The bell rang and the students quickly began the usual process of gathering their books and supplies - to prepare the weekly ritual that took place at the end of Friday's classes.
They packed their bags and put on their outerwear - if applicable - socialized with friends, avoided their bullies and then moved to start the journey back home. Some walked, others biked, were picked up by their parents or took the bus and a decent percentage of the older students drove either their own or borrowed vehicles.
Amongst the students hurrying around the corridors of Revachol High there was a small woman who silently dodged and weaved her ways through the crowds. She had made avoidance an artform by never saying a word outside of class or the obligatory parent-teacher meetings and kept to herself during all her spare time in the school. Her results were excellent, as they had been almost her entire life, but she constantly had faculty members commenting that she needed to form social connections to function properly in the school.
She never gave the comments any weight. She knew how it was back in the day before everything happened. Before everything fell apart. She was the third wheel in a small group of friends that was her entire social circle until tenth grade back in Sunnydale. After that the group grew even as old friends disappeared but was never stable, was never safe. She was still a weirdo and a loner in many ways and was always considered to be an eccentric for her love of learning. At home she was even more lonely. No siblings and parents who saw her except for a couple of days per month on average. She was raised by impersonal post-its and bundles of cash that paid for the food they didn't cook and the love they never gave.
She hated her solitary life back then but appreciated it now. It gave her a proper training and mental preparation for how her life was now going to be. She got her coat from her locker, retrieved her private laptop and put it in the designated bag. As she came outside she was greeted by the light summer rain. She opened her umbrella and headed for her old car. It was a classic, the old type of red Mini Coopers. She never had an eye or interest in cars but when she saw it on the used car lot she decided to splurge for once. It wasn't like she had anything else she wanted to spend the money on.
She drove home in the rain as the asphalt provided an almost magical reflection from the light rain forming pools that the sun illuminated with glee. She kept to the main road until her street opened up on the right side of the road. Her suburban house wasn't big but it was cheap and acquired quickly after a spot was found at Revachol High for her. It was initially out of budget but after selling all her assets bar clothing, the bare essentials, a memento or two and her computer she had a bit of leeway in regard to money issues.
That wasn't too long ago but to her it felt like a lifetime. Not that it was much of a way to measure time for her, she felt tired beyond her years and the last thing she said before she had left, back in the day, is that she felt like she had survived for several lifetimes and that it was time to actually live at least one.
She didn't do too well in that regard. She had been forced to admit to herself that she still hadn't learned how to live.
She parked the car in the driveway and hurried under the umbrella to the front door of the small two-room house. After dropping her keys only once - an improvement since yesterday when she fumbled her keys three times in similar weather conditions - she moved inside and deposited the umbrella in the kitchen sink.
After that, it was back to her critical routines. The green coat went up on the hanger, rainwater dripping down on the assigned towel she used to prevent damage to the wooden floors, and her black boots were lazily left on the inner doormat. The front door lead directly to the living room that was attached to the kitchen area in an open-floor plan that worked great for her. Had anyone else lived there, or even visited at all, it'd be very hard for them to have any privacy at all since the only other two doors led to the bathroom and bedroom respectively.
The woman was dressed in drab colors, a grey skirt and brown shirt that invited others to not pay her any attention. They fit her slender form well but her mousy posture ensured that she easily would be able to dodge any potential suitors.
She put the laptop on the table next to the recliner by the backyard window and headed to the kitchen to start the electric kettle. As it noisily started the appreciated - if unglamorous - work she took out a bag of tea and a pair of sugar cubes. She deposited them into a mug that she had placed on a small wooden tray. While the kettle continued it's loud craft she took out a can of spaghettios and a spoon that she put next to the mug.
Once the kettle was ready she filled the mug and then moved to the recliner, tray in hand, and sat down for her usual friday afternoon dinner. The same dinner she ate all other days of the week.
