DISCLAIMER: Buffy and Her Friends belong to Joss Whedon and a bunch of suits. I'm adjusting their realities for fun, not profit, as I own nothing and have the credit report to prove it.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: © 2007 MF Vinson. All rights reserved.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Spinning Wheel
By sailor80


I wanted to touch her the first time I saw her, being humiliated by Cordelia and the sheep at the water fountain. Yeah, the outfit was horrible, but the girl in it was anything but. Green eyes that flashed anger before backing down. Gorgeous red hair that I was certain would be softer than silk. Creamy skin, freckles marking every spot where she should be kissed.

She looked so confused when I approached her later. I don't think anyone ever saw her as anything other than third or fourth best, or talked to her without wanting something, not even that snarky Xander Harris. I said I wanted help with my homework, but what I really wanted was to spend time with her.

So I met her at the Bronze later. She sat alone at the bar, and lit up when I sat beside her. I told her what I've learned since becoming the Slayer, hunter of all things evil that skulk in the night, and it boils down to one sentence: Life is short. Then I saw one of the nasty beasties, and excused myself, and it tore at my heart, her "you don't have to" when I told her I'd come right back.

Willow, beautiful Willow, took my words to heart, but totally in the wrong way. She left with some stupid male vampire, and I was almost too late to save her. My heart still pounds at that memory. Darla and some stupid newbie, and my secret coming out in the very beginning of everything.

She didn't run away from me. She let me walk her home, and somewhere in those blocks, our hands joined, and on her porch, I restrained myself. She had been exposed to so much all ready. I didn't think she was ready for me to kiss her, too. I still wonder what would have happened if I had.

But I gave her time to get used to things. To get used to my insane life. She let me in so completely that sometimes I felt guilty for wanting her, but she would smile at me and every nonWillow thought in my brain disappeared. She helped me, she helped Giles. I tried not to growl at Xander, attached to her like a limpet, especially after he dusted Jesse. It was like he knew, and didn't want Willow to have me if he couldn't. And he couldn't.

I was so nervous the first time she stayed over. Mom was used to how I slept, and stayed away except when I screamed loud enough or long enough to wake the neighbors, but Willow didn't know about the dreams, and I didn't know how to tell her. It turned out not to be an issue, because with her sharing my bed - both of us in pajamas - I slept through the night. Waking up, of course, was something else. We were all over each other, and if Mom saw, she never said anything. Willow wouldn't look me in the eye at first, but I didn't let her out of bed until she was convinced it was all good. I could see the relief on her face, and inside, I did backflips.

Then I found out about her home life. If you could call it that. Willow had a checkbook and two credit cards, and keys to the vehicle in the garage, and she was expected to fend for herself. To feed herself, and buy what she needed, and get straight A's, to boot. I ranted extensively to Mom, who included Willow more and more in our life. What she thought of Willow's parents, she kept to herself, but Willow stayed with us a lot, and I stayed at Willow's quite a bit, especially after slaying.

We went through so much that first year. Freeing Amy Madison, beating down Hyena Guy, saving Xander from the Bug Lady, Willow's demon crush (that made me insanely jealous) and the Master. Did I mention how much I hate prophecies?

She was so sad and hurt after seeing the remnants of the vampire attack at school, but I was just happy she wasn't physically injured. But I knew what I had to do. I kissed her before setting off to meet the Master and fulfill the prophecy of my death. I didn't want to die without kissing her, without telling her how I felt. So I told her everything would be fine, and that I loved her, and I kissed her, and I set out for the sewers in my lovely dress and Angel's leather jacket. And I died.

It turns out Xander isn't nearly as dense as I thought. He followed me, and did CPR, and brought me back because, he told me later, he couldn't face Willow if he didn't at least try to keep me safe. He knew, and Angel knew, how I felt about Willow long before I said anything to them.

I felt better after dying. It sounds strange even to me, but I did. I beat the damn prophecy, and I knew I knew I could stop that moldy bag of bones. He was completely shocked that he couldn't pull the same trick on me twice, and I threw him through the skylight and watched him turn to dust. The world stopped trying to end, and all his minions ran away. Funny, how vampires never have a plan b. I was so relieved to see Willow was okay, limping a little from where some nasty green thing grabbed her.

We went to the Bronze. It was prom night, after all, and I was wearing my dress. Willow liked it, even with blood and mud on it. I ignored Cordelia and Xander and Angel and asked Giles to drive us to Willow's house so she could change. Miss Calendar rode with us, and the three of us waited downstairs for Willow. She looked so beautiful in a simple dress. It was navy blue, and she had put her hair up, and she smiled shyly at me. It was like there was no one there but us. I got up and went to her. I told her she was beautiful, and offered my hand.

