By Annie Sewell-Jennings
Disclaimer: Joss', not mine.
Spoilers: Post-"Get It Done"
Summary: This is how the world ends.
Notes: Much thanks has to go to the lovely ladies who read this piece and gave me feedback and suggestions for it -- Alanna, harmonyfb, elfgirl, and evemac, y'all are my dawgs.
She has this recurring dream.
Sitting at a long table. A dinner party. Everyone is there, and yet nobody is there. It changes from night to night, or maybe she enters the dream at different times. Not quite sure. But she does not speak to any of the others seated at this table. She is only looking ahead of her, staring into the eyes of her doppelganger.
"There are things you have to finish," this not-Buffy says.
Her place setting is empty. There is nothing to eat. Yet she knows instinctually that this is a banquet. Cigarette smoke hangs in the air. There is laughter and conversation, and while she cannot hear it, she knows it is there. People are happy here. A half-empty glass of wine sits before her. Red wine. She thinks it might be merlot. Beside it, a carefully folded napkin that seems to be concealing something.
"I need to finish my wine," Buffy says to the not-Buffy.
Her twin nods like she knows something. A secret something.
"Yes. Among other things."
The candelabra dims, and there is a flash of light. Outside, there is daylight. An endless stretch of land. Desert as far as the eye can see. Sometimes, it distracts her from the conversation. A glance reveals a shape, a motion, a shadowy figure. An action, or an emotion, that somehow resembles panic.
"Don't look into the desert. There are things you cannot see. Would you like some cake?"
She has this dream every night.
The school is on fire.
Willow is running. Running through the basement, the book clutched tightly to her breast. Can't let go. Can't stop running. Not until she is out of here. And there is fire everywhere that burns hotter than Hades, hotter than hell. It feels like brimstone.
It feels like hell.
There are things she wants to think but cannot allow herself to process. Not while there are file cabinets burning and flames licking the ceiling. A beam cracks under the pressure and heat and slams towards her. Willow screams, ducks her head. Shields the book. It's worth more than her own life right now. Keeps moving, keeps running.
There are voices down here.
Talking in riddles. Speaking in rhyme. They steal the voices of the dead and make them say Very Bad Words to her as she tries to escape. Willow tries not to listen. Distraction; none of it is real. It's all an illusion to keep her from running. And she has to run. Her feet have to move. One in front of the other. There is smoke in her lungs, and Willow feels like she is choking.
Fire burns brightly in the dark of the basement, and there is a palpable sense of chaos that screeches throughout the building. A screaming feeling that might be doom. Panic is high in her chest, and she barks out an order in her sloppy Latin in the hopes of moving a piece of flaming debris. Keeps the book safe. Tries to keep from thinking anything other than this:
Get out get out get out get out
And soon she's up the basement stairwell and into the school hallway, and she wants to sob when she realizes that she's not out of it yet. Has to keep running, because the fire is everywhere and she is running out of time. There's a feeling in her heart that she is forgetting something, but she has the book and she has her life, and that is all that matters right now. She stumbles through the double-doors and into....
Everyone is screaming. Mass hysteria. The sun has been swallowed, blacked out, eradicated. Permanent midnight. The buildings surrounding her are all on fire, and things that look like meteors are shooting through the night. Arching like missiles. And they are coming from the school.
She whips her head around at the sound of her name, and almost collapses to the ground when she sees a bloodied, battered Xander running towards her. He's holding his right arm at an awkward angle, and he is oh-so-very pale. Like he's bled out all of his color, and now is left in monochrome. "Xander," she gasps. Wants to throw her arms around him. Cling to his solidity. Tell him that she's sorry, that she tried very hard, but that there are some things that even magic cannot defeat.
But they don't have the luxury of apology right now.
His hard hand wraps around her upper arm and drags her away from the school. The ground is shaking; she stumbles and almost loses her footing. But Xander is here to hold her up, and she clutches at him desperately. A fireball soars over them and they have to take cover as the ground explodes into fire. She is terribly afraid, terribly worried, and yet they keep moving.
And then there is the van.
The sliding door rushes open and there is Dawn, pretty little urchin covered in ash, her eyes wide and terrified. "Get in!" she cries. "Hurry, hurry, now!" Xander shoves her in the van and then throws himself in as well, and Willow has the insane urge to laugh when Xander locks the door behind him. Worse things can happen to them now than a California carjacking.
She wants to breathe. Wants to apologize. Wants to take time and cry. Wants to bleed.
But Dawn throws a book in her lap, passes her a bag of magic supplies. "Barrier spell, pronto," she says in a commanding voice, and for a moment, Willow wonders when little Dawnie grew so authoritative. When did they all grow up?
She's weak; she does not have much left in her. But she throws up the barrier anyway, and then closes the book and closes her eyes. She hears the muted sound of Dawn sobbing. The occasional obscenities from Xander. Fire and hell and screaming outside. Willow does not open her eyes. She does not want to see.
It's Dawn who said it. Little voice, wet with tears. None of them answer her. Because there is hell opening up all around them, and the world as they know it is on fire, and there are no guarantees here. There is no promise that all of them would survive. Not after so many of them are already dead. They knew this going in. They discussed all of these calculations. All of these risks and possibilities. Put it into cold, hard fact and irrefutable logic.
But logic counts for nothing when there is all this death.
"She'll be all right," Xander says, but his voice is high-pitched and strangled. Terrified. "She'll.... She has to be all right, right?"
And that is when the school explodes.
The van rocks and shudders, and Willow almost forgets to keep the barrier up as flaming debris pummels the fragile vehicle. Dawn is screaming and sobbing, and Xander is yelling incomprehensible words from the driver's seat. The van's right side lifts up from the ground for a moment, and she thinks that it might tip over, but then all four wheels are back on the street and there is evil everywhere. Demons screaming. Vampires running amuck. And the hissing, snarling sound of the primeval monstrosities as they make their way from the open Hellmouth and into the world.
And there they are.
Staggering. Stumbling. Holding onto each other for dear life. Buffy and Spike, making their way down the small hill, covered in soot and blood and all sorts of awful things. Their arms around each other's waists. Pain etched deeply into their faces. Her hair flying like a banner; his coat dancing on the wind. Warriors in defeat.
"Open the barrier, Will!" Xander calls, and she lifts it long enough for Dawn to open the sliding door of the van and let them both in. Another insane urge to laugh; Spike locks it up again as soon as they're both in. He collapses in the back, and Buffy is moving towards the front seat.
They wait for their commands. Wait for the words. Any sign of victory. Any shred of hope that this all might turn out all right, and they'll get to go home and watch movies and have margaritas in their jammies. They'll gossip and laugh and the dead will be resurrected and everything will be okay again....
"Xander," Buffy says in a dead voice, "get us the hell out of here."
Nothing will be okay again.
The van lurches and rubber burns as it roars down the street. Inertia throws her against the seat, and none of them talk. They all just stare. The entire town is on fire. Every storefront, every familiar landmark that has watched them all grow up, is in flames. People are running in the streets, screaming as various awful things attack them, and there are bodies on the sidewalks. Mayhem, madness, massacre. Murder.
We should be helping them. Saving them. We need to do something, have to do something, oh God, everyone is dying here.
"Faster," Buffy orders. "Go faster."
