The Plural of Apocalypse by The Imperfectionist
Summary: Eight years, seven showdowns, six-hundred vamps, five birthdays gone horribly wrong, four guys, three years of Hellmouth high, two resurrections, and it’s all lead to this.
Categories: Angel & Buffy Characters: All Characters
Genres: Drama, General, Mystery, Romance, Suspense
Warnings: Spoilers
Series: None
Chapters: 1 Completed: No Word count: 7190 Read: 3289 Published: 12 Nov 2008 Updated: 12 Nov 2008
Prologue by The Imperfectionist

Summary: Eight years, seven showdowns, six-hundred vamps, five birthdays gone horribly wrong, four guys, three years of Hellmouth high, two resurrections, and it’s all lead to this.

Spoilers: Through “Chosen” (all of Buffy). The comics are willfully and cheerfully ignored.

Pairings: “I’ve got a secret. Beat me ‘til I tell.” I think I’ll keep you in the dark on that one for a while, but feel free to guess. I do like specific ships and they will come out in the end. Kinda. You’ll know who they are. I can’t promise they’ll all have a happy ending. Sorry!

Rating (PG-13): The rating is so I can have the characters say anything I want without scaring off people with the M rating. If you can watch the show, you can read this. Although – a warning – it might get a little gorier than you’re used to in some places, but that kind of thing is easier to read than to see anyway.

Disclaimer: I didn’t make the puppets. I just want to yank on their strings a bit. Also, I don’t own anything you recognize. Anything I reference that is (GASP!) not from Buffy will be cited at the end of every chapter.

I owe a huge thank you to my wonderful beta Sabrina who’s been so patient in editing every little intermittent stage of this prologue and puts up with all my obsessive detailing and nagging. I couldn’t have done it without you!

Previously at the Hellmouth…

Faith joined the others at the edge of the still-smoking crater, shaking her head disbelievingly. “Looks like the Hellmouth is officially closed for business.”

Giles glanced back at her. “There’s another one in Cleveland,” he offered cheerfully, earning an indignant glare. “Not to spoil the moment.”

Xander ignored him. “We saved the world.”

“We changed the world.” Willow sounded dazed. “I can feel them, Buffy. All over. Slayers are awakening everywhere.”

“We’ll have to find them,” Dawn mused.

“We will,” Willow put in with conviction.

Giles seemed determined to be the voice of reason. “Yes, because the mall was actually in Sunnydale so there’s no hope of going there tomorrow.”

“We destroyed the mall?” Dawn asked incredulously. “I fought on the wrong side.”

“All those shops, gone.” The full weight of what they had just done, obliterating an entire city off of the map, finally hit Xander. “The Gap, Starbucks, Toys R Us? Who will remember all those landmarks unless we tell the world of them?”

“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” Giles determined excitedly.

Faith leaned toward the others. “Can I push him in?”

“You’ve got my vote,” Willow put in.

Faith shoved Giles playfully. “I just want to sleep, yo. For like a week!”

“I guess we all could…if we wanted to,” Dawn agreed.

Willow finally appeared to be returning to this plane. “Yeah, The First is scrunched so…what do you think we should do, Buffy?”

Faith glanced up at the other Slayer. “Yeah, you’re not the one and only Chosen anymore. Just gotta live like a person. How’s that feel?”

Turning slightly toward her sister, Dawn suddenly looked pensive. “Yeah, Buffy, what are we going to do now?”

Buffy thought a moment. Up until this instant her life had belonged to the cause, so out of her control as to be almost not her own. She had walked through it with the perpetually increasing weight of destiny on her shoulders, and the constant reminder that she was the only one to know such a burden, as much as her friends had tried to help her carry it. She had been afraid that one day it would become too much and that she would begin to sink under that weight until she vanished completely. She couldn’t count the number of times she had thought she was close.

But now, standing on the edge of the abyss that had been both her Home and her Hell, she realized that none of those things were true anymore. Now, for the first time since she became a Slayer, she was free.

Buffy smiled. “Now? We live.”

Three months later…

The cemetery, an endless sea of tombstones and trees, lay shrouded in mist. A figure raced between the tombstones at breakneck speed, panting heavily, more out of habit than necessity. Newly sensitive ears picked up the sound of footsteps drumming, and he knew his pursuer was not far behind. When he spared a quick glance over his shoulder, he caught a glimpse of blonde hair, illuminated by the fading moonlight, before his hunter vanished again into the tree line.