I saw the look that passed between Giles and Miss Calendar, but I didn't care. I had died, and been resurrected, and killed an ancient vampire, and closed the Hellmouth before it could open completely, and I had told Willow how I feel about her. In the back seat, it occurred to me that I hadn't asked her to be my date. I leaned close and asked her to go to the prom with me, and in the uneven light, I could see her blush before she said yes.

Giles opened my door and Ms. Calendar's; I opened Willow's. We held hands and went in to the Bronze. I knew there wouldn't be any more badness tonight, other than the occasional outfit, unless the sheep tried to bother us. They didn't. No one did. We danced, fast and slow, and when the party closed down, Giles was waiting to give us a ride. He left us at Willow's, and Willow, ever sensible, told me to call my mom and clear everything with her.

Mom insisted on coming over. She had heard all sorts of things somehow, through the parent gestapo, I guess. She was thrilled to see that we were okay, and took pictures before we could change, and sent Willow to pack a bag for the weekend. I tried to follow, but Mom stopped me. We sat on the couch, and she sighed a deep sigh before beginning her speech or talk or whatever it was. Telling me it was hard for her to accept, but she wanted me to be happy, but she also wanted me to be certain what I wanted.

"I love Willow," was what I told her.

"Do I have to separate you?"

"Mo-om! No, you don't have to separate us. We just had our first date tonight."

"I'm trusting you, Buffy."

I knew how hard that was for her. I mean, I had been to the shrink, expelled from my last school district for burning down the gym, and now I was dating girls. One girl. Oh, yeah, and I'm the slayer. She didn't know that yet. She just thought I was a mopey teenager, spending hours alone in my bedroom, and was relieved that I had friends. And she didn't trust me that much: She made sure the bedroom door stayed open. I didn't care.

Willow and I spent the summer together. Xander tagged along sometimes, but mostly it was me and Will. We kissed a lot, and fooled around a little. Willow was shy about her body. Cordelia and the sheep had convinced her she was ugly and worthless, but she took my breath away. I spent that first summer kissing every single freckle above her waist, and as many below as I could. Some of them repeatedly. Her kisses were tentative at first, but once she was certain that I welcomed them, wanted them, they were freely offered. We kissed for hours, until we were breathless and thirsty.

I remember clearly the first time we were shirtless together. I touched her breasts through her bra, frustrated and wanting more, and pulled back and threw my bra over my shoulder. I returned to kissing my girlfriend, and placed one of her hands on my breast. Moments later, she pulled back. "You'll have to help," she said, and it confused me for a second. My hands weren't confused, though, and reached for the clasp of her bra. It fell away, and I stared at her, closed my eyes and inhaled raggedly. "You're so beautiful," I told her, and kissed her again. When my hand reached her breast, she eeped into our kiss, then made another, sexier noise, and arched against me.

We were never in a hurry to reach that stage, though, and for a long time it was enough. School began again, and things were different for Will. People didn't bother her as much, because they knew they'd have to answer to me. School took up a lot of Willow's time, and training and patrol took up a lot of mine. She went with me sometimes, so we could have time away from the eyes of all the adults who were determined to keep us from whatever it was they thought we were doing. Pretty funny, because when Willow said we were studying, we were. Granted, it was ancient demon texts as often as schoolwork, but bookwork is bookwork.

Cordelia and Xander began some sort of relationship. I'm not sure exactly what it was between them, but it kept Xander from trailing after us everywhere. Sometimes we used that time for smooching. We didn't have to do anything for me to be happy with her. Just walking around holding hands was plenty. We didn't need to rush. I was extra careful with her after patrol. Slaying always left me hungry and restless and horny, although I tried to keep it from Willow. I tried to talk to Giles about it, but he got all red and stuttery and British and shoved a book toward me. It was about as much help as he was. I didn't know where else to turn, so I took it to Ms. Calendar. She laughed and told me to relax, and got me a couple eye opening books. Those, I shared with Willow. After her initial embarrassment, we went through them together, and talked, but we didn't take that next step for a while.

Not that the second school year was better than the first. Mom got cued in about the slaying, and was less happy about that than about Willow. Giles talked to her, and Mom settled down some. But we live on a hellmouth, and the weirdness never ends. Xander found another demon, and Mom found a robot, and Willow and I nearly killed each other when we got hung up in the time warp of a long-ago affair. A new slayer came to town, called, she said, when I died. That was creepy and weird, but Kendra was cool, and I was glad to have someone to share the work with.

