Sic Transit Gloria Mundi by Kirayoshi

Disclaimers; Joss Whedon created them, 20th Century Fox owns them, we just empathize with them when they are made to suffer.
Author's Note; The following is an alternate Fifth season finale, an extrapolation of recent events, but with the supposition that a) this is the last story of the series, and b) Willow is Buffy's destined soulmate. Spoilers abound, up to "The Body", as does angst(Hey, after that ep, what do you expect?). Bear with me, this is going to be a harrowing ride.
Oh, and the title? Latin, means, "Thus passes the glory of the world".
Rating; R for disturbing images, thoughts of death, and violence. Just remember, this is the last ep of the show. Who says I have to bring Buffy back alive? ::diabolical laughter::
Summary; How far will the Slayer go when she loses too much?
Feedback; Yes, please. Jim_D_Means@prodigy.net

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Sic Transit Gloria Mundi
By Kirayoshi

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Chapter One
Ragnarok and Roll

"Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

--Janis Joplin, "Me and Bobby McGee"

She stood outside of the cemetery, while her sister laid a single rose on top of the grave. She never set foot in the cemetery after the funeral. She couldn't bring herself to.

It was two months ago when her world was finally and forever ripped away from her. Two months ago when her last tether to her real life was severed. Two months ago when everything stopped making sense.

Two months ago when she came home to find the flowers. And to find her.

Her mother, Joyce Summers, lying on the couch. Her eyes wide open and lifeless. Dead.

It wasn't any kind of vampire, demon or other big bad that killed her. There wasn't a spell, a vengeance ploy or any evil involved. Her tumor, the one the doctors said had been successfully removed, had flared suddenly. Too suddenly. All at once, the loving, vibrant woman who had cared for her, sometimes misunderstood her, but always loved her, was nothing more than a lifeless bag of meat and bones.

She suddenly found herself alone, with her little sister to take care of. Her home felt empty, lifeless. Dawn barely spoke to her, as though she blamed her for their mother's death. She was the Slayer, she had saved the world more times than she had eaten in restaurants, and she still couldn't save her mother.

The day after the funeral, a lawyer read Joyce's last will, which named Buffy as Dawn's legal guardian, requesting that Giles should take custody if anything happened to Buffy and splitting her assets and worldly goods equally between Buffy and Dawn. Remembering her earlier tumor scare, Joyce had arranged trust funds for both of her daughters, naming Giles as trustee to Dawn's fund. And Buffy's fund would at least cover another year of college.

College. Like Buffy was even considering that an option anymore. In the two months since her mother's death, she had effectively dropped out of all of her classes. She didn't even bother to sign up for any classes in spring quarter. When Giles heard about this from someone in the faculty, he grew angry at the Slayer. Buffy shot off the defense that she probably wouldn't live long, being the Slayer and all, which only served to make Giles madder. She didn't listen as he ranted at her, she just didn't care anymore.

Somewhere along the line, she found herself thinking about that situation a few months ago involving the ferula-gemina. Something called a Toth demon used that magic device to split Xander into two separate entities. Apparently its original target was Buffy, to split her into her human half, and her Slayer half. She started to think that she could do something like that, separate the weaker part of herself, the part that failed to save her mother, and rid herself of it. She started to think of herself, not as Buffy, but as the Slayer. 'Buffy' wasn't able to save anyone when it really mattered. Not Jesse, not Jenny, not Kendra. And certainly not her mother. 'Buffy' was weak, small, stupid, a coward who would be better off dead. She simply stopped being Buffy, and became the Slayer full time.

She distanced herself from her friends more. Willow, Xander, Anya, Tara, all of them tried to reach her, none of them succeeded. Even Dawn, who could always be counted on to annoy the hell out of Buffy, failed to get a rise out of her. Every day, she made herself a little bit less accessible.

Willow was hit by her coldness hardest of all. She had been Buffy's best friend, she loved her as deeply as she loved Tara, if in a different way. She grieved with her when they buried her mother. She had always liked Joyce Summers. She and Giles were the only two adults in Sunnydale she could talk to about things; about her wicca practice, about her love for Tara. Her parents would never understand, but Joyce, for all of her protests regarding Buffy's 'night life' and her own efforts to 'march in the Slayers Pride parade', she could understand. She got her. And Willow loved her for that. And she wasn't her real daughter, so she could only imagine how devastating this was for Buffy and Dawn.

But Buffy had refused any and all attempts at sympathy. "I'll tough it out," she always said, "I'm the Slayer."

Yes, she was the Slayer. But she once was Buffy. And now Buffy was being lost under the grip of the Slayer. Willow was losing her best friend.

And she didn't know how to make things right.

========

"Large and heavy package for Rupert Giles," Anya announced in a too-chipper voice. Giles emerged from the back room of the Magic Box, where Willow and Tara were sitting at a nearby table sifting through arcane texts while Buffy was currently engaged in beating the living daylights out of the bodybag.

Xander brought the large package in on a dollie, and Giles looked it over. "Hmm," the Watcher mused, "no return address, British post-mark." He ripped off the brown paper, and pried open the packing crate with a screwdriver.

The first thing he saw was a letter, written in the crisp, concise handwriting of Quentin Travers. He read the note carefully;

Dear Giles;

The contents of this package must be guarded at all cost. The sword Ragnarok within must be used only to defeat Glory. It took a great deal of doing on my part, as I had to call every favor I had with the Council, but I was able to convince them of the neccessity of these measures.

This crate, as I have indicated, contains the sword Ragnarok, and a copy of the pertinent texts. It is a desperate gambit, as you shall read. I pray that the Slayer is up to the challenge. And that she has made peace with her God.

Good Hunting,
Quentin Travers,
Watchers Council

Giles looked again at the letter, thunderstruck. Ragnarok, the Godkiller? He knew all the legends, most Watchers did. Have things gotten so out of hand with Glory that such drastic measures were truly needed? He stared at the letter for a few more seconds, then started to dig through the styrofoam pellets, finding the sword handle. An ornate knotwork pattern, like Celtic but different somehow, graced the handle, as the pommel shined with a light that seemed to come from deep within itself. From what little he knew about the sword, he dared not handle it any further.

Willow glanced at the sword, while Giles dug out a small, tattered book bound in red cloth. As he read the book hurriedly, his face blanched even further; so the reports about Ragnarok were indeed true, its terrible legends accurate.

Buffy emerged from the backroom, toweling herself off, and saw the sword. "Hey, what's happening?" she asked, as she casually gripped the handle of the sword. "New toys from the Council?" She lifted the sword out of the box, and began to feint and parry into the air. Giles stood thunderstruck at her suddenly improved fighting form; it was as though the sword had made her more proficient in the use of arms. Buffy herself marveled at how easily the handle fit her hand, as though molded only for her. She thrust a few more times in the air, getting a sense of the blade's balance.

"Buffy," Giles whispered hoarsely, "put that sword down now, please."

Buffy stopped her exercises, and put the blade on the table. "Right, Giles, no touchie."

"So," Xander asked, "What's the deal with Green Destiny here?"

"Wha--" Giles stammered slightly, before realizing that Xander was referring to the sword. "Ah, yes, the sword is called Ragnarok. I had believed until this moment that Ragnarok was a myth. I certainly prayed that it was."

"Ragnarok," Willow repeated the word slowly. "Isn't that a Norse word for 'Armageddon' or something like that?"

Giles nodded, his attention still riveted to the blade. "Specifically, Willow, it means 'Twilight of the Gods'."

A brief and profound silence was broken by Xander, who said, "Whoa, whoa, whoa. You saying Twilight, as in End? As in, this thing can kill gods?"

"The sword is also called the Godkiller, Xander," Giles replied somberly.

Xander started to chuckle, then laugh out loud. "Somebody give me a Hallelujah!"

"Xander--"

"I mean, here we are with a psycho Goddess on our case," Xander continued, "and the Council guys send us the very thing to take her out of the picture."

"Xander--"

"I say we take her out tomorrow night. Tell her we have that key thingie she's looking for, and ambush her when she gets here."

"Xander!" The young man's ramble stopped suddenly as Giles shouted, something he rarely did before. "I have a vault in the backroom for dangerous mystical artifacts. I'm placing Ragnarok in the vault immediately, and tomorrow I'm sending it back to the Council."

"Good idea, G-Man," Xander nodded enthusiastically, "we wouldn't want her flunkies to get their mitts on the blade before you SEND IT BACK TO THE COUNCIL?"

"That's precicely what I said, Xander," Giles intoned. "We cannot ever use this sword."

Xander gaped at the former Watcher, his mouth wide open. "Giles, I do believe you've your brain's developed a slow leak. Now, follow my logic here. This blade is called the Godkiller. Translation, it kills gods. Now we have a god who desperately needs killing--"

"Ahem," Anya coughed rudely.

"Okay, honey," Xander amended his statement, "Goddess, but leave us not get bogged down in gender issues."

"If I may continue," Giles' voice grew more irritated, and Xander meekly silenced himself. "The sword can only be used by one person, the Slayer. And its use would kill her."

Xander blinked at Giles as his words sunk in. "Cancel that Halleluja and make it a Hoo Boy."

Giles smirked ruefully as Xander conceded him the point. "The sword may only be used to kill Glory if it is anointed with the blood of its wielder. That anointment creates a bond between the Slayer and the sword. The sword becomes master, its wielder a servant to the sword. And should the Slayer, god forbid, succeed in killing Glory, her death would release her godly energies, creating a feedback that would kill the Slayer." He stared intently at Buffy, saying, "Do you understand what I'm saying, Buffy? The bond was begun already the moment you picked up the sword. If you were to actually use it, the bond would be complete, and you would die."

The room fell silent as Giles concluded his lecture. All eyes fell upon the cursed blade. All thoughts mirrored Giles'; they had in their grasp the tool to eliminate the mad goddess Glory, to save mankind from her wrath, but to use the tool would mean the end of Buffy's life.

Buffy broke the silence, calmly saying, "So now we at least have a plan 'B'."

Giles glared sharply at Buffy as she spoke. "The sword goes back to the council tomorrow," he insisted.

"You can't do that, Giles," Buffy answered coldly. "That sword is the only sure chance we have to take down Glory. If no one has any better ideas, we need the sword."

Giles stared at Buffy silently. The others sat still, the silence a palpable and wearying force over them all. "Buffy," Giles finally said, "may I see you in the back room?" Buffy silently followed her Watcher to the backroom. None of the others dared follow, or even dare speak to each other.

========

Giles looked at Buffy, a profound sadness in his eyes. Buffy sat silently on the lifting bench, her hands in her lap, awaiting what he had to say. "Buffy," he said, as gently as he ever spoke to his charge, "I was not on good terms with my father when he died. I'm sure you know of my wild past, my 'Ripper' years. But the news of my father's death did something to me. I understand what you're going through. We all do, we all have lost someone close to us."

"Yeah, I know," Buffy answered. "Willow and Xander lost Jesse, you lost Jenny. And you know what? If I'd been doing my job then, they'd be alive. But no, I had to be normal, I had to have a life." Buffy stood up and paced the room, giving Giles the impression of a wild animal, straining at the leash. "And now, when my mom needed me, I wasn't there either!"

"Buffy, you cannot blame yourself for what happened to your mother," Giles started.

"Why not?" Buffy cried out. "Dawn is! I'm the Goddamned Slayer, and I couldn't even save my mom! Where was my blasted Slayer-Sense when it really mattered?"

Giles let her rave for a minute longer, recognizing that this was something that has been weighing down on her soul for too long. "We were learning about past Slayers these last few months, Giles. I think I know now why they never lasted as long as I did. Because they weren't supposed to. After eighteen, they start to get sloppy, they think they can do anything! But when it comes to crunch time, they can't do squat! At least with this sword of Hardrock I can stop Glory before she finds out that Dawn is the key!"

"At the expense of your own life," Giles argued.

"Oh yeah, like that's worth something!"

Giles got up and placed his hands on Buffy's shoulders, stopping her pacing. "Is that what this is? You want to die that badly? This isn't self sacrifice on your part, this is suicide!"

"Why not?" Buffy shouted. "I've endangered you guys long enough! Why not end the whole thing? Glory's gone, Willow, Xander, all of you guys can have a normal life, away from Hellsville!"

Giles looked at the broken soul that stood before him. Her mother's death had done what all of her greatest enemies could never do, it had truly and completely destroyed her. Crushed her soul and robbed her of her will to continue. He knew that she was holding it all inside her to keep the others from worrying about her, but now it was all out in the open.

"Buffy," he stated calmly, "you must understand, I am concerned for your well being, for your future--"

"I'M THE GODDAMNED SLAYER!" she screamed. "I DON'T HAVE A FUTURE!"

"Yes, you do, Buffy," Giles snapped back harshly. "And I'm not going to stand by and allow you to throw it away!" He stopped himself before his anger spilled over any further. He collected himself and continued. "When this ordeal with Glory is over -- and we will find a solution that doesn't involve you sacrificing your life -- I want you to consider hanging up your stakes. Perhaps you're right, Buffy. Perhaps you shouldn't be the Slayer any longer. You have greater responsibilities now, to Dawn, for her well-being. You need to start your own life, outside of slaying, outside of Sunnydale if you can arrange it. It's time for you to stop being the Slayer, and start living a normal life again."

Buffy was genuinely surprised at the suggestion. She stared hard at the floor in front of her, ashamed of how angry she had been at Giles before. "But what about my responsibility? You know, the one girl in all the world, yadda yadda yadda."

Giles chuckled dryly at her words. "Buffy Summers, no one has upheld that responsibility better than you have. And you have already lost too much because of it. You've done your bit for king and country, several times over. It's time for you to think about your own future. It's time to stop being the Slayer, and start being Buffy Summers again." Giles bent to look at Buffy's face, and could swear that he saw a tear coursing down her cheek. He thought that he might have reached her.

That hope was dashed when she suddenly got up, clenched her fists, and shouted, "Who wants to be that loser anyway?" She grabbed her things and charged out of the backroom, out of the Magic Box, and far out of sight.

Xander and the others stared at the swinging door, and back at Giles. "She's had a rough time recently," was the Englishman's only explanation.

"I'll take the Glaringly Obvious for 100, Alex," Xander shot back angrily, adding to the tension.

"Should we go after her?" Tara asked. "Maybe she needs us."

