By Rob Sorenson

Author's Note: This is a one-shot story that I've had floating around in my computer since late May of 2003. Like all BTVS watchers in America, I'd very recently viewed "Chosen." I had certain negative feelings about the season in general. Mainly, I didn't like how much everyone drifted, with no real resolution between them. Perhaps my favorite element of the show was the powerful bond between these people, who seemingly had nothing in common outside of a fundamental need to do the right thing.

Season Seven broke a lot of those bonds. Her family was now a burden rather than a source of strength...and it caused hurt feelings and betrayal from all directions.


This had happened in other seasons, of course; it made for great drama. In those situations, however, things had always been resolved. No such resolution occurred here...and that, to me, is tragic. In all likelihood, we're never going to see these characters again...and I feel we were left with a feeling of detachment that one little throwback sequence in Chosen wasn't going to fix. On a personal level, I needed more. I needed some aftermath...and some closure. If that makes for unrealistic drama, then so be it. If I may be allowed to alter a familiar phrase from my favorite TV writer of all time: What you see here is both what I wanted AND needed. Even if you don't agree with it...I hope you like it.


**********************************

 


Buffy Summers had spoken little in the last hour; she'd only communicated what was absolutely necessary. Many of the wounds that had been incurred by her little band of warriors required professional medical attention. Somewhere in the back of her mind she recalled a conversation with Giles involving an emergency room and a plausible story involving disaster victims.

(You want credit for not feeding on bleeding disaster victims?)

Her eyes closed, but sleep would not come; partially because of the uncomfortable suspension. It seemed every public school bus across America shared the same mechanic.

Mainly, though, Buffy couldn't rest due to a profound sense of uncertainty. On some level, an uncertain future was something most people experienced at one time or another. For Buffy, though, there had been no such questions to deal with. Not since she was fourteen years old; and God knew THAT Buffy was long gone. Death had obliterated the shallow, selfish young teen that she'd been.

Whether it was the first or second death...that's up for debate, she thought.

(I died...so many years ago. But you can make me feel...like it isn't so...)

Now what? The world was sprinkled with females-presumably of various ages-with extraordinary powers that were impossible to understand. Buffy had a vision of a 95-year old grandmother tossing aside her walker...but not before removing those hollowed-out tennis balls that made them slide easier and tracking down those orderlies in the nursing home who had made fun of her. Hey young fellers. Guess where I'm going to stick these tennis balls now?

This led the Slayer's mind astray for a while. Just how long could someone with advanced healing powers live, anyway? She'd spent a good bit of time patting herself on the back for lasting long enough to be able to legally order a beer. Now...the rules had changed.

Focus, Buffy! Come on!

She took a deep breath. What was the best way to proceed? Clearly these women and girls needed to be made aware of the reasons for their newfound strength and energy...or did they? Buffy ruminated on that one for a moment. How nice would it have been just to be really strong and skilled without having to fight the forces of darkness? For the first time since she'd turned away from the yawning canyon--hopefully leaving Sunnydale behind forever--Buffy smiled slightly. Just being able to kick ass without all the
monsters and stuff...God, that would rock.

(I know you'll never love me. I know I'm a monster...but you treat me like a man.)

Stop it, stop it, STOP IT!!

She rubbed her forehead, as if the action would clear out unwanted thoughts. It had never worked before...but the Slayer doesn't give up easily.

Finally, she straightened up...and made up her mind about what was next.

Buffy stood abruptly, adjusting her feet so she could maintain her balance. The bus was bouncing along, even on what appeared to be new pavement; she found herself thanking a God she didn't entirely believe in for never having to ride one of these things every day.

She was all the way in the back, seated by herself. Everyone else had a partner except for Giles, who was driving, and Xander.

Not for the first time, Buffy closed one eye, trying to imagine the feeling of losing half of one's view of the world. She put one hand against the seat in front of her; perhaps the moving bus was a bad place to continue the experiment. She restored her vision and refocused on the bus driver.
Wincing slightly, she moved with purpose up the aisle.

Giles was alternately trying to consult an atlas and watch the road. The sad fact was he'd rarely ventured outside of Sunnydale during his time in Southern California.

