Epilogue:
The Seeds of Life


Manu was washing his hands in a river one day when a little fish swam up and begged him for help. The fish would've certainly made a fine meal for any of the larger creatures of the river, so Manu decided that the right thing to do was rescue the tiny fish. He took the fish home and put him in a jar, tending to him carefully each day. The fish grew. Soon he was too large for the jar, so Manu moved him to a tank and continued to see to the creature's needs.

Many months passed and the tiny fish grew very large under Manu's attentive watch. He loaded the tank into a cart and took it down to the river, releasing his pet. Each day he still returned. Relieved to see his friend, he continued to provide food and care for the fish's needs.

The day came that the fish could no longer comfortably swim in the small river, so Manu led his friend out into the ocean, again setting him free. Still, each day, he came to offer food and the fish would greet him, graciously accepting the meal.

This continued until one day the fish came up and warned Manu that a great deluge was coming within a week. He instructed his friend how to prepare.

Manu went away and built a boat. When he returned, his friend, the fish, allowed him to tether the boat to him. The rains came, bringing with them a devastating flood that destroyed all life. The fish towed Manu to the top peak of a great mountain. And thusly, by his kindness, Manu survived the flood.

The waters receded and Manu sowed the seeds of life, restoring his ruined world.


One
(two months)
After the Flood


The growl of an engine caused Willow to tear her gaze from the book of Hindu parables in her lap and glance nervously around her modest room. What the—who—no one comes out here. Well, only the landlord, but the rent's not due for another two weeks…and—well, that's not how her car sounds.

She snapped the book closed and started to the door. As she reached for the knob, it popped open and the door swung in. She didn't have enough time to register what happened next. In a fraction of a second she went from alone to wrapped in a warm, comfortable embrace and smoochies—soft, gentle, loving smoochies. The sensation that she was forgetting to do something drifted at the back of her mind, nagging at her. Oh yeah! I'm supposed to be mad.

Wrenching herself free, Willow met the blonde's gaze, putting on her best indignant face despite her singing heart. Shut up dammit! I'm supposed to be upset. I so don't need your help. "What in the frilly heck are you doing here?"

Buffy ignored the expression and the question. Uninvited, she pushed past Willow and wandered into the spartan room. After quickly surveying the space, the blonde made her way to the bed and took a seat. "Huh," she sighed. The sound was pregnant with curiosity, as though she had just seen something that baffled her.

When no answer came, Willow glanced out the door, then shut it behind her and went back to her chair. After curling up, she lifted the book into her lap and started to read again. She did her best to ignore the blonde. Maybe I'll bore her to death and she'll leave. It'd be better for everyone if she did.

Finally, she looked up. Buffy was sitting with her head in her hands, staring at the small area rug at her feet. All Willow could see was the crown of her friend's head, but she didn't need to see to know that the blonde was weeping. As she guiltily went back to her book, Buffy began to speak in a low, raspy voice.

"It's funny, y'know? I totally get the 'why.' I get the need to leave. I understand being scared of what you are" — her voice dropped to barely audible — "maybe better than anyone."

Sudden movement caused Willow to glance up when Buffy shot to her feet and started to pace.

Anger washed over Buffy as she moved, corrupting her entire disposition. Eventually, she resumed, "Doesn't matter, though. What matters is: I made a decision—" halting, she stabbed at her chest "—I made a commitment. Do you understand how hard that was for me, Will?" There was a short pause where Buffy considered what she'd just said. Then amusement flashed across her face for an instant and she hastily supplemented, "'Kay, so…that didn't quite come out the way I wanted, but you get what I mean."

An exasperated sigh snarled out and Buffy went back to pacing.

Willow averted her eyes, returning to her book. She sat, unblinking, peering dimly at the book, not caring about the words anymore.

Her friend's voice sounded out, overwhelming the cadence of the boards creaking under her feet, "You told me that relationships—" Buffy paused, groaning as if trying to work out how to paraphrase. "Relationships are about the people involved—just them. They're about the emotions, not a bunch of other stupid stuff."

The blonde drew still again, turning to fix her gaze on the occupant of the chair. As she continued to reflect, she closed the scant distance between them, "You missed something—something really important. They're also about trust. That's actually the hardest part—for me at least."

Willow didn't have to look up to see the expression on her friend's face. She could feel the accusing glare. When the words finally came, they burned.

"You didn't trust me. You didn't even give me a chance."

The next thing that happened confused the heck out of her. Peripherally, she watched the blonde sit down and remove her boots and socks. Then Buffy stood up and slowly started to unbutton her shirt. Willow's gaze remained fixed on the book. Though she could see, she didn't want to look.

Buffy stated matter-of-factly, "In the last couple months I've been stabbed about a dozen times, shot, drowned, run over by a truck…" Her shirt fell to the floor and she giggled. "The loss to my wardrobe alone was tragic." She mocked a sniffle before resuming, "Anyway, I got a little sloppy without you, Will. Hope you'll forgive me." After ripping the white undershirt over her head, she hooked her fingers under Willow's chin and attempted to raise her head.

Willow flinched away, refusing to look. The hand returned, cupping her jaw this time.

"Look at me, Will," Buffy directed insistently, "Don't make me force you."

Jerking away from the adamant touch, Willow hissed, "You really think you could?" in a low, dangerous voice.

"Yes, actually, I do. You'll wanna watch me if fighting is where you wanna go with this. If it is, I'm up for it. You can't hurt me. You can give it your best shot. I've tried," Buffy remarked casually, her tone turning thoughtful as she added, "Y'know I haven't been immolated yet, so if you're gonna do it—call it a request."