A twig snapped somewhere far to his left and the young vampire’s head jerked toward it, searching for the source of the sound. He looked for a second too long, for in the next moment he was sent sprawling over a tombstone. He landed awkwardly, and it took precious moments to untangle his limbs. Some part of his brain registered more footsteps, heading quickly in his direction.

He had barely gotten his legs back under him when a fist filled his vision and knocked him flat on his back. Raising his head slowly, he gazed at his attacker, and nearly laughed.

His fierce assailant was a little girl, not more than fifteen. She was indeed blonde, short and wiry, and not overly muscular. She held a wooden stake almost casually in her left hand, and smirked at him as though this entire situation amused her.

The vampire leisurely rose to his feet, as though he had sat down for a picnic, and smiled back.

“What do you think you’re going to do with that?” he asked, gesturing towards the stake at her side.

“Well, I was going to ram it through your heart,” she replied politely, “but if you’d rather I shove it up your nose first, I can be flexible.”

“That’s cute. I’d almost like to see you try. But I’ve gone and worked up an appetite.”

“I think you’ll find the menu’s very limited around here.”

“Really?” He pretended to consider this carefully. “Maybe I’ll just start with you and see how it goes.”

He lunged quickly and without warning, lashing out with both fists. The girl side-stepped the first two punches and blocked the third. She hooked one foot behind his and tried to sweep his legs out from under him, but only half-succeeded – he was much heavier than he looked. One of his flailing feet caught her thigh, and she yelped, taking a step back to recover. He advanced again. Much to his obvious surprise, she landed one punch on his jaw, then another on his abdomen, and he staggered back.

As he glared at her, his brow lowered and stiffened; his eyes grew yellow and demonic; and his jaw bulged until two long fangs protruded over his lower lip. His true face contorted into a snarl. The girl’s eyes grew wide and fearful, her grip on the stake tightening noticeably.

“That wasn’t very nice, little girl.”

He took one long step, and, trapping each of her wrists securely out to the side, began to back her into a tall tombstone. She fought him desperately, but she could do nothing but scream as he began to lower his head, jaws open, to her neck.

Suddenly, he stood up straight, eyes wide, and looked down. A sharp wooden point, barely visible, was protruding from his chest. He stared at her once more before he crumbled into dust at her feet.

The girl looked up, rubbing her sore arms, to see a familiar form standing in front of her. The newcomer wore her dark hair long and wavy, framing hard eyes and a scowl that had become a permanent fixture on her features.

“So, how’d I do?” the girl asked breathlessly.

“I don’t know. What do you think, girls?” At the brunette’s invitation, eight teenage girls appeared from their hiding places in the trees, carrying an assortment of stakes and crossbows. “How’d Skye do?”

After a moment, one offered, “Well, she did punch him…”

“That’s right. She punched him.” Looking back at Skye, she added softly “Kudos.” A few girls chuckled. “What’s Rule Number One around here?” she asked seriously.

“Faith’s the Boss?”

“No,” Faith amended dryly. “That’s the underappreciated and absolutely essential Rule Number Two.” More chuckles. “Rule Number One is ‘Don’t die’. Skye almost broke that rule. So, what’d you do wrong?” she asked the younger Slayer, who looked uncertain.

“Umm, I…I talked too much?”

Faith didn’t look amused. “No. Talking can be a distraction…as long as you don’t distract yourself in the process. The problem is you were dancing out there, trying flashy moves with no plan or follow through. And then you got surprised when he didn’t follow your steps. You try that with a vamp that doesn’t still have one foot in the dirt, and you’ll end up dead.” She turned to address her entire group. “Don’t fool yourselves – this is as basic as it gets. It’s all about survival. You girls are lucky now, with your friends there to watch your backs. But it’s a completely different deal when you’re on your own. Vamps know that when they go up against a Slayer, it’s kill or be killed. Fancy moves don’t make a difference when you’re six feet under. Stay alive. Then you can dance.”

The dark-haired Slayer raised her head to the horizon, where the faintest rays of pink hailed the coming morning. “Sun’s almost up. Head back, and get some rest.”

The girls turned to go obediently. Skye turned around at the last minute. “What are you going to do?”