"I think the school board frowns on map reading while the bus is in motion."

He smiled slightly.

"Of course. You wouldn't happen to know how much further we need to drive to reach a hospital, would you?"

Utilizing her superior vision, she read a road sign a mile distant before responding.

"First Fresno exit is about eight miles ahead. Let me see the map."

He handed the atlas back to her. "Thank you."

"Safety first."

He paused. There was a mirror that gave a view of the entire bus; he took a glance at Buffy's mildly amused expression.

"Of course."

"Uh-oh. According to what you have highlighted, we're headed toward the Baja Peninsula."

He took another look in the mirror before sighing patiently.

"You're reading it upside down."

"Oh. Sorry. Ok, yeah, this is much better. Like I said, first Fresno exit...then make a right. About a mile on your left hand side, I think."

"All right."

They rode in silence for a minute. Giles took a deep breath before speaking.

"You did a magnificent job, Buffy. I'm proud of you."

His answer was silence. He shifted uncomfortably in the seat.

"I do wish..." He trailed off.

"So do I." Her voice was terse.

Their eyes met in the mirror for a moment.

"It was supposed to be my job to teach you how to be a good Slayer. I'd like to think I did reasonably well...for the majority of that time."

Another stolen glance at the mirror. Buffy was now looking out the window, face still expressionless.

"If results are to be our legacy, I should think that your successes speak for themselves."

Silence.

"Like all human beings, I made errors along the way...but I promise you I tried to do what I thought was right. It was a difficult balance, being your Watcher, and... other considerations... and... oh, the Hell with it."

She was looking at him again now. Giles exhaled in frustration.

"I made it my business to try to teach you a bit about life as well as this burden you have to bear. Actually that applies to the lot of you," Giles corrected, glancing at the other faces he'd come to love as he would his own children...if he had any. "There are certain
sacrifices one makes in this life; mine was to have no close relations. I had a sort of brotherhood within the Council, but it wasn't the same. I came to think of you...in a familial way. As you know, one isn't always rational where family is concerned."

There was still nothing to read in Buffy's face; if it had been anyone else, Giles would've thought she wasn't listening.

"I made the mistake of intermingling personal feelings with professional ones. When I did, I eventually failed rather miserably on both counts...especially in light of recent events."

Giles paused a moment. He was so tired...

"I understand how you must be feeling toward me...if I were in your position, I'd react in the same fashion. As I look back on these last seven years, it occurs to me that you all taught me as much as I have taught you."

He held her gaze as he finished.

"For whatever it may be worth, I'm aware that you were right about him...and I was dreadfully wrong. I am truly sorry."

"Turn here."

He frowned at the mirror. "What?"

Buffy pointed. "You're going to miss the exit."

"Oh. Right. Sorry."

He turned rather sharply, causing moans of pain from the wounded. Giles spoke up loudly.

"Sorry about that! We're almost there!"

He saw his Slayer's pained expression and frowned.

"Are you all right, Buffy?"

"I'll manage. Be all healed up in a jiffy...as long as you avoid any more Andretti impressions on those hairpin turns."

"It occurs to me that there could be a sizable contingent of police at a hospital."

Buffy nodded thoughtfully. "Might need Faith to hide under a seat or something."

"Precisely. Right then, here we are."

Giles turned left--just as Buffy had guessed--and parked as close as he could to the emergency room. Before he could give the order, Xander had already leaped out of the emergency exit at the rear to direct traffic. The Watcher shut off the engine and leaned back, removing his glasses. Just as he was about to unbuckle himself so that he could assist with the wounded, a small, yet powerful hand was placed on his shoulder.

Giles looked up to see Buffy, wearing the barest hint of a smile on her face.

"It means a lot."

Before he could respond, his Slayer went down the steps.


****************************************************


Willow was sitting alone in the waiting room, thumbing through a December 2001 edition of Cosmo with disinterest, when Buffy found her.

"How are you doing?"

She looked up and smiled.

"Exhausted...but I'll recharge. How's the wound?"

The Slayer sat next to her, albeit slowly.

"Coming along. I give it about two hours. Where's Kennedy?"

