Dawn watched, eyes wide with horror, as her mother morphed into an image of unspeakable evil. “Mommy, no!” she cried, as she dropped to the ground.
“Dawn!” Buffy stood at the other end of the chasm, unable to stop the creature as it scooped her sister into its arms. She almost lost her footing, as Spike held her back.
“Magic. I can use magic,” an exhausted Willow muttered as she slowly raised her arm, blue sparks crackling from her fingers.
“Don’t listen Willow.” Buffy’ focus was torn between all the people she loved. Giles cradled Anya’s lifeless body, as Xander stood impotent, tears streaming down his cheeks. Dawn screamed as the force of the First Evil, finally able to manipulate matter at the zenith of its power, lifted her high into the air. Willow’s arm dropped to her side, as the glowing silver image of her lover hovered over the open Hellmouth. “Willow,” Buffy cried, “It isn’t Tara. It’s the First. Don’t listen. We need you.” Her voice cracked. “Dawn needs you.”
“You can’t use magic, not for this,” Tara stated calmly amidst the carnage. “Only one thing can defeat the First. A pure and selfless act of love.”
“Tara,” Willow cried. “It is you. I know it’s you.”
Buffy looked down into the mouth of hell. “If it’s true, it’s up to me.” She struggled to pull herself from Spike’s arms. “Let me do this. I have to do this.”
Spike spun her around, looking into her eyes. “No. Not this time. Always remember, I love you, Slayer.” Pressing a gentle kiss onto her lips, he pushed Buffy to safety, and leapt. In the aura of pure evil his body dissipated, his dust swirling up before it rained down into the pit.
With a scream, the First Evil exploded in a blaze of light. Dawn fell gently to the ground, as the Hellmouth closed over the valiant vampire, and Tara faded from sight, a sad smile on her lips.
A calm descended over what was once again the High School basement. It was as though nothing had ever happened, an illusion gainsayed by the bodies of the never to be Slayers scattered over the floor, and the grieving few friends left behind.
Buffy stared at the ground where Spike had disappeared. Dawn clung to her, wordless with shock. Willow looked up to try and catch a glimpse of Tara, lost now forever. Giles and Xander both stared down into the blood covered face of the woman they loved.
Victory was not sweet.
There was no one unscathed left to nurture the ragged band left in the Summer’s living room, so by default, the lot fell to Giles. Willow, Buffy and Xander sat huddled together on the couch, under the blue blanket that had been lying there. As he handed them each their mug of tea, they took it from him without response. Dawn sat on the floor at their feet, shaking her head as he tried to hand her a mug.
His heart broke at the sight of them. His heart broke...
Eyes filling with tears, he dropped into the chair and buried his head in his hands.
Dawn broke the silence. “It’s over now, right? The First Evil is dead.”
“Evil never dies.” Buffy sighed as she stared into the warm liquid. “It’s part of us.”
Giles looked at her. “The First Evil is defeated. It can’t harm the world for a long time. The Hellmouth is closed.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “But no. Evil never dies.”
“What time is it?” Dawn asked. “Is it morning or night?”
Xander looked at his wrist. “My watch is broken.”
“Time we all got some sleep.” Giles pushed himself from the chair, trying not to let his grief show on his face. Startled, he realized how spacious the house now seemed. Only yesterday it had been crowded with people. There were still sleeping bags tossed against the floorboards.
“You’re right.” Willow threw aside her blanket and rose to her feet. She pulled at Xander’s hand. He was still staring at his watch. “Hey. You can sleep with me, buddy. It’ll be kindergarten all over again.” Without a word, Xander nodded, gratitude in his eyes. She led him up the stairs, his hand gripping hers tightly.
“I’m heading up too.” Dawn pulled herself up with the couch. “Ow.” She pulled back her sleeve to reveal a blackening bruise where the First Evil had gripped her. “I’m gonna be black and blue. I...” She stopped at Buffy’s pained expression. Her faint suffering was nothing compared to what her sister faced. What all the others had faced. “Like I said, going to bed.” She laid her hand on Buffy’s shoulder. “Want to come with?”
Buffy kept her eyes on her mug. “I’d rather be alone tonight,” she replied softly.
“Whatever you want. Night Giles.” She started towards the stairs, then stopped and looked back at her sister. “I know it doesn’t help, Buffy, but he saved the world.”
“Does it help?” Giles asked, as Dawn disappeared.
“No. It doesn’t.”
Giles stood up, sat beside Buffy on the couch, and pulled her head onto his shoulder. “I thought not.” She let the tears come, then.
“You can cry, Will. It’s okay.” Xander wrapped her in his arms, her flannelette against the material of his sweatpants and t-shirt, as they cuddled together in her small bed.
“So can you.” Willow looked at the window, light streaming in through the curtains. “I know we need to sleep, but I can’t.”