Fire chases after them with impossible speed, and Xander is sweating bullets. They all are. Somehow, Dawn managed to curl herself up into Willow's side, and she keeps an arm around the frightened girl as the van screams its way out of town. Fireballs arching. Demons howling. The scream of the impossible as it moves and shudders around them.
And then all is quiet and dark.
Willow releases a breath that she thinks she's been holding for three days. Dawn moans, and Spike mutters a curse. Xander gasps out a breath as they move away from the wreckage and ruination of Sunnydale, and then swallows hard. Licks his lips. "Where do I drive?" he asks in a gravelly voice.
"Anywhere far away from here," Buffy says.
And then she passes out.
None of them say a word.
The van continues moving down the deserted highway, all under the darkness of high noon. They have no destination. Nothing that can be marked or plotted out carefully on any kind of map. They are simply moving out of the necessity for motion.
But they are all still back in Sunnydale.
What does one think about when the world has just ended? Strange things. Things that are insignificant but suddenly all-important. The taste of a candy bar. The need to use the bathroom and the fear of stopping. The knowledge that ice cream parlors and childhood houses are no longer there. The loss of architecture. The loss of innocence. Thirst and hunger. Bloodied wounds that need mending.
They think about the dead.
There are bodies buried back in their town that they will never see again. Willow will never again go to Tara's grave and leave small pebbles on the granite headstone. There will be no white lilies on Joyce Summers' grave this spring. There is a yard full of bodies that will never even be commemorated. There are ghosts so fresh that they will never be properly laid to rest. Xander will never don his father's suit to attend Anya's funeral. Giles will never see England again.
And all of those dead girls....
They keep moving. Keep going. It is what they have to do. They are tired, and they are battered, and they only want to rest. But there is a world that hangs in the balance, and a town full of darkness and fire that they once called "home." This battle has been lost.
But the war rages on.
"I have to pee," Dawn says in a low, hollow voice. They all stare at her for breaking the silence, and she looks away, uncomfortable and small.
Xander swallows. "Should we...."
"Next town, we'll have ourselves a pit stop," Spike says quietly. "Need supplies anyway."
So they keep on moving.
And none of them speak again until they hit Bakersfield.
"There are questions you should ask."
Another shape in the desert. Indiscernible. The room is empty; they are all alone. Just the two of them, sharing wine and conversation. But though she feels slightly drunk, her glass is still the same. Half-empty. There is no such thing as optimism here.
"I'm sorry," she says. Means it. Does not mean to disappoint. "I don't know which questions to ask. There are so many. And they all contradict each other."
The woman who shares her face nods. "Everything is a contradiction. You should know that by now. Ask something."
She frowns. Thinks really hard. Finally, something feels right. "Why don't we eat here?"
"Because we don't."
Another flash in the desert. The sound of owls and crickets. "I don't understand."
The woman ducks her head. Looks at her so intensely that she can see time moving in her eyes. History so rich and terrible that it can never be devoured.
"You need to finish your wine."
When she wakes up, she's in her bed. Tucked into the sheets. Waiting for her mother to walk in and pull the covers off of her and tell her to get dressed for school. She has a math final to study for and there are pretty boys who want to give her their phone numbers, and Jessica and Lola are going to totally flip when they see her fantastic new denim jacket. There'll be sunlight, and milk and cookies, and new shoes and....
When she wakes up, she's in the van.
Takes her a moment to orient herself. Has to drink it in. Smell of antiseptic. Leftover cigarette smoke that's been here for years. Blood and burnt metal. And the van is not moving. Stopped. Stalled. They aren't moving, aren't getting away, and Buffy leaps up into an upright position. They're gone, and don't they know that there are Very Bad Things coming to get them and....
Spike stands outside of the van, by the open sliding door. A cigarette burns between his fingers; she sees a white bandage wrapped around the knuckles of his right hand. Several butterfly band-aids hold together a cut on his left cheek. He looks bedraggled. Looks beaten.
Buffy stares at him. "We stopped."
A short nod of his head; a puff of his cigarette. "Yeah, that we did. Bit needed to use the loo. We're far enough out of Sunnydale...."
She doesn't hear the rest of what he says. The mention of that one word has thrown her into memory. Reality rings out sharp and clear, and Buffy has to swallow hard for a moment. The battered world is spinning around her, and she puts her hands on her knees to brace herself for a moment.
A cold hand wraps suddenly around her shoulder. "Careful, ducks. Got knocked in the head pretty good back there. Take it easy, right?"
She can feel it. The dull ache of pain throbbing at the base of her skull. Assorted bruises and scrapes on her body start to nag at her senses, and yet none of it compares to the wound in her heart. There's a bitter taste in her mouth that can only be defeat.
You left them all to die.
Swallows hard, and the flavor does not go away. Instead, she lifts her head and looks at Spike. "Where is everyone?" she asks softly, and he gestures behind them at what appears to be an abandoned, heavily looted convenience store. The night is high around them, and she can hear the distant buzzing of mosquitoes.
"Getting food," he says, and Buffy shudders the thought away. His narrowed blue eyes scan the empty parking lot, and she doesn't say anything about the shotgun propped up against the van. Spike takes another drag. Exhales smoke into the heavy air. "Seems like just about everyone in town's already packed up and moved out."
Solemnly, she nods her head. "It's spreading."
Spike doesn't answer her in words, but the angry way he tosses his cigarette into the parking lot tells her everything she needs to know about his state of mind. "Yeah," he spits bitterly. "Spreading out like a bloody cancer. Like--" But he stops talking when she puts a hand on his shoulder. Funny, how she and she alone possesses the ability of shutting Spike up, and even then, it doesn't work all the time.
Fact is, she doesn't want him to go on. Doesn't want to be reminded. She knows how bad the situation is. Knew it before they stole this van, before they made their preparations. Before they all packed up little duffle bags and hugged each other in case it was their last good-bye. She would like to call the death of Sunnydale a risk they'd all been aware of, but she knows the truth.
They'd known it was inevitable.
Gingerly, Buffy steps down from the van. Winces when she puts a little too much weight on her wounded right leg. His cool, nonchalant eyes scan down her body in assessment. "All right there, Slayer?"
"Yeah," she mutters. "Just give me a minute. Taking it easy, right?"
A soft smile that cuts through his smoke and leather and shows her his soul. "Right, luv."
She takes a moment. Only a little moment. Just looks into the warmth of his eyes, the way that he lets that dark fire lower to a glow sometimes. Everything about Spike burns. She can smell his tobacco and is grateful to his addiction; it's funny how the littlest things are comforting. If she closes her eyes, she won't have to smell the stench of burning flesh that hangs in the air. She'll just inhale breaths of him, take him deep inside her lungs, and hold a snippet of normalcy close to her heart in the middle of this empty parking lot on this empty desert night.
"You know it's not over yet."
Buffy opens her eyes. Sees Spike with his hands jammed in his coat pockets, staring at her intently. "It's not," he insists. "Yeah, things look bad. Look pretty damn grim. But it's far from over. We'll go back to Sunnydale--"
"There's no more Sunnydale."
