the far edge of the cavern and looked down. Thousands of Turok-Han were mobbing, growling, spitting, and howling.
"I'm not worried," Buffy said, but Kennedy and Faith backed up. "I'm not worried," she repeated calmly.
"Really? 'Cause I'm flashing back to Xander's whole bathroom speech," Rona said.
"I'm not worried," Buffy repeated for the third time, then added, "as long as Willow can work her spell before they see us."
The Turok-Han rushed toward the cliff, but no one moved.
"Willow," Buffy said quietly, placing all her hope in that one word.
Willow held the scythe loosely in her hands while she recited the spell. Power rushed through her as the scythe began to glow. That glow spread up her arms and through her body, suffusing her with white light.
"Oh. My. Goddess," Willow breathed. It was like coming up from the deep end of the pool and taking a long-needed breath. It was like waking up from her darkest nightmare. It was being reborn and coming alive and feeling every good thing, every beginning, every sunrise ever. The stains on her psyche and the fear of going evil were gone. That would never happen. Her soul was her own again, and her cobbled-together heart was whole.
Dawn and Xander watched silently, recognizing that they were in the presence of good every bit as old and strong as the First Evil that strained to rise from the Hellmouth. That power leaked outside the circle and suffused them, as well.
Willow remained with her head thrown back, breathing heavily as she struggled to remain in control of the feedback she received from the universe. Much of it came from this world, her world, as girls woke up and shook off the heavy covering over their Slayerness. They became something more than they had ever imagined, and the wonder and awe and sheer joy of it made them giddy, and Willow shone brighter for it.
The Turok-Han believed they would massacre the girls in their way.
They were wrong.
Every demon that came over the cliff met a Slayer. They fought without thinking, their bodies reflexively moving them through the motions of combat. A few seconds into it, they began to smile, understanding for the first time Buffy's steely confidence and Faith's self-assured swagger. Dust filled the air. There was too much motion for it to begin to settle, and the battle went on.
The light faded and Willow offered the scythe to Dawn. "Take this to Buffy."
Dawn took it and raced out of the office. Xander raised his eyepatch and with both eyes watched Willow, a huge smile on her face, slump onto her side.
"That," she laughed, "was nifty," and gave up, for the moment, trying to catch her breath.
"Buffy!" Dawn yelled from the bottom step. "Catch!" She tossed the scythe.
Without looking, Buffy reached up and pulled it from the air. She twisted it, and the axe blade appeared from the body. With her first swing, she took down half a dozen Turok-Han.
Dawn knew better than to wait and watch. She turned and scrambled back up the stairs. She ran into Bringers in the hall, but they turned away from her, covering their blind eyes, and she was able to herd them away from her friends.
Anya, Giles, and Andrew blocked the hallway. The growing pile of bodies around them made it more difficult for anything to get near them. There were no sounds, apart from metal hitting metal, the occasional grunt, bodies bonelessly hitting the floor, and the hiss of Turok-Han turning to dust.
Dawn made her way around them and back to the office. Willow was still dazed, but Xander was reading from a piece of paper, and properly extinguishing the candles so he could open the circle. Dawn waited impatiently for him to finish. When he did, she told him, "Go help Giles."
"On it," he answered, and picked up the sword he left by the door on the way out.
Dawn knelt beside Willow. "C'mon, we need to get out of here."
Willow smiled hugely at her. "Dawnie!" she said delightedly.
"Yeah, it's me. C'mon, Willow, we need to move." She slung Willow's arm across her shoulder and dragged the witch up. "Little help would be nice."
Willow didn't say anything as she concentrated on getting her feet to work properly.
In the hallway, the battle still raged. Bringers continued to come from places unknown, and the Turok-Han that slipped past the Slayers came up from the Hellmouth. Willow took one look down the corridor and raised her palm. The same light that flowed through her earlier illuminated every place in her line of sight. The Bringers dropped, and the demons turned to dust.