Despite herself, Willow turned pensive. Still refusing to look up, she remarked dryly, "Immolation might work—depends on how hot—but if you really wanna die, exsanguination's the best way."

Buffy took a step back and gasped, "Huh?"

The encounter had finally come around to her advantage and Willow snapped her attention to the blonde. She took in the confusion and explained, "The fire would have to be hot enough to kill them. I'm not sure how hot, but we could test if you like." Standing up, she pushed past her stunned friend, continuing to reflect, "Your blood is tainted now…with a parasite. I can feel them. That's why—" she moved to the door "—that's what they brought back. Why it thrives in human blood, I have no idea. It's so alien I'm not even sure what it is. I just know how it feels—like tiny little stars. You glow, Buffy. Others may not be able to see it, but I can."

As Willow stared blankly at the door, she ignored the movement in the room and the curiosity it inspired. I'm so used to being alone now. This is just too weird. A creaking noise caused her to flinch. When she realized seconds later it was the sound of her bed, she swung around. Refusing to look at the bed, she stated frankly, "Buffy, you can't stay. I don't want you here."

"Then throw me out, Will."

Willow scanned the floor, mentally inventorying the clothing. Buffy's jeans, Buffy's boots, Buffy's blouse, Buffy's socks, Buffy's undershirt, Buffy's underwear… Uh-boy. Naked Buffy. What the—what do I do now? I might be able to dress her as I toss her out the door. It might even be fun. She imagined the expression the blonde would make and grinned as she strode back to her chair.

As she settled back into the old recliner, three soft words disturbed the stillness of the room.

"I need you."


It took us forever to wind down to this point. Buffy lay silently, enjoying being held. Mostly I just listened. I let her have her silence until she wanted to talk. When she finally did, it was to read. I like it when she reads to me, so…

It's a hardship, yet somehow I soldier on. The feel of soft skin pressed against her back, delicate hands drifting over her body, caused Buffy to tremble. And then there was…umm, well…yeah… It was unlike anything I expected, or could've imagined. It was—it is…it's impossible to compare because I lack anything to compare it to. The first time was different. This was all about touching and being touched, savoring, enjoying the textures and smells. And I know I'm still clueless. I feel inadequate on every level, but somehow it was perfect.

Buffy submitted when Willow swept up her right hand and raised it into the light to examine. Finally, the touch relaxed and a soft, velvety voice asked, "Why?"

Clearing her throat, Buffy replied, "'Cause I didn't know." Claiming the inquiring hand, she clutched it to her chest as she explained, "Remember that night? We ate and stopped in at that little shop and got henna tattoos, then we went to the Hustler store, finally we stopped by the club?"

Buffy released the hand and brought her wrist up to eye-level. Studying the fine, intricate design in the dim light, she continued to reflect pensively, "Well, when I got out of the hospital, it wasn't gone. The tattoo had faded lots, but somehow it survived" —she reclaimed the hand — "to remind me of you. I was really careful. I didn't want it to go away. It was like a piece of something—something really important I needed to keep. So, the next day I got up and snuck away."

"I made it permanent, not knowing whether it would be," she concluded, letting the hand free again. "The lady that did it asked about color and I said—" she shrugged "—'whatever.' So, she had me pick—blues, reds and greens—it seemed to fit." And now I have this thing—this mark on my body to remind me—to make me remember the night we nearly drowned.

"It's beautiful," Willow murmured, "And it's the last thing I'd expected."

Buffy commented wryly, "Mom wasn't impressed," punctuating with a snicker. She lay enjoying in the warmth for a few moments. Eventually, not expecting any reply, she continued to murmur, "I wasn't asking for anything. I hope you know that. When I came through the door I was just as naked as I am now. The clothing—it was a formality—" That and I know you, Will. I knew you'd have a harder time tossing me naked into the yard. You wanted me to leave. You were on the edge of throwing me out, so…

After sweeping the hair aside, Willow started to kiss the nape of Buffy's neck. Between kisses, she whispered, "I know."

She caught Willow's hand as it moved across her stomach and raised it to her mouth, tenderly kissing the fingers. Releasing the hand, she continued to whisper her thoughts, "There are about a dozen or more clichéd phrases I've heard to describe this. None of them manage to say much. The words just aren't there. You have to feel it to understand. It's like you don't get that anything's wrong, but once it happens—once you're finally whole—you see that you were incomplete."

Allowing her lover time to adjust, Buffy slowly turned onto her back and asked self-consciously, "Is that weird?" Feeling like a hollow shell when you ran away…knowing, above all else, I needed to find you to really live.

Willow's hand came to rest between Buffy's breasts and she began to fiddle with the locket. Glancing up to make eye contact, she offered honestly, "No, it's actually one of the most eloquent, beautiful things you've ever said."

Lying silently, basking in the warmth and the comfort, Buffy absently combed her fingers through the short locks of red hair. I'm glad your hair's red again, even if there's not lots of it. She snickered softly and added, "I guess the weird thing is: it's got nothing to do with sex. You'd think it would, but sex is just an expression—it's a way of showing."

Clearing her throat to gain attention, Willow murmured, "How'd you get here?"

"Oh," Buffy gasped. Well, that's the last thing I'd expect her to ask after everything else, but it's not an unreasonable question. "Giselle," she filled in, knowing full well this wasn't really an answer. She giggled and began to smooth the wrinkled skin of Willow's brow with her fingers as she explained, "Y'know, it's weird how people expect stuff from you. They get you all figured, and then the expectation."

"What's a Giselle? Is she waiting for you in the car?"