She hates to break his optimism. Hates to tell him the cold, hard truth. But when she looks up at his face, the flicker of pain that tears through him is swift. He can handle truths that the others can't manage. Spike is equipped to deal with suffering when the others fall into shock. It's why he is always the first person with whom she discusses her plans. The only one who hears her confessions, and in return, she asks him for his. Why she's letting herself have those moments in which she's in love with him.
Because all he does is smile sadly, and nod his head at her.
"I didn't grow up there," she says slowly. "Not really. But in a way, I kind of did. I was a kid before I saw the Hellmouth. I know people in that town. I know those students' names. I can walk those streets blindfolded, but I can't walk them anymore, because they're gone and so is everyone else, and all those people...."
When his arms surround her, she doesn't argue. Doesn't pull away. Instead, Buffy just buries her face in his chest and breathes. Doesn't cry, because there's no time for crying. No time, no energy. She spent the last of her tears when she buried Giles in her backyard three days ago. For now, Buffy lets him wrap her up in his familiar leather, presses her cheek to his body. Lets him rest his chin on the top of her head.
He doesn't offer her wisdom. Doesn't give her empty platitudes or promises that everything will be all right. No; they deal in realism. They walk on the solid ground built of the knowledge that they are both fully aware of just how bad things are. Instead, Spike just holds her. Moves his hands across her back in soothing circles that lets her know he understands. He knows.
It doesn't last long. Just long enough for her to get her bearings about her again, and then she pulls away. Wraps her arms around her chest and licks her lips awkwardly. "I'd better go inside," she murmurs. "Grab supplies. Stuff like that."
A brief nod, and he reaches inside his jacket for his cigarettes. She makes a brief mental note of what brand he smokes so she can steal him a carton. "Right," Spike says. "I'll just keep watch, then. You don't want to know what apocalypse can bring out in a person."
She nods, and turns away. Starts to move towards the store, and then stops. Doesn't turn around. "Don't tell anyone about what I said a few minutes ago," she says softly. "We all made this decision together. I don't want them to question themselves now. Not when it's too late."
His answer is soft. A word thinner than gossamer. "Agreed."
Just before she walks in the door, she turns around. Calls out one more time. "Spike."
He turns. Cocks an eyebrow, cigarette lit and hanging from his lower lip. Wonders how he can be so lovely in the middle of all this destruction. "Yeah, love?"
She swallows hard.
"Shoot anyone who comes here. Human or not."
The store is a mess. Displays of energy bars and plastic kiddie jewelry are tipped over, and the coolers holding drinks and bottled water have been practically emptied. Canned food, motor oil, diapers and cigarettes. There must have been a panic. Everyone made a mad dash for the essentials and then hightailed it out of town.
Dawn wants candy.
She sits on the floor in the middle of the candy aisle, calmly plucking M&M's from a large bag in her lap. She pauses intermittently to sip delicately from her cherry Slushee. Thumbs through a Seventeen magazine and mentally picks out prom dresses. Will Brian Dover ask her? Should she wear something strapless, or are wrist corsages out?
Brian Dover isn't going to ask you to prom this spring. You won't get a chance to try on dresses with Buffy at the mall. Brian Dover's dead, and your high school is the seat of all hell.
She thinks she likes the green one best.
At first, Dawn wondered if she was in shock. If maybe this was how it felt. It's kind of a dazed, cloudy sensation. Like there's a film over her eyes. A fog in her brain. But she knows what has happened. She's aware of it all. Her house has burned to the ground. Her friends are nothing but ash and bone. She does not have to study for that big Spanish test on Monday because Mrs. Escavar is dead and high school's really, really over now.
Eating candy and reading teen magazines is just easier than coping with reality right now.
The radio flickers on suddenly, booming through out the gas station, and Dawn does not jump. She's used to noise by now. There's a muttered curse and the volume goes down quickly. "Sorry," Xander calls. "My bad. Just...." He doesn't finish his sentence. They've been doing that a lot lately. Like they have to watch their mouths now.
"The governor of California has declared a state of emergency after a volcano erupted in Sunnydale, a small town located about forty miles south of Los Angeles. The National Guard and FEMA are being deployed in the hopes of evacuating any survivors. The volcano continues to erupt into the night and molten lava is spreading in all directions from the town...."
Dawn laughs at that. A loud, high-pitched giggle. It sounds desperate to her own ears. "A volcano? Really? That's the line they're giving?"
Xander stuffs his hands in his pockets and walks over to her. She can feel his curiosity at her candy-binge, but he doesn't ask her questions. "Yup. Sounds pretty silly, huh? Plus, I doubt that the National Guard's going to be able to put a dent in the old town."
She's finished with the M&M's. Throws the empty baggie over her shoulder and picks up a Snickers bar. King-size. Acne be damned. "It's just like Buffy said. The army of men, you know." Takes a big bite of peanuts, chocolate and caramel. Yummy. "They're all going to die."
"You should eat something healthier than that, kiddo."
"I don't care," she says. Feels a little snippy. A little defensive. "It's my body. I want candy. And there's nobody left to tell me that it's bad for me, and we're all going to die really soon anyway. So there."
With that, she takes another bite of her Snickers bar, and feels strangely triumphant when Xander sits down across from her and steals a Milky Way from the rack.
He forgets sometimes how delicate she is.
Spike looks at her in slow motion. Just sipping at this image of her as she bends over the bathroom sink and washes her hair. Everything so quiet, just the soft sound of running water. Dips her head low under the faucet to wash out the stolen shampoo. Smells sterile, smells bland. Doesn't smell like her at all.
He doesn't move. Doesn't walk in. Knows that he shouldn't be looking at her, not when she's vulnerable like this. Give her a bit of privacy. But he can't turn his eyes away from her sometimes, and this is one of those moments. Lets his eyes slide down the slope of her neck, and swallows a wince at the sight of the bruises on her bare shoulders. Big, ugly injuries that are only starting to change color. Scrapes and scratches.
But he won't point those out to her. She's aware of them. 'Sides, they're realists. Knew they weren't going to walk away untouched from this morning, didn't they? So Spike looks back at her face, and quirks a smile at her.
"Missed a spot."
Startles her. Makes her turn her head and blink. But she's cool. Slick and in control. "Oh?" she asks softly. Frowns and reaches her hand up to her hair. Pats around in search of pesky leftover shampoo. "Did I get it?"
Spike sighs. Rolls his eyes. Moves into the bathroom and puts his hands in her hair. Oh, God. Remembers the way this felt. Her hair, heavy with water. Droplets of water sliding down the back of her neck. Gently, he guides her head under the faucet. Washes that little soapy part away, and aches to just stand here for a while. Let the world fall away from them. Watch the rivulets of water as they fall over her skin.
When he looks into the mirror, he can see her face. Eyes closed, lips dry. Face wet and clean. The white tank top clings to her curves, and there is soot on her jeans. Soot on the leather jacket hanging over the bathroom stall. Can't see himself there behind her, but his hands are in her hair and he knows that it's real.
When he leans down to press a kiss on the nape of her neck, she does not move away.
They've been doing this lately. Taking tentative little moments. It's all strange and undefined, rarely discussed. No time for heart-to-hearts nowadays. But when she came into the basement the night Giles died, she'd ended up kissing his hands all over while she cried. They talk each other down. Provide sanctuary. And she's been there for him, too. The night they made the choice, she'd held him in her bed until the rage passed, and let him stay through morning.
