Title Graphic by Kimber
Illustration by Quindo Ma

Story By: Patrick Kelly & Series By: Joss Whedon

| Ch. 1-3 | Ch. 4-5 | Ch. 6-8 | Ch. 9-10 | Ch. 11 | Ch. 12-End |

Twelve

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Two-thirty a.m. People were sleeping, demons were sleeping, lots of things slept now, and that was how it should be. Imagine if nobody got any sleep. Why, cops would doze off in their coffees, pedestrians would zone out looking at the little crosswalk-sign guy, and the puppies - who would walk the puppies? Those were all the arguments for returning to bed that Buffy was considering presenting to her mother, who was waiting downstairs. Life would be simpler if the three of them could just agree to pretend that what happened, didn't happen.

"That wasn't how I wanted her to know." She said to Cordelia, pacing. "I wanted it to be a nice, calm talk, where there would be numerous escape routes available...but no, it had to be a big, heart attack causing moment. With the suddenness, and-and the seeing. My god, the seeing." There was terror, and then sarcasm to ease the pain. "Guess we'll just have to wait and find out what develops in the emotional scarring department, won't we?"

They were clothed, and rather uncomfortable. Even lovemaking had an aftermath, which was undoubtedly perspiration. Adding layers to nakedness so soon, was a bad idea. In a rush to eliminate the awkwardness, however, they selected the first apparel - from the appropriate shirt, pants and undergarment drawers - that their hands came into contact with, and put on the combinations they'd selected (mismatching or not), probably setting a speed-dressing record in the process.

Cordelia wouldn't normally be caught dead in a 'Power Rangers' t-shirt and purple shorts with an elastic waistband, but this was an extreme circumstance; sacrifices had to be made. The brunette was sitting at the foot of the bed quietly, but she was just as freaked, continuing to allow Buffy's rant to run amuck.

"And what're we about to go do? Come out? Come out halfway? One foot totally free while the other foot stays inside holding the closet door open, just in case its buddy wants back in? What?" She took a deep breath or three. "They've gotta invent new terms. Like gayishly straight. Or straightishly gay. Or Les-boys are cute sometimes-ianism." She quickly regretted saying that. "Not that I wanna label us; it's just that she's gonna ask, and we're...kinda un-labelable."

"Buffy?" An interjection was necessary at this point. She did babble in her own unique way, but was she was trying to challenge Willow's monopoly of the market?

"Yeah? Yes?" The gears were having trouble slowing, but she produced a smile. "Oh, so I *was* talking to another person. Cordelia...hi."

"Hi." Cordelia smiled back. "I need you to do two things. First, take a Valium. Second, get a dictionary and look up 'bisexual.' It's stupid, but if we have to, then we tell her that's what we are, okay? It's common knowledge, and way more simplified than your suggestions. Maybe she'll take it better if she knows we're not gender-exclusive and only checking out biker chicks now, or something."

"But you're exclusive to me, right?" Buffy sat on her lap.

"Well, I'm not gonna wear a button that announces it, cause it'd definitely clash, but yeah, you're the only one who gets to admire the whole me." Her arm ensnared the blonde's waist.

"Must make me somebody special then, huh?"

"I think so."

She received a small kiss. "And you know I'm all yours." Getting contemplative about their predicament again, she frowned. "What if...?"

Cordelia sighed, squeezing her girlfriend's hand. "We'll explain things on a question-by-question basis, hope she doesn't explode, and it'll be over."

That was all they could do.

"You're so damn logical. Helps that at least one of us is, though." Buffy was very glad for that.

"Good. Because if we both agree that I'm the logical one, and seeing as how impossible it is to argue with that, then you should have no problems with me showering. I really feel like it's the thing to do. So go ahead down and start, fill me in when I'm done."

The slayer shook her head, smirking. "Nice try." Her forehead scrunched in thought. "My mom probably does think I'm gonna turn 'Biker Chick' on her, doesn't she?"

"It's a typical stereotype." The cheerleader shrugged, disappointed that her attempt to stall had bombed.

And that's why they had to talk to Joyce. To show her that they were still Buffy and Cordelia, individuals that hadn't somehow become faceless stereotypes. Basically, with the exception of a few changes that they wouldn't dare throw away, they were the same people they'd always been. After that got settled, they had to make the woman see that their feelings for each other weren't part of a phase, or else she'd never completely take in and accept what they were going to tell her.

Buffy looked at her door. Beyond it, her relationship with her mother hung in the balance. She'd already decided that she wasn't giving up Cordelia, so getting her to understand was a goal they couldn't afford not to reach. The consequences would no doubt be costly if the reaction was negative, and she hadn't exactly mapped out what her 'Plan B' was. Mainly because she had great respect for her mother, thinking her to be fairly open-minded. It was time now, to test that high opinion.

"Let's do this."

***

Buffy and Cordelia didn't find it amusing; their morning had begun with an interrogation, only without the 'good cop-bad cop' routine. A domineering mother figure was all that was necessary to put the fear of God into them. Willow, Oz and Amy, however, were just confused by the miniature show. Two fish sticks were being held upright on a cafeteria tray, and being moved and intertwined in various ways, as Xander provided the appropriate commentary for his audience at the table.

"Oh, Buffy, kiss me!" The processed nutrition was mashed together. "Take my nude, supple bod and never stop...ahhh!" He dropped them, and picked up a straw, 'walking' it over. "Mother, I can explain! She was bitten by a snake and I was just sucking out the poison!" He moved the bendy part of the straw up and down. "My first-born has been defiled! Whatever shall I do?"

"Is that it?" Cordelia asked.

"Yeah, that's it." He chuckled, grinning. "Scene!"

"Good." She gave him the shoulder punch to end all shoulder punches, from her seat beside him. "Moron."

"Somebody's hostile." He rubbed his aching flesh, gingerly. "It was just a joke; you said she was cool about it."

"I said she *seemed* cool about it." Buffy corrected him from her spot on the brunette's lap. All the girls had used their partners as seats, as a matter of fact. "All she did was ask questions and nod. It was creepy."

"But you said she didn't yell." Willow added, thinking that would help.

"Yeah, she could still wanna disown me, though."

