Balancing precariously on unstable scaffolding, two sisters clutched each other tightly, their wide eyes staring at the shimmering drop of light hovering in the air beneath them. Each was horrifyingly enthralled by the gradual transformation of the glowing bead as it morphed into a pool of unearthly light, growing in size and intensity. Distant sounds of the battle still being fought below drifted up to their ears and yet, it wasn't until a bolt of lightning rent the sky in two that they reacted to the rest of their surroundings, jumping a foot backward along the narrow platform. They held each other in shocked silence for long moments before either of them dared to speak.
It was Dawn who spoke up softly, tears pooling in her big blue eyes as she acknowledged her part in this war. "I'm sorry."
"It doesn't matter." Buffy hastened to reassure her, but the words sounded flat and empty even as she spoke them. A single thought flitted through her mind as she silently accepted the coming Apocalypse. Nothing matters any more. A gentle shove snapped her out of her turmoil and she instinctively grabbed for Dawn's arms, effectively stopping her sister from breaking away as she had intended.
"What are you doing?"
"I... I have to jump. The energy..." The words almost choked her, but Dawn forced them past the lump in her throat, barely hearing the reply that followed.
"It'll kill you."
The tears threatened to spill over as the teenager bravely accepted the Slayer's words. "I know." She paused, gathering as much courage as possible, while her sister could only stare at her with growing horror. "Buffy, I know about the ritual. I have to stop it."
Just one firm word left the Slayer's lips in response. "No." As far as she was concerned, there was only one option available. Either no-one die, or they all would die. She refused to sacrifice her baby sister even to save humanity. No. If Dawn was going to die, then they would die together. They stumbled suddenly as the tower trembled beneath them and Dawn let out an anguished cry of insistence.
"I have to. Look at what's happening."
They were the words of a warrior, and under different circumstances, Buffy would have been proud. Now, however, they just sent a tremor of frightful anticipation rushing down her spine. Something in the teen's tone forced Buffy to look up. Amidst the blindingly bright bolts of lightning and the ever-expanding portal, the Slayer's worried eyes noticed a peculiar silhouette appear. Oh god... Fear began to wrap itself around her heart as she realised that it was the outline of a dragon. Giles was right. The walls between the dimensions really are breaking down. She was pulled from her thoughts once more as Dawn's distressed voice caught her attention.
"Buffy, you have to let me go. Blood starts it, and until the blood stops flowing, it'll never stop."
At her sister's plea, Buffy felt the world drop out from underneath her and, lost for words, she could only plead with her eyes. The look brought forth the tears that Dawn had been trying to hold in and her voice ended up sounding scratchy as she attempted to persuade her sister to let her do this one thing for her... for their friends... for the world.
"You know you have to let me. It has to have the blood."
The words triggered something within her and, in a heartbeat, Buffy's expression changed from fear to wonder as memories suddenly flooded through her mind. "It's always got to be blood..." "It's Summers blood. It's just like mine." "She's me. The monks made her out of me." "Death is your gift." She frowned, turning to face the skyline where new portals were beginning to open. I know what I have to do. A curious sense of peace seemed to descend on her spirit as she slowly turned back to face her sister.
The expression tore a sob from Dawn's throat and it was her turn to stare, panic-stricken as realisation of her sister's intentions dawned upon her.
"Buffy ... no!"
In an oddly calm voice that she didn't recognise as her own, Buffy heard herself react to her sister's grief. "Dawnie, I have to..."
Again, a heart-wrenching cry of denial spilled from the teenager's lips. Buffy felt like crying herself and barely held it together as she grabbed her sister's arms and stared into her eyes. "Listen to me." The young girl sobbed and shook her head and Buffy found herself gripping Dawn's arms more tightly in her efforts to grab the other girl's attention. "Please, there's not a lot of time..."
