Sacrifice Par Amarth: Chapter 21
See Chapter 1 for disclaimers and ratings.O o O o O o O
As she and her companions moved through the deserted streets of Sunnydale, Buffy couldn't help but wonder what was so special about this night. In however many minutes, she was going to break down the doorways between all dimensions and temporarily release all Hell on Earth in order to send two hell gods back to their own hell dimension... but aside from that, what made this night so special? She wasn't exactly sure of the date - February, from what she had been able to figure out earlier. Friday, or so she thought. But aside from that - what made this the special night that called for her sacrifice? From the nearly full moon that was shining down upon her, Buffy was pretty sure that there wasn't an eclipse planned for the night - not to mention that she was fairly certain that it wasn't some sort of equinox or other such astrological or astronomical holiday. So what made this Friday different from any other?
Thanks to the monks, she was just as much the Key as she was the Slayer or Buffy, and she certainly didn't feel
any special key-like tingling telling her that this night was the night to play the apocalypse game. Hadn't she promised Harry at least a few more months without apocalyptic action back before this mess began? If it was only February, she was way off her usual destructive cycle as the scheduled apocalypse wasn't due for at least another few months. The destructive tides had always come before in the spring - not late winter...
Then again, maybe that was simply her entire lack of a death wish talking - not that the Hell Gods had been even remotely interested in any of her very valid arguments when she presented her reasoning to the duo earlier that evening.
"So... where we going?" Buffy asked as she quickened her pace to slip in between the ethereally beautiful and viciously evil creatures that she had aligned herself with, all the while trying her best not to step on Serantine's blood-red dress or the edges of Dahmascus' black robes.
"Somewhere," came Serantine's altogether dismissive and suitably vague response as she pointedly closed rank and forced Buffy to fall back into step with the French watcher.
Buffy rolled her eyes dramatically as she muttered something extremely impolite involving aforementioned Hell Goddess and what she could do with her thumb while spinning, all the while impressing herself with her inventive creativity. Then again, she did have two weeks of forced isolation to come up with such a response. Captivity which, as she was quickly coming to realize, had left her more than a little crazy. And while she should have had experience with the post-captivity craziness, what with being a prisoner of the Centre for five months, her time spent as a zombie-killing machine after that debacle seemed to have acted as a strange sort of buffer between that craziness and her usual cheerful self - not that she had exactly been the picture of cheer post-Centre.
Distracted from her increasingly random thoughts by the strange looks of a miscellaneous pedestrian, Buffy followed the young woman's gaze down to her blood-stained and tattered cargo pants. Grimacing, she inspected the ruined article of clothing before pointedly lifting her head and sticking her tongue out at the stranger. At least Bertrone had been kind enough to return her red sweater to her, for the large turtleneck easily covered up the remainders of her fading bruises and hid her soiled tank - although, a shower would have been nice. After spending a few weeks either lying in a pool of her own blood or on the same smelly cot, she probably smelled more than a little rank. She certainly knew that she was feeling it after it had taken her at least
twenty minutes to work her fingers through her lank and knotted hair before finally abandoning the endeavor, hastily pulling it back in a messy twist that was held in place by a grimy nail that she had pried out of the wall behind her.
Oh yeah - she was the absolute picture of hotness on this oh-so-special night.
"Will you please stop fidgeting?" Bertrone murmured as they waited for an incredibly long crossing light to turn to the little green walking dude - something that almost caused Buffy to laugh out loud. After all, as a slayer, a watcher-trained wizard, and two ferocious Hell Gods, they were probably the most dangerous group to be walking the streets this night... and yet they were waiting for the light at the crosswalk to change?
"Sorry," Buffy murmured, feeling anything but as the light changed and she obediently followed the Hell Gods across the empty street. Actually, if she had to put a word to the current state of her emotions, she would have to go with a strange, gut-twisting mix of anxious, nervous, and a helluvah lot of regret that left an acidy taste in her mouth. Not that she had ever tasted acid before.
Anxious about what she was about to do - if she could even figure out how to pull it off.
Nervous about what it would feel like: would there be pain? What happened next? Would she... would she see her mom?
Regret for so many things that she would now never have a chance to do, for all of the things that she had never been able to tell her friends, and for... well, pretty much everything. Then again, tied in with that regret was even more resolve, for no matter how close the time came to when the shit truly hit the fan, the fact remained that her decision had been made and that she would not
lose anyone else - no matter the personal cost. In the past nineteen years, she had already lost far too many people.
"We are here," Dahmascus stated, his voice low as he led the way towards an old, mangled fence.
"Well, now ain't this random," Buffy quipped as she took in the nondescript commercial district that they had stumbled into, rusted construction equipment towering above the fence from what was obviously some sort of work site. If she had been patrolling on a regular night, she never would have pegged the place as some sort of sacred spot where the world was about to end... sort of. Frowning, she followed the Hell God around the fence and into an open area - that was filled with so many familiar and surprising faces that Buffy nearly ran into Dahmascus' back as her mind belatedly relayed the 'stop' command to her legs. Eyes growing wide, Buffy's gaze swept over the line of all of those that she had so fiercely been missing and fretting over - and then some, all scattered in the oddest clumps.