Faith shrugged, her expression unreadable, and looked skyward again. “Still got a few minutes left. There’s gotta be some nasty thing out there looking for a little death before breakfast.” She took off in the opposite direction without another word, stake at the ready.

Skye sighed and ran to catch up with the other Slayers.

Just before noon, Willow left the magic shop in downtown Cleveland with a broad grin on her face, waving good-bye to its owner behind the counter. It was the third time she had been in this week, and the owner had become so used to her frequent visits that she had begun to call Willow whenever the shop received a new shipment or acquired a particularly rare item, just to see if the redheaded Wicca was interested first. Today, however, it was just your run-of-the-mill supplies for a locator spell.

The young witch switched the bulging paper bag in her grip from one arm to the other, and dug for her car keys in her pocket. Finding them, she walked to where her Sedan was parked and stowed her purchases in the passenger seat before starting the engine and steering the car west, out of the city proper, thinking.

Three months to the day.

Three months to the day since they had come to Cleveland. She remembered it so vividly, sitting in the lobby of the Hyperion Hotel in L.A., deciding what would be next. Four days since the Hellmouth had been destroyed, and they had just brought the last Slayer in from the hospital. The girls had all been sent to the upstairs rooms, while everyone else had assembled in the armchairs of the downstairs lobby…

Willow claimed the large recliner directly opposite the front door, trying to quiet her nerves, and Kennedy promptly settled on the armrest, one hand on Willow’s shoulder. Just to her right, Faith and Robin, still sporting a thick bandage over his ribs, shared one of the loveseats. Xander, who had been quietly absent the last few days, and understandably so, sat on the third step of the grand staircase on her left, and was soon joined by Dawn on the stair below him. Andrew, uncharacteristically silent, sat cross-legged on the floor underneath the overhanging desk-counter. Giles perched on top of the large, circular sofa at the center of the room, unknowingly making himself the focal point of their meeting. Angel – who had asked the rest of his team to continue learning the ins and outs of his law firm without him the last few days – leaned against the open entryway to his former office, arms crossed, as Buffy assumed a similar position against the pillar near the back door.

A heavy silence filled the room. The last few days had been filled with chores to do and people to take care of, but now things were slowing down. Suddenly they had to deal with the events of the past week, and the transition from one extreme to the other had clearly not been easy. Gone was the well-oiled machine running on pure and endless adrenaline. In its place they found a group of exhausted individuals, who it seemed, had been on overdrive so long that they had forgotten how to live at a normal speed. It had taken some of them the full four days to realize that dried blood adorned their skin. The Scoobies offered none of their trademark wit in the face of dire circumstances, but instead shared the same empty look, as though they had been stunned into silence, and it didn’t seem as though anyone would break it until finally, Giles seemed to forcibly shake himself awake, and coughed loudly.

“Umm,” he began awkwardly, “I suppose we should get started. …Is there any news?”

After a moment, Faith offered, “The girls are going to be fine. Rona was the worst hurt, but she’s getting better. The docs only kept her in this long because they were worried about infection.”

Giles nodded. “Good.”

“I’ve been checking the news reports,” Dawn added quietly. “The weather guys are chocking the whole thing up to an earthquake. They think those mini-tremors in the past few years weakened the fault lines running under Sunnydale until the whole thing caved in. They can’t really figure out why the entire city was already pretty much empty when it happened, but I don’t think they’re pressing it. Just calling it a coincidence or a miracle…I even heard one theory that the entire town was trying to make it to L.A. for a concert.” She started to giggle, but no one joined in. “Anyway…”

Kennedy sat up straighter, adding, “I’ve been talking to some of the girls about contacting their families, sending them home. A lot don’t have families anymore, and most of the ones that do never even finished the basics of their training. They want to stay with us and continue with their lessons, and I agree with them. They need to learn more about their powers before we send them off on their own.”

Giles, who had been cleaning his glasses as he listened, replaced them on his nose and considered this for a moment. “They want to follow us. Which begs the question, where exactly are we going?”

“Well, you did say that there was another Hellmouth in Cleveland,” Willow reminded him. “If it’s anything like the one in Sunnydale, we can’t leave it unguarded. And…what better place to train the new Slayers?”

