Of course, it wasn’t finished. Stories are never finished until all of the people involved in them are dead. Even then, the people they leave behind have a tendency to carry on the story in their stead. So it might be more accurate to say that nothing is ever finished. Nothing ever ends.
Oh, Angelus was dead. There was no question about that. Dead and blown away by the sea winds, the clean Earth finally free of his corruption. If he had a spirit, it had descended to whatever hell would take him.
But less than a week before, they had all been thrown together as they never had been before, and their wounds had been ripped open. All of them. The wounds inflicted by life, by their war against the darkness, by each other. Belial had reopened each and every one, and not nearly all of them were bandaged.
The delicate, hopeful balance between Buffy, Angel, and Riley had shattered. There are some things that take a certain rare courage to attempt, and the correct combination of people, situation, and need is even rarer. The proper circumstances almost never align again. If such things go awry, the situation is usually left worse than before, the Earth scorched.
The three of them might, perhaps, have found some way to make it work if they’d had a chance to seal their bond. But they hadn’t. And now the battle was over, the threat of immediate death gone, and the rest of the world had started to matter again. They couldn’t muster the courage for a second try. Instead, they fell back apart and into despair.
Buffy had retreated to a bedroom of her own, and Riley and Angel had difficulty even looking at each other, let alone speaking.
Cordelia realized that she’d disrupted something very delicate, and very important. She felt a little bad about it, but what else could she have done? Besides knock. Angel had needed to hear that message. She didn’t know why Buffy hung her head every time she came near. She’d seen Buffy embarrassed. This wasn’t it. It was almost like she was…ashamed?
Buffy could have told her that there was plenty of reason for her to feel ashamed. Playing such games with the men who loved her. Riley had only suggested the whole idea because she was too selfish to accept that she couldn’t have everything and make up her mind. That selfishness had made her think she was a special case; that what had been slutty in high school wasn’t slutty for her. A lifetime taking on two men? A lifetime as a slut? Is that what she had come to? Could she have faced telling her mother about that? How about Riley’s mother?
Riley, meanwhile, just wandered around in a constant daze of What was I thinking? And What have I done? I’ve ruined everything!
Angel, meanwhile, had slipped into despair. Will it work? Had transmuted directly into Its never going to work for him. No relationship between him and Buffy was possible. He saw that now. They were just…doomed. It would always end in unhappiness. He would have to talk to her, tell her that. He’d agreed to let her make the decision this time, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t try to influence it.
If anyone else figured out what was going on between the three of them, they said nothing. Except Spike, of course. He figured it out almost instantly, and needled them mercilessly. Until he made the mistake of commenting that "If Blondie pulled it off, she’s a more talented strumpet than I gave her credit for. Does it raise the price? Oh, I forgot. She’s a philanthropist." The three of them had beaten him to a pulp and thrown him out into the courtyard, where he’d been forced to hide under a bush all day to avoid incineration.
If the rest of the group didn’t notice, it was because many of them had their own problems.
Not Xander and Anya, they were happy enough. But then, they were always content with simple, if loud, pleasures. Giles and Joyce, on the other hand, were avoiding each other with the same shamefaced silence as Buffy, Riley, and Angel.
Others had more serious problems.
* * *
"You did what?" Faith demanded, aghast.
This wasn’t the reaction that Willow had expected from the younger Slayer, and she took a step backward. "We deleted all of your files from the criminal justice system," she repeated.
Faith sprung out of her chair like a Jill-in-the-Box and grabbed Willow by the shoulders, despite the hacker’s attempt to take a few more steps back. "Put them back!" she cried in something strangely like a panic. "You’ve got to put them back!"
"I can’t!" Willow protested.
"You have to!"
The door to Faith’s room burst open, and a manwolf-form Oz, his nose full of Willow’s fear, lunged through, landing in a crouch on one side of the door. Tara, clutching a fistful of glittering dust, followed his lead but broke to the other side.
Faith released Willow’s shoulders and took a step back, raising her hands.
"You have to," Faith repeated, more softly but no less desperately.
Sensing that the immediate danger was past, Oz stood up. But he didn’t change back. Tara lowered her hand. A little.
"We can’t," Willow said. "It took the hacking job of mine and Oz’s career, plus a little magic, to do it in the first place."
"Don’t you understand?" Faith pleaded. "I have to pay for what I did."
Oz shifted back into human form, and Tara lowered her hand the rest of the way. There was no threat here, just a self-loathing that left them all stunned.
"But…but…you did," Willow protested. "The other day, you saved the world! That has to count for something."
"Just because I’ve saved a lot of lives doesn’t mean it’s okay for me to just take a few," Faith said. "B tried to explain that to me after I killed Finch, but I didn’t listen."
"Finch was an accident," Oz pointed out.
"And he was a bad guy," Faith said. "And so was that courier I killed. But Lester wasn’t either."
That silenced Oz and Willow, but Tara didn’t know who "Lester" was. "You didn’t just save the world the other night," she said. "You died."
"And I got better. Unlike Lester." That silenced them all. Look, I’m glad I got a chance to make my peace with you guys. I'm glad we’re all five by five. But the only one who can forgive me for Lester is Lester, and oops, I made it so that Lester can’t forgive me. So I have to take my medicine."
