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Fire From Justice

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Fire From Justice

Terri Botta

Disclaimer: Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy own `em. I just take them out and play with them. No money, no infringement, yadda yadda yadda. I'm poor so don't sue. Tuwa is mine.

Archive: BAPS, and my fic site

Pairings: Buffy/Spike

Summary: A final prophecy and the end of the series.

Rating: PG

Authors note: Feedback welcome. This is an attempt to get over a severe bout of writer’s block. I wrote it in two days and I know it’s sketchy in places, but at this point I am glad just to be writing because I’ve been dry for so long. This is a speculative fiction about the end of the series. If any of you have read my book (which I doubt), you’ll recognize Tuwa and a few other characters from it. You’ll be surprised to see her, but she wanted to be in this story so... maybe it means she’ll keep talking and I’ll get some work done on my second book.

********

The phone rang, shrill and ominous in the pale light of early morning. Roused from her fitful sleep, Buffy fumbled for the offending object, wondering sluggishly who would be calling her at this hour. Everyone she knew was aware of her demanding schedule and her need for sleep.

"Hello?" she managed, awkwardly putting the handset to her ear.

"Buffy?" came a well-known, beloved voice from across the many miles.

"Giles?" she responded, her mind clamoring to full wakefulness at the sound of his familiar tenor.

"Buffy, I'm sorry to wake you, but this really couldn’t wait. I'm coming back to Sunnydale. My flight leaves in two hours and I'll be there by late this evening."

"Giles? Why? What's wrong?"

"There's a new prophecy, Buffy. It's about the Hellmouth. I'll tell you all about it when I get there. In the meantime, gather everyone together at the Magic Box for a meeting around 9 tonight."

"Okay. I can do that. I'll just call off work tonight. No big."

"Good. I'll see you then. Be careful, Buffy. I have to go, my taxi is here."

"Bye, Giles."

"Goodbye, Buffy."

With a click, he was gone and Buffy stared at the silent phone as if it were a demon that she had to Slay. A timid knock rapped on her door and Dawn's voice spoke through the barrier.

"Buffy? Is everything okay? Was that Spike making crank phone calls again?" her sister asked.

Buffy had to smile. The pesky vampire, the bane and light of her existence, had once taken to calling her on the phone at all hours of the night and morning. A good thrashing and a sound talking to had stopped the behavior, that and the admittance that his calls were disturbing Dawn. He hadn't meant anything mean by it, of course. He was just being his usual annoying self, reminding her that he of all the men in her life was not going anywhere and would not abandon her. Ever. It had been both blessing and a curse.

"No Dawn. It was Giles," she responded.

The door clicked open quickly and her sister's head popped in, her face frightened.

"Giles? At six o’clock in the morning? What is it? What’s wrong?"

"He's coming back here. He said the Council found a new prophecy about the Hellmouth, but he wasn't big on the details. He said we should all meet him at the Magic Box at 9 tonight."

"He'll be here by then?"

She stretched and gave up all hope of getting more sleep. "That's what he said."

"Oh. Okay. So, you think he has bad news or something?"

Buffy sighed and rose to her feet. "Probably. Probably another Apocalypse that needs averting. I mean, what else would have him tearing back here on such short notice?"

The teen wrung her hands and looked stricken. “Why can’t he just come for a social visit?”

“Because he’s Giles and this is Casa-de-Hellmouth.”

“Once, just once, I’d like him to call just to find out if you’d changed your hair or something.”

Buffy gave her a small smile.

“I suppose this means you’re gonna cancel your class this afternoon, huh?”

“Nope. Giles won’t be here until this evening. Don’t worry Dawnie, I promise not to embarrass you too much.”

Dawn was referring to Buffy’s thrice-weekly self-defense class that she taught at the Sunnydale Women’s Resource Center.

“Is Spike gonna be there?”

“Umm… what’s the weather forecast again?” she asked.

Spike only came to class on rainy days or to her evening classes that she taught at U.C. Sunnydale. He served as a good sparring partner, albeit only for her, but at the Resource Center the fact that he would only pair with her was a blessing because many of the women there had been victimized by men and could not abide a man’s touch. The U.C. Sunnydale classes however… they were a different story. Numerous nubile, young females lined up for the chance to practice with the handsome blond, never realizing that he was a member of the undead. Buffy knew it stroked his ego to be so fawned over, but he’d never taken them up on their offers. He remained, tried and true, her stalwart partner. Even when she was Hell-bent on punching him in the face.

Dawn moved past her to the window and drew the curtains. The early morning sky was dark and cloudy, and a soft patter of rain fell on the roof.

“Eye-witness weather report says rain.”

Buffy shrugged, “Then I guess Spike will be there.”

“Are you gonna tell him about Giles?”

“I guess. I mean, if I don’t he’ll just find out from Xander or by osmosis of our brains or something, and then he’ll be all Mr. Pouty-Vamp because I didn’t tell him in the first place.”

Dawn gave her a beaming smile. “Figured out that he hates being left out of the loop, huh? So is he a real Scooby now?”

Buffy frowned. “No. He just has this uncanny knack of knowing everything about me and my life, and I’ve just decided to head him off at the pass this time, that’s all.”

“Admit it, Buffy, you still like him.”

Buffy sighed again, a defeated sigh. Ever since Dawn had found out about her and Spike’s ill-fated, short-lived relationship, she’d been trying to get them back together. Sometimes she thought Spike put her up to it, in an attempt to wear down her Great Wall. Sometimes she found it bittersweet and endearing the way her little sister looked to Spike for guidance and protection.

Over the past 15 months since she had called off their so-called affair, Spike had remained Dawn’s friend, confidant and champion. He had remained her friend as well, always there when she needed him, never leaving because she no longer wished to be intimate. Sometimes that made keeping her resolve all the harder, because he was there right in front of her; a physical reminder of all that they had once been to each other, all that they could have been, and all that she could never have. She’d tried to make him go, but short of killing him, she had been unsuccessful.

Eventually, she just accepted the fact that he was there to stay, and stopped trying to drive him away. She accepted him as a partner and a friend, and tried to ignore the looks she sometimes caught him giving her or the comments he sometimes made; not the witty remarks full of innuendo, but the softer, gentler words he spoke sometimes when they were alone and no one else was there to hear. He was still her Truth-speaker and confidant, and she could always depend upon him to tell it plain and true. Even after all this time, she could not lie to him and he would not lie to her.

“Yes, I still like him, but… it could never work, Dawn. We’re… we’re no good for each other,” she tried to explain as she had so many, many times.

