Chapter Twenty-Nine

The sound of Pomp and Circumstance filled the warm summer air as Buffy and the other graduates filed into the rows of arranged folding chairs. Parents eagerly waved and took pictures as their children passed by and Buffy found Joyce doing the same from her place in the crowd. There were no other family members there to celebrate with her but as far as Buffy was concerned as she looked around and spotted Willow, Xander, and Giles, the ones that mattered were already there.

Many of her fellow students were looking anxiously at Buffy and she tried to wordlessly reassure each and every one of them though it was impossible with the sheer number of worried gazes she was receiving as more and more filed into the rows of seats. Her maroon graduation gown was making her sweat and she wanted to open it up to get some air but that would reveal the slew of weapons she had underneath. That would be a bad thing, especially with the way that Mayor Wilkins was looking at her from his seat up on the small stage. She quickly averted her eyes and tried her best not to meet his gaze again.

Looking instead toward the row ahead of her, she smiled at Willow who was just in front of her and over one seat. She looked nervous even though she was trying her best to keep calm and Buffy leaned forward, placing her hand on the back of Willow's chair so she could pull herself closer.

"How are you holding up, Wills?"

"On a scale of one to ten, I'm at maybe . . ." she looked up and pretended to calculate numbers in her head, then looked back at Buffy, ". . . four. But if it makes you feel any better, it's gone up from a two and a half since you started talking to me."

"It does," Buffy replied, chuckling quietly before becoming serious. "Everything is gonna be fine. We've gone over the plan dozens of times. You know what you have to do, I know what I have to do; we're prepared like boy scouts – and hey, wearing equally ridiculous outfits."

After a bit of debate at the library two days before, they'd settled on the only plan that really worked: fighting back with as much manpower – and firepower – as possible. Oz and Giles prepared weapons while Xander made a miniature-sized ‘battlefield' using a slightly modified Risk board game and some tiny army men figurines. They'd gone over possible plans again and again while Buffy and Faith trained Dawn, the sounds of their sparring echoing in the library. A plan was made, they were all given their roles . . . and sent out to recruit.

The next day, they had to rally the troops at Graduation rehearsal. Not only that but it was a good opportunity for everyone to check out the battleground and learn the layout.

After rehearsal had ended, Buffy rounded up all of the students in the parking lot of the school before they could leave. She told them what was happening and while a few of them dismissed her as a nutcase and left, the rest were smart enough to know to trust Buffy Summers when it came to all of the weird stuff that went on in Sunnydale. She'd never steered them wrong before, and after all, she'd saved most of them at least once at one point or another in their high school career.

While a few students decided to take their families and skip town before anything bad could happen, the rest were willing to stand up and fight for their lives; for their homes and their future. There were a few that just wanted to stick it to the mayor and really, Buffy had no problem reaping the benefits from their problem with authority. Wrong? Probably, but she wasn't about to turn down extra help. There was a saying about looking a gift horse in the mouth but she never really understood that.

Horse teeth were kind of scary so she didn't understand why people would want to look anyhow.

"I kind of like them," Willow said, running her fingertips down the silky arms of her maroon graduation gown. "They feel like accomplishment."

"Huh. There must be something wrong with mine. It mostly just feels like itchy," Buffy replied, her fingertips trying to scratch through the slippy material. "But you have to admit that the caps are just completely unnecessary."

"True. My head feels more embarrassed than it usually does."

A silence fell between them as they watched the rest of the graduates file into the rows, squinting into the sunlight. Xander was a few rows ahead of them and he turned around, giving them a quick nod. The whole military and strategy thing really suited him, Buffy noted; she just really hoped that he didn't get caught up in the fray. She couldn't be there to save him if she had to focus on the giant snake.

"Have you seen Faith?" Willow asked after a few minutes.

Buffy turned and looked toward the bleachers. She strained her eyes and focused and eventually saw the ghost of a movement beneath them and a flash of maroon.

