Sequel to Mrs Grieves & The Abandoned Husband; part of The Bittersweets Series
Summary: "Something's gone wonky, yeah, an' you're not in 1997 anymore, Buffy. This is your future. These children, they're yours. Ours." A tale set in the Bittersweet-verse, post Mrs Grieves & The Abandoned Husband.
Disclaimer: All hail Joss from whom all these characters flow
Completed: January 2005
"Little help here, Giles."
Giles didn't help. Turning slowly, scanning the field of shadowy graves and grass, Buffy looked for him, and for what attacked her. No sign of either.
Huh. She got clobbered by something swooping down out of nowhere, and Giles just packed up the blanket and her books and left her here?
She fingered the back of her head, wondering if she was bleeding. But there was nothing there, not even a bump.
Weaving as she walked, she headed towards home, keeping her will firmly fixed on the toilet—nice white clean porcelain toilet into which she'd vomit, because she was so not going to vomit right here on the sidewalk, no way no how, even though she really really really needed to.
After the much-anticipated vomiting, she'd maybe even let Mom put her to bed, say she had stomach flu.
Maybe she did have stomach flu.
Though that didn't account for what happened to Giles. Something had snatched him—and the chemistry book she needed if she was going to pass this semester, but maybe that was just the excuse she'd need to get old Ticknor to give her an Incomplete—focus!! Okay, to-do list: 1) vomit. 2) Call Willow and Xander and get them onto the case of the Disappearing Giles. 3) Possibly pass out.
Jogging up the walk, she took the porch steps in a leap and flung herself in towards the stairs. She was actually halfway up before her brain processed what she'd just glimpsed in her side vision.
There was a playpen in the living room. A playpen with a robust baby in it—whose house was this? Had she bounded in at the wrong door?
A playpen over which a vampire bent, lifting the baby out.
A vampire who was—
"Spike!" She vaulted over the bannister.
The next moments were ... confusing. Spike was shouting at her, the baby started shrieking when she snatched it away, and it was just as hard as you'd think it was to try to drop a vampire like Spike while holding a squalling wriggling infant with—of course—a wet diaper, yuck—even without the sudden appearance of another child, who immediately began screaming Oh no oh no oh no YOU PROMISED!
And then, even though she shouted at her to stay back, the child ran at them, threw herself, weeping and wailing, against Spike, and ... called him Papa.
In the midst of all the din, her stomach roiling, Buffy blinked. Maybe she wasn't seeing straight. Maybe this wasn't Spike, and she'd just barreled into the wrong house and was attacking some innocent man. After all, Spike was supposed to be gone. Done. Finito. She'd dropped a flaming church organ on him just last week.
Except ... no, that was certainly Spike. Pathetic bleached hair, check. Cheekbones you could cut yourself on, check. Penetrating blue stare, check. Black teeshirt, check.
A small fist punched her in the thigh, redirecting her attention. "Mamma! You SAID you never would hit anymore! You prom—oh. Oh. Oh." The child squinted up at her, fear and bewilderment further contorting her already tremulous face. "You're ... you're not my Mamma. You ... who are you? Papa, what is she doing in our house?"
Real fear began to override adrenaline. "What are you all doing in my house? Where's my mother? Spike, so help me, if you've hurt her—!"
He regarded her as if she'd said something really crazy. "Your mother? Buffy—what's—" He stopped and did a double take. ""Christ, you're—"
"Gonna make sure you stay slain this time. Oh yeah!"
The baby writhed and squalled and almost leapt from her arms. Spike reached for him.
"Slayer! Don't hold him like he's a sack of groceries. Can't you tell he doesn't feel secure? An' he's needin' a fresh nappie."
"What, you want him cleaned up before you eat him?"
General muddle followed, with more screams from the girl, escalating infant hysteria with trailing drool, a lame struggle during which she might have screamed herself about the whereabouts of her mother. The baby was snatched from her arms, and the whole lot of them tumbled upstairs into—into a room that wasn't there when she'd gone to school that morning.
Buffy's heart beat a tattoo of panic against her breastbone.
Spike changed the baby, while the little girl, eyes overflowing with mystification and dread, clung to his leg and stared balefully at her.
"Why don't you stay here an' sing to your brother a bit, Pudding, while this lady an' me have a chat downstairs?"
"Who is she? Why is she here? She looks like Mamma but I DON'T LIKE HER!"
"Let me sort it out." He placed a chair for her beside the baby's crib, and wound up one of those bobbing mobiles that plays tunes.
Watching this, Buffy waited to wake up, because OK, please, this was a bad dream. A bad wrong insane just no-damn-good dream.
Spike's hand curled around her arm as they left the room. Buffy shoved him back. "What are you doing? Who said you could touch me!"
"Just cool it, Slayer. Keep your voice down. Jemmie's scared enough already, yeah?"
Her whisper rasped her lips. "What are you doing in my house? Whose children are those? Where is my mother?"
Following him back into the living room, she took in more details. Apart from the playpen, neither the sofa nor the coffee table were the same as she'd left that morning. The television was a bigger, newer model. Mixed in with the familiar ones, there were photographs on the mantlepiece she'd never seen before—some of them that old timey brown—the word sepia floated up out of her mind's confusion.
Standing out from all the pictures was an eight by ten wedding portrait in a big silver frame. Spike in a dark suit, gazing tenderly, forehead-to-forehead, at a chick who wasn't Drusilla, who was working the too-skinny-too-blond thing too much, who—
That glittering feeling started to happen inside her again, her stomach rising up in a wave that threatened to break. The portrait slipped from her fingers, shattering on the tile hearth. She bent instinctively to retrieve it.
Spike knelt at the same time. "Take care, petal—glass."
She'd never heard him speak in that tone. Never seen the expression he wore: a knowing tenderness that made her feel naked. No, not naked exactly. Nude. Like, in a—no way! Where did this pig get off looking at her like that? "What?"
"Forgot how round your sweet little viz used to be. All cherub-cheeked you were."
Now he was calling her fat! She raised a fist.
"You're what—not yet seventeen, are you? Just met me, an' don't like me one little bit."
"I killed you last week! Why aren't you dead?"
He blocked her punch, but she came around with a kick to the head that sent him sprawling.
She might've finished him off, except for the curdling scream. "DON'T HURT MY PAPA!" From the corner of her eye she saw the little girl, huddled against the door jamb, anguish oozing from her wide wet eyes.
Buffy stepped back.
"Get up. Whose children are these? What are you doing in this house?"
"It's my house too. Our house. Slayer, listen—"
"Like I'd ever invite you in!"
Following her divided gaze, he went to the child. "Pudding, thought I told you to stay upstairs."
"I heard crashing. I'm afraid. I don't want her to fight with you. Why is she doing that?" Tears tracked down her reddened face. The child's hostile energy was nearly enough to expel Buffy from the house. "Where's Mamma? She was going to tuck me in."
"Go get in bed, an' I'll tuck you up in a few minutes. Just be good now, Jem."
When the girl had gone, Spike sighed. "Something's gone wonky, yeah, an' you're not in 1997 anymore, Buffy. This is your future. These children, they're yours. Ours."
Okay, this so wasn't happening. It was a hallucination, or a trick, or a spell. Slaying Spike might break it ... but she shied from the thought, as if harming him would somehow harm the children—even though she wasn't sure they were real. Still, it wasn't a chance she was quite ready to take.
What had he done with her mother? Pushing past him, she ran upstairs, calling out. Slammed into her mom's bedroom, to find it was all changed around and lit up like a side-chapel in a Catholic church. Amidst the hundreds of little candles, no Joyce.In the closets, lots of clothes—great clothes, actually—that weren't her mother's. No one in the bathroom. Her own room—she pushed through the door. The little girl in her bed scrambled up and screamed. She was already hoarse from her previous performances.
That's when Spike yanked her back by the shoulders. "Slayer, can't permit you to frighten the girl over an' over like this. She'll get a bloody complex."
Seized with panic, the child howled. All at once, Buffy imagined herself in the little girl's place: her mother, being unlike herself, fighting, running up and down through the house, slamming doors, not knowing her. A shudder of sympathetic fear took her. Whatever was happening here, she needed to understand it before she could put it right.
She'd have to find Giles.
"Do not block my way!"
"If you'd listen to me for half a mo', you'd know where Giles is. He doesn't live in the old place anymore. 'Course, you never do listen to me when you've got a head of steam on, so go ahead. I'll wait for you to come roaring back demandin' to know where he's gone, an' Xander, an' all the others, an' that'll be fine because I'll have rung them all while you were gone and they'll be here waiting."
To her consternation, Spike proceeded, with a flourish, to open the front door. The cool evening air bathed her face and allowed her again to pause, to see herself.
Whatever Spike was up to, it was clearly something deep. And it really might not be a good idea to go barreling off and leave him alone here with the two children.
She wondered also about Drusilla. She must be around the place somewhere, waiting to feast.
Or maybe she already was. Maybe she was in the basement right now, attacking Mom!
Buffy flung herself at the cellar door.
Spike made no move to stop her. He didn't even follow her, but as she reached the bottom of the stairs, the light came on.
Since she'd done her laundry there last night, someone had completely finished the cellar and kitted it out attractively as a training room. There was no sign of her mother, or of Drusilla.
At the top of the stairs, Spike lounged in the doorway. "That's all brand-new. Wedding present from Giles. Had it fitted up for us while we were off on our honeymoon. We just got back, lessee .... twelve days ago. Did things a bit backward, having the kids first, getting spliced later."
"Spike, stop it! You know I don't actually believe you, right?"
"Gettin' that, yeah. But you know me well enough by now to know this doesn't look like my m.o. What did I ever want with your house, or dandlin' babies? The Spike you knew, he'd have taken this place down an' everyone in it before you could sing the chorus of 'Anarchy in the UK'."
This, she had to admit to herself, if not to him—she'd never admit anything to him—seemed pretty true. This wasn't his usual way of acting, or talking, or anything.
Which just made it that much more evil.
"The only place I'd be married to you would be in hell. Now tell me where is my mother?"
Before Spike could answer, a familiar voice sounded up above. "Hey guys! Anybody home?"
Spike barely got out of the way before she ran right through him.
"Xander Xander, God I'm glad to see you, you have to—what happened to your hair? What happened to ... to you?"
Xander looked ... sort of old. Threads-of-silver-in-the-black old, serious-leather-jacket-and-wristwatch old, car-keys-in-his-calloused-hand old. And in his other hand was that of a really pretty woman Buffy had never seen before.
"What do you mean, what happened to—B-Buffy? Is that you?"
The woman's eyes and mouth opened really wide. "Buffy! You're a kid!"
Spike sighed. "We've got a situation here."
Xander really tried not to stare. But it was hard not to. There was Buffy, the ur-Buffy, his original super crush object, the shiny sweet sixteen sexually innocent Buffy with the bouncy browny-blondey hair and the pink halter top. He remembered that halter top. It had figured in two or three of his more lurid fantasies while sitting behind her in chemistry class as Ticknor groaned away at the front of the room and the sun beat down through the window on his already softened brains. Once he'd gotten up to some serious make-believe shenanigans with what was in that halter top and had to get a bathroom pass so he could go let off the pressure.
That was so long ago. A dozen years that might as well be twelve dozen for all the changes they'd undergone.
He shouldn't think of her that way. Her presence here was a crisis, right, it was a problem, a problem they'd have to solve in the real old-time Scooby manner, and anyway he wasn't interested in Buffy anymore, not like that. He glanced at Dawn. Beautiful Dawn. This Buffy wouldn't even know her. Which was another big whoa right there.
Especially since before walking into this big To-Do, they'd come here to tell her and Spike about them. How they'd sparked at the wedding party, and now were ready to stand up as an Official Couple. Since Faith died, he'd never imagined sparking with anybody ever again. And now he was so damn happy. It was like coming back from the dead. Well, not like when Buffy came back from the dead, but like ... like ...
"This is so weird," Dawn whispered.
He squeezed her hand.
Important to stay focused on what was right in front of him. No use worrying about Buffy—his Buffy. Could take care of herself. And if she was only swapped back in time for this one, she'd be all right. Would have the sense to go to Giles and get to work on fixing things—and Giles would have the sense to believe her and help. She probably wouldn't even encounter his earlier self—he'd be confined to that damned wheelchair in the factory, well out of circulation. And she wouldn't go an' sleep with Angel, so no need to worry about her gettin' that subplot started earlier than the story called for.
