She awakened suddenly from a restless slumber and sat up against the bed pillows, her blankets wrapped and knotted around her legs. Her chest rose and fell as she breathed heavily. The dream wasn’t so much a surprise as it was a vivid realization of things to come- a prophetic reminder of things she already knew. It was still dark out and the clock on the night stand revealed that it was only ten past three in the morning. She’d managed a few hours, a few hours dreaming about being awake. Great. Castiel sat in a chair near the edge of the bed, his eyes closed, and his body in stiff repose. He didn’t move, not even to breathe. Did angels need to breathe? Staring at him in the darkness, she finally caught a slight rustle, his chest rising and falling so minimally that it should have been invisible. Okay, so…angels did need to breathe.
Buffy swung her legs over the edge of the bed and moved to stand. Her muscles ached and her skin hurt. Though she hadn’t spent much time looking in a mirror lately, she was sure that the pain in her body was reflected on her flesh. There were bruises on her arms, her legs, and probably her face. It didn’t matter now. If her dreams were any indication of times to come (and they are), she wouldn’t have to worry about facing the healing process. The chips would fall and she’d bounce back up to Heaven, where time stood still. Mom was still alive. She was a cheerleader, happy, lots of friends, a promising school career. Now that she remembered it, it seemed like a fantasy dream come true. She looked back at Castiel, quietly seated, somewhere between conscious rest and unconscious sleep. Would he still be there? Could they start where they’d left off?
The hall was empty and silent in the midst of the night. Buffy padded quietly down to the bathroom and pushed open the door. She flicked on the light and stood in front of the large mirror, her green eyes fixed on the image reflecting back. Her face was cut and bruised, her lip bloody, one eye swollen, dried blood dripping from one ear. Attractive. If there was a slayer beauty contest, she’d win, hands down. The shower looked so inviting. There were towels on the back of the toilet and a vase full of lavender blooms on the sink. Even though it was early, far too early, Buffy climbed over the basin’s edge and turned on the water.
Ribbons of scalding water fell down over her shoulders and neck, dampening her hair, flushing out her wounds. She opened her hands under the spray and let the water rush out between her splayed fingers. It stung her open cuts, her broken and splintered body, but the feeling was a rush-a sudden realization of life. Sometimes she forgot that she was alive at all. Maybe she was just lingering in limbo, dancing between death and life, waiting for one or the other to take advantage of her confused situation. Whatever she’d learned under Caleb’s incredibly strong fist, it would help push her into something other than this. She wouldn’t have to wallow anymore. She wouldn’t have to straddle the line. The decision would be made for her. She’d live with it, or die with it. At this point, neither option seemed more appealing.
Squeezing a sponge in her hands, Buffy cascaded more water down her chest while the shower head massaged her shoulder blades. If she closed her eyes, she’d see the dreams again, the visions unique to a Slayer’s mind. They were no picnic. She kept her eyes open but cast down to the porcelain tub. Flecked nail polish looked dull on her toenails. Long ago, the red polish had been picked clean from her broken fingernails. Half-heartedly, she grabbed the shampoo off the edge of the tub and poured it into her hand. The relaxing atmosphere was already fading. Nothing lasted so long anymore.
Wrapping a towel around her frame, Buffy walked back to the end of the hall. She switched on the light automatically, filling the room with a fine yellow din.
“Buffy,” Castiel said gently from the chair.
“Ooh, sorry,” Buffy frowned, switching the light off again. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“You didn’t. I don’t sleep. How are you feeling?”
“Yeah, I hear you.” Buffy grimaced. “I’m…well, I’m fine. No big. I’ll heal.”
“It’s still quite early.” Castiel frowned, looking at the alarm clock.
“Yeah, but I couldn’t sleep. Freaky dreams. Besides, we have a battle to fight. We should be working on that. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
Buffy sat down on the edge of the bed in her towel. Her wet hair dripped down her back and soaked into the comforter.
“You said I learned something…with Caleb’s weird black eye thing.”
“That wasn’t Caleb that you saw. It was the demon, Aeshma. It was inside Caleb’s body.”
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers?”
Castiel stared blankly at her, confusion painted plainly on his face.
“It’s a movie. Come on, even I have time to watch stupid B movies with my friends. Okay, I used to have time. I don’t seem to have much time to do anything anymore.”
“Demons and angels must inhabit a body when they come to earth. Each demon or angel has a specific person or sometimes a few people they can inhabit. Most angels cannot be seen by humans. Demons can be seen, and you have seen some in their true form, but others… well, it is easier for them to move around unnoticed in their vessel.”
“So…you’re an angel,” Buffy frowned.