"She went to talk to Andrew. He's... having a hard time."

"How so?"

"I think he sort of expected to die. He's having a rough time, because now that he hasn't..."

"I can relate."

"Yeah, I guess you could."

They shared a look for a moment before Buffy spoke again.

"So... Kennedy as therapist, huh?"

Willow looked at the floor.

"I know how she can get, Buffy... but she has a good heart. Believe me."

"Willow, you wouldn't be with anyone who didn't have a good heart. You think I don't know this?"

The Wicca just nodded, head still down.

"Have I ever told you how much Tara meant to me?"

Willow looked up in surprise. "I guess...we never really got a chance to talk much...because, you know...

"Yeah. I know. Now with Kennedy around, it's kinda hard. So let's fix that."

The Slayer crossed her legs and leaned back in the hard plastic chair.

"When I first came back, I was pretty messed up...as you might remember."

Willow shifted awkwardly as Buffy continued.

"I guess I was feeling anger toward you guys...but not Tara, so much. I mean, she helped bring me back too, but...I don't know how to explain this."

"It's ok, Buffy. You don't have to--"

The Slayer waved an impatient hand.

"No, let me get this out. I need to. I did things..."

Buffy closed her eyes. "Selfish, awful things. You know the ones. I couldn't stand to
tell you guys. I used to think it was because I was ashamed, but as I said before, I think it might have been a lot of anger too. Even when you guys were around it was really hard sometimes. Nobody could really understand."

Willow almost stopped her, but remained silent.

"Giles was gone, Xander was getting married, Dawn was mad at me all the time because she knew I didn't really want to be here. You had your own problems...I felt like there was nowhere to turn. When I found out that..."

Buffy swallowed hard. She hadn't said his name out loud since they'd left Sunnydale.

"When I found out that Spike could hit me without his chip going off, I went to Tara." The Slayer smiled. "She thought I called her because something had happened to you. Anyway, I cleared that up...then I got her to help me with the whole bringing-me-back spell."

Willow's eyes lit up. "So that's why she had that book."


"Huh?"

"Xander and I saw her coming out of the Magic Box with it. She was helping you."

"Right. Anyway...once I confided that much to her...I just lost it. I let it all kinda hang out there."

Willow's eyes watered. "I'll bet she was great."

"She was incredible. Just like when my Mom died. She did more to help me understand how I was feeling than anyone."

Buffy took Willow's hand. "I never knew a kinder, more gentle soul in my life. I miss Tara every day...and I'm so sorry I haven't told you this until now."

Willow shook her head. "There wasn't time."

"There was time. I was just caught up in myself...like always."

"I doubted you."

Buffy's eyes widened slightly at the abrupt change in subject.

"Willow--"

"I doubted you, and when it came down to the end, you believed in me. I'll never forgive myself for that."

Ignoring the twinge from her wound, Buffy turned her entire body to face the redhead.

"Ok, listen up. It wasn't me you were doubting. It was the things you saw me do and say. I shut down on you guys. I pushed you away, because I felt alone in a lot of ways. The responsibility for all these helpless girls was overwhelming, and I handled it pretty badly. I expected you guys to trust me without question...after I clearly stopped trusting you. It was a two way street."

"Still, in the end..."

"In the end, I was right about a thing or two, yes. As it turned out, I couldn't have gotten the scythe if I had to worry about everybody else. So things worked out. We got lucky."

"It was awful. That whole...thing."

"Tell me about it. The house I stayed in that night had no Tab."

Willow stared at her for a moment...then snorted out a laugh.

"I didn't even know you drank Tab."

"I don't. It was a craving."

"I was still wrong. I betrayed you."

Buffy shook her head.

"No you didn't. You did what you thought was right for the mission. It wasn't personal. Did you still care about me?"

Willow's eyes narrowed. "Well, of course I did, but..."

"There's your answer. Were you right? Hell, I don't know. Was I right to alienate everyone? Don't know about that either. I DO know that the right people did the right thing at the right time. If we hadn't fallen out, we wouldn't be here talking about it right now."

"So...you're saying it all happened for a reason?"