Faith felt something odd, and stepped back from the fight. She touched the amulet, and hissed when it burned her hand. "Buffy! Whatever this thing does, I think it's oooo," she moaned, then somehow recovered and returned to the fight.
"Keep the line together!" Buffy ordered the girls while moving toward Faith. "We can't let them." She stopped suddenly, and looked down in surprise at the sword sticking out her stomach. She looked over her shoulder at the Turok-Han, its hand still on the sword hilt, and took one more step before face planting.
Kennedy saw her land and hurried to her. "Buffy!"
Buffy leaned up on her elbows and handed the scythe to Kennedy. "Hold the line," she said as firmly as she could.
Kennedy nodded and returned to the fight. She directed her anger onto the demons around her, and destroyed them by the dozen. When she was swarmed and could no longer use the scythe efficiently, she called to the nearest Slayer, and once she had her attention, tossed her the scythe.
The First Evil, in Buffy's form stood over Buffy. "Oh no," it mocked. "Ow! Mommy, this mortal wound is all itchy. You pulled a nice trick. You came pretty close to smacking me down. What more do you want?"
Buffy set her jaw. "I want you," she began, and sat up, "to get out of my face." By the time she finished the words, she was on her feet, and pulled the scythe from the air.
Seeing their leader upright gave the Slayers renewed hope. They redoubled their efforts, driving back or killing three demons for every one they battled before.
The burning intensified, and Faith instinctively grabbed for the amulet on her chest, injuring her hand again. "Oh, shit," she yelped.
A bright blue light shot up from the amulet. It blew through the top of the cavern and the floor Willow recently vacated. It destroyed the ceiling, too, and sunlight entered the Hellmouth for the first time ever.
"Buffy!" Faith called.
"Faith!" Buffy answered, and tried to make her way toward her.
The sunlight refracted from the amulet and spread throughout the dim cavern, turning the Turok-Han to dust. The ground began to shake.
"Everybody out," Kennedy bellowed. "Now!" she added unnecessarily as the girls scrambled for the stairs.
Giles threw Willow's other arm across his shoulder and put his arm under Dawn's around the redhead's waist. They carried her out of the building as it began to shudder. Anya, Andrew, and Xander followed them, Xander walking backwards to ensure that no one snuck up behind them.
Dawn deposited Willow in the first seat and stayed there with her while Xander slid into the driver's seat and started the engine. Giles waved Andrew and Anya into the bus and stood by the door, watching the school entrance.
"I can feel it, Buffy," Faith said, wonder showing on her face.
"My soul. Damn, that stings. Must be getting clean." She struggled to smile as the girls streamed around them.
The ground shook harder, and Giles had to hold on to the bus for support. When the school doors burst open, he stuck two fingers in his mouth and let out a deafening whistle. The Slayers instinctively headed toward it.
The Hellmouth became brighter as Buffy watched Faith. She stood in front of her, the scythe on her shoulder, and they were the last two people in the Hellmouth.
"Get outta here," Faith urged her.
"No. No, you've done enough. You could still"
Faith cut her off. "No, you've beat them back. It's for me to do the cleanup."
Around them, the walls began to crumble.
Kennedy screamed down, "Buffy, come on!"
"You gotta move, B. I gotta do this."
Another earthquake rumbled around them, and Faith yelled, "Go! Now!" She grinned at Buffy one last time. "I wanna see how it ends." She shooed her toward the steps, her hand in flames.
Buffy nodded and began running.
The school exploded. Xander, watching it in the mirrors, smirked, thinking how much better the explosion was the first time. Kennedy ran from the cloud of smoke and jumped on the bus. Giles stepped on behind her as it began to move.
Bodies blocked the hallway to the main exit. Buffy ignored the constant rumbling from below and skipped around debris. At the first staircase she came across, she started heading up. It would get her clear of falling ceilings.
Dawn left Willow and headed to the back of the bus. She stared out the back window, hoping to see something besides the ground collapsing behind them.
Faith laughed as the light intensified. The flame that began in her hand was spreading, destroying her body. It was cleansing. Comforting, even, for all that it hurt, and she watched in amazement as her body disintegrated.