Harry, Willow, Xander, Tara, and Giles.
Gunn and Wesley.
Sirius and Remus.
Bill, Charlie, and Arthur Weasley.
Professors McGonagall, Dumbledore, and even Snape.
And... some weird guy that was wearing chain mail.
And all were staring at her and her companions with guarded expressions that varied down the line from outright terror to determination to love to fear.
"What are you guys doing here?" Buffy asked, trying and failing to somehow put her scattered and mixed emotions in order. She was a walking contradiction, and she knew it, for while her heart rejoiced at seeing everyone that she loved, gathered in one big group before her - her mind was busy quailing at the risk that they were taking by being there. And it was a contradiction that she was openly wearing as her voice was filled with dismay even as she was currently wearing the most stupid of grins. So many of those that she had been missing were now standing before her, and yet so many were still missing, she realized as her smile slipped into a small frown.
Angel and Cordelia.
Ron and Hermione.
Jarod and Miss Parker.
It was obvious that her friends and family had somehow banded together, despite the blows that the Hell Gods had delivered upon them. And yet... where were those that were missing?
And who was the guy in the chain mail with the funky tattoo on his forehead?
"You will not have her," Giles stated, his clear voice breaking through her scattered thoughts as he took a step forward, his eyes straying from his careful inspection of his bedraggled and blood-stained slayer to glare at the two Hell Gods and the traitor that had the gall to stand before them, his eyes cold and impassive. "You will not have her and nor will you use her to destroy our world," he continued, his voice as stiff as stone as his allies straightened behind him at his words, attempting to look as intimidating as possible - and failing fairly miserably all along the board.
For a brief moment, Buffy didn't know whether to laugh, smile, or cry at her watcher's words and at the love that shown brightly in his fierce gaze - the love that was reflected in the eyes of those that gathered beside her watcher.... excluding Snape and the guy with the tattoo, of course. Then again, the day that Snape looked at her with anything other than barely restrained tolerance was the-
It took a small nudge from Bertrone for Buffy's scattered thoughts to once more become focused - and once they did, she realized that the French watcher had acted just in time as she felt Dahmascus tense beside her. Frowning, Buffy quickly glared at the Hell God, and at the Hell Goddess that stood beside him for good measure, before pointedly stepping forward until she was standing almost protectively before them... although whether she was protecting the hell spawn from her friends, or her friends from the hell spawn, even she wasn't quite sure.
"They won't," Buffy countered, finally breaking the silence that was so thick that she was pretty sure she could have been able to cut it with a knife... or perhaps a really big sword. "Well, more like they can't - use me to end the world, that is," she amended, a slight frown pulling at her lips as she focused on her watcher with a single-mindedness that allowed her to pretend that they were alone in the vast construction site. In a way, that made it easier to say what needed to be said, for now she no longer had to face Xander and Willow - her special Scooby gang, or any of the wizards from Harry's world or those from LA.... or Harry himself. Instead, it was just her and her watcher, the student and the teacher together again as she tried to find the words that would explain to him in just a few minutes, that which had taken her over two weeks to understand herself. "You see, it turns out that they can't stick me in their big cosmic lock and give me a turn. I'm like the little key that can," she ventured as she shrugged slightly. "Only I can make me work," she added as she idly wondered if it was really the two weeks of alone time that was causing the inane comments, or rather the idea that she was about to commit suicide that was finally doing her in.
For a moment more, Giles merely stared at her in confusion as he visibly attempted to translate her jumbled words into some semblance of normal English - and quickly gave up as he realized that Buffy's colorful speech was even more... colorful, than usual.
Sighing, Buffy curtly shook her head. "They can't make me do anything," she clarified as Giles' expression shifted into that which was rapidly approaching a sort of overjoyed awe. "And believe me when I say that they tried," the slayer added with a small, perfunctory glare at the two hell gods.
"Th-they can't?" he stammered, his eyes growing wide as he instinctively reached for his glasses.
"Nope - apparently the force is with me and me alone," Buffy confirmed with a small nod as she threw a weak grin in Xander's direction – only to scowl as with that small glance, her little fantasy world finally shattered. For in that one moment, the enormous reality of what she was about to do finally hit home with a crash that was almost physically jarring. Instantly she sobered as the silly smile slipped from her lips, her eyes betraying a serious gravity that was far older than nineteen. She was going to die. She was going to willingly offer herself as a sacrifice to save the world... and she was going to die. She wasn't going to see the sun rise the following morning; she wasn't going to prepare witty dialogue to use against her captors that night; she was never again going to be free.