But things went so wrong so fast, and I had blood on my hands and the law on my back. Angel lost his soul, and Ms Calendar was the first victim. Willow was in the hospital and it was my fault she was hurt. Kendra was dead, and that was my fault, as much as if I had killed her myself. I made deals I didn't want to make, and did things I didn't want to do, and once I was sure Willow was safe, I left. I know it was stupid and cowardly, but Willow had been so close to dying so many times, each of them my fault. I didn't want to live without her, but I couldn't see any way for her to live with me in her life.

I went to Los Angeles, but not any part I knew. I tried to make myself into someone other than the slayer, only to find that terror, havoc, and death followed me. I was miserable without Willow, and in August, I went home. Things were touch and go with mom and Giles; they were worse with Will. She thought it was her fault, that the spell to stop Angel and Acathla had failed, and that was why I ran.

We had a lot of long talks. I felt worse after most of them, and lived in panic that she wouldn't forgive me. But she did. We fought, and I tried to leave again, and she yelled at me, "You just don't get it." Then she pushed me against the wall and kissed me senseless. "You don't make decisions about us on your own. We make them together. If you can't deal, you need to tell me right now, Buffy Summers."

We looked at each other for the longest time. I didn't answer her with words. I pulled her to me and kissed her, and we spent that night together like we did our first night, fully clothed and holding each other for all we were worth.

I thought things couldn't be worse, but that was an overly optimistic interpretation, as Willow would say. I mean, as soon as I was home, we had a zombie invasion. And then, there was another new slayer, and some goofy band candy, and Spike came back even though he promised he wouldn't. Willow's magic got better, and worse, as she called a vampire version of herself from another dimension. I got some bad demon goo and heard everyone's thoughts. Everyone's but Willow's. She found a way to keep them from me, mostly by reciting the perioidic table, which is excruciatingly dull on every day but chem finals. The prom was cool, though, with that nifty award, and Willow looking incredibly hot in that long sheath. We were good that night. Will was staying in Sunnydale for college, and we went to a hotel afterward. We had talked and talked about making love, and I thought it would be then, but we were tired, and fell asleep.

And then Faith lost her freaking mind. She tried to kill Angel. She kidnapped and terrorized Willow. She got away somehow, and I didn't find out until mom told me after graduation that she was in the hospital. Guess one of the mayor's flunkies got a little overeager or something. The night before graduation was much like our time before I marched off to be killed by the Master. We were certain we would die, and we holed up at Willow's house and made love. It was sad and we were somber, thinking that our first time would also be the last.

Fortunately, it wasn't. Luck was on our side again. Well, there was a lot of planning involved, too. Many of our classmates died, but Mayor McSnake became snake bits, and I blew up the whole school this time, after having the pleasure of seeing Snyder become the snake's first meal.

That summer was as close to perfect as I'll ever have. Willow and I slept for days, and when we were rested up, we did whatever we felt like doing. We went to the beach, necked in the movies, enjoyed fireworks with her head in my lap. And we made love a lot. It was much better without the specter of death over it. Those books Ms Calendar got me came in handy. We went to Disneyland, learned to surf - well, I did. Willow never quite got the hang of it.

And then college started. I thought it would be good. I mean, Will and I were together, and things were pretty much the same as in high school. But they weren't. First, there was this demon gang that killed students to steal their stuff. Then, my roommate turned out to be a demon, and when she was gone, Willow moved in with me. We pushed the beds together, and I thought things would settle down. But they didn't. Somehow, they got worse. Worse than I ever thought they would.

It was my fault, I cheated on Willow with some stupid boy. I still don't understand why I didn't just blow him off from the beginning. Will was busy, but it was no excuse...and she met Tara, and suddenly, I was just her best friend. Not her lover, not the one she wanted to spend forever with. I came back from class one day, and the beds were separated. We didn't talk for days on end, sometimes saw each other once or twice a week outside of class. I was so jealous, so I let the TA think I liked him far more than I did, to make Willow jealous. Except she wasn't. She was happy with Tara and I tried to pretend it was fine, even when it made my guts twist when I smiled, and I took it out on vampires and demons.

Tara was beautiful, and she radiated something that I still don't understand. She understood Willow in ways I never did. I wanted to hate her for stealing Willow from me, but I couldn't; she hadn't. I bit my tongue and fucked Riley's brains out every time I smelled Willow on her, which was all the time. It was so frustrating. I loved Willow, and I wanted her, and I couldn't have her.

On top of that, Riley's camouflage wearing friends were wreaking enough havoc that demons were coming to me, to warn me that "those soldiers are crazy." I wish they'd been more specific, because by the time we figured everything out, way too many innocents were dead. And the freaky Frankenstein creature feature special could only have been dreamed up by the government. No one else would think it was a good idea. And when does it act out? Right before finals. I still don't know how I ever passed anything.