“Yeah, yeah, I know, I know, you Slayer, him big, evil, soulless vampire. I get it. It’s just that… he’s so sweet, and he loves you so much… Even Anya gave Xander another chance after he ditched her on their wedding day, and now look at them. They’re doing okay. And Willow and Tara…”

“I can’t trust him, Dawn. As long as he has the Chip, it’s the only thing holding him back. If he ever got it out…”

Dawn put her hands on her hips. “Do you really think that? Even after all he’s done for us?”

She faltered and lowered her eyes, unable to meet Dawn’s angry glare. “I… I don’t know. I just know… I don’t ever want to find out.”

“Yeah, I get that. You don’t want to have to kill your boyfriend again. But I don’t think he’s like that anymore. He’s changed, Buffy. I wish you could see that. I mean, even Tuwa thinks you two make a great couple.”

Buffy couldn’t suppress a smile at the familiar name. Tuwa. The one she had thought had been sent to destroy her, had saved her instead.

Tuwa was a volunteer sent from Social Services. A middle-aged woman Buffy guessed was in her early thirties, she was half Hopi Indian. She was short in stature, about Buffy’s height, with long, coal-black hair and dark, kind eyes. A year ago, she was assigned to the Summers’ household as an extra pair of hands. She arrived every weekday just before Dawn got home from school, helped with the housework and shopping, prepared meals, and in general offered support, advice and guidance to the two young women.

Buffy had been terrified of her at first, seeing her as a spy for Social Services, bent on proving her unfit a guardian for Dawn, but as the months passed Tuwa proved herself to be nothing more than someone there to help them through a difficult time. Deeply devout in her Native faith, she likened them to eaglets whose mother had left them before they had learned to fly, and now it was her Calling to teach them how to spread their wings and survive on their own in a sometimes cruel and wild world.

She also mothered anyone who would let her, and Spike seemed to be her special project. The vampire, in turn, seemed to blossom under her care and looked to the woman as he had once looked to Joyce Summers: a friendly ear who served hot chocolate and gentle encouragement. On more than one occasion, Buffy was certain Tuwa had been instrumental in Spike’s continued presence in their lives, especially after Buffy had been particularly harsh with him. She’d seen them together numerous times, heads close, voices soft, the occasional sniff from Spike and a loving pat from the Native woman.

She called Spike ‘Porcupine’ and Buffy herself ‘Turtle’, and Dawn was ‘Dove’ or ‘Fox.’ All native totems the woman felt embodied their personalities, or major aspects of them, and she used them as first names on a regular basis.

“Ach, Turtle, who has made you hide in your shell today?” she would ask when Buffy was having a particularly bad day. Or: “But Turtle, dear, Porcupine only pricks you if you rub him the wrong way.” when she had been harsh with Spike and made him “curl into a ball and show his spines.”

Buffy could always count on Tuwa to be the soft voice of reason that listened to both sides without judgment, thought through the options, and offered compromises that satisfied everyone’s needs in the best possible way. It was because of Tuwa that she now taught the self-defense classes, using her skills in street fighting to teach other women how to defend themselves.

Tuwa was a morning volunteer for the Resource Center, and she had broached the subject with Buffy after Spike had mentioned something about her fighting skills. Apparently, the demand for defense classes was high but the Center couldn’t afford a certified martial arts or defense instructor. Buffy, on the other hand was ecstatic to accept the meager pay they could offer, and the classes had branched out into others. Teaching brought in much needed money, and allowed her to reduce the hated Doublemeat Palace job down to twelve hours a week, much to everyone’s delight.

Now she taught classes at the Center on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons, at U.C. Sunnydale on Tuesday, and Thursday nights, and at the Sunnydale YMCA on Saturday afternoons. At $15 to $30 an hour, she was making triple the salary that flipping burgers was bringing in, and she felt better about herself and the work she was doing. Also, since her night classes and work shifts ended at 10PM, she had plenty of time to patrol, and she even had Fridays and Saturday nights off for quality Dawn and Scooby time.

“Look, Dawn. I know you like Spike, and I know Tuwa likes Spike, but… but we’ve been through this. Please, Spike and I are getting along, he watches you on the nights Tuwa can’t be here, he patrols with me and he’s a good partner and friend. I don’t want to ruin all of that with a doomed relationship, okay?”

Dawn pouted but gave in. “Okay. But does that mean I can go out with him once I’m eighteen?”

“Dawn!”

Dawn grinned. “Knew you’d be jealous. As if he’d ever look at me, y’know that way. Jeeze! The guy’s lucky he can even look at another woman. In fact, I doubt he’s gotten any since the two of you broke up!”

“Dawn!”

“Oh lighten up. I’m almost seventeen. I do know about these things you know. I’m not an innocent…”

Buffy choked. “Not… not an…”

Dawn turned pale. “Oh, oh no, Buffy! I didn’t mean… I mean I haven’t…”

Buffy’s heart stopped pounding and she breathed again. “Oh… oh good. That’s… good.”

“It’s not like I could ever… y’know, with a guy with Spike always threatening them with bodily harm if they try anything. I mean, Buffy, four of the guys I last went out with were so scared of him, they never asked me for a second date! At this rate, I’m never gonna get a steady boyfriend!”

“Well, good, coz you’re too young for that kind of thing. Steady boyfriends and… and innocence… and stuff. Okay, now shoo, I have to get dressed.”

Before Dawn could protest, she’d shoved her out of the bedroom and closed the door.

“Buffy! I have one word for you: ANGEL!” came her sister’s defiant voice.

“Do as I say, not as I do!” she countered, leaning heavily against the wooden frame. Demons, vampires and Apocalypses she could handle. But she just wasn’t ready for her baby sister to grow up.

 

*********

 

Spike, as predicted, showed up for her afternoon class at the Resource Center. Earlier in the day, Tuwa had picked up Dawn from school and driven her over in time for the 4 o’clock class, but she left as soon as she learned that her services as Dawn-sitter or cook would not be needed. Buffy thought about inviting the woman to the meeting at the Magic Box. Being who and what she was, it had taken her less than three months to discover Buffy's secret life, and Buffy suspected that she had known Spike was a vampire from the moment they met. But Tuwa seemed oddly distracted so the subject of the meeting never came up. Buffy wondered if another Inter-tribal gathering was coming up. Tuwa sometimes danced at the pow-wows, and she had taken Buffy and Dawn (and Spike once) to a number of the ceremonies. Regardless of the reasons for Tuwa's preoccupation, Buffy shrugged it off and bid the woman goodnight. She would fill her in later on all the details, and she was sure Tuwa would help in any way that she could. Then it was time for class and all of Buffy's attention went to her students and the lessons for that day.