When there was nothing left, the Hellmouth collapsed into itself.
Buffy ran along the rooftops of the shopping mall, chasing the bus. She looked forward, always forward, as behind her buildings crumbled. She carried the scythe loosely in one hand as she leaped from building to building.
She finally got as near the bus as she could. There was one roof remaining, and Buffy pushed herself harder. She flew across the space between the buildings and kept moving without breaking stride. At the last possible moment, she threw herself toward the street.
Buffy landed on top of the bus with thump, slid several feet forward before she could grab hold. The bus rattled and shook, and Buffy finally spared a glance over her shoulder.
She watched in horrified fascination as Sunnydale fell into the earth. The collapsing ground seemed to chase them, but the bus continued to accelerate and finally pulled away.
Just past the city limits, the bus slowed, then shuddered to a halt. Buffy jumped down and looked around. Dawn opened the emergency exit and hopped down. She ran to Buffy and hugged her while the others climbed out.
"I don't understand," Giles said, looking at the destruction. "Who did this?"
"Faith," Buffy answered, and walked toward the 'Welcome to Sunnydale' that stood precariously at the edge of the enormous sinkhole that used to be the town. While she watched, it fell, the last victim of the Hellmouth.
Buffy walked toward the edge of the hole and Giles followed her. A few moments later, Xander joined them. Willow was seconds behind.
"Looks like the Hellmouth is officially closed for business," Xander said, grinning.
"There is another one in Cleveland," Giles said. "Not to spoil the moment." He picked up a rock and threw it into the hole.
"We saved the world," Dawn said.
"We changed the world," Willow corrected her, and moved to Buffy's side. "I can feel them, Buffy. All over. Slayers are awakening everywhere."
"We'll have to find them," Dawn said.
"We will," Willow agreed.
Behind them, Giles paced. "Yes, because the mall was actually in Sunnydale, so there's no hope of going there tomorrow."
"We destroyed the mall?" Dawn asked. "I fought on the wrong side."
"All those shops gone," Xander said. "The Gap, Starbucks, Toys "R" Us. Who will remember all those landmarks unless we tell the world about them?"
"We have a lot of work ahead of us," Giles said soberly.
"Can I push him in?" Xander asked.
"You've got my vote," Willow replied, and smiled. "The First is scrunched, so what do you think we should do, Buffy?"
"Yeah, Buffy. What are we gonna do now?" Dawn chimed in.
Buffy didn't answer. She stared at the wasteland that held seven years of her life, and after a bit began to smile. She turned to Willow. "You wanna go out Friday night?"
Willow didn't stop to think. "I'd like that."
"Awesome," Buffy grinned. "I'll pick you up at 6:30."
While Xander drove them down the coast, Buffy counted heads. They got off a lot easier than she thought they would. Spike was an unintended victim of the amulet, and Faith was lost. A few of the new Slayers were killed. Only two were seriously injured, and Willow, still full of power from the spell, healed them.
The rest of them had an assortment of minor injuries that would heal overnight. Xander's eye was back in place. Buffy was fine, despite being run through with a sword. Her shirt was trashed, but there wasn't even a scratch to show where the blade entered or exited.
Buffy made her way to the front of the bus and dropped in the first seat beside Giles. She looked at Xander, then to Dawn and Willow sitting across the aisle. She clearly saw the glow around them. Willow was far brighter than the other two, and if Buffy hadn't know better, she would have thought her friend to be drunk.
"So, Cleveland, huh?" Buffy asked Giles.
"Eventually," he said. "I think we can take a little time off." He paused, then looked at Buffy. "You may retire, as it were."
Buffy shrugged. "I don't think I should be making any major decisions right now."
"It's your choice."
"Yeah. It's nice to have one for a change."
"I suppose it is. When you're ready, I need to know what happened down there. For the record."
"You're just gonna put it in fancy language," she teased, "when all it has to say is we came, we saw, we kicked evil butt."
Giles smiled at her. "We did indeed."