"She's waiting in the wings," Buffy confirmed quietly. She quickly looked up to the stage to see if the mayor was watching her but he was busy being schmoozed by the head of the PTA.

"And Dawnie?"

"In position, or at least I hope she is. She couldn't stop fretting in the mirror this morning. It would have been entertaining if she wasn't still giving me a case of the heebie-jeebies," Buffy replied, smirking a little.

"And jeebieness aside, everything's okay at the good old Summers house?" Willow hinted.

"Right as rain," Buffy replied, then frowned a little. "Why is rain right, anyway?"

Willow giggled but tried again, a little less subtle this time. "So if things are good at home, and we make it through today . . ."

"We will."

". . . will Faith be taking up permanent residence? And are you ever going to take that bracelet off?"

Buffy looked down at her wrist which she'd been absently itching and quickly pulled the big maroon sleeve over her irritated skin.

"Faith's been quiet," Buffy said sounding somewhat confused. "It could be because mom's been making her stay on the couch since Dawn spilled the beans on . . . well, you know."

"I actually don't know. I say that once we beat the bad guys, we go for mochas so you can tell me all about it. I feel like I'm slacking in my best friend duties. I didn't even know you were a fan of the ladies! I may need to brush up on my best friend observation skills."

Buffy laughed quietly and shook her head.

"We'll talk once the dust settles, I promise. But no, I think Faith will be taking Angel up on staying at his place. She said she needs her own space, whatever that means."

Willow nodded, deciding to save that talk for mochas. "And Dawn?"

Looking down at her wrist again, Buffy shrugged a little.

"If she comes through today, I guess I owe it to her to take the bracelet off. It feels weird though, kind of like I'm signing myself up to be brainwashed. But Faith and I are the only ones who haven't drank from the well, so . . ." she trailed off, leaving it at that.

Now it was Willow's turn to frown, only this time in confusion. She opened her mouth to ask what Buffy was speaking about but the sound of the tapping and feedback through the speakers surrounding the stage caught their attention. Wincing, Willow turned around and Buffy sat back in her chair, ready for this thing to finally start.

Waiting for a quasi-apocalypse sure did suck.

Principal Snyder was at his spot at the podium, surveying the students with his usual sneer in place.

"Congratulations to the class of 1999. You all proved more or less adequate. This is a time of celebration, so: sit still and be quiet." Something seemed to catch his eye and he looked over toward a student in the front row. "Spit out that gum. Please welcome our distinguished guest speaker: Richard Wilkins III."

The crowd began to clap and Buffy's eyes narrowed when she saw Mayor Wilkins stand up from his seat and shake Snyder's squirly little hand. He took his spot at the podium and smiled as he looked over the crowd, his gaze briefly meeting Buffy's before flicking through his cue cards and beginning his speech.

Buffy frowned as he spoke, knowing that beyond the kind and cheerful words and the false smile was a man intent on wreaking havoc on the town he claimed to love so much. She actually didn't even know if he was still a man; after all, whatever rituals he'd had to do prior to the ceremony had to have changed him at least a little.

Most men weren't invincible.

She tried to pay attention and caught him in the middle of his speech. Willow looked back at her and rolled her eyes. God, couldn't he just ascend already?

". . . journey's end. And what is a journey? Is it just . . . distance traveled? Time spent? No. It's what happens on the way; it's the things that happen to you. At the end of the journey, you're not the same."

Feeling suddenly and unexpectedly touched by that part of the speech, Buffy turned her head and looked back towards the bleachers. She focused and eventually saw a small movement – Faith's fingers stretching up to get her attention. Buffy smiled and Faith nodded, then disappeared back into the shadows to wait for her cue.

Buffy faced forward again, not wanting to give away Faith's location, and found herself lost in thought once again. The past year really had been a journey for her. She thought she'd never recover from having to kill Angel – and then he was back. Then Faith was there, then Faith was playing for the bad guys, and somewhere between all of that Buffy had realized that she didn't need Angel.