Would be tough for her, maybe, seeing Joyce, if she did. But at least she'd be oriented to time and place. She'd be all right.
The important things were right here. First, his kids. Especially Jemmie, who was still such a sensitive little body, constantly checking her parents for signs of renewed dischord. Tonight might've set her back months. And second, this bitty Buffy who was trying to put on such a brave face while her heart was juddering around in her chest like a trapped puppy. He could smell the salty broth of her backed-up tears. So many shocks to her little world, coming at a time she wasn't used to it yet—not that she hadn't already suffered more than her share of bumps and lumps. But this girl had her mum living, had never seen Angelus, and still thought that good was good and evil was evil and never the twain ...
Christ, she smelled so fresh. Sent him back it did, that clean girly scent, back to the days when he couldn't imagine loving any other bird than his Dru. When what he lusted after most was slayer's death, a dirtysweet triumph like no other. Her aroma in those days filled him with filthy ambition to show her, show just how bad and lurid and big he could be.
Funny how, even now, he could still connect, no problem, with the part of himself that took joy in all that. He'd set it aside, but it wasn't gone, it wasn't even repulsive. It was just there, on indefinite hold.
Seeing his old foe again brought it all back, like opening Murphy's closet, the urge to bash and crash, to feed and kill, tumbling out with a crash.
Better not to look at her, maybe. Better to just get Rupert and Willow on the case and get this sorted. Girlie needed to be sent back to the proper order of things.
Sitting on the sofa, Buffy tried not to hyperventilate. She'd known real fear before. Listening to her parents fight and fight and fight and then pretend to her that nothing was really wrong. Finding out about the prophecy of her death at the Master's hands.
But this wasn't like those times. This was scary in a whole new way. A why can't I just wake up way.
The terror of being in her own house, surrounded by her own people, and yet it was all altered, all wrong. Wrong how Giles treated Spike like a colleague. And what had happened to his hairline? Wrong how Xander's hands were all rough and callused. Wrong that Willow was all confident and witchy and since when did she dress like that? She'd been kind of stiff and strange when she arrived and Buffy hugged her. They were all treating her like she was just a kid—and they still hadn't told her where her mother was.
"What about Angel? Where's Angel?"
They all stopped conferring and looked at her.
"Why isn't he here? He should be here."
Spike, Xander and Giles traded looks.
The new woman—Dawn, they called her—said to the others, "Look, we could call him. We probably should call him, or Wesley, anyway. They might be able to help."
"Wes, yeah," Xander said. "But Angel won't be there. Remember what he said at the wedding? He was leaving the next day for this deep spiritual retreat in Nepal. He won't be back yet."
"Oh, right." Dawn let out a snort of laughter. "All this time he's all 'oh, I'm so over her,' but then the second Buffy gets married he's got to let everyone at the party know he's going to be with monks."
"Angel's going to be a monk?"
"Not be a monk," Xander said. "He's gone to visit some monks. The point is, he won't be answering his cell phone."
"He has a cell phone?"
"Uh, yeah. We all have 'em, Buff."
She couldn't stand it. "This isn't real. This would not be my future. I would never marry him! I mean, hello! He's the enemy! And I happen to know that vampires can't even make children!" She sprang up. "Why am I even talking to all of you! This is a trick!"
None of them moved to stop her as she made for the door. Their faces wouldn't somehow imprint on her mind—they were distortions of reality. Even Spike's, because though he didn't look any older, his whole mien was just weird and unSpikeish.
Outside, she broke into a run. Sucking air, moving fast, it was easier somehow. She headed towards Willow's—the real Willow's, not that grown-up fake trying to pass herself off as her best friend. After that, she'd try Angel's. The others didn't know where he lived, but she did.
Willow's house was a different color. The name plate hanging from the lamppost at the curb said Kowalski. When she rang the bell, no one answered.
Angel's basement apartment was occupied by a pimply guy with a blaring TV set, who tried to invite her inside for a beer.
On the corner of La Cienega and Main, Buffy sat down and cried.
"We should hold off on saying anything. I think I can work this. I've been interested in the time travel thing for a while, what with what happened to Buffy before. I just need a little more time for research."
"Will, I don't know how patient she's going to be with our stone-walling—"
"Look, I don't want to tell her her mum's dead. You don't want to tell her her mum's dead. But we've got to tell her something. She gonna keep asking, and flying off the handle, unless she knows Joyce won't be found here."
"I'm afraid she's already ... for lack of a better word ... contaminated. If we find a way to send her back, she may retain all her memories of what she's seen here. That could be ... detrimental."
"If we find a way! We've got to find a way." Spike wanted a cigarette. He hadn't smoked regularly in years now, but his hands trembled, his lungs ached, he was gasping for a fag. There might still be a stray pack in the back of the junk drawer. Spike rifled through it as the others continued to sip their coffee around the counter island. When his fingers closed around the slick cellophane of a half-collapsed pack, he felt a surge of relief all out of proportion to the find.
"Be right outside."
Stepping out onto the kitchen porch, he lit up, took a long eyes-shut drag. The smoke seemed to light up every millimeter of his insides. He held it for a long beat.
"My mother is dead?"
He should've known she was lurking out here, he'd have smelled her, felt her, if he wasn't so distracted.
Could smell her right enough now—she gave off the odor of a flash summer downpour, all ozone and lightning.
Crying. He'd never seen Buffy cry in the old days.
"Why are you doing this, Spike? I don't get it. What's it for? Who's pulling your strings? And where's Drusilla?"
"Dunno how you got here, petal. Know you don't trust me, but I had nothin' to do with it. Not with this switch, and not with poor Joyce."
Her punch almost felt good, it made his skull flash up inside the way the smoke did for his lungs. She slammed him up against the shingles, up on tiptoe to get in his face.
"You don't get to say her name! Now stop lying to me, or I slay you right now!"
The sharp stick dug into his chest through his shirt.
The kitchen door opened and Xander looked out.
"Buffy—you really don't want to do that."
"Why should I listen to you! You're not really Xander!"
"I know it looks that way to you. Trust me, Buff. Let Spike go."
The sharp stick dug a little deeper. Spike wondered at himself; he didn't even try to throw her off.
"Buffy! Stop it at once."
Giles' command made her head snap around.
In a kinder tone, he said, "The sooner you accept the reality of this situation, the easier it will be for all of us to work towards undoing it."
"We are the Scooby Gang," Willow said, coming to her and taking her arm. "Really, we are. Look at the bright side, Buff: it's twelve years later, and we're still here, still working together. You're still here. You have a happy life. Come help me figure out how to get you back where you belong."
"A happy life ...? With ... with that? I wouldn't let him touch me if he was the last creature on earth! Where's my mother?"
"Buffy, I'm sorry. Your mother died a ... a few years ago."
This was a kick in the gut, even though she'd heard it already. "Vampires?"
Willow shook her head. "Nothing like that."
Willow looked around at Xander, at Giles, and then at him. Spike didn't know whether he was really the permission-giving body here, but then, which of them really was? He nodded.
"Your mom had a ... a short illness. She died at home, of a stroke. It was very quick."
Buffy began to cry afresh. Spike resisted the urge to take her in his arms; she wouldn't let him. Willow embraced her, and led her back inside.
When she stood up, Giles was there. "Buffy, are you all right?" A blanket was spread nearby, with books and notebooks open on it, their pages flapping gently in the evening breeze.
Seeing that, her head cleared, the pain and nausea moving far off and then shutting down into a little dot that soon vanished. She found herself smiling. Giles. He squinted at her, as if he was trying to get her into focus. He was such a young man, really, in the beginning. She'd never realized that before.
She didn't know how or why, but she understood what just happened. It wasn't good, definitely not, but neither did it strike her as exactly bad ... she laughed.
"Buffy—wait. You're not Buffy, you're—"
"No, I am. I really am."
"Oh, I have. I certainly have. And so will you." She didn't resist her urge to put her arms around Giles, to rub her cheek for a moment against his tweedy front and inhale his booky smell. He didn't hug her back.
"What is this? What's happened?"
"Two thousand—what, the year?"
"Yup. Still alive and stylish, twelve years from now." A warm surge took her at these words; maybe the whole reason for her being sent back here was just for the chance to tell Giles this, to reassure him, that come what would, she'd go on, she'd be all right.
Probably not, but it was a moment. She took that moment and enjoyed it thoroughly.
"This is extraordinary. Buffy. Are you really—but how is this possible?"
"No clue. Let's get researchin'. I've got to get back in time to tuck my kids in or else there'll be trouble in Revello City." She stooped to gather up the books and the blanket. Chemistry. Please God she wasn't going to have to go to school and try to take that test. It would be even worse now than the first time.
"Let's go find Xander and Will."
Buffy laughed when she saw his tiny grey car. "Oh, this one! Giles, this is a terrible car."
"Terrible? I quite like it."
"In a couple of years you'll have a shiny red convertible. Much better."
He fixed her with a baleful stare. "I will not. And if you go on in that fashion, I shall start to think you aren't Buffy at all, and that this is just some sort of hoax."
"It's not a hoax. A spell, probably."
"It's extraordinary. There's so much I want to ask you—"
"Let me ask you something. I get that this is junior year, but tell me what happened recently so I'll know exactly where we are."
"Last week you defeated the Order of Taraka—"
"Right—I rescued Angel, and buried Spike and Dru under a flaming church organ."
"Yes. It was one of your more spectacular successes."
"Well, you guys helped. And Kendra." Poor Kendra.
So, they were just post-Taraka. This was ... this was not too bad. Spike would be out of the way, laid up in the factory. Angelus not yet on the scene. Nothing more immediately pressing than ... she searched her memory.
Than her mother getting engaged to an android.
Oh God. Not that again. Buffy decided that if there was any kind of lull during the researching, she'd go to Ted's house and take him out tonight. Doing that wouldn't change anything that came later, just spare them all the whole sorry incident. And it would be something to do while the others were hitting the books.
Stepping back into the high school library made Buffy's throat close up. She was ready for how small it all seemed, but not for the absurd preciousness of its mundane details: those sturdy tables and chairs, how dear they were! The book cage! Giles' office, his particular tea cup, his pictures and his desk lamp. The big room had a particular aroma—mucilage, aging paper, and that green stuff the janitors used to sweep up—that she hadn't thought of at all since leaving it, but that came back to her with a full bloom of recollection. Slowly she looked around at each of the items that held a place, mostly unexamined, in her memory, and now, in their reality, seemed realer than real.
Meanwhile, Giles looked at her—she'd seldom felt so thoroughly inspected by him—and peppered her with questions.
Before she could consider the wisdom of answering them, they were interrupted.
"We're here! Where's Buffy?"
Willow and Xander burst in, setting the doors swinging wildly. At the sight of them—Xander's floppy fringe and horizontal stripes, Willow in a corduroy jumper and ribbed tights for God's sake—Buffy dissolved into tears. None of them were more surprised than she at this sudden uprush of emotion. Their amazement and unease couldn't keep her from pulling them in against her, hugging them hard. They didn't understand what they were seeing, what she was doing: how could they grasp the tremendous nostalgia and pity that rushed up in her at the sight of their innocent earnest faces? Nothing had happened to them yet. They were still all potential and good-will.
"You guys, you guys ... sorry ... this is weird, I know."
"Buffy, you're a—a lady." Xander stepped back, as if her touch embarrassed him.
Willow stared, as Giles had done, taking in every detail with the expression she usually bore for the more lurid illustrations of demons in books.
"My God, Buffy!" They all turned to see Cordelia, frozen in shock half way into the library. She was ready to embrace even her, but before she could move, Cordelia cried, "Please tell me it's just your usual lame-o fashion sense and that we're not all going to be wearing those shoes in The Future!"
"Hey! These shoes happen to be—"
"What's going on here?"
That voice—soft but entirely unignorable—stopped her cold.
He emerged from the stacks. They all watched him come slowly down the stairs, like some unexpected apparation. Except that when he reached the bottom, Willow did a little wave and said "Hi Angel."