“It’s too much. Everything. Too much.” He sighed deeply. “Every time I close my eyes, I see them. Poor Anya, covered in blood. She tried so hard, Will.” The tears were in his voice. “We could have been married a year, not apart and angry. A whole year, Will, and I threw it away. I’m such an idiot.”
“You did what you thought was right.” She stroked his temple with her fingers, hoping it was soothing. “A whole year, and all I prayed for was to see Tara, just one last time. Even for a moment.” She pulled up the edge of the sheet, wiping her eyes with it. “It wasn’t enough. How could I have thought it would be enough? I miss her more now than ever.”
“Two women.” He held her tighter. “In my life I’ve been with two women, and they both die the same day. What’re the odds of that?” There was a bitter edge to his voice. “I loved Anya. And Faith, she was my first. That means something, right? Your first? How could everything just be gone, just like that? So many people, just gone.”
“My grandmother used to tell me about the Holocaust. How she got out of Europe, right before the war, shipped to her uncle in America. But the rest of her family, just gone. All together. That’s evil. You read about it, hear about it, and it doesn’t sink in. But when you see it...”
“Faith was a Slayer. Like a Superhero. Like Buffy. How could Andrew just kill her like that? Where’d he get so good with a knife?” He choked back a sob. “The look on her face. Like it could never happen to her. Like this little weasel could never touch her. But he just slid the knife in, and she fell...”
“And the look on his face when the First gave him to his last vampire. Betrayed. Like it couldn’t happen to him.” She rolled a bit, laying her arm across his chest. “We all know we’ll die. Why does it always look like they’re so surprised? Tara looked so surprised...” Her eyes refilled with tears, soaking into his t-shirt top.
“Anya didn’t. Anya looked...ready. Did I do that to her?”
Willow pulled away from him, trying to find a spot on the narrow bed. “We should try to sleep.”
“Yeah,” Xander replied. “Sleep.”
Dawn put her mother’s picture back on the nightstand, hugging her teddy bear close as she shut her eyes and tried to relax. The house was so quiet.
Buffy smiled up at Giles. “It’s been a long time since anyone tucked me in.”
He sat on the edge of her bed, brushing a loose strand off her forehead with his fingertips. “Try to sleep.”
“This is cosy. If I close my eyes, I can almost pretend that I’m a little girl again, that mommy and daddy are asleep in the next room and everything is okay with the world.” She opened her eyes and stared up at the last Watcher. “But I’m not a little girl.”
“No, you’re not.” He lay his hand on her shoulder. “But all is going to be right with the world again. You’ll see.”
Buffy reached her arm under the covers, touching the space beside her in the bed. “I don’t think so, Giles.” Fresh tears filled her eyes. “God, he can’t be gone. He just can’t.”
“Shh. I know.”
“I loved him. I screwed around and wasted so much time, and then it was so short. We had so little time.”
“I know.” Giles thought before he spoke again. “I know what you told me, about your relationship. Before. It couldn’t have worked, you know, even if you wanted it to then. And when he came back, I doubt things could have happened any sooner. Not with the First in control.” He saw her hand snake out from under the covers, reaching for his. He took it and patted it gently. “You loved him the very best you could. He knew that. And he loved you. You took the time you had, and you made the best you could of it. That’s all he wanted.” He was finding it difficult to keep control. “Made the best...”
“I know about Anya. About you.” Buffy tried to reach out to him through her pain. “I know you loved her, and she loved you.”
“How...?” He was startled.
“I saw you look at each other. Well, actually Spike did. He could tell. Said he had a long experience with unrequited love...” Memories caused her to stumble over her words.
“Did anyone else know?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Don’t tell Xander. Please,” Giles asked, voice full of sadness.
Buffy nodded. “I won’t. I think I’d like to try to sleep now. Will you be okay on the couch?”
“Of course.” He bent over and planted a soft kiss on her forehead. “We did win. I know it doesn’t seen like it, but we did.” He rose and looked back at her, “Sleep well, Buffy,” closed her door behind him and was gone.
Buffy rolled on her side, smoothing her hand across the mattress beside her. “If we won, why do I feel like I lost everything?”
Three friends walked through the forest together, rays of bright sun peeking through the verdant summer leaves. “Giles is leaving again, isn’t he?” Willow asked.
“Next week. He says he can’t stay, without work. I think he has a lead back in England. God, I’ll miss him.” Buffy pushed a branch aside as they moved towards the clearing. “You’re going back to school?”
“One semester, then I’m done. I’ve got that offer from the computer company, but I’m still debating.” She put her hand on Xander’s arm. “You okay? You’re quiet.”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” He stopped as they stepped from the trees to the grassy patch. “I’m thinking about the last time we were here.”
“When did you take the stone away?” Buffy asked.
“Last summer. I was afraid someone might find it after all. Ask too many questions.”