After finishing the dinner and tea she pulled up a blanket from the side of the chair and opened her laptop to get to work on what remained of the semester's work from the school. It was dark when she finished and she put the laptop back in the charger, replacing the place of honor in her lap with an old and torn poetry collection. She had read the book dozens of times but found it a safe haven to remind her of better times. She read in silence - the fireflies who had started their summer visitations in her backyard being the only company she needed - and allowed herself a hesitant smile in remembrance of the past.
It didn't linger long.
She put away the book and continued to observe the fireflies in silence. She never had any music on these days as the lyrics and instruments providing only unwelcome distractions to her self-imposed isolation. She also never spoke unless directly confronted outside of the walls of Revachol High. Her prepaid cell phone had never once been required to charge beyond the initial amount as her only calls was those made to utility companies and other essential contacts. Even her emails outside of school were extremely sparse with only a quarterly reminder to one of her old friends to ensure them that she is alive and well.
If they ever responded she didn't know about it. She had set up a filter to delete all responses years ago and she never gave any updates on her own life past her survival. They didn't know where she was, what she was doing or even if she had the same name as before.
In the beginning she wasn't sure it was fair to them. She only sent the emails to ensure they won't try to track her down - she was very clear that she would have no part of her old life but knew that if they found her she'd never be allowed to stay at peace for long. There was always another crisis, always another emergency, and she'd be forced to go back to the war and life she had finally managed to leave behind.
She knew she was a coward and she was perfectly fine with that assessment of herself.
She quickly abandoned the idea of unfairness since she never read the responses(if there were any) and she hadn't even once tried to see what they were doing once she left the group. A long time had passed since she last trusted her own self-discipline to stay away from trouble.
She whispered a silent incantation and the lights in the house turned off and she eased into a comfortable position, the long red hair was moved to the side so she could fall asleep watching the dancing fireflies in the backyard. They moved in seemingly random patterns, circling around each other and acting like drunk teenagers at their first beach party. Only one of all the fireflies - the one shining a little bit brighter than the rest - seemed to have a purpose. It was noticeable from a distance and went straight for the window with no deviation in its path and not even bouncing against the window stopped it. Not the first time it tried, not the fifth time. After being barred by the window for roughly a dozen times it slowly faltered and disappeared into nothing.
Willow's consciousness followed soon thereafter.
Three years ago
Faith couldn't contain her excitement as she moved towards Buffy. "Looks like the Hellmouth is officially closed for business."
Behind her Giles and Dawn followed and a couple of yards after that Willow and Xander slowly moved up to join them. Buffy remained in place as she was facing the crater that was all that remained of the city she had given her life to save. Twice. The city that held her home for the last seven years. She let her friends come up behind her and Willow almost felt the smile that was forming on her best friend's face.
It hurt. Willow wished she could offer a genuine smile herself but she couldn't. With the destruction of Sunnydale there was nothing left of the life she had lived until then. There was nothing left of Tara. Nothing left of her 'Forever'.
All she had to remember Tara by was the Doll's Eye Crystal and a worn photo that she kept in her jacket's inner pocket. Everything Tara Maclay had ever been was reduced to a crystal and a picture with no name. No longer a grave. She had no belongings of her remaining and one thing Willow had learned this last year there would be no-one else remembering the woman that once was such a huge part of their lives.
She had thought they'd at least keep some pictures up for her when she returned from England the past summer. Instead they had scrubbed the Summers house clean of anything that proved Tara had ever lived there, that she had ever been part of their family. She knew it was to prevent triggering another Willow breakdown when she came back from her 'magic rehab' but that only made it worse. It proved both that they would never trust her again and that they only saw Tara as an attachment to Willow's personality even after her death.
"There's another one in Cleveland." Giles pointed out, as if bound by law to be the wet blanket his job often required him to be. "Not to spoil the moment."