"How did you know—"
"Buffy, I could feel something had happened to you. I came right away."
Angel's stare made her believe he could see her viscera. His gaze darkened; he frowned. "You smell like—"
Buffy stopped breathing. She didn't know what she would do or say if he finished that accusing sentence. She wasn't ready to tell her whole story here.
"—like plastic. What is that?"
Relief blew through her. "It's—oh, it must be this." She slapped her thigh. Her gait was so smooth now that most people didn't notice anything, but Angel of course wasn't most people. "I have one real one, and one state-of-the-art one." Her laugh sounded forced.
"One state of the art—what?" Willow said.
"Leg. I ... I lost a leg, big toothy demon, you know, and now I wear a prosthesis. See?" She pulled up her pants hem to show the amazing-flesh-like covering.
Their expressions made her tears flow again. "Guys. It's okay. Really really really, it is. It was a while ago, and I'm back to normal now. I slay with it and everything, it's no big."
Angel's eyes narrowed. "That isn't all that's different."
For a moment, they were the only two people in the room, and he was the only man she'd ever loved or ever would love, disappointing him the worst crime her heart could commit. His expression—angry and lonely and suspicious—made her want to die.
But the moment passed. All of that was long long ago.
"Obviously, Angel, I've changed in twelve years." She forced herself to look at him, as kindly but dispassionately as she could. Here in this place, he might be more of an obstacle than a helper in the quest to get back. And as fascinating and emotional as this visit to her past was, she couldn't put aside the consequences of this unscheduled trip. Did Spike know yet that she was gone? And since she was here, did that mean sixteen-year-old Buffy was in her place? And would she, finding him in her house, slay him? "Please—I know this is strange and you want to look at me and ask questions, but we need to undo this now. I need to go home to my own time. My—people—are going to be so frantic if I—"
Giles seemed to snap out of a trance. "Quite right. Yes."
"We'd better do a round-robin," Willow said. "I mean—you can't go home tonight to your Mom looking like that, can you, Buffy?"
Mom. Go home to Mom. She could. She really could go home and see her mother, hold her and talk to ... except, Willow was right. She really really couldn't. Her mother didn't know yet that she was the slayer, and it couldn't be part of the scheme of things that she reveal all that now, and in this guise. Surely?
But she'd get to talk to her on the phone. Just long enough to tell her this white lie about staying over at Willow's, but she'd hear her voice. She'd be able to say I love you, Mom, and hear her Mom say it back. Her whole body flushed at the thought.
She couldn't get to the phone fast enough.
But before she could follow the others, Angel's hand closed on her arm. He drew her into the office. "I can't believe this. I can't believe ...."
"We shouldn't talk about it." She detached herself as gently as she could.
"How? How could you be—"
"Angel, I really shouldn't explain. The less I say, the better—for all of us."
"Buffy." The way he looked at her made her eyes moist and hot again. "You ..."
She made herself smile at him. "Good old articulate Angel."
This seemed to flummox him. "How old are you now?"
"You don't look it. I mean, twenty-eight isn't—but you don't look—"
"I know. It's complicated. I ... don't age like other people."
That made him squint. "You've had children."
"How can you know that?" She said it though she understood perfectly how he knew. Spike had given her, over the years, quite a tutorial in vampire senses. His nose could tell him the last time a man had had a haircut, what he'd eaten for his previous half-dozen meals, when he'd last had sex and who with. Vampires could scent a whole natural history of a person, disease and parturition and even old, long-healed wounds.
"Are they living?"
"Who? Oh—the children. Yes. Angel, let me—I have to phone my mother."
"So he isn't dead."
"Spike. He survived the fire last week. He's still in Sunnydale?"
Buffy didn't want to answer.
"I don't understand," Angel said. "How could you permit him—"
"Angel, please. I can't discuss it. And you can't go after him. If you slay him now, everything else will be skewed from here on out, and who knows what worse things will happen as a result."
"Worse than what? What could be worse than you somehow falling into—"
"Angel, you don't understand. What you're assuming—what you're assuming is not how it is, okay?
"How can I believe you?" He leaned in close to her suddenly, his face right up against hers. She forced herself not to shy back, even as her skin crept and trembled at the proximity of his mouth. Would he kiss her? She wasn't sure if she dreaded that, or wanted it. He breathed her in. Touched, lightly, incredulously, the bite scars on her neck.
She wanted to tell him that one of them was his. Except that she really didn't want to tell him anything at all. The way he looked at her made her afraid. Afraid for him.
Resisting a fierce urge to apologize to him, Buffy slipped out and went to make her phone call.
Going into his office, Giles almost bumped into Angel. "Pardon—million miles—Or should I say, twelve years away."
"I can't believe she'd change like that. Not that much."
"What much? That she'd have children? Yes, it's hard ... well, impossible ... to imagine. And her leg ...."
Angel frowned. "I'm not talking about that. I'm not sure she's still on our side."
"Not on our side? What are you hinting at?"
Angel pulled the office door shut. "Giles. She smells like Spike."
"Do I have to spell it out?"
"I'm afraid you do."
"She ... she's been with Spike. She reeks ... her clothes, her hair, her skin, her ... need I go on?"
"Spike. Spike ...? Are you implying that he's ..." Giles blinked. It was unimaginable. "... that he's forced himself on her?"
"No. Not forced. She smells like she's been living with him ... sleeping with him ... for a long time."
"But how could that be? Angel, you must be mistaken. Can your olfactory senses really tell you—"
"They tell me many things. She's also ... Giles, she's been dead."
"Yes, last June, she was drowned—"
"Not that. I mean, really dead. Dead, decomposed, and then ... recomposed."
"You can know that." These assertions were so shocking, so heartbreaking, that Giles needed to be stern. It wouldn't do for Angel to think he'd believe just anything. He didn't know what to believe.
"I can," Angel said.
"So you're telling me she's undead? She doesn't seem—"
"No. She's alive. She's Buffy. But aspects of her—she's altered."
"What exactly are you saying about her? Are you suggesting—"
He wouldn't quite look at Giles. "Do you think I like it? Learning that the girl I love—"
"Leave aside what you like."
"Giles, from everything I can sense ... I think she may have gone rogue."
"Rogue? Buffy?" Buffy could be naughty, snappish, reluctant, disobedient. But she was an inherently good, conscientious girl. Nothing in the presentation of this older version suggested that was no longer so. Not her hug, or the way her eyes filled when she saw their pity over the prosthetic leg. It wasn't in the bright quippy way she'd mentioned tucking in her children. In fact, the more Giles thought it over, the less did he get any sense of nefariousness in the appearance of this future Buffy. She seemed like a well-adjusted, dare he say it, happy woman. Which was something that, as a Watcher, he didn't allow himself to fantasize for his slayer. He concentrated on keeping her alive in the now, and tried not to anticipate the bloody future.
"I don't see how that's possible."
"I'm not mistaken. Giles, I wish I was! On her neck—there's multiple scars. From bites. He's ... made use of her."
"Ask her. Ask her about her death. Ask her about Spike. See what she says, how she looks. There's more here than she's telling us."
"Angel, I ..." The vampire was an ally Giles had never looked for, and didn't like. Buffy's attachment to him was a complication. For all the little ways he'd helped them so far, Giles still wished on an almost daily basis that he'd never come to Sunnydale at all. He didn't exactly mistrust him, but he wasn't eager to count his pronouncements as sound. This one about Spike—Spike—struck Giles as particularly suspect.
"Ask her," Angel said. "And ... be careful."
Replacing the receiver, Buffy stared dreamily at nothing, playing her mother's voice over and over in her head. "All right," she'd said, "but I want you home right after school tomorrow, and you're not going out. Do you hear me, Buffy? I'm making dinner for us and we're going to eat it together." It was the most heavenly promise. She wanted to be there. Even as she knew she'd be working to make sure she was long gone from here by then.
A touch on her arm. "Buff. Are you okay?"
Willow made that sweet little moue with her eyebrows that could melt chocolate. She turned into it, smiling. "Yes. It was good ... it was just good to hear her voice."
"You don't hear your mom's voice?"
"Lots of things are different."
"Am I different? Am I—we're still friends, aren't we?"
"Yes." After that long long gap. She looked into Willow's guilelessness, trying to match up this babyish, disingenuous face with one she saw most often, the one she had to constantly reassert her trust for. Somewhere in the ensuing years, Willow's wide eyes had become half-lidded, something in them always flickering, hinting, hidden.
"And I still live in Sunnydale?"
"We see a lot of each other. You helped me have my second baby."
"Helped you? What, like a birthing coach?"
"I can't believe you have kids. You. Do you like it?"
"I thought slaying was hard work! But yes, I do." She was grateful for this distraction from her mother. The urge to defy caution and just go to her was so strong.
"Tell me about them."
Before Buffy could answer, Xander bounced between them, his face alight in a nervous grin. "Are you telling Willow her future? Don't tell me mine! I want to be surprised. Although ... I kinda doubt it'll be much of a surprise."
Had he always been so self-deprecating? Buffy was glad to be let off the hook. How could she tell Xander about himself—how he'd betray Cordy, and then the whole Anya trainwreck, and then the thing with Faith.
"None of us can anticipate what will happen," she said. Xander nodded, as if she'd imparted a wise thought.
"Well, we'd better book it to the books," Willow said.
Giles' office door opened. Angel slipped out, and without a glance at her, left the library. At his desk, Giles rubbed his eyes. Buffy entered and laid a hand on his shoulder.
"It'll be okay. I know we'll figure it out. We always do."
"Do we? Do we really?" When he looked up at her, she was surprised to see how red his eyes were. It hadn't occurred to her that any of this would make Giles cry. There was so much he'd always had to hide.
"Yeah. We're a good team, we still are. Still close. You're going to have a happy marriage, and a lot more responsibility—and respect—in the Council."
"I can hardly fathom it." A happy marriage. That could only mean Jenny.
He took her hand, looked up at her with a fond, troubled expression. "And you, Buffy, are you married?"
"You've noticed the ring."
He really hadn't, but he did now—a wide, solid gold band encircled her wedding finger.
"To the father of your children?" He couldn't bring himself to ask her out and out what Angel told him to ask.
Buffy nodded. Her face pinked, a smile of pure pleasure flitting across her lips. "I have a wonderful husband."
"And he ... " Giles paused, let her hand go. "When did you die?"
"Buffy. I understand your instinct for reticence, but—"
She laughed. "Okay, I get it now. Angel is suspicious. He thinks I must be a renegade. Because ... because I'm ... He suspects I've come back here to do some mischief."
"He does. But I don't want to think that."
The look on his face brought Buffy dangerously close to tears again. She held up her hands. "See, nothing up my sleeves. Look at my babies." Pulling her wallet from her pocket, she flipped it open to the stuffed picture section. "Here's Jemima, she's nine, and this is Johnny, he's thirteen months. Isn't he—"
Giles had taken the wallet, flipped through the snaps, and was stuck, staring, at the last one. The three of them, taken before Johnny was thought of. Piled on Spike's lap, laughing. His arms clasped tight around them both, one pale hand starfished on Jemima's woolly tummy, possessive, protective. Jem wore a paper crown, which marked it out as Christmas.
"I cannot understand this," Giles said. It came out as a whisper.
"He's not evil anymore."
"He has a soul? Like Angel?"
"He's not evil. Can you just trust me on that? Shit happens, it takes a few years, but Spike falls in love with me. Gradually, he joins our side. He helps us ... helps me ... and eventually I love him too. He becomes part of what we do, who we are. He becomes my best friend."
"Is this before or after your death?"
"Um ... after." Why did admitting that seem to diminish her argument? "The children are ours."
"Oh Buffy, how could they be?" The note of irritation in his voice startled her. Giles rose, pushing the wallet back into her hands. "I'm concerned about my Buffy. What will she be facing where she is?"
"If she keeps her head, she'll be fine. I'm not worried about her." Her mind darted back to Spike. Far more worrisome was what her fierce former self might've done to him.
"You're not worried—!" Giles began pulling books down from the high shelf—the one he used to imagine Willow didn't know about, didn't plunder. "Come on, let's get to work."
This is my house. My house. Where I live with my husband. My vampire. My vampire husband. And my kids. Kids. Two of them. Whom I somehow have managed not to starve, or break, or ... my house. That belongs to me. My mirror. My shower curtain. My toilet.