She'd never hang out with Willow or Xander again; she'd never get lectured by Giles; she'd never get to kiss Harry... she, Buffy Anne Summers, was going to die. "Which means that I have to be the one to make it happen," Buffy continued, her words as flat as her eyes as her blinders finally fell off and the rest of the world came rushing back.
The sound of chirping crickets as they muffled the dismayed murmurs of her friends and allies.
The cool, winter wind that lifted her lank, greasy, blood-matted hair and carried the salty scent of the ocean to her nostrils.
The hard-packed earth that pressed against the soles of her boots as her fingers clenched into painful fists at her sides... and through it all, Giles' heavy gaze never left her.
"But you... you're not going to... to-"
"I am," Buffy countered evenly as her eyes slid past Giles until they swept down the line of those that she faced. There was pain on the faces of her friends; pain, betrayal, disbelief, horror, and so much sadness and suffering. None of them wanted this and no one understood... but how could they? They hadn't been told the truth. They didn't know what her sacrifice would mean for the world. "It's the only way to send them back to where they belong."
"Buffy, you can't," Giles quickly stated, his eyes flashing at his slayer as his shoulders began to shake. "You will be condemning the people of this world to a fate worse than death! The world will end and-"
"No, it won't," Buffy interrupted as she smiled at the man that she had always loved as a father. "Do you really think that the Gods would be all hot and bothered over the Key if they couldn't turn it off when finished with it? If using me lowered the barriers forever, their world would become just as ruined as ours. The barriers will come back up when the little key that is... isn't," she explained as she shrugged helplessly.
Frown deepening, Giles stared at his slayer in confusion. She looked so young as she faced off before them, her shoulders slumped and burdened by the weight that she carried. But more than that... she looked defeated and it was the defeat that he couldn't understand. "You can do that? You can... make it stop?" he returned, even as he glimpsed the truth that was hidden in Buffy's eyes - a truth that was mired within an eerily familiar gaping pool of resignation and despair. He had seen this same haunted expression in his young slayer's eyes only a few years back. He had seen that same expression on the day that his slayer had forced him to reveal the truth behind the prophecy that foretold her death at the hands of the Master. And in that moment, he understood far more than he wanted to. They all did.
"You can't make it stop, can you, Buff?" Xander asked as he stepped beside the watcher, his brown eyes beginning to simmer with a strange mix of anger and... well, it was pretty much all anger that was rolling off of her best friend's broad shoulders.
"No," Buffy admitted, a small frown twisting her lips.
"Buffy, there has to be a better way," Willow implored as she slipped her hand into Tara's comforting grip, all the while trying her best to ignore the glares that Dahmascus and Serantine were sending in her direction - glares that were promising imminent violence if she didn't stay quiet.
"Yeah, well I'm open to suggestions," Buffy replied, her tone sharper than she had intended as she crossed her arms across her chest. And yet the response that she received was certainly not
the response that she had anticipated.O o O o O o O
Heart clenching painfully within his chest, Harry watched the heated exchange between Buffy and her watcher through shuttered eyes. It had been two weeks since he had last seen Buffy and in those two weeks, he had dreamed about their reunion almost every minute of every day. Yet in all of his boyish fantasies, he had never quite imagined Buffy looking so... wretched. For while the sight of her made his body ache with the need to hold her in his arms, the sight of her also caused him to burn with anger as the evidence of her forced captivity with the Hell Gods was openly displayed by how loosely her clothing now settled on her gaunt frame, by the sickly pallor of her waxy skin, by the lank and dirty hair that hung in loose, limp strands around her pointed face, by the blood stains that colored her cargos a deep, stiff burgundy color - and by the dark shadows that lined her emerald eyes. She looked positively wretched - and yet at the same time, she was the most beautiful sight that he had ever seen.
Forcing his eyes away from her battered appearance, Harry's gaze slid over to his wizened headmaster and his godfather, both of whom were watching him with barely concealed expressions of concern. Tipping his head towards Giles and the conversation that had captivated the Hell Gods' attention, he nodded briefly in an open request for time. All he needed was the time and the chance to see his plan through. And if he didn't... if he didn't, then Sirius and Professor Dumbledore knew that it would fall to them and the other wizards and muggles that had willingly joined them in a last ditch effort to prevent the Hell Gods from using Buffy... or from Buffy using herself, if he overheard correctly.
Harry forced his eyes away from their quiet support and instead nodded quickly to Willow and Tara before closing his eyes and beginning the process of blocking the rest of the world out. Slowly, step by step and sense by sense, he cut himself off from the world as he first closed his eyes against vision, and then stifled his nose against scent, and then cut his mouth from taste, and then freed his mind from the earth beneath him - and finally blocked out the sound that filled his world around him. Locked, then, in a dark, quiet void that he had created, he slowly allowed the one sense that was his and his alone to finally reign free - and was almost immediately bowled over by the magic that hummed in the very air that his lungs took in with each and every breath - a magic that was so very different and so much darker than that which he had been raised on at Hogwarts. He was now located on the mouth of Hell, a place where the magic was so concentrated, so dark, and so very powerful, and yet somehow... somehow it seemed to pale in comparison to that which emanated from the two gods that his senses were tentatively drawing towards.