"You gonna be all right there?" he asks softly.
Buffy nods her head. Turns around slowly, and he can see those little summer freckles she always hides under makeup. Her fingers reach up and brush his cheek. Soft little whispers. "You look tired, Spike. Promise me you'll get some sleep in the van."
Quirks his mouth at her, tries to pull off a grin. "Oo, Summers. Keep that kind of talk up and you'll have me wrapped around your little finger."
When she kisses his cheek, Spike just stares at her in wonder. An enigmatic smile crosses her face.
"I already do."
The ground is shaking.
Trembling underneath them, and Xander swallows hard. There's an ashy taste to the wind that he doesn't like. Like the air is on fire. Slowly, he circles around the empty van and narrows his eyes as he looks off into the distance. Towards the ruins and wreckage of Sunnydale.
"It's all gone, isn't it?"
If all the noise in the world was suddenly taken away from him, Xander would never forget the sound of Willow's voice. There are just some things that never slip your mind. The smell of fresh coffee in the morning. The way the woman you love looked in her wedding dress. The sound of your best friend's voice.
Especially when it's heartbroken.
Xander shoves his hands in his pockets. Leans against the van and nods his head. "Yeah, Will. It's pretty much all gone."
She looks too small in the empty parking lot. Wrapped up in a knit shawl, her pale face pinched and weary. When was the last time any of them slept? Days, it seems. Can't quite remember. Her hands are shaking as she brings a cigarette to her lips. Xander gives her a sideways look.
"When did you pick up smoking?"
She exhales fine gray curlicues into the night sky. "Just now."
He supposes that he can't say anything. They need what they can get now. Doesn't matter if it's Milky Way bars, teen magazines, or cigarettes. They just need something that will make all of this a little easier.
"Xander?" she asks in a small, soft voice. "Do you... do you think they suffered?"
He hopes not. He hopes that it was fast. That the fire was swift, and the killing was easy, and that there was mercy. Just a little mercy for them. But he knows the truth. Hates it, but accepts it. He saw it in Anya's eyes when he held her in his arms and watched the life ebb away.
"Yeah," he mutters. "I think they probably suffered."
"Maybe we made the wrong decision."
Shakes his head. "No. We can't go back and second-guess everything. What's done is done, right? We made a choice. Now we have to live with it."
It's strange to see Willow with a cigarette. Strange to watch her smoke. "It's the living part that's hard." Another smooth exhalation of shadow. "You're right, though. We did what we thought was right at the time. If we'd stayed, then we'd be dead, too, right?"
Xander nods. "Right. We couldn't have stopped it. And if we were dead, then we couldn't keep trying, right?"
But they both stand by the van and have second thoughts. Wonder if what they did was right. Because there are thousands of dead back home and they could not save them. Now, the world is splitting up into pieces, and there is soot in the air. Now they're alive, breathing and standing, and surviving is always the hardest job of all.
Two slender shapes move away from the convenience, and there's a figure in black behind her. Spike holds the door open for Dawn and Buffy as they walk outside, hair damp and arms brimming with supplies. He nods at her; she nods at him. "We'd better get back on the road," she says softly. "The radio says that it's moving fast."
"What, the hot lava?" Xander says dryly, and she gives him a half-smile.
"Right. Lava. We need to put some distance between us and the Hellmouth. You still up to driving, Xand?"
"Call me Wheel-Man Xand and you've got yourself a deal."
For a moment, it's just the two of them. Quiet warrior and loudmouthed boy. But there's this feeling there. Like there's so much respect that it can't ever be put into words. Mutual respect. How long has he known her? Only seven years? Impossible.
He's known Buffy his entire life.
Buffy touches his hand with hers. "Come on, Wheel-Man. We have to go."
It's a little better now.
Not easier; nothing will make this easier. Things are just a little calmer, that's all. Xander takes the wheel and Dawn plays navigator in the passenger seat, furrowing her brow at stolen atlases as she directs him where to go. Behind them, Buffy, Willow and Spike look through the text and argue over certain meanings, certain spells. Which incantation means what.
"This has got to be it," Willow says, pointing to a page. "The translation's rough, but it makes sense. It says that in order to close a door, you have to have a key."
"Closing a door," Buffy muses. "Like closing the portal."
Willow nods. "Exactly. You can use all sorts of keys in magic. Certain gems or herbs have binding properties, and the spell lists some ingredients."
Spike takes another drag from his cigarette. Flicks ash out the window. "You got those ingredients?"
She frowns. "I think so. But the thing is, the bigger the door, the bigger the key has to be. I tried to close it earlier back in Sunnydale, but I didn't have a big enough source of energy. It's going to take more than herbs and gems to close the Hellmouth, and I don't know what that is yet. Not yet. It's all so cryptic, and...."
He puts a hand on her shoulder. Gives her a coolly reassuring look. "S'all right, pet. You'll sort it out. Smart one, you are."
Sometimes, Spike surprises them. He's always been unpredictable, but they never learn their lesson. Never learn that there's something deep within the vampire they've known for years. And maybe it's better this way. Maybe it makes those moments when he gets the better of them just a little more golden.
Because sometimes, he makes them believe.
It's difficult to keep up with time.
All around them is black. No sun, no moon, no stars. Just endless, empty night, except that it is not night at all. This is afternoon in their new world. Dark and barren. Like the sun forgot to rise.
Willow is trying to sleep. Curled up in the middle seat of the van, wrapped up in her shawl. Socked feet pressed against the air conditioning vent, her head propped up on her quilted carry-on bag. Xander won't play the radio; he says that it's starting to scare him. Instead, he's taken to playing cassette tapes full of mournful country music that he pilfered from the gas station. Willow hates Patsy Cline.
Kennedy loved Patsy....
A shudder. She turns her head, squeezes her eyes shut. Tries to quiet her thoughts. Her body is tired, aching for sleep. All of her energy was spent back in the high school basement, trying to close the portal, and all for nothing. The portal still opened. Fire still rained from the sky. How can she sleep when there's so much unrest?
She gives up. Sits up in the bench seat, runs a hand through her hair. Willow pulls a bottle of water from the cooler and takes a long gulp.
"Can you pass me a Coke?"
Willow blinks and turns around. Buffy sits in the very back seat of the van, small and beaten without her glossy makeup or perfectly coifed hair. Spike's head is in her lap, his eyes shut as he sleeps. There are little fingers running through his mussed blond curls. It's funny, how she never saw it before. Spike is pretty when he sleeps.
They've been doing that a lot recently. Touching. Very intimate, very quiet. Like everything between them is private, even when the others are looking. Willow tries not to watch them. Tries to give them a little respect. But it's hard not to notice. Hard to turn away when Spike puts his arm around her shoulders or she kisses him on the cheek before she goes out to patrol.
Softly, Willow smiles. "Sure," she says. Reaches into the cooler, passes Buffy a soda. "Need the caffeine?"
Buffy nods a little and takes the bottle with a grateful look on her face. She pulls her hand away from Spike's hair as she drinks, and he frowns a little in his sleep. Growls a bit, not inhumanly, but in that funny Spike-way he has. Buffy rolls her eyes a bit, but the expression is full of endearment. Strokes his hair until he relaxes against her thigh, and they both smile in synchrony.