Looking around the bathroom, she searched with increasing urgency for something that had been her mother's. The shower curtain, the rug, the robes on the back of the door, the towels, the items on the shelves—the shelves themselves—were all fresh to her eye. The pictures—beautifully glazed and framed—were bright crayon drawings, exuberantly signed Jemmie J. Summers.
Out in the upstairs hall, she continued to peruse the pictures, keeping an ear out for the activity downstairs—she thought they might miss her any second now, come to reel her in before she did something they didn't want her to do. She'd been a little surprised when they let her go to the bathroom unaccompanied.
The picturescape was more familiar here. Portraits of her, of Joyce, hung where she remembered them. Beside them, as if part of the tight little group, was a picture, similarly posed and schooly, of a big-lipped brown-haired girl. Who was this? It took a moment for Buffy to recognize the woman she'd seen downstairs, who was apparently Xander's girlfriend. This made no sense, but she moved past it, focusing eagerly on the big frame that held a dozen matted snapshots. She remembered putting this assemblage together with her mother, after giving her the frame for her birthday—they'd spent a happy hour on the sofa going through the photo albums to pull out the best ones.
It was a relief to see it here, just like ... but it wasn't just like.
Every single picture of her and her mother had that brown-haired girl in it too.
How could that be?
Behind her, a door creaked. Buffy glanced around, to see the eye of the little girl peering at her out of what was her bedroom.
Feeling herself acknowledged, Jemima opened the door wider. "Who are you?"
Buffy didn't know what to say. The others had sent her back to bed—twice—without answering her questions, though she was hardly a child so young you could just lie to her with impunity. For that matter, what did she know about her parents? Could she know that her mother was a slayer, her father a demon? How could you let a child in on things like that?
How could you not?
"Who is this girl in all my photos?" Buffy said.
"Your photos? You are my Mamma, then."
Jemima came out. She hugged herself, her pajama blouse pulled tight around her body, almost like a straight-jacket.
"I guess ... I guess I will be."
This answer didn't seem to ruffle the girl. She nodded. "I've seen pictures of you, when you were in high school. We have lots, and so does Uncle Xander. Are you going to be here long, do you think?"
"I don't know. I don't know why I'm here."
"Things happen sometimes," the child said, her voice going solemn with authority. "Portals open up, and people can get lost. It happened to Mamma before, but we found her again."
"That's Auntie Dawn. Don't you know Auntie Dawn? She's your sister."
"I—" She stopped. Buffy knew she didn't have a sister, but it felt wrong to dispute it with this child.
But then the child narrowed her eyes, which made her look suddenly like she was nine going on twenty-nine. "Oh, right. You're still an only child."
Before Buffy could reply, she said, "Do you like being an only? I did. I never thought I'd want a brother or sister, but now I have one, it's really okay. Most of the time. But that's because—" she crooked a finger in the air "—I own Papa."
The laugh escaped before Buffy could stop herself. "Oh you do, do you?"
"Everybody says so, when they think I can't hear them. I hear a lot of things. I know a lot of things."
"I'm sure you do."
"I know this used to be your room. Want to come in?" She pushed the door wide.
"Aren't you ... doesn't this ... aren't you scared? That I'm here?"
The child appeared to have to think about this. "I was scared when I first saw you. Because you were hitting. We don't do that anymore."
Anymore? Buffy thought, but she didn't ask.
"But I'm not scared now. Uncle Rupert and Auntie Willow always know what to do. You have pretty hair."
Buffy wasn't sure when she'd last had a conversation with a nine-year-old.
She couldn't believe this was her child. Hers and Spike's. She didn't like the idea of even touching Spike, let alone ... and she didn't understand at all how Spike could've made anyone pregnant. But this little girl did look like him, and also like pictures she'd seen of her own mother when Joyce was small. Which was so odd, and sort of ... stomach-churning, and ... Buffy wanted to look at her for a really long time, and also not look at her at all. But now Jemima was showing off her room, which gave Buffy an excuse to direct her attention elsewhere. The bed, with it's delicate headboard, was the same, but everything else was different. Other posters and books and toys, other carpet and curtains.
"... like knowing this was your room too."
Buffy snapped out of her abstraction. "I ... yeah. That's nice."
"Here you are. Thought you might've been kidnapped."
Spike was in the doorway. It made Buffy's gorge rise, seeing him in the house—he didn't belong here, her every instinct signaled that his presence meant that something had gone inherently wrong with her world.
"Guess it's out of the question that you'll go to sleep like a good Pudding."
"Out of the question," Jemima said. Her smile for him was adoring and proprietary. It was hard to watch this and not intervene.
"You've got school in the morning."
"Papa—you know I'm not going to fall asleep while—"
"Think you might if you get in your bed an' turn out the light."
"But I want to talk to—you know, this is educational."
"For you, maybe. But don't want you educatin' this Buffy too far. Might scare her."
Oh God. What did that mean?
"Better come on downstairs, Slayer, an' leave the littler bit to get her shut-eye."
"Papa, let me come too! I won't be in the way."
"Answer's no. Serious now. Get in bed an' no arguing."
Buffy expected the girl to disobey, but to her surprise, she scrambled up into bed without further protest, and accepted the vampire's kiss on her brow without trying to retain him.
Spike pulled the door shut, and lingered for a moment with his hand on the knob. He fixed her with his sharp blue eye, and though she wanted to glance away, Buffy couldn't.
"Best thing you ever did for me, Slayer ... was come through with that girl. Knew you loved me then, when you wanted her."
But he slipped around the corner and was already halfway down the stairs. Buffy threw herself after.
In the dining room, the research was already well underway. Buffy noticed that, along with the familiar table and sideboard, the room now featured a large bookcase with glass doors, stuffed full of the kind of volumes she was already used to finding a complete yawn. Willow had already pulled down and doled out a half dozen to the others, and was herself seated at the head of the table, intent on a something it took Buffy a few seconds to recognize as a small computer. She never imagined she'd ever find a computer 'cute,' but she almost wanted to touch this one.
Willow glanced up when Spike came in. "I saved this one for you, Mr First Class Degree in Greats."
"Dunno why you don't learn ancient Greek yourself," he said. "Ought to be right up your alley."
"I'm busy with a lot of other things. Anyway, why do I need to know it, when you do?"
"Well," Spike drawled, dropping into a chair, "what if I was to go Evil again? Could happen. Got no soul. Nothing holdin' me. Could up and go on a rampage any old time."
"You think I don't know that?" Willow said. "Remember, I can kill you with my thoughts."
"Oh, I remember."
Buffy wasn't sure how much of this exchange was jokey, how much serious. Willow was so different.
"Which I might've done already, if you weren't so good with the Greek and the Latin. I don't know how you remembered it all for a century."
"Got a prodigious memory, I do. Always have. Anyway, who says I didn't keep it up?"
"Between blood-soaked debauches, you were reading Ovid and Suetonius? While you were rocking out to the Sex Pistols? Why do I doubt that?"
"You don't know everything, Miss Rosenberg. An' it's when you forget that, that you get out of hand."
"All right, all right. Peace. Daggers down, books open. Right?"
Spike settled into his volume. Buffy felt invisible, standing in the doorway watching them all at work. But Xander glanced up, and after exchanging a look with the brown-haired woman, rose and came to her.
"Hey Buff. No one's done you the honors, have they? That's not right. You hungry? Thirsty?"
She would've said no, but the suggestion made her realize that she was. The dinner she'd eaten before setting out on patrol seemed like, well, like years ago. Following Xander into the kitchen, she fixated on the threads of silver in his dark hair. How could he be going grey already? He seemed taller, bulkier too, but most of it was in the shoulders. He'd turned ... pretty hunky, actually.
She watched him, as if this was his home and not hers, rummage in the fridge for sandwich fixings. He knew what she liked—ham with mayo and yellow mustard.
After the first grateful bite, Buffy attempted conversation. "Is ..." she tried the name hesitantly, "... is Dawn your girlfriend?"
Xander smiled, and instantly looked ten years younger. "Yeah. Yeah, we were going to tell Spike and Buffy tonight. That's why we dropped by. We've only been together since the wedding."
"Mine." She forced herself to take a deep breath. "Xander. Come on. How could I have married him? How could you have stood by and let me? This is so wacked out."
"We all hated it when you first hooked up with Spike. We tried to break it up. Willow made a pretty serious intervention ... there's still some tension between them over that, as you've just seen. But it was all a long time ago. Things change. Now Spike ... well, he's my best friend. Best guy friend, I mean."
Buffy goggled. She could feel herself goggling, like one of those cartoon characters with the bugging out eyes. The bread stuck to the roof of her mouth. "Who are you and what have you done to Xander?"
He sighed then, leaning on the counter, and for an instant he looked old, like his own father, a man Buffy always tried to avoid the few times she'd had to encounter him. "I am Xander Harris. Lemme tell ya, this line of work ... you really find out who you are. You come up against yourself, in ways that ... "
She didn't like hearing him talk this way. So serious. His manner was chilling. That the years—years of being her friend, because he obviously was as close to her as ever—were going to grind him down into a man with such a haunted look about him—and silvery sideburns!—made her think about things she just didn't want to think about. Buffy wanted to confine her worries to the chemistry test and whether she could afford that new pair of boots, and if she should go all the way with Angel.
"Angel! How could I have walked away from him?"
" ... you didn't. He did. But—I really don't think I should tell you too much. If you remember stuff when you get back, you might try to change things, and that ... that ... hell, I dunno if it's even possible."
"Angel left me?"
"It was for the best."
"No it wasn't! It couldn't be!"
"Buffy—" Giles stood behind her, glasses in hand. "Perhaps it would be for the best if we gave you something to do now. A focus."
"I want to kill something. Got something I can kill?"
"This has happened to me before. I've been put back in time, and sent into alternate realities. But I've never gone backwards in my own life." Perched on the edge of the library table, Buffy glanced around, as if confirming to herself all the remembered details of the place. "And this really does feel like my own, not an alternate one, although I guess it's impossible to know for sure."
"I never did understand about the time travel. Because the first time I did it—well, it was done to me—I was sent back into Spike's life. And I thought that my being there, and what happened, would change the future—change my own time. But it didn't. Giles—you—said that was because time can fork. Bifurcate. Anya told us once that there are lots and lots of alternate realities—there are—hey. Do you like shrimp?"
"Shrimp? Of course, why?" Giles' delight in seeing an older, robust Buffy, who moved with all the confidence of the sixteen-year-old girl he knew, was constantly undercut by Angel's warnings. Now that it was pointed out, he noticed the scars. She made no effort to hide them, but her hairstyle did a fair job of it. He hoped none of the others had seen them. Finally he couldn't restrain himself, and beckoned her back into his office, away from the ears of the children. There he shifted the hair back from her shoulder to expose the column of her neck.
"What? Is my hair—? Do I need a comb?"
"You let him ... use you?"
It seemed, for a moment, that she didn't understand what he was saying. The idea flashed into Giles' mind that she might be in thrall. They didn't know, after all, that thrall was a myth. There was nothing in the literature about Spike practising it on his victims, but that didn't mean ...
"Oh." She touched her neck. "My scars. One of these—the first one—was made by Angel."
"He was infected with a deadly poison. The only antidote was the blood of a slayer. I goaded him into biting me in order to save him."
"And the others ... must represent ... many many further poisonings." He choked the words out, disliking himself for this tone of rebuke even as he wanted to grab Buffy and shake her, demand to know how she could have gone so very wrong.
She didn't rise to his tone. "Spike is my husband. We ... give each other pleasure. The way lovers do."
Giles' stomach bucked. He closed his eyes. This was his fault. His fault, in the here and now. Because he tolerated Buffy's liaison with Angel. Which might, as yet, be relatively innocent, but certainly wouldn't remain so. A creature like Angel—who had been a man, who was, in every possible way, deeply male—would not respect the purity of a girl like Buffy for very long. It was absurd to think so. He would claim her, probably soon, and exploit God only knew what erotic appetites were latent in Buffy's nature.
Slayers had a reputation for ... pronounced libidos. They couldn't be married off, but keeping them in a state of virginity, unentangled with distracting or power-hungry civilians, was a preoccupation of every watcher, in every age, who kept detailed records. The diaries always mentioned it, in various tones of disgust, foreboding, and temptation.