Her words died in her throat as a movement caught her eye. Before she could react, a figure rushed at them, seemingly appearing out of nowhere. The person was clad entirely in black, and one could only just tell that beneath the clothing was a man. A cape hung slightly off his shoulders, its hood hiding its owner's face. Buffy could only assume this was the enemy, for there was nothing about the stranger that indicated otherwise. Gathering her sister more securely into her arms, the Slayer sidestepped the attacker and watched with wide eyes as the man continued running instead of turning back. Why isn't he trying to push us over the edge...? The thought died in her mind as the man carried on to the edge of the platform. For a second, Buffy imagined she'd entered an alternate universe, as he turned abruptly to face the sisters and in a bizarre twist, lifted a hand to his head before flinging it in their direction. Less than a heartbeat later, the man turned back and before either sister could blink, he leapt ungracefully off the edge and into the portal.
In the same second, a resounding crackle echoed around the vicinity, almost as if electricity had come alive. At the sound, the glow grew brighter and shouts of fear could be heard rising from below. A jagged streak of white light joined the pyrotechnics, filling the heavens for a brief moment... and then, just as suddenly, everything fell silent and still.
As the darkness began to dissipate, the Summers sisters turned to face each other in surprise. This time, it was Buffy who spoke first, clearly shocked. "What the hell just happened?"
A gentle breeze had picked up and the sun was alighting the shadows by the time Buffy and Dawn reached the foot of the tower. A gasp of surprise filled the air and before they knew what was happening, Giles' strong, masculine arms were engulfing them both and he was fighting back sobs of relief.
"Oh god... you're alive... thank god, you're alive..."
"Buffy... Dawn... what happened?" A feminine pair of arms joined the embrace as their owner's tearful voice asked the question playing on everyone's mind.
For a lingering minute the four just held each other until Dawn complained that she was suffocating. With a slight, forced laugh each drew back, just silently taking in each other's battle wounds as Tara and Xander - carrying Anya - joined them.
"Buffy? What happened up there?" Giles repeated Willow's question and the Slayer looked up at him with tired eyes.
"I... I don't know, Giles. Some... guy... rushed us..." she shook her head, "No, that's not right... he... he..."
"He jumped." Dawn supplied in a disbelieving voice.
Giles' eyes widened, his eyebrows shooting almost into his hairline. "He...? Pardon? Say that again?"
"He jumped off the tower and... into the portal. He... he closed it."
"But... who would do that? And... why? More to the point, how is this possible?"
Despite everything, Buffy could feel a genuine smile begin to form on her lips as her Watcher slipped into 'Research Mode'.
"I think I can answer that, Pet."
Buffy jumped as Spike's voice sounded behind her. As one, the small group of survivors turned with eyes full of questions toward the vampire hiding in the remainder of the shadows. After nodding silently, he pointed toward a pile of rubble, indicating the black cloak lying atop it.
"Well, okay... maybe I can't..." he shrugged, painfully, "But it looks like he left a message."
The gazes of each person present were drawn to where the gentle breeze stirred ripples in the material, revealing an envelope buried beneath the cloak. Tentatively, Buffy moved forward to the heap of bricks, only part aware that the group followed her movements, although several paces behind. It was as she was reaching forward, that the group of friends noticed birdsong had begun to fill the air again. Silently, they smiled at one another - no matter how painful it was - in response to nature's reassurance that life was returning to normal. It was only when the Slayer let loose an obviously painful, heartfelt sob and began falling to her knees, that they realised she had read the contents of the envelope.
Before they could blink, Giles was there, catching the now weeping Buffy in his arms and crushing her to his chest.
"Buffy...?" Dawn's whisper was almost lost on the breeze, but her sister heard her and turned large, tearful eyes upon her. In that instant, the teen saw the depths of Buffy's pain and let out a hiccupy sob of her own.
"No... please... no..." The words were drawn out on a ragged breath and, sinking to be level with the Slayer and Watcher, she threw her arms around them, openly crying.
