"I'm so sorry, Forney," Buffy said, helplessly, watching as the curly-headed young Watcher bent over his Slayer's broken body. They'd lost a lot of Slayers that night, and nearly everyone left standing could be counted among the walking wounded, but this Slayer's fate hit her harder than most.
She'd been one of the successful ones, the ones whose lives-- before and after her calling-- were as close to ideal as anyone had a right to expect. The kind of life Buffy had wished she had, before one too many brushes with the dark had made it clear she'd never be happy with a white picket fence. The younger Slayers who hadn't fixed on Buffy or Faith as their ideal had looked up to Novalee in awe, as a shining example of what their lives could still be like, despite their calling.
Especially since things hadn't started out that way for her. Novalee Nation had been one of the "lost" Potentials, swept through so many foster homes during her childhood that the Watchers had never been able to track her, so poor until the age of seventeen that she'd never had a Christmas tree or lived anywhere that didn't have wheels under it. But by the time Willow's spell had reached her, hard work and good-hearted friends had transformed her into Novalee Hull, a twenty-five year old prize-winning photographer with a seven year old daughter, an infant son, and a brilliant schoolteacher husband who loved her very much indeed. The Council, faced with a surfeit of Slayers and far too few Watchers, had decided to allow her to patrol her own sleepy town and train under her husband's care, provided she agreed to leave Sequoyah for the occasional meeting or an all-hands-on-deck apocalypse.
That apocalypse had finally come-- and in its aftermath, she had gone.
"I ought to have known not to let her come," Forney said absently, tears thickening his voice as he covered the fatal wound in her throat with one callused, ink-stained hand. "Our five-year anniversary is this weekend. And this is the fifth time the Council has called her out of town since-- since this all started."
Buffy winced. She'd heard about the various tragedies that had befallen little Americus Nation at five days, five weeks, five months and five years of age; she knew about the $5.55 in change Novalee had been left with the day Willie Jack abandoned her, pregnant, at the Sequoyah, Oklahoma, Wal-Mart; she'd heard the tale of Novalee's mother taking off when Novalee was five years old and then again just after Americus' birth with the $500.00 the Wal-Mart president had given the new mother. It had all come pouring out the first time Faith had casually said "Five by five" in the older girl's presence, and had become kind of a joke around the Watcher's Council Headquarters since. Superstition or not, it didn't seem all that funny anymore.
"She saved Xander's life," was all Buffy could offer as consolation. "And Rona's. Most of us were busy fighting in the mansion already; when those things came out of the forest and caught us from behind..." She trailed off, glancing at an enormous, shaggy body sprawled a few yards away, the multitude of stab and slash wounds on the corpse testifying to how difficult it had been to kill.
"I know," he said, hoarsely. "I-- do you know what she said when it happened? When she was-- Called? She said she'd heard a voice asking her if she was ready to be strong, and that she'd answered 'Yes' without even thinking about it. She was so upset about that; she thought I'd be angry. But I told her-- I told her-- of course she said yes. She's the strongest person--" He paused, swallowing hard, as he gazed down into his wife's pale face. "She was the strongest person I've ever known."
Buffy moved to kneel at his side, bruises and cracked ribs protesting at the moment, and silently held out the slightly bloodstained blanket she'd been carrying.
He stared at it blankly for a moment, as though he didn't recognize what it was, then looked up at her with wide, tear-filled eyes. "What do I tell them, when I go back?" he asked her, plaintively. "Americus, and little Jericho?" He shook his head. "Lexie thought we were going to another photography conference when we left the kids with her... what do I say to her? To everyone?"
"Tell them what you just told me," Buffy said, quietly. "Tell them that she was strong. Tell them she was a hero. And tell them that she loved them."
Forney's face crumpled with grief. Buffy managed to catch him as he collapsed; over his shoulder, she could see Xander doing the same for a young Slayer whose Watcher had been killed.
None of the fallen deserved what had happened to them here today. But Buffy had learned a long time ago that happy endings only happened in the movies.
"And remember that she loved you, too," Buffy murmured, and held him as he wept.