"You can always stay at my house," Cordelia offered sympathetically, "cause I know what my mother would say. 'A girl? Really? How brave of you, dear. I don't know where all those horrible films get the idea that those people want to be men. My stylist is gay, and the most adorably feminine woman. Do you see her at your meetings?'" She shook her head, sighing. "And *that's* why I avoid talking to her."

"At least she's just clueless." The slayer's eyes were sad.

"Trust me, Buffy, as long as your mom doesn't try to kill you or switch your bodies, everything'll be okay." Amy contributed, grinning slightly.

"Yeah, let's not forget whose mom won the 'Worst, Most Psychotic Parent Ever Award,' around here." Xander supported his very powerful girlfriend, and they smiled at one another.

"Puts things in perspective." Oz commented.

"I guess it kinda does." Buffy smiled. "But thanks to 'Mom issues,' there's no way I'm passing the history test today."

"Don't say that!" Willow exclaimed. "You're gonna pass it if I have to sweat blood."

"Do you think you're likely to?" Xander wondered. "Cause I'd like to be elsewhere."

"It was only metaphor blood."

"I think you'd sweat cute blood." Her boyfriend said.

She gave him a smile, and then spoke to Buffy. "Next period after my computer class, we'll cram like two, committed, insane women."

"Ready to be insane." Buffy responded with a smirk.

"Boy, Willow, you've really got the teaching bug; taking over computer class while Miss Calendar's out, tutoring..." The cheerleader realized.

The redhead smiled broadly. "I love it, I really do."

"Speaking of love," Xander started, "if you weren't satisfied with my portrayal of your night of hot and steamy...uh, steaminess, then how's about a demo so I can get it right the next time?"

"How about not?" Cordelia fired back, sternly.

"Fine, fine...if you want inaccurate food theater, then go ahead and reject me." He reached for the blonde witch. "I'll just have to turn to my very own black magic woman, for some comfort and lovin'."

Amy tried to dodge his fingers, laughing. "No, stop! Ah! You have fish hands!"

"Let me caress you..." He requested with a French accent.

Snyder interrupted him, coming over. "That's enough of that." He looked at them all. "Are we having a chair shortage?"

"I didn't read anything about...oh." Willow said, and they all found separate seats. "We get it."

"These public displays of affection are not acceptable in my school. This isn't an orgy, people, it's a classroom."

"Yeah." Buffy sarcastically agreed, glancing around. "Where they teach lunch."

The principal glared at her. "Just give me a reason to kick you out, Summers. Just give me a reason."

When he was gone, Cordelia snorted. "How about because you're a tiny, impotent Nazi with a bug up his butt the size of an emu?"

"Sums it up." Her girlfriend nodded, finding a hand to hold underneath the table.

"Don't you think?"

***

- How long has this been going on? -

- When did you realize...? -

- Was that...your first time? -

- Do your parents know? -

- You're teenagers; it's natural to be curious. -

- You what? Oh. -
- I don't know what else there is to...no, I'm...it's okay. -

- You both should...sleep. Just sleep. -

That was all Joyce could remember saying as she sat in the employee lounge of the gallery, drinking her coffee. She hadn't said anything she regretted, nothing irrational that she would end up having to take back. She had handled things fairly well, especially given how she'd found out; of course, that didn't mean she understood or was comfortable with it. Fiddling with the straps of her purse that was sitting on the table in front of her, she asked herself one question.

Did she think it was wrong?

Well, she'd never figured that her daughter might be...they said 'bisexual,' but if she was with a girl now, that made her gay, didn't it? No, not wrong, just...a little weird. There were certain things in life you couldn't really grasp unless you experienced them yourself, and she hadn't been attracted to a woman before. She'd noticed that they were attractive, but all women noticed that. They had to have a standard to reach. It was like they needed to be jealous of one another.

Her parents had been religious people, so she'd grown up around the values and the psalms, though as she became an adult, most of it got thrown out. You either rebelled or conformed. She rebelled, promising herself that she wouldn't be as strict or demanding. She did hold onto one value - to live the best life possible, and be respectful of others. Still, was God against gays, against her daughter? That couldn't be true. If He created every human being and loved all his creations, then He had to want some people to love in different ways, right?

This led her to two probable conclusions: either He was a hypocrite, or the ones responsible for conveying His message twisted it to fit with their own prejudices. She settled for the latter, not wanting to believe that a supreme, omnipotent being would be as discriminating as mortals.

Going into her purse, she pulled out a pair of objects, which she allowed to rest in her hand. A bracelet and a locket, that were supposed to be evidence of how serious Cordelia and Buffy considered themselves to be. They were given to her temporarily, the girls hoping that she'd become swayed to their way of thinking. In other words, breaking it off wasn't in the cards any time soon. The bracelet had been a birthday gift, the locket a Valentine's gift. At least they had enjoyed that night; her date had gone nowhere. She wasn't exactly drawn to men who talked about their work for hours - she wasn't looking for another Hank Summers.

The girls were apparently in love, and she couldn't deny that she saw it. Opening the golden heart, the picture inside wouldn't let her. Their smiling faces were genuine and contagious. When Buffy came home after spending the summer away, she was distant. Her demeanor had completely changed since then; she was bright, happy...there were times that wasn't always the case, but generally, Cordelia appeared to be a good influence. Should she fight that, even though she wouldn't know why she was?

How come she thought it was expected of her to make a big deal out of it and scream? Was it residuals from her parents' teachings?

She had picked up on something when Cordelia brought her sick daughter home, just about a week ago. Granted, she probably wasn't the most observant person in the world, but at least she'd had an inkling before walking in on them. Because her flight was cancelled, Buffy was traumatized. It was embarrassing for both of them; if there wasn't any sex going on, though, it could've been avoided. That was one thing she had to put her foot down about.

The cheerleader was a nice girl (albeit somewhat tactless), and the way she'd been hovering protectively over Buffy during their chat, it was clear that she cared. She guessed that everyone had a few surprising layers inside of them somewhere. From what was said, they were caught off-guard, too. Joyce clicked the locket shut at that thought, as Carol came in. Her friend and employee saw the jewelry, and whistled.

"Yow...they look expensive, Joycey. Didn't steal 'em, did you?"