Summer, I waited for summer to come. That had always been our time, and this one was no exception. I monopolized Willow's time. At first, she was distant, but I apologized until she was sick of hearing it, and I knew things were getting better when she let me hold her hand. That was the middle of June, a month after school ended, a month after Riley went off to play Army and Tara went wherever she went.

We went to the beach on July 4th, to watch the fireworks over the ocean, and we kissed then, under the booming flashes of light, and between them, Willow whispered that she still loved me, and my heart exploded with the rockets. We sat on the beach all night, talking, sharing kisses. By the end of the month, things were like they had been. We patrolled together at night, went to the Bronze afterward sometimes, but more often returned to her parents' empty house to shower and make love and sleep the morning away.

By the time school started again, Riley had found someone else. Tara stuck around anyway. She was our friend, and over glasses of wine one night, she told us she knew that she was only borrowing Willow until I came to my senses. She looked fondly at Will when she said that, and afterward shot me a look that said that if it happened again, she wouldn't give up without a fight.

And then the hellmouth remembered we existed. I suddenly had a sister, and people were going crazy fast enough to overfill Sunnydale Memorial's large psychiatric ward, and my mom was sick all the time. Crazy knights right out of the Middle Ages appeared, and then something even worse arrived. The knights called her The Beast; nothing I could do even slowed her down. She scared the pants off of the Watchers' Council, so much that they began to cooperate with Giles and I. I should have known then that the world was going to end. It got personal, when we learned that Dawn was the key Glory was looking for. She made it personal again, when she scrambled Tara's brains. And in the midst of this insanity, Mom died.

I was shellshocked. I mean, she had pulled me into her hospital room to discuss everything, but I thought she was just covering the bases. To see her on the couch, unresponsive and staring through clouded eyes at the far corner, cold to the touch...that hurt me more than anything ever had. Xander kept Dawn that night, and Willow looked frantically through Sunnydale for me before finding me at the dining room table, staring through the doorway at the couch, seeing Mom there.

I couldn't cry. I couldn't grieve. There was too much to do, and it was my responsibility. Mom's death was the final straw in my relationship with my Dad. He didn't call me back, or send flowers, or come to the funeral. He sent a check, and on the memo line was final installment. Like I was a refrigerator or something. Will took the check before I could rip it to shreds, and she let me rant until I was exhausted.

We buried Mom. I stood rigid while dirt landed on her coffin. I hate that noise, the heavy, hollow echo, but I stayed, trying to remember not to squeeze Willow's hand too hard.

Hellgods don't care if your mother died, or that you have a 15-page paper due, or that your little sister is angry for reasons she doesn't even understand. I fought with everything I had to keep them safe. I ran down a snake as big as the mayor and strangled it with a chain to keep Dawn safe. I put everyone into a RV and ran, just ran, but it wasn't far enough, or fast enough. Tara babbled the truth, and only Dawn could keep her calm. The knights speared Giles, and we wrecked in the desert, as close to nowhere as I've ever been, but we holed up in an abandoned building and Willow was able to put up a shield. She looked as haggard as I felt after that, and all I wanted was a few minutes with her, to reassure her that we would get through it somehow, that we were the good guys and would win in the end, but I couldn't have even that.

The doctor I called to help Giles turned out to be Glory's cover, and in Dawn's presence, Glory exploded from Ben, snatched Dawn, and destroyed the knights on her way back to the hellmouth. I lost it then. Totally lost it. Willow brought me back. It wasn't a pretty trip for her, and she saw things about me that I would rather she didn't, and when I regained my senses, all we did was lay in bed together and cry. We knew our luck was gone, that this time would be the last, and all I could tell her was that I loved her, and I would give everything to save the world for her. "Why would I want it without you in it?" she asked me, and I couldn't answer. I buried my face in her neck and inhaled her familiar, comforting Willowscent like oxygen, and later, I kissed her for what I knew would be the last time.

We knew what we had to do, and we did it. Giles, still injured and oozing blood, was our field marshal. Xander was in a cast; Tara was in a cast, too, and crazy, except not. Spike was still bruised from his last encounter with Glory. Anya was terrified, but wouldn't let Xander go off without her, and Willow and I held hands during each step of our long last march.

I foolishly thought for a few moments that we might win. I should have known better. And when it came down to it, I was tired, so tired, and numb, and knew my destiny lay forty feet up in the night sky. I sent Dawn down, made her go, and as soon as she was clear of the tower, I did what I had to.