"Giselle is the car, Will. I name stuff, you know that," Buffy replied frankly. As her hand drifted down to Willow's bare shoulders, the redhead turned, giving her the funniest look. "See, with the expectation?" she remarked amusedly, punctuating her delight with a snicker.

Willow sat up enough to gesture for more, then settled back into the curve of Buffy's shoulder.

Buffy began to answer, stream of consciousness, in a gentle voice, "Mom came into some money right after you left, so she asked me what I wanted. I said a car 'cause I knew I'd need one to find you. I didn't care about much else. I sorta coasted by—I finished school, but other than that—lots of unfocusy Buffy. Nothing much mattered. I got really reckless."

"But yeah…the car, Mom and I had a hard time with that. We looked at lots of stuff. After the 'candy' thing, Mom was really scared to let me drive. We finally found something we agreed on, though."

Willow perked up, appearing curious.

Buffy rolled her eyes and said, "You'll laugh."

"What?"

"It's a 1974 Volkswagen Super Beetle," Buffy admitted. Putting her hand to her face to cover the embarrassment, she continued the story, "See thing is, Mom wanted slow and safe."

"Buffy, I've heard—that wasn't a Beetle you drove up in."

Buffy corrected, "Yes it was." When the redhead gave her a look that suggested she'd lost her mind, she continued, "What? It's a Beetle—well, sorta," pausing to giggle again at the look. "I learned to drive…eventually. Mom tried to teach me at first, but it was hopeless. Then I asked Xander and he helped. He made it make sense. I guess we finally found some connection…besides missing you. I'm actually a good driver. The slayer reflexes don't hurt."

"Mom finally just broke down and gave me some of the money. We were having trouble. It was pretty awful. And I guess she thought if I found my own place I'd chill or at least she wouldn't have to watch. I dunno which."

"Xander came to my rescue again. He gave me the weirdest thing to focus on. It was as much for him as anything else. He found an old salvage car. The car was a 1986 Porsche 911. I have no clue how I remember that other than the listening. Xander was really excited. Who knew he was such a car guy? I didn't get it, the Porsche was total junk, but I went along to make him happy."

"So, we found a place with a garage. I practically had to carry the Porsche inside. Then Xander started to mix the two and I got it. I learned the names of the tools, so I could hand him stuff, but mostly we just talked. Well, that and I helped. There were tons of thing-a-ma-jigs he couldn't get loose."

Pausing for a peek, Buffy chuckled at the stunned expression the redhead was wearing and resumed, "Anyway, there was something wrong with the Porsche engine. No clue—something broken. I wasn't surprised. I just know Xander's uncle came over and I bought the beer. There was lots of cussing and sparks."

"So why—?"

Buffy cut her lover off again by answering the obvious question, "Remember Herbie, when he falls in love? The other car was called Giselle."

Rolling her eyes, Willow corrected, "Buffy, that was a Lancia."

A thick mock pout tugged at her lips and Buffy replied, "They cheated, she should've been a Beetle." Her expression shifted into a bright smile when the redhead responded with a giggle.

The smile faded and Buffy gently guided her lover to lie down. When they were settled and comfortable, she remarked nervously, "Look, Will, this is fun and all—the reminiscing." Pausing to sigh wistfully, she shifted focus, steering the conversation, "You don't know—you can't imagine how much—well, maybe you can imagine how much I missed you, but—"

"But what are we going to do?"

"Yeah, that." Buffy's gaze fixed on the exposed, rough-timber ceiling of the small cabin. She allowed Willow several moments to comment. When the offer was met with silence, Buffy began to reflect, "Look, Will, despite what you might think, I'm not here to bring you back. I can't make you do anything. It'd be wrong of me to try. I'm here" — loosening her hold, she started to caress the supple skin of her lover's back — "I came just to tell you I love you. And to let you know I don't blame you. There's no blame." A tear ran down her cheek and her voice choked, turning thick as she added, "There's only sadness…and loss."

Buffy wiped the tear away in annoyance and took a deep breath before continuing, "I'm leaving in the morning. I just needed you to understand." Her words had exactly the opposite effect she expected and Willow broke down, starting to weep.

Lying perfectly still, Buffy held her tongue, allowing her friend time to recover before she resumed, "There's an offer too. Like I said, there's a house. It's on the edge of town 'cause we—Xander and me—we knew you wouldn't want to be around anyone. There's a room in the house that's yours. You just need to come. It'll always be yours, so there's no pressure. It's there for you if you want it."

Sitting up, Willow snatched a handful of tissues from the box by the bed and started to dry her eyes. Buffy giggled lightheartedly when the redhead took more tissues and started to dry her chest. Once everything was neat and orderly again in Willow's world, the redhead started to relax. When her lover was finally tranquil again, Buffy prompted, "I'm surprised you haven't asked me how I found you."

"I don't have to ask. I knew you'd come—when I felt them, I knew it was only a matter of time."

"And that's the last part of the offer. They're willing to send someone to help you. It's an offer, so there's no stress. You can choose to accept it or not. Giles is willing to help too. Whatever's better for you. The point is: there are people—people who are willing to give you whatever you need to feel better—to feel safe."

Silence hung thick over the room for several minutes. In that time, Buffy could sense the inner dialog the redhead was going through. It was nearly tangible. Finally, she broke the spell by offering in a reassuring tone, "I don't need an answer. I'll leave the address when I go. The rest is up to you."

There was no reply and Buffy didn't expect one. As she started to sigh, drifting closer to sleep, a hand came to rest on her thigh. Soothing caresses caused her skin to tingle. Gently whispered words broke the silence, "Make love to me, Buffy," and the slayer's eyes opened. They locked momentarily with their green counterparts, fluttering closed again when Willow's lips met hers.