They're kissing. Gentle, rainwater kisses. Full of apology and acceptance. Kennedy is so beautiful in this light, all lovely skin and big, powerful eyes. Brown hair wild as she pushes Willow back on the bed. More kissing, much more touching. "I could be falling in love with you, Willow Rosenberg," the girl teases. "I could be going totally head over heels."
"It's not your fault, you know."
Willow blinks. Looks at Buffy's face. She's all seriousness here, even with her hands in Spike's unruly hair. "What happened back there," she says. "There was no way you could've done any more than you did. It was too strong. I felt it, too."
"I could've done more," she says. "I could've prepared longer, or maybe gotten more supplies, or something. Something more than what happened, right?"
Buffy shakes her head. "No. I knew it going in, Willow. There was no way we could've done anything more."
"Then how are we going to stop it now?"
Buffy purses her lips. Tension radiates all throughout her body. "We keep trying to translate the text. Try to figure out what else it can tell us. And we try to figure out what it means about that energy source." Her eyes darken. "If only Giles...."
"Shh, luv. Enough of that."
Both of them are taken aback by Spike's sudden interjection, but Buffy is the only one who smiles when he starts talking. Slowly, he turns on his back. Looks up at her face, raises one hand to touch her cheek. "Watcher's gone, I know. Makes things tough. But we'll suss it out, all right?"
One of her hands reaches around to cup his hand, and her smile is only for him.
And then Willow turns her head, and pretends not to watch.
They hit traffic somewhere around Nevada.
The interstate is crammed with cars. Cars as far as the eye can see. Headlights burning in the dark, bright like clusters of stars. The smell of gasoline and exhaust fumes is heavy and nauseating. Traffic creeps along in an eastward direction, and the westbound lanes are empty. Barren.
Dawn squints at the map and shakes her flashlight. The batteries are dying. She's tried to keep them off the major highways, tried to keep them on the back roads, but they took a wrong turn somewhere and now they're stuck. "Dammit," she mutters. "I think we should've turned off of I-15 and onto this little road somewhere around Baker."
Xander shrugs. Takes another sip of his root beer. "Don't worry about it, Dawnster. You're still the number one navigator in my book."
But she knows. They don't have time to wait in traffic. They have to keep moving, because the radio says that the darkness is creeping towards Las Vegas and they have to outrun it. Can't let it catch them. Everything is very, very urgent. There is no time to be wasted.
Bleakly, Dawn turns her head to the passenger window and watches the traffic as it crawls around her. There are cars pulled over onto the side of the road. People stand outside of their vehicles and stare dazedly at the permanent night around them. There is a woman sitting on the trunk of her BMW on the shoulder of the interstate, her head in her hands. Despair hangs over them like a shroud.
But it's the couple in the next car that makes her heart pound. A man and a woman, holding hands. Staring into each other's eyes like the rest of the world does not exist. Just smiling. There are tears on her face and they glitter like glycerin until the man reaches up and brushes her cheek with his hand.
There is a baby in the backseat.
A shudder racks her body, and Dawn swallows hard. Looks down at the map. "We have to get off of this thing," she says. Wonders if Xander hears the tremor in her voice. "We don't have the time to sit here."
The van jerks sharply as Xander makes a hard turn into the next lane. Horns honk as he cuts off traffic, and then the van roars over the desert as he drives off the shoulder and to the next exit. Gets off at Nipton Road, and Dawn releases a breath she didn't know she was holding.
Things are quiet again for a second; this road is empty. Devoid of cars except for those seeking the interstate. They move along at a steady pace, and Dawn blinks tears out of her eyes. Xander's hand reaches over and covers her own.
"It's going to be all right, Dawn. Don't worry."
She knows in her heart that nothing is all right.
They keep going. Keep moving. The van keeps crawling over the miles, covering ground. She doesn't know when it became nighttime; there is nothing but darkness all around her. Buffy thinks she would pay a fortune just to see a star. A satellite. An airplane. Any sign of life at all.
Any sign of hope.
Her fingers are twitching. Anxiety churns inside her belly. She can't stop herself from repeatedly craning her neck around to glance at the horizon behind her. Has to keep watch. Make sure that there is nothing out there. Paranoia is setting in as the hours pass and the miles move. But that's not the worst of it.
It's that feeling of defeat.
Every mile that they move is a mile lost to the First. With every inch they run, they fail a little bit more. The radio makes her sick to her stomach. The world around her is falling to pieces, and all that she can do is run.
Buffy is not accustomed to failure.
She is supposed to fight. Supposed to stand her ground and be prepared and willing to die for the lives of others. And she has done so before. But when they realized what was coming, when they realized that there was no way to stop the portal from opening, they all made this decision together. They had to run until they could find a way to destroy the First, because they are the only ones who can do this.
If they die, then the world is lost.
So it was all very simple. They reduced the meaning of human life to figures and numbers. Gave up the little picture made up of thousands of lives in favor of the big picture. Sacrificed Sunnydale in the hopes that they could keep the rest of the planet safe.
But she can't even give that promise to her friends in this van, let alone the six billion people relying on her now.
When his hands descend on her shoulders, she does not say a word. Just closes her eyes. Relaxes into his palms. "Come on, Slayer," Spike murmurs in her ear. So close that she can feel his lips just millimeters away from her ear. "Got to keep your strength up. Get some rest."
She knows that he's right. Knows that she can't fight an apocalypse with no sleep. But the thought of dreaming, the thought of resting during the middle of all this.... "I can't," she says softly. Feels his fingers pull gently at all the kinks and knots in her neck. "There's too much to do."
"I know. But you can't do a bit of good if you don't get some shut-eye, luv."
His hands gently pull her backwards, and she leans on his chest. Feels him recline in the seat, bringing her with him. Makes a little shushing sound in her ear before she can protest. And then it feels so good that she doesn't want to move. "Don't got any battles to fight right now, do we," he says softly. "So you just lie back, and we'll keep moving, all right?"
Keep moving away....
There are fingers in her hair. Gentle, cool fingers, sorting through her still-damp locks. Spike combs all the tangles out with one hand while the other draws soothing motions on her tummy, and she finds herself turning towards him. It's instinctual. Her body remembers this language. Cheek on his chest. Legs tangled up with his. Can feel his leather and love, and it's warm here. It's warm.
For a moment, they don't say anything. Don't have to. They're just relaxing, just enjoying the feel of their bodies against each other. It's been so long since she's been held by him. Forgot the way he has of swallowing her up inside of him. Forgot how she could just lie in his arms and feel the ache of his love for her. Even when it was unwanted, she'd needed that. Needed to love vicariously through him, and hated him for having a heart when she didn't have one at all.
And it's more than comfort. Buffy knows this. Can feel her own body warming and loosening up as Spike's fingertips move through her hair. Little strands catch on his calluses, and she remembers the way those rough hands felt on her breasts. Felt on her thighs.
His voice wraps around her like a blanket. "How long's it been since we last did this?"
Her cheek nuzzles his chest. "Too long."
"Mm. Right." One hand has traveled down to her upper arm. His ragged thumbnail draws sketches that tingle against her skin. "You know, Buffy, I think we should take a vacation after all this is said and done."