Dying didn't really hurt the second time, either. My last thought was Willow; my eyes searched for her, but those few seconds, as long as they were, weren't enough for me to find her. This time was different. I guess each death is. This time, I was at peace. I had done my job, and I was finished with the fighting and the struggling, and for the first time in five years, I could rest.

It didn't last. Willow, my Willow, pulled me from that rest. The others stepped up and tried to tell me that they had a part in it, but in the end, it was Willow. I was so angry. Cold. In physical pain like I never felt before. Confused and hurt, I pushed her away, again, and again. Tara was there to pick up the pieces. In my house, where she had moved to help Willow with Dawn, Tara comforted Willow, and blew breath across the spark between them.

I wanted to hurt Willow. Physically. Emotionally. I wanted her to feel what I did, but that wasn't possible, so I did the next best thing. I shoved her away and chose the company of a monster. Spike thought it was love, but I knew better. I would never love anything or anyone again. Spike could take the abuse; I could beat him and scream my fury at Willow, and the next night, he would be back for more.

The darkness that followed me back from the grave infected Willow. She loved Tara as well as she was able, but her mournful gaze followed me everywhere. She tried to apologize, but I wouldn't let her. I heard her crying sometimes, and smiled at her pain, just like I still flared with jealousy at the physical pleasure between them. All of my senses were elevated; I could smell Willow on Tara, and Tara on Willow, and it enraged me. I beat on Spike, and killed the other demons, and wondered how I could die the third time and whether it would be the promised charm.

I watched Willow fall apart, and I ignored it. I ignored Dawn, too, except to make sure she ate sometimes. I rejoiced when Tara left Willow. I was angrier at Willow for trying to make things better, and I didn't say anything about her behavior. I just watched her slide into darkness, and prayed it would be as bleak as my own.

Funny thing happened on the way to the end of the world, though. For the first time ever, spring was mild. Nobody was trying to take over the world. There were the nerds, but I thought they were mostly comic relief. And there was Willow, who for years asked for nothing. She loved me, and helped me, and tried to live without me, but couldn't. Angry as I was, I couldn't hate her, and couldn't turn her away when she asked for help. Begged me, on her knees in an alley, while Dawn cried that her arm hurt.

When it came down to it, I couldn't give her that final push over the edge. Spike took Dawn to the hospital and called Tara to meet them there; I half carried, half dragged Willow home. While she wept and vomited in the bathroom, I found every magical thing in our house, and boxed it up. The boxes - more things than I thought or realized were under my roof, most of which just felt wrong - went on the porch. Then I locked the door, went upstairs, stripped Willow and myself and put both of us in the shower.

She shook and chattered, her eyes black and the occasional stray wisp of magic bolting from her skin, until the water cooled, while I dried and dressed her, put her under the covers for the rest of the night. I couldn't get in bed with her. I was still furious, and afraid that I would hurt her without meaning to, and certain that when I hurt her, she would be conscious and it would be intentional. I glared at her for what was left of the night, before drowsing, finding myself recalling those perfect moments between us.

I wasn't as angry when I woke up. I wanted things to be simple and easy again, and I crawled in bed and pulled her against me, and kissed her forehead when she whimpered. We slept off and on through the day, and when night came, we woke up. "No more," I told her firmly, and she nodded, the relief obvious on her face.

She said "I'm sorry" so many times I made her stop. It didn't change anything that had happened, and it didn't matter. I didn't patrol that night, or answer the phone. We laid in bed and talked in dribs and drabs, like walking through a minefield, and in the morning, nothing was resolved. We loved each other, and there was an ocean of hurt between us, and we kept missing the rendezvous point. This time, though, we didn't give up. Instead, we gave in to the one thing that was always right between us, and when Dawn came looking for us the next morning, she squealed with delight and backed away, babbling about TV in the basement.

We got up, and started putting our lives back in order. Amy Madison showed up again - I had totally missed her deratting - and after we got Will detoxed again, I went looking for her. I smiled when I decked her, and spent the rest of the night expending my wrath on demons. I left piles of dust all over Sunnydale, and I was filthy with vampire remains when I returned home. Willow showered with me, and she skipped class to stay in bed.

The nerd patrol stepped up their efforts to annoy me, and it worked. I finally got the two little ones. I thought Jonathan would know better by now, but he didn't. Neither did his annoying friend. That just left Warren, who killed one girlfriend and made another, only to abandon her when she wasn't as perfect as he thought. I thought the cops would find him, but no, they couldn't even do that.

Instead, he shot me. I looked up to see him ranting, and heard a huge noise, and next thing I know, I'm looking at the sky, ears ringing. Dawn came screaming from the house, and ran back in to call an ambulance. She knelt on the grass between Xander and I, begging us to hang on, help was coming. I wondered dimly where Willow was, but she was gone.

