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Bone.

Bone blood weary.

Buffy's stomach hurt. It went past the nervous clenching that she used to feel and mask behind a glinting smile and flying quips. She could almost think she was sick but the Slayer immune system ignored the simpler human ailments. So it was just nerves and even if she thought her stomach would rip out of her body in a bid for freedom, taking everything else with it, including her heart... well that was just idle thought as she directed her slayers with conservative motions.

The whole group was silent, from Giles to Willow to the best of the young new slayers that they brought with them. They were soldiers and they knew better than to draw attention to themselves as they loaded into a rented bus amidst breaking chaos.

The driver relinquished the vehicle with a nervous eye towards what was rapidly becoming a wreckage of LA's former self. Giles thanked him with a tight nod and took the wheel.

The doors closed with Buffy bringing up the rear. She watched the girls settle in and secure their duffel bags, which carried mostly weapons. There would be time enough for everything else if the city survived.

Willow flashed Buffy a crooked smile, her hands gathered in her lap and idly toying with her athame. Buffy merely tucked back a persistent lock of hair, dusky blonde and so very long.

The girls began to whisper a bit, glued to the windows that let in the murky colors of what should have been a city of glitter and glam. They could see smoke puncturing the sky, highlighting the broken buildings and it seemed blood drifted in the fog.

Buffy did not like fog. She had her reasons for that. And she did not like the expressions settling on the slayers' faces, awed and a little cowed.

"Girls," she said quietly but her voice carried. "Some of you were with me in Sunnydale. Some of you came to me later. You have fought through it all and lived through it all. We've lived together, trained together and braved battles together. You are the best and the most experienced. This is why you're squad leaders and this is why you're here today. You have the skills, the instincts and the willingness to follow me. We will overcome."

It was weird, Buffy thought, how quickly she learned to make the little inspirational speeches. She saved her quips for the bad guys these days. She could joke when it was just her Scoobies but she was an authority now, the number one Slayer, the archetype, the one they all strived to be. And they looked to her for assurance, for seriousness, though most began to imitate the way she interacted with the vampires, demons and sundry other evil creatures. They weren't as good yet, she had noted clinically mid-battle on many occasions, but some had potential. It was a little odd maybe that the ones who made the best snarky comments also kicked the most demon ass.

She sat down next to Willow and leaned her head on the redhead's shoulder. He stomach burned as it turned over and over and she didn't regret turning down the meal offered by the airplane hostess earlier that day.

The bus ride was bumpy, full of unexpected turns and spins as Giles tried to run over raging demons and avoid running humans. Buffy heard squeals from the girls occasionally, some in excitement, some startled by the sudden jerks of the vehicle.

"I hate waiting."

"Not long now, Caridad," Buffy replied. She knew the streets they traveled, knew them intimately as a baby knows its cradle.

The fog suddenly grew more dense, clinging to the windows like filthy, melted marshmallows. Giles pulled to a stop, triggering the wipers. It took a few swipes before the glass was clean enough to drive again and as he took the moment to clean his glasses he missed the sight that caused a collective gasp. Quickly and awkwardly lodging the glasses back in their place, he froze as he too saw the gargantuan, glimmering body of the dragon twisting sinuously in the air a mere few blocks away.

Buffy stood up. "Girls, grab your weapons and gear up. Strap on as much as you can carry without it getting in your way. As soon as we get there, we're going in. Vi, take Team B. Chao-Ahn, you're with Willow and Giles."

As the bus took motion again, the slayers were up and moving, cold, forged steel glinting in their hands as they tucked daggers into odd spots, pulled out swords and attached throwing knives. They packed crossbows, stakes, and little vials with potent potions.

Buffy hoped they packed luck too. They would all need it.

She weighed her sword absently in her hand. It was an old friend, a relationship only deepened by ambivalence caused many years ago. Caused by herself and by circumstance.

Now she hoped it would be redeemed, she would be redeemed as she put this old friend to edge the fate in favor of some other old... friends. Let's just leave that alone, she thought. And anyway she didn't seek forgiveness anymore. Did she...?

Giles maneuvered the bus behind a swell of wreckage and threw open all the doors. The women streamed out quietly, some disappearing from view as Vi led them to what should be the back of the battle, others waiting for Buffy's orders.

Willow laid a quick hand on Buffy's shoulders and gestured Chao-Ahn and Giles behind her.

The moments it took for them all to take position seemed to be eternity. Buffy forced herself to hold still and take in the situation. Two vampires, a strange woman who seemed rather blue and one bloodied young man. They weren't much as they faced the serpentine creature but they were making headway. It didn't however stop Buffy's stomach from clenching into a tiny ball.

Then eternity rubber-banded and snapped back into place as the amulet against Buffy's throat pulsed twice with warmth.

Time.

It was time.

She raised her left hand in signal to her slayers and then readied her sword. The attack was flawless, both teams appearing in sync with several scorching fireballs aimed at the dragon and she no longer had time to worry about her stomach.

"Well aincha a big fella," Buffy drawled. She spared only a single nod at the weary team they came to help and charged forward. She was still as lithe and quick as she was when she was Called. Maybe more so, grown better and faster with experience, movements smoothed into instantaneous perfection. She was there. And then she wasn't.

She taught that to her girls. Strength was good but speed was fire. And they danced the deadly dance with something that she identified as a bit of herself. And then she stopped thinking, bonding with the length of steel in her hand, dodging the fluid strikes of the dragon's claws, and giving nothing less than her all to the fight.

She felt the magic web tightening in her skin and marked it by casting her own mark onto the dragon. She scored it, satisfied to see blood, for all that it was black and shining. She ducked and tapped her amulet, immediately seeing the change in pattern as the slayers slowed, showing off to draw the dragon to them. The vampires charged in behind them, but that wasn't her part of the battle anymore.

She breathed in and shimmied down, crawling along the filth that claimed the city streets. Her job was the dragon's underbelly and she would see it through.

Buffy wasn't ever much for patience but she was older now and though she didn't like it, she could control herself. She held her breath, hunched a little to remain unnoticeable, insignificant.

There!

The dragon reared and so did Buffy, uncoiling as she delivered a sharp jab right into its only unprotected spot. And then battle rage took her. Blood and scales flying, she darted through the fog, her hair a halo in the middle of the dirt and darkness.

She was their Joan of Arc.

Their hero.

But she didn't acknowledge that even when the dragon was down, groaning as it beached onto its side. She spun as she put slayer rage into the death strike and landed on one knee, breathing heavily, sweat clearing trails of pale skin through the dust clinging to her.

"So I thought you could use some help," she said, finally allowing herself to identify the vampires. Angel. Oh Angel. It was him that she was looking at, her quirky, tired smile tugging at her mouth.

He stayed silent as he wiped his sword clean of blood. "How did you know?"

"A little birdy named Gunn," came the answer from the man himself.

"I... we were glad to come," Buffy said.

Their eyes connected.

I am glad you're here.

At least that's what she thought she saw in his expression and she could feel her stomach again. Except it was light now. Really light. About to break free again and float away. With her heart.

"So I though we'd save the city, avert the Apocalypse and then maybe celebrate," she continued. When he said nothing, she lowered her eyes. "You know, I could go for some milk and cookies."

When she looked up, she found him studying her sword. His own was twin to hers and he saluted her subtly with it.

Light broke through the fog as she smiled.

"Shall we then?"

With a gesture to her slayers, she started off towards where the most screams seemed to be coming from, secure in the knowledge that she would be followed.

There were other thoughts.

But for the moment, there was an Apocalypse to prevent.

Again.