"What's going on? What did I miss?"
"Shush, Xander. I don't know..." Willow turned worried eyes on her friend, before turning her concerned gaze upon the threesome huddled on the ground before her. "I really don't know. But I'm guessing that letter doesn't say, 'wish you were here.'"
A single, sobbed word, slipping from Dawn's lips, caught the ears of all who listened and caused their hearts to seize in sympathy for the girls barely being held upright.
After a brief moment of indecision, Willow reached forward, retrieving the discarded letter. In silence, she read the words set out before her in Hank Summers' neat script.
My Precious Buffy,
If you are reading this, then it means that I am finally at peace - or wherever it is that I deserve to be. More importantly, it means that I have fulfilled my so-called destiny and that I have kept you safe.
I realise that both you and Dawnie must be utterly confused by the words you see before you and I don't know if I can even explain, but I must try, for I know there is little time left.
I can't believe I just wrote that. In fact I can't fathom that I am actually writing this at all - for that suggests I believe what that man told me - which is utterly preposterous. After all, we are all going to die eventually, but still, to suggest that he could foretell your future - your death in particular - and my so-called effect on those just seems ridiculous.
What am I saying? If I thought that to be true, then I would not be writing this at all.
I'm sorry if I'm confusing you, sweetheart. It's just that I'm still so confused myself.
You see, a couple of weeks ago, I found myself having one of the worst days of my life since your mother and I separated. I almost lost my job; a truck backed into my car and to top it all off, Heather left me. I'm sure you remember her from when you last visited the office. Anyway, I ended up drowning my sorrows and got a little drunk. I know you don't want to hear that - it's just further proof of what a bad person I am - but it's an essential part of the tale. I drank far too much that night and ended up crawling the pubs and clubs of the city before ending up in the strangest bar I've ever come across. The bartender and many of the customers seemed to be in fancy dress - not that I could tell what, or who they were meant to be... especially not in my state. Honey, I'm truly ashamed to admit how drunk I was, but unfortunately, that is the whole point of this. For, I was so inebriated that I took to the small stage in that bar and sang karaoke - you can imagine how bad I was. I'm told that I sang Old Blue Eyes' "My Way"... not that it matters. It is what came next that has haunted me ever since.
The bartender came over to me - strange demon-looking costume he wore - and told me that he saw death in me. He informed me that he had read my aura as I sang - and that my time was soon coming. I think I tried to leave but he forced me to hear him out. He seemed genuinely concerned - and said something about how my decision would change not only the lives of my family, but also the heart of an angel and a witch and lastly, the future of the world. Honey, he said some bizarre things: things that, even now, I'm not sure whether to believe. But it's better to be safe than sorry - especially where my babies are concerned. Because that's what he was "reading" in my aura. That one of my children would die - possibly both - but that if I made the right decision, you would both be spared. He said that if I do not act, the consequences would affect the world as we know it and that there would be a descent into darkness like never before. I don't understand what he meant and I do not know what is meant to happen, but I know this: I will watch over you the way I should have done years ago until I discover what this purpose is.
Good grief, I sound like a looney believing in all this psychic rubbish. Then again, I cannot be certain that it is rubbish. I know that some people do see the future - and if he is one of those, then I suppose that it essential that I listen and act. If he is not... well, I don't know what I think about that... my head is too busy concentrating on protecting you.
There will be a war. I know that much. There will be a war and the heavens will be filled with light and energy - and there will be some sort of tall structure. He said that when I see you I will know what to do - that I will realise my destiny. He told me that he didn't see what I will do - just that I will have a choice and that he trusts me to make the right decision.
