After She Fell

by Zulu

I figured my sentence was up the night I felt B die.

Jesus, but it hurt to feel her fall. It came over me like lightning, this electric sizzle that sent the world spinning. Like the whole planet was tilting just to buck me off. I lay in the dark and held my head until the dizziness faded. And I was left empty except for this pain somewhere over my stomach, hurting worse than hunger.

I rolled off my bunk and dropped to the floor, the concrete icy under my bare feet. I checked out the hallway. No guards on walkabout. Just the red glare of the exit sign and the quiet roar of laughter from the duty room T.V.

It was power that hit me next, a warm wave of strength pouring into me. Like being Called all over again. The world had to set things even somehow. From back-up to first string in thirty seconds flat. I gripped the bar nearest the wall and pulled it out and away, bending it something awful, slow enough so the creak was no louder than my cellmate's snores.

I guess B was the only one who thought guards and bars coulda kept me here. Angel knew better, and probably his cop lady friend did too, but they let me make the choice. Fuck. Call it a choice--it was here or just one more endless fall.

Soon as the gap was wide enough I grabbed my stuff and slipped through, then shoved the bar mostly back into place. I headed for the windows at the far end of the hall, where the pipes outside the building would lead me down into the yard with nothing but a fence between me and whatever came next. I knew the all the ways out. I'd had long enough to find 'em. It was just the plan for after that wasn't too clear.

There was one thing sure, I had to see for myself what happened to her. Some things just can't stay forgotten. B's too stubborn to ever let you get her out of your head. The fact that I wasn't with her--I wasn't killing her myself, or else I wasn't there protecting her when it happened, shit, even I didn't know which--it seemed wrong somehow. That was never how B was supposed to go. And I guess really I was going back to the only place I coulda called home.

I won't lie, I looked back when I was out of range of the lights. Hell, I knew what promises I was breaking. I would've stayed, as long as they wanted, as long as I could stand it. I knew B never believed that.

Never believed that in the end, I was staying there for her.

The house was the same as ever. Somehow I'd always figured all the dying in and around this place shoulda scarred it. But like B and me, the house was left looking good as new, no matter what happened to it. If only you could fix memories like you could windows and doors. I rubbed a hand over my ribs, feeling the smooth skin that was just as wrong as this house was, now that B's mark was gone from it.

It took me a week to get here. I waited in L.A. to see if anyone was looking for me, any Council thugs or Wolfram and Hart lawyer types. Didn't see Angel and them, but Red was at the hotel their business card led me to, and I could guess why. I stayed good, didn't stake too many vamps in case it showed, and used whatever cash they had on 'em for food and new clothes. Not leather, even. Probably everyone--Angel and them--figured I wouldn't be running straight back to Sunnydale. Probably they figured I was long gone. Boston. Mexico. Where ever.

Never back here.

The living room lights were warm yellow, and I could see inside pretty easy. Flowers everywhere like a fucking excuse for sympathy. I saw Red crossing the room once or twice, and two other chicks who seemed pretty comfortable there. I remembered one of them--Tara--Red's girl. The other one was younger, and looked like B in a strange sort of way. Things had changed while I was gone, again. Just like Beefstick, the last time. No idea how he'd got there, where he stood in the group. Now this girl. One more reminder that I was never really part of their lives, here. I never deserved to know how things were going. No one even asked if I would help, with whatever killed B.

Maybe that meant it was just one slip up, one lucky vamp. That nobody saw it coming. But even as I thought it, I knew it wasn't true. The fall--she'd fallen--my belly clenched hard, fear shooting through me, just like when I'd jumped--down--the truck--the sudden endless hurt of landing.

I don't know how long I stood there, falling inside. When I looked again, the lights were out downstairs. I spun around, crouching down defensively, feeling around me for any vamps that mighta snuck up on me while I was mooning away.