That it just couldn't work with him.

She could never really dwell on that too much though because she'd been too busy dwelling on Faith's defection to the Mayor. It had bothered her more than she thought it should have, but now she knew why:

It was because she cared.

She cared about Faith, and in an odd turn of events, she cared for her more than a friend. Maybe that was why they had never gotten along – too many feelings, not enough courage to deal with them.

Buffy Summers – brave enough to face a giant snake demon but not her feelings for another girl.

She chuckled quietly to herself and kept smiling softly as she thought about Faith and of how things came to be between them. She only hoped that things would continue on as they were. She'd finally had the courage to admit her own feelings for Faith, even if it had only been to herself. Would Faith have the courage to stay and admit it as well?

Her graduation wish was that when the coming battle was over and the dust had a chance to settle, that Faith would still be there. That whatever had been going on between them would continue and that they could see what the future held for them – together.

God, that cabin in Montana had made her so gay.

A sudden shadow crossing overhead got Buffy's attention and she – and everyone else in the crowd – looked up at the quickly darkening sky. In a matter of seconds the shadow moved over the sun, blocking its rays. Day turned into night before their very eyes and parents and families gasped from the stands. While they remained transfixed by what was happening in the sky, Buffy looked over to the mayor to see him flinching in pain.

This was it. It was beginning.

Still, Mayor Wilkins tried to continue his speech, grunting in pain as he did so.

"And so as we look back on . . . ahh! . . . on the events that brought us to this day . . ." he took a deep breath and looked toward the crowd. Everyone was now intently watching him, momentarily forgetting about the lack of sun. "We . . . we must all . . ."

He screamed aloud and Buffy stood up, her intense gaze focused directly on him. The students looked from her to the Mayor and back, waiting for their cue.

"It has begun. My destiny," Mayor Wilkins said, smiling. "It's a little sooner than I expected. I had this whole section on civic pride . . . but I guess we'll just skip to the big finish!"

His features began to shift and change and Buffy reached into her maroon gown, pulling a sharp blade from it. The mayor was too busy grossly morphing to notice it but she held up the knife and yelled, "Now!"

All of the students immediately stood up from their seats, pulling off their gowns to reveal a plethora of axes, stakes, small crossbows and knives. No sooner than they were ready with weapons in hand did they see a swarm of vampires strolling around the corner and headed right to them.

Buffy looked over her shoulder to see Angel walking down the steps with a few students behind him, all wielding weapons and ready to jump into the fray. He nodded at her and then looked over her shoulder, his eyes growing wide. Noticing his change in demeanor, Buffy turned around to see the mayor fully morphed into his full demonic form.

The picture in the book hadn't even begun to do the creepiness of the giant snake any justice. It had rows and rows of sharp teeth, looked kind of like a dragon, and it was even bigger than they could have imagined.

"Oh god, is this still going to work?" she asked, her eyes wide.

By now Xander and Oz were at her side, along with Willow and Cordelia.

"The plan is solid, Buff," Xander replied, undeterred by the giant snake before them. "It's a bit bigger than we planned but . . . yeah, solid plan is solid. Angel's got the vamp situation in check for the next few minutes and we've got Willow's back. Parents are being escorted out as we speak. You ready to get the horribly ugly and terrifying snake?"

"If I have to, though I have to admit, I'm feeling very Indiana Jones here," Buffy said with a nervous smile. Her demeanor suddenly changing, she took a deep breath and yelled, "Flamethrowers, now!"

Several students in the front row threw their seats out of the way to reveal flamethrowers and weapons that they'd stored there earlier in the day. They geared up and immediately began bathing the giant snake in huge plumes of flame. It twisted and turned and tried to escape the heat but couldn't get far in the small area it was temporarily contained in.

Without warning it slunk down through the flames and grabbed one of the students in its terrifying mouth, biting him in half and swallowing him down easily. Students began to scream and run away, only to come face to face with the vampires that had broken through Angel's line.

"Buff, it's now or never!" Xander warned.