Giles sighed – he had been expecting this. “It’s not a bad idea, but it will take some organization and planning. We need to somehow get our things up there, not to mention ourselves –”

“Well, what’s that, a few plane tickets? And we don’t have much stuff left anyway –”

“What about resources? Money?”

“Well, if you give me a couple of hours I know I can get us access to the Council’s old accounts,” Willow silently thanked every god she could think of for the hundredth time that her laptop remained safe with her that day in the high school. Her fingers twitched in her lap at the thought, resisting the urge to whip out her computer right then and get started. “There’s no one using them now, cause they’re all blown up, and if you think about it we pretty much have the rights to them anyway,” she rambled. “I mean, we are kind of forming a new Council here.”

“Alright, here’s something. Where are we going to live?” Willow was silent, thinking hard. “There’s nearly forty of us already, and if we continue to recruit new Slayers as you’re suggesting…”

“Well, I can start looking at real estate listings online, make a few phone calls –”

“I know a place.” Willow’s head snapped sharply to the right, just as Angel took a step into the room. “I’ve spent the last few nights going through Wolfram and Hart’s files.” At the mention of his new business, Giles almost visibly shuddered. “There’s a safe house for the higher employees in Cleveland, just outside the city limits. It’s big, fortified, secluded. It might need some remodeling to fit your needs, but it’s yours if you want it.”

Taking the now-familiar exit off of Route 6, Willow almost laughed out loud, remembering how Angel had described their new accommodations. A safe house, he had called it. Well, it wasn’t a house so much as a mansion. Even Kennedy, who had grown up bathed in luxury, had seemed impressed by this place.

Guess we can throw away the sleeping bags, huh?

She could almost see the mansion from here, visible by the acres of green surrounding it, a rare phenomenon in their new urban home. Two miles down the road, she made a sharp right onto what soon became their driveway. The mansion was clearly visible now, three stories of ancient and weathered stone, broken up by very modern glass windows. When the driveway split – the right side leading to the front entrance, the left to the parking area out back – she took the latter and pulled into her usual space, and, gathering the supplies into her arms once more, entered the mansion through the large, oak back door.

Willow strode down the hallway in front of her and turned left at the next, heading for the section of the ground level which housed all of the offices, including her workroom. It didn’t escape her notice that no one was wandering the halls. She had learned very quickly that the hatred of early mornings was an inherent Slayer thing, not just Buffy’s. Giles came out of his office just as she passed, unsurprisingly carrying an armful of books.

“Willow, good!” he called. “I was hoping we might make some headway on transcribing that demon database today.” Taking in the large paper bag she was holding, he asked, “Magic shop again?”

“Yup. That shopkeeper is one step away from putting me on her Christmas list. But she actually had a good idea. Why don’t we turn one of the empty closets downstairs into a kind of magic supply room? We could just run into town one day and stock up on all the standard stuff. You know, like, we could start buying our newt’s eyes by the gallon?”

“Sure,” he replied absently, making a note on the clipboard atop his stack.

“Great! I’ll start making a list.” She grinned broadly. “Have I mentioned how much I like having money now?”

“Once or twice in the last week, yes,” he said with a small smile.

Willow quickly cracked the door to her workroom and placed her load inside before re-locking the door. “Have Wood and Kennedy checked in yet? Where are they, anyway?”

“Arizona. And no, I don’t expect to hear from them until this afternoon at the earliest.”

“Huh. Now what about demons?” she asked as she fell into step with Giles, heading back the way she had come.

“I’ve been going through the new collection, and I must admit –”

“Hello, Mr. Giles. Willow,” Andrew declared cheerfully as he materialized from around the corner in a Vader Pride T-shirt, spatula in hand. “Are you two hungry? Because I’m making the most delicious blueberry pancakes you’ve ever tasted!”

“Thank you, Andrew. Not just now,” Giles said.

“What about if I throw on some whipped cream and a vat of raspberry coulee?” Andrew offered anxiously. “Or omelets? I can do omelets!”

Willow frowned sympathetically. “I really wish we had time, but we have a lot of work to do.”

“Oh, come on, you guys,” he whined pathetically. “I got up and made a nice breakfast buffet for the gang and nobody’s up yet.”

“Well, Faith and the girls were out patrolling until late last night, so they’re probably gonna sleep in, but I’m sure they’ll appreciate it when they get up.”