Two
(two years)
After the Flood


Moving to the end of the steel grate, Buffy peered down into the swirling energy vortex. A deep sigh drifted out and she turned back to meet her sister's gaze. She placed a reassuring hand on Dawn's shoulder and said, "I need you to take care of Will for me now."

Quirking an eyebrow, Dawn stared at her sister as if she'd grown another head and gasped, "Huh?"

Buffy cracked an amused grin and winked. Facing the light again, she grumbled, "Because she's gonna be completely insufferable after this," and bounced off the platform. This is so gonna suck! Spreading her arms, she arched her back and plummeted into the tear between worlds.

As her body was engulfed by the vortex, every nerve ending lit up with pain. Her vision swam. Alight with color, it dimmed, slowing turning black.


Tearing her gaze from the broken, crumpled body at her feet, Willow glanced at her watch. Five minutes. 'Kay, so…let's be rational about this, five minutes isn't long enough. I know if I reach down and touch her, she'll be—she'll be cold. But she's supposed to be. It's how it works.

After taking a deep breath, she struggled to wipe the worry from her face. In truth, she wanted to collapse to her knees and weep. It's too soon. Giles told me when the stranger pulled her out of the ocean, he worked on her for ten minutes before she came around. He called it a 'miracle.' 'It's a miracle she lived.' That's exactly what he said. It might be, but it's a miracle with rules. She can dive off a cliff and drown in the ocean, but if she bleeds to death, she's gone.

The others moved around behind her, but Willow ignored them. She was consumed by her inner monologue, trying to reassure herself it'd be fine. When Adam—when Adam beat her to death. Stupid, stupid, Buffy, she just wouldn't back down—she should've backed down. When she died, again it took ten minutes. It took days for everything to heal, but the— But she came back to life in ten minutes. Least that's what that liar Spike said. Still, ten minutes, so…

As she stared at her watch, Dawn came up behind her. Eight minutes.

"I want cookies tonight."

Willow was shocked by the bluntness of the gasped, "Huh?" and spun around to meet the amused teenager's gaze. How can she not be worried?

Folding her arms across her chest, Dawn stated firmly, "I want cookies. Oh! And Snoopy pancakes in the morning."

Quirking an eyebrow, Willow glanced back at the broken body and tried to wrap her mind around what she was hearing. She wants cookies?

"Look, Buffy gave you to me and I want cookies."

Willow choked, trying to stifle the hysterical laugh that bubbled up.

A bright smile lit the teen's face and Dawn offered reassuringly, "It'll be fine, Willow. Another minute and she'll be fine."

"But we don't know that," Willow stammered anxiously, "This was a blood thing. What if she's not fine?"

"She'll be fine," Dawn insisted, "But don't think that gets you out of the cookies."

Willow glared at the face of her watch, willing it to move without touching it magickally. She'll be fine. She will and if I do—if I break down, she'll tease me about it for days. Dawn's right I need to—I need to wait. I need to stay calm and wait. The hand ticked and she turned to face the body. Any second now.


A deep blurry haze surrounded Buffy. She was vaguely aware of the others around her and her own trembling body. Suddenly her eyes snapped open. Her back arched as she reflexively inhaled deeply, filling her empty lungs with air. When she let go the unsteady breath, her body slumped back to the ground. She lay choking for a moment. Finally, control returned and she scanned the faces of her family: Giles, Xander, Anya, and Dawn. Her gaze came to rest on Willow. I love you.

A subtle smile curled the corners of Willow's lips. Shaking her head, she turned to Dawn and said, "Cookies?" Dawn took the offered hand and the two started to slowly walk away.

Bewildered by the exchange, Buffy started clumsily trying to move. Huh? Wait! What cookies? Where are my cookies? Struggling to speak, her voice cracked as she called out, "Hey! Where's my—?" Her voice failed, stifling the thought.

"You're the one that gave me away," Willow called back, "Not my fault."

Vying for Buffy's attention, Anya stated frankly, "I think you should try again. Your form was a little off. It was sloppy. Your back was too arched. I'd give it a five."

Xander put his arm around his girlfriend and smiled sheepishly down at Buffy before he quipped, "Those Swedish judges—they're just ruthless, aren't they?"

Completely flabbergasted, Buffy peered up at Giles, pleading for some measure of sanity with her eyes. What do you mean 'my back was arched'? It hurt like a bitch, you unbelievable cow!

As Giles offered a hand down to the slayer, Anya turned away in a huff, ranting, "I am not Swedish, Xander! I'm an all-American girl!"

Accepting the hand, Buffy rose awkwardly to her feet, thankful that Anya's shrill voice was getting further away. I'm so glad they got their own place. Her head throbbed painfully and Giles put his arm around her for support.

Buffy watched vacantly as Xander shrugged and took off in Anya's wake while the former vengeance demon continued to seethe, "I love apple pie, Superman, that silly game with the bat and the men in tight shorts, and money just like every red-blooded American girl!"

Leaning into the embrace, Buffy remarked weakly, "You see what I have to put up with? I die—I die saving the world and—" she sighed despondently "—no one seems to care, Giles."

When Giles began to slowly guide her away, she leaned heavily on him so she wouldn't fall.

"They care, Buffy," Giles remarked reassuringly, "They just have a very unusual way of showing it. They have faith in you—faith that you will prevail. And I for one am extremely grateful."