Buffy sat on the grass where her own grave had been. “I’m glad. That it’s gone.”
Xander sat beside her. “How’s the job search going? You going to go back to the High School after all?”
“I need something full-time. And I don’t know that they’ll even want me, with Wood gone.” She grimaced at the thought. “It’s so strange. With the vampires gone.”
“And the Hellmouth,” Willow added. “Guess Sunnydale’s not the hot vamp vacation spot it used to be.”
“I don’t even know if I’m the Slayer anymore. I mean, I feel the same, but can you be a Slayer if there’s nothing to slay?” She wrapped her arms around her legs. “You know why we’re talking, don’t you? Because we don’t want to think about this.”
“We need to do this. You know we do.” Willow knelt beside her friends, taking a hand of each. “We need to say goodbye.” She squeezed Xander’s fingers. “We decided.”
“You first,” Xander said.
Willow nodded, pulling a small tissue wrapped package out of her purse. “This is a crystal Tara gave me, when we first started dating. I always kept it, even when I was trying to let go of the magic. Cause it was about her, you know? Our magic.” She dug a little hole in the ground with her hands, and dropped the crystal inside. “You were my love, Tara. My life. My heart. I miss you more than I can say. You taught me who I was. Gave me confidence, strength. Made me a better person. I’ll miss you all the days of my life.” She covered the hole with the dirt. “Goodbye, my love.”
Xander pulled a velvet-covered box from his pocket. “Her engagement ring.”
“Xander, are you sure?” Buffy asked with concern.
“She gave it back to me when we broke up. But it’s still hers.” He pulled the ring from the box and placed it in the indentation he had made. “I love you, Anya. I know I screwed up, and you didn’t believe me. Maybe didn’t care. But I really loved you. I want you to know that. I miss you.” He covered the ring with the earth. “Goodbye, my love.”
Buffy undid the clasp from the chain around her neck, and pulled off the skull-headed ring. “I’ve been wearing this since...since we lost him.” She held it in her hand and showed the others. “He gave me this during that spell. The one where we were engaged.”
“I’m so sorry about that,” Willow said, flustered.
Buffy patted her friend’s hand. “Don’t be. It was the only time we were really happy. Only thinking of each other, not like the last months. When Evil was everywhere. And the more I think about it, the less I think it was all the spell. There was always something between us, even when I wouldn’t admit it.”
She brushed a tear from her eye. Thrusting her hand into the grass, she pulled out a divot and set the ring inside the hole. “You were my soul mate. Even when you didn’t have a soul. I never thought I would love anyone again, but I loved you more than anything. I wish I could have made you believe that. Maybe I did, for a moment. I’m so sorry for how I treated you. And no matter what I did, how much I hurt you, you kept loving me. Sometimes we hurt each other. For that I forgive you. I’d give anything to have you back in my arms. I’m proud of you, Spike. You saved the world.” She patted the grass back down over the ring. “Goodbye, my love.”
The friends clung to each other for a while, until the sun started to wane. They rose from the clearing and headed back into the woods.
Buffy watched him close his suitcase. “This is it.”
“Yes,” Giles replied as he carried it to the door. “I suppose it is.”
She threw herself into his arms. “I miss you already.”
“I feel like I’m abandoning you again. But without the Council to deal with immigration...”
“I know you can’t stay.” Her tears soaked the lapels of his jacket. “This is hard.”
“I know.” He cupped the back of her head with his palm, savoring her closeness. “I worry about you. How you’ll get by.”
“Willow helps. She still has that trust fund from her grandmother that kicked in when she turned twenty-one. I hate taking her money. But I have a few interviews.” She pulled back from his arms and took the handkerchief he offered, wiping her eyes. “We’ll be fine. And I actually got a cheque from dad last week. So I guess miracles do happen.”
Giles smiled down at her. “I know. I’m looking at one.”
“I wish you could have come with us, when we said our goodbyes to them. I thought of you.”
Giles tenderly touched her cheek. “It was his place, not mine. Don’t worry. I’ve said my goodbyes.”
The two missing girls burst out of the kitchen. “Hey, Giles,” Dawn said brightly, “We made you some cookies for the road.” She handed him a paper bag.
“Don’t worry,” Willow added, noting his concerned expression. “I baked them. Dawn handed me the ingredients.” She kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you so much, Giles. For everything.”
A car horn sounded outside, and Dawn looked through the window. “I think that’s your cab.”
“Say goodbye to Xander for me,” he said as he picked up his bags.
“He really wanted to get the time off work. But he couldn’t. You know.” Tears filled Willow’s eyes. “Goodbye, Dumbledore.”
“Bye, Hermione.” As Buffy opened the door for him, he stepped outside. “I do so love you all.”
The three waved in silence as he climbed into the taxi. As he drove away, they joined hands and went back inside.
“So, what do we do now?” Dawn asked.
Buffy shrugged. “Live?”