“Pancakes are no good re-heated! They lose at least half their fluffiness just the first time they go in the refrigerator, and the microwave makes ‘em all crunchy and dry –”

“I’ll tell you what,” Willow appeased, “Let us get one or two things out of the way, and we’ll be in before they get cold.”

“Fine,” Andrew grudgingly agreed, and, crossing his arms with a huff, sauntered off.

Willow and Giles exchanged an amused look and continued down the hallway.

Robin Wood turned his rental car into a cul-de-sac with an anxious sigh. The drive from the airport in Phoenix had taken longer than he had expected, and the late summer heat still lingered, reaching through the steel of the car and rendering the air conditioning all but useless. It made an uncomfortable situation even more uncomfortable – neither he nor his companion appeared particularly pleased about their traveling partner.

“Are we there yet?” Kennedy grunted from the passenger seat.

Robin sighed. Kennedy was exhausting normally, and the cabin fever was not helping matters. “Almost. I think she lives in this neighborhood.”

“Thank God!” She sat up straighter, craning her neck to examine every house they passed. “I couldn’t stand this car for another five minutes.”

He very silently agreed. “What’s her house number?”

Kennedy bent to the floor to retrieve the fallen directions, and peered at the bottom of the page. “346 Domingo Lane. Take your next right.”

Robin did as he was told, and, glancing at the house numbers, slid to a stop in front of the correct one, silencing the rumbling engine at last.

The ranch-style house looked ordinary enough. Like many in Phoenix, cacti adorned the front lawn, and a well-preserved pick-up sat in the driveway. He hoped that the girl was home, or this whole trip would be for nothing.

Kennedy glanced up at him. He was looking past her at the house, with that thoughtful frown that had been in place ever since they’d left Cleveland. She had a feeling this was more than traveling grumpiness.

“You in there?” she asked.

“Yeah. Let’s do this.” He got out of the car purposefully, grabbing the grey blazer that completed his suit and a briefcase from the backseat. His scowl still hadn’t wavered.

Kennedy jogged to catch up with his long strides, and stopped him suddenly.

“Look. I know you wish Faith was here instead of me. But we both know that she can’t fly until Willow figures out a way to get her America’s-Most-Wanted record cleared. And we might be stuck with each other for while, so let’s call truce, okay?”

Robin expression softened a little. “Okay. Deal. You do your job, and I’ll do mine.”

They climbed the last few steps to the porch, and Kennedy rang the doorbell. After a few moments and a shout from inside, the door creaked open.

A squat, middle-aged man in plaid opened the door just enough to poke his head through, looking quizzical. “Can I help you?”

Robin lowered his eyes to met his gaze. “Are you John Merrick?”

“I am.”

“I’m Robin Wood. I represent the Senaya Academy in Cleveland, and I was hoping that I might talk to you and your family.”

He opened the door a little more, revealing the rest of his frame, and they realized that John Merrick wasn’t short at all. He was stooped over on a cane. “Cleveland, huh? Talk to us about what?”

“About your daughter, sir. We’d like to offer her a spot at our school beginning this fall.”

“I’ve never heard of it. What kind of school?”

“It’s a very selective private school. It’s just outside the city.” Mr. Merrick didn’t look convinced.

Kennedy thought it might be time to intervene. “We promise we won’t take up much of your time. We’d just like to tell you a little about the Academy and leave you with some information.”

The balding man hesitated once more before a wide smile broke out on his face, and he threw the door wide open. “Alright, then. Come on into the living room. You thirsty? It’s a real scorcher out there. Roxanne! Julia!” He ambled away, seeming to positively jiggle with excitement. Robin and Kennedy exchanged half-smiles and followed.

The living room lay straight ahead, and Mr. Merrick motioned for them to sit down as he vanished through another door. Even with their backs turned, they could hear the commotion in the other room – the kitchen, judging by the clinging and clanging sounds emanating through the door.

He reemerged seconds later, red in the face and smiling. The smallest woman they had ever seen fell through the door behind him, somehow managing not to spill the pitcher of water and five glasses balanced on the tray in her arms. Kennedy would have thought she could barely lift her dinner fork, and yet she was clearly not a stranger to hard labor. She wore simple shorts and a tee shirt, both smeared with grease from whatever piece of machinery she had clearly just been wrestling with.