Of course. Why should they ever get even a day's worth of rest. Or even an hour. They were conscripted child soldiers since the age of fifteen and she'd never be allowed to become a civilian again. She was by now the most powerful Wicca in the world by a fair margin; there's no way Buffy would let her 'Big Gun' stay on the bench.
Xander seemed to still be in shock and Willow understood him. She thought she understood how he felt better than anyone else. He had just lost Anya and he couldn't do anything to prevent it. "We saved the world." Willow let go of him. She kept the empty smile plastered over her face but questioned if they really had saved the world. There were more Hellmouths in the world.
Where there's Hellmouths, there's demons.
Where there's demons, there's cults.
Where there's cults, there's prophecies.
Where there's prophecies, there's the apocalypse.
Where's the apocalypse, Willow will be sent to support Buffy in stopping it. And it's sent. Dispatched. When the Coven had kept her alive last summer - instead of binding her powers or killing her - they had sealed her fate as a fighter for the rest of her miserable life, indentured in a debt in blood she'd never be able to repay. She'll be ordered to fight, not asked.
It hurt her to be treated like a dangerous weapon. It hurt that they all thought that she had murdered some local townie the first thing when she returned. It hurt that her friends didn't really see her as anything but a volatile burden most of the time.
It hurt to know that every day that they didn't trust her to not go insane as soon as something reminded her of Tara. She remember their first dinner together once she returned from England and Anya had accidently mentioned Tara by name. Willow didn't remember the subject but she remember how they all froze mid-motion and stared at her. They waited to see if she'd explode, to see if those four letters were a dark incantation that would detonate the Willowy suicide bomb.
She had just continued eating, pretending like she hadn't noticed their reactions, but the scene was a common feature in the scenes of her head during the frequently recurring bouts of uncontrollable crying when she couldn't sleep at night.
A rug over a stained carpet and a set of photos moved to the attic. Tara's dresser was put in the basement and her clothes stored next to the photos in the attic. They couldn't handle remembering the failures - both Willow's and their own - had lead to a misogynic monster killing the love of her life. Her reason for not completely detaching from reality to silently waste away into nothingness.
Willow slowly walked forward Buffy. "We changed the world." But was it for the better, she silently asked herself. How many girls had she been tasked to sentence to a short lifetime of nightmares both prophetic and inherited? How many actually had the choice that Buffy had offered them earlier that day? How many would've said no if given the chance? She knew that Buffy had wanted to get rid of the Slayer in her many times in her early years. Buffy had hated what was forced upon her and now she had ordered Willow to get do the same - to get it done - to hundreds, perhaps thousands of other girls around the world. "I can feel them, Buffy. All over. Slayers are awakening everywhere." She sighed, both happy and sad that she hadn't been consumed by the magic as she activated the Slayers.
Mostly happy though. Especially happy that Kennedy wouldn't be forced to kill her. She knew the pain that having your dead girlfriend's blood on your hands curtailed. She had been a monster to demand Kennedy to do that to her if everything went bad.
Dawn returned Willow's mind to the situation at hand. "We have to find them."
Willow panicked inwardly. 'Oh God no. I can't be part of another army made out of child soldiers. I have to get out now or I'll be damning myself even worse.'
"We will." She couldn't tell them. She needed to get out but if they knew about it in advance she'd be forced to stay; either by physical force or guilt.
"Yes, because the mall was actually in Sunnydale so there's no hope of going there tomorrow." 'Giles had become better at the inane banter the group used to cover the emotional scarring that had damaged them all beyond normality,' Willow admitted to herself as she frantically tried to come up with an excuse that could give her an opportunity to disappear for good.
Dawn acted up an obviously mocking rendition of being upset. "We destroyed the mall? I fought on the wrong side."
Willow seethed inwardly. 'We lost good people today. Well mostly good people. Anya and Spike were our friends in a way and several young girls had died and they were joking about the fucking mall? And they had the gall to demand of me to regret what I had said and done after Tara's murder when they were just as callous as I had been back then?'