“Yes. This body that you see is a vessel. It is not what I truly look like.”
“In Heaven, you looked a lot like this. Younger, but pretty much the same.”
“I borrowed the features of my vessel in order to be seen by you.”
“So what do you really look like?”
“I cannot explain it to you in words that you would understand.”
“Right.” Buffy scowled. “So, Caleb’s a vessel.”
“No. I’m not angry. I’m just… well, you come off sounding like an ass.”
“Because…you’re acting all superior. My tiny human brain can’t understand your perfect angelic body or whatever so you have to look like Jo Bible Salesman in order to get me in a prom dress.”
“Buffy, I…” Castiel blinked, trying to back pedal.
“Save it. Tell me about Caleb and the Asthma demon.”
“Aeshma is not visible to you or anyone on this plane. I can see its true visage, should it decide to reveal itself. It has not yet. However, in order to physically attack you, Aeshma must inhabit its vessel. It binds itself to the soul of the vessel and can use the body like a puppet. The soul of the human can see what is happening but it cannot do anything about it.”
“So Aeshma is in Caleb’s body and using him to hand my ass to me on a silver plate.”
“Awesome. So how do we kill it?”
Wailing alarm clocks sounded around the house at six o’clock and the Scoobies gathered at the kitchen table, groggily preparing bowls of toasted oat bran and slightly off milk. Shipments of food hadn’t come into Sunnydale in about a week. It was as if the whole world knew that they were about to be wiped off the map. Why waste all those yummy fresh vegetables and tasty milk? Buffy lingered in the dining room, hovering near the kitchen table. Xander stared at an unpeeled banana while Willow looked glumly at a chunk of cheese in the middle of her cereal bowl. Dawn munched on fruit loops straight out of the box, and Giles lifted a cup of tea to his dry lips.
“I had a dream,” Buffy started tentatively.
“If you tell me we’re all going to hold hands and hug the demon, I’m going to throw this banana at you.” Xander scowled.
“Don’t worry. We’re going to kick its ass, Xander. It’s going to be tough, really tough. And the thing is… we’re not all going to live to talk about the next day.”
“So this is a suicide mission…” Willow gulped.
“Yes. I want to make it clear, crystal clear, that we’re going in packing and we probably won’t come back out again.”
“It’s the Slayer way,” Faith piped up as she slid into the dining room, a bag of potato chips in her hand.
“So, what’s the plan?”
Buffy raised a cup of coffee to her lips, took one long sip, and set the mug heavily down on the table. Castiel looked to her, a heavy book clasped in his hands. He set it on the table, opening it to a page covered with circles and magic symbols. Without speaking, he placed one finger on the left-hand page.
“This is the most powerful Devil’s Trap ever published. It will require a very powerful sorcerer to work it.”
“Will, that’s you,” Buffy grunted.
“Me? No way, Buffy, I’m…I don’t do that kind of thing anymore. The veins and the black hair and the whole scary vengeance thing?”
“We need you, Willow. Everyone has their strengths and this is yours. We need you to study this spell, draw the trap, and work it. Giles, you’re in with Willow. As soon as you trap Aeshma, you’ll exorcise it.”
“Exorcise it? Like Olivia Newton John’s ‘Let’s Get Physical’ or like Split Pea Soup Tubular Bells?”
“Last night, Caleb literally drop-kicked me into a wall. He almost killed me. He shouldn’t have that kind of power. Now we know why. Caleb is the demon’s vessel. The demon can use Caleb like a big walking, talking body suit.”
“Of course!” Giles chimed in, slamming his hand on the table. All eyes turned to blink at him. “It all makes so much sense. Caleb should not have inhuman strength. He is possessed. I should have seen it before!”
“Anyway,” Buffy muttered. “We’re going to trap Caleb in this Devil’s Trap and Willow and Giles are going to crack Caleb open and toss Aeshma back into Hell where he belongs.”
“What’s to say Asthma guy won’t get back out again, B? He’s done it before.”
“Seal it up,” Spike sighed, looking in on the powwow.
“Exactly. Xander, you’re up for this. Figure out a way to blow Sunnydale sky high. Seal up the cracks and wipe this whole town off the map.”
“Wow…” Andrew breathed in the corner of the room. He stopped shoveling cereal into his mouth for the occasion.
“And take Andrew with you,” Giles grunted.
“What about you? Faith? The potentials?” Dawn whispered in the background.
“We’re going in. We have to force Caleb into the trap. The only way to do it is to face the hoard, to go down into Hell and beat back Aeshma’s legions.”
“Are you kidding me?” Dawn squeaked. “They’ll kill you!”
