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Summary: Buffy has always walked in the dark. But returning to the Council, she feels trapped by the shadows of her past.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
BtVS/AtS Non-Crossover > Dark > Buffy-CenteredtigerlilyFR15316,5845223,34311 Apr 1012 Apr 10Yes

Part Three: What Rough Beast

A/N: Thanks to everyone who's read and/or reviewed so far. It totally makes my day. This is the final part - I'm guessing a few people will be eagerly waiting to find out whether they were right or not... ;)

As always, neither BtVS nor Yeats' words (from The Second Coming, and also where the chapter titles originate from) belong to me. I'm just borrowing them for my own nefarious purposes and will return when done. Don't worry, I kept the receipt.

The air outside is crisp with the oncoming chill of an English winter, an early frost forming on the blades of grass. It crunches under her feet, dangerously slippery and yet a little exciting – never knowing whether your next step will be a step closer to your destination, or leave you flat on your back, breathless and blinking at the sky.

Buffy walks carefully. She can’t afford to fall.

There’s a cluster of trees in the distance, some stripped bare by the fall winds, others maintaining an iron-fisted grip on their leaves. Her heart pounds heavily in her chest as she crosses last of the open space and steps into a clearing.


“I thought you’d come,” Willow says quietly, like it wasn’t a known fact but a game of chance. Roll the dice and see where you end up. Cut the cards. Raise the stakes.


A patch of wildflowers bloom just beyond Willow’s outstretched fingertips, petals turning hungrily toward the golden streams of light. Buffy’s toes are frozen inside her boots, even as her palms sweat under the shield of heavy gloves.

Either Willow doesn’t feel the cold, or she’s learnt to focus on other things. Her friend’s shoulders are bare, the flowing skirt tucked under her to provide protection from the grass. Her complete lack of protective outerwear makes Buffy shiver just looking at her.

“How can you stand it?” she asks, and Willow looks at her for a long moment. Neither of them are under any illusion that Buffy’s talking about the weather.

She’s not sure whether she’ll be grateful for the lack of understanding or empty without it.

“I guess I can’t imagine it any other way,” Willow says. She pats the space beside her meaningfully. Steam rises between her fingers, curls, and disappears into thin air. Buffy sits on the ground, the earth warm beneath her thick cashmere coat. “When do you leave?”

“Soon,” Buffy answers simply, mostly because the lump in her throat stops her from saying anything more. She can’t read Willow’s reaction from her position at her side – and isn’t it funny, that the first time she feels she’s at Willows side rather than Willow being at hers is when she’s about to walk out of this place, possibly forever. Or maybe they’ve been side-by-side for a while now and she just didn’t see it.

Willow doesn’t ask if she’s coming back. Maybe she doesn’t need to. The alternative is something Buffy refuses to consider, because after all the fighting she’s done today she doesn’t need any more nails in her coffin.

They’re already piercing her, rubbing her raw.

“If you want,” Willow starts, then hesitates. “I could – I mean, not that I’m pressuring, ‘cos I’m not so much with the forcing my hand anymore, and maybe you just want to be left alone, and that’s really fine, but…”

Buffy smiles shakily. A cluster of tiny purple-blue flowers sprout in the grass near her right hip, sending her thoughts rushing back to illustrations in childhood books that have been long since discarded.

“Forget-me-nots,” she says, reaching out to stroke a silken petal with gentle fingers. It shies away from her touch at first, before creeping back to push at her fingers, new blooms spreading out along the icy ground. If flowers could purr, she’s pretty sure she’d be looking around for an invisible cat.

“Still working on my subtle,” Willow replies with a tiny smile. “Should be done in, oh, a lifetime or so.”

“You get major points for timing in my book,” Buffy says, returning the smile with one of her own. “And yes,” she offers after a moment, her eyes not moving from Willow’s. “Keep me in the loop, okay?”

Because somewhere in the confines of the faraway building, Giles is still unconscious and hurting, and Dawn is finding her feet in the world they’ve created, and even though she can’t be what they all want right now it doesn’t mean she doesn’t still care.

“You want me to tell – ”


Willow doesn’t push. Perhaps she senses Buffy’s growing unease at her decision, her fear that she’s making the wrong choice for not the first time in her life. Perhaps she can see a future that Buffy’s unable to, stretched out before her in the infinite web of time and space and possibility.