The night felt empty, like even the Hellmouth could miss the Slayer, for a while at least. 'Course, it wouldn't be long until the vamps felt me here, and started acting up again. Maybe I should leave, head to Cleveland or somewhere, to keep Red and them safe. Maybe that was the only way I could. Sure as hell they wouldn't want me here doing them any favours. They'd call the cops on me as soon as look at me.

But even thinking that, I was already heading for the tree under B's window. Call me crazy. It wouldn't be the first time.

I hauled myself up to the roof and looked in.

At first I had no clue what I was looking at. My eyes said Buffy was right there, and my heart stopped dead. She was lying in bed staring at the ceiling, calm and still, and I couldn't breathe because what the fuck was going on? My body said there was something seriously wrong--that there was no way that was Buffy. I couldn't sense a goddamn thing from her. It was like I was trapped in a huge box, with thick glass walls blocking me from feeling Buffy. My body screamed that this wasn't real, like I was hallucinating, or dreaming. Hell, even in dreams Buffy was more real than what I felt, staring through her window. And I knew she was dead. I was still hurting with the feel of her death. My brain got stuck halfway between believing what I saw and believing what I sensed. Before I could get it together and think what was happening, I said, "Buffy!"

It came out hoarse and choked, but she heard me.

She heard me. She turned and looked at me, standing outside her window like some fucking peeping Tom. Her calm stare didn't change, and that was the weirdest of all. Buffy has hated me and Buffy has liked me but one thing I can boast about is that she is never calm when she sees me. I bring out the worst in her. I used to be proud of that.

"Buffy," I said again. I was jumpy as hell. This felt like a trap, or a test, or something. I'm all about the physical, and the real world is the only thing I'm confident in, usually. Seeing something I knew wasn't real put me on edge. The world itself was lying to me. I was wigged out and jittery, and Buffy just stared at me. Like she didn't even know who I was.

I yanked the window open and dropped cat-footed into the room. "What the fuck is going on?" I whispered. No need to get Red and them involved. I'm not sure I was even talking to Buffy. I still didn't really believe she was there.

"You are an intruder," Buffy said cheerfully. "If you have come to kill me, I must call Willow to unplug me. Then I will destroy you, luscious evil creature."

I shook my head, trying to clear it. "What?"

"I am Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," she said, and she had the fucking gall to give me her brilliant, gorgeous smile, like everything was just peachy-keen in her little world.

"You are not!" I said, forgetting to keep it down.

"Yes, I am."

"No you're fucking not!"

"Yes, I am."

I nearly disagreed again, but one look at her and I knew she'd be perfectly happy to continue the argument all night if I kept it up. I walked around the bed, and finally everything fell into place. That is, as much as it can on the Hellmouth.

Thick cables snaked from a laptop sitting on the far side of the bed, up and under the covers. The laptop was connected to a wall socket, and another electrical cord plugged into the wall joined the others beneath the blankets.

The laptop screen was flashing Buffybot Recharge Sequence.

"Fuck," I whispered. She--it was a robot. I traced the cables with my eyes. Buffy--the robot--watched me, smiling slightly. She looked exactly like Buffy, but there were so many ways she wasn't. Not just the fact that she felt dead to my Slayer senses, but that smile. It was so carefree, so...joyful. Buffy was always too fucking responsible just to sit back and let life happen. She'd never smiled like that, natural and happy, as if she didn't have the weight of the whole world on her shoulders.

And she didn't any more. She was dead. Red and the Scoobies were using this--this thing, this machine they'd built, and they were acting like it was actually her. Keeping it in Buffy's room, in her bed. It was even wearing her pyjamas. How fucking sick was that? At least I accepted that Buffy was dead. I came back to help, if they'd let me. Looks like they had other solutions they liked better. Anything but Faith, right guys? Even if it means pretending your best friend is alive when she's not. Even if it means lying to yourselves every second of every day. Anything but letting me say I'm sorry.

"Who are you?" the thing asked. "You are not in my facial recognition program. Are you evil?"