“Probably,” Buffy shrugged. “But that’s the price you pay sometimes.”
They gathered in the living room, fifty young women with terror painted on their faces. Some of them fondled weapons- knives and stakes, axes and swords. Others still wore their cartoon pajamas, their hair in plaits, their glasses pushed up their noses. They were a ragtag bunch of hopefuls, women as unsure of their roles as Buffy had once been. Those days were long behind her, and soon, they would be behind these girls as well. Some of these faces would never light a room again. What would Heaven be like for them? Would they dance in pretty prom dresses and kiss their own angels? Would they see the faces of their parents, know that everyone was safe, be happy and carefree and loved? She couldn’t think about that now.
“Today, we’re going into battle. I can see that some of you are ready, or think you’re ready. Most of you are smart. You’re not ready. But you know what? You never will be ready. I’m the Slayer. I wasn’t asked if I was ready to face the monsters and the darkness. I wasn’t asked if I’d rather be a cheerleader and go to my prom with a nice and happy boyfriend who didn’t drink blood. You can never be ready to march down into the darkness, knowing that you might not come back out on the other side. Today, I need you to do it anyway. Think about the people you love and how important it is that they make it out alive. Sacrifice yourself for them. Their lives are in your hands, the same way your lives are in my hands. We’re heroes. We don’t get to be happy, but we can see the happiness in everyone around us. Maybe that seems sorta wrong to you. Maybe it seems unfair. But you know what? On the other side, they make up for it. Trust me. I’ve seen it. Today, they need you to be strong. They need you to fight. They need you to stand up for their safety and their dreams and their simple happy lives.
I won’t lie to you. Some of you may not see the sunset again. Some of you might go into the mouth of Hell and never come back out. But I’m with you. Faith is with you. We’re standing side by side in this and it’s the power of our hearts that will win the day. Be strong. Work hard. Fight and win. We can do this. We don’t have a choice.”
Wielding a heavy sword, Buffy descended into the Seal, an army of fifty young women behind her. Among them stood an angel and a vampire, their jaws set, their faces stalwart. She turned to them, her eyes narrowed, a few wisps of blond hair falling across her broken face.
“This is it,” she said firmly. “There’s no turning back.”
“How will Willow know when to start the spell?” Molly asked from the back of the crowd.
“Castiel will leave the ranks to tell her. He’s the only one that can pop in and out. We can’t risk someone trying to run for it.”
“Time to go, B,” Faith urged her.
“What do they say in that movie? Never back down. Never surrender.” Carrie giggled among the ranks.
Without another word, they descended into the open seal, a wave of impassioned young women fighting for the survival of the world. They moved stealthily in the darkness, the gaping jaw of the Hellmouth. A cliff stretched out over a chasm, where legions of ubervamps bristled as they waited to attack. Caleb stood among them, his eyes glistening black like slivers of cold obsidian. A rock trembled and fell down the cliff face, alerting the soldiers below to the small invading army above. It was on. Buffy swung her sword, turning the hilt over in her hand. Beside her, Castiel glowered, his startling blue eyes alight with rage. The Potentials hovered fearfully, a tidal wave of anxiety hanging from their shoulders. The clang of metal against armor alerted them. Faith was under attack at the edge of the precipice.
“ATTACK!” Buffy yelled.
They rushed into action, each girl lifting her weapon. Buffy tried to push them out of her mind, to focus on the task at hand. She had to corner the demon, to push it into place. The legions of vampires surrounded her, crushing hot air around her. Castiel barreled away, stuck under the ripping claws of two sturdy animals. Buffy swung the sword, twisting it ruthlessly as it came down on the shoulder of a vampire. He roared in anger but remained mostly uninjured. Screams rose up from the chaos. A few roars echoed their cries.
“Are you going to stand there like a coward, Aeshma?” Buffy called, shoving her blade through the neck of a vampire. It disintegrated at her feet. “Are you afraid to face me?”
“Afraid?” Caleb laughed, stepping up onto the cliff, his mouth turned up in a jovial grin. “Why should I be afraid of you, Slayer? You bring an army of children to fight me.”
“No one came to fight you but me,” Buffy growled, crouching in a fighting stance.
“Is that so? Is all this some sort of decoy? My army will slaughter yours and overrun the Earth.”
“Talk talk talk. Is that all you know how to do?”
“I think you’ve forgotten where you got that black eye, Slayer.” Caleb laughed.