There's a note of teasing in his voice. That old gallows humor that Spike is so good at. She wants to tell him that they don't have the time to be funny, but she needs this. Needs him. "Right," she half-yawns. Feels her eyelids getting heavy. "Definitely. Very heartily agreed. We'll go to Jamaica."
When Spike chuckles, she feels warm. He sounds like hot cocoa. "There you go. Jamaica it is. Get one of those posh island bungalows, and I'll sleep in a hammock in the shade while you're out running about on the beach in a tiny little bikini. I'll get you blindingly drunk off margaritas and convince you to let me rub coconut oil all over your cute little tummy, and you'll smack me in the head and call me a pervert. And then we'll beat the crap out of something and shag for hours in the ocean...."
She's asleep within minutes.
The word rings out through the empty room. A shout. A flare of noise in the silence. She's standing up, full of rage, though she doesn't know why. There is the distant sound of someone sobbing. Her dinner plate has been thrown onto the floor and is shattered into a million pieces.
"You can’t do this," Buffy says. She sounds desperate. The desert is moving through the window, and it scares her. It scares her a lot. "It's not fair. It's not right. Just because you hold the pieces doesn't mean... doesn't mean you can move them this way."
Her other self is very calm. Very composed. Keeps drinking air from her empty glass. "This is the way the world works. Life isn't just or fair. It just is." Her voice lowers. "I'm sorry that it has to be this way."
Her voice breaks. "Will I have enough time? Will we...."
"Oh, Buffy. There's always enough time."
He hadn't made a big show of it.
Wasn't like he was ashamed. Wasn't like he wasn't entitled to it. Just didn't want to do it in public, was all. Didn't want them to see. Didn't want her to see.
But when they died, Spike had mourned.
The girls. All those pretty, passionate little powerhouses knocked down in a rough and tumble that he couldn't stop. He'd known their names. They'd said "hello" to him when he came in and said "goodbye" when left. Little thing, yeah, but it mattered. Spike had learned over the years to take the little things for what they were. Molly had made him tea once after patrol, and Amanda had asked him for advice about boys. He'd liked them.
He'd loved them.
Loved the others, too. The Watcher, Anya, even squirrelly Andrew had somehow crept his way in his heart. Was supposed to take care of them. Supposed to protect them. Keep them safe.
Now all he has left are the living.
Sleeping well, she is. All curled up on the long back seat, covered in the makeshift blanket of his coat. Bright blonde hair spills over the collar, and even though her lovely face is turned away from him, Spike likes to think that she is smiling. Wishes her good dreams.
After all, their reality's a nightmare.
Most of them are asleep. Even if their eyes can't see a difference between day and night, their bodies know. The witch is conked out on another bench seat, wrapped up in a heavy knit shawl. Face all pinched and pale, like she hasn't seen sunlight in weeks. Like she's wilting. Sometimes, Spike forgets that Willow used to be shy. That she used to be innocent.
He doesn't need to see the bit; he can hear her. Sleeps like a chainsaw, that one. Remembers that summer without Buffy when they'd been close. Peas in a pod and the like. She used to come to his crypt when it got too hard to be in her house alone. Used to get so bewildered by her. Bright little hormone machine dispensing tears in his arms before she fell into her sonic snores.
"You got Buffy off to sleep."
There's a little note of amusement in Xander's voice, and Spike grins a bit. Takes a thermos full of blood out of the supply bag. Sits down in the empty bench seat behind Dawn and Xander and pulls a cigarette out of his coat. "Yeah," he says. Lights up, exhales smoke out the tiny slit in the pop-out window. "Don't know how long it'll last, but it's better than what she was getting. Caffeine'll only take you so far."
"That's not true," Xander says. "I'm running on nothing but fear and Mountain Dew right now. Hey, is that a giraffe in the middle of the road?"
Horrified, Spike leaps up from his seat to check the road, only to have Xander chuckle at him wryly. "Oh, man," he laughs to himself. Shakes his head, calms himself down, but the boy's still smiling. Spike wonders if it'd be possible to smash the kid's face in without crashing the van. "Sorry. Sorry. I'm doing okay."
One more glare at Xander's lumpy head and Spike leans back in the seat. A drag off the cigarette, a little nip of blood, and then he looks out the window. It's all very barren out here. Nothing to see but desert and the occasional truck stop. Dust and sand, air and emptiness. Doesn't like it this way. Makes him think that the world's already ended.
Makes him think that it's hopeless.
Starts getting anxious. Getting restless. Fingers tapping on the armrest, drumming out the beat of the war he wants to make. This is stupid. Riding along at night, hiding from the enemy like cowards. What the hell are they accomplishing? Snorts out a breath. Runs a hand through his hair.
He's run from this before. Run away scared and pained. Hid in basements and sobbed while it twisted the knife in his scarred soul. Was weak, and shaken, and thrown off-kilter back then. Knows better now.
Spike's not the sort of man who runs away.
"Oh, hell," he mutters under his breath. Throws the cigarette out the window and growls under his breath. "Bloody pointless, this is. Us riding around in the desert. Should be in the thick of it. Should be doing something."
"Do what?" Xander asks darkly. "In case you haven't noticed, we're kind of lost right now."
"I don't know, something. Anything's got to be better than us sitting out here on our collective asses doing bugger all about what's going on out there. Should be fighting this, not running away from it."
Xander's voice is calm. Even. It only pisses Spike off even more. "We discussed this. We all came to this decision together."
Spike winces. Passes a hand over his face. "Yeah, yeah. Group vote and all. Better to run away and fight another day and all that rot. And rot's what it is. Gave up, is what we did. We could've done something if we'd stayed, could've thought up some kind of solution. It's what we do."
"I know," Xander says quietly. His voice is hushed. Tired and weary. "And we'll think of something. But right now, we're going to run. So deal. And stop tapping your fingers. It's getting on my last nerve."
But he doesn't understand. Doesn't understand that Spike has to move. Has to do something. Can't sit still, not when there's this nagging feeling that tugs at all his bones. Propels him into motion, even if it's futile. His hands itch for weapons. His muscles are coiled into tension. Needs to do something. Needs to act. Can't sit around waiting for miracles.
He's learned by now that you've got to make your own miracles.
"Hey," Spike says. Lightly kicks the back of Xander's face and earns himself a glare in the rearview mirror. "Pull this thing over. I want to drive. 'Sides, don't want you falling asleep at the wheel and putting us all in a ditch."
"You drive like a maniac."
"So I do. Pull over."
Reluctantly, Xander pulls the van off to the side of the road and puts it in park. As Spike climbs out of the van, he sighs when he puts his feet on the ground. Stretches his aching muscles. All around him is nothing but that damned, desolate desert. All that emptiness that shows nothing but a dead world.
See, mate? There's nothing to fight for. It's all hopeless, and all you can do is run away like a nance. You lost it all, because you're worthless and stupid and slow and....
With a roar, Spike bends down and picks up a rock, and pitches it furiously into the night. "What sense does this make?" he yells. "What bloody sense? Putting me in a world like this, all that fighting and questing, only to take it all away?" Another rock, and then another, and he's throwing stones at thin air because he has to fight back. "What's the sense of saving me when they're all.... When they're...."