"No," I said. "I'm not evil." Like saying it could make it true. I didn't go to prison to forget what I'd done. Murder isn't exactly up there on anyone's Nice list. The Scoobs aren't the only ones who can lie to themselves.

"That is good. I slay evil things, except Spike, who is the evilest, most handsome vampire that ever unlived."

I ignored that. I remembered Spike vaguely, the blond vampire with the chip in his head. He'd been hot for Slayer when I'd last rolled through Sunnydale. I probably gave him enough material to jerk off to for a month. Looked like he and Buffy--the real one--had finally done something about it. It wasn't a surprise, from either of them.

The thing was still babbling about Spike's washboard abs. I tuned it out and pulled down the covers on the bed. I had to know for certain.

A section of the machine's stomach was folded back. Underneath, the cables connected to ports and sockets. Little tag-lights glowed red and green, flashing softly. The pyjamas were rucked up just under her breasts and for a second I wanted to push them up further and see just how real this robot was. Disgusted with myself, I went to push the covers down. My fingers brushed against the thing's surface. And fuck if it didn't feel exactly like skin. Warm and soft.

I saw goosebumps rise where I'd touched, and she breathed in, a little gasp that nearly undid me.

"You're not real," I said, but already in my mind the robot was a "she" again, a person, not a thing at all. Not Buffy, but not just a machine.

She shook her head, like a kid afraid of getting her lies found out. "I'm the Slayer."

"You're not the only one." This time I pulled the blankets up firmly. I didn't need to be thinking about what I could see underneath.

"You are also a Slayer?" she asked with delight.

"Yeah," I said, trying to hold back an eyeroll. "I'm Faith, the Vampire Slayer. But let's keep that just between us, okay?" I didn't really trust her not to tell, but wasn't like Red could find me if I didn't want to be found. I was leaving town anyway. If they didn't want me, there was nothing I could do here. Besides, maybe the Scoobs could live with this robot where Buffy should be, but I knew I couldn't. Dead was dead. Rest in peace was supposed to mean just that. The robot was like a ghost, or a zombie. Just...wrong.

"Faith, the Vampire Slayer, who is not evil," the robot repeated, like she was memorizing it.

God, how long had I waited to hear those words from Buffy's lips? They sounded a hell of a lot like forgiveness.

Too bad Buffy died before she could say them.

"Don't tell anyone I was here," I said again, heading for the window. My eyes were hot, and my throat was tight. I couldn't stay here, not with Buffy's face staring at me from a robot's body.

"But Faith! You can't leave! You are also a Slayer. We must patrol together and keep the world safe from nasty demons."

I let out a sigh that was half laugh, but fuck, it hurt. Buffy never once asked me to stay. Never wanted to go patrolling with me as much as the stupid robot obviously wanted to. "Okay," I said. "I'll hang out for a few days."

I'd have to, just to make sure the town wasn't going through anything apocalypsy. If Giles was around, I wouldn't worry. But I hadn't seen him with Red and Tara. Plus there was that other girl. That was enough of a mystery to keep me hooked.

And...I hadn't seen Buffy's grave yet.

I hadn't really said goodbye.

"Don't cry, Faith." The robot watched me from the bed, her smile turning to worry. So fucking innocent. I guess robots don't know how much the world can suck. Lucky robots.

"I'm not," I said. I blinked and ran a rough hand over my eyes.

"You can visit me whenever I'm recharging," the robot offered.

"No, I can't," I said, because if I did, I knew I'd fall into this trap. The trap of thinking she was real. "Goodbye, Buffy."

And I slipped out into the night again.

I never had a problem leaving places behind. There's a list of them as long as my arm, towns I stayed at one day or two on my way from Boston to Sunnydale, killing vampires when they showed, dancing and fucking if they didn't. Sometimes all three, if there was a chance.