"Yeah, that's just the kind of change I want in my life. Who would suspect that a forty-two-year old jewel thief would run her own art gallery?"

"Not me." Carol smirked. She was three years younger, and rather liberal. "You gonna dish, or what?"

"They're my daughter's." Joyce smirked, then hesitated. "And...her girlfriend's."

"No kidding." The woman had the briefest of reactions. "Who's the lucky girl?"

"Cordelia Chase."

That did get a reaction - an impressed one.

"A Chase, huh? Buffy must have something special to be able to snag one of them. Good for her." Carol looked at her employer carefully. "You're all right with it, aren't you?"

Special? Yeah, Buffy was special.

Joyce laughed lightly. "I'm still deciding. I...I caught them."

"Ohhh..." The dark-haired woman understood, grinning. "Sometimes I forget that that's the *one* thing you didn't try in college." Her friend rolled her eyes. "But I know my jewelry, and you don't spend what they probably cost, on a fling. Love's love, sweetie."

Carol was happily married, but Joyce had known her opinion on the subject for twenty years now. That was great and all, but when it came to Buffy, she had to know where she fell, not someone else's stance. Her main concern was making the rift between them larger, so she had to be smart about this. She loved her daughter; she'd use all of her parental muscles to try to not screw things up.

***

Buffy's eyes scanned the classroom, looking for anything out of the ordinary; she would've welcomed it. She saw her friends sitting in their various places, but nothing that would justify her stopping and not taking this test. She compared it to getting her teeth pulled - she wasn't having a good time. Cramming didn't solve all her problems, because she still dreaded talking to her mother after school. Little did she know, Angelus had been kind of cranky himself.

Not being able to pull one lousy sword out of an ancient, stone-encased demon that was going to suck the world into hell, would do that to a guy. He wanted to wipe everything out in one, fell swoop. She had pissed him off; the holes in his neck weren't pleasant. Oh, they'd healed, but that wasn't the point. It was time to be ruthless and unforgiving. No more playing around. He'd see that look of defeat on her face just before the heat flayed her skin - he swore it.

Except that first he had to figure out how to make that happen, which was why one of his children was walking into Buffy's classroom, shawl covering her head, and carrying the sword the slayer had used to cause him...discomfort. From tip to hilt, it was covered in his blood, and there was a paper attached, sitting in the middle of the blade. Buffy noticed the vampire before the rest, as the sword was being pointed directly at her.

The thing then removed its shawl, revealing its warped face.

"Tonight...Sundown..." The class looked up. "At the graveyard..."

"Excuse me..." Their teacher tried to take charge.

Now that it was fully exposed to daylight, its body began to smoke.

"You will come to him. You will come to him or more will die." It ignited and started to burn. "Tonight!" While students leapt from their chairs, she remained calm, and not all that shocked. "His hour is at hand!"

As it combusted, going up in flames, Buffy watched the sword hit the floor.

***

Giles was back in the library. He wished it could've been for happier reasons, but the end of the world didn't exactly qualify as a happy reason. Books were here that he didn't have at home, so he'd called Buffy's house (knowing that it would be pointless to believe the cheerleader was anywhere else), and had asked Cordelia if she would give he and Jenny a ride to school this morning. He wasn't going to leave her alone, so she had to maneuver with the aid of a wheelchair.

Kendra had arrived while the kids were in class, and once again, it was because her watcher believed that a very dark power was about to rise in Sunnydale. That pretty much confirmed what he'd been afraid of - that the object the paper said was unearthed, was something that should've remained buried. He had spoken to the museum curator yesterday from his home, getting a description of the markings on the obelisk; today, the curator was dead, and the stone prison gone.

Looking up from their readings, he, Jenny and Kendra saw a very uneasy group coming to join them. Buffy was holding what appeared to be a sword and a piece of paper, which she placed on the table while the others sat down. He wordlessly began to examine the bloodied sword, soon realizing that it was part of his collection. He picked up what appeared to be a pencil drawing, next. It was an amazingly well done portrait of Buffy and Cordelia kissing, but thanks to being on the sword, there was a hole in the middle, outlined in red.

It didn't take him long to gasp.

"Yeah, that's what I thought." Cordelia said, scowling. "The sicko was watching us!"

"And you weren't aware...?" He coughed, seeing their faces. "Oh."

"The window was closed; I would've definitely heard that open. Plus, the blinds were blocking any good view." Buffy said, anger in her voice. "Which means he got in somewhere else - probably the back door. He must've left before my mom came back...and I guess since nothing is supposed to be private in my life, yes, she did catch us."

"Your intimacy habits aside, Buffy," Her watcher's face was blushing, "you're lucky that he didn't choose to do anything more than...observe."

"Yuck, Giles!" The brunette screamed. "What'd you have to say that for?" It didn't sound that way in his head. She turned away so she could lean into her girlfriend and receive consolation. "You think we can do it over?"

"Not over, but definitely again." The slayer grinned. "Then again after that...there's a whole 'again' pattern."

"I'm liking how you think." Cordelia was already feeling better.

"Ah...sorry." The librarian apologized for what he'd said before they distracted themselves. "I meant he could've killed you, however -"

"He didn't." Miss Calendar interrupted. "So let's focus on something else."

"Good idea." The slayer said. "Angel just got those to me through an immolation-o-gram during class."

"It was pretty scary, b-but there is good news." Willow entered into the conversation. "You said it was better if we had Angel's blood for the spell, right? Well, we have lots of it now."

"It makes things easier." The teacher smiled. "That reminds me; I need to talk to you and Amy about something."

The girls looked at each other questioningly, and then followed Miss Calendar back into the office.

"What'd'ya think Angelus would do if he found out that he helped us to get rid of him?" Xander wondered as he watched them disappear. "Am I the only one who'd pay good money to see the look on his face?"

Buffy smirked, and with the break in the discussion, finally noticed Kendra. She rushed over, deciding to ignore her hugging rule. "Hey, long time no see."

"Hello, Buffy." Kendra smiled.

"When did you get here?"

"A half an hour ago, I believe. I see dat you and Cordelia are...dat you have..." Kendra got embarrassed. "I am happy for you."

"Hope my mom is, too." She smiled back. "How ya been?"