His arm rolled out from where it crossed his chest, moving to swat at her like a fly. Buffy lifted her sword, blocking the hit and sending him careening backward. Caleb raised one sculpted eyebrow over his black stare. He might have looked amused if his jaw wasn’t stapled into a scowl. Buffy whirled around and threw a good, strong kick, throwing him back across the cliff. Caleb advanced as soon as he recovered himself, pitching her back into the crowd of ubervamps. One tore away from the mass and ripped at her, pulling her to the ground. Buffy hit the floor hard, her breath escaping from her chest. She closed her eyes and struggled to breathe. Feet stamped the ground around her and from here, she could hear the screams of Potentials echoing across the floor. A body fell near her and blood spilled across the dusty ground. Buffy raised her chin to look into Rhoda’s vacant eyes.
The vampire roared and tore at Buffy’s flesh, as if attempting to peel her skin from her body. She screamed as its razor-sharp claws pierced her from shoulder to hip. Castiel scrambled across the chaos and tore the animal free of her, its head coming free of its body.
“Poor baby,” Caleb chuckled near her ear, crouching amongst the feet of vampires and Potentials. “Can’t stand up?”
“Go to Hell,” Buffy hissed, pushing a hand under her body.
“I’ve been. Now that I’m out, I’m thinking about going to Disneyland.”
“Sorry,” Buffy grunted, finally finding her footing. Blood ran down from the wound, staining her clothes a rusty reddish brown. “Vacation’s been canceled.”
Claiming the sword a second time, Buffy struggled to her feet. She tore at Caleb, thrashing the air with the blade. Caleb stretched out his hand and grabbed it, ripping the sword from her hands. Castiel lingered behind her, his neck stretched out eagerly. The fighting seemed to slow as the demon took another step backward. Screams stretched out in agony. Roaring moans from fallen vampires fell short of the expressions of the Potentials. Buffy drew back her fist and threw a solid punch, shoving him back a few more steps. She craned her neck to Castiel and he blinked out of the cave.
“Make sure you tell your buddies in Hell that I sent you home,” Buffy smirked.
“A Devil’s Trap, eh Slayer? Don’t have the balls to kill me yourself?”
“Why deprive you of your own mopey suffering, Aeshma? You can wallow in self pity until the end of time.”
“Do you think this is the end? This is only the beginning.” Caleb smiled a knowing sort of grin. “Look at your army, Slayer. They’ve fallen. Their blood washes the mouth of Hell and you put it there. You failed them. And I have triumphed.”
Buffy turned to look at them, the bodies that littered the ground. Faith and Spike stood near the back, up to their elbows in vampires, the only soldiers left. Some of the vamps had stopped for a snack, feasting on the innocent blood of the Potentials, their bodies little more than lumps of cold flesh. A shudder went through her, starting at the head and falling like rain through her body. She looked back over her shoulder at the demon, grinning, laughing, as he threw back Caleb’s head and spilled from his open mouth. A cloud of black smoke condensed in the air and flew down, back into the Pit.
“B! Come on! Let’s roll!” Faith screamed at her as she looked vacantly at the fallen body of Caleb. He crumbled to the ground as Aeshma retreated, but he continued to laugh. He laughed until he choked, coughed, gasped for air.
“You stupid girl,” he said at last, his voice barely above a whisper. “You don’t know what you’ve done.”
The bus rolled out of town as successive bombs exploded, one after the next, down the center of Main Street. Ashes coiled up from the streets and houses collapsed into the broken hills of the Hellmouth. Giles careened the vehicle, each blast throwing off their course. Spike huddled under a thick black blanket, blocking out the last remains of daylight. Dawn held a compress to Faith’s side where a vamp had sliced open her gut. Willow stared out the back window at the remains of the town.
“Giles! Stop! We’re clear!” Xander called out, putting a hand on Giles’ shoulder. The brakes screamed as they pulled to a halt.
“Sorry, I…” Giles mumbled. He pulled off his glasses and wiped them on his dusty shirt.
“You guys, we gotta get Faith to a hospital,” Dawn frowned.
“I’m fine, kid,” Faith coughed.
“Buffy…” Willow started as she watched Buffy hop down the stairs and step off onto the cooling asphalt.
Sunnydale stretched out like a chasm in every direction, a suture on a festering wound. Her eyes were dry and stinging. Her flesh felt dull and lifeless. The weight on her shoulders was difficult to bear, but she couldn’t drop it. Something had happened there on that cliff, when Caleb’s worn face had stared into hers. The thing that they’d sent screaming back to Hell wasn’t their enemy. It had all been a game, a set-up, a joke.
“I can’t do it again,” Buffy whispered to the abyss. “There’s too much blood on my hands.”
“Buffy, it’s over. It’s over.” Castiel murmured beside her.
“It’s over.” She crossed her arms over her chest and let the arid wind pick her bloody hair up off her shoulders. “I’m done.”