Grimacing, his forehead wrinkling beneath his messy black hair, Harry slowly and painfully drew himself towards the two swirling vortexes that lay at the core of Dahmascus and Serantine. There was so much power there - so much power that was distributed amongst the hundreds of thousands of pieces that made up each whole - pieces that he somehow wanted to free from their prison and allow them to return to where they were needed. Cautiously he extended invisible fingers and attempted to pick at the outer layers that made up the Hell Gods - and nearly yelped as he felt himself blown back by the many different lights that seemed to be restrained within the two beings. Eyes flying open, breath ragged in his chest, Harry trembled from his position between Willow and his godfather as he lifted his chin and looked directly into the dark, angry eyes of Dahmascus and Serantine.
"Yeah, well I'm open to suggestions," Buffy muttered, her words carrying in the dark night and hanging there for the slightest of moments - until all hell broke loose as Dahmascus and Serantine started forward, their eyes locked on Harry.
Seeing this, Giles quickly fell back into line as he and the others lifted their wands and their weapons. "Now!" Dumbledore called out, his voice strong and carrying over the cold February wind that whipped at their cloaks.
"Bring down the slayer before she begins the ritual!" Gregor bellowed as he lifted his sword to parry the stunning blow of Serantine, the gleaming blade cutting through flesh and striking bone - only to have her toss him aside like a random piece of baggage.
Stunned, Harry fell back a few steps as his friends and family moved in between him and the Gods that were trying to kill him with a relish that they hadn't shown in days, even as Buffy tried to come in between them all.
"You call this a better idea?" he heard her shout above the melee as she pushed Xander out of the way of Serantine's path, only to yelp as Bill's stunning spell sizzled by her ear. "Hey, watch that!" she cried as Bertrone, of all people, hastily erected a shield that sheltered them both from the magical and physical onslaught - and which left no more barriers between the Gods and Harry and the others.
"Get him!" Dahmascus roared as he bodily lifted Gunn and sent him crashing into Professor McGonagall as though neither were of concern. And in reality, neither were, for apparently Harry hadn't been as stealthy in his initial contact with the Hell Gods as he had hoped and what little he had done had been enough to spook the two Hell Gods. And a spooked Hell God, as he and the others were coming to see, was not a good thing.
Hurriedly closing his eyes once more, Harry attempted to block out the sounds of the battle that was being waged around him, even as he forgot his earlier hesitation and pressed against the barriers that continued to hold him at bay. He had always needed Buffy's permission before he could access the source of her powers, and as perspiration began to dot his forehead, he quickly realized that this case would be no different - and that was a permission that would never be granted by the two. Which meant that he had to override that barrier.
Gritting his teeth, Harry pulled at the magic that made up his own source of wizarding magic - magic that he had inherited from his parents' powerful union in addition to the magic that he had been imbued with on the night that Voldemort had left him with a lightning-shaped scar - magic that made him one of the most powerful wizards, if not the
most powerful wizard of their time.... and magic that was woefully inadequate to get the job done, just as he had suspected it would.
Nearly panting with exertion now, Harry resolutely turned away from his failures and instead fell upon the next step. With a grimace of distaste, he slowly lowered his invisible fingers into the murk that made up the Hellmouth's dark magic that hummed around his lean form - and then he drew upon it, just as Willow and Tara had instructed. Tensing at the flood of darkness as it seared through his veins, Harry felt his very breath tear from his aching lungs as he directed that power towards the Hell Gods in a rush that burned unlike anything he had ever before experienced. His body humming now with magic, both dark and light, Harry felt all of his senses scream at him in an agony that seemed to swell and build until it eclipsed even the memory of pain from the night that he had defeated Voldemort. And as his legs collapsed beneath him and as he tumbled to his knees, a strangled cry of triumph was torn from his lips as Harry felt the barriers crumble beneath the terrible onslaught as two other screams joined in his, as Dahmascus and Serantine felt their very insides begin to be torn apart.
"Harry? Harry!" Buffy cried out, her frantic voice lost beneath the tortured screams of her boyfriend and the two Hell Gods that had been busy cutting a path through her friends. She didn't understand this. She didn't understand any of it. One moment she had been preparing for her sacrifice and the next her friends
had begun attacking Dahmascus and Serantine, Bertrone, and most importantly - they had begun to attack her
. All too quickly the minutes had become lost beneath a frustrating battle against whatever protected her from the fight, even as she had been forced to watch the Hellish Duo begin to pick their way through her friends' defense in an obvious effort to reach Harry... and then they had all begun to scream.