Buffy wasn't the first slayer to be seduced by a demon. But she seemed to be the first to survive the seduction.
Was Angel right?
"Giles, I know this seems so difficult to you, from your perspective now ... and I won't say that things aren't going to be hard for all of us. They will be. But it isn't all dark days ahead. And I'm not evil, I'm not in thrall—ha, I knew that was what you were thinking! I'm still Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Still on the job."
"I don't know what to believe."
"Hey." She moved in close to him, peered up into his face with girlish intimacy. "Have I ever lied to you?"
"You have, yes."
"Well ... yeah. But never about anything really big."
"How can I know that's true?"
"He'll put his life on the line for us. He'll be your friend too. And y'know, under that tough-guy exterior ... he's a lot like you in some ways. He likes a lot of boring books. He went to the same Cambridge college you did."
"No kidding. You guys talk about it all the time. Like you had all the same professors or something." She squeezed his arm. "Listen, you guys get on with the research. I'm going to go run an errand."
"An errand? Buffy—I don't think you should leave—"
"Just for an hour. There's this—long story, but there's this cyborg I need to take out. Before he can date my mother. It's a thing. A thing we can really all just skip. So I'll be back. Should I pick up a pizza?"
She took a weapon from Giles' collection—the wooden staff with the pike at one end. They used to train with it a lot, but she'd never actually taken it on patrol. It seemed like a good choice for dealing with Ted.
Walking to his house, she was aware of Angel ghosting in pursuit. He obviously didn't realize that she had sensory skills now a hundred times more sensitive than the Buffy he knew. But she didn't let on.
It wasn't until she was lifting her finger to Ted's doorbell that Angel's hand closed around her arm.
"What are you doing?"
"There's a guy living here who's a machine. I'm going to shut him down."
This was clearly not the answer Angel was expecting. Buffy turned to confront him.
"Look, we have to talk. I'm all over that. But can you just wait until I'm done with this?" Turning away from Angel's dumbstruck face, she rang the bell, holding the pike behind her back.
Ted appeared, all smiles. "Well, hello. What can I do for you two? Are you collecting for something?"
"Why yes," Buffy said. "I'm here on behalf of The Single Mom's Relief Organization."
The solid wooden pike penetrated his neck with a satisfying crunk. They both jumped back clear of the shooting sparks. Buffy used the metal end to chop the head into whistling blinking pieces. When the blinking died, she shoved the various parts back into the house and pulled the door shut.
"Done and done. Let's go somewhere you can buy me a Silver Sipper."
"What's a Silver Sipper?"
"A cocktail not yet invented. I'll have to tell the bartender how to make one. Hey—maybe I'll invent it! Won't that be a hoot!"
Angel hated it that Buffy smelled like Spike, smelled like sex, smelled like death and healed wounds and time. But he didn't realize how much he could hate the alterations in her until he hated seeing her sip a mixed drink.
Buffy shouldn't drink vodka. She shouldn't have that knowledgeable air, that air of being an adult who was only humoring him.
He was no mystery to this Buffy. She didn't love him.
She was very beautiful, this adult woman. He could imagine her in ways he did not yet dare to imagine the young girl he loved. He could imagine her breasts, her spread thighs. Her cunt.
She looked at him without blushing. "Angel. I don't think you really believe I'm here with an evil purpose."
"I don't know that you're not."
Buffy sighed, running her fingertip around the rim of her martini glass. "Yeah, you do, though. You just don't want to. Because this really sucks for you. And I'm sorry about that. I'm sorrier than you're going to credit me with."
A wave of dark green pain washed over him. Futility, who knew that it was this heavy, stank so of bilge and spent sweat? It was for her that he'd decided to return to the world, to be a man. He'd never understood love until he saw her. Never understood purpose. Used to believe that what moved people was just animal impulse, to eat, to drink, to fuck and be cruel to the other animals around. Her love hallowed him.
And now he knew that nothing was going to come of it. The beautiful romance, the great purpose, all that injected meaning into his existence—was going to be ridiculously temporary, and lead nowhere. She would finish with him soon and move on.
Why shouldn't he just drag her out into the alley and have her now? Eat out her neck as he fucked her into the greasy bricks. Another thing he'd have to atone for later, but there were already so many.
Buffy reached a hand across the table. He snatched his back.
"You. You are going to do marvelous things, Angel. You're going to help people. Many many people. Individually and in groups. You're going to have friends, loyal ones, strong ones, they're going to work with you. You'll avert apocalypses."
He wanted to shout at her, as he seized her by the hair, dragged her forward to devour her. What difference does that make?!?! I don't care! Without you it's nothing! His every muscle tensed, he couldn't understand why he didn't spring up, throw the table across the room, wreck the place. No. This, this Cosmic Fuck You wasn't what he agreed to, wasn't what Whistler had really been offering.
He hated how she was looking at him, the compassion, the affection in her gaze. He could cave her face in with one punch. Her love was meaningless. All love was. Goodness a myth.
"I wish you didn't have to be confronted with this. Angel, I know you don't believe me—not against the evidence of your senses—but I never stopped loving you. It was you I wanted. You were the one who left me. Who made it stick."
"I don't ... I would never do that."
"You did. Because of Angelus."
That jerked him out of his swamp. "Angelus? What about him?"
It was the first time her expression slipped. She paled, her eyes unlocking from his. "Being with me ... brought him out. After that ... it was too dangerous for us to ever do again."
"After? There was an after?"
"Oh Angel ... if I could spare you all that—!"
"What? Stop hinting! For once, just tell me what you're telling me."
"I am telling you. You became Angelus. You tried to open a portal to suck the world into hell. We found a way to restore your soul, but the timing was wrong. You got your soul again, but I had to send you into the portal to close it or else everything would've been destroyed. You were in a hell dimension for ... a long long time. Longer there than here. When you came back, we tried to go on with our love, but you couldn't really touch me. We couldn't be a man and a woman together. After about six months of being in pain together, you decided it was time to part. You left town."
"And then you hooked up with Spike."
"Three years later. After my death and a very difficult mystical resurrection—that I did not ask for—I got close to Spike."
He couldn't take this in. His soul, Angelus, the idea of having Buffy, or having to leave her.
"How does it happen?"
"How do I lose my soul? Is it when I'm making love to you, or ... afterwards, or ... before we can even start, because just seeing you, touching you makes me so hap—"
Buffy didn't want to answer his desperation, and after a few seconds, realized this wasn't so as to protect him, but because she still, even now, couldn't talk about it. They never had. Afterwards, they'd talked around it, exchanged glances about it, but never really had a mature, frank conversation about the night that ruined so much for both of them.
And she wasn't ready to have it now, either.
Angel seemed to sense this. He sat back. "The carnage ...."
"Was bad. It was bad, Angel. It's never a good idea for you to be out there without your soul, okay? I'm not telling you anything you don't know. I should be getting back to the library."
"What?" She did nothing to conceal her sudden impatience.
"But Spike, who has no soul, wins his way into your bed."
"Into my life. Yeah, he does. And it beats me, Angel, to explain it. Really. It's certainly not fair to you. I have no clue why he's different from you. But he is. He's different from ... well, every other vampire ever."
"Are you sure? Are you sure it's not that you're different from every other slayer?"
This time, walking back into the library felt like passing through the looking glass. Buffy felt she should have to stoop to fit through those swinging doors. Xander, Willow, Cordelia, and Giles looked up.
Jenny Calendar looked up.
"Oh my," she said. "Buffy. Look at you."
In the bathroom, she threw up the Silver Slipper and everything else in her stomach. When it was over, she realized there was a hand holding her hair back. In her peripheral vision, Buffy saw a sneaker, an ankle clad in ribbed tights. She rose.
"You okay?" Willow said.
"Think it's catching up to me a little."
"I guess it would," Willow said uncertainly. She flushed the toilet and steered her out of the cubicle.
Catching sight of them in the glass, Buffy teared up. She blinked, washed her face. Her make-up was ruined, and she didn't have anything to touch up with. As she blotted, she was aware of Willow's anxious gaze.
"Yeah. Good now." How was she going to go back in there and face Jenny? Buffy's mind raced, coming up with frantic alternative ideas for how she could warn her, save her. But again she wondered—would that be wise? Or even possible?
Willow said, "There's so much I'd like to ask you."
"I know. Have you guys found anything out yet? About what this could be?"
"Not yet, but it's still early." Willow met her eyes in the mirror. "What ... what kind of a woman am I going to become?"
Buffy turned to her, gathered her in. "An amazing one."
Willow resisted the embrace. Buffy felt her disappointment. "Oh. Okay. Uh ... am I ever going to have a boyfriend?"
"Did you think I was lying to you?"
"Well, amazing could mean anything."
Could and will, Buffy thought. "Yes, you will have a boyfriend. You'll have lots of lovers, in fact."
"Lots? What, I'm going to be some sort of ho?"
"No! No, Will, that's not what I mean ...."
"So, what, you're saying I won't be able to settle down with anyone? Or I'll keep getting dumped over and over, no one will want to stay with me? Is that it?"
"No. No." Well, sort of. "We're only twenty-eight. Xander's single too."
"He is? So we've never gotten together ... but we still might?"
" ... you still might. Sure."
"And what about Cordelia? I guess she's married to someone rich and doesn't live in Sunnydale anymore."
"Well, she's ... " No use saying anything too definite about Cordelia. Buffy caught herself feeling sorry for her, in what was nearly a first. "She did move to L.A."
"Hah! I knew she would! How many husbands has she had?"
"She doesn't actually ... she's changed a lot, Will."
"I'll believe that when I see it," Willow said, quirking her eyebrow. "And what about Mr Giles?"
Mr Giles. It had been such a long time since any of them had called him mister. "He's married to someone he cares for a lot."
"But it isn't me."
"You? I just said you're single. Why would it be you?"
Willow blushed. "I ... oh, nothing. I used to have ..."
"A little crush," Buffy smiled. "Used to have?"
"Just at first. Not any more. I mean—he's totally old!"
Buffy realized, watching her friend, that she'd long since stopped having any understanding of Willow's inner life. Even though they'd reconciled, and were pretty intimate—almost as intimate as they'd been in high school—she couldn't say anymore that she knew how her mind worked, where her impulses sprang from.
It's dark in there. And Willow's darkness was different from her own. She wished she could find something now to say to Willow, something that would make the difference, keep her on the right side of the line. Already the psychic wounds were festering, that would make her go on to gather power and abuse it.
She took Willow's hands, held them up. "Listen. You are going to be amazing. The things that I will do—lots of them, will only be possible because of what you'll do."
"What ... what do you mean?"
"I can't really tell you. But try to remember that, okay? Try to remember that you're important, and you don't need to ... you don't ... never mind that. Just know that you're totally crucial. Never forget that."
"I ... I won't. Okay."
This time, when she hugged her, Willow hugged back.
The research went on through the night and into the morning, people coming and going from the dining room, bringing in fresh pots of coffee, going on donut runs, rising to check on the children. Jemmie, protesting, was sent to school. Buffy found herself wandering through the house, able now to take in the little details, the furnishings that were the same and different, the ornaments and pictures. Quietly she mounted the stairs, touching the wall with her fingertips as she moved along the upstairs corridor. The door to her mother's bedroom was not entirely closed; when she placed her eye at the crack, she could see in to the crepuscular glow. The flickering candle light made the room seem vast.
Spike lay on the bed, head facing away from her. The yellow light made his bare shoulders into two points of pearl. It took a moment for Buffy to understand the shadowy movement beneath the sheet drawn up to his belly. She recoiled from the sight, but not all the way. She'd never seen a boy—a man—do that. Had barely even thought about it—who wanted to picture guys jerking off? Ewww.
Spike's hand moved languorously, as if he was more intent on what he was thinking about than on getting himself off. As she stared, he stopped, then drew his arm up slowly behind his head.
"Mustn't spy on a fellow when he's consoling himself, slayer."
"Oh—!" She could still see the dark shape of him tenting the sheet, wanted to drag her gaze away and couldn't.
"All riddled with curiosity you are, about life with Big Bad."