During the class, Spike once again amazed her with his ability to read and respond to people. There were two new women in the class, both assault victims, and Spike had immediately treated them with gentleness and consideration. Buffy often suspected that he had developed that particular talent from dealing with Drusilla, but she had never found an appropriate time to ask him about it. But still, she liked to watch him handle these skittish women as if they were made of glass. He kept his distance, made eye-contact only when they initiated it, and spoke softly when spoken to. By the end of the class, the two women were, while not totally at ease with him, much less rattled and nervous.

It was times like those when Buffy could almost believe that Spike wasn’t a monster, when she dared to hope that she could trust him. But invariably he would do something to convince her that he was nothing more than a serial killer waiting to get out of jail. He was a soulless demon after all, no matter what Dawn thought.

It could never work between them. Demons couldn’t love, even if they made a very convincing show of it. Giles had assured her, consoled her when he found out about her transgressions, and convinced her that she had done the right thing when she called off her ill-conceived romance with the vampire. But it didn’t mean she didn’t sometimes wish that things could be different, that she couldn’t feel his hands upon her body or his voice whispering tenderly in her ear. He had made her body sing, made her feel alive when she was sure her soul was dead. If nothing else, she owed him that, and for all the times he had helped when needed, and for days like today when his presence was welcome and his smile a joy.

Those times made her resolve waver and she usually spent the next few days angry and upset with herself, and harsh with Spike, until he snapped and stalked away or they got into a brawl that left them both licking wounds. Then there were times like these, when he was at her back, steady and reliable. Whatever was coming, whatever Giles was bringing with him, she knew without question that Spike would be beside her when the time came for them to face it. And that perhaps, was the greatest comfort a Slayer could ever have.

After class, they headed out to grab some dinner, then made their way to the Magic Box. Xander and Anya were already there, and Willow and Tara would arrive just as soon as Tara got off work at eight. Buffy filled them all in on what little information they knew, and Anya went to check what books she had in the shop to see if she could find any hint of Giles’ prophecy. They were all seated around the reading table, Spike included, when Giles entered the shop.

“And he who knows what the hell is going on has arrived,” Xander remarked as the door opened and the Englishman came in.

Buffy immediately rose to her feet to hug her Watcher and greetings were shared all around.

"It’s so good to see you all. I only wish it was under happier circumstances," Giles said.

"Well, yeah, we gathered that life in England wasn't exciting enough so you had to come back here and help us stop the end of the world," Xander quipped. "That is what we're dealing with, right? Another Apocalypse?"

Giles nodded. "I'm afraid you've called it right. Something is going to try to open the Hellmouth."

"Oh goody. Well, at least my ex-boyfriend isn’t involved this time," Buffy commented dryly, but cast a questioning glance at Spike. He shook his head and took a seat at the table.

"Well, Watcher, why don’t you come over here and show us what you've got. Once we know what we're dealing with, I can go bust some heads, find out who’s behind it and how to stop 'em," the vampire said.

Giles hesitated, then nodded, coming to drop an overnight bag full of books on the table.

"Well, yes. That would be a good place to start. I'm afraid I don’t have much information. The prophecy is rather vague…"

"Big surprise there," Buffy grumbled.

Giles ignored her. "But the Council's experts have assured me that their interpretations of the texts do indeed refer to the Hellmouth."

"And they've never been wrong?" the Slayer asked facetiously.

"While the Council is certainly not infallible, they do seem to be taking this particular prophecy quite seriously," the Watcher countered.

"Okay, so whatchya got?" Willow piped up, trying to ease the tension in the room. "I mean, if you give me something to go on, I can probably find something on the Internet."

The witch patted her trusty laptop, earning her a shy smile from Tara.

"And we could research some spells. You know, protective stuff…" she went on, looking for approval from her lover. Ever since she and Tara had resumed their relationship, use of magic had been a delicate subject. But Tara knew magic was in Willow's blood, and to not use it at all was more dangerous than allowing some spell casting, particularly when the end of the world was in the balance.

"That sounds like a good a place as any to start," Giles agreed, pulling a notebook from the overnight bag, along with several other tomes that he spread across the table.

“The prophecy itself has no name and is not attributed to any known author. It was discovered last month in a Chronicle that is believed to have been written in fourteenth century China. Since then, the Council has been working extensively to try to determine its exact meaning,” Giles explained, opening the notebook. “The original text reads: ‘In the year of the ram, after the Eagle loses her twins, an ancient power will come to the Well of Darkness. Fire shall fall from Justice when War rules over Time. The doorway shall open and all its contents shall come spilling forth. The earth shall bend and twist and change under the onslaught, and naught shall be the same again.'”

“Wow. Um… wow,” Xander commented.

“Well, I can see why the Council would be very concerned. It certainly sounds like an ominous portent,” Anya said.

Giles took off his glasses and cleaned them. “Yes, it does. Which is why we need to uncover the source of this ancient power as soon as possible, and prevent it from opening the Hellmouth.”

“Well, let’s get cracking then,” Willow said, turning to her laptop. “What has the Council come up with so far?”

“Not much, I’m afraid. A direct translation and interpretation of the text is the majority of it. This line is pretty obvious: 'An ancient power will come to the Well of Darkness.' Not much room for argument there."

"So some big mojo is gonna arrive in Sunnydale," Buffy commented.

"The lines: 'The doorway shall open and all its contents shall come spilling forth. The earth shall bend and twist and change under the onslaught and naught shall be the same again' are also pretty clear," Giles continued.

"Yep, Hellmouth opens and all the nasties immigrate to the USA because we have such good food and prime beachfront real estate."

"Fire from Justice the Council believes to be the Lyrid meteor shower that occurs every year in the constellation Libra, also known as the Scales of Justice. War over Time has been read to be the occultation of the planet Mars over Saturn. Mars being the Bringer of War and Saturn being Chronos or the Lord of Time. The occultation and the peak of the meteor shower both occur on the same night: April 21st."

"So that's the night it's all going to go down," Buffy noted.

"We believe so, yes."

"April 21st is in five days," Tara informed.

“Hence the Council’s haste in sending me back here,” Giles said.

"So we have five days to figure out who, what and how, and stop 'em. Plenty of time. I might even make an appointment to get my nails done."

"Buffy, this is no time for levity."

"What? What am I supposed to do? You come here telling me some ancient evil is gonna open the Hellmouth in five days, but you have no details and no idea who is behind all of this."