"Let... me... go!" Buffy screamed as she beat her fists against the barrier, tears trailing unnoticed down her cheeks as she struggled against the magical hold - only to stumble forward as Bertrone finally relented, his gray eyes wide and wonderingly locked on the sight of the two Hell Gods on their knees and in untold agony. Agony that was mirrored within Harry.
Within seconds Buffy had crossed the small area that separated her from the dark-haired wizard as she tumbled to her knees in the hard dirt before him, Sirius quickly settling beside her. "Harry?" she cried as she reached a hand out to touch him - only to have it pushed away as Willow and Tara appeared at her side.
"It's okay," Willow assured as she tore at her lip to the point of breaking the skin. "He-he knows what he's doing," she stated, desperately hoping that she was speaking the truth as her worried eyes turned back to the boy who was becoming more pale with each passing second. "Oh, please know what you're doing!" she added, her plea a soft whisper as Tara quickly took her hand, her lover's face pale and stricken.
And Harry did know what he was doing. At least... he did know what he was doing until he began to lose control. Something inside of him was cracking and breaking, and whether that was his hold, his resolve, or perhaps even his mind, he wasn't quite certain. All he knew was that the darkness was burning him - tearing him, piece by piece. The darkness was consuming his light and eating him whole. It was... it was killing him. The dark magic was powerful to the point of intoxicating, unending and eternal, and with each passing second, Harry was quickly coming to the conclusion that he wasn't any of these things, and because of that, his light was dying. He was dying. He was-
Light. There was magic beside him and it was so familiar, so powerful, and it was so blindingly light in comparison to the darkness that was overtaking him. And like a drowning man would grasp onto a piece of driftwood with a hold that was like steel, he found himself reaching out and grasping at the source of the light - grasping and easily breaking through the barrier that protected it as he pulled on that strength with everything that he had. And then the light was rushing into his veins as Buffy's scream rent the night air, a familiar source of magic that wasn't dark and polluted like the magic that was coursing through his body - twisting it - breaking it. No, this magic was beautiful and pure and wonderful and... and without even consciously realizing what he was doing, Harry found himself greedily taking it all in a vain attempt to somehow balance the darkness with the light. Yet it didn't end there.
All too soon that source of light was exhausted and his body eagerly sought out the next closest source, adding Sirius' tortured cry to that of the others. But even Sirius wasn't enough, and quickly the horrible chorus included the agonized cries of Giles, Remus, Charlie, Bill, Arthur, Bertrone, McGonagall, Snape, and even Dumbledore as Harry unwittingly drained one pure magical source and then sought out another, desperate to somehow balance the dark with the light in an attempt to somehow salvage his own tenuous hold on life. And with each new cry of agony, the Hell Gods' evident distress increased until their pain was paramount with a blinding light that began to build until the point in which those remaining had to protect their eyes from the light. A light that absorbed everything, even sound, until it exploded in a magical outlash that sent everyone flying.
And then there was silence.O o O o O o O
Sighing tiredly, Hermione forced her puffy eyes to move over the small words of the text that she had cradled in her lap, one hand absently following the lines that she read as the other traced small, soothing circles over the sheet that covered Ron's sleeping form. Hearing a quiet flow of soft, murmured words, she lifted her head briefly to watch as Jarod, who was cradled in a matching chair, his hands tightly clasping Miss Parker's in his own, assured his lover of the love that would forever rest between them.
Smiling sadly, Hermione tore her eyes away and allowed the couple that small bit of privacy as she returned to her book - only for it to fall unnoticed to the ground before her as Ron's back suddenly, violently arched in the bed before her, the machines at his, Miss Parker's and Celeste's beds suddenly going crazy. "What's going on?" she demanded, her eyes quickly lifting to see that Miss Parker and Celeste were held in the same terrifying grip that seemed to pin Ron's shoulders deep into the mattress as his navel strove for the ceiling.
"I don't know!" Jarod returned, his loud voice booming over the sound of the beeping machinery. "They just-" he broke off, as in unison the three bodies crashed onto the beds as though three sets of invisible strings had been cut.
"Ron!" Hermione cried, her voice cracking as she instinctively reached for his large hand and cradled it against her chest - and then froze as her boyfriend's head of matted red hair turned until his bleary, hazel eyes were blinking in her direction.
For a moment, he stared at her in confusion, his mouth opening and closing before one word fell from his parched lips. "'Mione?"
Stunned, Hermione could only stare at her boyfriend in growing wonder, barely daring to hope that this time it could be real as she tentatively lifted his hand to her lips as she pressed a soft kiss against his skin. "Is it... is it really you?" she murmured, the tears already pooling and pouring down her puffy skin.
"I... I was so lost," Ron murmured in return, his words sounding dry in a throat that had seen little use in the past few days. Yet in his eyes Hermione saw the only truth that she needed to see, for in his eyes, she didn't see a lost and helpless soul. Instead, once more Hermione could find Ron Weasley in those hazel eyes. The boy that had saved her life from a troll when she was but a first year, the one that had later filled the void in her empty life, and later still.. the one that had managed to fill the void in her empty heart.