"I could never love you. Never want you in my life. You're evil, soulless. I don't believe in all this. It can't be real."
He spoke as if she hadn't. "This time of morning's when I get a bit of kip, usually. Most days, she comes up with me—baby's asleep—an' gives me a little affectionate attention, to send me off to my slumber. We take a deal of pleasure in each other, every day, my darling an' me."
His words made heat rise into her cheeks. "I don't believe in this! I would never forgive you. All the horrible things you've done. They're not forgiveable, and I would never—"
"'Course not. Never asked Buffy to forgive me my wickedness. She couldn't, an' shouldn't. But she knows I've packed it in for her—because I adore her, an' wanted even a crumb of her respect, if I could get it. We both changed a good deal before we could get to bein' the loving pair we are now, though. You're going to change, slayer, suffer an' change. No avoidin' that. But you'll survive, an' there's nothing more important than that."
"Why should you love me? I'm your enemy. You disgust me."
Again he spoke as if he hadn't heard her. "D'you know what's sweetest thing you can have in this life? Don't suppose you've thought of it much yet, not consciously anyhow, but you will. It's bein' understood. The glue that's set me an' slayer together, it's that: we comprehend each other, down deep. I won Buffy to me by knowing her, when she wasn't sure she knew herself. Took her a long time to love me, an' forgiveness of my past had nothing to do with it. She knows me, all the good an' bad of me, and when she looks at me, it's me she sees. Doesn't forgive me, doesn't even always approve of me. But knows me, see? Never had that when I was alive, nor through all my dark decades. She fulfilled my great craving."
She wanted to make some flip remark, but her lips were dry. She thought of Angel. Did she understand him? A panicky feeling rose in her; she could only imagine Angel as some huge opacity—like the big black slab in 2001. No no no, of course that wasn't right, of course they understood each other. She loved him, he loved her. That's what love meant, wasn't it? Yes. Spike was trying to confuse her.
"All I ever wanted in life, she gives me with that look in her eyes, that way she'll frown at me an' call me Spike like I'm world's worst thorn in her side. With the way she trusts me in a fight to always get her back. An' how she surrenders to me over an' over in this bed, an' even more, lets me surrender to her."
"Don't be gross."
"Was lyin' here thinking of her just now, her kisses an' her dear little fingers handlin' me, an' her mouth. Missing her, hoping she's all right where she is. Makes me furious when there's nothin' I can do. Nothing I can tear off an' kill to get her back home. Nothing I can say to Jemmie about where an' when."
"This has happened before."
"Few times, yeah. Never for the same reason. The first time, girl got shot back in time by the dweebs, an' met up with me when I was still alive. Don't like thinkin' about what passed between 'em, but when she came back, she had Jemmie growin' inside her."
Buffy really didn't want to picture that. Her head was already spinning fast enough.
Spike sat up. The sheet fell a little, pooling in his lap, recasting the shadows there. "Can see I'm not going to get any shut-eye anyhow." He shifted, and she drew back from the doorway.
"Hand me my jeans, will you, slayer?" He pointed to the chair. She came into the room sideways, slowly. The trousers were heavy, they clanked as she lifted them. She caught the big silver belt buckle before it dragged the belt free. There was something intimate, almost indecent, she felt, in holding that large cold hunk of metal in her hand. She tossed the jeans to him. She couldn't believe she was in her mother's room with a naked man. A naked vampire man. The flickering candles made Spike's skin glow like an alabaster cup.
A burning wish took her, to know what that smooth glowing flesh felt like. Without thought she moved to the bedside, where he was already working his legs into the jeans, and laid a hand on his bare shoulder. He stiffened, glancing up with irritation.
"Better move your little paw, Slayer."
To her surprise, she didn't move it. She pressed her palm into the curve of his shoulder, drew it down the voluptuous curve of his biceps. He was vaguely cool, like Angel. But she'd never touched Angel's bare skin like this. Her palm tingled hungrily, wanting to squeeze, to explore.
Spike plucked her hand off and pushed it back at her. "Better not, child."
"You know I'm not a child."
The hair on his crown was crisp and yet surprisingly soft too as she sank her fingers into it, pulled his head up into position. She hovered for a second over his breathless mouth, thinking of how he'd said that word, surrender. Spike, who always bragged to her of no surrender, ever.
His lips was soft too, softer than Angel's, more mobile. She just managed to brush the tip of her tongue against his before he pulled sharply away. His mouth had a faint coppery taste, not unpleasant.
His growl rolled all around the room and then straight up her spine. "Get out now, naughty girl. You've gone too far."
"I can't believe you'd think there was such a thing as too far."
"I belong to her. An' you're not her, not yet. Go on now."
Retracing her steps, still trailing her fingertips along the wall, Buffy turned in to the bathroom. Her reflection showed her flushed, a guilty smile tugging the corners of her lips. Why did she feel like this was her first ever kiss?
Maybe because it was the first she'd ever seized for herself.
She tried to remember Angel, the excitement of kissing him, but she couldn't grasp it, he seemed so far away.
When would she get to go home?
"Will you bring out the pictures of your children again? Jenny would enjoy seeing them." Giles' voice was low and nearly peremptory, but Buffy could tell he meant to reach out to her after his previous rebuke—obviously at Miss Calendar's prompting.
Such a girlfriendy prompting—asking your man to rethink something, to try it again. Jenny was in love with Giles, it was so obvious as she watched them now, just in the way they positioned their bodies in relation to one another, the little glances they exchanged. Buffy recalled how blind she'd mostly been as a girl to Giles' manhood, his adult functionings. She'd taken him so for granted.
"Sure." She laid the snaps from her wallet out on the wooden library table in front of them. "Jemima is our first-born, she's nine. Her whole name is Jemima Joyce Grieves Summers. She's named after Spike's favorite sister."
"What a lovely child," Jenny said.
"Thanks. We know she's not ... I mean, she's not a raving beauty." Buffy wondered why she was apologizing for Jem like this—why it still bothered her that she lacked the prettiness she'd had as a girl, and Dawn. Jemima wasn't ugly, or ungainly, but she was, in photographs, anyway, sort of unremarkable. "It doesn't matter, because she's very smart, and athletic, and funny. She thinks everyone adores her, and mostly everyone does. She's her papa's darling."
"So Spike really is her father?" Jenny said. "I can see a resemblance, but it hardly seems possible."
The way Jenny said it, light and nonjudgmental, made it easy for Buffy to answer. "Her biological father—the father of both my children—is William Grieves. William Grieves was the man who became Spike. The first time I encountered him I was sent back in time by an enemy, to London in 1879, and had I not encountered William by chance in the street, I might have perished. I was homeless there for a long time before I saw him."
"You fell in love with one another? And was this time displacement before you became involved with Spike?" Giles asked. He seemed to be restraining a wild curiosity that would've liked to pepper her with questions.
"Spike and I were already a couple. And there was no love with William Grieves. I didn't like him. The qualities Spike has ... weren't his. He was ... hidebound. Small in many ways. A man of his time, I guess. His health wasn't good, he wasn't a happy person. But I had to survive. In order to do that, I had to barter what ... what I had."
Jenny and Giles exchanged a glance. Buffy shrugged. "It's not the worst thing I've ever been through, and there were compensations. Becoming a father changed Spike even more than he'd changed already. Having a child with him made us happy in ways we'd never anticipated. It made us feel real together in a way I can't really describe." As she spoke, an ache awoke in her breastbone, an ache for the sight of Spike, for his body and voice and his arms around her. Ever since the incident of the demon diner, she needed him as much as he did her, sometimes, it seemed, even more. She'd let go of reticences she hadn't realized she still cherished, laid herself open to him in new ways. Found it was good to be, at least in bed, submissive.
"How then did you get the little boy?"
"That was the result of some magical mojo that Willow worked for me. It was a side-effect of a spell we used to give me strength to avert an apocalypse."
"Magic that Willow worked?"
"Yes." Buffy engaged his eyes. "Giles, keep track of her. She's going to be very very powerful, and she needs guidance. So that she doesn't fall into the trap of thinking that ... that the only worthy thing about her is her power."
"Be her watcher too. She needs you just as much as Buffy does."
Jenny's eyebrows arched. "Perhaps, where it comes to witchcraft, I could—"
"Yes." Buffy couldn't bear to discuss the idea of Jenny mentoring Willow. "Good idea."
"And Spike ..." Giles was once more regarding the picture of him holding her and Jemima on his lap. His mouth bowed as if he was trying to swallow something sour. "How is it that a vampire could put aside his demon appetites ... is it that you allow him to feed from you? Is that what compensates him? Because otherwise I cannot imagine—"
"No Giles." Buffy sighed. "I know it's impossible for you to picture, but really truly, the biting is not the key to our relationship. If I told him he couldn't bite me anymore, he would accept it, and we'd still be all right with each other."
"Then I am at a loss to understand what a vampire—especially such a notorious one—would want with a domestic life, even as paramour to a slayer. There is a perversity to it that ... well, that isn't at all the kind of perversity William the Bloody is known to revel in."
Buffy took a deep breath. Part of her resented having to explain, part of her felt eager—always eager—to talk about her great love, it's triumph. "You have to grasp, it happened slowly, over time. Tiny steps, with set-backs in between. The first thing—he was captured by a secret government group called The Initiative—they were trying to study and control demons. They put a chip in his head that kept him from committing any violence against humans. He escaped them, but after that, he had to change his ways. For a while, he hovered near us, sometimes helped us in exchange for money. During that time, he fell in love with me. Which, believe me, when I first heard about it, horrified me. But as time passed, he became more interested in what he could do for me—for the Scoobies—than in what he might get in return. He made it clear that he could be trusted to protect—not just me, but my family, who were in danger at the time. He made me a promise about that, and he kept it even after my death. He kept faith with me. And when I was brought back to life ... which was a very very dark time ... he was the only one who was willing to see how difficult it was for me, how lost I felt. In death, I'd been at peace; coming back was a terrible wrench, I can't describe it to you. But at the time, I could confide in him. The others needed me to be happy, grateful to be alive, they wanted me to be the way they remembered me. Spike didn't want me to be any particular way—he only wanted me to be me. No one has ever treated me like that before. Just ... accepted me, without demands. I was angry and rough with him and he took my abuse and didn't turn away from me. He pulled me through my despair. Since then, the chip's stopped working, but none of us—even you—has had a moment's uneasiness about him. He's one of us now. My husband, our friend."
"That's certainly extraordinary."
"As a vampire, he's a total freak." Buffy laughed. "I mean, we've never found any rational explanation for the way he is. More motivated by love than bloodlust. We just know he's one of a kind, and we're glad about it."
"And what will he become if your love is withdrawn?"
"Giles, I don't know." She looked at the snapshot, thought of all the times they'd talked about this in bed, what Spike would do if she was gone. They'd never considered a scenario in which she'd stop loving him—that didn't seem possible to either of them, though Giles seemed sternly to believe it would be inevitable. "I don't think Spike would want to live if everyone he cares for was gone. But I also don't think he'd hurt innocents if that happened."
"One day it must be the case. Those he cares for are only human, after all."
"Maybe. Except ... since I was brought back from the dead ... it seems there's a good chance I'm not going to age and die like other people."
"Buffy—what do you mean?"
"I might be ... I might be immortal. I mean, we don't know for sure, and we won't know, obviously, until ... well, we'll just have to see. But when I was brought back to life after being dead for four months ... I was different in some basic ways. I am different."
"How were you brought back?"
"Willow did it. Without your knowledge, or Spike's, or—" Quickly she decided not to mention Dawn "Willow worked the magic with Xander and a couple other friends."
"Again Willow!" Jenny exclaimed. "How can she—"
"The power is already inside her. She's learning by leaps and bounds, every day. That's why you need to watch her." Buffy sighed. What was the point of warning them? Probably she couldn't change what was going to happen—or shouldn't. All at once she felt heavy-limbed, tired. How long was this going to last? She wanted to go home. They'd be worrying about her—working frantically to bring her back. Jemmie would be anxious, and Johnny would be asking for her over and over in his piping voice. Maybe he'd be fussing, refusing to eat because she wasn't there to feed him. He could be so difficult. She wanted to rest her head on Spike's shoulder, be held by him in silence for a long long time.