"Okay." The other slayer shrugged. "Me home is boring compared to dis place."

"Don't tell me. You're here cause of this Alfalfa guy."

"Dat's about it."

"It's Acathla," Giles corrected her, "and yes, the information provided by Kendra's watcher seems conclusive." He took off his glasses. "I've been on the phone to the museum. The demon is missing, and the curator has been murdered. Vampires."

"Then Angelus has it?" Cordelia asked, coming to stand by the blonde as he nodded. "This sucks."

"He called you out, Buff." Xander reminded her.

"I know." She responded, thinking. "We have to do the spell tonight, before he gets the chance to wake the thing up. Can we?"

"Yep." The redhead came back out looking nervous, trailed by Amy and Miss Calendar. "Amy and me. It's cause I'm a...what am I?"

"An untainted soul." Amy supplied. "I sorta do darker stuff, and this needs purity. I'll be giving her protection."

"But I don't have power like you."

"Sure about that?"

Willow nodded. "Uh huh, totally super sure. So *not* a witch...and-and what if I blow it?"

"You won't." Jenny assured her. "Whether you know it or not, you have the ability to, but we'll still guide you through it."

Oz came to put his arm around her. "You can do anything, Will. I'll be right there with you."

"No, no I seriously can't. I can't tap dance, I can't juggle...I can't even play the maracas right, and if you can't play them, then you're basically just a big dufus." Her shoulders slumped. "I don't wanna let you down, Buffy."

Her friend joined the circle of support. "If it doesn't work, then I'll do what I hafta do, but it will, because if they say you can, I believe 'em. I know you'll do it."

The hacker bit her lip. "Okay, but somebody explain the whole 'he will suck the world into Hell' thing. Just so I know how much pressure to put on myself."

"Well, the, uh," Giles put his glasses back on, "the Demon Universe exists in a dimension separate from our own. With one breath, Acathla will create a vortex, a-a kind of, um...whirlpool that will pull everything on Earth into that dimension, where any non-demon life will suffer horrible and...eternal torment."

"Imagine what the postcards'll look like." Xander deadpanned. "Hey, here's an upside - maybe we'll get out of that history test."

"Or maybe we'll just be doomed to take it in hell forever." Cordelia offered the flipside of the coin. "You think Satan's good with dates?"

"We've got work to do." Buffy announced. "Main plans, backup plans...we need to move, and we need to move fast." She looked at her girlfriend, then. "And no, I bet you he isn't. Wouldn't you feel kinda spoiled if you lived in a place where time has no meaning?"

***

It was night. After the vampire scare in history, the rest of the day had been devoted to coming up with a well thought out way to win, which would keep everyone alive. No matter how many scenarios got considered, however, there were always unforeseen factors, so nobody made any guarantees. Still, they were all working hard to pull it off, doing the best that they could. Hopefully, it'd be enough.

"Hicce verbis consensus rescissus est." Amy said the final words of the de-invitation spell they had discovered earlier, as Buffy rummaged through the supply trunk in her room, taking stakes, bottles of holy water, and crosses. "That's it, right?"

The place was now a 'No Angel' zone.

"Giles', Willow's, and mine...yeah, that should cover it." Buffy said. "I don't think he'll try anything, what with him busy attempting to end the world and all..."

The witch closed the book. "But you don't wanna take any chances."

"Chances bad." She stuffed the pockets of her jacket with the supplies. "K, everyone knows what they're doing at the library, so now we just have to -"

"Buffy, they're here!" Cordelia called up. "With um...some company."

"Company?" The two girls echoed, and then clambered downstairs.

Reaching the bottom, they found the brunette looking out the open front door, as Kendra and Spike destroyed what seemed to be a random vampire on her porch. Her enemy then turned to grin, while her fellow slayer had an apologetic expression. But before she could utter a word, her mother came walking up in between them, whose face was white with surprised fear.

Her daughter knew she should've expected the day to get continually worse.

***

"You're sure it was one of his?" Buffy whispered to the vampire.

"Yeah, for the last time, I'm bloody well sure." Spike wondered if she was going deaf.

This was the deal - he helped her, she didn't kill him for kidnapping and striking her girlfriend. She had sent the other slayer to go get him, to bring him here, and then she was going to fill them both in on their part of the plan, except she was about to modify it. Kendra had brought him up to speed on the way over, but when they arrived, they were jumped by one of Angelus' guys; it was only bad timing with Joyce.

The three of them were alone on the porch.

"Then that means he has a bigger force than we saw at the mansion...damn it, it doesn't add up." Kendra hit him square in the nose. "You read my mind."

"I didn't say anything!" He covered the punched area.

"Nope, but Kendra's a firm believer in prevention, so on the off chance that you were even thinking of saying something...do you see where I'm going with this?" She gave him a tight-lipped smile. "Behave yourself, and once this is over, I might just let you leave my town in non-dust form. For good."

"Well, if you like, I can leave right..." He was shown a warning fist. "What's the move, Churchill?" She raised her eyebrows. "Roosevelt work better for you?"

"What do you want us to do?" Kendra questioned, ignoring him.

"I don't know what game Angelus is trying to play, but whatever it is, he's counting on me to be at the cemetery. Predictable Buffy." She shook her head. "Not this time. I want you two there instead. If he's got friends, get back to the library. If he doesn't, it's a diversion, and we'll be ready for it. You'll have to keep him busy as long as you can, though, and when the spell kicks in -"

"What if it does not?"

She didn't hesitate. "He dies."

"That's the first good idea you've had, Slayer." Spike said, almost sounding impressed. "Once he's all soul-havin' again, you really think they'll be able to set their eyes on the broody Care Bear without needin' to heave? How about you and the watcher?"

"Go." Buffy said after several moments of silence, not wanting to think about that just now. "Spike, you do anything evil, and that includes jay-walking, she will stake you."

"Wait for me." Kendra told him, forcefully.

"Say 'pretty please.'" He responded, cockily. The girl gave him a hard stare. "I'm going, I'm going...damn frigid slayers." Standing on the walk, he smiled at her before going away. "Good luck with your mum."