“Hello. I’m Roxanne,” she said, grinning. “I apologize for the mess, but we really weren’t expecting company. Please sit.” They did, and she placed a tall glass of water in front of each of them before helping her husband slowly lower himself into a well-cushioned arm chair. Kennedy saw him stifle a wince through his teeth.

“Now,” she began, “You wanted to talk to us about your school.”

Robin cleared his throat and set his glass down, reaching for the briefcase at his feet. “Yes. It’s an excellent preparatory school, very exclusive. In fact, admission is by invitation only.” His hand disappeared into the briefcase and returned with a handful of brochures and pamphlets. Roxanne took them and carried them to her husband, reading them over his shoulder.

“Oh yes, what a lovely campus! Where is Julia? She really should be here for this.” She turned and let out a bellow that should have been physically impossible for a woman of her size.

A few moments passed, and a teenage girl appeared through a hallway on the opposite side of the room. Her strawberry blonde hair – clearly a blend of her parents’ – fell straight around her face to her collarbone. Her hazel eyes were soft, almost unsure, as she gazed across room, and locked eyes almost instantly with Kennedy.

“Julia,” her mother called more softly as she beckoned with her arm, “this is Robin Wood and…I’m sorry, dear, I don’t believe I caught your name.”

“Kennedy,” she said, standing with Robin to shake Julia’s hand.

“Kennedy,” Roxanne repeated. “They’re from a school in Cleveland.” Julia didn’t seem particularly interested, but she sat down anyway.

“Yes, it’s a boarding school, and it’s just opening this fall. All the latest technology, brilliant teachers. And we would love for you to be a part of our first class.”

Roxanne lifted her head from the brochure she had been reading, looking confused. “I’m sorry. It does sound like a great school, but if it’s as prestigious as you say, the tuition must be incredible and money’s been pretty tight for us ever since my husband’s injury –”

Suddenly there was a crash as the glass Julia had been holding in a fist shattered, showering her lap with the pieces. Her mother was there in seconds, brushing the glass to the floor with a dish rag. Julia barely moved, her expression somewhere between bewildered and terrified as she stared at the bleeding cuts on her palm.

Robin gave Kennedy a significant look. She nodded once, and rose quickly. “Here, why don’t I help her get cleaned up?” she offered. Roxanne looked uncertain, but Kennedy jumped in before she could argue. “Julia can show me where the First Aid Kit is. And I’d like to get to know her better.”

Roxanne smiled. “Well, alright. Take as long as you need.”

Julia led Kennedy around the perimeter of the room to the kitchen without a word, holding the injured hand just in front of her chest. Robin stared after them until they disappeared through the swinging door.

Please, God, don’t let her screw this up.

Xander liked traditions. For someone with a family like his, he had a surprising number of them. For as long as he could remember, Willow had come over to his house and snuck into the basement (back when it was a basement) to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas on TV while his family’s drunken fights raged upstairs. He would do the Snoopy dance and give her a hug before she left, and then cower in the basement by himself, watching whatever happened to come on until someone bellowed his name down the stairs. It wasn’t until high school that he came up with a new tradition: sleeping outside and under the stars while everyone thought he had stayed at a friend’s. In middle school, they agreed on another. When Valentine’s rolled around and they forced you to write a card to everyone in your class (even if you hated them, which Xander often did) he and Will would make each other an extra card, something special between them. Willow would work tirelessly on his for a week – employing everything from colored markers to stencils – and Xander tried to keep his handwriting neat for her. They all created memories he cherished over the years.

But now Xander had a new tradition, one he didn’t uphold by choice.

He saw her every time he closed his eye: dancing with as much cash as she could hold behind the counter of the Magic Box; smiling at him with that suggestive look he knew so well; positively glowing in that beautiful wedding dress she never had a reason to wear; and that horrifying way he had never seen her – broken and bleeding, eyes which always betrayed her deepest emotions now lifeless and unseeing.

A never-ending nightmare creating its own sequels against his eyelid.

All those years of improbable luck, of surviving when all the odds swore he’d die. He knew his number would come up eventually. There’d be a battle too grand for ordinary people, too crazed for even his friends to come to his rescue. He’d finally get what he’d been practically asking for ever since he’d thrown himself into this crazy fight. But it felt good to know that as long as he was alive, he had managed to stay one step ahead of his inevitable doom. So, he fought in battle after battle, proving his worth…or his stupidity. Besides…risking his life with his friends, it was something they did together. A tradition they shared, year after year, no matter how steep the odds against them.