"No," Willow said wearily. "What she needs is for the last six months to never have happened. She needs to wake up and find out this is all a dream, there isn't a psycho goddess after her sister, her mom isn't dead and her boyfriend wasn't a jerk who got his jollies shagging vampires!" Getting up from her chair, she collected her coat, and said, "I'm going out for a while. A long while. Don't wait up, Tara, I wouldn't be fit company anyway." She left the Magic Box in a hurry, and over the next five minutes, the other young people quietly filed out the front door.

Giles sat alone for a very long time, wondering where it all went so horribly wrong, and why everything was falling apart so fast. "Joyce Summers," he murmured to the air around him, "your absence is felt more keenly than you could imagine."

Buffy, for her part, managed to make it down several blocks before she could walk no more. Not caring who saw her, she dropped to her knees and wailed loud and long. She cried not only for her mother, but for all those she couldn't save. Jesse. Kendra. Jenny. Faith.

And herself.

========

Dawn was in her bedroom, plowing through her homework, desperately trying to come to grips with her algebra assignment. She found herself solving the same damn story problem three different times, with three different answers, before she threw her books off her desk in disgust.

What had happened to her? Why did she have to lose her mother? Why did her life have to be a hollow lie, a fiction made up by some monk to protect her from some goddess?

I'm Dawn Summers,

she reminded herself for the million-and-seventeenth time, not the Key. I'm Dawn Summers! It didn't keep her mind away from the horrors she's seen in the last year.

Sure she knew her sister was the Vampire Slayer; two years ago, she was sitting on the stairs listening in when Buffy finally told her mother, and Mom went Pompeii over her. She knew that Buffy had fought the nastiest of nasties, from vampires to demons to those freaky Gentlemen creeps (her personal least favorites). She knew that if given the chance, Buffy could probably flatten that Zhang Ziyi chick from "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon". And she knew that her friends could probably paste the X-Men in a clinch. But it didn't make her feel any safer. Especially since she became the target.

And especially since something as mundane as a brain tumor managed to kill her mom.

Before she could continue that line of thought, the doorbell chimed. Dawn got out of her chair to answer the door. She immediately recognized the woman on the other side. Honey-blond hair, early-forties, watery blue eyes, even her wardrobe was the same. The woman smiled at Dawn, saying, "So how's my little girl?"

Dawn gasped slightly. "M-Mom?"

"Yes, honey, it's me," her mother answered. "Aren't you going to invite me in?"

Dawn snapped out of her shock and gathered her wits quickly. "The hell I am!" she shouted to the older woman, as she backed away in search of a crucifix. "I know the rules; I don't invite you, you can't come in."

The woman looked saddened at Dawn's fear. "You think I'm a -- a vampire?" She started to laugh warmly. "Oh honey, I'll prove I'm real. See?" She stepped across the threshold into Giles' house, and smiled at Dawn. "You're right, dear. If I were a vampire, I couldn't walk in without an invitation."

Dawn gaped in wonderment. This woman wasn't a vampire, wasn't a demon. She was Joyce Summers. Her mother. Dawn rushed into her waiting arms, and cried tears of joy. "Oh Mom," she sobbed, "I missed you so much!"

"There, there," the older woman soothed, stroking Dawn's hair. "I missed you too, my little burro."

Dawn just caught that last part, and it made her stop and think. "You never called me that before, Mom."

"But you are, my dear," a different voice answered. Dawn looked up, and into the face of her mother.

But now she wasn't her mother. She was the enemy of mankind. She was Glory.

"My little burro," she started to laugh. "My donkey. Get it? Dawn-Key!" She laughed hysterically at her own humor while Dawn was too scared to scream. "Oh I just kill me sometimes," Glory gleefully announced as she transported herself and her captive away.

*****

Chapter two;
Carry That Weight

"Once there was a way
To get back home,
Once there was a way
To get back home.

Sleep little darling, do not cry
And I will sing a lullaby.

Boy, you're gonna carry that weight,
Carry that weight a long time."

--John Lennon and Paul McCartney
"Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight"

She made it back home after a cursory patrol. She felt the need to look in on Dawn. Then she would continue her patrol.

"Dawn?" she called out in the hallway. No one answered. "Dawn? Where are you?" Still no reply.

She then noticed a pale pink envelope on the floor in front of her, bearing the name 'Buffy' in an immaculate script. She opened the envelope and pulled out a linen paper card, that also bore the same script. The message within, however, made her blood run cold;

Dear Buffy,

I have your sister.
The monks lost.
Just so you know,
the world ends tonight.
It's been fun,

Toodles,
Glory

Buffy immediately rushed to her room, stopped to grab some more stakes and holy water, and ran out the front door. She had to find Glory and stop her once and for all. And there was only one way to do it.

On her way to the Magic Shop, she was stopped by a familiar voice; "Hey, friend, where's the fire?"

She didn't even stop to acknowledge the voice. He tried again; "Y'know, if I didn't know any better, I'd say you were trying to shrug me off!"

"Die in pain, Spike," Buffy shouted.

"Already did that," Spike grinned. "I do it every night you refuse my affections."

"Buy a clue, Hannibal Lechter," Buffy growled. "You're a vampire, I'm a vampire slayer. What sort of relationship should we have?"

"Why, Buffy," the punk vampire feigned innocence. "You wound me. And after all the trouble I went through for your sake."

Buffy slowed her pace but did not stop. "Not that this indicates any kind of curiosity on my part, but what the hell are you talking about?"

"Your brat, Slayer," Spike smiled ferally. "The sister who isn't really. I put her out of your misery."

Buffy stopped sharply and spun around, glaring at Spike. "I didn't even have to do anything directly to her," he continued. "Just told our mutual friend Glory what she was looking for, key-wise--"

"You -- Son -- Of -- A -- BITCH!" With each word, Buffy took a step toward Spike, ending her statement by connecting a blow to his jaw that would have killed a mortal. "You realize what you've done?" she shouted at the fallen vampire. "She's going to use Dawn to reenter her native demon realm, destroying the Earth in the process! You sold out the planet!"

"Let it die, Slayer," Spike laughed. "We will be the Lord and Lady of the new Hell. The two of us together, the way the fates decreed!" He leaned in closer, and growled lustfully, "Glory has promised to give me the state of California as my personal hunting ground. I want to share my triumph with you. Together for all eternity."

Buffy looked long and hard at Spike, before rendering her opinion; "You, Spike, are completely and totally NUTS! I'm talking one toy surprise shy of a box of Cracker Jacks! Let me take this opportunity to spell it out, Spike! I don't want you in my life! I hate you! I want you dead! How much more clear do I have to make myself?"

Spike glared darkly at the Slayer. "I'd remind you, Buffy," he snarled, "that chip in my head isn't a governing issue. You will be mine, Buffy Summers, either as a human, or as one of my kind. I will never let anyone come near you again. You are mine!"

Buffy glared at the vampire as he ranted, and realized the truth. Another failing of hers. She made the mistake of letting Spike live when she could have taken him out in a heartbeat while he was under the power of his microchip. Now he was back to his evil self, and her sister had paid for her hesitation.

She stood in front of the monster, her rage threatening to consume her. Spike looked at her fondly, his words as mellow as he could make them; "Yes, Buffy. You and I aren't so different, are we? We are of the night. We belong to the darkness. Come with me, be mine forever -- and remember that when I say 'forever', it ain't an exaggeration."

Buffy calmed herself, seeing her chance. She walked toward the vampire, her expression softening, her posture suggesting a raw sexuality. "Why Spike," she cooed, "I didn't know you could be such a poet." Spike grinned lustily, knowing that the moment he had dreamt of for so long would soon come to pass. Buffy would be his.

The Slayer took Spike in her arms, and felt his cold hands run gracelessly along her body. She carressed the back of his neck with her left hand, distracting him with her touch.

He didn't feel the stake that she thrust with all her strength into his back, not until it pierced his black heart.

As the last ashen remains of William the Bloody, aka Spike, drifted past her, Buffy spat on the ashes. "So, Spike," she asked, "was it good for you too?"

She felt nothing. Her limbs were numb and simply moved when she willed them too. Her heart was callused, hardened against any further breaking. Her coping mechanism. She recognized it for what it was. She simply was no longer able to feel. She did not think of Willow, Xander, Tara and Anya as friends, only people who, for some insane reason, chose to hang with her. She could no longer work up the energy to hate Spike or Glory, or miss Angel or Riley, or even mourn her mother. There was nothing left for her. No, a voice in the back of her head demanded. One thing. She found herself thinking of what Spike had said to her a few months ago;

"The thing about the dance is, you never get to stop. Every day you wake up, it's the same bloody question that haunts you: is today the day I die? Death is on your heels, baby, and sooner or later it's gonna catch you. And part of you wants it... not only to stop the fear and uncertainty, but because you're just a little bit in love with it. Death is your art. You make it with your hands, day after day. That final gasp. That look of peace. Part of you is desperate to know: What's it like? Where does it lead you? And now you see, that's the secret. Not the punch you didn't throw or the kicks you didn't land. Every Slayer... has a death wish.

"The only reason you've lasted as long as you have is you've got ties to the world... your mum, your brat kid sister, the Scoobies. They all tie you here but you're just putting off the inevitable. Sooner or later, you're gonna want it. And the second- the second- that happens...You know I'll be there. I'll slip in...have myself a real good day. Here endeth the lesson. I just wonder if you'll like it as much as she did."

A strange calm overtook her at that point. Her ties were dissolving and she didn't feel a thing. Riley betrayed her. Her mother was dead. Dawn hated her, blaming her for their mother's death. Her friends were embarking on new lives, lives that soon wouldn't have any room for her.

And tonight, she knew with absolute clarity, was the last night of her life.

That thought should have filled her with dread, with unspeakable fear. It just left her feeling finished. Complete in some unfathomable way. Tonight was what her life as the Slayer was coming down to.

"Time for my last dance, Spike," she spoke to the ghost of her mentor/nemesis one last time, and ran back home.

She opened her footlocker, and pulled out three sealed envelopes; one addressed simply to Dawn, one addressed Giles, and one addressed Willow. She had gotten into the habit of writing letters to her closest friends and family, to be opened and read In The Event Of. She took these three envelopes and stashed them in her bag. She then left the house, taking one last look behind her, before she left for the Magic Box

She unlocked the front door, made her way to the back room and located the vault. Giles had stashed Ragnarok in the vault to keep it save overnight before shipping it back to the Council. He wanted to find a solution that wouldn't endanger Buffy. Yeah, right, she grumbled to herself. Like she's any prize. She started turning the dial of the combination lock, and after a few failed experiments was able to determine the combination easily. "Real original, Giles," she muttered quietly. "Jenny Calendar's birthday."

She pushed down on the handle and heard the latch click. The door swung open with a slight squeak. Buffy reached in and grabbed the handle of the ancient sword. She hefted it briefly above her head, and tried a few practice feints and parries, to gauge the weight and attitude of the sword. It felt good in her hand. Like it was made for her, an extension of her arm.

She located the book that came with the sword, and read the pertinent texts; to use the sword to slay Glory, Buffy had to cut her own body deeply, and coat the blade's edge with her own blood. That bond would allow her power to pass through the sword and into Glory's body at the moment the thrust is made. But the psychic backlash that resulted would kill Buffy the second after she killed Glory. Almost instantaneouosly, if the text was correct.

At least it would be over quickly.

========

"I'm gonna swing by the Magic Box before heading back, Tara," the voice on the answering machine announced. "Just wanted to make sure everything was secure, the hatches are battened down, whatever that means. I'll try not to wake you up when I get in, honey, I just needed to work off some off the collected despair. See you tomorrow. Love ya." The answering machine clickd off and again Tara McClay was alone.

Over a year ago, an incredible young woman named Willow Rosenberg showed up on her doorstep, a candle in her hand, offering Tara her heart. That moment was the validation of Tara's previously unhappy life. She had left an uncaring family behind her and had found in Willow, and later in her friends, the real family she had craved for so long.

But now that family was falling apart.

Buffy Summers, in many ways the very heart and soul of this family, had lost the core of her own life. Her mother was dead. The man she pledged to love was false to her. And now, with this cursed sword in their midst, she felt that she had an easy out. Sacrifice herself to save others, that's what a Slayer does, right?

Only is it sacrifice if there is already a death wish?

She could feel how this was destroying her Willow. Her beloved. And Tara certainly understood why that should be. After all, Buffy was the one who first brought Willow out of her shell, who in many ways was responsible for the sweet, vibrant young woman whom she loved with all her heart and soul.

But did Willow love her? She didn't doubt that, not at all, but still...

Over a year ago, Willow had chosen Tara over Oz.

If the choice were now, and between Tara and Buffy, she had no guarantee that Willow would choose her again.

A faint tingling across her scalp distracted Tara from the downward spiral her thoughts were taking. The tingling slowly grew in intensity, until it threatened to overpower her. She realized quickly the terrible truth; the alarm spell that she and Willow had cast over Giles' vault had been activated. Someone was breaking into the vault. And she knew without question who it was.

She immediately dialed a number on the telephone, and prayed that he was home.

Three rings later, a slightly groggy voice answered, "Giles speaking."

"Mr. Giles," Tara said, trembling, her nervous stutter returning with a vengeance, "B-B-Buffy's stealing Ragn-na-r-rok!"

"Good lord!" Giles gasped loudly. "Are you sure?"

"The alarm spell's been b-broken," Tara replied. "Who else c-could it be?"

"I'll be there in a few minutes," Giles answered. "Is Willow with you?"

"She said she was going to check out the Magic Box," Tara said. "She's probably already there."

"Good," Giles said rapidly. "I'll pick you up in a second, you call Xander and have him and Anya meet us at the shop. See you soon." The phone connection cut off, and Tara tossed on some jeans and a shirt. As she waited for Giles, she lowered her head and held out her hands.

"Bright lady," she prayed to her Goddess, "please watch after Buffy Summers. For her own sake, for the sake of the world, and for the sake of the woman who holds my heart."

========

"A little late to take your sword for a walk?" asked a familiar voice from the doorway. Buffy turned on her heel to face who was speaking behind her, the sword drawn and at the ready.

"Geez, Willow!" Buffy shouted at the interloper. "Don't ever do that!" Lowering her blade, Buffy glared at Willow, who bore her infamous 'Resolve Face'. She was going to try and stop Buffy, that much was certain. "What're you doing here, Willow? Thought you'd be with Tara."

"She's back at the dorm," Willow answered. "And you didn't think I'd leave the Magic Box unguarded? I had the vault spelled, kinda like a silent alarm, so I'd know if anyone tried to tamper it." She crossed her arms, and said, "You're going after Glory, aren't you?"