It gave him indescribable pleasure, seeing her in a bind before what was probably going to be a big, nasty brawl. When he was on the sidewalk, Kendra turned to Buffy, retrieving a long, twisted stake from her pocket.

"Here. In case dere is trouble, dis is my lucky stake. I have killed many vampires wit it. I call it, 'Mr. Pointy.'"

The blonde smirked. "You named your stake?"

"Yes." Came the flustered reply.

"Remind me to get you a stuffed animal." She accepted the weapon with a smile, and looked it over. "Thanks."

"Watch your back."

"You too."

***

Joyce and Cordelia were sitting on the living room couch in silence, waiting for Buffy to come back in. Amy had made an exit; she didn't need to stick around, nor did she want to. When one of them caught the other looking, they would just smile and then avert their eyes. Hearing the ticking of the clock in the background, the older sat with her hands in her lap; the younger brushed her hair behind her ear at random moments, tapping her fingers on her thigh.

Then the adult began to realize how ridiculous it was becoming. There was nothing wrong with talking, so she did.

"How..." The brunette jumped, her heart leaping into her throat and then falling back down into place. "How was school?"

"Oh...well...you know how it is. You've been through the pain. Except for the occasional monster with slime for brains, which I can say now that the cat's officially shredded the bag, it's always just the same old, boring -" Cordelia stopped as soon as she heard the door shut, and saw the blonde come from the foyer to stand inside the entrance to the room. "Buffy."

"You think I'm boring?" The slayer couldn't resist.

"No, I think you're here." Her girlfriend was next to her in an instant. "So take over."

They both looked to Joyce.

"Buffy, w-who were those people?"

"Uh, Amy...but you know her, and Kendra and Spike." Buffy answered her mother. "Kendra's a slayer -"

"Like what you are?"

"Right. Spike's a...he's a long story."

"But his face was like that man's out there." She couldn't believe what had happened. "The man who disappeared."

"Yeah, mom...they're vampires."

"So if you, if you kill vam...them, then why was he helping that girl? Shouldn't you...?"

"That's a good question." Buffy turned to Cordelia questioningly, expecting her to supply an answer.

Cordelia opened her mouth, saw the sets of eyes focused on her, then closed it, putting her hands on her hips and glaring. She decided to go explore the kitchen.

"I'm so confused." Joyce said, trying to understand. "First I find out that you're..." She paused, considering how to say it. "Dating a girl...and now you're some kind of...what? A-a superhero? Next you're probably gonna tell me one of your friends is a witch." The sigh was involuntary. "Is this real?"

Her daughter went and kneeled in front of her. "Uh huh, it's all real. And I know it's a lot to take in...it was for me, too, but you gotta trust me. I'm not crazy, we weren't all delusional, and I know what I'm doing." Buffy paused. "Most of the time."

"I was going to talk to you; I had it all planned out. I thought for once I could pretend that I knew how to be a parent and how to relate to my daughter. I was even ready to pat myself on the back. Compared to this, having a conversation with you and Cordelia seems like the easiest thing in the world." Joyce shrugged, smiling a sad, defeated smile. "And now I'm lost again, because...I really don't know you, do I?"

"Teenagers are a complex bunch - but at least I'm not smoking that wacky dope us kids are so into." The slayer joked, but she felt horrible. "It's not all your fault, mom. I wanted to tell you before, but there're these rules against getting people involved. I didn't advertise my job to my friends; they sorta had the dots connected for them the first time they got attacked. When -"

"Oh my god...it started before we moved." Her mother suddenly realized.

The arson charges made sense now.

"Yeah, it did. Some days I'm glad, other days..." Buffy trailed off; it was too complicated, and she hated to do this, but didn't have the time. "Um, I don't wanna go, and I *promise* we'll have that talk when I get back, but I have slayer stuff to do."

Joyce's eyes bugged out. "Right now? You can't just dump this on me and then leave, Buffy."

"I don't mean to, really, it's just...if I don't deal with this now, then I'll have to figure out how to save the world later, and you know how much I hate extra work." She had to think. "Ooh! Cordelia can stay with you. She knows the basics."

"Don't you think she'll mind?"

"Probably," She grinned, "but she'll do it, anyway."

It was a big leap of faith on her part, but what choice did she have?

"If you have to...then go."

Buffy hugged her. "Love you, mom."

"I love you, too, honey. I mean it." The hug got tighter. "Are you going to be okay? You'll be careful, right?"

"Yes, I'll be fine. This is like, routine for me. It'll be a piece of cake."

'Let's hope so.'

***

Angelus walked out from behind the mausoleum expecting to see Buffy, but instead found Spike and Kendra. His face didn't give away the anger that he felt, though. She had to pick now to gain some intelligence? For the first time since being let back out, he wasn't quite so sure of things. She had a game of her own, or else they wouldn't be here. This wasn't going to turn out well, and not knowing why left an uneasy feeling in his stomach.

"Oh," Spike smirked, "I think we surprised the git."

"I don't remember inviting you." He said, calmly.

"Yeah, well, she wanted to make it, but she got held up. Didn't wanna be rude, so she asked us to come have a little fun for her. How could I pass it up?"

"What happened to you, Spike? Working with the take out? I'm disappointed."

"Yeah, so it breaks my code...but we both want the same thing. Take a guess."

"I don't think you had a choice." Angelus smiled when he saw the younger vampire grit his teeth, and the veins become visible in his neck. "What could she possibly be doing that's more important than this?"

"That does not matter," Kendra spoke, "because you will not survive de night."

She moved to attack him, and Spike was right behind her.

***

Buffy ran through the doors of the library, finding Willow already reciting the spell and sitting on the table, Indian-style. The redhead was in the middle of a circle made of blue powder, and that same mixture was formed into a pentagram on her forehead. A small bowl filled with Angel's blood and other ingredients was situated between her legs, and Amy was spreading incense around her while Jenny (a cross and garlic around her neck) was beside her in the wheelchair, parchment in hand, making sure she stayed accurate in her wording.

The men were all armed - the guitarist with a staff that had a sharpened end, the librarian with a dagger, and Xander with his trusty Super Soaker. She was glad that they had actually paid attention when she called and told them to be prepared. She proceeded to hand out stakes and bottles of holy water, careful not to disrupt Willow. This was their only shot, and it had to work, because she really didn't want the fate of the world to rest in her hands. She had enough stress in her life, and didn't know if she could handle any more.