"How are we doing on the research? Have we found anything? I need to get back to my family."
"We're working. Nothing like this has come my way before, Buffy."
"I know. Maybe the others—my people—are doing better."
Jenny gathered the pictures up slowly, handed them back. "You're fortunate, Buffy. It's heartening to know ... that there are good things in store. That there's a future."
"Uh ... yeah. I'm glad ... I'm glad that pleases you, Miss Calendar." Her smile felt like a grimace. She turned away quickly to hide her embarrassment.
Xander's girl was dandling the baby. Xander, his mouth a frivolous curl, was hovering behind them, sometimes kissing the girl's neck, sometimes kissing the top of the baby's head. Dawn held the sippy cup for the little boy to drink, his fat hands encircling her wrist.
"He's being good," the girl said, with an undertone of why am I jinxing it?
"Well, you're his aunt. Next best thing to Mom."
"Except not really. Johnny's really fixated on her. He doesn't care so much for me."
"Mamma," Johnny said. "Mamma? Where's Mamma?"
"She'll be back soon, jonnycakes," Dawn said. "Meanwhile, let's do a little hula dance." She swayed the baby on her hip, sashaying slowly around the counter island. But Johnny kept turning his head, craning around for his mother, his inquiries getting louder. When Xander tried to distract him, he hit out with his fists.
"Maybe ... maybe I could hold him," Buffy said, stepping hesitantly into the kitchen.
Dawn stared at her for a moment in pure astonishment. Then she blinked. "Sure." She handed him over.
The baby was big and solid, almost too big to still be called a baby. He was warm and heavy and wriggly, and as she took him on, Buffy waited to feel something, some overwhelming emotion of recognition and belonging. He's mine, she told herself, but she couldn't make it mean anything, not really. The baby's reality was just mysterious, the way Spike's presence in her house was mysterious, the way the changes in her friends were.
"Mamma," Johnny said. "Mamma sing."
"Sing?" She looked up at Xander. "What do I sing?" The only song she could think of in that moment was Achey Breaky Heart
"Anything," Xander said. "All songs are new to him."
"But—" She flailed for something, her mind whirling wildly. "Frere Jacques, frere Jacques, dormez-vous, dormez-vous? Sonnez la matina ..."
Xander joined in. Now he was encirling her from behind, leading her in a slow dance. Dawn slipped back into the dining room; Buffy heard her talking to Willow. The baby plucked at her shirt with his chubby fingers. Buffy wondered in a panic if he expected to nurse. Surely he must be too big for that? She glanced over her shoulder at Xander. He looked so funny, crooning and smiling, the silver hairs curling amidst the dark ones. Suddenly she was sure that he hadn't been this happy in a long time. That he was a little drunk on the sensation, high enough on it that even worry about where she—the right Buffy—was, couldn't bring him down.
She saw their reflections in the window over the sink, and it was as if they were the parents, as if Xander's early crush on her had borne out, and she'd returned his feelings. He was her sweet husband, safe as houses. Nothing to be ashamed of or scared of, nothing about him she had to push to the back of her mind.
She stared, and as she did, she knew that, wonderful as Xander was, both the Xander she knew and this one he'd grow into being, he could never never never be enough for her.
No human man could be enough. Even if she wanted Xander with all her heart, even if she needed him to be the one ... he'd never fit.
Somehow, she'd always known that. It was why, when she first saw Angel, even though he made her uneasy, suspicious ....
"... sonnez la matina, ding dong ding ..."
She couldn't believe it wasn't going to be Angel. There was no way, no way she'd ever stop loving him.
Why did everything have to be so hard?
Xander was holding her elbows now, shimmying her and the baby in a smooth arc around the counter island, crooning in her ear. Tears rose to Buffy's eyes. This isn't my life. I want my life back. All at once she was ridden by fear: what if there was no going back? What if she was trapped here forever?
"Ahh, now this is nice."
Spike, fully dressed and wreathed once more in cool, appeared in the doorway. "Bitty slayer's pitching in on the home front."
Hating him, she shoved the baby into his arms. "Leave me alone!"
"This is—" She started again on her rant about how crazy this was—expressing it, while ineffectual and obvious, took a little of the pressure off for a few moments, the pressure of them imagining that she'd somehow fallen entirely under their sway. Before she got out more than a single burst, Willow's voice overrode hers.
"Guys! C'mere! I think I've figured out what we have to do to get our Buffy back!"
"So, Buff. Are you avoiding me? Afraid if I'm gonna ask which way my career's gonna go: Papa Gino's or Domino's?"
Xander cornered her in the corridor outside the library, as she came back from the bathroom. He looked so fond, so good-natured, and yet at the same time so hopeless, that Buffy put a hand to his cheek. The skin was soft—he couldn't be shaving more than a couple of times a week yet.
"I'm not avoiding you." She realized as she said it that she was. It made her sad to see this fresh-faced Xander, to know how many disappointments he'd suffer in the next dozen years. So that now he was best defined as a family friend, with no other more personal role to play. He had decent, well-paying, if unflashy, work, but it did nothing to sustain his soul, his hunger for connection. Faith's death had clobbered him in a way that all the other set-backs didn't, and he'd never quite picked himself up again. He was twenty-eight going on bitter bachelor uncle. Always good for patrolling, baby sitting, or playing pool with Spike, who had grown skilled at unobtrusively curbing Xander's drinking on their nights out. The Xander she knew was a lonely man, his emotions stoppered, the gentleness curdling in the anger he tried to hide from them all.
No way was she going to allude to any of that.
"So? I already heard that Willow's gonna be quote amazing unquote."
"Yes. And so are you. The things you'll do as a Scooby ..."
"But I never get to make time with the girl, do I?"
"The girl—?" For a moment she didn't understand. Then Xander laughed, and pushed away from the wall where he was leaning.
"Hell, any girl."
"You will be loved by wonderful women. Beautiful, strong women."
"In the plural. Hey, I like that."
"Sure." She pushed out her thousand-watt smile, and tried to keep it from flickering. "And you and I will always be close. Very close."
"Really?" This brought out an answering smile in him, and Buffy was flooded with relief. She'd hit on the right words. Poor Xander, even so early, what he cared for was being part of her world.
"You're going to be quite the demon killer in your own right. You'll see. Totally key to the whole operation."
"Well, okay. I'll accept that. Guess we better get back to the books. You must be pretty anxious."
"I mean ... God, Buff, this must be so weird for you. We must look like such a pack of little kids. Because you ... I can't tell you what you look like."
"Well, I get a sense ...."
"When I saw what happened to your leg ...."
"Xand, that's really all right. It doesn't hurt anymore, and it doesn't keep me from doing what I need to do or want to do."
"Still. It's a change. It means nothing can be the same as it was for you."
"Xander, that's what life just is. Things happen and you can't go back. I mean, it's not that extraordinary."
"You're a real grown-up now." He sounded leery.
"I guess so. It's not a thing you can help. At least ... well, plenty of people manage never to be grown-ups, but God, you wouldn't want to be them. Or hang with them."
"So Spike's a grown-up?"
"Oh Xander, you can't imagine."
"No, I can't."
She followed him back into the library.
Angel was there, sitting next to Jenny Calendar, in front of a stack of books. His gaze sucked all the oxygen from the room. She couldn't imagine what he was doing there—since when did he help them with research? It took all her self-restraint not to scream to Jenny to save herself. Except that Jenny's death was really her fault. And there was nothing she could do, from this vantage, to prevent it.
No matter what she did here, everything would probably happen just as it happened. Even Ted.
Buffy's energy left her suddenly, with a rush like the Pacific undertow pulling the sand out from beneath her feet. She almost staggered. This situation wasn't the sort she could master so easily. There was no enemy to fight. There was nothing she could do at all, really, except endure, and hope that those more capable in these matters would pull her through.
Slumping in a chair, she glanced at the clock. It was morning already—school would be starting soon. "Anything?"
Giles barely glanced up. She could feel the intensity of his frustration. Willow was intent on the computer, her typing sounding increasingly frantic and aimless. She didn't yet have the mojo at her disposal that the later Willow would.
"I can't believe I pulled an all-nighter and you losers didn't come up with anything!" Cordelia said, jumping to her feet. "I'm going home to take a shower."
Slinging her bag over her shoulder, she flounced towards the door. But when she thrust it open, Cordelia drew back inside instead of pushing through.
"Oh. My. God. You are supposed to be so dead."
"I'm here for my girl. Where is she?"
That voice shot through Buffy like an adrenalin burst. "Here—I'm here!" She scrambled up, and it was as if the air had turned to murky water, and time was caught on something. She saw Spike moving into the library, and she had to struggle towards him, kicking and stroking. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed the others rising slowly from their chairs like strung-out wack-a-moles, staring.
He was dressed in the slim black suit he'd worn recently to marry her. Buffy's gaze stuck on the polished shoes, the tie, before focusing on his face, which was at once grave and full of joy. He came towards her slowly, hand outstretched. She had time to wonder if this wasn't a dream, a waking fantasy, before it all sped up again in a whoosh when Giles placed himself between them, crossbow raised.
Spike paused. Unruffled. Unfurling his slow, hot smile. "Now Rupes, you know that's not necessary. Can see I'm not the current issue."
Buffy pushed past Giles. "You're here! Oh, thank you! How did you get here?"
He yanked her in close, it was the best feeling, his arms around her, the hard plate of his chest against her cheek. "Willow worked it. Put me through here—the other me's on our side, meanwhile. I'm to find you, give a signal, and she'll pull us back through. Bitty Buffy an' bad old Spike will pop back where they belong at the same time."
"Willow—you mean I—" Up from the computer, Willow too refused to stay behind Giles and his upheld weapon. She drifted towards them wide-eyed. "I have that kind of power?"
Spike looked at her with a tender disdain that Buffy knew Willow wouldn't be able to read. "An' more." Then he turned back to her, tipped her face up. "You all right, my queen? You've been sick to your stomach, an' you've been crying."
"Yeah, but I'm fine now." Though her instinct told her not to make a display in front of the Scoobies, she couldn't help pressing her mouth to Spike's, compulsively seeking the assurance of his taste on her tongue. His kiss lit her up with relief; he wasn't lost, her real life was still real, and she could return to it.
When their mouths broke, Spike gasped, his cool blown. "Christ girl, how'd this happen? Was about out of my head, missing you."
"I know, I know you were. I don't know what happened. God it's so good to see you." She touched the lapel of his suit, smoothed her fingers over the tiny pattern woven into the silk tie. "Why are you wearing this?"
"Was suggested I not come through here lookin' like current occupant."
"Oh, right. Yeah."
"An' know I look right smart in this get-up. Don't I?"
He smiled, and she beamed back. There was nothing else but his face, his dear familiar reassuring presence. I'm so lucky, she thought. I have this amazing love, how did it happen?
Giles edged near them. "You say—you say Buffy is safe?"
"She's fine, yeah. We've fed her an' all. She's startled, a bit outraged by it all, but safe."
"Good lord." Giles pinched the bridge of his nose. He was no longer pointing the crossbow.
"Did ... did you have to fight her?" Buffy asked.
"There was a bit of a tussle, yeah, when she first got in the house. Jemmie got upset. But nothing too dire."
"Jemmie! Oh no."
"Child always manages to be in wrong place at wrong time. But she's all right. We sent her off to school in the morning like always. You ready to go from here?"
Before Buffy could nod, Angel was at their side, his hand closing around Spike's arm, face stony, expressionless. Buffy wanted to punch him out of the way, but Spike only turned to him slowly, neutral, inquiring.
"I want to see ... I want to know ... what's your trick this time, Spike? What's the game?"
"No game, mate."
Angel growled. "You always have a game, William."
"Found something better, that's all, an' took to it."
"That isn't possible. I know what you are."
They stared at each other, challenging. But Spike was restrained, made no move except finally to shake his head. "Thing is, turns out everyone's subject to change. An' I ... not proud here. All the little bit of good in me's only the reflection of hers, like the moon borrows from the sun. I'm rotten inside as ever I was. But there's something ... there's something in me that's more than the demon. Don't know what it is. Not a soul. But I belong to those I love, more than I belong to the demon."