Nevertheless, she doesn’t push, and Buffy doesn’t ask what it is that shades her gaze for a split second, storms roiling in her eyes before the clouds clear and Willow gathers her in a tight hug.

“So,” Willow says brightly into her ear, “You want me to finally give in to Xander’s pleas and turn Andrew into something slimy? I mean, something that’s not a frog, because I’m still not a fan, but maybe a slug, or a wet noodle or something.”

Buffy laughs despite herself. “Well, he does tend to leave a trail wherever he goes,” she muses, grateful for the break in the melancholy. “But knowing Andrew, he’d still manage to find a way to annoy the everlasting hell out of all of you. Even if it’s just by leaving slime in Xander’s bed.” She can feel Willow wrinkle her nose against her exposed skin at the thought. “Staying way the hell away from the double entendre of that one,” she adds hastily, and Willow giggles.

The cold air on her exposed skin when they pull apart makes Buffy’s face ache and her eyes sting. Or at least, that’s her story and she’s sticking to it. At least until she sees Willow’s eyes blur and spill over, and then it’s an effort not to break down.

“Is it overly corny to say I’m not going to say goodbye?” Buffy asks quietly.

“Eleven out of ten on the cheese scale,” Willow says, scrubbing at her face with a sniffle. “But hey, I get it. Not so much with the Hallmark moments myself. And here I am, your weekly digest of all things Scooby, primed and ready to facilitate your being loopy.”

“It’s a good thing I learned to speak Willow early,” Buffy muses. “Otherwise I’d probably be all offended that you might have just called me crazy.”

Willow winks at her playfully. “Might have?”

Their laughter makes the chill in the air a little more bearable somehow. In the distance a bell rings, the warning signal that afternoon classes are about to begin. Buffy sobers.

“That’s my cue,” she says slowly, pushing herself to her feet. “Time to blow this popsicle stand.”

“Take care of yourself,” Willow says quietly, then grins. “If I have to come bail you out again, I might have to start charging. And I’m not cheap, just so you know.”

“I get myself trapped by a demon army one lousy time and suddenly everyone’s all Doubting Thomas,” Buffy grouses good-naturedly. “Don’t go commandeering any eighteen wheelers, now. I don’t think I could take having my butt kicked by you a second time.”

She pulls Willow in for one last hug before moving away and starting up the hill. There’s no point in putting it off, because when it all comes down to it, this is something that she has to do. Might as well rip off the Band-Aid quickly.

“And hey, Buffy?”

“Willow?” So much for a speedy exit.

“I hope you, um, I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

Buffy sighs. “Me too, Wills. Me too.”


Unlike with the others, Buffy doesn’t have to go searching for Willow.

Willow finds her, sitting alone in what used to be hers and Dawn’s apartment. It’s still furnished with Buffy’s things, and only Buffy’s things. She’s curled on the squashy sofa that still remembers her curves, like it’s been holding out all this time waiting for her. The matching chairs are missing and it makes the room emptier somehow, hollowed out in places, the bare space taunting her.

Dawn left all Buffy’s stuff where it was and moved on as though none of it was even worth keeping.

In truth, Buffy doesn’t even hear Willow approach, but she sure feels her. Her best friend hums with nervous energy. It rolls off her in waves that are almost tangible, the air warping a little around her. She’s almost at the point of tears, or very close to it.


Guess word travels fast, especially when you’ve got some kind of innate connection to all the threads of the universe. Or whatever.

“Hey,” she answers, on her feet and halfway across the room before she’s finished the word. She stares at Willow, and Willow meets her gaze steadily.

“Buffy,” Willow says slowly, rolling her name around like an unfamiliar taste on her tongue. As if she’s savouring it, despite the bitterness that it looks like it leaves in her mouth. Her lips tremble and twist, then relax minutely into something that’s almost a smile. “You’re here.”

“Like I could stay away forever,” Buffy scoffs, her face aching from smiling so hard. There hasn’t been a whole lot of connection going on lately, just odd conversations and lurking in the shadows like some kind of creepy stalker-type. It feels good to really look at someone, and to have them look back. Today has just been one long tickertape parade of weird.