Spike stood. "I'll go to Willie's and hit the Demon underground, see what I can dig up. Don’t worry, pet, we'll figure this all out."

“I think that is a very good idea Spike. The Council was hoping the demon underworld in Sunndydale would yield more information. Perhaps followers of this ancient evil or those who more about it than we do.”

The vampire donned his coat, his eyes intent. “If it’s out there, I’ll find it. In the meantime, you lot get cracking on your end.”

“Such is the decree from Captain Peroxide,” Xander snipped.

“Hey, watch it Monkey-boy.”

“Enough with the petty insults! We have work to do here!” Buffy yelled, cutting off any further sniping. “Spike, do you want me to come with you?”

Her eyes pleaded for him to save her from the drudgery of research. He graced her with a knowing smile.

“All right, pet, four fists are better than two, I say. Get your coat and we’ll get going.”

She scrambled for her tan jacket, slipping it on hastily. “Let’s go kick some heads.”

“Right behind you, Slayer,” he replied and followed as she marched out the door.

Unfortunately, while the demon underworld was certainly abuzz with excitement, it was pretty obvious that they only knew something big was about to happen. The problem was that no one seemed to have any details. Spike and Buffy spent the better part of two nights smashing and ripping their way through the usual demon haunts, but none of the unlucky demons they bled knew anything more than they already did. The pair were hoping for a name, a description, a bloody scrap of information scribbled on a napkin, anything that could have been useful to their cause, but they were coming up empty.

Willow and the rest of the Scoobies were having no luck either. There were a lot of references to ancient powers opening the Hellmouth, but none that fit what they knew about the timing or provided any enlightening information that could be used to avert the Apocalypse. Buffy had even asked Tuwa to consult with her Elders in hopes that the Tribal Shamans would have a heads up, but their information was as vague as the Council’s prophecy. The only thing of value they had to offer was that the prophecy clearly stated that an ancient power would come, and not specifically an ancient evil. Giles had pushed their observation aside, stating that anything trying to open a Hellmouth could automatically be interpreted as evil.

With so little to go on and so little time, tensions were reaching the breaking point by the time April 21st arrived. In the end it was decided that all they could do was what they usually did: load up on weapons and spells and go in with guns blazing. The goal was to take the Hellmouth, and keep anything and everything away from it until after midnight.

It would prove to be easier said than done. When they arrived at what was left of Sunnydale High School, a horde of demons was already there waiting for them. They would have to fight their way through in order to get to the Hellmouth. Once again grateful that Dawn was safe with Tuwa, Willow and Tara were on Witch Detail, Giles, Xander and Anya were on Hack and Slash, and Spike was at her back, Buffy raised her axe high and headed into the fray. It was going to be a bloodbath.

 

The demon Spike was fighting was tough. It was huge and scaly and he never seemed to get the best of it. Every time he thought he had the upper hand, something would happen and he would find himself pushed back again. It was most frustrating and he wished he could just kill it so he could get to Buffy. It was almost midnight and he knew the mojo was going to go down very, very soon.

They had made it to the inner chamber where the Hellmouth carved a deep crack in the ground, but so far none of them had actually be able to get to the Hellmouth itself. The fighting had been fierce but all of them were still alive, or at least the last time he had had an opportunity to check, they had still been alive. Buffy he knew was still fighting because he could smell her nearby. As for the others, he had no idea, but he thought he could hear the lover Wiccas chanting somewhere behind him. The Whelp, the Watcher and the Ex-demon were probably chopping their way around the perimeter while he and Buffy tried to take the Hellmouth. It made sense because he and Buffy were the strongest.

He was confused, however. For all the demons and vamps there fighting against them, none seemed to be the ringleader or the ancient power that they were supposed to be up against. In fact, all of the baddies they were fighting struck him as groupies waiting for a fix, but if Big Mojo wasn't here yet, he was running out of time. That was good for the Home Team. All they needed to do was hold off whatever was coming until after clock struck twelve. It wasn’t that much longer to go.

Spike strained to find Buffy and found her busily staking vamps left and right. She was close to the Hellmouth and fighting her way to it.

‘That’s my girl,’ he thought proudly. ‘Don’t worry Slayer, when you make your move, I’ll get your back.’

A quick scan of the chamber revealed that all of the other Scoobies were still standing and fighting, which was a good thing in his book, then a blow to the shoulder called him back to his battle with Big, Scaly and Ugly.

Buffy fought bravely, but there were too many. She was outnumbered and outgunned. It was a miracle that none of them had been killed yet, but she knew it was just a matter of time. She rammed her stake into another vamp and watched it turn to dust. Looking around she saw Spike in heated battle with a scaly demon almost twice his size, Giles fending off a robed monster with an axe, Xander and Anya back-to-back fighting two vamps, and Willow and Tara drawing a protective Circle, casting spells from their books in an attempt to guard the Hellmouth from a distance. But they weren't enough and she knew it. She knew it in her bones.

'I'm going to fail. The Hellmouth will open, and we're all going to die.'

Her eyes fell on a female vamp standing off to the side, clutching a Quarterstaff in her hands. Their eyes met, and Buffy moved to head towards her, bent on turning another undead monster into dust.

When the bell tolled, it came as a shock. Firstly, because she hadn't realized that it was midnight, and secondly, because there was no clock tower anywhere near the ruin of the old high school. The second chime boomed, loud and right above them, and air in the chamber began to change. Fear struck her, and she rushed for the Hellmouth, only to be headed off by the female vamp with the Quarterstaff. The weapon hit her square in the chest, sending her flying into the rocks. It was two more tolls of the phantom bell before she could regain her footing. Raising her eyes, she searched for the female vamp who had hit her, but a black-haired woman was standing in her place. She was dressed in a black Indian sari, her black hair just a shade darker than the fabric. She still gripped the Quarterstaff in her hands, but her face was apologetic.

The bell tolled again, and the ground shook, causing Buffy to lose her balance. She was struggling to get to her feet, her eyes still locked on the woman, when the bell tolled a sixth time and the woman began to glow. Turning her eyes away, Buffy searched for her friends. All of them were still standing, each having witnessed their attackers change into something else- all but Spike, who was still fighting the scaly demon. The robed demon who had been fighting Giles was now a slate-haired Chinese man dressed in gray clothing. The two vampires who had been against Anya and Xander were now a tall, thin man with long white hair and loose-fitting blue and silver clothing, and a darker man with jet-black hair dressed in white linen trousers and a tunic.