"I'm saying nothing-including our own weaknesses-can pull us apart once everything is on the line. So stop beating yourself up. We won. We're here. I don't care about the other stuff, and neither should you."

Buffy turned back to the front, still holding Willow's hand. Neither spoke for nearly two minutes.

"Buffy?"

"Yeah?"

"Where do we go from here?"

"Sounds like a song title."

"Yes...and it also sounds like a reasonable question."

The Slayer took a deep breath, considering how to frame her answer.

"Ok. Obviously, I'm not sure what's next for all of us. I AM sure, though, of what's next for me...and I think you should consider it too."

"And that is?"

Buffy looked into Willow's eyes once more.

"I'm done with this. I'm taking Dawn somewhere far away...and staying away. I'm creating a policy of one Hellmouth per customer. This one is toast...let the others worry about what's left, whether that's Cleveland...or wherever."

The Wicca blinked in surprise. "When did you make this decision?"

"A couple of hours ago. I was sitting in the back of that bus, trying to think about my next move. How to find all the Slayers of the world. What to tell them...how to be more prepared for the next apocalypse. All kinds of complex and stressful thoughts...then it hit me."

Buffy held out her hands.

"We just beat down the First Freaking Evil! The mother of all baddies! We just put a Hellmouth out of business! Am I relieved? Am I at least exhausted and licking my wounds...in my case literally? Nope. Can't do that. Like a machine, I just move on to the next life-threatening, emotionally draining situation without so much as a deep cleansing breath.

We changed the world, Will. You and me took the whole stupid system and turned it on its ear. Now there are women and girls all over the world who can step in and take a swing. I've hit as many balls as I can. I'm losing myself."

Willow frowned. "Losing yourself?"

"Think about it. The way I acted. I never did that before. I mean, I always isolated myself somewhat...it's a Slayer thing. Still, I'd never shut down so much that the people I love didn't even recognize me any more. No... that might be the kind of efficient Slayer the Council would have wanted, but I'm not going out like that."

She put her hands on Willow's shoulders.

"I don't want to be a General any more. I don't want to be a leader of any kind, except to Dawn. I want to be Buffy again. Not the Chosen anything...just Buffy. I want to be best friends with Willow Rosenberg, who happens to be the coolest and smartest woman I've ever met."

Willow hugged Buffy fiercely as the Slayer kept talking, voice cracking slightly.

"I want everything we've lost to mean something...and that only happens if we get to live."

"I love you, Buffy."

"I love you, too."

They moved apart. Willow looked at her sadly.

"I'm so sorry about Spi-"

Buffy stood abruptly.

"I'd better go check on everyone. See who needs to be admitted and stuff. Plus, Faith is probably getting cranky hiding in that bus without food or water. You feel like camping in the desert tonight? I feel like being in a wide open space."

Willow eyed her a moment...and decided to let it go.

"Ok. Desert camping sounds neat."

Buffy smiled. "See you later."

She passed Kennedy on her way out.

"Hey. What's the sitch?"

One of the many new Slayers smiled.

"Only Robin had to be admitted. Everyone else got off with stitches. I had a big gash on my stomach that's already closed. This Slayer healing is the absolute bomb."

"It's a definite perk. Ok, I'll go visit Robin, then. See you later."

Kennedy watched Buffy leave as she addressed Willow.

"How's she doing?"

Willow shrugged.

"She's being Buffy."


**********Mojave Desert, Six Hours Later************


Buffy walked alone on the sand, loving the refreshing coolness that accompanied sundown in the desert springtime. It had long been one of her favorite places; the yawning emptiness never failed to clear unnecessary thoughts.

This time, everyone needed the space.

Thankfully, Giles's American Express card provided them with camping gear and supplies. Dinner had consisted of roasted wieners with beans; Buffy couldn't remember the last time she'd held a piece of wood that didn't create a cloud of dust. Eating with everyone without having to meet or train or discuss strategy felt...nice.

So far, no discussion of the future had occurred among the group, which to her mind was a good thing. Best to let things be for the moment. Let everyone get a chance to get their feet back under them. Only Willow had heard Buffy's wishes, and she had no doubt that secret was safe.