I planned to leave Sunnydale the same way. I knew there wasn't going to be any sympathy coming my way from Red or Xander. They'd have the manhunt organized before you could say one-armed man. Fuck, I was guilty, and breaking out of jail wasn't much reason to trust me. They were both the type to follow in Buffy's self-righteous footsteps. As for the Hellmouth, they probably were dumb enough to think bravery was all they needed to take care of it.

So, yeah, I was going to kill enough vamps to get some travelling cash, and head out of town. If Willow was so stupid that she thought her witchy powers and a robot could save the world on a weekly basis, then nothing was going to break through her fucking ego. I wasn't even going to try. I don't know what the fuck they were thinking, building a fucking robot and pretending it was Buffy. No way it was going to work. Nothing can replace a Slayer. The instincts, the skills, the mystical senses--there's just no way that fucking machine could do half the damage I could. I was the Slayer.

But they didn't get that before. And this time I was going to leave before they had the chance. There were other Hellmouths in the world. If Xander and Willow died because they thought they were heroes--well, they'd made damn sure it wasn't my concern.

The motel hadn't changed. Different night manager, different maids; not a surprise. Vamps needed places to crash as much as anybody, and if it came with free snacks, all the better.

I slept until sunrise. Daylight's better than an alarm clock to a Slayer. Then I walked down the row of motel rooms and kicked open all the doors where I could feel vampires. I watched the sunlight hit them, listened to the whoosh of dust. Most of them were asleep and didn't even know what killed 'em. No mess, no fighting. I was exhausted and numb. I couldn't even feel the rush I usually get from seeing vamps die. I rummaged through whatever shit they left behind and went back to my room almost a hundred bucks richer.

I coulda moved on that day.

There was no reason to stay. I'd gone over that a thousand times. Everyone in town hated me. That bunch of commandos might be hunting me. The police would be looking in any town this close to the prison. Buffy was dead.

Buffy was dead.

There were twelve cemeteries in Sunnydale, not counting the private ones and the graveyards around churches. I'd fought in every single one. Following Buffy, chasing monsters, kicking demon ass. I didn't want her to be in any of 'em. She was--she shoulda been better than that, somehow. But I had to find her.

It was a different thing, walking through graveyards in the middle of the day. The sun was warm, and I could feel my skin tanning again after all that time in prison. The names on the headstones stood out like they never had before, when it was easy to pretend I couldn't read them in the dark. I didn't like looking at the dates. There were a hell of a lot from two springs ago--the Boss's Ascension. So many little kids, and people my age, or younger. And because I was looking for a certain name, a certain date, I couldn't look away.

It was late afternoon and the sun was setting before I found her. I guess the Scoobies got one thing right, because they hadn't shoved her in among all the other plots. They didn't want Buffy surrounded by the dead she'd destroyed. There was a little corner of Memorial Gardens Cemetery that edged up against Breaker's Woods, and she was there, apart from the rest. A long, trailing willow made a green cave around her headstone. The dirt was raked clean and there were fresh daisies set nearby.

She saved the world. A lot. Cutesy words carved into a bit of sandstone--I pegged Xander for that pithy little remark--then her name, the dates, the end.

The end.

That's it, when you think about it. I didn't want to, but my body insisted on reaching out my funky Slayer senses and try to get a feel for her. Of course there was nothing. I couldn't feel a thing. And, I guess because of that, I couldn't imagine that Buffy was really there, separated from me by nothing more than six feet of dirt. Six feet of dirt and all the fuck-ups we'd always had between us, so that we weren't with each other even back when I was on her side and I still thought she was on mine.

I wanted to say goodbye, so long, fuck off. That, and I'm sorry. All that shit she wouldn't let me say when she was alive. That's the only reason I came here, right? I coulda been safe and sipping pina coladas somewhere south of the border, and instead I was here. So there shoulda been a reason. It wasn't like I had false hopes or I thought Buffy might still be alive or something, because ever since she fell I'd been feeling her death like a weight on my chest, hurting, holding me down. She. Was. Dead. That's fucking it, that's all.