"We're out of options, Wills," Buffy stated plainly. "Glory has Dawn. She knows Dawn is the Key." Willow gasped at Buffy's statement. "Yeah, Spike told Glory about Dawn to get to me. Don't worry about him, he's dustbuster chow now." She belted the scabbard around her waist as she continued; "I know where she is, the only place where she could use the Key around here. The old high school, just over the Hellmouth. She's going to sacrifice Dawn, using her energies to open the door to her realm, opening the Hellmouth in the process."

"I'll call Giles," Willow started, but Buffy grabbed her wrist, hard enough to cause pain. "NO!" she shouted. "No one else can be involved. This is my last battle, Wills. I'm ending it one way or the other." She reached in her purse, and withdrew the three envelopes. "Don't open these until tomorrow, that is assuming there is a tomorrow. If you're not dead in the morning, or transported to some hellish realm, then I'll have beaten Glory. Then you, Giles and Dawn can read these. My farewell messages."

"You're not leaving me behind, Buffy," Willow insisted. "I've been there from nearly the beginning. I won't be shut out now. If being my best friend ever meant anything to you, you won't leave me behind."

Buffy stepped forward, as Willow took her in her arms and held her desperately. "It means the world to me, Willow. More than you can imagine." The faintest embers of her feelings started to flare as she cupped Willow's face in her hand and lifted her eyes to meet her own. "It says so in my letter, but I can't say goodbye to you without letting you know the truth. Before Riley, before Scott, before Angel, there was always you. You were my first true friend, my confidante, my most trusted ally in this battle. I never said this because of my past experiences in love, but I have always loved you. More than anyone I have ever known in my life. You were, are, and always will be the most important person in my world. And I can't give you a greater gift than this." She disengaged the hug and resumed her cold mask. "I'm letting you go. From now on, the Scooby Gang is disbanded. You can start your own lives now, away from Sunnyhell. One way or another, I'll be dead in the morning. I've accepted that."

"WELL, I HAVEN'T!" The force of Willow's shout shocked the Slayer. "Haven't we lost too much already? Your mom was closer to us than our own parents. Yeah, we still hurt, but at least we're sharing our pain. Helping each other through it. You, no, not the almighty Slayer! You gotta face it alone! Forgive my language, Buffy, but that's BULLSHIT!"

The vehemence of Willow's outburst caught them both off guard. Willow stopped suddenly and tried to slow herself, speaking as calmly as she could; "Look Buffy, I won't tell you I know what you're going through, but you don't have to go through it alone. And if you don't mind me saying so, your trying to shoulder the burden yourself is pretty damn selfish of you." She could feel hot tears stinging her eyes, but she continued. "Buffy, you're too important for us to just walk away, so don't you dare expect us to go. We're family, Buffy; you, me, Tara, Giles, Xander, Anya, Dawn, we're practically the only family we've got. Don't expect us to abandon you just because you tell us to, because we won't!

"Too bad I don't have time for the grief counseling, Willow," Buffy shouted back at her friend. "But it's too late for that. We're talking ten seconds left in the fourth quarter and we're down by six! There's only one play left in the playbook and I'm using it. No discussions, it's done. If there were another way I'd do it."

"Would you," Willow accused her, "would you really?" She no longer tried to fight the tide of tears that now spilled freely from her face. Buffy rushed to her side and took her in her arms again. She soothed her soft red hair, kissed her forehead, knowing that this would be her last chance to hold her beloved Willow again.

"I'm sorry, Willow," she whispered into the redhead's ear.

"So you're gonna take me with you, at least?" Willow asked hopefully. "We can come up with a last minute plan on the way?"

"No, Wills," Buffy replied, her face turned again to stone. "I'm sorry for this." Her right hand had been tracing the sides of Willow's neck. She now located a specific nerve cluster beneath the skin of her neck, and pressed the nerves between her forefinger and thumb.

Willow dropped like a sack of potatoes, unconscious. Buffy gathered her body and rested it on the weightlifters bench. "Goodbye, Willow," she whispered one last time, placing a gentle kiss on her cheek. "It's better this way. Don't waste any more time loving me. It's not like I ever earned it."

She stole one last glance at the sleeping Willow, and found that she had to summon her resolve to finish what she set out to do. Wearing the Godkiller sword at her side, Buffy Summers left for her date with death.

========

Dawn awakened to pain. Her head pounded like twenty kettledrums. Her wrists were scraping against something, and when she tried to move them, the pain was worse. She stirred her head to look at her arms, she saw that her wrists were bound tight to the headboard above her. Continued examination showed that her ankles were bound as well.

She glanced furtively at her surroundings. The dingy room was half-collapsed, with wreckage of fallen walls breaking beams of floodlights outside in a strange dappled pattern. It struck her then; the old high school, the one that Buffy and her friends had to torch to destroy the Mayor at graduation. She suddenly remembered what had happened, who had brought her here. "Glory," she gasped, coughing as dust entered her lungs.

"You called?" an unpleasantly chipper voice announced. The mad goddess appeared before her, wearing a red silk strapless dress with matching silk scarf. "Just had to finish dressing. It's so hard to accessorize for the end of the world." She did a neat pirouette, and curtseyed before the bound girl. "What do you think?"

"L-lovely," Dawn stammered, desperately trying to hold down the wave of fear behind a dam of anger. "S-so you gonna kill me or what?"

"Oh, sorry, I can't right now," Glory shook her head. "Love to, but can't. You know how it is, I gotta wait for the full moon to shine at just the right spot, then use the proper incantation, so we gotta wait an hour."

"Too bad," Dawn spat out. "Buffy'll be on your case before then. You're godlike ass is grass, sister."

"Yeah, right," Glory laughed mirthlessly. "So far, I've beaten her every time we've gone at it. The only time she managed to stop me was when those witchbitch pals of her pulled that transport spell. I ended up miles out of town, thousands of feet in the air. The impact drove me into the ground like a tent peg. Let me tell you, it hurts like heck!" She turned back to Dawn and grinned, saying, "I hope your big sister does come, my little Key. I want to knock her around some before I kill her." She chuckled throatily to herself, as Dawn trembled.

She feared the inevitable. She had lost her mother two months ago. And now, she was going to lose her sister. Assuming that she didn't die herself.

All that she was certain of was that one way or another, tonight was when it all would end. And she was at ground zero.

Chapter three

Terrible Swift Sword

"Light a candle, light a votive. Step down, step down.
Watch your heel crush, crushed, uh-oh, this means
No fear cavalier. Renegade steer clear!
A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies.
Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives
and I decline.

It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine."

--REM
"It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)"

The Slayer stood alone on a street near the old schoolgrounds. She was preparing her soul for her final battle. She knew what was expected of her. She knew for some time that this day would come. When she would be expected to lay her life down in battle with a terrible threat.

"The time of gods is at an end," she muttered in an almost sing-song voice, reciting the invocation she had read from the book that the Council had provided with the sword. "Give me now the strength and resolve to take down the goddess Glory. In the name of all mankind, I fight and die tonight." She bared her left arm, and ran the edge of the sword Ragnarok against her tender flesh. She cut deeply, wincing slightly at the pain. Blood welled from the wound, and coated the edge of the blade. As the Slayer gazed at her wounded arm, the cut grew less and less severe. She smiled; as the Slayer she enjoyed a heightened healing factor but it never worked this fast. She suspected that Ragnarok was responsible for her quick recovery; within ten seconds, the wound was nothing more than a reddish mark on her skin.

She could feel the bond forming between herself and the sword. As her own thoughts and emotions became subservient to the will of the blade, a tiny voice in her mind struggled to be heard. She ignored that voice. Ragnarok had offered her a chance to finally shed her weaker self, her human self, and she accepted. Buffy had failed time and again to saved those she loved. Let her fall away, the Slayer declared.

The Slayer.

As her humanity slowly ebbed away, Buffy realized the terrible truth. This was the terrible secret of the blade Ragnarok. The ultimate weapon of the Slayer. The doomsday weapon, which would give her the ultimate powers of all Slayers, down to the Primal Slayer, but carried a mystical failsafe; if she failed to slay her foe within the hour, that power would burn out its host. One way or another, she would die within the hour.

She looked forward to her final rest. She embraced darkness. As the power of the Primal Slayer continued to flow through her being, little by little, that which was Buffy Summers was being eroded away. And she made no motions to stop her fading away.

Her memories of Sunnydale, and Los Angeles before that. Gone.

Her hopes, her ambitions, her desires. Gone.

Her lost loves. Riley. Scott. Angel. Pike. Gone.

Her circle of friends. Tara. Anya. Faith. Oz. Kendra. Jenny. Cordy. Xander. Giles. Gone.

Her family. Mom. Dad. Dawn. Gone.

Her one true soulmate. Willow. Gone.

Be happy, Wills. I love you...

With that final thought, Buffy Summers simply ceased to exist.

There was only the Slayer.

The Slayer's power surged through her veins. The Slayer's strength fortified her bones. The Slayer's memories filled her mind. The Slayer's song sang through her muscles. The Slayer's war cry ripped from her lungs and echoed across the farthest rooftops of Sunnydale.

Buffy Summers, for the first and last time in her life, had truly become the Slayer.

"Hold, Slayer," a commanding voice boomed out behind her. She turned on her heel and faced the speaker. A tall figure covered head to foot in chainmail armor, his shield and sword at the ready. Six others likewise clad stood behind him, all fit fighting men, all ready for battle.

The Slayer recognized these men; the Order of Byzantium. An ancient order of knights devoted to the destruction of the goddess Glory. All equally devoted to the destruction of the Key, and of the one who protected the Key. Which made her their enemy. "Look, Sir Swish-a-Lot, I don't have time to deal with you guys. Go find a Holy Grail or something."

"Stand fast, Slayer," the lead knight glowered at the Slayer. "You will not stop us in our mission. We will destroy Glory, and if you stand in our way, you fall with her."

The Slayer smirked at the knight's bravado. "Oh yeah? Right now, Glory-hog has my sister, and I have to stop her from using the Key to destroy the world, so you're the ones in my way. Besides, mine's bigger than yours, Chainmail Boy!" She hoisted the blade she carried in front of her, adopting a battle stance. "Face it, boys," she grinned, "don't you feel just a little inadequate right about now?"

The knights stared at the blade, and within seconds fell to their knees. The lead knight's eyes still locked on the sword, as he whispered, "Ragnarok. The Godkiller!"

"Ah, you read the brochure," the Slayer nodded. "So you know what this letter opener's capable of."

"Lady," the knight looked in fear, "I beseech you not to use the blade; it would mean your death."

"Yeah, and not using it tonight would mean my death, your deaths, and the deaths of everyone else on the planet," she shouted in a voice of pure authority that shook the knights to their cores. "I'm going to take care of your little Glory problem, and I'm not expecting to survive the incident. So I'd appreciate it if you guys would cut me some freakin' slack!"

As the Slayer spoke, something changed within the knight; he started to look upon the woman with the sword in her hand with less contempt and more awe. Standing before him was a woman who was more than willing to sacrifice herself for her sister, for her world. The lead knight bent his knee in supplication to the Slayer, and motioned his fellow knights to do the same. "Slayer," he declared, "you have our respect and loyalty. Command us and we shall obey."

The Slayer raised a single eyebrow toward the knight, and allowed her expression to soften. "What is your name, sir?"

"Sir Ricardo," the young man answered.

"Then, Sir Ricardo," the Slayer answered, "I can use you and your men. I must concentrate on Glory, but no doubt she has a platoon of her minions guarding her six. I need you guys to engage her goons. I just need you to give me an opening to get to Glory."

"We will not fail you, my lady," Ricardo declared. The Slayer smiled. She knew that despite their initial enmity, she could trust this young man.

"Okay, men, saddle up. I know where Glory is, so I'll lead the way. Once we're there, I'm counting on you to give me a window to take down Glory. Forward, men."

Buffy and the Order of Byzantium headed out for their final battle with Glory. The knights had accepted a long time ago that they might not survive this encounter, but the Slayer knew that she wouldn't. While the other knights felt a faint twinge of apprehension at the prospect of dying, the Slayer felt calm.

After all, what fear does one have of dying when one has no more desire to live?

========

"Buffy?" Giles shouted as he hurriedly unlocked the front door of the Magic Box. Tara ran ahead of her, and when he heard no answer to his call, Giles feared the worst.

His fears were verified when he rushed into the back room. Willow was unconscious on the weights bench, the vault door was open and Ragnarok was missing. Giles felt a terrible dread clutch his heart as Tara ran to Willow's side and slapped her face lightly, in an effort to revive her.

"Huh," Willow murmured groggily as she stirred and tried to sit up. "Man, anyone get the license of that Star Destroyer?"

"Willow," Tara whispered urgently, "what happened? Where's Buffy?"

"Buff-" The name of her best friend caused Willow to shake off the effects of Buffy's nerve pinch. "Omigoddess! BuffyhasRagnarokshe'sgonnatakedownGlorybeforeDawn--"

"Slowly, Willow," Giles urged the young wiccan. "Breath, calm, relax. Now, what happened?"

Willow breathed hard, and continued, calming at Tara's touch, slowing her nervous babble. "Buffy has Ragnarok, she's gonna take down Glory. I tried to stop her but she gave me the Vulcan neck pinch."

"And I thought she had tuned out my lecture on pressure points," Giles cursed under his breath. He was about to ask Willow why Buffy would embark on this suicide mission. Willow provided the answer before he even asked; "Spike sold Dawn out to Glory. Glory has Dawn, she knows Dawn's the Key. I guess tonight's the showdown."

"Damn and blast!" Giles burst out angrily, slamming his fist on the bench beside Willow.

"Don't worry, Willow," Tara tried to assure her lover. "As soon as the alarm sounded I called Xander. He and Anya will be here soon. He'll drive us."

"But where?" Tara asked.

"The only place where Glory can use the Key," Giles declared. "The nexus of the dark forces that have bedevilled this Godforsaken town."

"The Hellmouth," Willow gasped.

"Yes," snapped Giles, "the Hellmouth. And we have to be there. Somehow, we have to save Buffy."

From Glory, and from herself, he added silently.

========

"Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!" sang the mad goddess as she opened her ancient codex. "Tonight's the night, pals and gals!" She happily addressed her minions as she prepared to sacrifice the bound and gagged Dawn. "Within the hour, the moon will rise overhead, and shine its light over our Key. Then I sacrifice her, after which, it's my coming out party!" She cackled like a lunatic at her own amusement. "Yes, pals and gals, it's time for us to hop off this dirt ball, and burn it down behind us."