And as the sobs broke from her lips as she collapsed upon Ron's chest, his large hands tangling themselves in her hair as he held her close; and as Jarod cupped Miss Parker's cheeks in his hands, his lips desperately seeking hers as she clung to the soft material of his shirt; only Celeste was left alone in her bed as her shaken blue eyes stared at the others in blatant confusion. She, too, had been lost for so long - far, far longer than the others. It was almost as though she had watched her life since that fateful day from the back row of a large theatre, never able to take part. It was all a massed confusion, and yet through it all, only one thought and one person occupied her thoughts. "B'one?"O o O o O o O
Buffy felt the pain course through her body in waves that she remembered only too well. She felt weak, sick and tired... so very tired. In fact, the only thing that she could possibly want to do at this moment was sleep for at least the next twenty years. And maybe then some. She remembered this weakness and this pain, and she remembered the grueling work to get back to feeling like herself. And she remembered the sleep and the comfort that it brought... All she wanted was to sleep, yet the small hand that continuously brushed against her cheek was refusing her that small comfort.
Groggily, Buffy slowly blinked open her red-rimmed eyes to see the face of a stranger. Frowning, she looked into the large brown eyes of a little girl, one so young that she couldn't have been more than five years old with brown hair and pale, delicate features that were off-set by the dark sky above her. Confused and intrigued despite herself, Buffy pushed back her body's demands and slowly, painfully pushed herself up until she was looking at the small girl that was kneeling beside her, swathed in a familiar, blood-red dress that was so large that the long lengths of material were pooled around the girl's slight frame.
Not quite trusting herself to speak, Buffy turned away from the child and cast her gaze about the unfamiliar landscape that was dotted with the forms of many people - all unmoving save for the small boy, obviously the girl's twin, that was kneeling beside a figure that was sprawled a short distance from her. A very familiar figure, one with short, unruly black hair, black, wire-rimmed glasses that were skewed on his handsome features, and a lightning-shaped scar that marred his smooth forehead.
"Harry?" Buffy murmured, trying to put her thoughts in order, and then freezing as her memories of the night's events came rushing back. Confusion mounting, she quickly turned back to the little girl. "Who are you?" she asked, her eyes scouring the child before turning towards the crunching, staggering steps of Willow, Tara, Xander, Gunn, Wesley, and the stranger in the chain mail - all of whom looked decidedly worse for wear as they sported a number of bruises, scrapes, bumps, cuts - and what looked to be a nasty broken arm on Gunn.
"It's them!" Willow whispered, having overheard Buffy's question as she and the others froze some distance away from the two children.
"Them who?" Buffy returned, frowning as she weakly shifted - briefly contemplating an attempt to make her way towards Harry before deciding that it wasn't worth the effort. Or rather, that she just didn't seem to have the strength to make it that far, let alone any
"These must be the two kids that Serantine and Dahmascus merged with when they came here," Willow explained as she eyed the twins carefully. "Giles told us about them. And their aging must have slowed dramatically-"
"Yeah, I'd call that dramatic," Xander cut in as he frowned at the kids. "They're almost five hundred years old."
Growing more, rather than less confused by Willow's explanation, Buffy turned back to the little girl. "You... you have them... inside you?" she asked, trying to wrap her mind around the concept. While she certainly had
been there for the conversation months ago when Hermione told them that the gods had originally inhabited the bodies of mortals... well, she really hadn't thought that those mortals were still inside of them. Or that they were so little.
Nodding solemnly, the little girl lifted her hand from Buffy's dirt-stained cheek and pressed it against her heart, as though signifying the place in which she held the Hell Goddess. Or Hell God. Really, Buffy supposed that the little girl could have been either.
"Harry did it," Willow murmured, once more breaking Buffy from her rather muddled thoughts as she stared at the twins with open excitement. "He took back what the gods had taken!" she added as she noticed Buffy's mounting confusion, her eyes darting to where Harry lay sprawled on the ground, the little boy kneeling beside his head. "He was able to weaken them enough that Dahmascus and Serantine had to withdraw into their mortal prison!"
"Right," Buffy murmured, her frown deepening as she glanced between her boyfriend's limp body and that of the two children. What she really wanted was to check on Harry to make sure that he was even still breathing, or even the bodies of the others that littered the strange lot they were in - yet once more, her confusion, weakness, and all over poopy feeling made her ask another question instead of heeding her heart's ardent request. "So... it's permanent?"
"Uhm... no," Willow admitted quietly, her joyous expression faltering. "In time they'll grow strong enough to come back."
Numb, Buffy slowly shook her head as she tried to understand Willow's words. Come back? But Harry had just used all of his stuff to get rid of them. He had just used all of everyone's
stuff to get rid of them. How could they come back? And when
would they come back? Shaking her head, this time more viciously until she felt as though it was going to fall from her wobbly neck, Buffy looked at the little girl in horrified understanding - an understanding that seemed to be shared by the small, innocent child as the little girl slowly nodded her head, her little brown eyes wet with unshed tears.