Listening to this, Angel's face became even more granitine; Buffy thought his hatred and resentment might burst forth in a howl, a windmilling of those powerful arms. But he only pushed himself back, his energy black and roiling, and twisting on his heel, left the library. The door flapped in the silence, broken after a couple of beats by the voices of the others, gathering around them with questions. Spike never let go of her as he talked to the Scoobies, his mouth quirked in a half-smile. How amusing this must be for him, she thought. Something like a triumph.
The other Spike was certainly not having such a good time.
Spike had told them about a wheel-chair, but when he appeared on the living room floor, there was only one disoriented vampire, naked to the waist, chest and arms and face patched in lurid red-and-black burns. He vamped and snapped, but it was obvious that he couldn't rise—that his back was broken—just as Spike had said it would be. Willow restrained him easily with a spell, after which Giles and Xander made short work of chaining him to a chair.
Buffy couldn't stop staring at him. He saw her too of course—roared and gnashed at her as if he had no speech, as if he was nothing but a feral beast.
A beast who was quickly exhausted, who could only strain against the chains for a few minutes before he went limp in the chair, white-lipped, eyes rolling. The game-face fell away, revealing the familiar visage, but more stark, pale and wasted.
To her surprise, Buffy felt a lick of pity. He was so badly wounded. She hadn't intended that. She'd intended a clean slay, Spike and Drusilla both buried in flames. It wasn't part of her mission to make vampires suffer, she had no taste for torment.
Spike looked around, agog. "What the bloody hell is this? Dru! Drusilla! What've you done with her?"
"Nothing," Giles said. "You're just going to have a brief sojourn here, and then you'll be restored to your mistress safe and sound."
He looked around at them all, frowning. Buffy wondered if he knew where he was—he'd never been in her house. Clearly the differences in the others registered on him, but he asked no questions, just scrutinized them all, a rising panic in his tired eyes. Finally his gaze rested on her again. She'd kept back all this time, and didn't step forward now. "Oh yeah," Spike breathed, exhaustion in every liniment. "Sure I will."
Buffy wouldn't have been surprised if he'd began to sob. She'd never seen him this way, stripped of all his cocksureness.
Dawn shifted uneasily, looked from Spike to Xander, and Giles. "Shouldn't we ... I dunno ... do something for those burns? Maybe feed him?"
Spike made no sign of registering this suggestion; he still stared at her. "What are you waiting for, slayer? Why don't you finish me off? Does it give you a kick, seein' me like this?"
" ... no." She wondered why she answered him. She could go sit in the kitchen, just wait for this to be over. Willow said it might only be a few minutes—or a few hours at the most, if Spike had trouble locating their Buffy in the other reality.
Once she was back where she belonged, she could go to the factory, slay him and Drusilla. That would be the proper thing—that was her duty, of course. Knowing they were still there, of course she'd go take them out.
But not here.
She couldn't imagine attacking Spike here.
"What've you done with Dru?"
"Nothing," Giles said, in his tart voice. "I suggest you rest, Spike. You're in no immediate danger."
"Ain't I?" He strained again against the bonds, but it was only a token show. "Well, that's a laugh."
Dawn pushed past her. "I can't stand it. I'm going to warm him some blood."
Buffy followed her into the kitchen. She hadn't spoken so far to this supposed "sister."
Dawn was pouring blood into a big cup, thrusting it into the microwave. Her jerky movements betrayed impatience, even disgust.
"Are you angry?" Buffy said.
She wheeled around. "No. I mean ... there's just no reason why we have to hurt him. He's obviously in pain, and weak, so what's the point of making that worse?"
"But he isn't—"
"No, he isn't. But he will be. And I love Spike. He's always been good to me, even when ... even when there wasn't anything for him to get out of it. The first selfless things he did—were for me."
"Oh. I didn't know."
"My sister put me under his protection, at a time when I was in mortal danger. I don't think he ever took anything so seriously as he took looking after me. Even after the big danger was over ... when it was too late ... he took care of me." Dawn's eyes flooded with tears. The microwave dinged. "I just don't like seeing him this way. Frightened and powerless."
Buffy followed her back to the living room, where she went boldly up to the vampire, holding the steaming mug.
"Will you let me help you drink this?"
He snarled. "Who the fuck are you?"
"I'm the girl with the cup of hot blood. C'mon now." She brought it to his lips. Buffy expected him to snap at the cup, at her hand, but, though he kept his savage and suspicious gaze on Dawn, he drank peaceably enough.
Buffy stared at his swallowing throat, its whiteness. Stared at his shoulders—the second time that day she'd seen them. Her fingers curled, remembering the crisp soft feel of his hair, the smoothness of his skin, smoother than any live man's. His mouth opening beneath hers. A squirm of sensation between her thighs made her shift her footing. What the hell was she thinking? Look at him! He was a monster. Repulsive. It was a mistake to think of him as a person.
The cup was empty. He was staring at her again. "Slayer. What is this?"
"What do you mean, what is it?" She couldn't believe she was talking to him, but somehow, under the scrutiny of the others, she couldn't just turn away.
"Your little pals—what's wrong with 'em? They're not kiddies like they should be, an' your watcher looks 'bout ready for retirement. But you're same as ever. What's the game?"
A blush climbed her cheeks. She didn't want to look at him anymore. "Don't worry, Spike. This isn't the game. It's just a time out. The game ... will resume in a little while."
She turned away, fingers itching for a stake, her whole self yearning for normality. She didn't like this possible future. Didn't like it one bit. She'd have to make sure it didn't happen like this, not at all.
"Amusing as this all is," Spike said, "Bitty Buffy's anxious to get back to you all."
Giles blinked. "Yes. Quite right."
Spike smiled then, eyes half-lidded. "She's none too happy with what she found 'round ours. None too happy at all."
Giles was wide-eyed. "I expect she'll tell us all about—"
"No. Not if spell works right. Will be like it never happened. None of you will know a thing."
Buffy watched the ripple of reaction to this—at first as if Spike was proposing to rob them all, giving way little by little to relief. They wanted to forget. Wanted to have their normality, their mystery, restored.
She was glad about that. Glad especially for Angel.
Spike prodded her softly. "Say your goodbyes, pet."
"You guys. This has been ... it's been a trip." Buffy hugged them all in turn, taking the opportunity for long last looks into young faces bemused, a little frightened, exhilirated. She kissed Miss Calendar.
Then Spike put an arm around her again, took a twist of paper from his pocket and shook the powder in it out into a circle around them both. She barely heard the words he chanted before the tingling rose up her back, and when that cleared, she was in her house.
Dizzy, she stumbled towards the nearest chair. Only when she'd sat down in it, hard, did she register the limp chains wound round it.
"Well,you're both here," Willow said, grinning. "So yeah, they're probably both back where they belong." She flexed her hands, cracking the knuckles in satisfaction. "Good job, say I."
"We still don't know why it happened," Giles said.
"Not important." Willow asserted.
Buffy pushed herself up. "Where's the baby? Where's Jem?"
"Here he is." Xander came forward with a sleepy Johnny. "Jem's at school."
Buffy started at the sight of Dawn, standing so close to Xander. "What are you doing here? Aren't you supposed to be teaching?"
"Not until Monday. We came by to tell you—"
"Xander and me." She looked at him then, and Xander looked at her, eyes gleaming. They couldn't keep apart, arms threading together.
"You and—? No! Oh, this is wonderful!" She leapt to kiss them both. Johnny began to cry in her arms even as she hugged him between her sister and Xander. This was wonderful, and even more wonderful because of the memory of what she'd told sixteen-year-old Xander, who had been so full of apprehension and dread.
Spike relieved her of the baby, so she could embrace them both. After that, there was a general exchange of embraces and chatter, the bubble of tension completely broken. It was over, all was well. Time to sit down and eat, to talk it over, compare notes. Jemima came home from school while they were all still at the table, drinking mid-afternoon beers, and ran into her mother's arms.
"Oh Mamma, you used to make such nasty faces! I like your face better now!" While the grown-ups laughed, she covered it in kisses.
That night they coaxed Jemima to sleep early. In bed, Buffy pressed herself full length against Spike, skin to skin. Rubbed herself slowly against his rising cock, the hairs wiry and soft against her thigh.
"So ... Xander and Dawn."
"Best thing that could've happened."
"I know. I just hope and pray it'll last. When I was there ... of course they all wanted to know what was in store for them ... I could barely look Xander in the eye. Knowing how unhappy he was going to be. I really never thought—!"
"Had to move on sooner or later. Bound to."
"But it's been so long. And the drinking. I was really losing hope there'd be anything else for him. I hate to say it."
"'Spect he'll ease up on the booze now."
"God, I hope so. I don't want Dawn to get hurt."
She loved his confidence. "No, it won't, will it? He'd known her for so long. He's always loved her."
"But this is different."
"Yes." She murmured into his hair, kissed his cheek. Spike raised his head. His eyes were soft and fond. He traced her lips with his, dipped a tongue into her mouth. Light creamy kisses that made her throb. "It was hard seeing Miss Calendar. Knowing I couldn't help her."
"It was hard seeing them all. They were so ... awed. And they hated what I had to say for myself. It really freaked Giles out, that I was with you."
"Plenty of freakage on this side too."
"What was it like, seeing me again like that?"
"Don't mind tellin' you, was bloody weird."
"Did you ... did you want her?"
"You'd think I would. But no. She ... was an irksome little baggage, mostly. Kept bawling about how much she hated me an' always would. Hated all this."
"Well, I guess she would. I would've. I had no idea, in those days, what was going to happen. Our life would've been inconceivable to me then." Buffy mouthed kisses across his cheekbone, along his ear, down the column of his throat. Spike stretched his head back, let out a low rumbling growl.
"Had to have a little taste, though."
"What?" Buffy raised her head, met his eyes in the candleglow. "You—"
"No, not me. Her. Stepped in here, bold as brass, an' seized hold of me. Took a kiss off me, to see if she'd like it, the young chit."
"I don't believe you."
"Oh yes. Had to try out what was so disgustin' to her very marrow."
"And what did you do?"
"Told her to get out. Christ, do you think for a minute I'd be confused between you? Girl was itching to slay me whole time she was here. Used to like that in you, but all I wanted the whole time was for her to be gone, an' you back. Scared me a bit, the reminder of what it was like to be without your approval."
"Spike." She whispered, sliding across him, rubbing gently, lips against his ear. "You don't have to worry about that."
"Guess you didn't see other me?"
"No. There was no reason to. And I had my hands full, with Angel and all of them."
"What happened there?"
Her first instinct was to say I don't want to talk about it. "Seeing him like that again, made me wonder ... what it was I thought I loved about him. What it was I thought love was, in those days. We didn't know each other at all. We were like two fortresses built side by side. Waving banners at each other, that's all."
Spike was quiet at that. His hands slid up and down her back, her arms, reached to cup her behind, fingers sliding between the cheeks, then caressing her thighs, as if reacquainting himself with her contours, her heat. Just when Buffy thought the conversation was done, he murmured, "Still, you had to come through him, 'fore you could get to me."
"I had to come through everything. We both did." She didn't want to talk anymore. His hard cock made a wet kiss on her belly. "I want you in me. I want you to cover me."
He was slow and tender, as always after a separation, or a fight. She was glad—so glad—there had been no fight, no bitterness to dispel, or broken trust to re-glue. She missed being able to wrap her legs around him, but he had already taught himself so many little tricks to compensate for her reduced mobility, she could almost forget it. His strength did for them both.
He kept murmuring my girl, my girl as they fucked. Afterwards she didn't let him withdraw. It was good to bear his full weight, to comb her fingers through his hair. Her cunt throbbed gently around his spent cock. In a little while, she'd get him up for another go.
"I felt proud," she said.
"Telling them about us. Showing the pictures of Jem and Johnny. I even felt proud about my leg. That I'm still the slayer even though I lost a leg. It made me happy, telling them what you were going to be like. And when they didn't believe me—it was just sort of funny. It made me feel ... smug. I knew better than all of them, what you are. My Spike."
He mouthed her breasts. She knew he was moved by what she'd told him, so moved he had no words. His kisses were full of worship. Threading her fingers into his hair, she sighed and stretched beneath him. He was getting hard again. Buffy rolled her hips. The rest of what they had to say, they'd say like this.
It was almost always enough. It was enough now.