When Giles was the better man. When Anya had the sweeter heart. When Andrew had less blood on his hands. When all those girls were so young, so full of life. When Spike has massacred countless numbers of people, when Spike has taken thousands of victims, when he's committed uncountable sins.
He thinks he might be crying, but he can't tell for sure anymore.
Softly, a hand descends on his shoulder. Warm, large. Kind. Strong. "Come on, Spike," Xander says gently. "It's all right, man. I know how you feel. It's all right."
No. It's not all right, mate.
But he sighs. Nods his head. Gathers up his composure, and turns around. Is surprised to see Xander standing there with this soft little smile that almost speaks of friendship, and wonders when the last time he had that was. Years, must be. Almost forgot what it felt like.
Xander drops the keys in Spike's hand, and for a moment, he squeezes his hand. Firm and full of respect. Of understanding. Acceptance. They don't say anything, but then again, there are some moments when words aren't really necessary.
Sometimes, everything just fits.
When Spike gets behind the wheel and starts driving, he's calm.
"Xander. Wake up. You're not supposed to be sleeping."
The words are sharp, but the voice is warm. Warm like cider, sweet like apples. Smell of pineapples and coconut suntan oil. Tropical breeze; he can feel the sway of the wind. Swinging.
Slowly, he opens his eyes and finds himself in paradise. Rich sunset glows all around him as he reclines in the hammock, his arms full of slim girl and ferocity. Gently, he smiles at her and strokes her hair. "Good morning, Anya."
A frown mars her pretty face. "It's not morning. You slept through morning. It's night, and you're supposed to be awake."
Her hand is on her chest; she's wearing her wedding rings. He can feel her bare feet tangled up with his legs. When he kisses her, she tastes like saltwater. "This is our honeymoon. I can sleep as late as I want."
She rubs her forehead against his chin. "It's not our honeymoon. Not yet. You have to wake up and listen to me. I have important yet cryptic instructions to give you."
"I love a frank prophecy."
Annoyance has never looked better on her. "You're running away again. But you can't run this time. You have to stand your ground, even if they take it away from you. Do you understand?"
Satisfaction curls a lazy smile onto her lips, and she snuggles her head against his chest for a moment. "Let's go swimming in a minute, Xander."
She's only pretending to sleep.
Buried under the little knit shawl, rocked by the constant motion of the van, Willow is pretending all sorts of things. Keeps her eyes tightly shut. Forces away all memory of the past few days. The past few years. No, in this fantasy, she's seventeen again and lying in the back of Oz's van. They're driving out of Sunnydale to one of his road gigs, and he'll kiss her and make her laugh, and there's nothing but music and innocence.
There's nothing but freedom.
She does not want to open her eyes. Does not want to smell the cigarettes that Spike is smoking, or hear the sound of Buffy whimpering in her sleep. Does not want to hear the really, really awful country music pouring from the radio. If she does those things, then she'll have to acknowledge that it's over.
But now Spike's singing along with Loretta Lynn, and she can't pretend anymore.
Warily, Willow opens her eyes. Winces when she sees the dark all around her. She wonders where the sun has gone. Did it go somewhere better than here? Did it find a world that's not so mean? And if this is really night, then where is the moon? Where are the stars that she named with Tara not so many years ago....
But maybe it was many years ago after all.
The music stops for a moment as Spike ejects the cassette from the tape deck, and the radio pours dead words into the van. "The city of Las Vegas has been evacuated for the first time in history. The phenomena has crossed the border between California and Nevada, and is moving steadily east...."
The radio quickly goes off as Spike jams in another tape. Willow feels sick to her stomach. She's never been to Las Vegas. She and Xander used to joke about it years ago, before they knew they were growing up on the mouth of hell. One day, we'll go to Vegas and I'll win a million dollars playing blackjack, once I figure out how to play blackjack....
All bets are off now.
Willow wraps the knit shawl around her shoulders tightly as she slowly pulls herself into a sitting position. Swipes at her tangled hair. Looks at Spike. "May I have a cigarette, please?" Her voice sounds funny to her own ears.
It must sound funny to him, too, because turns his head to her with a puzzled look on his face before he nods at her shortly. "Yeah, sure." Tosses his pack of Marlboros and his lighter in her direction. She catches both, pulls out a cigarette, and lights it. Tastes nasty, tastes gross, but Willow doesn't care. She's all grown up now.
They don't say anything. Don't converse. Instead, she just looks out the window at the desert as it passes them by. Some old rock band blares with psychedelic energy from whatever tape Spike managed to dig up from the sea of country-western. She can hear him singing in his clipped voice. It's not so bad.
She's singing on the bridge, in the bright sunlight. Declaring her love with a smile and a twirl, ripe body bound up in blue. And when they kiss, when she takes her home, they make love for hours in the high afternoon, and Tara is so good that they burn, burn, burn. And she'll never have to know, never have to see what Willow has done, and it's better this way....
"I know you're up back there, witchlet," Spike says. "Might as well say what's on your mind. 'Sides, could use a spot of conversation."
There's something a little shaky in the vampire's voice, and Willow realizes what it is. Spike's afraid. Doesn't want to show it, because he's not supposed to do that in times like these, but he's terrified. Wants her to distract him from it.
She could use a little distraction, too.
"I was thinking about Tara," she says slowly. "About when she sang to me. When we were all singing. And about that afternoon. It was a... it was nice."
Spike nods his head. "Good. Think of the good stuff. It's easier that way."
"It's not a good memory."
A brief pause, and Spike reaches beside him for his thermos. She wishes that she could see his face. Wishes that he cast a reflection. Maybe it's easier if she can't see his eyes, though. His eyes remind her too much of her own. "That right?"
Another pull on her cigarette. She winces. "I mean, yeah, it was nice. It was beautiful. But it was empty. I did bad things to her. I played with her mind, and didn't care if it hurt her."
"How could you, Willow?"
"She loved you, though."
Willow looks up, surprised. Still can't see his face. "Could see it all over her every time she walked in the room. Had that annoying glow about her. Lit up whenever you were there. Even when you two were on the outs, you could see it."
A little tug pulls at her heart. "Really? How do you...."
A shrug of a black-clad shoulder. "Just know."
There's a rustling noise behind them, the crackle of leather and yawning girl. Willow turns around and watches as Buffy slowly wakes up. There's sleep in her eyes and her hair is all mussed. She stretches like a cat, and Willow notices that the Slayer's been sleeping underneath Spike's coat. Doesn't comment on the way that Buffy snuggles into it even as she wakes.
When Spike speaks, his voice is warmer. Quieter. "Morning there, luv."
Willow doesn't have to see his face. Doesn't have to see him glow.
She just knows.
"This is really it, isn't it."
The words feel numb. Choked and hollow as Xander squeezes them from his throat. Everything is cold around him. He thinks he might be shaking, but he really can't be sure. Feels scared. Feels alone. Feels desperate.
He wishes he'd stayed asleep.
A hand wraps around his. Warm and small. Soft like silk in some places, rough with calluses in others. Buffy-hands. She doesn't say anything. Doesn't offer him platitudes or promises that everything will turn out all right in the end. It makes the gesture less than comforting.