“What can I say?” Willow says with a shrug. “I’ve been told I’m very missable.”

She looks as content as Buffy guesses you can look when an old friend pops by for a visit unannounced, even if her smile doesn’t make it to her eyes. Her hair is somewhere between bright red and auburn. The deeper colour suits her, if only because it brings back vague hints of the days when their biggest problem was whatever monster decided to stir up the locals that week. And by ‘stir up,’ she means eat, or attempt to body-snatch, or interlock parts with to create little demon spawn. Or something.

Power rolls off Willow in waves, making the air around them hum.

“Are you – I mean, are you okay? Because you look pretty okay, but nobody really knows how these things work, with all the – ” Willow chews on her lip. “I mean, you’re happy, right?”

Buffy considers it briefly. “Happy as a four year old in a candy store,” she says brightly, scuffing her toe along the floor with a satisfying scrape. Willow pauses for a moment, mutters something under her breath, and then bounds forward and wraps her arms around Buffy.

“Will, I need to breathe,” she says, pulling out of Willow’s eager hug. If it feels good to be looked at, it feels even better to be touched. Her skin tingles at the sudden lack of contact.


But Willow doesn’t sound convinced.

“So I’ve been thinking,” Buffy says instead of dealing with whatever the hitch is in Willow’s voice. “I mean, there’s this empty apartment just sitting here, and someone kept all my stuff, so – ”

“We use this place for visitors, sometimes,” Willow interrupts, her expression changing. “And Dawn didn’t want – I mean, she wanted to be closer to the cryptology lab, ‘cos of all the super-sensitive… lithographs and stuff. Not because she didn’t want to be here or anything. Besides, it was easier to keep the furniture than to get all new stuff. Busy busy, y’know.”

She’s almost blasé about it now, the words falling from her lips oh so casually. A near-complete about face from the careful way she chose them only minutes earlier. Or was it hours? Buffy can’t quite tell, and there’s just an empty space where the clock on the wall used to be. Dawn must have taken it with her when she left, even though the clock was technically Buffy’s.

Maybe her little sister wanted a tangible reminder of all the minutes hours days without her. Or maybe she just liked the
pattern on the clock face. Who knows.

Still, she can’t shake the feeling that she’s running out of time.

“I think I’m gonna come back,” she says quickly, and Willow steps back like she’s been shot. “Whoa, I didn’t realise that was such a bad thing. I thought… well, I know stuff’s happened, and from what I’ve seen everyone’s still pretty angry, but I miss it, y’know? I miss you.”

“Buffy – ” Willow starts, then stops abruptly as though someone’s hit the mute button off-screen. She bites her lip. “It’d be great to have you back.” Her voice hitches.

“Hey,” Buffy says in surprise. “Don’t cry. I promise I won’t try to make you ‘sorry I bailed’ cookies. Although you’d be surprised how fast your kitchen skills improve when there’s nobody to bail you out. And I might’ve met a couple of really hot fireman in the process, so…”

“Did you find it?” Willow asks suddenly, grabbing Buffy’s hands. Their fingers entwine so that Buffy can barely tell whether it’s her hands or Willows’ that are ice-cold.

“Say what?” Snippets of a long ago conversation float back slowly. “Oh.”

Willow waits silently, clutching Buffy’s fingers so tightly it hurts. It’s hard to think when there’s someone that close to your face, especially when it seems like forever since you had any kind of real contact with people. She’s out of practice, oddly nervous and unsure of what to say.

“Maybe I had it all along.”

Willow looks at her with bottomless, fathomless eyes, peering into her brain, examining every fibre and spark and idle thought that makes her tick. It’s more than a little creepy, actually. Last time she looked at Buffy like that her eyes were pools of ink, burning black trails into Buffy’s mind. But that was then.

Now, Willow’s eyes are clear and calm and green, and she looks at Buffy as though she’s memorising her face. Buffy has to resist the urge to search her skin, just in case.

“Okay, did I grow a wart or something? What’s the what, Stare Bear?”

“Maybe I just missed you,” Willow says.