Fate had caught up with him at last, but the twist – there always seemed to be one – was that he wasn’t the one who paid the terrible price for his good fortune. It was her, the love of his life. Anya Christina Emanuella Jenkins.

That day on the Hellmouth, Andrew had told him that she’d died saving his life. And for one shining moment, Xander believed what everyone said as they looked at him with pity in their eyes. She’s in a better place. She had the best death anyone could ask for. But he saw their faces as they turned away. It was bull, all of it. Did they think he was completely blind? But it wasn’t until later that it began to slowly sink in.

Anya’s dead. And she’s not coming back.

Willow had told him her resurrection was impossible. They would have to reunite her soul with her body, and one crucial half was under miles and miles of rubble – unreachable, mystically or otherwise.

That also meant he didn’t have a body to bury. Anya would be so upset if she knew. She told him once, just before that sling had come off of her arm, that when she died she wanted the most extravagant funeral money could buy and the biggest tombstone in the cemetery.

“And tears,” she had reminded him anxiously, as though he would forget. “I won’t settle for anything less than a monsoon.”

There was a huge service, but it was communal – for everyone lost in Sunnydale. And there were tears, a lot of them. But none of it helped him. Her memory haunted his dreams, and every morning he awoke with a start, jolted awake by the too familiar sound of an empty bottle falling from his restless fingers to the floor.

It was no different this morning than any other. Xander wiped the sleep from his eye, taking in his surroundings as though he were seeing it for the first time. This room, his new permanent residence, always looked strange to him.

Like it’s all just temporary…

He rose from the recliner that often doubled as another bed and went to close the blinds. He’d barely taken a step when a soft knock sounded from the door. But the person didn’t wait for an invitation, and he knew without turning around that it was Willow.

“How are you feeling?” she asked softly.

The sound made his ears ring, and she pulled a water bottle and some aspirin from the plastic bag she was holding. He took them and downed two without looking at her. She’d watched him with same expression for months, a thudding echo of those first few days in L.A. He couldn’t bear to see it anymore.

Still, he could hear the worry in her voice. “Andrew made pancakes, if you want to come down soon.”

He nodded, heading for the bathroom. He knew that by the time he re-emerged, Willow would have removed all the empty bottles scattered about the room and straightened up things until it looked as though the room simply belonged to a messy bachelor, not a grieving drunk. She would have taken the full bottles in the mini fridge too if she thought it would help. But they had been down that road, and she knew not to bother anymore.

The same monotonous routine without fail, every morning – their new tradition, one he knew wouldn’t yield as many happy memories.

This was all new. Thousands of people per square block and buildings so tall she would hit her head on the window of the cab before she could see the top. In fact, she’d done that already.

“First time to New York, huh?” the cab driver asked with a low chuckle.

“Yeah,” Dawn answered. She glanced across the seat. Buffy was bent over a map, trying to figure out where they were while keeping her newly cut hair out of her eyes, and hadn’t heard him. “It’s a lot bigger than it looks on TV.”

The cabby laughed harder. “Yeah, well, all they show you on TV is the skyline. That’s no way to see the city. Where are you ladies from?”

“L.A., originally.”

“I’ve been there once. Didn’t like it much. Some kinda unnatural hybrid between city and beach.” He shuddered, and Dawn smiled. “Heads up. We’re about to pass the Empire State Building on your right.”

“Really?” Dawn turned her head sharply, and collided with the window again.

“Try rolling it down.”

“Thanks,” she muttered as she followed the advice. She craned her neck as far as it would go, but the steel and chrome seemed to stretch straight into the heavens. “I can’t see the top.”

“No, you wouldn’t. You can’t get a proper look at it from anywhere closer than across the street, and that’s pushing it. Down the block would be better.” She tried craning her neck again. “Don’t worry. You’ll get sick of seeing it soon enough.”

She pulled her head back into the cab and rolled the window back up.

“I got it!” Buffy exclaimed suddenly. “I know where we are.” Dawn leaned over and looked where her sister was pointing, up at their surroundings, and back down again.