I sure as hell didn't come here to cry about it.

So the sun went down and I was still standing there. My Watcher once said that every Slayer had a death wish, kinda, and I'd had more than one encounter with mine. Rainstorms and lightning will probably always bring me back to the night I wanted to give up. I wondered again how Buffy had died--who she'd fought, and how, and why this once she hadn't pulled a miracle out of her ass. The shot of adrenaline from that night, when the power came to me again, was...triumphant, I was sure, and...hopeful? She must have won, somehow. No matter what, she always did. We both fell, but she died with purpose, and got the rest she wanted. I got an eight-month ticket to the coma ward and one more chance to screw up my life.

Criminal. Felon. Runaway. Yeah, I think I managed the screw-up part pretty good.

I'd had time to say whatever I needed to. Move on, I thought. Boston, Cleveland, Mexico, Canada. Anywhere but here.

"Knock, knock!"

I whirled around. It was Buffy's voice, but I already knew better. It was the robot thing, and this was the last place I wanted to run into her. She was right behind me, a bright, beautiful smile lighting up her face. Jeez, it gave me the creeps: Buffy's grave behind me and this lookalike freakshow in front. And I couldn't feel either of them. I guess Buffy never had to deal with losing that together-feeling. From the time she was called to the time she died--the first time--she'd had no idea that that sense was even possible. But I'd never felt it any other way. Even when I was in Boston I knew she was here. Now that she was gone--fuck. I pushed past the machine and stalked back towards the main part of the cemetery. It was after twilight, and the newbie vamps would be coming out soon to feed. Older vamps liked to sleep in; I usually never saw one before midnight.

"Who's there?"

Shit, the thing was persistent. I walked faster and tried to ignore her, but she followed me, still with that the-world-is-peachy-keen smile on her face, like she just got told the biggest package under the Christmas tree was all hers.

"Amos. Amos who? A mosquito bit me. Knock, knock!"

I couldn't help sneaking glances at her. She seemed perfectly happy...and that was just weird. Buffy had been hurting for Angel when I first got here, and things hadn't exactly improved from there. And when I'd taken over her body there hadn't been anything to convince me she was doing any better.

"Who's there? Andy."

Yeah, I could feel the triumph in Buffy's death, but my Slayer dreams in prison had been full of sword-guys and stress. This robot, this carefree, confident, air-headed Buffy, was really worse than any replacement coulda been. I was getting angrier and angrier, tension building in my shoulders, my fists aching to pound on something. And the robot just would not shut up.

"Andy who? And he bit me again! Knock--"

I rounded on her savagely. "Shut up."

The smile didn't even take a hit. If anything, it got bigger, brighter, and happier. "Faith! Friend of mine! I am glad you are here to patrol with me."

"I'm not," I growled. "I'm leaving."

"But what about those nasty bloodsucking vampires over there? Perhaps they are plotting the nefarious takeover of all of Sunnydale!"

I looked where she pointed. A couple of youngish vamps were pulling a new pal of theirs out of the dirt. None of them could've been over a year old, and as for the baby-vamp, I figured he'd gotten turned only yesterday. He'd be hungry, but reckless, and the other two wouldn't be much help. They were all the sort of fodder I used to warm up on a boring Tuesday. You'd need a pretty good imagination to think they were going to find their way to the blood bank, let alone plot an apocalypse.

The Buffy robot, though, was already charging, full-steam ahead. Stake raised, she sprinted over to them, looking more like a twelve-year-old asking friends to play than the Slayer. "Feel my wrath, things of evil!" she cried.

Again I cursed Willow in my head. The robot wasn't going to fool anybody for long, and it sure didn't look like she'd be effective against anything stronger than a day-old vampire. I don't care what Red's motives were, this was just stupid. I went after the robot, rolling my eyes.