“Like you can’t work your mojo and see me anytime you want, like you guys watch over all the Slayers,” Buffy says easily, knowing full well they’ve done it before and are probably still doing so. Things might change, but they’ll always want to keep the girls safe. That’s pretty much why they’re here in the first place. Spare the girls, save the world. Or was it save the girls, spare the world? She can’t remember. Too many thoughts right now – how quickly she can pack up, whether they’ll let her come back at all, maybe painting the apartment a different colour.

Something bright and cheery and alive.


“Hrmghmm?” She clears her throat. “I mean, what’s up?”

Willow looks pained. “I can’t hold it,” she says, and before she’s finished speaking she seems to flicker like a TV on the blink. She grabs Buffy’s hand and squeezes, but her touch is a mere whisper, like her hand melts right through Buffy’s skin. Like she’s not really there.

“Will,” Buffy says, staring at their hands, “Maybe I missed a step, but what the hell kind of game are you playing here?” Suspicion blossoms like a shy spring bud. “Are you pulling some kind of magical sorta-teleporting thing? Are you really in Guam or Mississippi or somewhere?”

“It’s not me that’s got an elsewhere to be,” Willow replies sadly, pulling Buffy into what should feel like the friend-hug to end all friend-hugs, but just tickles her skin. “I love you, you know that? And not in a gay-now kinda way, though if I’m honest maybe I had a little Buffy-crush before I knew what it really meant, but don’t freak out because – ” Willow stops herself. Her voice is getting quieter with each word. Vanishing before Buffy’s eyes in more ways than one.

“Say hi for me,” she adds, eyes locked on something behind Buffy.

“Willow, you’re being – ”

The world shimmers and fades out around Buffy before she can even finish the sentence.

It’s too dark here.

She’s always felt oddly safe in the dark, sometimes safer than she ever did in the light. After all, she does her best work at night, fighting things that emerge from the shadows, secure in her ability to fight back the monsters.

Kicking ass and taking names, and doing it with style.

But this is new.

It’s not so much darkness as an absence of light, and that sends shivers up and down her spine, trailing like claw-tipped fingers. The balance between arching into the touch – channelling it, using it to fuel her – and shying away has never seemed so tenuous.

She can’t see where the emptiness ends and the walls begin, and she’s not alone. Eyes are glimmering in what she guesses is the corner of the room. They are neither kind nor unkind. They’re just there. Staring.


The unknown thing-person-whatever shuffles its feet, soles scraping across the hard floor, and Buffy shudders at the sound.

“Who’s there?”

Her voice echoes in the undefined space, repeating and distorting until she’s not sure she recognises it anymore. Beads rattle. Someone lets out a breath that’s more hiss than exhale.

“The Slayer does not walk in this world.”

“You’re right,” Buffy says after a moment. “I don’t.” She breathes slowly amidst the rising panic, crashing into her like waves after an undersea earthquake. She would topple over against the force of the tide if her feet weren’t stuck. “I don’t walk in your world,” she chokes out, her mind whirling. “We made our own, and I’m pretty happy with how it’s going so far. Even if it’s been a little on the weird side lately. And haven’t we already deja’d this vu?”


Gardenia perfume floats lazily on a breeze that drifts in without discernible origin or reason.

The same perfume her mother used to wear, a scent that saturates her memories as far back as she can clearly remember. Forehead kisses, a small hand enveloped in a large one, thumbs wiping away childish tears. All coated with the sweet flowery smell.

The same perfume that lingered on her hands for hours after she pulled them from her mother’s chest. Ringing in her ears and only one heartbeat.

And then no heartbeat.

Her fingers are splayed on her own chest and there is nothing there. No beat beat beat beneath her trembling icy fingers, not even a flutter. Just emptiness and aching.

Tara steps out of the shadows.

It’s then that she knows.


She’s in the near-empty room with Giles, only this time she’s standing right next to him, close enough to see the display on the oft-ignored cell phone.

Willow; it reads, One New Message.

Tell me it’s not true, the text screams on the screen, but Giles isn’t paying attention. His focus is on the crumpled object clutched in his trembling scarred hand. Buffy’s not sure she wants to look closer, but she can’t tear her eyes away.

In the picture, the three of them are laughing at a joke that’s so old she’s forgotten what it was that made them smile.
Red and gold and brown are tangled together as they pose, so close it’s like they’re drawing strength from one another.