Each of these newcomers was glowing, and there were others too, all glowing and beautiful. They were leaving their opponents and approaching the Hellmouth, all while the bell chimed towards midnight. They joined, creating a circle between the remaining demons, vampires and the Scoobies, and the Hellmouth, their hands outstretched, palms open. Then on the last chime of twelve, the scaly demon who had been fighting Spike, thrust him away and morphed into a red-haired woman dressed in tight-fitting leather. She gave him a sardonic smile and stepped back to join the others.

There was complete stillness for numerous moments as no one, demon or not, moved. Then their attention was drawn towards a new figure who had entered the chamber, and Buffy gasped in shock.

It was Tuwa, and Dawn was with her.

As Dawn broke away from her caretaker, Buffy noticed that Tuwa was not dressed in the Hopi regalia she had seen the woman wear, but in a simple, draped toga. In her hand was a crooked staff, topped with feathers and stones that hung from braided leather. She looked different as well, older and part of the earth.

'The ancient power,' Buffy thought to herself, watching with revulsion as Tuwa came towards them.

"Buffy!" Dawn cried, coming to a skidding stop beside her sister.

Buffy grabbed hold of Dawn's arm and shoved her behind her, protecting her as best she could. Her eyes met Spike's across the chamber and she knew his expression mirrored her own.

'We trusted this thing. We let it into our lives, our homes and our hearts. We told it our secrets, our deepest fears, and now it will destroy us, destroy the whole world.'

Both of them moved as one, trying to prevent Tuwa from reaching the line of glowing beings, but they were immediately thrust back by an invisible force field that sent them both slamming into the ground. Buffy gave Tuwa a withering, hateful glare as the woman passed, but the look Tuwa gave her was not one of evil triumph; rather it was one of infinite tenderness and peace. The look shook Buffy to the bone.

As soon as Tuwa had entered the glowing ring created by the others, a shield of translucent white light surrounded the Hellmouth in a great dome. Through the light, Buffy could see Tuwa raising her arms before the Hellmouth, her staff held high. The ground began to shake anew, and the remaining demons and vampires began to circle like hungry vultures. Spurred into action by their circling, Buffy rose to her feet and began railing against the force field. Spike soon joined her, striking at it with an axe. The blows had no effect.

"Red! Glinda! See if you can bring this thing down!" the vampire roared, dropping his weapon and falling to his knees. He then began frantically trying to dig under the field, the hard earth ripping and maiming his fingers.

"We're trying but we don’t know what it is!" Willow cried as she and Tara flipped through the spellbook they had brought.

'We're not going to stop it. We were too late. We were a year too late,' Buffy thought, the sick lump of despair and betrayal settling into her heart. 'All this time. It was in my house. Watching my sister. Cooking dinner. Oh god, it knows everything, everything about me.'

She choked back tears and picked up Spike's dropped axe, standing tall. She might die, but she'd take the first demons that came out with her. She’d go down fighting, like a Slayer should, even if the cause was hopeless. It was useless to run anyway. Their path was blocked by an influx of new demons drawn by the build-up of power. None of them were attacking yet. It seemed a small blessing.

The ground rumbled and steam belched from the Hellmouth. Buffy gripped her axe fiercely, getting ready to fight as the first demon's head emerged from the gaping fissure. It was green, and spindly and… had leaves?

Almost dropping her weapon in shock, Buffy stared as a tree began to grow out of the hole, and as it grew, its branches and trunk reaching for the ceiling of the chamber, a deep-throated hum began to vibrate the room. It took her a moment to realize that the sound was coming from the glowing beings, and it grew louder as the tree hit the crumbling roof of the chamber. The red-haired woman that had once been fighting Spike, threw a glowing ball at the barrier, and a hole ripped through, exposing the top of the new tree to the clear, night sky. The tree rose up through the hole and kept going, and going, and going.

There was an air of shock among humans and demons alike as the scene played out before them, then the demons began to get fidgety, growling and making furtive movements towards the Hellmouth. They stopped when three of the glowing beings looked at them, dropping their arms and stepping out of the force field. The redhead was one of them, and she grabbed Spike, throwing him down and standing over him as a wave of white energy burst forth from the field in a pulsating ring. It passed over Buffy and her friends, but it hit the demons with full force. They disintegrated on contact, and the ripple swept through the chamber, clearing and destroying any demon in its path until none were left, save for Spike, who had obviously been under the redhead's protection.

Inside the protective circle, the tree still grew. It was going to be huge. Already its trunk had obliterated the Hellmouth opening, but it didn’t seem to be stopping or slowing down. The force field was gone now, but none of the remaining witnesses moved. Buffy saw the woman with the Quarterstaff break from the line, the weapon still in her hands. She watched as the woman came closer and stop several paces away. Then she raised the staff high and brought the end forcefully to the ground. It plunged into the hard earth, then blossomed, transforming into a flowering willow tree before Buffy's very eyes.

The transformation seemed to trigger movement from the others, and soon green was spreading over the barren ground. Including Tuwa, there were thirteen of the beings, each more stunning than the next, and each seemed to have a task to perform. From the Quarterstaff-turned-willow-tree, spread a thick bed of lush grass, and the two males who had been the vampires fighting Anya and Xander, made vines that grew up and ripped down the walls of the chamber, demolishing what was left of the school to make room for the vegetation. Another man, one who looked like a blond Viking, pointed his finger at the base of the central tree, causing a spring to bubble up and clear water come spilling out. Three of his compatriots forged a bed for the newly formed stream, and it wound its way down what had once been the high school corridor. The path was now a tunnel of green, softly glowing with its own light.

There was a woman, dressed in little more than two shells and a thong, with shimmery-greenish hair and gills- yes gills- on her back. Spike stared, open-mouthed at her for a good thirty seconds, until he saw the gills. For some reason, they put him off. From this woman’s hands came eggs that turned into fish, which in turn populated the stream and spring. There was another, this one blazing blonde and golden-tanned, dressed in a Greek toga, who dropped pinecones from the folds of her clothes that erupted into trees.

A sweep of the hand of a Native American man called sweet breezes that blew the stench of the Hellmouth away, while an African woman’s footsteps left flowers in her wake. From the hands of the woman in the black sari, butterflies emerged, and the redhead breathed into her palms to release a multitude of twinkling fireflies. The native Californians gasped at the display, for none of them had ever seen real fireflies and had only read about them in books. The insects took up residence in the trees, lighting them up like Nature’s Christmas lights, bringing a tear to a number of eyes.