She'd already started a pitched battle before I was halfway there, and it was a disaster. I figured if somebody, like, say, Xander saw this, he wouldn't see anything different--just Buffy doing her usual kick-ass routine, knocking vamps flying, sending them end over end and crashing into tombstones and lunging at them with her stake. Xander probably thought the robot was fucking great, like a circus act or a kung fu movie. Maybe even Willow was fooled.

But Giles? God, how'd they suck him into this? He woulda been able to tell them that this was never gonna work. Compared to Buffy, the thing was flailing like Xander on a dancefloor. Her kicks were slow, her punches were weak, and every move and throw was just sloppy, a mess of karate and judo that was more show than blow. Sure, there were vamps getting beaten every time they rushed into the fight--but that was because the robot was thrashing around like a fish out of water. And the vampires were about the dumbest you could ask for: hungry rookies who thought they were having fun taking down their meal, not scared demons fighting for their unlives.

I ducked under one of the vamp's arms as he scrambled up from another shoddy throw and planted my stake in his chest. Poof. I walked up behind the second one--the one that had risen tonight--and dusted him before he even knew I was there. Poof again. The third one was grappling with the robot, licking his lips as they wrestled. The machine was still wearing her happy smile, and between curses about the vampire's ultimate evil, she was trying to tell him a knock-knock joke. I shook my head and staked him through the back. Poof, and match.

The robot looked up at me as the dust cleared between us, looking like a heroine off a trashy romance novel--wispy hair falling around her face, big blue eyes filled with adoration, hands clasped in front of her, and still, that manic smile. "Thank you, Faith! You have saved Sunnydale from destruction! You should always patrol with me; together, we will rid the world of evil!"

"I don't think that's how it works," I muttered.

The robot nodded and started off toward the gates of the cemetery. "I must go to Willow. I am injured, and she will service me."

"Wait, Bu--robot, thing. You!" I couldn't help myself. That was it? Three little baby-vamps and she was done? If that's the way she patrolled, Sunnydale really was in danger. Probably more from her than from anything else.

"You can call me the Buffybot if you wish," she said. She held up her arm, and showed me where circuits were poking through a small cut in, I guess. "I am injured. I must return to Willow now. Good-bye."

"Bye," I said, stunned.

I shouldn't have stayed this long. I didn't want to know how much danger they were all in--Willow, her girl, Xander, maybe Giles if he was still around... I knew them. They were going to try and hold the Hellmouth closed with a robot and a prayer. They thought it was their duty, like they'd signed on the dotted line the moment Buffy had let them find out about her powers. Brave, yeah, but fucking useless, too. They couldn't do it. Not without a Slayer...

They didn't want me around. Hell, they'd probably celebrate if I turned up dead. But I wasn't going to get myself killed for their convenience...and I couldn't let them get killed for mine. Didn't matter how moronic they were being. Maybe they'd signed up for the evil-fighting duty, but for me, it was destiny. I didn't just have to, it was my whole life, everything in me. I was supposed to be guarding the Hellmouth, not them.

I was the Slayer.

I guess I'd be sticking around Sunnydale longer than I'd planned.

So I stayed, all that summer, while the sun baked the town and my motel room raised a fugly stink I couldn't get rid of and couldn't get used to. What I did get used to was hiding. During the day I didn't worry too much, 'cause I figured that the Scoobies would stay near the parts of town they'd always hung out in--the good parts, in other words, a block and a half from the nastier bits but even so, about a billion miles away.

It was tougher to stay out of the way at night. Willow and the others realized that the Buffybot couldn't handle even a routine patrol by herself, so they started going out in a big group. Dumb, dumb, dumb. First off, they looked like food to any vampire worth his fangs, a bunch of college kids out past curfew. Second, they were loud. Xander crinkling his cheezy bags, his girlfriend whining and arguing, Willow screeching any time her girl looked to be getting in harm's way. Once the fights got started, along with all the yowling, the smarter vamps just left the district. Third, they sucked. The robot was probably the best of them, but that wasn't saying much. They all got thrown around a lot, and the vamps escaped more often than not, even when Spike was helping out.

