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Stumbling to the End

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She will not listen. She hasn’t for months, years. Her ears, her mind, her very heart are closed to him. He can only watch helplessly as she leads the others headlong into catastrophe.

It isn’t in his nature to give up, he tells himself, but they’re at a point where he must prioritize. These girls, these precious few, are all that remain of a line that has guarded the world for millennia. They must learn to fight for their lives, yes, but throwing them recklessly into battles they are not ready to fight will only bring about disaster.

Once, when a demon made him sing what was in his heart, he asked if his Slayer was too far gone to care about what was going on around her. This time, he forces himself to acknowledge that she is too far gone.

He cannot save her. She does not want to be saved.

They tear her down, one by one. He lets them, makes himself a silent accomplice. When Dawn orders her out of the house, he cannot suppress a flinch, cannot shake off the sensation of something deep inside snapping, like a dry, frail twig. Something he thought long gone already.

She leaves, and he is left behind to pick up the pieces.

She does not want to be saved, he keeps telling himself.

It gets no easier after she leaves. He watches the girls snarl at each other, bickering like the clueless children they are, and wonders how he expected things to fall into place with her gone.

But he must hold onto the hope that things will get better, he keeps reminding himself. He has to. Otherwise…

He glances at Dawn, who sits next to him. She is paying little attention to the arguments that fill the living room, her eyes distant. He can easily guess where her thoughts are and he leans closer to her. “She’s going to be fine. Really, it’s for the best.”

She is no longer a force for uniting them, but for dividing them, he tell himself. That was why she had to leave. It was the only way.

Dawn looks at him, her face grey with guilt and misery. “Yeah?” she says softly. “Then why do I feel like this?”

He has no response to that, and forces himself to concentrate on the issues in front of him.

It’s for the best. He has to believe that. It has to be true, or he will lose his mind. He will not be able to stand the guilt of knowing what he -

He can’t complete the thought.

Things do not improve the following evening. Spike hears of their actions, hears their excuses, and shows them no mercy.

“You sad, sad, ungrateful traitors,” the vampire growls, his eyes narrowed. “Who do you think you are?”

“We’re her friends,” Willow responds, her eyes bright with tears as she wrings her hands worriedly, “we just want -”

Spike’s harsh laugh cuts her off. “Oh, that’s ballsy of you. You’re her friends… and you betray her like this?”

He stiffens. He dislikes that word immensely, ‘betray’. “You don’t understand -”

“You know, I think I do… Rupert,” Spike sneers. His eyes are cold and pitiless. “You used to be the big man, didn’t you? The teacher all full of wisdom. Now she’s surpassed you, and you can’t handle it. She has saved your lives again and again.” Spike’s eyes rove over the others, but he can’t look away from the vampire. “She died for you!”

As if he could forget that. He’s never forgotten the terror he felt when he woke up in Jenny’s arms to hear that she had gone to face the Master alone, nor has he been able to forget the more recent trauma of hearing the sickening crack of her body hitting the cement beneath that God-forsaken tower. It’s still enough to make his stomach heave.

Spike says something else, and it causes an eruption of tempers that sends both the vampire and Faith flying at each other in a flurry of punches and kicks, knocking them both into the dining room and generally causing a mess. He orders them to stop, and Spike leaves them without a backward glance, making his own loyalties perfectly clear.

He’d laugh if it wasn’t so ironic. She has always managed to bind the strangest of beings to her, even the very ones she is supposed to destroy. First Angel, now Spike. And the devotion she shows them is no less remarkable. There has never been a Slayer like her before.

He wonders in the ensuing silence if perhaps the accursed vampire was right. Maybe she really has surpassed him, in more ways than one.

In those long moments, he can only stare at the door. He once took pride in his devotion to her, had given up everything for her. He had defied Quentin Travers for her. How is it he has gone from those days, when she was the person he’d treasured the most, to now, where a vampire, where Spike, lectures him on the sin of betrayal?

Something inside of him howls in agony.

Faith orders him and the others to seek her out, to watch over her from a distance, but he lets them go without him, remaining in the house. Her house. That he evicted her from. He can’t do it, can’t go looking for her and see Spike with her, standing at her right hand, loyal and faithful where he no longer is.

He lets the others go, and stays behind with the girls who are not following Faith’s plan of attack. If he focuses on them, maybe he won’t remember his many past failures.

Please, don’t leave me. I can’t do this alone.

Who are you?

I don’t know you.

Why now? Now that you know where I’ve been, what I’m going through?!

You’re wrong.

Then again, maybe not.

Her return is almost anticlimactic. Oh, there is plenty of drama, of course - Faith is unconscious, forcing him and Xander to carry her to Buffy’s bed, and several of the girls did not return from the attack, and those that did were badly wounded. She, though, is like a whirlwind, helping to treat the hurt girls and giving orders like she never left. No one balks at taking her instructions.

He hears several of the girls talking to her, talking and clinging to her now like frightened, chastised children. Amanda believes the Powers are punishing them. Even Kennedy looks to her for reassurance.

She does not allude to the events that led to her departure, but is instead all business. She gives him and Willow her newly discovered weapon to research, and then is on to the next task. She behaves like a leader, delegating where she must, taking care of the things herself when she must.

He once left her so she would learn to stand on her own two feet. As he watches her, he realizes that that is exactly what she has been doing all along. Spike was right - she has surpassed him.

The knowledge leaves him proud - and empty.

What comes next only strengthens his belief that Spike was right. Her plan is nothing short of genius and he tells her as much. “It flies in the face of everything we’ve ever - every generation has ever done in the fight against evil.” She looks at him, and he thinks she looks uncertain, strangely enough. Uncertainty hasn’t been something he’s seen on her face at all these past few days. He can’t help but smile at her. “I think it’s bloody brilliant.”

