As the portal blinked out of existence they all continued to stare at the spot from which Glory had just disappeared.
“She’s gone,” Dawn said at last, breaking the silence.
“Yeah.” Buffy wrapped an arm around her sister’s shoulders. “And now we can go home.”
“I need a minute to catch my breath before I try that again,” Willow said tiredly.
“Take as long as you want,” Buffy said reassuringly. “There’s no rush.”
“Actually there is,” Willow reminded her. “The longer it takes to get you home the more Slayers we lose. The demons have started catching on now. It won’t be long before there’s a massacre.”
Buffy nodded. “How many Slayers are left?”
“Less than a hundred,” Willow guessed. “We think it happened the moment you missed the slide window. The amount of Slayers we lose per hour has doubled. By the end of the day the only Slayer we’ll have left is Faith.”
“And from what you’ve told me she’s in no shape for slaying,” Buffy grimaced. “OK, take five minutes and we’ll try again. Is that enough?”
“It has to be,” Willow said grimly.
“Can I have a word,” Angel asked Buffy softly, nodding his head towards the corridor.
“You have five minutes,” Buffy said chirpily and followed him out the door.
Quinn turned his attention to Alex who had remained remarkably still since Glory had left. “You OK?”
Alex nodded mutely.
“Wanna talk about it?” Wade asked him gently, kneeling down so she was looking him in the eye.
“She’s really gone?” Alex whispered uncertainly. “Forever?”
“Yeah,” Wade grinned. “Without a timer she’s stuck wherever she ended up.”
“Do you think she got home?”
“Oh yeah,” Willow said with certainty. “Glory’s blood is powerful and she has a strong connection to her home-world – enough that she could have picked it out even when all the walls between dimensions were falling down. I’m positive she got back.”
“Oh,” Alex sighed. “What happens to me now?”
The minute the words left Alex’s lips Quinn realised not one of them had ever asked Alex about his family other than Glory. While there had been other, arguably more important things going on at the time he was appalled that they hadn’t found the time to reassure Alex that he would be returned home once Glory was gone.
“Mr Giles will make sure you get to your parents,” he said at last, making eye contact with the librarian who nodded firmly.
“I don’t have parents,” said Alex in a small voice. “They died when I was a baby. It’s always just been me and Glory. When I was awake her minions took care of me. I doubt they’d want to now I’m just me.”
Not to mention the fact that there was only one left alive as far as they knew.
Jenny knelt down beside him. “We could take you in,” she offered, smiling warmly. “Rupert and I don’t have children of our own, though we do have some very close family,” she smiled around at Daniel, Larry and Willow. “We could never replace your parents, but we would love to have you.”
“Oh,” Mr Giles said in surprise. “Yes... yes that would be wonderful.”
Alex smiled shyly. “If you’re sure you want me.”
“Oh we do, sweetheart, we do,” Jenny said emphatically, holding her arms open.
Alex flung himself into them, sobbing.
Confused and slightly concerned, Buffy followed Angel down the corridor and into the bedroom she had slept in the night before. Angel’s expression was grim as he gestured for her to sit on one of the beds. He wandered over to the mirror affixed to the wall and stared into it. She couldn’t stop her eyes from flickering towards it, noting his lack of reflection. Instead her own face was framed within it until she guiltily looked away.
Neither spoke for a few minutes. Buffy studied the bedspread, growing more concerned by the second until she could stand it no longer.
“Angel, what is it? You’re starting to scare me.”
He turned haunted eyes towards her. “Did you ever stand with my double on a hilltop, just before sunrise?”
“What?” Buffy’s eyebrows lowered in confusion. Where did that come from?
“He wanted to kill himself. He was going to watch the sunrise, but you came and talked to him. Actually yelled at him. Told him that you wouldn’t watch him die again. Then the snow came.”
Buffy could only shake her head in disbelief. “How can you know that?” Her voice shook as she spoke, the memory coming back to her in full force. It was when she came across the Bringers and the First back when she was still in High School. Angel had tried to kill himself to keep her safe, because he didn’t think he could keep himself away from the temptation she represented to him.
“I dreamt it,” Angel said hollowly.
“How...?” Buffy whispered.
“Do you remember I told you about my dreams?” he asked her. “My voice speaking out of the darkness? Well last night it all came together.”