When I found her, it was nearly too late. She was darkness personified, and for the first time ever, I was afraid of her, and afraid I would have to kill her and more afraid that I couldn't. She knocked me down, and I kept getting up. I was desperate and crying and begged her to stop. I told her I love her, over and over, until she dropped to the ground and all the power she had gathered went wherever it went. She cried, and I cried, knowing that we couldn't keep on like this.

It was a long walk back to the house, and I came to a frightening realization during it. Willow needed help. She needed something I could never give her. Magic was never anything I was interested in, except as a means to an end, but I had encouraged her to pursue it, and she had nearly destroyed the world.

We entered the house and slowly climbed the stairs. Our family tried to stop us, but we ignored them, and locked the doors behind us. First a shower, where we both cried more, and then bed, to make love, both us knowing it would be the last time for a while.

Hours later, they were still waiting for us downstairs, all of them. Giles, Tara, Dawn, Xander, Anya. Xander bandaged and doped up. Anya on crutches, angry at me for getting him hurt. Tara sad, so sad, at the changes to the woman she loved. Dawn, frightened that she might be left alone again. Giles, haggard and drawn, sad and guilty that he hadn't done more to help Willow before.

Willow went to him and said, "We should go." He nodded, and she helped him up, and they walked out of the house, his arm around her shoulders. I watched, and didn't realize I was shaking until Dawn and Tara wrapped themselves around me, and I cried then, for everything, everything that had gone wrong in our lives.

Hours later, we sorted everything out. Tara moved in again, and Xander stayed with us. A week later, I got a letter from Willow. We wrote back and forth all summer. I missed her so much, but I did what I had to do. I got a job at a gym, spent time with Dawn, helped Xander with his physical therapy. When I couldn't take it any more, and there were no more demons to kill, I destroyed and repaired the heavy bag. Tara found me down there one night, and fixed my hands and stroked my hair while I sobbed into her lap about how much I missed Willow and how sorry I was to have failed all of them again.

Giles brought Willow home. She looked better in some ways, and there was something different about her, something I couldn't pin down. Everyone disappeared from the house for days, and Willow and I rediscovered each other. She was so beautiful, damp with sweat, rising up from the bed and crying my name, watching me intently while she touched me in all the right ways. We were happy for those hours, talking and making love and fixing everything we had broken between us over the years. We knew it wouldn't last, and it didn't; everyone came home, and we gathered around the dining room table, and Giles told us that the world was going to end again.

We got ready, as ready as we could. Then the portents began. First, the Bringers, then that crazy preacher. The Watcher's Council headquarters evaporated into dust, and potentials died, and finally, it got bad enough that regular people noticed, and began to stream out of Sunnydale. Then the demons left, and the hellmouth rumbled, and I chose my humanity over certain victory. Giles brought potentials to us, and I tried to train them. Willow drove to Los Angeles to get Faith.

The Turok-Han, the original blood drinking demons, began to climb from the hellmouth, singly at first, and my blood ran cold when I realized that the First Evil, the source of all things wrong in the world, was making them by the gross in the hellmouth. Caleb took Xander's eye, and one of his feints nearly killed Faith. I laid with Willow and wondered how we would win, and she told me, over and over, as if she had seen the future, that we would.

I took from Caleb what he thought would give him victory, and used it to destroy him. The earth rumbled then, as the First raged at the loss of its chief lieutenant. I thought then, that maybe, just maybe, we would win.

The scythe had so much power. Tara couldn't get anything from it, but Willow's eyes closed and her head snapped back, and she chanted in a language that even Giles didn't recognize. I held my breath, wondering what would happen, and she stopped, and laid it down on the carpet. The she scrambled to her feet and ran to the bathroom and vomited. I held her hair, and handed her a washcloth, and before I could say anything, she told me, "Don't ask."

So I didn't. I wish I had, though.

Tara and Willow huddled up a lot after that, Giles, and even Dawn, with them sometimes. I was too busy with the potentials to pay much attention. Giles called Faith and I one night, and told us it was nearly time, to save our energy for the big fight. We trained potentials and cleaned and sharpened weapons and made our peace with each other.

It was a random spring day, but everyone knew it was the last. We all packed a change of clothes and things we couldn't live without, and when darkness fell, we paired off. Willow and I went next door, wanting the privacy we hadn't had in months, and I fell asleep with her watching me, stroking my hair, telling me she loved me.

By noon the next day, we were filing off the bus, taking up our assigned places in the new high school. Giles, Xander, Willow and I stood in the hallway, as we had so many times before, and said goodbye without saying it. I kissed Willow and she and Tara went to prepare the spell, and the rest of us made our way to the basement, where the hellmouth would open no matter what we did or didn't do.