"Spread the water around the table. If we have crashers, I don't want them getting close to..."

Just as she said that, six vampires appeared in the library by way of the cellar behind the stacks, and one of them jumped over the railing to stand in front of her.

"So much for 'if,' huh?" Xander said, backing up.

"Buffy!" Willow stopped the spell, her eyes darting from vampire to vampire.

"We'll keep them busy, Will. Don't stop." As she punched her opponent, she noticed that they weren't rushing to face her. They pushed Oz and Xander aside, and were crowding... "Amy, help Giles!"

The witch looked at the crowd, her eyes shrouded in darkness. "Diana, disperse the unclean!"

The demons went flying. One hit the counter, two were thrown over it, and one hit a bookcase, knocking that over; the last one went crashing through the office window. Buffy swiped the feet of the one she was fighting, then readied Mr. Pointy, starting to think that this might just go their way.

***

"So she's always been able to...be a slayer?" Joyce asked, noting how Cordelia would repeatedly look out the window or stare at the clock.

"Um, I think it's like a puberty thing." The cheerleader responded distractedly. "Like...you know when you're little that you're gonna get breasts, but you don't get them until your body starts trying to annoy the hell out of you, and then you're not sure if they're worth it anymore. Only Buffy didn't know she could beat things up when she was little...and I'm...not making much sense, am I?"

The woman smiled. "You wanna be there."

"No, I..." She sighed. "Yeah. It's not like I don't understand that she wants me to be safe, and that she wants you to be okay with everything. It was new to me once, too, and I didn't handle it well. She does, though; she's great at it, she'll be fine...I know that. And I get that she has to do this. But she gets so stubborn when she has to slay - it drives me nuts. If she does something stupid..."

Her daughter had grown into this amazing person, and she'd missed out on it. The school librarian apparently knew her better than she did. Buffy was never a hoodlum, she never hung out in the wrong crowd...she was just a teenager with a lot more responsibilities than cleaning her room and taking out the trash. Joyce got on her case, punished her for saving people's lives, and it wasn't as if she had even asked for the job.

Everything was going to change, had to change, whether she was prepared for what would follow or not. Where did being gay rank on the issue scale now? Somewhere near the bottom. The fact that your only child could die at any given moment really caused you to reprioritize quickly. Guilt had a hand in it, but she had just found a common ground with the girlfriend, and she had to be sympathetic.

"I've got news for you...Buffy's always been stubborn."

"Tell me about it!" She said, throwing her hands in the air.

Joyce laughed. "When she was five, she wouldn't let me teach her how to tie her shoes. She *had* to learn on her own. She got so frustrated sometimes that it broke my heart, but one day, she just did it. Didn't make a big deal out of it, didn't wait for me to say anything, she just put them on, and then we went food shopping."

"How come I'm not surprised?" Cordelia smirked.

"Sounds like you know her pretty well."

She shrugged. "I try. I still think she's got things that she keeps, hidden or whatever, but I'll crack her; you can count on that. No one's been able to escape me when I want something, and I don't intend to start slacking off now."

"I believe you." Every time she looked into the brunette's eyes, she saw the forcefulness in them, but now she saw something else. "Looks like we both know how much hard work loving Buffy can be."

With a small snicker, Cordelia nodded. "Sure is. I'm willing to put up with her as long as she's willing to put up with me, though. I can't help it. I didn't go looking for this, but that doesn't mean I don't want it...I do." The words spilled from her mouth, and after they were out, what Joyce had just said, fully registered. "Hey..."

Again, what other choice did she have? None as far as she could tell - well, unless she wanted to ruin things, which she didn't.

"Cordelia, would you do me a favor?"

The cheerleader cleared her throat nervously, thinking she had stepped into a trap. "Of course. What?"

"You've been a big help, but...go watch out for my daughter." The girl smiled, and Joyce went into the dining room for her purse, taking out two things that she had held onto long enough. "And I think these are yours."

The smile remained on Cordelia's face as she received them. She put the bracelet in her pocket, and her necklace back where it was supposed to be. She knew something had been missing.

"Thanks, but," There was a slight problem, "do you maybe have something that's good for whacking?" Joyce raised her eyebrows. "Uh...demons, obviously. Geez. What is it with people?"

***

Xander yelled, having just had his arm broken in two places by a vampire. Rather than give into the searing pain, however, he remembered that he still had one good arm, which continued to hold his weapon of choice. He twisted out of the demon's grip, and before either of them knew it, the barrel of the Super Soaker was in its mouth. He was running on some kind of fear-powered autopilot.

"You look thirsty." He pressed the trigger, and a seemingly endless stream of holy water found its way down the vampire's throat. Within seconds, it was smoking, and then combusting from the inside out. Inhaling some of the dust, Xander began to cough. "They can't suck the life outta ya, so they kill you with asthma instead. Good one."

Being out of immediate danger, he took the opportunity to survey the situation. Thanks to him, they were now down to four vampires. Soon to be three, if Oz could find an opening and plant the staff where it needed to go. If they hadn't expected this, things could be a lot worse than a broken arm. Both their girlfriends were very involved in what they were doing, Amy expending most of her energy shielding Willow, and Willow at the point of no return in terms of the casting.

The hacker turned witch was in the throws of the spell. Her eyes had an eerie focus, words flew from her lips in a language Xander didn't understand, and he didn't think she did, either. The blue powder was swirling around her now, transforming into a bright, blue light. The image on her head was doing the same thing. It was like she wasn't aware of the commotion surrounding her. He and Miss Calendar both watched as she lifted her hands into the air, and then shoved them into the bowl, as the light started to fluctuate.

Oz did it. They were down to three. The force of the magickal energy was probably throwing the vampires off...and he wished he hadn't thought that and jinxed them all, because one of the things was advancing on Miss Calendar. He screamed her name and hurried as fast as he could to her, but Giles was already well aware of the trouble she was in. The watcher thrust his dagger into the vampire's back violently, and as it turned, he removed the blade, staking it with satisfaction.

Two left. Xander cradled his injured arm close to his chest, and reminded himself not to make jokes at Giles' expense ever again.