Willow shook her head. "I’m sorry, Faith. You could walk right up to the gates of a prison and demand that they lock you up, but unless you started killing guards, they’d just chase you away. You don’t exist to them anymore."
Defeated, Faith sat back down on her bed with a thump.
"You’re more of a help to the world if you’re out and free and fighting," Willow wheedled. "Maybe you could consider it your penance."
Faith lay back on her bed and stared up at the ceiling, as if she was back in her bunk in prison. "Sorry, Red, no can do," she said. "I like it too much."
Gunn was standing outside the door when Willow, Tara, and Oz emerged.
"How much did you hear?" Oz asked.
"Enough," Gunn answered. "There’s no reason for you three to feel bad about this. You were trying to do her a favor, and it turned out she didn’t want it. Just like buying the wrong size at Christmas, that’s all."
Willow and Tara thanked him and started off, but Oz lingered for a moment. "So now you know," He said.
"Already had a pretty good idea," Gunn replied.
"Sticking around anyway?"
"That’s the plan."
Oz nodded. "Take care of her."
"That’s in the plan, too."
"Good." With that, Oz followed off after his own mates.
* * *
But through all the turmoil and celebration, there was still work being done. Two days after the destruction of Angelus, Giles and Wesley made a discovery. The rest of the Scooby Gang and Angel Investigations were quickly summoned to the lobby of the Hyperion.
"It’s not over," Giles announced to the youths assembled before him. And the adult woman. And the two immortal demons.
A chorus of groans went up from all of the assembled youths. And both immortal demons. And even the adult woman.
"Another one?" Xander’s whine was partly exaggerated for humorous effect, but not entirely. "Come on, G-Man, we just stopped two Apocalypses—" He paused, then turned to Riley. "Apocalypsi? Did you ever find out what the plural for Apocalypse is?"
Riley shook his head.
"—Anyway," Xander continued. "We’ve done two of ‘em in one week! When do we catch a break?"
"First of all, I told you never to call me ‘G-Man’ again," Giles said.
"But you let Faith—"
Giles cut him off. "I can’t stomp Faith like the front row at a football riot if she annoys me."
Xander puffed up. "Is that a threat?" He blustered.
"Yes," Giles replied.
"Oh. Okay, then." Xander sat docilely back into his seat, everyone had a chuckle but Spike, who rolled his eyes, and Giles silently blessed the boy’s jester personality. For once, it had actually helped.
"Second," Giles continued. "We suspect it may be a bit more personal." With that, he stepped aside and said "Wesley?"
The younger ex-Watcher stepped forward with a small paperback book.
"That’s the Lithium Prophecies?" Faith asked.
"Elysian. Yes and no. The original prophecies are engraved on two fifteen-meter-high obelisks made out of some reflective black stone that only appear in our space/time when the stars are right, which is roughly one day every 157 years. Fortunately, we were able to calculate the time and place of their last appearance: Northern Greenland in 1994. Even more fortunately, a team of our operatives was able to reach and photograph the obelisks during their time here. Most fortunately of all, our backup team was able to find the camp and the camera after the first team vanished. We were able to decipher the glyphs with the help of several extraordinarily powerful interpretation spells, none of which have worked for anyone—anywhere in the world—ever since. We printed a translation at a small print shop we have at the Watcher’s Council Mother House, and disbursed it to all active Watchers."
That shut them all up.
"Oh." Faith said at last. "That sounds more like it."
"But a paperback?" Cordelia asked.
"Why give field operatives something that’s hard to carry around?" Wesley pointed out.
"Returning to the point…" Giles prompted.
"Indeed." Wesley agreed. "We checked the Prophecies immediately upon being told to by the Metatron, of course, but we discovered that the pertinent sections discussed the time after the defeat of Angelus, so—"
"Do you want me to do this?" Giles interrupted impatiently, holding out his hand for the book.
"All right, all right," Wesley said, waving him away. He held up the book, adjusted his glasses, took a deep breath, and read:
"The Slayer with Two Lives and the Vampire with A Soul shall lead their allies into the Valley of the Sun, on the night of the Sun’s ascendance. There they shall meet the Horned One, and they shall confront their greatest foe."
"Hold on," Buffy said, forming a T with her hands. "Time out. Any idea who the Horned One is?"
"Several," Giles answered. "And not all of them are malevolent beings."
"But most are, aren’t they?"
"Still, this is amazingly clear for a prophecy," Willow said. "It’s practically painting us a road map."
"A road map to somewhere in Never-Never Land," Xander said. "What are you talking about?"
"No, honey, she’s right." Anya said. "It’s perfectly clear: we have to be in Sunnydale for Beltane.
"See?" Willow said, grinning triumphantly. "Pretty obvious now, isn’t it?"
Xander stared back at the two most important women in his life, his face utterly blank. "Uh…yeah," he said at last.
"So what do we do when we get there?" Angel asked.
"There’s more to the prophecy," Wesley said. "A great deal more."
"Well, then," Buffy said as the rest of the room fell silent again. "Let’s hear it."
Wesley looked back down into the book and began to read.