Dawn trembled as she heard these words. She glanced back at Glory as the goddess accepted an ancient book from one of her hench-demons. Glory placed the book on a makeshift podium and started thumbing through the yellowing parchment pages. "Geez Louise," Dawn muttered. "Ancient books, dumb fashions, waiting for the full moon. Are all you would-be world destroyers such drama queens?"

Glory chuckled softly as she cast an insane eye toward her captive. "Hey, if you're gonna destroy a world, at least you can make a party out of it, y'know? Give it a sense of occasion." She turned back to the book, and located the proper incantation. "Now, please be quiet, brat, I have some heavy-duty incanting to do before the moonlight hits you." She placed her hand on the page, and began to chant;

"When the moon reaches its zenith,
When its light is cast over the key,
Let the power of the key be unleashed.
Let the lock be sundered,
Let the barriers between this world and the next fall."

She began to mutter a string of arcane syllables, as a grisly white light began to pour from the book. Dawn gasped as she beheld this sight. She was more scared than she could remember. This madwoman would destroy all creation soon, and Dawn would be the tool she used to bring about this terrible end.

Glory found her concentration shattered by the sudden sounds of sword against steel. She had taken the precaution of chaining the doors behind her, to prevent anyone from distracting her from this final stage of the game. It never occurred to her that her enemies would be carrying swords.

"Boys," she barked to her minions, "Go kill those annoying humans. And please, be quiet, I can't concentrate with all those swords clanging." At her command, an army of minor demons marched forward, to meet their foes. Glory returned to her text, reading the words of power from a dead language.

Outside the doorway, the demons rushed forward and met the small band of knights, and their leader, the Slayer. "Forward, men," called Sir Ricardo. "Destroy the servants of the evil goddess!"

"Just hold them off," shouted the slayer, "so I can get a clear shot at Glory!" Ricardo and the other knights understood, and pressed their attack on the demon horde.

As the Slayer made her way through the press of attackers, she could see Glory, standing over an ancient tome, with Dawn tied to a stone slab. A tiny portion of her soul recognized her as 'sister', but the emotional connection was overridden by her battle sense. The key was about to be used. She knew that she didn't have any more time to waste. "Hold them off here," she called to Sir Ricardo, "I'm going in."

"They shall not pass," Ricardo declared. He looked briefly at the Slayer, and said somberly, "May God be with you."

"Thanks," she replied, although the wish meant nothing to her; God hadn't been with her before, it's too late to show now. "You too." She stopped to grasp him by the arm in a warrior's handshake, then left for her final battle.

========

"Glory must be at the old high school," Giles said grimly as he drove, the others sitting silently in the car as it sped forward. "Close enough to the Hellmouth for her to utilize the Key, and easily defended."

"Just get us there," Xander murmured from the back seat. "If we can get close enough to grab Dawn, maybe Buffy won't need to use the sword of Reaganomics."

"Ragnarok," Giles corrected absently. Anya sat shotgun, while Xander, Willow and Tara sat in back, Willow clutching the letter that Buffy had written for her to read after Buffy died. Willow had betrayed her curiosity by reading the letter, and her heart grew heavy with what she had read. One passage in particular moved her above all others;

"I always knew that I would go before you, Willow. That's how it was meant to be, after all. I am the Slayer, which means I have to fight on to my death. I don't get to retire, I don't get vacation time, I didn't even get bereavement time when Mom died. Don't spend too much time mourning me, it's not like I'm worth the effort. Just go. Take Tara and get the hell out of Dodge. I'm not around anymore to defend Sunnydale, and I suspect the next Slayer will be heading somewhere else.

"I have always loved you, in my own special way, more deeply and more passionately than anyone I ever loved before. Who knows, if Tara wasn't in the picture, maybe I'd have made a play for you. That's all behind us now, and it's for the best; I wouldn't wish myself on anyone. Besides, you've got Tara. Take good care of her, and make sure she takes good care of you. If she doesn't I'll just have to come back from Hell and knock her around a little.

Be happy, my beloved Willow, and be well.
The Slayer"

Willow shuddered as she re-read the letter, tears tracking freely down her cheeks. Tara looked uneasily at the young woman she loved, knowing that she was hurting but not knowing how to help.

"She signed it 'The Slayer', Tara," she whispered. "It's like she doesn't even acknowledge her humanity anymore. Like she's stopped being Buffy." Giles heard her words, and grieved silently with her. She was right in her assessment, Giles thought. He had looked into Buffy's eyes before that day, and saw only the Slayer.

Xander placed a comforting hand over Willow's knee. "It'll be okay, Wills. We take down Glory, then Buffy can go on with her life again."

"But what if she uses Ragnarok?" Willow wailed. "What if it's too late for us to save her?"

"Don't say that, Willow," Tara whispered to her love. "We'll get her back."

"Yeah," Xander nodded. "Remember that whole Master prophecy? She was fated to die then, but we pulled her through."

"Yeah," Willow admitted. "I just hope we're not too late now." The others silently prayed for the same. Giles grimly pressed down on the accelerator, jacking his car up to top speed.

========

Glory was continuing her recitation, disturbed slightly by the clash of swords outside. "Do you mind?" she called out in an irritated tone of voice, "I'm trying to incant here!"

"I wouldn't bother!" a voice of vengeance shouted from the doorway. "I will not let you survive tonight!" Tied to the stone, Dawn began to feel hope; her rescuer was here.

Glory stopped her incantation, and regarded the intruder who dared to stop her great work. "Buffy Summers," she chuckled. "You just don't learn, do you?"

"I'm the Slayer, bitch," she replied through clenched teeth. "You're going down now."

"Give her hell, Buffy!" Dawn shouted from her vantage point. The Slayer simply ignored her. Whatever connection Buffy had felt toward her sister, the Slayer only saw her as the Key, the power coveted by Glory.

"No, I'm going home now," Glory argued. "You're going down. And your world with you."

The Slayer stood her ground. "Not tonight, sister!" The Slayer drew Ragnarok from its scabbard. She displayed the blade in front of her, the fire of the moon reflecting off the sword's edge and glittering hungrily in her eyes. "I trust you recognize the blade."

Glory gasped, a measure of her arrogance fading as she beheld the blade. "Ragnarok," she whispered. "The Council gave you Ragnarok?"

"Yep," the Slayer twirled the blade around in a lazy arc, before pointing it again at Glory. "You feel lucky?"

Glory screamed at the night sky before launching herself at the Slayer. Despite her blinding speed, the Slayer was able to dodge Glory's initial attack. But Glory rebounded quickly, and kicked hard and fast. The Slayer stopped her first two kicks, but the third one connected with her right hand, sending Ragnarok clattering to the floor.

Glory beat the Slayer to the sword, and smiled. "Oh, this is too good," she grinned. "I get to kill you with the one weapon which could have killed me." She wrapped her hand around the sword's hilt, intent on plunging the blade into the Slayer's heart.

Her hand seized violently, and she yanked it away as though she had tried to handle a live wire. She shrieked in agony as she glared hard at the Slayer. "You've bonded with Ragnarok! Now none can wield it but you!"

"Funny how that works out," the Slayer sneered at her. She rushed toward the fallen sword, only to be knocked back against a wall by Glory.

"But still, you can't kill me without it," Glory announced. "And you won't get close to it before I kill you." She lunged into the Slayer's midsection, driving the air out of her lungs as she impacted with the far wall. "And I don't need no swords to do the job on you!"

The Slayer fought hard against the mad goddess, releasing a flurry of flying kicks and punches which would have devastated a platoon of Polgara demons. The sheer power of the blows even kept Glory off her feet briefly. But only briefly. Within seconds she was able to regain her bearings, and when the Slayer lunged at her in a flying kick, she grabbed her leg, and threw her down on the ground, hard enough to break a rib.

"So, Buffy," Glory smiled, "where are your friends now? Huh? Where are those two dyke witches, the ones who sent me two miles into the air?" She cuffed the Slayer hard across the cheek, drawing blood from her mouth. "You're all alone, Slayer. Your blond vampire boyfriend's not here to save you--"

"Spike was not my boyfriend!" the Slayer screamed.

"Fine, whatever," the goddess declared in an annoyed voice, backhanding the Slayer again. "But he's the one who lead me to the true key anyway. You can't trust him, your friends are gone, and now even your mommy's not around. Who's going to save you from me now?"

As the Slayer reeled from the agony of Glory's attacks, she recalled a similar moment in her life; the one called Angelus stood above her, preparing to drive a sword into her. "No friends, no weapons, no hope," he whispered. "Strip all that away, and what's left?"

The Slayer's eyes met Glory's, and the gleam of anger that flashed in her eyes generated fear in Glory's heart. "Who's going to save you from me now?" she asked. As far as the Slayer was concerned, the answer to Glory's question was the same as Angel's question.

She leaped high over Glory's head, arcing behind her, and landed in a rolling motion, close enough to grab the sword Ragnarok. She stood up, sword in hand, and grinned ferally at Glory.

"Me!" she answered Glory's question. She held the sword aloft, preparing to charge her enemy one last time.

"You don't want to do that, Slayer," Glory stammered, and the Slayer could smell her fear. She found the scent sweet. "If you use the sword Ragnarok on me, you will die as well!"

"Yeah, got the sales pitch from Giles," the Slayer answered. "But there's something about us Slayers you don't know." She grinned even more broadly at her enemy. "It seems we all have a death wish!" She hefted the sword high, preparing to deliver the death blow---

---when the figure before her shifted, flowed, morphed into a different but familiar form. "B-Buffy?" the young man who now stood where the goddess had been blinked in confusion. "What happened? What has my sister been up to?"

The Slayer shook her head in startlement. "Ben?"

The young man gulped as he looked around him. "Oh my..." his eyes trained on the site of Dawn, still tied to the altar stone, the book upon its podium, the candles lit around the altar. And the Slayer standing over him, the sword Ragnarok in her hands.

Ben stood his ground in front of the Slayer. "Buffy," he pleaded with her, "you have to finish what you started. You have to kill me."

"B-but you're not Glory," the Slayer faltered, the sword lowering in her hands. "You're not my enemy."

"I am bonded with Glory," he said plainly. "Kill me, and she dies as well. You must do this. For humanity, you must do this."

The Slayer stood above Ben, her resolve failing. "I-I can't, Ben. Forgive me, I--" Before she could finish, a terrible laugh cut through the night. Where Ben had been, Glory now stood, a mocking leer curling her lips. "Too late, Slayer!" Glory slammed her shoulder into Buffy's chest, piledriving her into the far wall. "Payback's a bitch," she announced with evil glee, "and so am I!"

The Slayer rose on unsteady legs, tasting the blood from the cut on her lip. She cursed herself for being caught off guard by Glory and her brother. She looked at the blade in her hand, a steel resolve flooding her veins. She regarded her enemy with a wolfish glare in her eyes, a ravenous set to her mouth.

"Well, Ding dong," the Slayer announced, "the Bitch is Dead!" She kicked her feet into Glory's gut, pushing her away. She glared at her enemy, sword in hand. Time to end this now, she thought. She grasped the sword with both hands and thrust forward, as Glory charged directly at her.

Neither combatant noticed the small group of people who had rushed through the door. But the Slayer heard a familiar voice crying out in one still moment;

"BUFFY! NOOOO!"

The blade entered Glory's heart as Willow cried out to her friend. As she pushed the sword down into Glory's body with the last of her strength, the Slayer could feel a small part of her, that part that was still Buffy Summers, emerging from her hard stone shell. Buffy could hear Willow's desperate cry, saw the anguish in Willow's eyes, and grieved with her, but it was too late for her now.

As Glory's energies flowed from the goddess into the body of Buffy Summers, she could feel her own strength fading. Her body simply couldn't handle the energies that were passing through her. She could feel lightning course through her veins and out of her eyes. With one last erg of strength, she gazed at her fading foe, as her powers burnt out. "I guess I'm going out," she announced, smiling one last time, "in a blaze of Glory!"

Willow started to rushed toward Buffy, but was held back by Giles. They and the others stood by helplessly as the nimbus of light engulfed both Buffy and Glory. The light seared their eyes, forcing them to look away. When they returned their eyes to the scene, the light was gone, and with it, any trace of Glory.

Buffy lay in a crumpled heap, still and small. Her eyes were wide open and unseeing. Just the way her mother's eyes were when she first found her dead.

Willow and Xander ran toward Buffy's body, while Giles rushed to free Dawn from her bonds. "Quick, Xand!" Willow ordered as they gently lay Buffy out on her back. "Start breathing for her, I'll pump her heart." Willow immediately went to work, placing her hands over Buffy's heart like she remembered from her CPR training, and pressing down quickly on Buffy's chest, while Xander tilted Buffy's head back and started mouth-to-mouth. Anya and Tara simply looked on and offered their prayers.

"Come on, Buffy," Willow muttered as they went to work. "Don't die on us now."

========

She was vaguely aware of hands grabbing her limbs, of scaly arms hefting her aloft, of foul-smelling bodies carrying her rapidly down, down---she didn't know where she was going. Or where she was. She tried to break free of the monsters' grip, but her limbs strained to no avail.

"Set her down nice and pretty," a familiar voice called out. The monsters dropped her like a sack of wheat, then departed. She lifted herself up, wondering why she wasn't as strong as she should be. Her memories were somewhat hazy but she recalled being stronger than she was now. Before she could lift herself to a sitting position, she was kicked in the jaw, and knocked back down.

She rolled on her back, wincing in pain, as the foot that had kicked her down now pressed hard against her chest. "Who's beneath who now, Buffy?" a dark Cockney voice crowed over her. "I'll bet you're regretting ever rejecting me now, ain't ya?"

The dark voice stirred her memory, and suddenly she glanced at the being who pressed his foot down on her. Black duster jacket over red shirt and black leather pants and boots. Short spiky yellow hair. A look of arrogance cast over his features. And an air of final victory aimed directly at her. "Welcome to Hell, Buffy Summers," he announced. Buffy groaned audibly as he laughed his triumph.

"Pleased to meet you," Spike whooped gleefully. "Hope you guessed my name!"

*****

Chapter four;
A Man Of Wealth And Taste

"Please allow me to introduce myself,
I'm a man of wealth and taste.
I've been around for many long years,
Stolen many mens's soul and faith.
I've been around since Jesus Christ
Had His moment of doubt and hate.
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed His fate.

Pleased to meet you,
Hope you guessed my name.
But what's puzzling you,
That's the nature of my game."