The battle was still undecided. The potentials fought better than I thought they would, and suddenly, we all got a huge surge of power. Light flashed around us, and we had a few seconds to regroup amidst the ashes before another group of demons surged from the hellmouth. Tara appeared, and gave me the scythe, and it was passed from slayer to slayer to slayer and the numberless minions of evil suddenly were numbered.

The hellmouth rumbled and belched smoke, and I ordered a retreat. Faith tried to be stubborn, but I forced her to shepherd the girls, all of them, toward the outside. I stayed as long as I could, backing always toward my escape, until I had to turn and run or be buried in rubble. I hurdled Anya's body, and Andrew's, where they had fallen guarding the witches, and raced for the bus, catching a handhold on the ladder at the last minute.

Xander drove faster and faster as I watched behind us. It looked like one of those earthquake movies we watched in science class, as Sunnydale collapsed into itself. Xander stopped just past the city limits, and we took a headcount, and it took five of them to hold me back.

We got back on the bus; they dragged me, and once it started, I howled and sobbed, and Tara held me as we bounced toward Los Angeles. I didn't know anything except agony, worse than any I experienced before.

Willow was dead.

Anya and Andrew had been overwhelmed by Bringers between the time Tara brought us the scythe and the time she went back to check on Willow. The Bringers had killed Willow, and when I closed my eyes, I saw how, and her lifeless body in the middle of a bloody stain on the industrial gray carpet.

It was days before I acknowledged anyone. I sat on the floor in a room at Angel's hotel and stared at the wall. They all came and went, doing anything in their desperation to get a response. Tara came in one night and put a small duffel on the floor beside me. She left without saying anything.

It was Willow's bag, of course. I could smell her on it, and for the longest time, I sat with it in front of me. I unzipped it, and it had her things, a pair of jeans, a UCSD shirt, underwear. A photo album. A digital recorder. A couple books. At the bottom, an envelope with my name.

I didn't want to open it. My hands shook just holding it. I closed my eyes and sat for a long time, tears running down my face, before I put it back in the bag, all of it, and zipped it closed. I got up and into the bed and cried myself to sleep.

Tara, Dawn, and Faith came to get me in the morning. Dawn helped me clean up, and they dragged me downstairs to eat. There was no one around, and I was glad. I couldn't deal. These three, they had seen me during good times and bad, and knew I had done all I could. They talked at me while I ate, and I nodded like I was listening, and when I got up and went outside, they followed.

I don't know how far I walked or how long it took. Tara was the only one left when I reached my old neighborhood, where I had once pretended to be someone else, and as we walked, I talked about that time. I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and turned to Tara. "Bring her back," I pleaded.

"I can't," she answered, and gathered me against her and pushed me into a car that had been following us all along. Dawn was driving, Faith in the passenger street, and she navigated us back to the hotel. They left us in the car when we got there.

Tara talked to me once they were gone, about how much Willow loved me, and wanted me to live and find a way to be happy. She told me I didn't have to slay any more, that there were hundreds and hundreds of girls around the globe to do that work, and that I had all the time I needed to heal from the years of dealing in death.

For a long time, Tara was the only one I could stand to be around. Spring turned to summer, and summer to fall. We moved to somewhere out in the desert, literally the middle of nowhere, Tara and Dawn and I. I walked for days, trying to think about nothing, returning to the house before dark each night so they wouldn't worry. Some nights I slipped back out. Others, I crept into Tara's bed, looking for warmth and comfort.

Tomorrow, it will be year since my world ended. Something in me is yawning and stretching, and I am restless. In the horrible still hour at the darkest time of night, I realize something, and go to Tara, shake her awake. "She knew, didn't she?"

Tara doesn't want to answer. She slides over to make room for me and raises the blanket in an invitation that I accept. We've done this so many times. My head to her shoulder, her arms around me, the blanket trapping our heat. I ask her again, raise my head to see her face, and she turns away from me for a moment, and I remember that she loved Willow, too.

"She knew," Tara confirms, and when she turns back to me, I see the glisten of tears on her face.

"What else did she know?" I demand, and Tara shakes her head. I raise one hand to her face, push away the tears, and something else occurs to me. "Do you love me?"

After a few long seconds, her eyes lock on mine. "Yes."

I nod acknowledgment and return my head to her chest. When she falls asleep again, I kiss her cheek and get out of her bed. I go back to my room, close the door, rummage under the bed and pull out the duffel. I turn on the light and stare at it for a while before unzipping it.