She did regret attacking her friends, that was a given. But ending the existence of a parasitic warlock that exploited young women and teenage girls? Flaying the murderer of Tara and attempted rapist and murder of his ex? No, she didn't regret that. She was glad she killed Warren and if she got the opportunity to change the outcome after she caught up to him she wouldn't ease his suffering at all. If anything she'd do the opposite.
She only regretted that she hadn't killed Warren before that dark day. And that Xander hadn't stopped him once he saw the gun. Or that Buffy hadn't stopped him so many times before when she got the chance; especially after she had realized that Warren had murdered his ex Katrina and tried to frame Buffy. Or when he and his friends had poisoned Buffy and almost led her to murder her family and friends.
No, she did not regret killing Warren. She had a lot of other things that she wished she could change but not ending his threat, once and for all.
Xander kept the facade going. "All those shops gone. The Gap, Starbucks, Toys-R-Us… Who will remember all those landmarks unless we tell the world about it?"
Giles returned to the role of token straight-man. "We have a lot of work ahead of us."
"Can I push him in?" Faith asked in jest but their history made the joke hit a bit too close to home. Willow felt a pang of guilt as she - just for an instant - considered it as a valid option.
Willow turned towards Faith; knowing that she had to take part of the conversation to avoid any suspicion of her plans. "You've got my vote." She knew that just like with Faith's comment the banter would send shivers up the spines of those around her that saw what she did a year ago. When she stopped living and started surviving.
"I just wanna sleep, yo, for like a week." Faith was tired, that was obvious. She looked fatigued in a way that Willow hadn't seen before, not even after waking up from her almost year-long coma.
"I guess we all could if we wanted to." Dawn added with a smile that heralded the collapse into fatigue that would inevitably happen as soon as the bus started rolling again.
Willow felt she needed to probe the group for their next move, to keep them set towards a common goal. "Yeah. The first is gone, so... Whaddya think we should do, Buffy?"
Faith grinned. "Yeah, you're not the one and only Chosen anymore, you just gotta live like a person, how's that feel?" Faith had won, in the end. Willow suddenly realized that ironic fact. Faith had won since Buffy now had to accept that she wasn't the Chosen One, or even Chosen Two. She was just one of many Chosen. Far from a nobody but no longer the only one.
Dawn turned back to her sister and continued. "Yeah Buffy. What are we gonna do now?"
Buffy's smile grew wide and she turned to the group to offer words of comfort, of gratitude for their collective efforts and sacrifices despite all they had faced together. But just as she opened her mouth to answer her baby sister she instead just blinked out of existence altogether.
The following chaos put the mustering to war that morning to shame. Dawn ran around in a panic and shouted for her sister while Giles stood frozen in fear. Faith moved towards the bus to see if Buffy had somehow appeared in that area. Xander turned to Willow with an accusing stare.
"Will, did you do this? Did you do the whole 'invisible-to-everyone-but-me' thing again?"
Willow's face fell and she was reminded again that she would always be suspect number one no matter what. When the supernatural threw them a curveball - when it appeared in a way that they didn't immediately recognize - they would always blame her before applying even a semblance of critical thinking. Willow knew she had to get out right then or it would never happen. They'd break the last remaining shreds of her willpower and she'd become a kept witch, a household asset. Their Big Gun.
"Xander, I can't do this again. We didn't even get ten minutes of rest before another crisis appeared. I can't live like this. It feels like I've only just barely survived for what feel like several lifetimes and it is time for me to actually be able to live at least one, to be anything else but a dangerous weapon. I hope you find Buffy safe and sound but this is our final goodbye. Apologize to the rest of them and tell Kennedy that it's over between us, she can't wait for me because I won't return to her. I love you and I'm sorry about Anya." She embraced him quickly and then pulled back. "Bye."
She was gone before he got the chance to respond. It was the last time Xander Harris would ever see his best friend.