"Willow, get moving, now!" Buffy replied.

Willow nodded and quickly moved over to a table that hadn't yet been knocked over. She climbed up onto it and sat Indian-style, trying to find a sense of peace as Xander, Cordelia, and Oz surrounded the table to protect her from oncoming attacks. It was then that Buffy saw a flash of shiny maroon fabric run past them from the bleachers and toward the snake. Knowing that everyone else had removed their maroon gowns, she knew exactly who it was.


"Hey boss!" Faith yelled when she was close enough for the mayor to see.

"Faithy?" he asked, the mayor's usual voice sounding comical coming from the mouth of the giant snake. "You're . . . alive. I know a certain few lying vampires who are going to lose their jobs when this is all over."

"You tried to kill me," Faith said, ignoring the lightness in his tone. Her jaw was clenched tight and her eyes flashed dangerously. The knife he'd given her was held in her crushing grip, glistening in the orange light from the flamethrowers.

"It was all business," he replied. The flames licking at his now coarse skin again, the mayor began to writhe and whipped his tail around, crushing a student in the process.

"And this is all revenge." Her voice was low and dangerous and even if the mayor had seen the attack coming, he didn't have the chance to react.

Holding the knife by the blade, Faith pulled her arm back and threw it at the giant snake, a cruel smile appearing on her face when it impaled directly in his right eye. Letting out a loud roar that sent most of the remaining students wielding the flamethrowers running, the snake began to writhe and whip around until the knife dislodged and fell to the ground with a clatter. The damage was done though; he was blinded in one eye – and suitably pissed off.

The plan was working so far. Then again, pissing off the giant snake demon was probably the easiest part of the plan; it was what came next that would be the tricky part.

Shaking his head, the snake snarled as it looked over at Faith.

"You are in some serious need of discipline, young lady!"

"Faith, go. Now!" Buffy yelled.

And for once, Faith listened to her.

Hopping over fallen chairs and tables, Faith made her way across the area and headed toward the school, the snake hot on her heels. Buffy had to fight every instinct not to run after them but that wasn't part of the plan. Instead, she ran off in the opposite direction, taking one last glance back at the chaos in the courtyard before letting herself into an unlocked door on the side of the school. She caught sight of the giant snake barreling down the hall headed in the opposite direction, its huge body crushing lockers and display cases as it moved along.

Buffy paused and winced; trashing yet another school so wasn't going to look good on her college transcripts!

Letting it go for now, she moved to run up the set of stairs in front of her to the second floor but had to stop and shield her eyes at the sudden bright light coming from the courtyard. With her forearm over her forehead, she peeked outside to see a huge glowing ball of fire hovering above Willow's head. It was the size of a discoball and just as festive. The best part, was, that it was hot as the sun and just as bright, and every single vampire in the yard – save for Angel who had slipped into the sewers – burnt up to a crisp.

The students began to clap and cheer but Buffy didn't have time to celebrate. Instead, she pulled something out from under her maroon gown and tossed it on her head, haphazardly adjusting it as she began to run up the steps.

She was running late!

Faith was breathing hard as she ran across the gymnasium and headed toward the back halls. She looked down at her watch and, shaking her head a little, picked up her pace. She could hear the mayor tearing through the halls and covered her head when he burst into the gym behind her, sending debris flying everywhere. Not stopping to look how close he was, she barreled out into the hall and smiled as she ran past another person wearing a maroon gown.

"Good luck!" she yelled, then took off up a set of stairs to the second floor.

The mayor burst through the gym doors and out into yet another hallway. This one wasn't wrecked so he obviously hadn't been down it yet. He looked left for signs of Faith, then right. Standing just five feet away from him was a young girl in a maroon graduation gown. With one eye out of commission and drywall and brick dust blurring the vision of the other, he had to squint to see her properly.

"You're not my Faith," he said dubiously.

"Nope," Dawn replied, grinning manically. "But she did teach me how to hit."