--The Rolling Stones
"Sympathy For the Devil"

Giles picked up a shard of glass from a long-ago broken window, and used the sharp edge to slice away at the ropes that held Dawn to the altar stone. "Where's Buffy?" Dawn cried as she was freed. Giles hesitated to speak, but Dawn insisted; "Where is she, Giles?"

Giles gulped and craned his head toward the site where Buffy had fallen during her final battle with Glory. Willow and Xander were desperately trying to save her life; Xander breathing into her lungs while Willow pressed down on her chest to start her heart.

"C'mon, Buff," Xander whispered between breaths. "You're starting to scare me." He counted the compressions Willow was giving Buffy; what was it, five compressions, one breath? He breathed again, thinking of nothing but saving his friend, his hero.

"Don't do this to me, Buffy," Willow moaned as she continued her compressions. "I forbid you to die on me now, you hear me? You die on me now, I'll never forgive you." She continued to compress Buffy's chest, while the others looked on silently. The seconds ticked by with an agonizing slowness. Willow's red hair was matted with sweat and plastered to her face, and the strain was threatening to cause her shoulders to buckle.

Tara touched Willow's shoulder and sadly said, "I'm sorry, Willow, but I'm afraid it's too late. She's gone."

"I didn't hear that," Willow barked at Tara, not missing a beat with her compressions.

"I fear Tara's right, Willow," Giles said, his voice threatening to catch. "There's nothing more we can do for her."

"I SAID I DIDN'T HEAR THAT!" Willow shouted. "And if you ever want me to forgive you, I won't hear it again!" The others fell silent as Willow redoubled her efforts to save Buffy's life.

And the seconds dragged on...

========

All she could do was scream.

For what seemed like an eternity, she was subjected to excruciating pain. Pain like a thousand lashes on every square centimeter of her flesh. Pain like a thousand fires searing her skin. Pain like a hundred tons crushing her bones.

And her tormentor sat back and laughed.

"Saw the coolest t-shirt at the Hot Topic just a couple of days before you finally staked me, Buffy," Spike chortled as his minions tormented his victim. "Seems appropriate, don't it?" He showed her the shirt he wore under his duster jacket; basic black with white text, reading "Heaven doesn't want me and Hell's afraid I'll take over." He got up from his throne, walked casually toward Buffy as she was strapped to her slab of rock, and shooed off the demons who tortured her. "Please, let's give her the chance to recover. We wouldn't want her to become accustomed to this level of pain. Not yet." He leaned in closer to the Slayer, licking his lips salaciously. "After all, we have all of eternity to get acquainted."

Buffy said nothing to her tormentor. She just gazed balefully at him.

"Hoohoohoo! I know what's going through your pretty blonde head, Slayer." Spike gestured as he walked away from her, and the bonds that held Buffy's wrists slackened enough for Buffy to remove her hands. "You're not going to let me see any emotion on those lovely features. You'll be damned before you let me see you break." He turned sharply and pointed at Buffy, glaring hard. "News flash, Slayer; you're already damned!" Another gesture and the scene changed. Buffy found herself standing next to an enormous glass wall. Looking toward the wall, she gaped as she saw a heavyset man being chased by a hellish looking sea creature. She squinted as she looked at the doomed man, and gasped hard; Coach Marin.

"You remember him, don't you, Buffy?" Spike laughed as he displayed his bizarre aquarium. "Didn't he force his swim team to take some super steroid that turned them into fish-men? Ah he was a bad 'un." He gestured toward a table where he kept a rat maze. "C'mon, you'll love this," he beckoned with cyanide sweetness. Buffy hesitantly edged toward the rat maze. Peering in, she was shocked to see the diminutive figure of her former high school principal, Mr. Snyder, running frantically from a large rat. "A rat hunting his own," Spike smiled. "His sole purpose in living was to make others miserable. To make them run futilely from one class to another, all the while secretly planning with Mr. Wilkins to snuff their future." He grinned as the rat grabbed the damned soul in his jaws, causing Buffy to shudder. "Oh don't worry, he does that every night."

Spike drew a cloth over the cage, and turned his full attention to Buffy. "You can't help them, Slayer. Just like you couldn't help anyone else. Just another bloody useless Slayer."

He showed Buffy a few more of his bizarre trophies. One Buffy recognized instantly; the cheerleader's trophy that housed the tortured soul of the evil witch Catherine Madison. Spike then pulled out a plastic box and displayed it proudly to Buffy. Buffy looked at the box and stared hard; it looked for all the world like an old Operation game, but the face of the cartoony patient was that of former Initiative leader Maggie Walsh. Spike produced a pair of tweezers, and announced, "Watch me remove her funny bone." He tried to manipulate the tweezers to remove the plastic piece from the board, but kept slipping. With each mistake, and he made many, the face lit up like a neon sign, and an inhuman shriek echoed loudly in Buffy's ears. "Oops," Spike giggled manically. "Touched the sides." He tossed the game away, and whirled dirvishley around the room.

Buffy glared at Spike, this self-styled devil, as he capered with glee through his realm. Staring at him through hooded eyes, she spoke her first words since her last moments on Earth; "Go to Hell, Spike."

Spike started to chuckle, as the image of the aquarium and the rat cage drifted away. His low chuckle slowly gathered strength, and as he laughed, he began to tower over the fallen Slayer. Ten feet, fifteen feet, twenty-five feet, fifty, a hundred. Buffy found herself standing at the edge of a narrow precipice, scalding flames below her, her own personal devil above her. His unholy laughter rolled across the canyons of the Pit, gathering like a terrible storm. "You don't get it, do you Slayer girl? THIS IS HELL!"

He slapped his knees, trembling with hateful mirth. "This is your hell, Slayer, and I'm in charge here! And I'm going to introduce you to torments that you could never imagine. I will break you, then watch you rebuild yourself, then break you again, a million times over. And with every scream, with every moan, I'll drink me a swig of Guinness and piss myself laughing!" He suddenly stood behind Buffy, who had already begun to succumb to the inevitability of her damnation. "I told you before, your death wish would kick in, and I'd come in and have me," he pushed her over the edge, "a real good time." He laughed as he watched Buffy fall, and fall forever, into the abyss. Buffy didn't even fight him. She knew in the depths of her soul that she deserved this Hell, for all of her failures.

"Heads up, Spikester!" A loud and brash voice rang out, shattering Spike's concentration. He spun 'round, and saw a dark rider, astride a grey steed that literally ran across the air. The rider steered her horse down into the pit, catching up with the falling Slayer. She grabbed Buffy by the wrist, and threw her across the saddle. She then knickered to the horse and tugged the reins, and her horse lifted itself up and flew out of the chasm.

"Some ride, huh, B?" the rider announced, a strange joy lighting her voice. "And me playing cavalry like that! Is this wicked cool or what?" Buffy somehow managed to sit herself up behind the rider and grabbed her by the waist. She then took a close look at her savior and startled.

"Faith?"

"The one and only, sista Slaya," Faith shouted happily. "What say we make like a shepherd and get the flock out of here?" She drove her steed faster, as they quickly made their way out of Spike's reach.

"No!" the enraged demon shouted. "My only release from Hell was knowing that Buffy would be mine to torture! NOOOOOOO!" He grew taller with each screamed word, flailing about to catch Buffy and her rescuer. Faith however was too swift for the monster to catch. Within a twinkling, she and Buffy were gone.

"So, B, what's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" Faith asked, then laughed. "I always wanted to say that."

"Well," Buffy said tiredly, unsure of what was awaiting her, "I died. I guess so did you."

Faith grimaced at the memory. "Yeah, you never see the shiv that has your name on it, until it's too late. But you don't belong down there. I was surprised to find out that I didn't either." She slowed her spectral horse to a slow cantor, as the landscape around them changed, shifted without rhyme or reason. Within a minute, the yawning chasms, lava floes and terrible stenches of Hell gave way to a pastoral meadowland. Soft green grass, tall trees lush with leaves, the most incredibly blue sky that Buffy could ever remember seeing. Buffy was awestruck at the beauty that surrounded her. Even her own body seemed more real, more beautiful than she could ever remember it being before.

"So this is Heaven?" Buffy asked. "Didn't think I'd qualify."

"It's your heaven, B," Faith explained. "Yeah, you qualified, but not quite yet. Me, I'm surprised that I didn't land head first into Hell. They sent me to Purgatory. Kinda the waiting list for Heaven. I guess I'm your Virgil for the time being."

"Virgil?"

"Dante's Divine Comedy," Faith explained. "The only decent book in the prison book cart. I read it three times. Wicked powerful stuff. This Virgil dude gave Dante a tour of Hell, then he took him to Purgatory, where Dante's ladylove took over and showed him around Heaven with some saint dude." As she spoke, she stilled the horse to a dead halt.

"Rather simplistic summary, Faith," a calm voice added, "but not too inaccurate." Ben walked alongside the horse, looking quite comfortable for someone who Buffy just killed. "Don't worry about me, Buffy," he said as he helped her off the horse and onto her feet. Faith dismounted her horse quite easily, and walked alongside the beast. "In order to control Glory, the Powers That Be bound her to me. We inhabited the same body all these years. When you destroyed her, you freed me."

"Glad to help," Buffy replied, her confusion evident on her face. "But what am I doing here? No way I made the cut for Heaven, is there?"

"You sell yourself short, Buffy," Ben smiled. "But you're only here to visit. Besides, someone wanted to see you." He pointed over Buffy's shoulder, and Buffy followed his arm, seeing across the field.

A woman in faded blue jeans and a pink blouse walked toward Buffy. Buffy strained to make out features, but as the woman came closer, her soft honey-blonde hair and warm smile caused Buffy's breath to catch and a huge lump to form in her throat.

"Hello, dear," the woman greeted Buffy when they were a few feet apart. Buffy stood there, shocked, unable to move. She couldn't bring herself to believe that this miracle was true, until the woman raised her hand, and touched Buffy's cheek with a tenderness, and smiled with a sweetness, that could only mean one thing to Buffy.

"M-Mom?" Buffy stammered, tears filling her eyes. Her mother only nodded her head, her smile a beacon of hope.

Buffy fell into the arms she thought would never hold her again, crying out the anguish of the last few months. All the burden that she had carried since Joyce Summers died came crashing down around her, and she wept openly, unable to do anything else.

And her mother was there to comfort her, as she had done a thousand times before.

And for one brief moment, all was well in Buffy's world.

*****

Chapter five
A Half-an-Hour in Heaven

"May you be a half-an-hour in Heaven,
Before the Devil knows you're dead."

--traditional Irish toast

========

"Sometimes everything is wrong.
Now it's time to sing along.

When your day is night alone, (hold on, hold on)
If you feel like letting go, (hold on)
When you think you've had too much
Of this life,
Well hang on.

Everybody hurts.
Take comfort in your friends.
Everybody hurts.
Don't throw your hand.
Oh, no.
Don't throw your hand.
If you feel like you're alone,
No, no, no,
You are not alone."

--REM
"Everybody Hurts"

Dawn was vaguely aware of Giles' arms around her as she watched the scene unfold; her sister Buffy lying on the ground, Xander performing mouth-to-mouth, Willow pressing down on her chest, frantically trying to start her heart, Tara and Anya watching silently, offering whatever prayers they could. Dawn felt the darkness closing in on her like an oppressive force. Her sister, the last true family she had, was dying, and there was nothing she could do about it.

"Come on, Buffy!" Willow shouted at the still form of her friend as she started to pound on her chest. "Don't you do this to me! Don't leave me, Buffy!"

"You heard her," Xander whispered between breaths, "don't let us down, Buff. I promised Willow you were gonna be okay. Don't make a liar out of me. C'mon, Buffy, breath! Breath, dammit, breath!"

And Xander and Willow continued to resuscitate Buffy...

========

"Ah, here she is," someone called from a shaded glen as Buffy strolled along with her mother, while Faith and Ben tagged along behind them. "Buffy, over here!" A hand waved to Buffy, beckoning to her.

"Oh my God," Buffy laughed as she saw who was flagging her down. "Jenny?"

"In person," Jenny Calendar ran up to the Slayer and wrapped her arms around her. "Oh, Buffy, it's so good to see you."

"Same here, Miss Calendar." Buffy murmured.

"We heard that you would be visiting, so we all came to meet you."

"All?" Buffy asked. Jenny waved her arm to her side, showing the others who were with her. Jesse and Kendra were standing beside a small waterfall, while an oddly dressed older man strode toward Buffy and her mother, a too-wide smile splitting his weathered face in half.

"Hello, Merrick," Joyce greeted the gentleman.

"Merrick?" Buffy blinked as she recognized her first Watcher. The man who first revealed her fate to her, her destiny to fight the forces of darkness within the world. "Wow." She appraised the older man, recalling his shabby appearance; she remembered calling him a 'homeless' when she first saw him a lifetime ago at Hemery High School. Now he stood before her, clean shaven, his unruly hair tied in a short ponytail, his grey pants and blue shirt clean and well tailored. "Wow," she repeated. "You clean up real nice."

Merrick gave Buffy a fatherly smile. "Still a pain in the ass, eh?" He opened his arms, and Buffy rushed to embrace him. She started to cry again, remembering how her first great opponent, Lothos, had killed him. "Oh Merrick," she wailed. "I'm so sorry."

"Now what have you done to be sorry about, child?" Merrick asked warmly.

"I-I wasn't g-good enough to stop Lothos," she stammered, cursing herself for not being able to control her voice. "He killed you because I couldn't take him down soon enough." She pulled herself away from Merrick, and stared at the others around her. "I'm so sorry, all of you."

"Do not beat yourself up with guilt, friend," Kendra admonished her gently, her familiar Jamaican accent flavoring her words. "You did all that you could. No one expects more than that."

"That's just it, Kendra," Buffy argued, her grief and guilt surfacing after so long. "I should expect more of myself. If I hadn't taken Dru when I had the chance..." She glanced back at Jenny, "or if I hadn't let myself fall for Angel..." She turned toward Faith; "...or if I had noticed you instead of writing you off when you needed me..." She faced Jesse; "...or if I had been fast enough to stop Darla..."

"Was she always like this, Mrs. S?" Faith casually asked Joyce.

"Hey," Joyce chuckled. "I'm just wondering how she's going to blame herself for my tumor." She took her daughter's hand, leading her to the waterfall.