Three
(twenty years)
After the Flood


Faith saw it coming. The world around her slowed to a crawl. The fist hooked under, speeding toward her. She could've stopped it. Instead she allowed it through. She clenched her jaw in preparation. The fist struck her under the chin, lifting her off her feet. Pain surged through her head. She sailed backwards across the open lawn, peering muzzily at the furious blonde. When she smashed into the ground, a breath of air rushed out of her mouth, carrying with it droplets of blood. Her gaze fixed on the spray. The tiny globules of blood hung in midair over her face. Turned by gravity, they began to fall. Her eyes snapped closed as the spray misted her skin.

Clamping her eyes shut tight, Faith ignored the hateful words. She listened instead to the crickets, chirping in the woods. It's peaceful here. I always loved coming to visit B. and Red. A tear leaked out past her clenched eyelids and she inattentively wiped it away.

The tormented words, "You're crying?" shattered her reverie, followed closely by the foot that smashed into her ribs. Faith ignored the pain, refusing to react. She could feel Buffy starting to pace, following the path laid out by her supine body. I won't fight you, B. I get it. It hurts more than dying. You want something you can fight. You're still the slayer after all these years. Trouble is: I can't fight you—not over this.

Faith could sense the rage. She respected it. It was like a caged animal paced the ground next to her. Buffy wasn't really there. Eventually, several blows later, the animal started to depart. When the woman returned, she fell to her knees and began to weep.

Through the sobs, Buffy rasped, "But why?"

Faith opened her eyes and rolled onto her side, propping her cheek in her gloved hand. A deep sigh drifted out before she replied simply, bluntly, "Because it's wrong, B."

The rage returned and Buffy looked up. Glaring at Faith, she growled, "How dare you?"

Faith implored, "Just hear me out" — holding her free hand between them to call for peace — "if you still got a problem—well, I'm not sure. Guess I'll lay here and let you beat me to death. Not like it'd be the first time."

Tears continued to leak from Buffy's eyes. Despite this, she smirked and shook her head. A soft snicker sounded through her nose and she submitted, "Make it quick. I gotta get back."

"I know ya do, B.," Faith confirmed. Sitting silently for only a moment to reflect, she marveled at the blonde. In twenty years you haven't changed a bit, B. Can't you see that's wrong? Red aged. God she was a beautiful woman. I swear she just kept getting prettier, classier, while you and I stood still, frozen in time—frozen by the blood.

Buffy reclined back on her elbows in the yard and stared expectantly at the brunette.

"I wasn't with you for this, but R—" Faith started, falling short as she choked over the name. She growled with frustration and said, "Red," through clenched teeth, "told me that when your mom got sick you tried giving her your blood. Remember that?"

Appearing annoyed, "Yeah, it didn't work," Buffy replied, "But that's not what I'm asking for."

"I know what you're asking for, B. and I'm not going back. I would—I'd do it in a heartbeat if I thought it was right," Faith responded, quickly adding, "It's not."

Sitting up, Faith turned her attention toward the lawn. I can't take seeing her like this. I need to just say this shit and leave. She began to run her dead fingers absently through the freshly mowed lawn as she reflected, "B., you and me, we're freaks. I wouldn't do this to anyone. Certainly not someone I care for…and you know I do. People are supposed to die. It's how things are. You value what you have more when you know it's gonna end. It's not fair, but it's real—it's what we got, or what we should have."

"That's not the reason, though," she added quickly, cutting the rage off before it welled up. "The reason's simple. What's going on with Red—there's no magick that can fix it. You should get that from your Mom. You tried. The stories" — she glanced up, forcing herself to meet the wounded expression on Buffy's face — "I heard them. It took years, but I heard them all. I get that you want to make it better. I totally get that you want something to fight, but this is not the way."

"But it can be, Faith!" Buffy raged, "Why don't you get that?"

"No it can't," Faith rebuffed, raising her hands again to keep the peace. "Hear me out. Say we go and by some miracle manage to get whatcha want before she dies. What makes you think that what you get back would be Red?"

When the blonde sputtered in answer, Faith continued to drive the point home, "Its encephalitis, Buffy. Her brain's already swollen so much that you know—you have to know—there'll be brain damage. She doesn't know us. She doesn't know you. That won't change regardless what we do. You gotta let her go."

Buffy's head sagged into her hands and she started to weep again. Eventually, she managed to rasp through her parted fingers, "But we just went to Baja for the weekend—our first vacation in years. We made love on the beach. It was so beautiful."

Faith placed a hand on the blonde's shoulder to comfort her as she listened. I wish I could feel, B. I wish something about my touch felt like more than the plastic and wires wrapped in leather.

"Next day Will was running a fever and throwing up. We waited till afternoon to leave, hoping it'd pass—figured it was just the water. Y'know how Mexico is—she couldn't remember if she checked the top on every bottle she drank. She had a few bug bites, but nothing bad—nothing to make me think—" A bitter snicker slipped out and Buffy supplemented matter-of-factly, "It was sort of a bummer, but no big, right?"

"She wasn't getting any better as we made the drive home. It was awful. I got her to the first state-side hospital I could find. They ran their stupid tests. Eventually, they came back with malaria as a diagnosis. I couldn't believe my ears. I was stunned. I thought only people in underdeveloped countries got that. How could that touch us?"

"How, Faith? How?" Buffy begged as if there might be some answer she was missing. "That was four days ago. How can it be 'the right thing'? How can it be right for someone as beautiful—someone as wonderful as Will to die…" Her jaw set with rage and Buffy looked up. Snarling through clenched teeth, she concluded, "Because of a fucking insect."