The sun was fast disappearing now; the glow of the now-distant campfire provided the
brightest light in the area. Buffy wondered just how far she would have to go to reach her goal.

Finally she spotted her quarry, seated atop a huge boulder. The rock was almost as big as their bus, roughly twenty feet high and one hundred feet in diameter. The top of the boulder appeared to be reasonably level, giving off the appearance of a giant sand-colored soda can after it had been flattened.

The Slayer looked up and spoke.

"Hey. Is this rock taken?"

"Guess not."

"Cool."

She bent her knees slightly and pushed off with her powerful thighs, floating to the top. She landed with the grace of a ballet dancer, her sneakers barely emitting a sound upon impact.

Xander glared at her.

"Show off."

She made a show of looking down.

"Must have been a tough climb. Hand-holds are pretty scarce. Mind if I sit down?"

He shrugged.

Once seated, she watched the last sliver of orange dropping from the horizon.

"Beautiful, isn't it?"

"I guess."

"It's been a long day."

"Yeah."

She looked at him with mock suspicion.

"You wouldn't happen to be Oz in Xander's body, would you? 'Cause body switching, not as fun as you might think."

"Not much to say."

"Ok, that was four whole words strung together. Progress is being made."

"You know, if I could jump like you, I'd be hopping outta here right now."

"All part of my plan to trap you. I had Will slip in a post-hypnotic suggestion about big flat rocks."

He suppressed a smile. Buffy smirked.

"Gotcha."

They sat in silence for a minute. Buffy stretched out her legs and spoke quietly.

"When I first came back, this is where I met Angel."

Xander glanced at her before responding.

"Out here?"

"Uh-huh. He remembered how much I love it out here."

"Sort of a Slayer Fortress of Solitude?"

She raised an eyebrow toward him.

"More like a Slayer who feels comfortable in a place where vamps can't hide."

"Needs to be catchier."

"I'll work on it. The point is...I actually felt safe out here. I mean, I was suffering from Post Resurrection Syndrome, so my reflexes could've been a tad slow."

"Well now, I don't know about that. As I recall, you did some of your best work right after being brought back to life."

She smiled widely. "Behold, Xander Harris returns. Where have you been all day?"

His face turned serious. "Just thinking."

"About?"

"She loved you, you know."

Buffy didn't have to ask who he was talking about.

"Ummm...really? She had kind of..."

"A funny way of showing it? Yeah, no argument there. Ahn was a work in progress when it came to that stuff. I say that to you now because of how things...ended."

"Well...she was pissed at me. I think."

"When your Mom died, she had a hard time. It was her first experience with death...as a human being, of course. She couldn't get her mind around it."

"Neither could I."

Xander shook his head, but said nothing else for the moment. Buffy glanced at him before speaking.

"She had reason to be pissed at me."

He shook his head again. "No, she didn't."

"I'm so sor-"

"Stop."

"If I could've-"

"Buffy. STOP. You didn't force me to do anything. I followed you, yes...but I'd done it before. I should have paid attention to what was going on around me. Either way, it's not about blame. Apologies won't ever be necessary."

He lay down on the rock, watching the stars become visible as he continued.

"There's a saying that my dad--wherever he is--used to throw around a lot. 'Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.' Have you ever heard that?"

She just looked at him strangely.

"Ok, guess not. Basically, it means if you put yourself on the line enough times, the law of averages will catch up...this time, the bear ate me. Though in fairness, I never really ATE the bear; I sort of nipped at its heels to provide a distraction while the powerful people did the actual dining, but it applies well enough.

I chose to fight with you...and I knew what could happen. I used to wonder if any of us could've saved you from jumping off that tower, but you know what? None of us could've done anything. It was the job."

He raised himself up to face her, pointing at his patch.

"This was the job."

She stared at him for a moment before speaking.

"Did you ever see 'Saving Private Ryan'?"

"Yeah. Great movie. Not usually your type of flick, though."

"I rented it on DVD a couple of months ago. Giles kept on drilling the point home about effective leadership-"

"He put too much pressure on you. I told him that from the start."