Buffy was overwhelmed by the sense of peace that she felt; the sweet scents of mingled jasmine and sandalwood in the air, the cool spray produced by the waterfall, the warmth of the sun on her face, the presence of her mother, all these combined to sooth her soul, to bring her to a place of completion that she had never felt, not since she had first become the Slayer. "It's so beautiful here, Mom," Buffy spoke in tones of pure awe. "And being here with you again-- oh, Mom, I don't want to leave here."

"I feel the same way, honey," her mother replied. "But your time's not up yet. You'll have to go back to the world of the living soon. You were brought here for now, because you needed closure." Joyce bade her sit down beside the stream. As Buffy sat, Joyce spoke in loving tones; "I remember when we first moved to Sunnydale, Buffy. Remember what I said to you on the first day of school?"

"Yeah," Buffy smirked ruefully; "Try not to blow up the school. Too bad it didn't work that way."

"Hey, if I knew there was a Hellmouth there, I'd have taken the other job offer in San Francisco, for what was the name of that company," she snapped her fingers as she recalled it; "Bucklands. I know, I don't fully understand what you went through as a Slayer, but I do know that there are things that you simply can't control. The Hellmouth, my tumor, what someone else will do when given the opportunity."

"So you're saying that everything's just blind chance, Mom?" Buffy asked.

"Not everything, just certain things." Joyce sat next to Buffy, beside the stream, and ran her hands through the waters. "Yes, there are things that no one can control, and no, it isn't fair. But what you can control is how you deal with the curves that life throws at you."

"Yeah, it's like my mom used to say to me," Jesse offered. "Your life's a story, co-authored by your own free will and God's grace."

"Yeah, I guess," Buffy held her head low, not wanting anyone to see the tears that threatened to overtake her again. She absently recalled the lyrics to an Eric Clapton song Giles had played during a memorial service that the Scoobies had arranged for her mother; "And I know there'll be no more tears in heaven." Looks like Clapton got it wrong, Buffy thought as her guilt betrayed her yet again.

"Jesse speaks true," Kendra knelt beside her fellow Slayer. "Look at me. I was a Slayer like you, but not like you. You took one path, you rebelled against the Council, you went your own way, you allowed your friends to share in your hardships and in your rewards. Me, I followed my Watcher blindly, I jumped when he told me to jump, I shut myself off from all human contact. And you're the one who outlived me. What does that tell you about my choices?"

"No, Kendra," Buffy raised her head at the woman's words. "You can't blame yourself for what happened."

"I don't blame myself, I simply state that we have control of our lives before that final moment," Kendra smiled, something Buffy couldn't remember ever seeing before. "But by the same token you cannot be allowed to take responsibility for that which you could not control. Heh, maybe if I took you up on your offer to buy me a stuffed animal, I would have loosened up.

"You did not kill me. Drusilla did. And to answer your next question, would she have killed me if you had made love to Angelus? I do not know. Neither do you. Nor does anyone else. So your self-recrimination is at best a futile exercise. I do not blame you, so do not blame yourself."

"You have done nothing to be guilty over, Buffy," Merrick added. "On the contrary, you have acquitted yourself admirably. When the Council and their Watchers speak of you in the future, they would be fools not to declare you the best of your kind. You have accomplished more than any three Slayers before you. Yet, and this is what puzzles me, you only remember your perceived mistakes."

"Yeah," Faith took her turn, "what the Lone Gunman here said. You can't keep beating yourself over the head about everything that happens around you. You didn't turn me bad, I did that all by my lonesome. But even the PTB think there's hope for me, that's why I scored Purgatory instead of Hell when I died."

"Huh, but I must have missed something," Buffy commented. "Aren't Purgatory and Hell the same thing?"

"Not quite," Ben answered. "Purgatory exists somewhere between Hell and Heaven. Faith has sinned, she has erred, and she died without fully atoning for her misdeeds. But she desired atonement, she repented. In fact, her last thought was that she hoped her death would atone for her past."

"Hey, a new Slayer gets called, she can take over the gig, and you get a 'Get Out Of Jail Free' card," Faith added.

"Atonement doesn't work quite that way," said Ben. "Faith has the desire to make up for her past, but that desire is not enough. While in Purgatory, she will serve the Powers, slowly sponging away her record. After a few centuries, I'm sure there will be a place for her in Heaven."

Buffy stared hard at Faith. "A few centuries? Whoa, harsh."

"Hey," Faith grinned broadly. "We're talking eternity here, B. Cake!"

Joyce then took Buffy's head in her hands, and brought her face to look directly at her. "As for you, Buffy, you're only fault has been to allow your grief to consume you. Heh, I used to think you were irresponsible, before I found out you were the Slayer. If anything, you're too responsible. Someone else hurts, you feel the pain."

"I know, Mom," Buffy felt another tide of tears forming in her eyes. "But what else can I do?"

Jenny laughed lightly and sat at Buffy's side. "For starters, don't go it alone. You have friends, Buffy. Willow, Xander, Tara, Giles. These people would give up anything for you."

Faith nodded at Jenny's statement. "She's right, B. Right now, Red's busting a gut trying to start your heart, while X-Man's busy breathing into your lungs. You're not gonna let them down now, are you?"

Buffy sat silently, hearing the words that her loved ones said to her. They were right, she realized that. But she still felt the shame, the self-loathing she felt when she learned that her love had cost Angel his soul, that her inattentiveness forced Faith to turn to evil, that her failure to kill Spike sooner had led to Dawn nearly being sacrificed to Glory. As uncalled for as her blame was, she still felt it.

She felt her mother's hand on her arm again, and heard her voice. "They need you, Buffy," she said. "Dawn, Willow, Xander. They're your family, as much as I am. They need you to be there for them, and they also need you to let them be there for you. Don't go it alone, Buffy. Not when you don't have to. They need you, not as the Slayer, but as Buffy."

The young blonde woman took a deep, ragged breath in a desperate attempt to dam the rising flood of tears. "I don't even know who Buffy is anymore," she lamented. "I've been the Slayer for so long, I don't know if I can be Buffy again." She regarded her mother with a questing gaze, as she voiced her deepest insecurities, her gravest fears, for perhaps the first time in her life; "Can I still be Buffy, even after all I've seen? Can I do my duty as the Slayer, get my diploma, get a job and look after Dawn? You really think I can do all that?"

Joyce embraced Buffy once more, letting the contact between them calm her daughter's worries, and projecting all of her love into Buffy's heart. "Let me tell you something my grandmother once told me," she whispered, her deepest heart speaking to Buffy's heart. "God has measured all of creation. He knows the height of the highest mountains, He knows the depth of the deepest oceans, He knows the distance to the farthest stars. And He knows the width and breadth of your back." She backed away slightly, and cupped Buffy's cheek in her hand. "And He would never give you a burden that he knew you could not carry. I know you, Buffy Summers, and I believe in you."

Ben stood behind Buffy, and placed a hand on her shoulder. "It's nearly time, Buffy," he said simply.

Buffy nodded and stood up. She looked at the others, committing each face, every element of her surroundings, to her memory. "I won't forget all this when I get back, will I?"

"You will remember what you wish to remember," Merrick promised her. He embraced her once more in a generous bear hug.

"I'll do you proud, Merrick," Buffy assured her first Watcher.

"Just live as hard and as well as you can, Buffy," Merrick smiled, "and you will indeed do me proud."

As Buffy pulled away from Merrick, Kendra shook her hand. "When your time does come, and may it be a long way in the future, we will meet with the Slayers who have passed on before us. Stories will be told of great deeds. And your stories, I do not doubt, will be the greatest."

"Yeah," Faith added, "We'll knock back a few beers together, or whatever they drink up here, talk about old times. It'll be a blast."

"I look forward to it," Buffy chuckled.

Jesse stepped forward to say his farewells to the Slayer. "Stay well, Buffy. I know I'll see you here again, but I'm in no hurry." He winked slyly at her, and added; "And take care of Willow for me."

Buffy looked slightly puzzled; "What do you mean?"

"You'll figure that out when you get back to the living," Jesse grinned inscrutably.

Buffy then turned to Jenny. "Anything you want me to tell Giles?"

Jenny laughed slightly. "Just that I will wait for him, but he'd better be living his own life before we meet again."

"Deal," Buffy agreed. She then turned once more to her mother. Wordlessly, she fell again into her arms. "Oh, Mom," she cried, tears of sorrow and joy mingling on her cheeks. "I miss you so much."

"I know, sweetheart, I know." Joyce held on for a few more seconds, then let go for the last time. "I'll always be with you, Buffy, in your heart."

"I know," said Buffy, warmed by that thought.

"Oh, and Buffy," Joyce added, "when you graduate from U. C. Sunnydale, try not to blow up the campus."

Buffy's laughter was a final release that she so desperately needed. All of her anguish, all of her sorrow, all of her pain had been eased. Not erased, she knew that would never truly happen. But eased. She knew now that she would be able to handle whatever happened in the future.

"You ready to go, Buffy?"

Buffy looked at Ben, and answered, "Yeah." She closed her eyes, knowing that she was ready to face the world.

She smiled; "Help me Clarence, I want to live again."

========

"WAKE UP, DAMN YOU!" shouted a near-hysterical Willow, as she refused to give up on Buffy, even in her weakened condition. "Don't you dare leave me! Wake up, Buffy! Wake up!"

"Willow," Xander called, "stop it now!"

"No!" Willow replied desperately. "I'm not giving up!"

"No, not 'give up' stop," Xander explained hastily. "More like 'we have a pulse, you don't need to try and break her ribs' stop!"

Willow gazed at her childhood friend, thunderstruck. She hurriedly pressed her finger on Buffy's neck, at the carotid artery. She held it there for a few seconds, then glanced at Buffy's chest. The rise and fall of her chest was barely measurable, but she could see it. She leaned her head toward Buffy's nose and mouth, and felt the faintest signs of breath.

"She's alive," she whispered, not daring to fully believe it. "We did it." All the others said nothing, just sighed with relief. Dawn tightened her grip on Giles a little more, afraid to let go, but at the same time overjoyed to know that her sister still had a fighting chance. Tara looked mournfully at Willow as the redhead cried tears of joy over Buffy's body. She two felt conflicting emotions; gratitude and happiness that Buffy hadn't died, sorrow at the realization that her love for Willow would always be secondary to her. There was one more important to Willow, and Tara had no choice but to accept that truth.

Buffy's body suddenly gasped for air, while her eyes fluttered open. Willow tried to steady Buffy, crying out, "Buffy! You okay?" Dawn broke from Giles' arms and rushed to her sister. Buffy slowly lifted her head, signs of vertigo still causing her eyes to roll and her head to tilt on her neck. She glanced around, her eyes training on the redhead's face. "W-w-willow?" she murmured, her strength almost entirely spent.

"Yes, Buffy," Willow nearly broke down from the sheer volume of emotions she was feeling as she looked upon her beloved (for she knew now there was no other word to define her feelings for Buffy).

"Is--is Dawn here?"

Dawn knelt down and whispered; "I'm right here, Buff."

Buffy smiled slightly, but warmly. "Mom says hi, squirt."

Shortly, the siren of an ambulance cut through the silence, and quickly Buffy's body was carefully moved to a gurney and loaded onto the ambulance. Willow and Dawn were permitted to ride along with Buffy, while the others rode with Giles to the hospital.

What the next day would bring, no one dared to guess. Only one thing was certain.

Glory was gone. The nightmare was over. And a new world was beginning for all of them.

*****

Chapter Six;
Thank You

How 'bout no longer being masochistic?
How 'bout remembering your divinity?
How 'bout unabashedly bawling your eyes out?
How 'bout not equating death with stopping?

Thank you India,
Thank you providence,
Thank you disillusionment.
Thank you nothingness,
Thank you clarity,
Thank you thank you silence

--Alanis Morissette
"Thank U"

We've come a long long way together,
Through the hard times and the good.
I have to celebrate you baby,
I have to praise you like I should.

--Fatboy Slim
"Praise You"

"Excuse me," a doctor entered the waiting room where the Scooby Gang were waiting anxiously for news about Buffy. "Are you the family of Miss Summers?" 

Giles stood up and greeted the doctor. "Yes, we are. Not officially, but still family, yes. My name is Rupert Giles. Is Buffy okay?"

The doctor nodded to Giles; "My name is Doctor Sam Greene, and Miss Summers is doing as well as can be expected. She seems to have suffered some mild injuries; a broken arm, bruised ribs. According to the medical report, her heart had stopped. Is that true, Mr. Giles?"

Giles nodded somberly. "It is true, Dr. Greene. Xander and Willow performed CPR on her, and managed to get her heart beating again."

"Well," breathed Dr. Greene, "it looks like her friends have saved her life. Her injuries, while pretty extensive, are not severe." Willow and the others let go a collective sigh of relief at these words. "In fact, she has already started to heal quite rapidly; all but the most severe cuts have faded without evident scarring. We'd like to keep her here for observation for the next two evenings, however."

"I understand," said Giles, greatly relieved that the doctor had not pressed the issue of how Buffy had healed so quickly. "Just make the arrangements with me for her billing. I have copies of her medical insurance at my place, her mother had left them with me before her death. I can bring them tomorrow."

"That would be appreciated, Mr. Giles. I'm afraid that she's asleep now, so we can't allow visitors at this time. She'll be fine for visitors tomorrow." The doctor and Giles parted, and Giles returned to the others.

After Giles had explained the situation to the others, a great wave of release washed over them all. Their worst fears regarding their friend after all she had been through these last few months seemed to be alleviated for now. "We'll be down first thing tomorrow," said Xander, and the others nodded in agreement. "We'll meet up here and see how she's doing then."

The others agreed, and soon dispersed, to rest from their ordeal. Willow offered to stay with Dawn at the old Summers' residence, and the younger girl was glad of the company.

Before heading out, however, Willow felt the need to speak to Tara, to resolve something, or at least air it out. She found Tara sitting down in the waiting room, her arms resting on her lap, her head held down. "Hey, Tara?" she asked hesitantly, "you all right at the dorm alone tonight?"

Tara looked up at Willow, slightly surprised to see her. "Huh? Oh, yeah. I'm good." She looked at her beloved once more, trying to gage the expression on her face. She didn't need to, not after seeing her in her desperate battle to save Buffy's life. "She's gonna be fine now. Just wait."

"I know," Willow smiled.

Tara looked away from Willow, not wanting to say what she knew she had to say. When she did speak the words were nearly a whisper. "It's over, isn't it?"

"Whah, this whole thing?" asked Willow, "yeah, I think it' over. I mean she's fine, Glory's gone, the good guys won, the bad guys lost, yeah, definitely falls within the parameters of being over."