When it was all over, barely fifteen minutes had passed, but the Hellmouth and school were gone, replaced by a Sacred Grove and a huge Mother Tree.

Still reeling and confused, the Scoobies gathered in a tight group, blinking moist-eyed at the scene before them. They gaped blankly as one by one, the beings completed their tasks and began to fade into the forest. The redhead who had fought Spike as the scaly demon, then protected him from the cleansing pulse, stopped to give him an admiring look.

“Y’ fought well,” she said, her voice thickly accented with what Spike thought could be Gaelic, her amber colored eyes dancing. “Had I been a real demon, y’ would have bested me.” She gave him a pleased smile. “We’ll see each other again.” With that, she turned and passed into the trees, fading from sight.

Soon all that were left were Tuwa and the black-haired woman in the sari. The two shared a look and a silent conversation, and then the saried woman moved off, leaving only Tuwa behind. She waited until she had their complete attention, before beckoning them to stand at the edge of the spring. When they were all standing under the canopy of the Mother Tree, she smiled at them.

“The mystical convergence you know of as the Hellmouth, has been permanently realigned,” she told them. “No longer will it be a draw for negativity, but a place of solace and healing.”

Giles was the first to speak, cleaning his glasses and stuttering heavily. “I don’t understand. The prophecy was very clear. It said the Hellmouth would open and all of its contents would come spilling forth.”

“And so it has,” Tuwa replied patiently, motioning a hand to the spring that bubbled up from between the roots of the great tree.

“But the Hellmouth was a doorway into a Hell dimension.”

“That doorway has been closed, and this one opened.”

“But how?”

“I suppose the best way to describe it in terms you can understand is that its lease was up, and not renewed. But fear not. Even now as we speak a new Hellmouth is opening somewhere on this plane. That is the way of Balance. When one door closes, another is opened.”

Buffy let out a choked sigh. “Great, now I’ll have to move.”

“No, Child, you will not. You have served your Calling well and have earned a reward. Another Slayer will be called to guard the new Hellmouth. We ask only that you train her and teach her what you have learned. Your path, should you choose to walk it, will take a different direction.”

“It will?”

“Yes. This place is new and sacred, but always there will be those who would seek to exploit and defile it. It needs a Guardian, someone to Watch and to sound the alarm if danger threatens.”

“And I would be this Guardian?”

“Only if you choose to be. If you do not, another will be Called to fulfill the task.”

“So I don’t have to take the job?”

Tuwa shook her head. “Only those who are willing are asked to accept the Task.”

“What would happen to my powers? Would I lose them? Would I be a normal girl?”

“You are, and have always been, the Slayer. You will not cease to be what you are. You will continue to Hunt and Slay the creatures you know of as demons. The difference will be your freedom. You are no longer bound to your duty and calling.”

“So you can’t take it away, can you? You can’t make me a normal girl with a normal life?”

Tuwa gave her a tender smile and touched her brow. “I could. But it would be an insult to you. You do not wish to be a normal girl, and there are parts of you that can never be what you would define as normal. Always you would seek to make right the wrongs and to protect those around you. To take your powers away would leave you impotent and frustrated. I would not destroy your spirit in such a way.”

“But…”

“The darkness is part of your soul. It has always been there. You chafe against it because you want what you think you cannot have and weep at your aloneness. But you do not have to walk this path alone. There is another who would willingly join you, who is meant to join you, who was made to join you.”

Buffy blinked and followed the line of Tuwa’s sight to the vampire who stood beside her. Her heart fluttered and a swelling heat washed through her limbs.

“Spike.”

Tuwa nodded. “He is and has always been yours. From the moment you met, his journey had begun. He is your Champion. The Slayer’s Champion. A partner and mate uniquely suited to you. You were destined to be together.”

Panic rose in her, even at Spike’s hopeful look, and she shook her head, taking a step back. “No. Oh no. You’ve got it all wrong. Me Slayer, him vampire. There is no partnership or… or mating here.”

Tuwa disagreed. “There is no better companion, no creature more perfectly suited to match the Slayer in strength, power and darkness. The Slayers were always meant to have Champions, special vampires who were Called as Slayers were Called. Noble of heart and true in love and devotion, they bonded with the Slayers and made them complete. This was the Sacred Pact forged between darkness and light, and meant to sustain the Balance.

“It was broken 900 years ago when the Council conspired against their young Slayer and convinced her to murder her Champion, breaking the Bonds. Numerous attempts were made to Raise another Champion and to renew the Pact, all to no avail. The Council was too strong, the Slayers too young, and much of the texts that would have led them to the truth had been destroyed.

“We ceased trying to Raise another many centuries ago, but always the Potential lay dormant, waiting. Waiting for the right time and place. Waiting for a Slayer who made her own Path, and a Watcher who let his charge fly free, and vampire who was willing to change his ways for the sake of love and a chance for redemption.”

“Oi! Redemption? I don’t want redemption!” Spike exclaimed, his blue-eyes wide and panicked.

His outburst caused Tuwa to look at him and smile.

“And you, my porcupine. You Rose on your own, with no influence from us. The Universe Itself Called you, protected you and brought you to this place and this time. You fought bravely and valiantly for your Slayer’s attention although she rejected you at every turn. You have exceeded our wildest expectations.”

Spike clenched his fists into hard balls. “Look, I don’t want a bloody soul. I don’t want to be anything more than I already am…”

“But you already are. Nothing can change that now. There is no going back for you. You know this; you’ve known it for a long time. It was your greatest fear: to be stuck in this limbo forever- no longer a creature of evil but not allowed to be good.”

“I’m not good! I’m evil! I’m a disgusting, soulless thing!”

He was parroting back the words so often spoken to him, spoken so much he had begun to believe it, but even now he choked on them and fought the sickness speaking them caused in his stomach.

Tuwa touched him lightly and he gasped as the power surged into his body, burning away the masks he wore and exposing him to her fathomless eyes. He dropped to his knees, sobbing, the tears falling unbidden and unwanted, and Tuwa’s hand rested on his head as he fought back the shame and anger at his weakness.

“Will you accept him? Will you at least try?” Tuwa asked Buffy.

Spike already knew the answer and it only made him cry harder.

Tuwa was right. He was stuck, stuck between worlds. Unable to go back, but not allowed to go forward. It was agony, it was torture. Every night was hell, every day, seeing her brought him to new levels of despair. He had tried to be what she wanted, tried to be friends, tried to help her whenever she would allow him. He had done everything he knew in an attempt to make her see that he had changed and truly, deeply loved her. But she was blind to his demonstrations and deaf to his pleas. The months since she had called off their relationship had been getting steadily more difficult for him. He had been reduced to her pathetic slave, living only for a chance to serve her, the emptiness inside him eating him away bit by bit until he feared there was nothing left.