Faith stood up and turned her back on the livid blonde. As she started to walk away, she whispered, "I didn't say it was 'just.' That's not the same thing as 'right' and you know it, B."

Faith prepared to take another hit when the blonde leapt to her feet and started to close the gap between them. Instead the rage faded, giving way to confusion and pain. She froze, listening to the soft raspy voice.

"I just don't get it, Faith. I don't understand how something so insignificant could do this. I really wish someone would make it make sense to me. How could something you squish—? A mosquito lands on your arm—you slap it away without a second thought—'cept the 'eww.' We've done it, thousands of times—everyone has. It just—"

Buffy gasped, breathing hard, struggling to choke away the tears enough to speak. When she continued her voice was very soft and thick with hurt, "It's just stupid. How could something so small do this? What kind of a world does this? It makes no sense to me."

Threading her fingers into the pockets of her jeans, Faith slouched, refusing to turn around. I dunno, B.

When Buffy's voice rang out again it was stronger, but still laced with pain, "And y'know, they tried to explain it to me. I still don't get it. I know the 'what'—viral encephalitis—but I don't know if the 'malaria' thing was a misdiagnosis, or if one thing became the other. I thought malaria could be treated. I thought there was stuff they could do. I dunno if they just didn't do what they should've or if it was inevitable.

"That's the worst part—the not understanding. Will was always the one that'd make stuff like this make sense to me. She'd explain it. She'd take the time to break it down and simple it up so my stupid brain could handle it.

"What I did know is she wouldn't want to be in that place. She hated hospitals. They didn't like it when I took her, but they couldn't really stop me. I brought her home because it was the 'right' thing to do. She'd want to—she'd want to be in her own bed."

Buffy's trembling voice fell silent and Faith stood rooted to the spot for another moment. Not knowing exactly what to say, she began to walk away. I wish I had something for ya, B. I wish I could say the right thing and make it all fit. But fact is: it just doesn't. It can't. There's no sense to be had here. That's why they call shit like this a 'senseless death.'

She was almost to the driveway when Buffy's voice rang out, strong and confident this time, "Come back in the morning, Faith."

Faith spun on her heel. Confusion crinkled her face as she gasped, "Huh?"

Closing the distance between them, Buffy reached into her blouse and withdrew an object. As she pulled the necklace over her head, she reflected, "Look, it's just you, Dawnie, and Xander. That's it. All the others are dead."

Holding out her hand when Buffy gestured, Faith accepted the necklace. As she stood silently peering down at the tiny silver locket set against the black leather glove, her thoughts began to drift. I don't think I ever told you how he fought for me. How much we struggled when I started rejecting the implants. I know you've looked at my hands and wanted to know. Questions would form on your lips and you'd think better of it, understanding it'd just be too painful to ask. Thank you, B. Looping the necklace over her head, she tucked it into her shirt before distantly remarking, "I know. I was on the roof, remember?"

"Yeah, I know you were with Angel," Buffy confirmed. A wry grin flickered across her features. It was consumed so quickly by the grief that Faith blinked, wondering if she imagined it. She turned away, listening to the blonde's soft pensive voice.

"I always wondered—call it a last request—did you and Angel ever—?"

Faith's shoulders slumped as she took the last few steps to the long gravel driveway. Finally, she mumbled just loud enough for the other slayer to hear, "Never, B. He was always too much like a brother to me. It wouldn't've been right."

"You'll come back?"

The gravel crunched under the heel of her boot as Faith glanced over her shoulder for one final look. "Yeah," she murmured, "I'll come back." The blonde stood with her hand on her hip on the sprawling lawn. It occurred to Faith again that it was almost like looking back in time. She paused, remembering the first night they met at the Bronze. A long ago club, in a long ago town that had been swallowed by the earth.

Nodding, Buffy asked anxiously, "And you'll take care of them?"

"Till the day I die, Buffy." After making eye contact one final time with her friend, Faith set off into the night.


Buffy stood anchored in one spot for several moments. Her gaze fixed on the other slayer. When Faith disappeared into the wooded thicket between the house and the road, Buffy turned to face the house. Soft light radiated from their bedroom window, calling her. I'll be right there, love. Promise.

Urgency pressed down on her as she strode back up the drive. Breaking into a run, she covered the distance in a blink. I was gone too long. She stood in front of the door. She gets so scared, but I wouldn't let them do it. I couldn't let them tie her down. I hope it's okay. Hesitating, she peered down at the polished brass knob for a moment. This is stupid! Her hand trembled as she reached for it and pushed the door open. This is our house—same house we've lived in for ten years now. She stepped inside.

As she shut the door, the smell of lingering death penetrated her senses. Remember this, Will? Remember watching Giles die? Feeling completely helpless to stop it? It's only been a couple years. He said he lived a good full life and not to fret. I never could listen to him. Disobedient right to the end.

She started to walk through the house. Her attention drifted. Pictures of familiar faces smiled at her from frames on the wall. As she passed into the living room, she heard the din of the heart monitor upstairs. It urged her on and she picked up the pace. Inattentive to the details, she pressed on through the dining room. Objects, hundreds of items assembled over a lifetime, passed by. Gifts given, things received, treasures collected that they both loved.

Rushing through into the kitchen, she flipped on the light and moved to the pantry. After grabbing a bucket from the floor, she returned to the living room and made her way swiftly up the stairs.

When she entered their room, the sound of the breathing machine grew frantic and labored.