California is gone. Dead. Burned and charred. Xander hates Spike for taking out the cassette and putting the radio back on. He doesn't want to know these things. Doesn't want to know that California is dying, that maybe their crossover into Nevada just a couple of hours ago won't save them after all. People are fleeing the cities. The lights in Las Vegas aren't burning tonight. The radio doesn't call this a volcano anymore.
They don't know what to call this.
"This is really it," he repeats in a shaking voice. "The end of the world. I mean, yeah, it's not the first time we've faced big apocalypsey fun, but not like this. Not like this. We're all going to die, and we're all going to.... We're all going to die...."
Dimly, he feels Buffy's hand tighten around his. "Spike," she says softly. "Pull over. We need to stop."
As soon as the van is on the side of the road and the sliding door opens, Xander stumbles out the door and throws up. Feels dizzy, like he might pass out. There's a warm little hand on the back of his neck, holding him steady as he loses the meager contents of his stomach. Feels weak. Feels stupid. Should be stronger than this. Should be able to handle it.
Buffy's voice is soft at his ear. Her hand makes gentle, soothing motions right beneath his collar. "It's all right, Xand. It's all right. I know. I know."
When he starts crying, she's there, and he loves her.
They are in the middle of nowhere.
They've gone far enough. Traveled enough miles away from the town to be relatively safe. There's an awkward line drawn in the sand that they're trying not to cross. Run far enough away, and they won't be able to go back. They'll just keep running until they're dead, and none of them want that.
So Spike pulls the van far enough off-road that the dark will hide it, and they decide to make camp. Sleeping bags and blankets are pulled out of the back of the van, and they make a bonfire that burns brighter than their current spirits.
And now they wait.
It's not really certain what they are waiting for. A miracle, perhaps. A sign from some kind of higher being that everything will turn out for the best. They will go into battle, and it will be hard, but they will all survive and the world will be restored to as it once was. There will be Christmas and birthday parties and they'll all go dancing at the Bronze together, and the dead will be resurrected painlessly so that no one is sad or unhappy, not ever again.
None of them are holding their breaths.
The air is very still. Very quiet. She can hear the flames flickering from the bonfire that Spike started back near the van. Hear the low, murmured voices of her friends as they try to talk each other into sleep. The tinny sound of the radio. An occasional gust of wind.
Buffy can hear it coming.
Her fingers tighten around the battered hilt of the sword as she stands very still at the edge of their impromptu campground. Stares into the distance where the Hellmouth lies and Sunnydale once stood.
And knows that it is on its way.
She's tired. Weary. Full of grief. There is nothing more she would like to do than lay down her arms and fall into a deep, untouchable sleep. She wants to just hide from it all. Cower under the covers until everything fades away.
They're all afraid. It's almost palpable. A metallic taste to the air that radiates from the campfire. When Buffy walked away, Xander was huddled up near the van, wrapped up in his sleeping bag. Not speaking. Just staring at them all with this look of utter desolation on his face. She understands that. Understood it when he flipped out in the car. After all, his once-bride had died in his eyes only three days ago, and he'll never get the opportunity to bury her.
She's glad there will be no funerals.
She hasn't let herself think about them. Not really. There was too much that had to be done. Had to fight, had to hide, had to prepare. Had to make Big Decisions. The past seventy-two hours have passed in a blur of activity, and she's been oddly grateful to that. It's allowed her to block out what has happened. Allowed her distractions that she desperately needs.
Now, everything is silent. Everything is still.
Buffy thinks about them all.
Shy Vi in her funny knitted caps. Sassy Rona and bubbly Molly. Outspoken Kennedy who Willow might've loved. Even Andrew with all of his silly antics and botched attempts at baked goods. Anya's acerbic wit is something that Buffy strangely misses right about now, and wonders if she'd ever told the girl that she was a friend. A real friend. Like Giles....
Oh, it hurts too much to think about Giles.
She doesn't know what to do. Where to go from here. What chance do they possibly have against this? Against an evil so great that metropolises are crumbling? It's devouring them as it promised, and she doesn't know how to stop it. All they have in their meager arsenal are an exhausted witch, a vampire, a scared teenaged girl, a nearly-catatonic boy, and a book which none of them can properly interpret.
She can feel the weight again. That heavy gravity dragging her down. Responsibility weighs more than gold, and it's slamming down on her shoulders. Remembers the last time this happened. Out in the desert, in an old gas station. When the air was thick with panic and everything was slipping away from her. She just wants help. Just wants rest.
"Then just go to sleep," Giles says softly at her ear. She can smell his tea on his breath. "There's to be a battle tomorrow, and you won't be able to fight if you don't get some kind of rest. Besides, don't worry about the others. I've got my eye on them. Watching them, as I always have." His voice softens. "I'll always be watching you."
When she speaks, her voice is too quiet for her own liking. Too worn down. "You're not Giles."
A chuckle that breaks her heart; she remembers how rare that sound was. How much she loved it when she could make him laugh, even if it was only for a moment. "No, I suppose I'm not. But are you really Buffy? Are you really the hero that's going to save them all from this mess?"
His shadow passes over her as he moves, and Buffy has to shut her eyes. She can't see him like this. She cannot open her eyes and see Giles's warm, weathered face as he says whatever terrible things the First is going to say. "I must admit, I'm troubled. I thought I'd trained you better than this. Running away from the battle.... Rather cowardly, if you ask me. But then again, you never listened to me, did you?"
Oh, this is too much. It's too terrible. She doesn't want to hear these words coming from her dead Watcher's mouth. Doesn't want to hear these things in his familiar voice. "Don't do this," she whispers. "Don't use him like this. Please...."
There's a smirk in his voice. It's strange to hear him without his usual warmth. So cold, so very cold. "And now the Slayer begs. Tell me, will you get on your knees and plead for your life tomorrow? Will you attempt to bargain with me for the lives of your friends? For the life of your sister, or your vampire? The texts indicate that you’re not one for negotiation, but in these troubled times, you may change your mind."
Buffy says nothing; she just keeps her eyes closed until the thing wearing Giles's body laughs at her again. "You'll disappoint me tomorrow, you know. And you've already disappointed me in so many ways."
"Don't do this. Not like this."
"Then will this serve you better?" Anya asks in that falsely chipper voice of hers. "I'm fortunate in the sense that I have a large stock of dead people to choose from. And I'm very talented when it comes to impersonations. I should be paid for it."
And then it's Tara, and Buffy can't help but open her eyes to see the body of the friend she lost only last year. There's a look of solemnity on the witch's face, and none of Tara's spark or sugar behind the thing's eyes. "You aren't going to win this fight," she says softly. "You know that. You can't fight evil like this."
"I'm going to kill you," Buffy says, and her voice lacks a certain confidence that she wishes she had.
Faith stands in front of her now, hands on her hips, that old smirk planted on her painted face. "You're not going to kill me, B. 'Cause see, in the end, you're gonna realize something. You're gonna learn a lesson you've needed to learn for a long, long time."
When Buffy sees her own face staring back at her with eyes that are sharper than daggers, she can't move. Can't think. Can't breathe. All that she can do is stare at her doppelganger as the thing smiles malevolently at her.
"Cause you can't kill something that's inside of you."
Her sword falls to the sand and the First is gone.
For a moment, Buffy does not move. Does not do anything but stand there, looking out into the desert for something that she cannot find.
There's not a morsel of hope left in the world.
Continued in part two