Buffy gaped at him as he described his dream. Angel – her Angel – had visited his double in a dream, just to pass on a message from the Powers that Be. She ignored the tears falling down her cheeks.
“When I woke up, I dismissed it,” Angel said, not looking at her. “But then Dawn told us about when you jumped off the tower and when you faced the Master and it was such a close match to what I’d seen that I just had to know for certain.”
Buffy swallowed around the lump in her throat. “And?”
“I love you,” he blurted, finally meeting her eyes. “I’ve tried not to, but I can’t. I know when you look at me you only see him, but I thought...”
“Ssh,” Buffy said, laying a gentle hand across his lips. She stepped closer, looking up into his eyes before lifting her heels and kissing him for all she was worth. Her arms slipped around his neck as one of his hands fisted in her hair, the other dropping to her waist to pull her closer.
When she pulled away she was panting slightly while Angel just looked disappointed that it was over. Buffy smiled up at him. “I love you, too.”
Angel smiled back at her, brushing the loose hair back from her cheek. “I can’t lose you now.”
“I can’t stay here,” Buffy reminded him.
“Then there’s no reason for me to stay either.”
Buffy grinned and as they were still so close she leaned up and kissed him once more.
It was weird saying goodbye to Giles since she would see him again on the other side of the portal. Alex and Larry she barely knew so after a perfunctory farewell Buffy moved onto Oz and Jenny. Oz was as monosyllabic as ever and shook her hand briefly before turning to Wade. It was difficult sometimes to remember that while she and Oz had been good friends back on her world this version of Oz thought of her as a virtual stranger.
“So...” Buffy said finally, facing Jenny.
Jenny leaned over and hugged her. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Buffy frowned as she pulled away. “For what?”
“You may not realise what an effect you’ve had on this world, but I do,” Jenny told her. “Things were looking bleak here. The only warrior we had for our side was Angel and the military weren’t getting anywhere. The demons stopped being scared so long ago. Then you came and now we have hope again. We have the Slayers to teach the demons how to fear again.”
“Most of that was Willow,” Buffy shrugged.
“Maybe she provided the magic, but you were the heart of the plan,” Jenny argued. “It was you who retrieved the scythe from the cave and it was for you that Willow came here in the first place.”
Buffy glanced over to where the scythe had been left leaning against a wall. “I keep thinking that I haven’t done enough.” She looked up into Jenny’s questioning eyes. “You have a bit of time to find the Slayers before the Watcher’s Council realises that something is up, but eventually they will find out and they’ll try to take control of the situation. Amanda is going to be the leader as the only one with the experience or the training and she’ll be the only one who can stop them. I don’t know if she can. I haven’t taught her enough.”
“You’ve done all you can,” said Jenny consolingly. “Don’t beat yourself up over something you can’t control. You have your own world to save. Let us worry about this one.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Buffy conceded. “It’s too late to do anything more. Still I think I’ll always wonder about what will happen here.” She studied Jenny’s face, knowing that this was the last time she would ever see the woman. “Thank you for taking care of Giles all these years.”
“It’s been no problem,” Jenny smiled and hugged her once more.
“I’m ready,” Willow called as the two women broke apart.
Buffy went to stand by Angel who took her hand firmly in his. He’d been smiling an awful lot since he’d made the decision to go with Buffy and she liked the change on him. Despite her happiness at the situation she couldn’t stop worrying about his curse and how long it would be before their relationship put his soul at risk.
“Once the vortex is open I’ll leave this body and return to my own,” Willow said loudly so everyone could hear. “Dawn, you’ll need to throw in a few drops of your blood so I can manipulate the other end and pull it to me.” Dawn nodded firmly. “Don’t step through until the other end is in place or you could end up anywhere,” Willow warned.
“How will we know when it’s safe?” Wade demanded.
“I, um, you’ll know,” Willow said nervously, glancing at Buffy.
“Will, it’s time to ‘fess up,” Buffy said, not liking the way her friend was avoiding the question.
Instead of answering Willow turned her back on them and started chanting the incantation to open the wormhole.
Buffy exchanged a concerned glance with Dawn, both of them knowing that it must be something they wouldn’t like if Willow was refusing to answer.
Dawn removed the bandage she had placed around her hand which was still oozing blood as the vortex grew, waiting for the moment she would be needed.
Willow turned around to face Buffy. “I’ll hold the vortex open as long as I can. Remember, wait until you get the signal before coming through.”