Without warning Dawn stepped forward and gave him a massive uppercut under what could only be construed as his jaw. While a normal punch wouldn't have fazed the huge demon, this wasn't a normal punch.

It was a slayer punch.

And it had delivered a sharp metal canister into his flesh.

The mayor howled in pain and threw himself against a wall which gave Dawn ample time to begin to climb the stairs that Faith had just gone up. She waited at the top of the stairwell for him and when he appeared at the bottom, she took off running. "You are sorely in need of a lesson in manners, little missy!"

He immediately gave chase and began to barrel after her down the hall. Empty classrooms passed by on either side of them. He could smell her fear – or maybe that was just the Chem lab they passed – and he used all of his strength to close the gap between them. Just as he was sure he could get his teeth around her, a flash of maroon caught his eye from a classroom to his left. Confused, he slowed down . . . and that was when he felt the stinging bite of another metal canister being plunged into his skin, this time along his side.

Again he howled in pain and stopped moving, not nearly as preoccupied as he had been about catching the young girl he'd been chasing as he was on chomping the arms off of whoever had hit him with the second canister. He tried to turn around in the too-narrow hallway and had to settle for taking out the wall to his side. When he was facing the other way, he saw the girl running down the hall just twenty feet ahead of him.

She turned around and grinned . . . then popped him the finger.

Oh yeah, that had to be Faith.

Taking off at top speed, he followed her to the end of the hall and down yet another stairwell. He was gaining on her, that much was clear to him, but when she ran through the double doors of the library, he winced a little; busting through that big heavy doorframe was sure to give him a headache.

He crashed through them just a few moments after her and found himself in the middle of the library, looking up at two girls holding what looked like giant harpoon guns. Both were brunette . . . but neither were Faith. He studied both girls and, while he couldn't identify Dawn, he could tell that the other was Buffy Summers in one of the most god-awful wigs he'd ever seen.

"Well color me embarrassed," he said. "I'd blame my marred eye for mistaking you as my Faith but I'll be honest – I was so blinded by murderous rage that I wouldn't have noticed anyhow."

"Speaking of blind," came a voice from behind him and the mayor turned just in time to see another fist flying at his face, holding yet another canister.

It pierced his other eye and he began to thrash around, sending Faith flying over and into a gigantic book shelf against the wall. She slid down it like a ragdoll, an avalanche of books coming down around her semi-conscious form.

"Dawn, now!" Buffy yelled.

They simultaneously shot the harpoon guns, sending huge metal prongs across the space and right through the giant snake's torso, keeping him anchored to the middle area of the library. The metal lines attached to the prongs went taut as Buffy and Dawn pulled, walking back towards one of the back windows.

"Faith!" Buffy called.

When Faith didn't reply, Buffy held her gun out to Dawn who looked at her warily.

"Can you hold both?"

"I can try," Dawn replied. "But I'm not going without you guys."

"You have to," Buffy said. She met Dawn's gaze and for once, there was no hostility or anger or resentment; just concern. "I'll get Faith and go out the side window. Now take the guns and get out of here. The plan is still on. This is our only chance to kill him!"

"But Buffy . . ." Dawn tried but Buffy cut her off.


Sighing, Dawn hopped out of the opened window while Buffy ran across the library, trying to avoid the mayor's writhing body. His loud howling was deafening and it took all she had not to cover her ears as she yanked Faith out of the pile of books. Faith's head swayed side to side and her eyes were mostly closed; if she wasn't passed out already, she was about to.

"Come on, Faith. We have to get out of here, now!"

Faith tried to stand but her legs just didn't seem to work. Supporting their combined weight on her own shaky legs, Buffy walked them over to the side window and broke it with her elbow, then used her maroon sleeve to clear the shards of glass away. She helped Faith up onto the sill and practically pushed her out as she saw a blue spark slowly traveling down the length of the metal wire line and towards the giant snake.

Eyes wide, Buffy dived head first out of the window as the library burst into flames behind her.

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