Tara shook her head sadly. "No, Willow, I meant this," she illustrated by pointing to Willow, then to herself, "us, together. That's over now."

Willow was saddened by Tara's words, not just because she spoke them, but because Willow knew them to be true. She tried one last time to reassure the sad young woman sitting before her; "I do love you, Tara. That'll never change."

Tara lifted her head again to see Willow's eyes, and smiled at her once more. "I know. I know you love me. But you're in love with her."

The words were not a question, nor an accusation. They were simply a statement of fact. A fact that Willow could no longer ignore, nor would she if it were possible. "I am, Tara," she whispered, as the first sign of a tear sparkled in her eyes. "I'm so sorry."

"No," insisted Tara. "The only way you should be sorry is if you clung to me when your heart belongs to another. You have nothing to be sorry about. I was loved by you for over a year. Most people in this world don't even get that much. I consider myself blest." She stood up from her chair, and while her face was still sad, her posture was more confident, more sure of herself. She knew that she had no reason to despair. Even if she lost her love, it was better for everyone, herself included, that it be this way. "I'm still your friend, right?" she asked, a slight smile emerging on her lips.

Willow saw that the smile on Tara's face was not solely for her benefit, and it gladdened her heart to know that Tara would live on without her. "On one condition, Tara. You let me be your friend back." Tara offered Willow a handshake, but Willow instead collected Tara in a generous embrace. Tara and Willow cried briefly, but as they mourned what had died between them, they also celebrated what still remained.

"First thing you do when you see her," insisted Tara, "you tell her. If she doesn't feel the same way about you, send me in and I'll straighten her out. Or turn her into a frog."

"Don't you dare," warned Willow playfully. The two wiccans left the hospital with Dawn, preparing to see Buffy in the morning.

========

Buffy was released from the hospital two days later, and Giles was waiting to drive her home. As she clambered into the passenger's side, Giles noted the thoughtful expression on her face. He was aware that she and Willow spent a great deal of time alone in her hospital room, and Tara seemed to know what was going on, but no one was talking.

"I wanted to stop by the Magic Box," explained Giles, "just to make sure Anya hasn't burnt the place to the ground yet." Buffy chuckled slightly, a single bark under her breath. "I asked the others to wait for us there."

"That works for me," Buffy answered. "Didn't want them making too much of a fuss over me in the hospital waiting room. Geez, why did they make me use the wheelchair when checking me out? I can walk by myself, thank you very much."

"Hospital policy, I'm afraid," said Giles as his eyes sparkled with recognition; Buffy was never one to have things done for her, and she never met an authority figure she didn't want to defy. On occasion that included himself, but the paternal bond that grew between them over the last five years helped ease that tendency a little.

Paternal. He smiled sadly at the word. He was, for all intents and purposes, the only true parent she had left. Her mother was in her grave, her father had pretty much abdicated his responsibility. He silently swore that he would never desert her like Hank Summers did. All of them really, Willow, Xander, Tara, Anya, they were the family he once thought he would never know. And after the announcement he had to make once they were at the Magic Box, he knew that things would be different for his foster family.

A tiny part of Buffy dreaded what she knew she was going to see, but she was determined to be brave about it. Sure enough, as Giles parked his car in front of the Magic Box, Buffy saw the white paper banner, declaring in bold colorful letters; "WELCOME BACK, BUFFY!!!!!!" Evidently, Willow pulled out her stationary CD and printed out the banner over night.

She smiled. Willow. The first thing she said when she walked hesitantly through the door when she visited her at the hospital yesterday was, "I love you, Buffy." She remembered the look of panic on the poor girl's face, the fear that Buffy would not accept the heart that Willow was freely giving her. Like Willow ever had to fear that, having won Buffy's heart so long ago, just by being Willow. Buffy lifted herself up, sitting up as steadily as she could in her bed, held out her arms, and beckoned Willow to accept the gift of her love in her embrace. They just held each other for a good half-hour before they could speak clearly, without the emotion of the moment reducing them to a pool of tears. Words were not necessary, and indeed would have destroyed this first truly perfect moment Buffy knew in so long.

Giles escorted Buffy through the door, where the Slayer was promptly mobbed by her friends. Willow was the first to assault her, and Buffy was happily lost in the sensation of her love's arms around her. Xander, Dawn and Tara also embraced her fiercely, and even Giles and Anya joined the impromptu group hug, although in Anya's case it was a matter of looking like she understood this strange human ritual.

Inevitably, oxygen issues forced them to part their embrace, but Willow still kept her arms around Buffy's waist. Buffy regarded Willow's face, which bore a sly grin. "You know, we're being watched."

"Let 'em look," replied the redheaded witch. "They're gonna have to get used to us like this anyway, ain't they?"

"Darn tootin'!" Buffy scanned the room around her, her eyes resting on Tara. She winced slightly at the faint level of melancholy emanating from Willow's once lover, but Tara's words and gentle smile assured her; "Make her happy, Buffy. That's all I ask." Buffy nodded, silently assuring Tara that making Willow happy would be a lifelong vocation for her.

Buffy could have stood there all day, with Willow's arms around her, her lips so close to her own, but the elaborate and overacted gagging noises coming from the general direction of Dawn signaled that she should let go. Xander, Giles and Anya had ducked into the back room while Buffy and Willow were taking their chairs around the table. Xander emerged quickly, his entire upper body obscured by a pile of pizza boxes. Anya and Giles followed with a cooler chest in tow. Anya opened the cooler with a flourish, revealing a dozen or so bottles of a gourmet microbrewed root beer that Xander had discovered recently. Xander and Anya distributed boxes of pizza around the table, allowing everyone to grab their favorite varieties, and Anya announced, "Let the ritual celebration of victory commence."

"In other words," translated Xander, "everybody have fun tonight, everybody Wang Chung tonight!"

As the circle of friends proceeded to demolish the pizzas, Xander spoke excitedly to Buffy about what had happened the last forty-eight hours or so. "You should have seen her," he rambled through a mouthful of Canadian bacon and pineapple ("There's one in every crowd," complained Willow). "Tara and Giles tried to back her off, they thought that you were gone, but she just shouted back, man, it wasn't just her run-of-the-mill Resolve face. It was Double-Super-Resolve Face. Resolve face Pentium III!"

"Hey, I was just freaked about what had happened there!" Willow defended herself, winning a squeeze on her shoulder from Buffy.

"All due respect, Giles," said Buffy, "I love you and all, but I'm glad that you were wrong and Wills was right."

Giles just nodded happily. "Believe me, Buffy, I was never happier to be proven wrong." He passed a small package across the table to Buffy. "A gift to celebrate your recovery."

Buffy happily unwrapped the brightly colored paper while Willow looked on excitedly. She withdrew from the paper an attractively framed document, evidently one that Willow had printed out on her computer. An attractive calligraphic script font carried the words of wisdom. "Just something I feel you needed to hear, Buffy," explained Willow. Buffy smiled warmly at Willow, then read the document;

  To every thing there is a season,
And a time to every purpose under the heaven:
  A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
  A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
  A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance;
  A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
  A time to get, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to cast away;
  A time to rend, and a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
  A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time of war, and a time of peace.

--Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Buffy stifled a tear as she read the words aloud. "Thank you, Willow." Willow dimpled attractively at the praise. "Thank you, all of you."

Giles then tapped lightly at his root beer bottle, to get the others attention. "Before we continue the celebration, I have a few announcements to make. First, I took the liberty of mailing the sword Ragnarok back to the Watchers Council, with our thanks for the use of it." He regarded Buffy with a look of mock gravity, "I also changed the combination of my vault." Buffy squirmed slightly at Giles' gaze. "Plus, I spoke with the attending physician at the psychiatric ward. It seems that those unfortunates who had been sucked dry by Glory and driven insane as a result are coming out of it. Most of the victims that were in the hospital have regained their sanity. Apparently this occurred just after the time Buffy destroyed Glory." Sighs of relief for her victims could be heard across the table.

"I also have some news to report," Giles added, "some serious news, I fear. I recently got word from Wesley Whyndham-Price. Faith is evidently dead." The other faces turned blank at the news; there was no love lost between the Scooby gang and Faith, but there was still a sadness that she hadn't been able to achieve any sort of atonement for her past misdeeds.

"Prison riot, huh," Buffy said absently. "Shiv to the gut."

Giles turned a startled eye toward Buffy. "How do you know that?"

Buffy looked at the others, seeing looks of surprise on their faces. "I--I saw her," she said, her voice hushed and filled with something like awe, like someone describing an incredible sunset. "I was dead for a little while, or near dead, after my little throwdown with Glory. I was trapped in Hell, Spike was there, torturing me a little, then Faith shows up, doing the whole avenging angel thing, then she took me up to Heaven." She stammered, and spoke haltingly, trying to recall snatches of her vision. "I saw Mom there. And Jesse, and Kendra, and Jenny--"

"Which one of us was the Scarecrow, Dorothy?" Xander's quip bought him a poke in the rib from the girl next to him. "Ahn!" he complained, rubbing his sore spot.

"It seems you had quite an experience," Giles said nonchalantly. "Did, uh, Jenny say anything?"

Buffy smiled at Giles. "She said she's waiting for you, Giles, but you still have a life of your own to live."

Giles sat back down, somewhat awed by Buffy's words, and greatly relieved. "Thank you, Jenny," breathed Giles. "But there is still the matter of your having been clinically dead for well over a minute, Buffy." He leaned forward and enunciated his words for maximum clarity. "Two things happened when you killed Glory, Buffy. First, her energies. From all that I had read about Ragnarok, I was led to understand that the user of the sword absorbed all of the god's energies. I even read accounts of people who used the sword. Their bodies were incinerated from the inside out. Had Buffy's final battle with Glory followed the same pattern, there wouldn't have been much of a body left."

"Eww!" groaned Dawn. "Just the thing I want to hear while scarfing a pepperoni and sausage with extra cheese."

"My apologies to your digestive system, Dawn," Giles ribbed Buffy's sister. "Anyway, in this isolated case, Buffy's body was relatively undamaged, at least by using the sword. Her body only absorbed a fraction of Glory's energy."

"Whoa, G-Man," Xander interrupted. "Then what happened to the rest of that energy? I mean, energy can't simply cease to exist, it can't be created or destroyed, right? Either that or Bill Nye the Science Guy's a big fat liar."

Giles chuckled at Xander's observation. "True, Xander. The energy was absorbed, not by Buffy, but by the Hellmouth. I investigated that area yesterday after visiting you in the hospital, Buffy. The energy had somehow bonded with the Hellmouth portal. Sealed it."

A strange silence descended over the room, as Giles' words sunk in. It was Willow who spoke first. "Are you saying that the Hellmouth is closed?"

"Closed, Willow," Giles answered plainly. "If I am correct, it will not be a threat for at least the next five millennia."

Buffy barked a single laugh. "I'll mark my calendar."

"Okay, what's the 'but'?" Xander suddenly blurted out. Giles glanced at Xander as he spoke. "I mean, there's always a 'but' with you. Like 'the Hellmouth's closed for business, BUT there's a new Hellmouth opening in Twiddle-your-thumbs, Arkansas, and we're all on the next flight out'."

Giles chuckled at Xander's observations. "Do not worry, Xander," he said happily. "There is no 'but' in that statement. The Hellmouth is closed. What vampires remain in Sunnydale will be weakened by the Hellmouth's loss. And there are few if any demons or other entities that pose a real threat."

Willow glanced at Xander and announced, "I think you can have that Hallelujah now." Xander displayed a face-splitting grin, and happily shouted, "Hallelujah!"

"Buffy," Giles turned toward his charge, his Slayer, and spoke in his gentlest voice. "What I said yesterday, before your final clash with Glory, still holds. You were dead for over a minute. Faith has died in prison. The Council had called me to confirm it; two new slayers have been called. They will be assigned to sites plagued by hellmouths. Buffy Summers," he announced, standing again, "I believe I may be the first Watcher in history to say these words, but it is time to relinquish the mantle of the Slayer, and return to the life from which you had been so rudely yanked five years ago. Buffy, you are hereby relieved of the duties which I, and Merrick before me, have forced upon you."

He lifted his bottle in the form of an impromptu toast, and declared, "The Slayer is dead. Long live Buffy Anne Summers!"

"Hear, hear!" the others chorused, as they clinked their root beer bottles together. "Speech, speech!" Xander shouted, to be joined by the others. "Speech, speech!"

Buffy looked around at the friends that surrounded her--no, so much more than friends, she amended as she found herself looking into Willow's loving eyes, so much more. All of them, her family gathered before her. Somehow, her being the Slayer had brought her into the most wonderful family she could imagine. "Wow," she whispered just loud enough to be heard. "No more patrols, no more staking out graveyards. I won't know what to do with my nights."

"Don't worry," grinned Tara knowingly. "Willow will think of something." Willow blushed to match her hair, but when Buffy shot her a questioning stare, Willow whispered, "Just wait 'til tonight."

"You'll still need to do some patrols," corrected Giles. "But not too many. A mopping-up operation, nothing else."

"That's doable," Buffy demurred. She looked around the table again, a thoughtful look on her face as she took in the faces of her family. "I guess that Sunnydale doesn't really need a Slayer now."

Willow took Buffy's hand in hers, and spoke from her heart to her love; "We may not need a Slayer, but the way I figure it, the world needs all the Buffies it can get."

Buffy smiled at Willow, "Thanks. Thanks to all of you guys. I guess I haven't been easy to live with these last few months."

"Understandable under the circumstances," Xander said quietly, as Anya nodded in agreement with her boyfriend.

"Indeed," added Giles, "we all mourn with you."

"Not quite, Giles," Buffy said sadly. "You guys were the ones doing all the mourning. I've been avoiding, living on Planet Denial. Hiding everything under the Slayer mask until it became the real me, and Buffy was buried under the Slayer. You think that's how Bruce Wayne got started?" Her observation was greeted by mild laughter.

Buffy swallowed another swig of root beer for courage, and continued. "I guess it's time for Buffy to come back. And I hope I can rely on you guys to help me through everything."

"You don't have to ask," Willow assured Buffy. "You need us, we're there."

"Hey, Buffy," Dawn offered, "I can give you the name of the grief councilor that my teacher set me up with."

"And if you wish to go back to school," Giles added, "I can obtain information on grants and scholarships for you."

Buffy fought the tears as she bathed in the support of her friends. "Thanks again, guys. I just want you guys to know that I love you all, and I probably would be either long dead or shut up in a rubber room a long time ago without you."