“I don’t think that’s right, Buffy.”

“Yes, it is. See that big building there?”

Dawn glanced at the corner of the page. “Buffy, that’s the map from Madrid.”

Buffy yanked it back towards her, looking sheepish. “I knew there was a reason I couldn’t read it.”

“We’re almost there anyway,” the cabby assured them as he turned left. “Only about fifteen blocks.”

“Should we call Giles?” Dawn asked her sister tentatively. “Tell him we got here okay?”

“Maybe later,” Buffy said, staring out the window. “I’m sure he’s got plenty to do.”

“It’ll just take a minute –”

“That’s not the point,” Buffy insisted.

She took a breath. “Look. I don’t know exactly what happened with all you guys, but –”

“Dawn!” Buffy snapped her neck around, her piercing eyes serious. “I don’t want to have this conversation again.”

The brunette sighed, relenting. For now, she told herself. She let the rest of the trip pass in silence.

“Here we are,” the cabby said, pulling to a stop in front of a tall building.

Buffy slid over to Dawn’s side and followed her out – the cars on the other side were passing within six inches of her door – while the cabby ran around to the trunk.

“You girls sure do have a lot of bags,” he rasped as he hoisted three at a time onto the sidewalk. “How long are you visiting anyway?”

“We’re not visiting,” Buffy answered firmly. “We’re staying.”

To be continued…

Author’s Note:

I have an unfortunate confession to make. I’ve been working on this fic for almost 3 years now, but I had originally planned not to post any of it until I was completely finished so that I would avoid confusing all of you with any major edits I might make along the way. But then I learned that I couldn’t register as a beta on the new Beta Readers section until I had published 6,000 words. So consider this a small preview of many, many chapters to follow…hopefully soon.

If you would like to help speed me along, REVIEW! Good, bad, whatever. I need to know if you all are sitting at home reading this thinking, “What the hell was she on when she wrote this?” But if you’re review is simply YOU SUCK! that doesn’t really help me. I suck. Okay…Tell me why I suck, and be specific. It’ll help me not suck in the future. Got it?

Also, this story does have a lot of layers and surprises to it (I hope – it’s supposed to), and I love to see who, if anyone, figured it out first. Keep the reviews coming! If I don’t see any, I’ll just assume no one’s reading it, and then I don’t have to waste my precious time updating when I have a couple other half-finished stories I should be working on. So review!

Oh yeah, and a little fun fact (because I know you all care): that graveyard scene was never supposed to be there. I wrote it quickly after I realized that every single season (except the first, understandably) started with a scene in the cemetery, and now I’m in love with it. Funny how those things work out.

References: I’m a quote freak (as you know if you’ve been to my profile), and I tend to use things I’ve heard in my writing, sometimes without even realizing it. I’ll try to cite these things in every chapter, but if I miss something, please let me know!

I got the idea for the countdown style of the summary – not the summary itself – from the summary of another fic on Black as Midnight, Sweet as Sin by Thessaly. I wrote the words themselves, except for number five, which came from my wonderful beta. Props on that one! I’m only going to cite it this once, but the summary appears in every chapter, so just be aware of that. Oh, and I just made up the number of vamps. I read somewhere that there were actually 1342 vamps dusted on the entire show. Good to know.

Obviously the dialogue from the first scene (with the exception of the last line) is directly from “Chosen”. I converted it from straight dialogue into prose – one of the most frustrating experiences of my life, by the way – so I apologize if it comes off kind of weird. Scripts and prose were obviously not meant to mix.

The exterior of the mansion was inspired by the Luthor mansion from Smallville. I really liked the look of it, blending the old with the new. The interior is completely from my brain, except for the library, but we haven’t gotten there yet.

I just came up with the idea for the Vader Pride T-shirt. However, that’s not to say that it doesn’t exist, ‘cause it might. I just wasn’t aware of it when I wrote that.

Domingo Lane does actually exist in Phoenix, but I made up the house number. I don’t even know if that’s a residential street.

Senaya (as in Senaya Academy) came from the name of the first Slayer. It was used in part of the joining spell in Primeval (“daughter of Sineya, first of the ones…”). That spelling comes from the online transcripts, but it was also mentioned a lot in Queen of the Slayers with the spelling that I’m using.

Next Chapter: Home Sweet Home
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