The clothing still smells of her, and I press it to my face, inhaling her scent again, and put them in my lap. I flip through the books, they look like diaries, and I put them aside. The photo album is next, and I linger over photos of us from long ago, laughing and smiling and carefree. It takes a long time, and when I am finished, I see light outside and hear Dawn and Tara moving around.

That leaves the recorder, and the envelope. I frown over the recorder at first, trying figure out what buttons to push, and it finally comes to me. The first sound it emits is laughter, my laughter. And then conversation between Xander and Willow and I; Tara's and Dawn's and Giles' voices are there too. It goes on for a long time, bits of conversation, sometimes serious but mostly not, a long stretch of us making love that makes me sob, and the last thing is Willow, saying "I love you, Buffy."

It's a while before I can open the envelope, and longer still before I can focus on Willow's neat writing.

I don't know where to begin, Buffy. I always knew there would never be enough time for us, but I thought there would be more than we've had.

This is my path, my redemption, and my only regret is leaving you.

I have always loved you. I will always love you.

Be happy. You're allowed to be yourself, just Buffy, not Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Once you find her, look around the world and find what you need. Grab it and hold on and laugh. Smile. Keep the ones you love close. Don't be afraid to feel. Smile when you remember me.

Love, Willow.

I trace her signature, and read it again. And again before I fold it and return it to the envelope. I put everything but the recorder back in the bag, close it again. After a few minutes, I go to the bathroom and clean up, dress, go into the main part of the house.

I'm not surprised to find Giles and Xander and Faith there. I greet them and go to the kitchen, where Tara is measuring ingredients into a bowl. I hug her from behind, and she puts what she's doing aside and turns in my arms.

We stand there for a minute or two before I let her go. She goes back to what she was doing and I get coffee and return to the sitting room. We all look at each other, observing the changes of a year. Giles begins, as he has so many times, but I ask him to wait until we are all here. Minutes later, Dawn and Tara join us, and Giles begins again.

He tells us about rebuilding the Watcher's Council, about closing two other hellmouths, about girls everywhere who bring us closer every day to winning the battle. Faith talks about her travels, the demons she's killed and people she's saved. Xander talks about having a normal life, about not being anything but a carpenter. Dawn talks about what's she's learned and how she's looking forward to college. Tara talks about the peace of the desert, and finding herself again, and grieving a little less each day, and they all look at me.

"I'm still here," is all I can say, and they nod in relief. I pull the recorder from my pocket and start it. They stare mesmerized at it until I shut it off just before the part that I know is just for me. "I loved the night, and hated it, even before I was the Slayer," I tell them. "Out here, it's just the time the stars are brightest."

There is silence before Giles tells me, "All over the world, cultures allow a time for mourning, usually a year. After that, you're permitted, and expected, to resume your life."

"I know."

"Will you?" he asks finally.

I answer him without hesitation. "Yes."

The tension in the room ratchets down considerably, and around me, they break into conversation. Tara gets up and returns to the kitchen, and I follow her. She does her thing, and I lean against the counter and watch. She glances at me sometimes, a small smile on her face, and when she finishes what she's doing, I bump her aside from the sink and wash the bowls and spoons and everything else. When I turn around to dry my hands, she's sitting at the table, watching me. I smile at her, and promise, "We'll talk later."

"All right," she agrees, and gets up. She comes to me, and I wonder why, and then she kisses me. I let myself relax against her, kiss her back.

For the rest of the day, we all talk, in pairs and groups, separating and reforming until late afternoon, when we gather around the meal Tara prepared. We talk some more, strengthening our bonds, and just after dark, they leave. Dawn and Tara and I clean up, and Dawn goes to her room, and Tara and I go outside to look at the stars and talk.

Tara begins; after so long essentially alone, conversation is still elusive for me. "W-willow asked me, and then Dawn asked me, to take care of you."

"Thank you."

"I would have done it anyway."

"I know. I knew a long time ago."

She takes my hand and moves a little closer. "The world never really ends. We stop keeping up with it for a while, and then we jump back on."

"So it's like the merry-go-round in the park?" I ask. "We push it like mad and hang on until we're too dizzy and get thrown onto the grass?"

Tara laughs. "P-pretty much."

"You gonna ride with me?"

"You want me to?"

"Yes," I said slowly, then more firmly. "Yes."

"Good." She pulled me to her and kissed me.

This time, I let myself go completely. My hands moved everywhere, ended up holding her face, as our kiss went on and on.

When we stopped, and looked at each other, we didn't need to say anything. There were more words to come, later, but for now, we leaned against each other and watched the sky. There were shooting stars, and I wished on every one of them for a happy ending this time.

The End

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