Willow sensed her beloved's ill at ease. She took her hand at hers again and asked, "Hey, Buff, you okay?"

Buffy turned her head to Willow, and for the first time since her mother died, she allowed her to feel the pain she had kept bottled up inside her. "Am I okay now?" She lowered her head, as though she were confessing a terrible secret. "No, I'm not." She gulped back a sob as she remembered all that she had gone through these last few months. "I really haven't been okay for a while now. But I'm closer to okay than I've been in a long time. I can see okay from here, and I know that I'll make it there, very soon. Thanks to you guys."

She was unable to say any more, as her tears overtook her. Willow instinctively took Buffy into her arms, and allowed her to cry, to finally grieve for her mother. She cried for a few more minutes, her soul being cleansed at long last of all the grief she had suffered.

As she broke off the hug, able to compose herself, Willow reached with a napkin to dab at her lover's eyes. Xander, witnessing all this, suddenly cracked into a broad grin. "Oh, I love this," he declared, his voice taking on a fake-Jewish accent. "This is so beautiful, it's like butta. Oh, I'm getting emotional here, I'm verklempt! Talk freely amongst yourselves, I'll give you a topic; a Vampire Slayer is neither a vampire nor a slayer. Discuss!"

Buffy was always amazed at Xander's easy humor in the face of virtually anything. Once again, his ability to make her laugh was welcome. She and the others laughed anew, and the pizza party continued.

Buffy had a new life to begin, with new priorities. Dawn, of course, she was a top priority now, as was her newfound love for Willow. There would still be the odd vampire or demon, but these would grow fewer each day.

And she could finally learn to accept her loss, to live with her mother's death. Because she knew that as long as she lived, a part of her mother would live within her.

For Buffy Summers, it was now a time to mourn. And soon, she reflected as she looked at her Willow, there would be a time to dance.

*****

Chapter Seven
These Are the Days

These are the days
These are days you'll remember.
Never before and never since, I promise,
Will the whole world be warm as this.
And as you feel it,
You'll know it's true
That you are blessed and lucky.
It's true that you
Are touched by something
That will grow and bloom in you.

June 11, 2004
An open letter to the Watcher's Council
from Rupert Giles, Watcher,
Sunnydale California

To Mr. Quentin Travers, and my esteemed colleagues;

At your request I am writing you to report on the status of Sunnydale, California, three years after the sealing of the Hellmouth. As the Hellmouth has existed for as long as human settlement of this region(the Spanish name for this region, indeed, was 'La Boca Del La Inferno'), as well as being the first Hellmouth in recent memory to have been successfully sealed, the ramifications of this event are certainly worth studying.

There have been many positive developments in Sunnydale in the years since Buffy Summer's last battle as the Slayer. Increased business, urban development, reduced statistics in crime and abuse reports. I will explain these at length in this letter. But to more fully explore the transformation of Sunnydale(and I do not believe the word 'transformation' to be overstating what has happened to Sunnydale), I wish to describe two exceptional young people that I have come to know and care deeply for over the last few years. Their names are Alexander Harris and Willow Rosenberg.

Alexander Harris, who prefers to be called 'Xander', was the son of, from what I have been made to understand, two loathsome individuals. Mr. and Mrs. Harris were, from all reports, uncaring and abusive alcoholics. I have never seen actual evidence of abuse on Xander's person, but from what his life-long friend Willow has told me, the Harrises were at the very least verbally abusive. Truly terrible people from all I have learned from Willow. Surely, their unfeeling attitudes and constant drunkenness have contributed to a poor self-esteem that Xander had possessed for much of his young life.

Willow Rosenberg's parents, from all accounts, were not much better. Not abusive but innatentive and uncaring. They paid little or no attention to their daughter, or else completely curtailed all of her extra-cirricular activities. Willow, as a result, was secluded for most of her life, shy, scared of her own shadow. By all accounts both Willow and Xander should have become statistics, killed by vampires or worse long ago.

Then they made the acquaintance of Buffy Summers.

I have been reprimanded in the past, indeed even dismissed from the Watchers, for 'caring for my charge'. But Xander and Willow have also cared greatly for Buffy. They, along with others, formed a core of friends and allies who call themselves the Scooby Gang, after the principle characters in a popular animated cartoon, or so I'm lead to understand. While this circle of support has, I have no doubt, contributed to Buffy's success as a Slayer, I cannot help but agree that Buffy's association with these people has contributed to their betterment as well. Not only has she kept them alive, but she has, by her example, given them a positive role model. Through her, they have learned of the dangers of the Hellmouth, and instead of hiding, or running, or living in the same level of denial as the other citizens of Sunnydale, they chose to remain at her side, to aid her in her fight. Xander became more assertive, more capable as a fighter, while Willow turned to the study of magic and has become an effective practitioner of Wicca.

I believe, from seeing Xander and Willow and a few others who chose to stay at Buffy's side, that we have underestimated the true danger of the Hellmouths. The Sunnydale Hellmouth, in addition to drawing monsters and demons from around the world, has held a greater threat. I believe that the Hellmouth had created an aura of evil, a force if you will, that had held most of its citizens in its sway. Very few people outside of the Scooby Gang were even aware of the existence of vampires, until coming face to face with one, by which time they were either dead or Turned. Those who were aware, like the late unlamented Mayor Richard Wilkins, were swayed by its evil to become evil themselves.

Since the sealing of the Hellmouth, this aura has, I believe, been dispersed. Allow me to provide further evidence of this theory. Within the last year:

--- Violent crime within the city limits of Sunnydale has dropped 75%.

--- The reported suicide rate has dropped 92%.

--- Reports of spousal or child abuse have fallen 88%.

--- The number of unexplained deaths from May 2001(when the Hellmouth was closed) to the present is 3. That same statistic from May 2000 to May 2001 was 89.

--- No less than three major corporations have made plans to open offices in Sunnydale. These include Microsoft Software, Bank of America and Starbucks Coffee.

These statistics speak of a change in the atmosphere of this town. Furthermore, anyone who has lived here and observed this town for any period, such as myself, can testify to a change in mood, a change in the town's personality. The newly rebuilt Sunnydale High School is one such example. Where once Mr. Snyder(as odious a human as any I have ever had the displeasure of knowing) ran the school like an armed camp, the current principal, one Miss Edgars, has encouraged her students to express themselves. Instead of breeding militant toadies like Mr. Snyder, Sunnydale is encouraging people to be at their best, and to care for each other and the city. A new civic pride that I had never witnessed is flourishing, as new business takes a chance on a small town that no one would even consider before. The decreased body count helps a great deal, I suspect. Less of an aura of fear surrounding Sunnydale presently.

Another sign of this improved mindset within Sunnydale is a renewed interest in the arts and culture. A greater number of theater groups have opened in Sunnydale, as well as a few movie companies from Hollywood filming here, as a cheaper alternative to Los Angeles. I myself have joined the board of directors for the Sunnydale Museum of Art and Culture, and last year we opened a new wing, the Joyce Summers Memorial Wing, that specializes in ancient artforms and relics of primitive peoples, and has enjoyed a great deal of success.

This last year, Xander has been promoted to assistant foreman of Sunnydale's most prestigious construction firm. He has personally handled the building of a new corporate headquarters for a new software firm, TechnoMage Incorporated. And Willow Rosenberg has joined this firm under a lucrative contract where she is allowed partial ownership of her intellectal property. Furthermore, Xander's parents have recently gone into alcohol rehab, and have begun the healing process, mending fences with their son. As for Willow, she and Buffy had begun a serious romantic relationship in recent years, one which Willow believed her parents wouldn't approve. They have not only accepted this relationship, but they have welcomed Buffy into their family with open arms.

The transformation of Sunnydale, from the breeding ground of all manner of evils, to a prosperous and positive community, is the legacy of Buffy Anne Summers. That this city, and the people whos lives she has touched, are all the better because of her, is testimony of her success as a Slayer. I submit, gentlemen, that it is not enough for us Watchers to simply aid the Slayer in destroying vampires and demons, but it must be the Watchers' duty to aid in the closing of all Hellmouths, wherever they may occur in the world. The evil that they have fostered in the world has gone on for far too long. And once that evil is removed, the land will heal, as Sunnydale can bear witness.

I thank you for your time and indulgence, and hope that you will take my words to heart.

I remain,
Your servant,
Rupert Giles


These are days you'll remember.
When May is rushing over you with desire
To be part of the miracles you see
In every hour.
You'll know it's true
That you are blessed and lucky.
It's true that you
Are touched by something
That will grow and bloom in you.

"Hey, Mom," Buffy greeted the tombstone as she lay a single white rose on the spot where her mother lay in eternal rest. "It's been a while, I guess. Three months, right?" She waited for nothing in particular, she just thought it was polite to let the dead have their say. Even if they kept silent.

"You hear the bad news? Dawn has a boyfriend. His name is Steve, and he seems like a nice guy. Naturally Giles and I ran him through a full screen, Giles even considered renting out a polygraph, but I decided that was overkill. Not too much overkill, but just enough. He's okay though. Kinda looks like Xander did when he was that age.

"Hey, you should have seen the gang in Orlando, Florida, last month," she chuckled at the memory. "Xander and Anya finally tied the knot. The main reason it took them so long was because they were saving for the wedding. They wanted to keep the details a surprise, but they finally called us up one day, had us pack a couple of suitcases each, and flew us all to Orlando. Seems Xander and Anya planned the whole thing. They had the ceremony at Walt Disney World. I swear, they had a chapel there and everything!

"Giles gave the bride away, but Anya arrived in a model coach, just like the one in 'Cinderella'. Dawn carried the rings in a glass slipper on a pillow. They even had Angel fly in at night to be Xander's best man. Willow was Anya's bride's maid. I'm glad that Will's finally cool about Anya, it took them forever to get along. Guess Willow was being over protective of Xander, him being her childhood friend, Anya being a former vengeance demon who tortured men for centuries, that sort of thing.

"It was still a lovely ceremony. And while Xander and Anya went on their honeymoon, the rest of us spent a couple of days at Walt Disney World. Giles even bought a souvenir oversized Mad Hatter hat. He's got it on display at the Magic Box.

"Don't worry, Mom, Willow and I won't go that far overboard at our wedding. That's right, Mom. Tomorrow Willow's finally going to make an honest woman out of me." She gave a watery smile as she spoke of her future plans. "Actually, we already did the deed two nights ago, we're just having a more formal Jewish style ceremony to please her folks. Sheila's been surprisingly nice about the whole thing, and Ira's being the nervous father-in-law. Wants to make sure that her daughter will be looked after, that I'll answer to her future. I don't think Ira's got anything to worry about. I opened the dojo six months ago, right after I got my diploma, and we're finally turning a profit. Landing that contract to teach unarmed fighting to the Sunnydale police didn't hurt either.

"Anyway, two days ago, we were handfasted. Sort of a witch wedding. Tara was made a priestess of the local coven recently, and Willow asked her to perform the handfasting. She was happy to do so. A couple of years ago, she and Willow finally de-ratted Amy, and I understand that Amy and Tara just moved into an apartment together. It was a beautiful ceremony, Mom. We held hands as we spoke our vows, then Tara wrapped a silk cord around our hands, and prayed to the Goddess for the sake of our marriage."

She could feel a tear sliding down her cheek as she recalled the ceremony. She could sense Willow standing behind her, and took her hand in hers. "I was about to say, I wish you were there. But in a way, you were." She placed her free hand over her heart. "You're always with me, Mom. Always." She leaned forward, and kissed the tombstone lightly. "I'll see you soon, Mom." She turned to Willow, who knelt down beside the stone, a red carnation in her hand. Placing the flower beside Buffy's rose, she contemplated a brief prayer to the Goddess for Joyce's soul.

"Mrs. Summers," she whispered to the stone, as she felt Buffy's hand in hers again, "before the wedding tomorrow, I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for being there for me when I needed someone to talk to. Thank you for putting up with my babbling. And above all, thank you for the gift of your daughter."

The two lovers stood there briefly, then embraced tightly. Tomorrow, the world would see them take their vows, and they and their friends would celebrate their union. For today, they were happy to remember the past, before entering the future.

They left the cemetery, their hearts high with the promise of their future together.


These are days.
These are the days
You might fill with laughter
Until you break.
These days you might feel a shaft of light
Make its way across your face.
And when you do
You'll know how it was meant to be.
See the signs and know their meaning.
It's true,
You'll know how it was meant to be.
Hear the signs and know they're speaking
To you,
To you.

--10,000 Maniacs
"These Are Days"

Epilogue;

Dawn ducked her head into the front door of the Magic Box. "Uh, Mr. Giles? You busy?"

Giles looked up from the financial books he had been pouring over. "Never too busy for you, Dawn. Come in."

Dawn entered the shop hesitantly. "Can I see you in the back room?"

"Certainly," the Englishman answered in slight surprise. He led her to the back storage room. Dawn noted the exercise equipment that had been set up years ago and never taken down, even after Buffy officially retired as the Slayer. She still liked to keep in shape, and there wasn't that much room in the apartment she shared with her and Willow. Giles had let Dawn stay with him while Buffy and Willow were in Cancun for their honeymoon.

Giles pulled up a chair and sat down quickly. "What seems to be the problem, Dawn?"

"Giles," Dawn asked quietly, almost timidly. Something in her reminded Giles of when he first met Willow. This didn't seem quite like the Dawn he knew, even if the bulk of his memories of Dawn were crafted by a monk desperate to protect the Key from the rogue goddess Glory. "Giles," she continued, "do you know whether a Slayer died recently?"

Giles looked startled at Dawn's question. Indeed a Slayer had died two weeks ago, at the hands of a Fyarl demon outside of Vladivostok, Russia. He had not told the others about this, hoping to allow Buffy and Willow the chance of a honeymoon together. "Um, why do you ask?" he stammered.

Dawn stood up from her chair, and approached a rack that contained two sharp swords and a number of wooden stakes. She took one of the stakes in her hand, and let it fly at thirty feet, impaling a cloth practice dummy without even warming up. "That's why," she answered.

Giles let this sink in briefly. There was no possible explanation, other than the one he had dreaded when Dawn first asked about the dead Slayer.

He collected his thoughts, wondering how he was going to tell Buffy. And how Buffy was going to take the news.

Not too well, he figured, but there was no denying what he had seen. Dawn was the new Chosen One. The new Slayer.

And Giles felt his own world grow a great deal more complicated.

To be continued.......someday

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