I think I strained myself rolling my eyes, watching them from a distance. It was like the Keystone Kops, this old black-and-white show with the running around and falling over and getting in each other's way. It was so bad that it was damn easy for me to sneak within range with my crossbow and take out over half the vamps they were fighting without them catching a clue. I didn't want to encourage them, but it was the only way I could keep their asses from dying every night.

Spike was the only one who really coulda caught me. Twice, he almost did. They were nights I got too close, only to find him staring around like he was looking for something but he'd forgotten what. He frowned, puzzled, and lifted his head as if trying to get a better scent. But the fight got his attention pretty damn quick, and once, he got slammed into a mausoleum wall for his trouble.

It wasn't fun, not the way Slaying had been--the way it was supposed to be. Angel had visited me enough in prison for me to get a handle on what redemption really meant. Part of it was confessing to his cop friend, but a bigger part was trying to set things right even if I never got the credit for it.

And, okay, so I still wasn't much for the long-term planning. I had no idea what I'd say if the Scoobs caught me out doing their killing for them. I knew they wouldn't believe me if I said I'd been helping. So I stayed, knowing all along it was going to get fucked up somehow.

No way could I have ever guessed exactly how.

As far as I could tell, it was a night like any other, and I was already well into my own patrol before I saw the first sign of the Scoobs out and about. That shoulda been my first clue--I was deep in Memorial Gardens, hunting, but not finding much, when all of a sudden Willow was right across the clearing from me. Less than fifty feet from me, but she didn't see me at all. She was marching, head high, all purposeful and militant. She was carrying a little clay pot and some candles. Candles meant magic, and I wondered what the hell she was thinking coming out alone in the middle of the goddamn night to do it. But then the rest of them--Xander, Anya, and Tara--came out of the trees too. They followed Willow, slumped and staring at their feet mostly, and it looked like they were none too happy about being out here.

By that time, I'd scaled a tree that gave me a good view of the whole little procession. I wondered where Giles, Spike, and the robot were. I wondered what the hell they thought they were getting up to. Just when I figured they'd reached about the stupidest level possible, they decide to put themselves in even more danger. I wanted to knock some sense into their skulls, let 'em know exactly how many times over they'd all be dead if it wasn't for me. But right then, Willow stopped walking, and I finally bought a clue.

They were standing in front of Buffy's grave. Willow knelt at its foot, and the others gathered into a little semi-circle around it. They all lit these black candles. The flickering light showed just how wide-eyed and skittish they were, even Tara, who looked like she'd fall apart if you said boo, but who was really pretty steady underneath it all.

Willow started her little witchy routine. What the fuck did she think she was gonna do? Save Buffy from three months in a coffin? I knew that's what she thought she was doing. Willow was just that fucking arrogant, thinking she was more powerful than death. I felt the magic sparking through the little clearing, I could practically feel it crawling over my skin. The fucking robot was one thing, but to have a goddamn corpse do their slaying for them? I mean, okay, they didn't like me and couldn't trust me, but they'd rather get into the darkest hell of black magic to try and avoid having me do my goddamn job? And I knew black magic. I knew the feel, the electric taste of it creeping through Breaker's Woods, spreading. This was fucking dangerous stuff. Slaying was one thing, a certain kind of danger, 'cause maybe you'll get killed and maybe you'll get vamped, but what Willow was playing with was the sort of thing that would get your soul tortured for eternity.

I'd seen the Boss do it. I knew.

I jumped out of my tree. I was gonna kick apart the Scoobs' little wicca-party, even if it cost me everything, even if it killed me. Fuck saving them. If they were going to be this boneheaded there was nothing I could do to keep them safe. No, it wasn't about that. It was for Buffy, I guess. Like she needed more shit, even after she was finally at peace. What did they think? That bringing her back was going to be some joyride, some little pleasant cakewalk? I don't fucking think so.