He had told himself that she needed him. That Dawn needed him, but tonight all of that had changed, and for the first time he allowed himself to hope for a way out of the nightmare he was living. Buffy was safe now. She was free. The Hellmouth was closed, another Slayer was being Called, and he could go. She didn’t need him anymore. She’d take care of the Nibblet…

“I…” Buffy began, but Spike cut her off.

“Kill me,” he begged.

“What?” Buffy’s voice, not Tuwa’s

“Kill me. End my misery, please.”

“No!” Dawn yelled, her high voice full of horror. “Buffy, no!”

The girl tried to intervene but Giles grabbed her arms, pulling her back. Whatever was to come, it had to play out. Whatever happened was between Buffy and Spike, and they could not interfere.

“Do you wish for death? Do you wish to be released?” Tuwa asked gently.

“I wished to be worthy of her, but that can never be,” he answered, raising his tear-streaked face to look at Tuwa, then Buffy. “So now I wish for the end of my torment.”

Spike closed his eyes and waited. He’d said all he had to say. He only hoped it would be quick. He was never good at waiting.

“So be it,” Tuwa said.

“No!” Buffy cried. “No, I won’t let you kill him!”

“Kill him? I? No Turtle. I would not be the one to strike the final blow.” The woman drew a stake from the folds of her clothes and offered it to Buffy. “You will.”

Buffy stared at the stake as if it were an evil thing, recoiling. “No…”

“Kill him or accept him. There is no other choice. It has gone too far and too long for anything else,” Tuwa insisted, extending the stake.

Buffy refused to take it. “I can’t kill him!”

“You sealed your fate when you mated with him, but the Bond is only half formed. You gave him your body, but not your heart. The two of you have remained in stasis ever since. You have your family to help you with the pain of separation, he has no one and it is killing him. If you do not show mercy, he will destroy himself in an attempt to end his pain.”

“I won’t do it. You can’t make me do it.”

“He has asked to be released. He has fought bravely and truly. He has earned his reward.”

“Death is his reward?!”

“No. It was yours. But you have refused it.”

The words hit Buffy like a slap in the face. “Death… is my reward? It was my reward! Past tense! My friends took it from me! Weren’t you listening to anything I told you this past year?”

“I listened. I heard. You were torn from your rest, but that rest was never meant to be. You were allowed to return because your death was not supposed to occur. Death was your gift, not one that you were to give, but one that you were to receive.”

“Receive?”

Buffy’s eyes fell on Spike who was still kneeling, eyes closed, shoulders shaking. Her own hands were shaking as well.

“No…” It was too much. Her Gift was this soulless, evil thing? This monster who wore a man’s face? This creature who could touch her in places no one had ever touched, not even Angel? How much more was she expected to take? How much more was she expected to sacrifice and handle? If she allowed herself to pair with the very thing she was Called to kill, did that not make her damned as well? No, she couldn’t accept it. It had to end. It had to end now.

Tuwa offered the stake again. “Release him and you will both be free.”

Buffy reached for the stake, her hand closing tightly around the smooth wood, and lifted it from Tuwa’s grasp. One strike and it would be all over. No more Slayer, no more vampire knocking on her door at all hours of the night, no more Sacred Duty or Prophecies or Apocalypses. She could turn her back on Sunndydale, take Dawn and go someplace far away where no one knew them and they could start a new life. If Dawn would even go with her after she dusted her sister’s best friend. No matter. She could go alone. Giles or her dad would take care of Dawn. She wasn’t fit to raise the girl anyway. She was broken, damaged goods. She could run away, leave all her responsibilities behind…

Buffy circled around to Spike’s back, ignoring the sounds of Dawn’s sobbed pleas and struggles. One stroke, swift and sure, and the creature that haunted her would be gone. Her nemesis would be gone, her biggest mistake, her guilty sin, her weakness- all exploded into a cloud of dust that would blow away in the wind. She stood behind him and raised the stake.

“Buffy! No!”

‘Kill him and you’ll be rid of him. Kill him and you’ll both be free.’

“Buffy!!”

‘He wants this. He’s asked to be released. This is the only way. Do it! Kill him!’

Dawn’s scream echoed off the trees as Buffy brought the stake down.

‘Kill him and you destroy the only one who has ever truly loved you for yourself, the only one who has ever truly understood you.’

Her own scream joined Dawn’s and the final uttered protests from Giles and Xander as they realized that she truly meant to Slay him. At the last moment, her hand faltered and the stake plunged harmlessly into Spike’s shoulder, missing the heart. The vampire let out a cry of pain and jerked from the blow, but it was a wound that would heal.

“I can’t do this! I can’t…” Buffy choked. “I can’t.”

She fell to her knees beside the vampire, tears flowing freely from her eyes. He looked at her, his face a mask of agony, and she knew it wasn’t simply from the wound that now spilled blood on his shirt and duster. She felt sick, dirty and relieved all at once. She hadn’t done it, but it meant that she was damned, damned to love her enemy.

‘If I am to be damned, at least I’m not alone.’

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me,” she pleaded of him, needing his absolution as he had once needed hers.

Despite all she had done to him, and all the pain he was in, he reached for her, pulling her to him with his one good arm and burying his face in her neck.

“Buffy. I love you, Buffy. Don’t cry, pet, please…”

“Oh god, Spike.”

Her hands found his shirt and clutched it in her fists as she sobbed. The dam broke and the floodwaters of her emotions came pouring out.

It was a long time before she quieted, and he held her through it all, rocking her, soothing her with nonsense sounds and whispered words. When she finally pulled back, their eyes met, and she knew she would never be the same again. Reaching behind him, she gently removed the stake that was still puncturing his back, and dropped it to the grass, then she shifted in Spike’s embrace so that they both could gaze at Tuwa. The woman was looking down at them, waiting patiently.

“Do you accept him then, this tarnished Paladin who has fought for you and with you? Do you accept this Bond, the renewal of a Pact as old as the Slayer and Vampires themselves?” she asked.

Buffy cast a glance at Spike, then at her friends. Dawn was on the ground, choking back tears, but she looked all right. The faces of the others were grim, but calm. Giles almost looked relieved. He gave her a tiny nod. It was all the reassurance from him that she needed, and she turned back to Tuwa.

“I do.”’