Buffy had the remaining vampires covering her front and back, over by the counter. Just as she got one down, the other attacked. She couldn't keep ducking and dodging forever.

"Buffy, duck!"

But apparently a voice that sounded strangely like Cordelia's thought she could. Not having any better ideas, she did as she was told, and the one that was in front of her somehow ended up lying on the ground. She looked, seeing that it was indeed her girlfriend. Holding a nine-iron. It must have been from her mother's set; the woman never golfed a day in her life, but kept saying that when she found the time, it would be a good idea to have the necessary clubs.

Buffy thought it was better not to ask questions, and smiled. "I think you sliced it."

"What?" The brunette asked, in the middle of hitting the demon repeatedly.

"Forget it." Having the odds evened out for her, she and Mr. Pointy made quick work of the one that was behind her. Cordelia's victim was covering its face. "Can I kill him yet?"

"No, but I can." The cheerleader snatched Mr. Pointy, dropped the club, and knelt down to finish the job. "Nobody messes with my girlfriend."

"Isn't that my line?"

Cordelia grinned, straightening and brushing the dust off of her outfit. "You're not the -"

She couldn't finish her sentence, because when the lights went out, her vocal chords went out with them. Everyone looked to Willow, and the only thing visible through the dark, was her glowing, blue eyes.

***

Unexpectedly, Angelus found himself flung into a tree. He sat on the grass, stunned, even as Spike belted him in the face again and again.

"This is for Dru." His grandchilde said, snarling. "Take her from me, will you? She was mine!" He laughed, and just kept laughing; he couldn't feel a thing. "What's so sodding funny?"

"Spike, my boy, you whine too much. Screw her! Let it go! Because I can do this all night...you know why?" He smiled, his features covered in blood. "He's gone!"

Kendra stood next to Spike, breathing heavily. "And if they are successful, den he will be back, and you will not."

His face fell, and shifted. "No! Not again!" He growled, springing to his feet.

They jumped back. Buffy wasn't going to get out of this with no casualties. With single-minded determination, he grabbed Kendra by her ponytail roughly, not giving the girl a chance to fight back. He snapped her neck with ease, and the body fell to the ground. She had known it was coming, somehow. She wished the only sister she'd had, luck - the unorthodox blonde would go far - and allowed the hole she'd felt ever since being taken from the family she never knew, to finally be filled.

Spike looked on, mostly pissed off that that wasn't his kill. This was the day, and he hadn't capitalized.

"Say goodbye, mate." The bleached blonde got in his elder's way.

"Either way, you're dead. Think carefully."

He didn't think nearly fast enough for Angelus, who knocked him out of the way and ran in the direction of the library. Spike decided it was time for him to move on; he did what he was supposed to, and didn't give the lifeless slayer a second thought.

***

Willow was sharing her soul with Angel's; she couldn't describe it any other way. It was so weak, so battered. A century's worth of torment, loneliness and painful memories were open to her now. His fear, his guilt, and overwhelming sadness - it was there before he even became a vampire. She could see it and feel it, and for someone as young and cheerful as she was, it was too much. She understood everything; she knew him, and why he had to come back.

He had to cleanse his soul, had to achieve some sort of peace, no matter how long it took. So the redhead held on, allowing him to gain strength from her. She shook, tears and sobs wracked her body, but still she held on. She could almost make out Snyder and the two security guards with flashlights, who had come in demanding answers. That didn't stop her. She didn't have to see Angelus to know he was there, that he barreled through the principal and the guards, and was heading for her.

But he was too late. She stared him down, and he froze. His eyes turned as blue as hers, and in just a few seconds, she was passed out, the lights were on, and Angel was back.

"Will!" Xander exclaimed, as he, Giles and Cordelia joined Amy and Miss Calendar by the table.

Oz went to get some water, and Buffy walked to Angel, looking him over cautiously.

"Yeah, it's me." He spoke.

"Where's Kendra?" She asked, relieved.

When he cast his eyes downward and didn't answer, her eyes went wide with shock. No...she turned away from him, and joined her friends. Damn Spike for being right. Oz returned, and they fussed over an extremely tired Willow. Snyder remained speechless, as some badly dressed, unknown man, wearing a hat that looked too small for him, appeared out of nowhere and came over to Angel.

"Whistler?" The now, permanently-souled vampire questioned.

"Been rough on ya, huh?" The good demon said. "Think it's time to go. Next assignment's waiting, if you want it. But sheesh...clean yourself up."

"If?" He accepted the handkerchief, and wiped the blood from his face.

"Got a soul, don't you? Gives you free will, pal. Take it or leave it, but personally, I get the feeling you've overstayed your welcome. You did what you had to do here," Whistler looked to the ceiling, "and they won't forget that."

"But I..." It was all fresh in his mind.

"Wasn't your fault." He patted him on the back. "You tell me what you wanna do."

"You're leaving?" A conscious Willow asked, standing, though wobbly. Her boyfriend was holding her steady. "You can't leave."

Angel smiled sadly. "You don't want me here."

"Don't tell me what I want. You have things to do, still. We need help. Okay, your alter ego? Scary, but not you. Bad things happened, people died, and it stinks that you have to live with it, but you do, and that won't change if you just up and move. After a hundred years, you think you would've figured that out by now."

"You'll feel uncomfortable when you're around me."

"Duh! You've always made me uncomfortable! And without the 'grr' face on. Oh...that sounded mean, didn't it? Sorry." She got up next to him, and began to poke his chest. "But look, buster, I didn't just go through all that work for you to run away from us. If you go, then that's just like quitting...I don't save quitters. I hope. So start doing good." She paused, looking at Whistler. "I've never seen you before, but you give bad advice. Go away."

Whistler was taken aback. "Feisty, ain't she?"

"Don't make me use my resolve face." Willow warned.

The demon looked perplexed, and then got the full force of it.

He coughed, backing out through the library doors. "Uh...you've got a year. Then I'll ask you again."

"Chair?" She requested, which Xander quickly supplied for her sitting pleasure. "Whew."

Every single member of the group had smirks on their faces, including Angel. Snyder didn't; he stormed over to them in a rage.