I heard roaring in the distance, and for a split second I wondered if that was part of Willow's spell. But Xander was peering around, and Anya's face was white and tense. There was something else happening. Someone yelling war-whoops, ugly laughter, and deep rumbly revving engines. I saw them, coming over the hill, a whole fucking biker gang of demons. Shit. Shit. I had no idea what to do. Go kill the fuckers? Or stop Willow before she could finish? She was getting close to the end, writhing and screaming, almost falling to the ground. Tara was watching her with horror in her eyes, and I started running for her.

And then--

And then I fell. I don't know how to explain it. I was still hidden behind some brush, not out of the trees yet, and my feet went out from under me. I slammed to the ground, losing my breath in a huge painful whump. I gasped, but nothing happened, and I couldn't fucking breathe, and then the pain got worse--ripping, tearing, like someone was going after my heart with a dull rusty knife, like I was fucking dying. Getting weaker, power wrenched out of my lungs, my chest cracking and breaking under that pull.

Roars filled the night, demon and machine. I heard screams. Scoobies, running, scattering, and the pain, oh God, squeezing my heart, crushing me, pressing me flat and helpless and then I, it, everything exploded--

I woke up, my chest aching, my breath tasting like puke. The roars were distant, faded. Couldn't hear anyone nearby. I pushed myself up until I was sitting. I felt a little empty, brittle, like I'd break if I got up too fast. But the pain was gone, and I couldn't feel any injuries. I climbed to my feet, carefully. The clearing was deserted. Tire tracks ripped through the grass around Buffy's grave. The headstone leaned over, knocked sideways.

I pulled air into my lungs, stumbling out from behind the last screening trees. My eyes were streaming, I couldn't hardly see, and I fell to my knees next to the grave. Broken shards of pottery were scattered about, and the black waxy stumps of candles.

Goddamn it, Willow, I thought. God-fucking-damn it.

I didn't wish Buffy dead. Not now. I'd had my chances to kill her, and I'd had time to regret every one of 'em. I didn't want her to be dead! I fucking needed her, wanted her, hated her because she was always too perfect. But I never wanted her to be gone.

And when I felt her think I just shrugged and got over it? No way. No fucking way.

But to bring her back? Force her to live again? If Willow had asked me--if any of them had just thought to pick up a phone and ask me--I could've told them Buffy was at peace when she died. She wanted it, she was fine with it. God, the--the fucking triumph, the power--and, oh, she'd been scared when she fell, and it hurt, that falling, but it was what she needed to do. There had never been any regret.

Now--fuck, I was crying, tears blinding me, because now--I could feel her, I could feel her again, just like always. Helpless, hurt. I could feel her, below me, trapped in the grave she though she'd earned.

And now, she couldn't have any of that. None of it. Because Willow's spell had worked.

She was alive...

I gasped, bent over the mound of earth in front of me. Willow--all of them--they'd just left her here, never came back to see if their fucking magic worked--goddamn them!

Frantic, because I could feel her frantic beneath me, I scraped wildly at the ground. I grabbed the nearest bit of Willow's broken pot and scrabbled through the dirt. I went a little crazy, digging faster than I'd ever thought possible, with nothing but my hands and bits of clay. Flinging clods of earth aside, deeper and deeper, using every scrap of my Slayer strength, I burrowed into Buffy's grave.

I hit wood, slivers stabbing beneath my nails. I split the planks apart with my bare hands, getting my fingers into the cracks and splintering them apart. Never for a second did I stop to think what would happen if it hadn't worked--if Buffy was still dead, rotting there--because I could feel her, and now I could hear her sobs.

And she was there. Her hands met mine, hers icy cold and mine hot and scratched bloody. I widened the hole, reached through, and then I was pulling her into my arms.

She fell into me, so fucking small, so cold. She struggled, but I was stronger, and I held her to me. I collapsed, there in the bottom of that mucky, death-smelling hole, and Buffy buried herself in my arms, and cried.


...Oops. There isn't one.

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August 26, 2005