"There is... there is one way," Wesley added, his voice faltering as he turned away from the small children to look at his former slayer with sad eyes, "to ensure that they will never again be able to come back and harm our world."
"One way?" Buffy returned, her mind struggling to keep up with the conversation. If only she wasn't so tired! So very tired! Everything hurt from the tips of her hair to the toenails on her feet. All of it hurt and she wanted nothing more than to lay back and let it all just go away. But it seemed that no one was willing to grant her this small mercy. Instead, it seemed as though they wanted something from her. After all, she was the Slayer. She was the Key. She was Buffy Summers, she who had died once already for her freaking destiny, who was prepared to make the ultimate Sacrifice for everyone, and apparently they wanted something else. Another way to keep them... and suddenly Buffy understood what it was that Wesley was asking of her. What they were all asking of her. Not because they were mean and being unfair, but because it was her duty. It was her legacy. It was her destiny.
"No," Buffy returned, her voice flat as she slowly shook her head. "You can't ask me to do that. You can't ask me to kill them!" she continued, her voice growing heated. "There has to be another way!"
"There isn't," Wesley countered, his eyes mirroring the pain that swelled within Buffy as she understood the extent of Harry's plan - a plan that she doubted even Harry himself had truly seen the end of. "There isn't-"
"There is," the little girl countered, speaking for the first time in a voice that had never before been used, save to squall for milk when she was but a tiny child, nursing on her mother's breast. Yet while the voice that spoke was obviously that of the apparent five-year old child that knelt beside the slayer, the eyes that held her own were eyes that were far older, far wiser, far more mature and too tortured from centuries of imprisonment. They were not the eyes of a five year old. "Send us home."
Visibly blanching, Buffy quickly shook her head, once more feeling as though one more fierce movement like that was sure to send it rolling off her neck and onto the ground beside her. "I can't do that," she murmured, hoping that she had somehow heard wrong. "I'd-"
"Send us home," the girl's twin interrupted, causing Buffy to turn to stare at the brown-haired child in confusion - and in horror at the jagged piece of glass that he was pressing tightly against Harry's jugular. "Send us home or he dies."
"What are you doing?" Buffy demanded, her mind frantically trying to comprehend how the little boy could be threatening Harry's life just after he had saved it. He had set them free
from their imprisonment! "You can't... you're just a little kid!" she spluttered as the man in the chain mail stepped forward.
"No they're not," Gregor countered as he eyed the two children with narrowed eyes. "These are my great ancestors."
"Well la-de-freaking-dah!" Buffy spat as she glared at the offending stranger. "And who in the hell are you?"
"That's, uh... that's General Gregor," Willow stammered, her face pale and her eyes never straying from the glass that was even now cutting into the soft flesh of Harry's neck, a stream of red trailing from the wound. "He's our local representative from the Knights of Byzantium."
"The Knights of What?" Buffy demanded, frantically trying to follow the conversation and desperately ignoring the fact that Harry didn't even seem to realize that someone was busy sawing into his neck.
"Buffy, think about it," Wesley patiently cut in as the slayer desperately focused on her former watcher. "The only thing that these two have ever known is the captivity into which they were born. They are not five years old. They are five hundred
years old," he explained, his eyes locked on the small children. "They have spent the past five centuries locked within Dahmascus and Serantine. It is the only thing that they have ever known."
Intellectually - or, at least as intellectually as she was capable of thinking at the moment - Buffy understood what Wesley was trying to say. She could read the truth behind his words in the tortured eyes of the little girl that sat beside her. Captivity within the Hell Goddess was the only thing that this little girl had ever known - had ever experienced. Thus, was it really any wonder that after five hundred years of such an experience, it was the only thing that she wanted back?
"Send us home or he dies," the little boy repeated, his glass shard cutting just a little bit deeper as Buffy frantically looked towards the child, only to recoil as the little girl continued to stroke her pale, tear-streaked face. And as she looked at Harry's still form, she knew what she had to do... what she had always known that she had to do. What she had been prepared to do.
"Buffy, you can't," Willow whispered, the tears streaking down her own pale, dirt-smudged face as she pleaded with her best friend. "You'll-"
"I know," Buffy murmured, her body growing numb as she desperately focused on her best friend. "But I can't... I can't just sit here and watch..." she mumbled, hardly aware of the fact that the little girl had drawn away to settle on Harry's other side, even as Willow tentatively stepped forward until she was kneeling before the small slayer. "Willow, I love him," Buffy admitted, her eyes straying to Harry's pale and unmoving form as the tears blurred her vision and as the pain became too much. "I love him," she repeated as she turned and collapsed into Willow's open arms, the sobs choking her petite frame as Xander joined their little circle, his strong arms encircling them both as the original Scoobies were reunited once more... for one last time.