Part of me regrets drowning my sorrows that night, but part of me is oddly relieved. Listen to me! Anyone would think that I'm convinced that what the guy said was truth. Well, we'll see. For now, though, I am signing off, with the intention to keep this note on me at all times so that, if the time should ever come you will know why I did whatever it is that I will do. I have the feeling that I will not be alive when that time comes. But do not grieve - if that is to be the case, then know that I did it because I love you so very much. Working on that assumption, I suppose this is my final goodbye to my beautiful babies
I love you, Buffy, I love you, too, Dawn. Never, ever forget that, either of you.
Love each other and look after one another.
Lots of love,
"Oh, God," Xander whispered as he tried to tear his eyes away from the letter shaking slightly in Wilow's trembling grip. "But... how?"
Willow shook her head and leaned back against Tara for support, her knees feeling suddenly weak. "I don't know... it must have... maybe..." she shook her head again. "I don't know." She repeated with a helpless shrug.
Xander shifted Anya in his arms, wordlessly sharing a confused look with the others.
"Maybe -" Tara broke the awkward silence, but changing her mind, let her sentence fall short even before it could take form and she lowered her eyes.
The blonde looked up at the inquiring murmur and re-attempted to convey her theory. "I just..." She almost changed her mind again, but at her girlfriend's gentle nudge, finished, "I wondered if maybe... you know... it might be, uh, something to do with..."
"Blood." The Slayer supplied.
Tara nodded slightly and the three friends looked down as one at Buffy who was still nestled - together with her sister - in Giles' arms, clearly making no effort to move. She returned their gazes with wide, glistening eyes and when she spoke, her voice was as gentle as a lullaby.
"It was all about the blood." She switched her gaze to the man holding her. "I only realised it just before he -" her breath hitched as she corrected herself, "dad - did... or you know, maybe not before he got it... but before he..." she swallowed hard, and forced the word out: "Jumped."
"What did you realise?" Giles enquired softly.
"Dawn... the monks made her out of me." Buffy explained simply, feeling too weary to express herself fully. At Giles' questioning expression, she reluctantly attempted to explain. "When we were up there, Dawn said something about how 'it had to have the blood' and I just... remembered." She looked back up at the group, expecting them to understand. At their blank faces, she added, "Death is meant to be my gift, right? I didn't get that, first of all. I mean, I thought it meant that everyone I loved died... so I thought I'd have to stand by and let Dawn die. But... when I was... up there... I realised that what it really meant is that my death is my gift... to Dawn... to all of you."
"But -" Xander hesitated, aware of just how fragile the Slayer looked in that moment. A small nod encouraged him to ask his question. "I don't get it. How would your sacrifice - or your dad's - have satisfied the portal?" His forehead creased in confusion. "I thought it needed Dawn's blood."
Buffy nodded and reiterated her earlier statement. "Dawn's made out of me." At the blank looks she received, she turned back to Giles and was relieved to see comprehension dawning in the depths of his eyes. "Me... my blood... Dad's blood... Summers' blood." She returned her gaze to her friends, realising for the first time that they were almost as exhausted as she was.
"Look, can we talk about this later? I just... it's too much to take in right now. And besides, Xand, you should get Anya to the hospital... you should go too, Tara... just to be safe." She reluctantly withdrew from the comfort of Giles' embrace and got to her feet. "Will? Think you could help us with Dawn?"
The redhead nodded and made her way to where Giles was lifting Dawn to her feet.
Buffy watched in reflective silence as the group began to disband, then turned on the spot, slowly lifting her head to look at the tower behind her.
"Giles?" Her soft voice carried across the forecourt causing Giles to still in his movements. He did not turn, but she knew he was awaiting her next words.
"What happened to Glory?"
He could have lied. He could have told her a thousand untruths; needing to protect her from any further emotional damage - needing to protect himself and their relationship. Instead, he handed the teenager over to the wicca and deliberately swiveled to face the Slayer. Their eyes locked for a long moment and she saw the truth in his even before he answered her.
"I did what needed to be done."
With those simple, yet heavy, words, he turned back, reclaimed his burden and moved steadily back to Buffy's home while she trailed thoughtfully behind.
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