"It's okay, Will, it's just me: Buffy," she offered patiently as she placed the bucket on the floor. Taking a seat on the edge of the bed, she looked down at the swollen, misshapen face of the woman she loved. A soft, reassuring smile warmed her features. The only details remaining, untouched by disease, were Willow's eyes and her hair. They were both unmistakably her. Buffy peered into her partner's eyes for several minutes as she gently stroked her soft red hair. Thank you for letting me do this. Last time I tried to touch— It's okay, though. You didn't know any better.

Tearing herself away, she went to her dresser and got out a pair of shorts and a tank top. Quickly moving to the bathroom, she started to undress, tossing her jeans, blouse, and underwear into the hamper.

Once she was redressed in sleep clothes, she pulled an I.V. needle, valve, and some tubing from the cabinet under the sink. After removing the sterile packaging, she cut the tubing and placed the valve inline just down from the needle. Lifting back her shorts, she leaned back and stretched out her leg. She was thin enough she didn't even have to feel for her femoral artery. Sitting still for a moment, she watched the skin inside her hip bone pulsate.

Buffy took a deep breath and pierced her skin. Her first two tries were unsuccessful. By the third time, she was getting frustrated, but she moved the needle until she hit the artery. The tubing filled with blood and she shut off the valve, wiping away the mess. After taping the needle and valve to her leg, she picked up the extra tubing and returned to the bedroom.

When Willow moved away like she was frightened, Buffy said in a soothing voice, "Its okay, sweetie, it's just me." This is gonna scare her, but I can't help it.

Moving to the bedside, she carefully ripped the face off the auto-infuser that fed Willow metered amounts of morphine. She removed the bottle and opened the nightstand, taking out a packaged hypodermic needle. Quickly reading the bottle, she prepared the hypo with thirty milligrams of the drug.

Her hands shook as she pressed the needle into Willow's I.V. I'm sorry. I just wish—well, I wish lots, not that you'll hear me say it. I wish we had more time, I guess. She pressed the plunger down and set the needle aside. The machines all fell silent as she ripped the plugs out of the wall.

After climbing into bed, she finished hooking up the tubing and taped the end into the bucket. Once everything was ready, she reached over and flipped off the light. Time to sleep.

Relaxing against the curve of her lover's body, Buffy closed her eyes. As she held tight to stifle the trembling, she started to whisper, "Twenty years. It was a gift. A gift you gave me. In twenty years we saved the world a dozen times or more. I dunno, I lose track of these things. You always were better at keeping track than me. Twenty years. We were lucky. We found peace by making peace. Twenty years is more than most people could wish for. Twenty years of knowing one thing with absolute certainty."

She stroked her partner's hair away from her face and stated the simple truth, "I love you, Willow Rosenberg." After kissing the redhead's puffy cheek, she added, "I couldn't ask for more." I hope the others will forgive me.

Once the tremors quieted, she placed her head in the curve of Willow's shoulder and turned the valve. There are people that say you'll go to hell for this. They preach and rage about sin. I never could get my mind around how being so angry over something—so quick to judge and condemn—could be good. I've been to hell—I've been to couple of hells, actually. I've seen things they couldn't imagine. I've done things they'd never survive.

Buffy began to feel weak. The Powers and me—we have this thing. Every time I get ahead, they smack me down. I've died so many times for the 'greater good' I've lost count. It never stuck. Right here at the end, when things were looking up—I saw rest on the horizon and they tried to take something—something I just—

The room started to spin and her eyes spotted behind closed lids. I'm tired. I just want—I deserve to rest.

Just let me rest, please.


The last light went out in the house as Faith watched from the tree line. I'll give it an hour before I go look in, clean up and make the calls.

After cracking the seal, she raised the bottle in toast. Safe journey, Red, B. Tipping it up, she took a healthy gulp. Funny thing, I get it. I've never been in love—not like that, but I've watched. It's taken me years to get here. Now that I'm almost alone it's easy to see.

Her jaw clenched and she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. If I wasn't such a pussy I might—but B. always was the stronger one.


Four
(somewhere in time)
After the Flood


The air smelled sweet. Buffy took a deep breath, savoring the scents. She didn't recognize where she was at first. The colors were all too bright. The rich green of the lawn that stretched in front of her looked like something from a children's program. As she scanned the yard, a girl with long, fiery red hair caught her eye. She followed her, picking up the pace, while restraining herself enough not to come off like a crazy stalker. Willow?

Willow sat down in the courtyard on a concrete bench, placing her book bag on the ground.

As Buffy slowly approached the redhead, Willow opened her bag and pulled out a sack lunch. Wow! She was so beautiful. She is so beautiful.

Looking up, Willow's brow furrowed with uncertainty. "Do you need something?"

Smiling brightly, Buffy considered how to answer. A dozen or more questionable things flitted across her mind before she finally chuckled and held out her hand, announcing cheerfully, "How 'bout we start with, 'Hi, my name's Buffy'?"

She grinned and subtly shook her head when Willow eyed her suspiciously.

Dropping her hand back to her side, Buffy added, "As first greetings go, it's the most approved—two out of three people polled prefer it." An amused smile warmed her features just before she prompted, "And you're Willow, right?"

Willow grew extremely anxious. After setting her lunch aside, she stammered, "That's right. Should I—do I know you?"

Buffy remarked honestly, "Technically" — taking in the drab plaid jumper the redhead wore — "not in the strictest of senses."

When the redhead glanced down, sneaking a peek at her cleavage, Buffy bit back a laugh. That's right, Will, they're called 'breasts.' If you only knew what you were gonna do to them you'd—well, I'm not sure how that'd go, but it'd probably be really colorful.

Buffy started, "Look, Will—" falling short as she thought better of the nickname. "It's alright if I call you that?"