She hadn't wanted this sacrifice. She knew that she hadn't wanted it from the beginning and for a moment, she thought that she had somehow avoided it and evaded its pinched grasp. But now... but now it was back again, and all because she was unable to take two innocent, human lives, and because she loved one Harry Potter far too much to let him go. Apparently, she really did love him so much that she would rather give her life for his, to make the ultimate sacrifice. The sacrifice that fate had deigned for their slayer.
Stilling her muffled sobs, Buffy slowly and resolutely pulled herself together. Harry didn't have time for this. None of them did. "Just... just tell Giles that I love him," she murmured as she forced a teary smile for Xander and Willow - and tried to ignore the fact that similar tears streaked the faces of her friends. "And... tell him I'm sorry," she murmured before faltering and turning to look back at the boy who would never forgive her for what she was going to do. "And... and tell... just tell Harry.... just tell him that..."
"We will," Willow assured with a watery smile, saving her friend from trying to find words that were incapable of doing justice to what she wanted to say. And while she didn't really think that there were even words in the English language to do it justice, Willow somehow knew that she and Xander would have to find a way. "We will," she promised as she hugged her best friend close.
"We love you, Buffy," Xander murmured as hugged his best friend once more. "We always have, and we always will," he added before forcing himself to release the small slayer and gently pull Willow away, even as everything inside of him screamed at him to never let go. Buffy was asking something of him and Willow that was beyond hard. That was beyond painful. She was asking them to give her up without a fight. After all that she had done for them and their world... she was asking them to let her go quietly from an existence that had always been filled with so much fighting, pain, death... and so much love. And perhaps the one thing that allowed Xander to do so, more than anything else, was the look in Buffy's eyes that told him that she wasn't ready to give up on life. She wasn't ready to accept what came next or to stop fighting for this world.
Buffy had a world of fight left in her, and no matter what life had handed to her, she had always found the strength to keep fighting - and all because of the love that she held for each and every one of them, as well as the love that they held for her. And it was because of this love that Buffy had no choice but to do this, because if they refused to let her and if in doing so Harry was killed... she would finally lose that spark of life. She would lose the will to keep fighting as it would be the final straw that would finally be one burden too many. It was a paradox, because by allowing her to continue, they were condemning a girl that wanted to live, but by forcing her to live, they would create a girl that wanted to die. And in the end... somehow it seemed more fitting and more kind
even to allow Buffy the final grace of going out from a world that she still loved.
She was going to die a hero.
She was going to die a Slayer.
Nodding once to give Xander her final thanks for so much more than could be put into simple words, Buffy closed her eyes and focused on what was inside of her - and nearly laughed aloud at the dismal answer. For, once more, at first glance there was nothing
inside of her as Harry had effectively drained her slayer core. Again. Yet when she took a closer look, what she found was something shiny, sizzling, and full of power.
She found her Key.
Slightly in awe of this strange energy inside of her, Buffy felt a small smile pull at her lips as she hesitantly toyed with the magicks that felt older than time itself. That all of this wonderful, pure energy could have somehow been buried, and almost hidden beneath her slayer stuff was mind-boggling, yet somehow it had. And somehow.. Buffy couldn't help but wonder if she would have been able to even access her innate Keyness if Harry hadn't of gotten all of the slayer stuff out of the way in the first place. That thought, more than anything else, began to strengthen her resolve and to convince her that she was doing the right thing. For such a thing to be true, perhaps her sacrifice really had been fated. Or perhaps it wasn't a sacrifice at all. Perhaps this was merely her destiny, just as being called as the Slayer, meeting Willow, Xander and Giles, defeating the Master, loving Angel, defeating the Judge and Angelus, the Mayor, her mother's death, the Centre and Voldemort... Harry. It was all a part of her history and her future. Her destiny.
Smiling softly, Buffy slowly began to twist her mind and her senses around the light that filled her body, unaware of the green energy that began to crackle around her skin and sizzle in the cool night air. Instantly everyone began to back away as Buffy's smile slipped, only to be replaced by a grimace of pain. But even the pain seemed to be a secondary thought as the energy consumed her every thought and action, slowly straightening her spine and lifting her small body until she was kneeling on the loose dirt. Then, as the energy pulled her muscles taut, Buffy felt everything click into place as her key was finally inserted into that one big cosmic lock as a scream was ripped from her throat... and as the barriers between dimensions began to crumble as the world was torn asunder.
With agonized shrieks, particles of energy flew from Buffy's body and pierced the very fabrics of reality, causing the ground to buckle and bright rents to appear in the sky. Monsters and creatures of nightmares, beautiful and ethereal creations of dreams poured from these fallen portals and into Earth's reality as everything began to become one. And in the chaos, two small children slipped through one doorway as quietly as they had come into this world while Buffy Summers - the Slayer, the Key - knew nothing more as the screams of a slayer once more rent the chaotic night.