"I think he knows that now...anyway, that isn't the point. I figured maybe there were some things I could learn from it, you know? I could be-"

She pumped her fist.

"The big tough General, and all that stuff. So I rented this movie."

"Buff, I've seen it a few times. There were no Generals in it."

"Yeah, I figured that out halfway through, but by then I was into it. That first 30 minutes of it...God."

Buffy shook her head. Xander nodded in understanding.

"When I tried to get Wills to watch it, she had to turn it off. It looked like...well, how that kinda stuff looks."

"Right. I have some idea what war looks like...I couldn't believe a movie could be that close to the way it actually is. Anyway, I finished it, and looked at some of the DVD featurettes about the D-Day veterans and all...and it made me think of something."

She hesitated for a moment.

"These days Generals don't even fight. They plan stuff, yes...but once the actual shooting starts, they have no control whatsoever. All those men...those thousands of men who fought that day...they were Xanders."

"Say what?"

"They were just regular guys doing the best they could...and they saved the world. They made it happen. They gave up so much...but if they lost an eye, their fight would be over. They would go home."

She leaned close, eyes shining by the light of a desert moon.

"You wanted to go back and fight again in a week. A WEEK."

"I was scared shitless, Buffy."

"So was I, and I have two good eyes and Slayer strength. Let me put it this way: I like Robin Wood. He's a good man. Frankly, Xand, he's probably a better fighter than you'll ever be. But I'll tell you something: I wouldn't take ten Robin Woods in a battle if I had to give up one Xander."

He looked away, clearly moved by her words.

"I made jokes."

"What?"

"I stood there and made jokes. I'd known she was dead for ten seconds, and I stood there talking about the Gap and Starbucks. I hurt her so much, Buffy.."

His voice broke.

"I hurt her so much, and she stayed anyway. She gave up everything. I looked down on the place she was buried...and the best epitaph I could come up with was some stupid Goddamn jokes!"

Buffy grabbed his shoulders.

"You were in shock, Xand...what's wrong? Are you hurt?"

He'd just winced in pain.

"Xander..."

He motioned with disgust toward the patch.

"Salt. Stings."

"Oh. Is there anything--"

"No. It's supposed to hurt. I deserve it for being such an ass."

"Dammit, listen to me! You were in shock. Nobody thinks clearly right after seeing what we witnessed today. God, I was smiling, and right after-"

She stopped herself. Xander frowned.

"Right after what?"

Silence.

"Right after what, Buffy?"

She gathered her legs beneath her, beginning to stand up.

"You know, I'm getting tired. We have an early start tomorrow."

"No we don't. We can start whenever we want. Don't avoid the question."

"Xander, it's been a long-"

He grabbed her arm.

"Buffy, answer me."

"Let go of me."

"No."

"Xander, I mean it."

"Fine. Hit me if you want to."

Her eyes narrowed.

"Xander...."

"Of course, if you do hit me, I'll go flying off this rock. I don't think you'll do that."

Her lip quivered. "Xander, please..."

"Why did you come up here?"

"I don't know. Now let.."

"Nope. You jump off, I'm hanging on and going with you. Why did you come up here?"

"Because I wanted my friends back, all right?! I HATED how I had to act toward you guys. You deserved better after sticking with me for so long. Is that what you wanted to hear?"

"Did you ever notice that I stopped hating him?"

She froze. He saw her look of recognition and nodded as he continued.

"It's true. The guy loved you so much he got a soul. What am I gonna do?"

Buffy wrenched her arm away from him.

"That's enough, Xand--"

The words stuck in her throat as Xander yanked the patch from his eye, turning it directly toward her. Pent up tears came flooding out from the fresh scar tissue.

"You never got to see it like this, did you? I covered it up all the way over to the emergency room. Spike sat with me all the way over. Dude actually made me take my hand away so he could check it out. I first learned that I was gonna be a Cyclops for the rest of my life from Spike."

Buffy's eyes were wide; her mouth was hanging open with shock as Xander went on relentlessly.

"I'd be totally blind or just plain dead if not for him. Still, I have to live with this. No construction company will ever insure a one-eyed man, Buff. I have no future in my chosen profession. It's gone. I'll find a way to survive somehow...but building and fixing stuff is what I do best.