Willow hurriedly rattled off, "Yeah—I mean, I guess, it's just that—well, weren't you with Cordelia earlier?" As she fell silent, her brow creased, reflecting the epitome of confusion.

After wiping the silly grin off her face, Buffy began to rummage through her purse. When she located a hair-tie, she set her purse next to Willow's untouched lunch and replied, "I guess you could say that, but I'd rather be with you."

An expression passed over Willow's face that suggested the blonde had lost her mind.

Buffy put her hands up and said reassuringly, "I won't do anything mean, 'kay? Don't wig out," and stepped around behind the bench.

Willow turned nervously, peering over her shoulder, and asked, "Wig?"

"Yes, 'wig.' Don't do it," Buffy replied patently, "There's just something I wanna do. I've wanted to do it" — gently turning Willow's head forward, she began to run her fingers through the long red hair — "well, realistically for only a few hours, but trust me when I say it feels like years." Will got her hair cut before I really got to play with it much. I always felt like I missed something. I hope I don't totally freak her out, but I just can't resist.

Buffy could feel her friend bristling under the touch. As she started to French braid the long locks of red hair, she whispered, "Just relax. It'll be okay. Promise." Amazed her words had any effect, she watched amusedly as Cordelia rounded the shrubberies with her entourage.

When the redhead tensed again, Buffy whispered, "Relax," and made eye contact with the brunette. Her eyes narrowed at the snotty looks she was inspiring. When Cordy opened her mouth to speak, Buffy cut her off by growling, "Just go, Cordy," in a low dangerous voice. Holding the braid in her left hand, she placed the right on Willow's shoulder to calm her and whispered, "Ignore her, 'kay?"

"Gladly," Cordelia snapped. Adding as she turned her nose up and stalked off, "Nice of you to show your true 'loser face' before I wasted my time."

When Cordelia was finally out of earshot, Willow sputtered, "But why?"

Returning to braiding her friend's hair, Buffy responded frankly, "Because I like you more." She didn't have to see to know. She could feel the warmth of the smile even standing behind her friend. That's right, Will. I'd choose you over a thousand girls like Cordy. They could line you all up in a row and when I finally got to you I'd take your hand and lead you away without a second thought. Hopefully they'd be nice and put you early in the line, though. 'Cause having to look at a thousand Cordy-clones—it'd be seriously disturbing.

When she finished the braid, Buffy quickly bound it with the hair-tie. Before stepping around to face the redhead, she gently ran her hand down her back.

Willow was beaming when Buffy came around to face her. Her expression transformed to awe and she stuttered, "I-I can't believe—"

"Believe it," Buffy stated firmly. "Grab your stuff" — she held her hand out — "and walk with me," making a 'come hither' gesture. She accepted her purse when it was offered and took her friend's hand, leading her toward the front of the school.

As they reached the edge of school property, Willow tensed and sputtered, "But! But, Buffy, w-we can't—we can't leave the school without permission."

Giving the redhead a sideways glance, Buffy offered patiently, "Do you trust me?"

"I dunno—I mean, I suppose—but we'll get in trouble."

"Trust me enough to step off the curb," Buffy said in a pleading tone, "Just for a second, 'kay? I swear I'm not trying to get you in trouble." I think I get this. If I'm right— She stepped off the curb to encourage Willow by taking the risk first. Turning back, she took both of her friend's hands and said, "See, nothing bad happening."

"But we'll get in trouble. Please, come back," Willow begged.

After releasing her friend's hands Buffy took a step back and teased, "Come get me."

Mortified, Willow gasped, "Buffy!"

Feeling horrible for scaring her friend, Buffy inched back to the curb and offered her hands. "Please trust me, Will. Just one foot. I have a feeling about this."

Giving the blonde a baffled look, Willow accepted the hands. Her eyes clenched shut and she slowly extended her toe down toward the street.

Buffy watched in amazement as the ball of redhead's foot met the tarmac. She does trust me. No clue why. It must be some fragment—something left over.

Suddenly aware they were moving very fast, she protectively wrapped her arms around her friend. Shutting her eyes tight against the barrage of sensation, she offered reassuringly, "I gotcha."

They came to a halt and Buffy opened her eyes. The Willow that faced her was four years older. She blinked to try and clear the confusion and the redhead gave her a gentle kiss. She remembers! Tears welled up in Buffy's eyes as they kissed. It was as though all of her prayers had been answered in a single act.

When the contact abated, Buffy's eyes fluttered open again. She looked around. They were standing alone on the beach. Waves gently lapped at the shore. She took a deep breath enjoying the salt air.

"Let me try?"

Buffy heard the words and registered them. She was moving again, but this time Willow was guiding them. Buffy walked along casually next to her partner as though they were simply walking down a corridor. Her senses reeled as the scenery whipped past. It was like being in a car without the confining cage. As the world rushed past, she had a hard time not flinching at the things that brushed by.

They came to a stop in front of their home and Willow led her to the door.

Still perplexed by what was happening, Buffy turned to make eye contact with her lover. The face that peered back had aged again. Willow was in her early thirties. She had a refined appearance, tempered by wisdom. Buffy blinked, wondering if she would change again.

"I am what you want me to be," Willow explained patiently, "You see what you expect to. We can go anywhere. Be anything. Those are the rules. Right now what I want is to go to bed." Reaching for the doorknob, she opened the door and stepped inside.

After shutting the door behind them, Buffy asked "You're tired?" and dutifully followed.

Glancing over her shoulder, Willow smirked and replied, "Not at all."

A bright smile lit Buffy's face. There was a bounce in her step as she made her way up the stairs, following her witch.