Before Buffy could ask any more questions Willow fell to the floor. Her Willow had gone ahead, leaving her double behind. Dawn stepped over the prone form and scattered a few drops of her blood into the portal while Oz leapt to Willow’s side.
“Did she tell anyone what the signal is?” Rembrandt asked as the vortex turned green.
“Nope,” Wade said, frantically looking around at the other sliders. “How are we supposed to know when it’s safe for us to go through?”
“She said she would keep the vortex open as long as she could,” Quinn reminded them. “Why would we need it open for any great amount of time?”
Someone was screaming and it was coming from the depths of the vortex. Buffy took a few steps closer, just in case something demonic was coming through, but she had a nasty feeling that this was Willow’s signal.
A figure landed at Buffy’s feet. A dark haired female that immediately pushed herself up.
“Faith?” Dawn exclaimed.
“I shoulda known,” Buffy said tonelessly.
“What can I say, B? There’s nothing left for me back home. No Robin, no freedom.” Faith glanced around at their spectators. “Those of you who are going should get moving,” she suggested lightly before turning back to Buffy. “Eventually the police will find me and then I’ll get locked up again and I’ll be no good to anyone. From what Willow said this world could use my help. And I could use something to take my mind off Robin.”
There wasn’t time to argue. This must have been what Willow was keeping the portal open for, but she couldn’t keep it there indefinitely. Besides, even if she had the time, Buffy had no idea how she could convince Faith she was making the wrong choice. She herself had debated staying here and having a fresh start and she had far more reasons to return than Faith did.
The sliders had already leaped through the portal before Dawn spoke. “Good luck, Faith,” was all she said before sprinting and leaping into the vortex.
“We need to go,” Angel said seriously.
“I...” There was so much she wanted to say right now, but she knew it would come out wrong. The two oldest Slayers had never been the best of friends. Saying she would miss Faith would be a lie. “Protect them,” she said finally. “They’ll need someone to lead them, someone who won’t just take everything the Council says as gospel.”
“I know,” Faith agreed. “They need Buffy, but since you gotta go, I’ll do my best.”
Buffy shook her head. “They need you, Faith. I know we never got along, but I know you can do what’s best for these girls. Goodbye Faith.”
Faith surprised her then by stepping closer and embracing her. Buffy stiffened, surprised, but relaxed into it, holding her sister Slayer so tightly any other person would have broken a rib. “Bye B,” Faith muttered in her ear. “Take care of our girls.”
“I will,” Buffy promised.
Angel took her hand and led her to the portal. Buffy glanced back once at her new friends and one who she should have gotten to know years ago, but would now never have the chance to and smiled. Faith was eyeing Larry up thoughtfully.
She jumped with Angel close behind her.
Lauren stared listlessly out of the window. The normal window, looking out over the normal school grounds from her normal classroom where she sat, a normal girl. Yesterday she had been a Slayer. Yesterday she had been a warrior. Now she was normal again and she didn’t want to go back to normal.
It had happened sometime during the night. She’d gone to bed after a night of Slaying – alone now with all her local sisters either losing their powers or ending up like Doaa... dead. When she’d awoken she’d noticed the change immediately. She was weak, un-coordinated and she threw like a girl.
The bell rang and she got up, not caring that she hadn’t listened to a single word her teacher had spoken and barely aware of the strange looks she was getting. She did notice though and she knew why. Being a Slayer had made her stand out from the crowd, the confidence the power leant to a girl showed in her every step, the Slayer’s grace had been evident every time she had moved, but now she had none of that, just herself. Maybe it was because she had lost her powers so suddenly that had thrown her into this state of shock, but she couldn’t help wondering if ‘just herself’ was enough.
Her next class was Phys Ed and she wasn’t looking forward to it. She’d been excelling in it since her activation and she wasn’t going to enjoy the coming proof of just what she had lost, nor having to try and explain to everyone why she had lost so much of her stamina and speed.
They were doing track today and while she would have normally breezed past her classmates today she was lucky to come in the middle of the pack. At the other end she almost collapsed from the exertion, panting, with sweat running down her forehead in a way she hadn’t felt in so long now.
Marnie, one of the school’s top female runners merely bent at the waist, her hands on her knees and smirked over at Lauren. “What happened to you?”