I have no choice but to carry that burden all by myself...but you don't. You don't have to carry everything and be strong all the time. Not any more. I love you. I always will...but for God's sake, let us help you. The way you've always helped us."

Buffy's eyes squeezed shut as she whispered harshly.

"I gave him the necklace...I had to...nobody said he had to die..."

Hot tears escaped; she began to breathe hard and fast.

"I loved him."

"I know."

She shook her head. "I told him...I waited too long....no time."

"Buffy, he knew how much he meant to you. You have to believe that."

"I don't. He got his soul back for me. Just for me...and it was just too much to deal with, I..."

He put his arms around her.

"Ok...it's ok."

"It's not. It's not ok. He's gone. I loved him and he's gone...and I don't know..."

She sobbed loudly into his chest. Xander rocked her back and forth.

"Shhhh..."

"I..don't know where he is."

"What?"

She pulled back from him, trembling. Buffy The Vampire Slayer spoke in a small, quavering voice.

"Is he where I was? Do you think he did enough to be where I was?"

Xander blinked. "I don't..."

She clutched him, eyes pleading.

"Please tell me he did. Please tell me he's ok now."

He looked deep into her eyes with his good one.

"Yes. He earned it. He was a hero, right? Spike saved the world."

"He...he was in so much pain, Xander. All the time...he told me he wanted to rest."

She collapsed against him, yelling with harsh, desperate sobs.

"Please let him rest...Oh God--please let him rest!!"

They held each other, tears flowing freely. Buffy was continually whispering.

"Rest...please rest, William. Please..."

*********************************************

Willow and Giles were sitting together on their sleeping bags when they heard Buffy's cries in the night.

He moved to rise, but Willow caught him.

"Xander is out there with her. They both need this time."

He resumed his position with a sigh.

"Thank God she finally chose to talk to someone."

"She's been talking all day, Giles."

"I believe you understand what I mean."

"Did you tell her about the money?"

"No, not as yet."

When the Watcher's Council had been destroyed, Rupert Giles had been the last man alive to have access to their funds. He'd set up a bank account in Buffy's name during their stop at the hospital.

"Why not?"

"I want her to decide what she wishes to do. I pray she simply quits. She can, you know. Faith is more than capable of continuing the mission...and there are countless others because of you."

Willow glanced at him for a moment.

"I'm sure she'll tell you eventually. What about Faith's...felony issues?"

"I've given that some thought. The logical choice is to have a training school for Slayers in an area with no extradition treaty with America. Switzerland...perhaps the Cayman Islands. Somewhere like that."

"Well...I've heard of worse places to live than those two. So...have you talked to Buffy?"

"A bit, yes."

Willow chose her words carefully.

"Did you attempt to steer her in any particular direction?"

"No."

He removed his glasses.

"As far as I'm concerned, I will never try to influence Buffy for the rest of her life. No one has ever done more for the world. The freedom to choose her own path is long overdue. The same, by the way, may be said for you and Xander as well."

"Thank you."

"You're quite welcome."

"I'm sure Buffy would listen to whatever your opinions are, Rupert."

"I'm not certain if that will ever happen again...did you just call me Rupert?"

"It's your name, isn't it?"

"Well...yes, of course."

"I'm a big girl now. I should have first name rights. It's not teacher-student any more. It's trusted friends. Do you see my point? Buffy may not need a Watcher...but no one can have too many trusted friends."

"She has no good reason to trust me right now."

"She will. Buffy loves you. It's going to take time...but believe it or not, Rupert, we actually have some of that now."

He smiled at her. "You're going to call me that from now on, aren't you?"

"Hey, if you let me get away with it."

"I shall begin calling you Wills."

There was a moment's pause.

"Ok, you're Giles again."

"Thank you."

She gave him a quick hug and began to crawl into her sleeping bag.

Looking up at the stars, Willow thought of Tara.

Giles thought of Jenny.

One hundred yards distant, Buffy and Xander were lying together on top of a rock, staring at the same stars.

Xander thought of Anya.

Buffy thought of Spike.

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