It was hard to believe the fight was over. Buffy sat near the front of the bus, trying to gather her scattered thoughts and push away the grief and guilt that threatened to overwhelm her in every quiet moment. They'd won the battle, saved the world again, but the cost had been staggering. She'd told herself she was prepared for that, had led her little army down into the Hellmouth with the full understanding that none of them were likely to walk out again. A small part of herself, the part she never, ever listened to, took pleasure in the thought that this might be the perfect way out: a meaningful and necessary death, a return to heaven with no guilt. She had not been prepared to escape the Hellmouth herself and be left to mourn the ones who were left behind.
Dawn was asleep in the seat beside her, snoring gently with her jacket balled up under her head as a pillow. Buffy carefully slid away from her and stood up, turning around and looking at her fellow passengers for the first time. Faith and Robin were just across from her, Robin laying awkwardly half-across Faith's lap while she watched the road ahead of them, grimly willing the bus to go faster. Giles was pushing the machine to its limits, trying to get them to LA where Angel could help them find a safe and discreet hospital, should Robin live that long. She spotted Xander in the back of the bus, hunched over with grief, staring out the back window towards the ruins of their lives and the body of his love. She didn't see Andrew, but suspected he was as far from Xander as possible, drowning in his own guilt. Willow and Kennedy were sleeping together in a seat as Willow's hair finished fading back to red. Spike was-- Buffy closed her eyes and dropped her head for a moment. She didn't have to look for Spike anymore.
Besides the remaining Scoobies, a dozen new Slayers littered the seats of the bus, sitting alone or together, some of them sleeping, all of them silent. It was the quietest bus of teenage girls Buffy had ever been on. She wished she could remember more of their names, or exactly how many of them there had been, going into the Hellmouth. They had seemed like a hundred when they were all living in her house, but she'd really stopped keeping track at “about twenty-five.” Now there were twelve, brand new Slayers all, their new powers healing their injuries while they tried to come to terms with everything that had just happened to them. Buffy could feel the hum of the Slayer in them like electricity before a storm. The first time she'd had that feeling from Kendra, it had baffled her. From Faith, it had alternately challenged and comforted her, the pleasure and disappointment of not being unique. In these girls, at this volume, it was altogether unsettling. She'd done this to them, for better or worse.
“How much longer?” she asked Giles quietly.
“Another thirty minutes, give or take,” he answered, not taking his eyes from the road. “The traffic is increasing, but we won't be driving through the worst of it.” They'd managed to get in touch with Angel using Willow's bulky, balky cellular phone, and made arrangements to meet at a clinic in Long Beach. “Are you in pain?”
Her hand went absently to cover the red stain on her shirt. “I'm fine,” she told him automatically. “Buffy-healy-powers clicking right along.” He didn't look like he believed her, but there was nothing to be done, so he let it go and concentrated on getting them safely up the 405 in afternoon traffic.
Buffy walked down the aisle, bypassing Dawn and instead taking a seat next to one of the new Slayers sitting alone. She didn't remember this one 's name, only that she was one of the newer ones, had found her way in alone after Giles had stopped actively collecting. Even at sixteen or seventeen she was tall, with a rail-thin body and wispy blonde hair. If Buffy hadn't been who she was, she'd have been surprised that this one had made it through the battle at all, given how delicate she looked. She wasn't unscathed, hardly any of them were, but the sling on her arm and the bloody bandage around her thigh didn't look currently life-threatening. And at least she was awake, looking out the window at nothing at all. “How are you doing?”
The girl startled at being addressed, whipping around to look at Buffy, then wincing from the pain of the movement. This one still needed some work on her instincts. “I didn't see you there!” she exclaimed, a fraction louder than sounded normal on the quiet bus, then winced at her own noise. “I mean... I'm sorry, I wasn't paying attention. Did you need something?”
Buffy shook her head. “I asked how you were doing. You looked pretty far away.”
“Oh, no, I'm okay.” The girl shrugged her uninjured shoulder. “Okay enough, I guess.” She used the side of that hand to push her hair back from her face. “I keep thinking about the fight, back in the hellmouth. It's not always like that, is it?” She was doing a good job of keeping a brave face, but the scared little girl was there in her voice.
“No, it's not,” Buffy said honestly, leaning her head back against the seat. “It's never been exactly like that before, but that was an apocalypse, and they come around pretty often. Apocalyps- es, -i?” She stumbled for a second over the plural, certain she'd used it before, but never quite sure of whether she was right.
“Apocalypses,” the girl offered helpfully. “Because it's Greek. Like eclipse and eclipses.”
“Yeah, okay.” Buffy nodded at that. “Anyway, apocalypses are all different, but before it's always been one slayer against a Big Bad Evil thing. This time we fought the biggest big bad evil thing I've ever even heard of, but instead of just one, there were a lot of us, and we fought together.”
“My friends died,” the girl said, looking down at her one clenched fist.
“Yeah, I know,” Buffy answered quietly. “Mine did too.” The girl nodded, and they sat in silence for a minute, the bus rumbling beneath them. “I'm sorry,” Buffy finally said. “I can't remember your name.”
“Oh.” The girl, the Slayer, turned and looked at Buffy. “Yeah, I guess there were a lot of us to keep track of. I'm Donna Moss.”
Buffy patted Donna's shoulder in the least awkward way she could manage. There was a faint tingle of energy as they touched; Buffy wondered if that was going to fade, or if it was something she'd have to get used to with the ex-Potentials. “You should try and get some rest, Donna. We'll be there in probably twenty minutes.”
“I don't sleep very well in buses,” Donna admitted. “Or anywhere, I guess. But thank you.”
Buffy nodded and let it go. She remembered the nightmares after her calling, and all the new ones after Hemery. She wondered if any of them would ever sleep soundly again after today, between the revitalized Slayer essence and the memory of what they'd seen. She wondered if her dreams tonight would be full of flickering flames and cleansing light, and whether that would be nightmare or absolution. No time to think about that now. They had a long road still to go.