Her eyes, her entire face lights up and for a brief second, she looks like the bright, innocent young girl who had blown into his library so many years before. “You mean that?”

He smiles at her tentatively, shyly. “If you want my opinion.” It isn’t something she’s wanted for a long time.

If anything, her smile becomes even brighter. “I really do.”

It’s just for a moment, nothing more than a second before Willow interjects, but somehow, he feels closer to her than he has in a long, long time.

He stands in the hallway of the atrium, watching the other three chatter about malls and shoes and clothes, as though they are not on the cusp of the most deadly battle any of them has ever faced, as though the fate of the world is not on their shoulders. Two of them are the closest he has ever come to having children of his own, the other so much more. His Slayer, his purpose - even when he tries to forget that.

He turns away, shaking his head, murmuring the very words he once said years, a lifetime, ago, “The earth is definitely doomed.”

He feels a sense of hope nonetheless.

The battle is fierce, seemingly unending. Bringers and Turok Hans alike come rising up out of the Hellmouth like a wave of diseased rats, bringing death and destruction. He fights harder than he ever has before, tearing into them with a sword that has long been blooded. He doesn’t stop, doesn’t let himself think about what is going on beyond his immediate vicinity.

He saves Robin from death, though not from injury, and pulls him out of the school. He doesn’t know why he suddenly feels the urge to get out of the building, but he isn’t foolish enough to question the voice inside of him that sounds so like her.

Run. It’s time.

He pushes Robin towards the waiting bus, shouting for the girls who have begun to trickle up the stairs and out of the building to get into the large vehicle. He shoves the injured principal into the drivers’ seat and steps out of the bus, urging the girls to get onboard quickly. He recognizes those who come stumbling out of the crumbling building, but also sees that their number is far smaller than the number of those who went in.

There is no time to grieve.

He sees Faith come barreling out the door, moving swiftly despite the shaking earth beneath her feet, and he hurries onto the bus himself. When he looks back, though, he sees that there is no one following Faith. His stomach twists and suddenly he doesn’t care about the emergency of the situation any more, he only cares that she isn’t following Faith and where is she -

Faith leaps onboard, yelling for Robin to go, go, go and he is abruptly brought back into the moment. Xander yells for the medical supplies they’d left on the bus, and he reacts, throwing the bag at the younger boy, no, man. The girls, the Slayers, are helping each other. He vaguely hears Vi yelling at Rona that her injuries are nothing, that she is strong. Kennedy sits with Willow, the former covered in cuts and bruises and the latter with a distinctly vacant expression on her face.

He busies himself with administering first-aid where he can, but freezes when he hears Dawn’s shrill cry of her sister’s name. Immediately, he turns looking out the window, terrified that she’ll be standing outside the crumbling high school, watching as they abandon her yet again, but no, she isn’t there. He looks to Dawn again and sees where she is looking, so he follows her gaze.

There she is, running along the roofs, following along in the bus’ wake. The dust the clouds the air is so thick that he thinks that she might choke on it, which will slow her down, but still she runs, the scythe gleaming in her hand like a guiding star. The buildings rock and crumble behind her, keeping pace even with her superhuman speed.

Jump, he thinks suddenly, willing her to hear it somehow, jump!

She jumps.

They all stand together a short time later, looking out over the enormous crater that was once Sunnydale. Dawn moans over the mall’s destruction, Xander jokes about the loss of Starbucks and Toys “R” Us. Out of habit, he points out that there is still much to do in the near future. Willow and Dawn both ask her what they should do next, but she only smiles faintly, saying nothing.

Eventually, the others drift away, returning to the bus, leaving just the two of them to stare out over the ruins of the town that was once the center of their lives for seven long years. Even if he had left it over two years before, the town and its special occupants had remained the focal point of his life, of his very being.

Or, more honestly, she had been the center of it all. As she has been since the day they met.

He stands next to her, content with the same silence she seems to be reveling in, and stares out in the same direction that she is. He wonders what she is thinking of. Spike, whose demise she has yet to speak of? Her mother, whose grave has disappeared with the town? All the times she saved Sunnydale from destruction only to see it fall now? All of the above?

Slim, calloused fingers slip into his hand and he startles, looking down. She is no longer looking out over the crater, but up at him. Her eyes are bright and clear, more peaceful than he has ever seen them. Her free hand comes up, cupping and stroking his cheek.

“I’m glad you made it out okay,” she says, her voice soft. “I don’t know what I’d have done if you…”

He leans in to her touch, lets her caress away his weariness. He turns his body toward her and away from the crater. “I’m glad you’re all right as well,” he replies. He doesn’t want to think about those horrible, sickening moments when he thought that she had died in the Hellmouth, doesn’t want to admit to the secret desire he’d had to fling himself out of the bus, so that he might follow her.

Neither of them speaks again for some time, but her eyes don’t leave his face, and he suddenly feels like she can see into his very soul, can read his every thought. Then she leans up on her toes and presses her lips to his in a small, chaste kiss. His eyes widen briefly in surprise, but then quickly slide shut when he returns the gesture.

The kiss doesn’t last more than a few moments and then she settles back onto her heels. Before he can think of anything to say, she steps closer, wrapping her arms around him and resting her head against his chest. She holds onto him tightly, and seems to be listening to the beat of his heart. He can do nothing, wants to do nothing but return the embrace, and so he does. His arms come up around her, holding her to him and he rests his cheek on top of her head.

“Giles,” she breathes, filling his name with hope, with promise.

“Buffy,” he replies in the same tone.

It’s a start.