"You're all expelled! And fired! You damaged school property -"

They just stared at him; his cell phone was ringing.

"Aren't you gonna get that?" Xander wondered.

"Quiet, Harris." He answered it, angrily. "What?" He went white. "No, sir...Of course not...No, they're...Oh, I...Yes, I understand...Absolutely...Thank you, Mr. Mayor." He hung up, glared at the hooligans, and then left with the guards. "Let's go!"

The weary gang just shrugged collectively.

"He's such a troll." Cordelia commented.

***

The Council sent people to take Kendra's body back to England; Quentin Travers was her legal guardian. Buffy thought about that as she sat on her porch with Cordelia a few weeks later. She had never gotten to say a proper goodbye to her or Spike, who had taken off. That was a wise decision on his part. She kept thinking that she could've stopped it, but had to quit torturing herself. Kendra was a friend she wished she had known better, but she couldn't control everything.

Angel was living at the mansion now, and he had handled the disposing of Acathla. Despite Willow's (who was all into witchcraft now) rant, it would take a while for them to warm up to him. The good news was that nobody was jobless or not enrolled. She didn't care what had changed Snyder's mind; she was just glad that the worst was over. The emotional trauma would be dealt with over time, and all she had to worry about now, was preparing for the finals that were coming in a couple months. And while Miss Calendar was out of her cast, Xander was still in his.

They'd had the "talk" with her mother, and she was wearing her bracelet again. Joyce had been understanding, supportive...Buffy's opinion of her was validated, and that was a huge relief. The only downside was the "No sex in the house" rule, but there were many, many loopholes to that. Cordelia and Joyce had bonded in a way (thanks to being able to complain about her), but however frightening that was, if it helped with the acceptance, she could handle it.

But if the discussions about her girlfriend maybe taking her mother to one of the country clubs' in town to go golfing became a reality, then there'd be problems.

"Do we have to sit out here?" Cordelia asked. "I feel like an old lady. I'm seventeen; I'm too young to start thinking about wrinkles."

Buffy smiled. "Where do you wanna go?"

"We could go to the movies and have another clich� make-out session in the back row."

She wasn't exactly opposed to clich�s anymore.

"What if we see Giles and Miss Calendar there?"

They both frowned.

"My house; we could go to my house." She suggested next. "Have you seen the hot tub?"

"No, I can't say that I have."

"Well, then you have to see it. And everything's right there. Mini-fridge..."

"But what if I don't just wanna look at it?"

"Then I guess you'll have to get in." The cheerleader said, a grin beginning to form, to match the one the blonde had. "Which'll mean that I have to, because I know from experience that I can't leave you unsupervised."

"For the record, I resent that."

"It's noted."

"Should I get a bathing suit?"

Cordelia shook her head. "You can *borrow* one of mine. If you really need to."

She kissed her girlfriend then, smiling seductively.

The slayer coughed. "So...hot tub, huh? Good idea. Why don't we go right now? Yeah, now looks good to me."

"Maybe you should get your shoes on first. I'd volunteer to help you tie them, but I don't want you mad at me." She winked.

"Too late." Why'd her mom have to tell that story?

Cordelia raced into the house, Buffy on her heels. It had definitely been a long year. Even though it wasn't without its share of dark spots (technically it wasn't even finished), having the lives that they did, they had to admit that overall, it had turned out pretty okay.

***

Epilogue

-----------

~~ I didn't know how to act around you
Didn't know what to do or what to say
You'd show me one face
Then another
And we'd hit repeat the next day
Look harder
You never know what you'll find
Go deeper
Never know what you'll find ~~

Finals were over - the wait for the dreaded report cards had begun. Though sitting in the Bronze, they weren't dwelling on that. Summer was here, which meant freedom. For Buffy, it meant that she only had to work nights. They were just hanging out now, acting their ages and savoring every moment. Xander was especially happy, because he had a girlfriend who healed him faster than medical knowledge could understand. They were coupled off at a table, temporarily missing Willow and Oz, who were just coming in.

~~ I wasn't supposed to be this into you
Wasn't supposed to go as far as this
You showed me every face
Then were human
And I saw the layers that exist
Look harder
You never know what you'll find
Go farther
Never know what you'll find ~~

The redhead was carrying a yearbook with her, which she had bought the day before exams. She didn't understand why she was the only one who bought it in the group - nostalgia was important. Plus, her pictures made it in, and she knew her friends would be excited to see one in particular. Students in the school voted on various categories every year: Nicest Person (which she happened to win), Most Laid Back (which her boyfriend won), etc. Two other people in the gang snagged a category, too, and she'd had the perfect picture.

~~ I can't see the road ahead of us
Can't see down the path we're on
You show me the signs
Then they're finally clear
And it's cause of you my future stays strong
We're here and I'm not sure how
I just know that I...
That I love you now, oh
Hey... ~~

She set the yearbook on the table when she reached them, and began flipping through the pages.

"Hey, Will, Oz." Xander greeted them. "Anything good in there?"

She just smirked. One day about a month ago, she'd had her camera with her when she caught Buffy and Cordelia talking in the hallway. The cheerleader had just gotten out of the shower because of the exertion caused by gym class, and she could see how absorbed the slayer was. It was no secret that Cordelia managed to look irresistible whenever and wherever, and she asked them to pose, thinking she'd catch them being flushed and nervous. She hadn't anticipated the opposite result.

Finding the page, she pointed it out:

"Water...water..." Xander choked.

"How can you debate that?" Amy questioned.

"Seems about right." Oz said.

"Damn straight. We *so* deserve it." Cordelia said. "Cause we are hot. And as long as they recognize that, they can call us freaks till their faces turn blue."

"I think we gotta give Willow some credit." Buffy smiled, meeting Cordelia's lips. "That photo was probably what put us over the top."

"Yeah, Will, bravo." Xander congratulated. "You should look into photography. You know what kind really pays well? The artsy naked kind. I mean, they have entirely too many layers on in this picture."

"Who wants to go first?" Willow asked.

A "Smacking Assault" was about to begin.

~~ Look harder
You never know what you'll find
Go deeper
Never know what you'll find
Never know what's...
Never know what's inside
Never know what's...
Never know what's there to find ~~

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