Xander still has both his eyes. Willow’s hair is a few shades closer to auburn than the red fire that came later. Buffy’s smile lights up her whole face. Young and happy and strong, their faces glowing with the beauty of life.

It could break your heart.

“You can’t stay here,” he says, but he’s not talking to Buffy.

He never was.


“You’re wrong,” she says desperately to Tara, and the witch-turned-ghost-turned-whatever smiles sadly, but doesn’t respond. As if she’s saving her words for what’s to come. It seems the most important thing in the world to prove her point. A matter of life and death, even though she knows with cold clarity that her ending was written from the moment she stepped onto that plane.

“I wish I was,” Tara says finally. She looks surprisingly content with her not-life-having for someone who only gets to watch from the sidelines. Maybe it gets easier with time.

Buffy doesn’t want to think about having the time to find out.

“But I, I talked to Xander!” she says through a raw throat. “I didn’t imagine that. I talked to him, and he talked back to me.”

Tara doesn’t move, doesn’t blink, doesn’t even breathe. “Did he?”


“Do you ever see her?”

She needs to know the answer without knowing why she even asked the question.

“Sometimes I’d like to think I do,” Xander says quietly, looking away. “I talk to her sometimes, and it’s almost like she’s really there. Maybe I’m really talking to her. Maybe I’m not.”


She’s not sure how long it’s been between when the world lost focus and when she vagues back into whatever reality they’re almost in, but she can’t breathe, literally can’t suck in enough air to keep herself going. Her chest heaves with the effort.

“Shh,” Tara says quietly, her hand rubbing slow circles between Buffy’s shoulder blades. She smiles without humour. “I’d tell you to breathe, but you don’t need to.”

A horrifying possibility hits her. “Did I get bitten?” She bites her lip so hard she tastes blood. It tastes like her own, but she has to know. “Did I… did I drink?”


Tara’s face is kind and serene. Buffy wants to punch her to see if she bleeds, to see if she can’t crack that horrible understanding look right down the middle with her closed useless fist. Because if she’s being honest – and she really wishes she wasn’t – she’d face her worst nightmare just to have a few more moments with them, even if her last minutes on earth were spent as a monster.

Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverum reverteris,” Tara says.

“Speak English!” Buffy demands, whirling away from Tara’s touch like her skin’s coated with kerosene and Tara just told her that her fingers are on fire. “I don’t understand what you’re saying. I don’t – ” Her not-breath catches in a sob. “I don’t understand.”

“They never do,” a voice cuts in knowingly from behind Buffy. Forehead kisses and bedtime stories and the sweet scent of
gardenia. Her mother steps out from the bottomless shadowy blackness.

Buffy’s numb lips form the words, but nothing comes out.

“Sweetheart,” Joyce says gently, “isn’t this what you wanted?”

Once, yes. More than anything else. But not like this. Never like this.


This time when the doors swing closed, Buffy’s already on the other side. Faith’s leaning against the wall in the deserted hallway as if she wants to disappear into it. As if it’s the only thing keeping her from falling.

“You gotta tell the girls,” she says, her voice raw-edged and thick. “They’ll find out soon enough, and they deserve to hear the truth before someone else feeds them some bullshit about better places and peace and…”

Giles’ voice crackles down the line. “The Slayers and Watchers on-site will be told in the morning,” he says gently. “I have arranged for Kennedy to deal with the New Zealand situation in your place.”

Faith bristles. “Screw that,” she says bluntly. Buffy can’t help but smile. “I need something to whale on. Ken can ride shotgun if she wants, but the biggest baddest motherfucker in that valley is all mine, you got that?” She coughs and swipes at her eyes angrily. “Goddammit, G. You know, just before I walked out of that gym, I thought I felt her in there, watching me. Telling me I did okay, y’know? And I ignored it. What if – ”

“You’re doing better than okay, Faith. What you’ve done for these girls – Buffy would be proud.”

Faith straightens like a child receiving a pat on the head for a job well done.

“Yeah,” she says doubtfully, then shakes herself. “Right. Plane’s a-waiting, and it’s time to go find something to kill. Hard and fast and dirty. Just the way we like it.”


“They’ll be okay, right?” Buffy asks, her eyes fixed on her mother’s face. “Mom?”