“Bad day,” Lauren said grudgingly. Marnie had been one of her rivals since they were young. Since being Called Marnie hadn’t been able to touch her in any physical activity. She was probably going to love this.
“Looks like you’re getting slow,” Marnie said, that awful smirk still hovering about her lips. “Probably all that extra weight you’re carrying around.”
Lauren gaped at her. “Like you’re one to talk. I’ve seen that flab you’re calling a butt these days. Surprised you can even walk with that coming along behind you.”
Marnie’s eyes flickered as if she were resisting the urge to actually turn around and check she hadn’t gained a few pounds and now it was Lauren’s turn to smirk.
“Hmph,” Marnie said with a toss of her hair.
The whistle blew and the girls lined up to run again. Lauren stood side by side with Marnie, determined to win, but knowing it was hopeless without her powers.
They took off and Lauren immediately started to fall behind. She urged her tired legs to carry her just a little bit faster, but to no avail.
Then she felt it. A rush went through her and her heart-rate slowed. She almost stumbled as her fastest speed suddenly increased and she found herself having to hold back not to reveal just how fast she could run. As she passed Marnie she grinned, not even breathing hard now.
She revelled in the power of the Slayer.
Buffy hit the ground and rolled. A second later she felt Angel hit the ground beside her. She sat up, blinking in the sudden bright daylight after the darkness of Glory’s house where Angel’s presence had meant they had to keep all the windows covered...
She turned and draped herself over him, screaming for someone to bring a blanket or anything to cover him with when she realised he wasn’t even smoking.
She sat back, staring at him as he pushed himself onto his knees and stared right back at her as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. Then he looked up, right at the sun, squinting.
“How...?” Buffy whispered, reaching a hand out to check he was real, not just an illusion, that the real Angel wasn’t burning to ashes as she sat here.
“The other me, in my dream, he said there were reasons for my coming here that he couldn’t tell me,” Angel said, still gazing up at the sun. “Do you think this is it?” He patted down his chest, as if searching for flames.
Buffy leaned over and laid a hand over his heart, pulling it back immediately when she felt the telltale thump of a heartbeat. Their eyes met, Buffy’s were brimming over with tears and she was sure Angel would be right behind her.
“What’s going on?” Wade asked in confusion. “I thought vampires were killed by sunlight. That’s why no one went out at night on the last world, right?”
Dawn knelt next to them and placed her own hand over Angel’s heart. She frowned at what she felt. “I didn’t think this was possible.”
“You’re human,” Buffy choked out and threw herself into his arms.
He held her close, his chin resting on top of her head and she cried into his chest. If this was for real, if Angel was really human, then they wouldn’t have anything to worry about. They could be together – really, finally together – without concern for his soul.
Buffy looked up at the sound of that familiar voice and she almost burst into a fresh set of tears as she stood and flung herself at the approaching figure. “Xander,” she cried.
He picked her up and swung her around. “You’re home, Buff,” he said into her hair. A moment later Dawn hit the pair of them and they stood there in that three way hug exalting in each other’s presence.
“I take it you’re Xander,” Quinn said holding his hand out to the one-eyed man who had to juggle the two girls still clinging onto him before he could reciprocate.
“Whoa,” said Xander, eyeing Angel suspiciously. “Dead boy. I thought you were... dead.”
“He’s from the parallel world we were on,” Dawn explained.
“Must be some freaky deaky place,” Xander noted, glancing from Angel to the cloudless sky above.
“That’s a new development,” Buffy said, wiping the tears from her cheeks.
“Yeah, well let’s get you all inside.”
“I thought we were supposed to appear wherever Willow was,” Dawn said.
“You weren’t far off, she’s in that building over there,” Xander said pointing. “When Faith jumped into the portal she lost her hold on it a bit, but she kept it rooted to this universe. I ran out here to be the welcoming committee.”
“Do you have any idea how awful it was being on a world where you had died?” Buffy asked, nudging him with one elbow.
Xander shuddered. “How did you cope?”
They entered the building, a block of flats and stepped into a lift. They got out on the top floor, a beautiful penthouse apartment overlooking the whole city.
“We’re in San Francisco!” Wade exclaimed.
“The first time since Logan SinClaire messed with the timer,” Rembrandt said enthusiastically.
“This is where we started,” Arturo explained. “Well over two years ago now. Ah, Mr Giles, we meet again.”