Tuwa smiled and passed a hand over their heads. Buffy felt a wave of comforting warmth wash through her, and then an overwhelming sense of peace.

“So mote it be. The Slayer has accepted her Champion. The Bonds have been reformed and the Sacred Pact renewed. You shall be bound to each other as one for as long as you both shall live.”

“So mote it be,” Tara’s voice echoed in the sudden silence.

“So mote it be,” Willow repeated.

“So mote it be,” Dawn finished.

Tuwa gave the women a tender smile, then reached down into the spring and pulled out a bowl made from an abalone shell. This she gave to Spike.

“Drink. The water has restorative properties.”

Spike accepted the shell, but gave the woman a suspicious glance.

“It won’t give me a soul, will it?”

Tuwa laughed softly. “No. You don’t need one. Your mate is your soul now.”

Spike nodded and raised the bowl to his lips, drinking the water. When he finished, an expression of bliss came over his face as the wound in his shoulder began to close. Buffy examined it in shock.

“It’s all healed,” she told him.

“If only the hole you poked in my duster could be mended so easily. You owe me a new coat, love.”

Buffy gave him a serious look and twined her fingers with his own. “It’s the least of what I owe you.”

Tuwa gazed happily upon them, her expression one of pleased satisfaction.

“My tasks here are done. My work nearly complete.”

“Will you be leaving then? To where the others went?” Giles asked, finding his voice.

“No. There are things left to be done, and much knowledge to pass on. I will entrust copies of the tomes what were saved from destruction into your care. They contain extensive information about the Pact, Bond and what they mean. They also detail the depth of the Council of Watcher’s betrayal, and the price they must pay.”

Giles nodded as Spike helped Buffy to her feet. They stood close to each other, hands still entwined as they looked about. The Mother Tree towered above them, at least 350 feet high, a great sequoia with a trunk the size of a garage. A mist was rising from the bubbling spring and the fireflies were twinkling in it, and all around them was a sense of sublime peace.

Tuwa watched them staring at the Grove around them and smiled.

“There is also the matter of a Guardian for this sacred place. It must be protected from those who would exploit it for their own purposes,” she said.

“Yeah, with water like that… I can hear the money rolling in from here,” Xander commented.

“People would pay a premium price for healing water. We could bottle it and retail it at the magic shop,” Anya added.

“Hey, hey guys, we are not going to sell water from this Grove!” Willow admonished. “That’s… that’s like sacrilege!”

Tuwa chuckled. “It is no matter. One must be inside the Grove to benefit from the water’s healing magic.”

“I’ll do it,” Buffy interrupted, then corrected herself as Spike nudged her with his elbow. “I mean we’ll… we’ll do it. Be the Guardians that is.”

Tuwa graced her with a raised eyebrow. “Are you certain? It is a lifelong task.”

“Hey, at least now I can kinda sorta expect to live past twenty-five, and I’m already used to protecting things. Can’t be that much different,” Buffy replied with a shrug.

“And we’ll help! We’ll all pitch in, be all guardy,” Willow added as Tara nodded in agreement.

“So mote it be,” Tuwa consented. “Be aware that the Grove is not without its own protections. Much of the hazing effect emitted by the Hellmouth has been transferred over. People will see what they want to see.”

“Oh so they won’t see the big ass tree and forest growing where the high school used to be?” Xander asked.

Tuwa smiled. “They will see it, but it will not be unknown to them. It will be a place of childhood picnics and memories, ordinary and familiar. Only those who seek Healing will find their way to this place. That and those who can see through the natural glamour.”

“Hence the need for Guardians,” Spike noted.

Tuwa nodded. “Exactly.”

The vampire looked up at the towering trees, his tongue pressed thoughtfully to his bottom lip.

“Doesn’t sound like a bad job. No big nasties, no end-of-the worlds, but a bloke can still expect a decent spot of violence to keep things from getting boring.”

“Indeed.”

“And I gotta admit the benefits are quite impressive: Sacred Grove, healing water, no Chip…”

Buffy gasped. “What?!”

Spike squeezed the hand in his reassuringly. “I’m right aren’t I? You did something to it. Felt it when you put your hand on my head that first time.”

“You no longer need the chip to prevent you from returning to your killing ways. In truth you haven’t needed it in a long time. You stopped seeing humans as your prey quite a while ago. It was part of your journey as the Champion to turn your back on the dark path you once walked.”

“Will I still crave blood? Will I still miss the Hunt?”

“You will still need blood to sustain you. Your essential nature has not been changed, but you will no longer crave the Hunt. Your Bond with the Slayer will take its place.”

Tuwa turned to Buffy, her face earnest and commanding attention. “Do not fear for him. He is yours and you are his. He will not return to the dark path. You have Bonded. You are One. Soon you will learn about all the Gifts the Bonding brings. I will give you the books and others will come to help you, but for now know that you can trust him. He will never betray you.”

“Did you say others would come?” Giles asked.

“Yes,” Tuwa confirmed. “There is one Slayer/Champion pair left. When the Council betrayed them, and many of the surviving pairs were hunted down and killed, one escaped to our plane, along with a small number of progeny. I have sent for them to come. They will be here soon.”

“Progeny? Isn’t that, like, children?” Buffy questioned, giving Spike, then Tuwa a stunned glance.

Tuwa nodded. “Yes. All will be explained soon. I do not wish to overwhelm you with too much at once, and there are things that are best learned from those who have lived through them.”

“Children?” Buffy repeated, her palm coming to rest upon her lower abdomen.

“Why do I get the impression that there is a great deal that you are not telling us?” Giles remarked.

“All will be revealed in time. There must be some mysteries left for the discovery, don’t you agree? But for now, let us return to our homes. It has been a long night and I am sure you are all weary,” Tuwa answered with a knowing smile and a twinkle in her eye.

Taking up her staff, the woman began to walk towards the exit of the Grove. Giles stopped her.

“The prophecy said an ancient power would come. Are you that power?”

Tuwa turned her head to look at him with one dark eye. “I am one of many who would make that claim.”

“And is Tuwa your real name, or do you have another?”

“My name? My name is my name.”

“Tuwa?”

“In the language it is spoken, yes.”

“But Tuwa is a Hopi name. It means… Oh good lord.”

“What? What does it mean? Giles, what does it mean?” Buffy demanded.

“Tuwa, Buffy, it means earth,” Giles answered.

And Aerth smiled at them, a wise and knowing smile, as they stared at her in gaping awe. Then she turned, her feet leaving no marks upon the grass, and silently led the way out of the Grove.

FIN