She sounds like she’s five, begging her mother to tell her that her new goldfish will still be alive in the morning if she closes her eyes. Just like she did back then, Joyce gathers her in a hug that’s so familiar and comforting Buffy doesn’t know how she’d ever forgotten what it felt like.

“The end of one journey is the beginning of another,” Joyce whispers into her hair oh-so-gently, then pulls back and studies her, smoothing away the stray tears with the pads of her thumbs. “Your friends will be okay, Buffy. It will be hard, and they’ll think of you often, but they’ll make it through.”

“Can I – ”

“You can’t,” Tara says. “We’re not allowed to interfere. You can watch, if you like, but – ” Her chin quivers and she pauses to collect her thoughts. “It won’t help anyone.”

Buffy wonders if it’s possible for one’s brain to short circuit from too much unbelievable information at once. Because it wasn’t like this the first time, or the second – the first was a moment of clarity between faltering heartbeats and Xander’s hot breath, and the second was unimaginable pain followed by peace unlike anything she’d ever felt before.

This is like… like someone digging around in her skull, exposing an unwanted reality with a hot metal skewer that liquefies her brain wherever it goes. Leaving only heartache and gaping holes in its wake.

She can’t breathe amongst the stabbing.

“And – and Willow, she was – I touched her, and she was all corporeal and soft and Willow-like and - ”


Willow sits in a circle of candles, cross-legged and cowed. The skin around her eyes is shiny and faintly pink, stripped clean like a field after a raging flood. Bare in the way that makes you itch when you look at it.

Her cell phone lies abandoned on the floor, still open as if she bailed out mid-call.

Buffy’s never been good with languages, and apparently being dead doesn’t give you some all-powerful guide to knowing everything in the universe, because she can’t understand the words Willow’s whispering brokenly into the circle of light.

Tara touches Buffy’s arm, and the faint buzz of electricity makes her jump. “She’s asking for permission to shift the barriers,” she explains, “To allow you and her to exist in the same space when the laws of metaphysics would otherwise prevent it.” Buffy watches Willow’s eyes carefully, expecting them to blacken, but they remain clear and green even as her face twists with determination. “She’s asking for a chance to say goodbye.”

Buffy stares at Tara uncomprehendingly. “She found me,” she says slowly. “Why didn’t she – I mean, did she ever – ”

Tara maintains that same sick-sad smile, her fingers flexing like she wishes she could grasp red hair and stroke it in that way she used to during research sessions when they thought nobody was watching.

“She’s learnt a lot in the last few years. And this time, someone decided to make the impossible possible.” Jealousy is an expression Buffy’s never seen on Tara’s placid face, and even the faintest hint of it looks odd, an ill-fitting skin of green-tinged envy. The other girl sighs. “It was the only way to make her believe it. But as powerful as she is, she couldn’t hold the illusion long enough.”

“Will she – ” She can’t finish the thought, but apparently she doesn’t have to.

“No,” Tara assures her, turning away from the sight before them as Willow’s hair begins to bleed white through the red. “It was granted. It wasn’t taken. There’s a difference.”

“But I’m still dead,” Buffy whispers, and Tara drops her gaze.


Willow disappears, and the candles extinguish as one, and then there’s nothing.


“It’s almost time,” Joyce says to Tara, glancing at her wrist.

“You don’t even have a watch,” Buffy points out bitterly, clenching her fists at the absurdity of her not-life turning out like some kind of surrealist play. “What are we waiting for, that Godot guy? The meaning of life?”

“’We give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams for an instant, then it’s night once more’,” Tara quotes absently, her eyes fixed on the wall clock. “Your mom’s right. It’s almost time.”

Buffy follows her line of sight and blinks. The hands are missing.

“That clock’s broken. What’s the point of looking at it?”

“Some habits are hard to break,” her mother explains.

“What about life?” Buffy asks, her voice cracking. “Is that hard to break?”

“Surprisingly easy,” Joyce replies sadly, touching Buffy’s cheek. “Despite our best intentions.” Hot tears spill over Buffy’s eyelashes and fall, gravity claiming them with greedy fingers.

“So how does it work?”

Tara steps closer as the world starts to blur around them. Buffy scrabbles for her footing and then stiffens as she’s enveloped in warmth on either side. Hot breath brushes across her ear, an answer blown from lungs that don’t need to exhale.