“Oh, I’m afraid I haven’t had the pleasure,” Giles said standing to greet the newcomers but before he had taken two steps he was hit by hurricane Summers.
“Hey, I’m sorry you all got stranded outside, everyone OK?” Willow asked brightly.
“Angel had a bit of a fright,” Dawn shrugged. “But he’s come down with a case of human so he’s alright.”
“What?” Willow demanded, studying Angel. “Oh my God, Buffy, the Sanshu Prophecy.”
“Ah, yes, the one that states that the vampire with a soul – a champion – would achieve humanity once the apocalypse was over,” Giles agreed. “I have to admit the circumstances do fit. That particular apocalypse was dealt with by our Angel and his team in LA a few weeks ago and this Angel is a vampire with a soul.”
“And a champion on his home world,” Dawn put in.
“But Angel signed that away,” Buffy protested.
“The Angel born on this world did,” Willow said. “Not this Angel.”
“So this is for real?” Buffy said in disbelief. “Really real?”
“I think so,” Giles said. “I’ll check my books, just to be absolutely certain.”
“This is some place,” Rembrandt said approvingly. “I guess the demon hunting biz really brings in the cash.”
Buffy snorted. “About the only good thing the Watcher’s Council ever did. They knew that something could happen to them so they left provisions for the current Slayer should they all die. If that were to happen she would inherit everything until such time as a new group could be formed. When the Council here was destroyed, I got it all and we formed our own group.” She started as a sudden beep filled the air.
“Here we go,” Quinn called, pulling the timer out.
“Already?” Buffy exclaimed as the portal opened, causing loose papers to flit across the room.
“Willow, is there anything you can do?” Wade asked desperately.
“Dawn,” Willow called and the two approached the swirling vortex, Dawn allowing droplets of blood from the open wound on her hand to hit it.
After a few moments of chanting Willow cried out, “It’s the best I can do. Good luck.”
“Here goes nothing,” Rembrandt said hopefully, running full tilt at the vortex.
“Farewell my dears,” Arturo said bowing his head in Buffy’s direction.
“Bye,” Wade yelled as the two somersaulted into the green.
“Buffy, I... thanks,” Quinn said sincerely. “You’ve really opened my eyes.”
“Think nothing of it,” Buffy called. “Now go, before you’re stuck here forever.”
He looked at her for one moment as if he were considering it, but then one glance at Angel and he shook his head sadly. “I’ll miss you.” He kissed her cheek gently and then he was gone.
“Do you think we’ll ever see them again?” Dawn asked once the portal had closed.
“When we were on the other world I put a marker of your blood with a spell on their timer,” Willow said smugly. “I left a similar marker for Faith to find. As your blood is unique to all the parallel worlds I’ll be able to find them again.”
Buffy smiled, looking up at Angel. It was hard to believe that so much had happened in eight days.
The sliders landed in the middle of a quiet street, picking themselves up from yet another rough slide.
“Four minutes,” Quinn said, looking around.
“Is this it? Are we home?” Wade asked.
“There’s not enough time,” Rembrandt fretted.
“Wait,” Quinn said, his eyes catching a familiar sight. “I know this street.” He took off running, leaving his companions to follow.
They stopped outside a house they all recognised.
“This is your house,” Arturo noted.
“Yeah.” Quinn darted to the gate. “This gate,” he began.
“We know, squeaking since you were a kid, back of your hand, just hurry up, we’re running out of time,” Wade said.
Quinn took a deep breath and grasped the gate. With a final set to his shoulders he wrenched it open. The gate squeaked.
“Is that it?” Rembrandt asked.
“I, yes, it is,” Quinn said, stunned.
“You’ve been wrong before,” Arturo pointed out.
The front door opened and a large woman stepped out. “Can I help you?” she called.
Quinn stared at her in confusion. That wasn’t his mother.
“Do you live here Madam?” Arturo asked politely.
“Yes, I do,” the woman answered. “For ten years now.”
“Oh,” Wade’s face fell. “Wrong place then.”
“Sorry to have bothered you Madam,” Arturo said with a half bow and the four of them walked away. As soon as they rounded a corner Quinn held out the timer and the familiar vortex appeared. He watched his friends disappear feeling more melancholy than he had expected. They had been so close and for one shining moment he had thought they were home.
“Maybe the next slide,” he muttered and jumped.