“Just close your eyes.”

“A toast,” Giles says triumphantly, his filled glass raised high. “To paving your own path, in spite of objections and obligations and archaic rules.”

The bright lights of the ballroom catch the movement of the bubbles within and shatter, sending streams of pale gold into the air. Reflecting and refracting from one point of focus and then many, as Watchers, Slayers and support personnel alike rise from their chairs and add their glasses to mark the sentiment. Buffy can’t remember the last time she’s seen Giles look so content, so sure.

“To friendships and to family,” he continues, looking directly at her before taking a deep breath and looking out at the crowd of jubilant faces, hesitating like he’s loathe to bring bad news. “To the fallen, who will live on in our hearts and in the legacies that we are recording day by day, and to those who we love – and those who come after – for whom we continue to fight.”

The room is weighted with a collective holding of breath.

Giles smiles and lifts his glass higher as though he wants to share the moment with the heavens. Buffy’s eyes threaten to betray her and spill hot tears down her cheeks. “To the International Coalition of Watchers and Slayers,” he says proudly, catching each of their eye – Willow, Xander, Faith, Dawn and finally Buffy herself – in turn before drinking deeply from the glass. Light plays across his face in ripples of gold and white.

His eyes never leave hers, even as the room swells first with murmured approval and then gathering applause. Willow sniffles beside her softly and Buffy reaches blindly for her friend’s hand.

“Hot damn, G,” Faith says appreciatively, “If I’d known you were gonna get all Hallmark on us, I would have brought tissues.”

“Well hey, if it’s comfortador-ing you’re after,” Xander offers with a half teasing, half hopeful grin, “I’d be happy to offer my services. Or, y’know, nothing takes your mind off the melancholy like a lap dance.”

“That what they said at the Fabulous Ladies Night Club?”

“Never got any complaints,” Xander replies, and Buffy very nearly spits out her mouthful of champagne at the horrified look that crosses his face. “Any chance we could turn back time to a point where I could not say that out loud? Willow? Help me out here, ol’ buddy ol’ pal…”

“No power on this Earth,” Willow says between giggles. “The image of you channelling Demi is way too fun to not be imagining.” They all wince at that and Buffy raises a sceptical eyebrow in Dawn’s direction before she can stop herself.

“You’ve seen Striptease?”

Faith snorts, and Dawn just stares at Buffy like she’s grown an extra head. “I realise that in your head I’m, like, eternally seven, but seriously? The Disney Channel has more sexual connotations than that movie.”

“Yeah, but Hannah Montana never got her tits out to pay for her studio time,” Faith offers. Giles looks like he’s about to turn tail and head for the nearest adult table. “Harris, if you so much as think about ragging on my tv-watching habits, you’ll want to eunuch yourself with that butter knife before I do it for you.” She glares at him before throwing up her hands. “Oh what the hell. It’s a party, and I’m not in a castrating kinda mood. Rag away.”

“Ladies and Gentlemen, with the help of a blonde wig and her trusty stake-slash-microphone, I give you Faith the Vampire Slayer, lip-synching like a champ to ‘Nobody’s Perfect’.”

Faith rolls her eyes. “Ain’t that the truth. And you wanna know what else I can do with my mouth, all you gotta do is…” Xander leans forward eagerly, clearly not hearing the warning horn of the train of fail that’s headed his way at warp speed. “…watch me teach the baby Slayers how to use the blow-gun next week.”

Even Giles barks out a laugh at the expression on Xander’s face.

Buffy drinks it all in like warm spring air after a chilly winter, basks in the laughter that ripples across their happy faces like shy sunshine. She can’t imagine a better feeling than right now, lost in the moment, standing on the edge of all that’s past and all that’s yet to come.

The future stretches out before them like a rainbow made solid, the endless web of possibilities glittering under their eager feet.

Apologies for incorrect warning and any confusion I might have caused. Hopefully it was of the good kind. I couldn't figure out a way to warn for character death without giving the game away. It was sort of intentional to keep you all wondering about the where and the when and the what. And yeah, evil tastes kind of chalky.

Either way, I'd love to know what you thought of it. Thanks for reading!

The End

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