ORIGINALLY POSTED: May 21, 2008
AUTHOR: JK Philips
SUMMARY: Sequel to the Death Brings Clarity saga, now nearly ten years after The Fine Art of Blackmail. Giles wanted to prevent his daughter from inheriting her mother’s destiny. He wanted to give his son the choice he never had. He wanted Buffy to live a lifetime beside him. Fate had other plans...
SPOILERS: Everything up to “The Gift”
DISCLAIMER: I do not own these characters; they are the property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy & Fox. I simply am doing this for fun, and non-profit use.
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MY WEBSITE: www.jkphilips.com
Part 7: Walking Paradox
More than two years after Buffy’s death, present day…
Buffy. Buffy in the kitchen. Alive.
Xander didn’t believe it. Not from John’s lips or Anya’s. Not even with his own eyes. Standing in the doorway, watching Buffy and April nonchalantly sip cups of coffee, he still didn’t believe it.
“Wait, wait, I know this one,” he almost sighed in relief, sagging against the doorframe, finally able to make sense out of the chaos. “That’s the Buffybot.”
The Buffybot rolled her eyes. “Yeah, right. Beheaded, remember? When we fought Glory? And if you tell me Willow put that thing back together… I am so gonna kill her.”
Okay, less perky and vapid than the Buffybot, but there’s no way she could really be… “Buffy?”
“Hey, Xan.” She smiled and wiggled her fingers in greeting. “It’s really me. Real bona fide article, accept no substitutes.”
“But, but, but you’re dead.”
“So everyone keeps telling me.”
The mixture of amusement and annoyance in her voice decided him. Only Buffy could sound so cavalier about her own mortality, the same Slayer who traded quips beside blows, her tongue as sharp as her stake in battle.
A few halting steps, and then his feet came unstuck, and he was rushing to the table, tackling Buffy in a crushing hug, nose pressed to the top of her head and breathing in the scent of a living, breathing, joking Buffy. A moment later, and Willow arrived, enfolding the pair of them in her arms as well. Buffy surrendered to their embrace until oxygen became an issue.
“And you better not be getting snot in my hair,” she warned them both as they pulled away, sniffling. Her hands smoothed her hair back carefully, as if checking for any suspicious wetness. “Okay, I get that you’re glad to see me. April’s been filling me in on stuff. But you gotta know, from my point of view, I never died. Never happened. I saw all of you just yesterday, in fact, and none of you were quite this clingy.”
Anya was helping herself to juice from the fridge before joining them at the table. “Alternate timeline,” she said with authority. “I used to do this all the time when I granted wishes. You didn’t make a wish, did you? A spoiled adolescent-like wish for people to appreciate you more after you were dead?”
“’Cause that would have been Halfrek. She specializes in spoiled adolescent wishes. Daddy issues.” Anya hooked a finger under the gold chain peeking out from Buffy’s collar and pulled the necklace into the light, catching the pendant in the palm of her hand. “Doesn’t look like this came from any vengeance demon I know of.”
“It came from Giles,” Buffy insisted tetchily, but before she could reclaim it and tuck it away beneath her shirt again, Anya had yanked it from her neck with a sharp tug.
“Oww!” Buffy was rubbing her neck where the chain had snapped off and glaring daggers at Anya, but Xander and the rest of the room were more focused on the fact that Anya’s hand was empty. The necklace had melted away into nothing the moment it slipped off her neck.
“Hey!” Buffy’s irritation escalated into outrage the moment she noticed that fact as well. “That was an anniversary present.”
“In your timeline,” Anya clarified. “In our timeline, you didn’t have anymore anniversaries. You died.”
Xander flinched. Sometimes his wife’s brutal honesty was too much even for him. He softened the mood with humor, his attempt at distraction desperate even to his own ears. “Does that mean if Buffy takes off her clothes, they’ll, you know… poof?”
Buffy’s eyes widened in alarm.
Willow cleared her throat. “Umm… maybe Giles will still have some of her old clothes, from… before. Or-or we can pick up some new clothes.”
“Someone needs to call him. Call Giles.” John’s firm voice startled Xander. He’d forgotten the other man was there, hovering at the threshold, as if afraid to come any closer. White as a ghost and still trembling slightly, John might have been inducted as an honorary Scooby over two years ago, but aside from his initial introduction to vampires, he’d never experienced the supernatural weirdness of their life except through stories. It was one thing to hear the tale of Buffy’s swan dive off Glory’s tower and her miraculous resurrection five weeks later, and quite another to sit through her funeral and then sit down to coffee with her two and a half years later. The man was wigged. Understandably so.
Willow hadn’t taken her eyes off Buffy, even though she addressed her response to John. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Not until we know more. Why she’s back, and… and for how long.”
“I get why you haven’t told him about the… the demon coming back,” John said. “But you can’t keep this from him. If-if it were April… I wouldn’t care about how long. You have to—we have to tell him.”
“When Angel came back,” Buffy reminded them, “that first Thanksgiving after we broke up, you guys all kept it a secret. Remember how pissed I was when I found out?”
Xander considered the strain Giles had been under lately: Faith’s death, Robin’s probable Calling and then unexplainable reprieve, followed by the unending search for the next slayer, still missing in action. He remembered his intervention, convincing Giles that it was time to let Faith go, and the fear he had finally put into words, the real reason he was so reluctant to pull the plug: If I lose Robin… it will be like losing Buffy a second time. I can’t face that alone. How could they put him through all that again? Xander had to agree with Willow: they needed more information before they could justify that kind of emotional roller coaster.
“Buff, what if this is like vamp-Willow from Anya’s hell dimension—”
“Cordelia’s hell dimension,” Anya mumbled in correction.
“—and you have to go back where you came from?” Xander finished. “Do you have any idea what that would do to him? To your kids?”
She flinched when he said kids and dropped her eyes to her lap. When she raised them again, they were shuttered, her voice tight and controlled. “How many people pray for a second chance? Huh, Xander? So what if our two worlds cross for even just a day? Whatever other hellmouthy reason I’m here, maybe it can also be about a second chance.”
“Yeah, okay,” Xander agreed, still not convinced, “but if it still ends the same, it’s just ‘Groundhog’s Day.’ What will that accomplish?”
“I’m glad that you guys are looking out for them. Really, I am. But it’s my call. I have to see them. And if we’re gonna figure this out, we’re gonna have to all play on the same team. No secrets. He has to know about the demon too. It’s connected somehow.”
Willow frowned in that familiar, sympathetic, resigned face. She traded an apprehensive look with him. If Buffy wanted to insist on this, then it would be up to them to prepare Giles for it first. She couldn’t just show up at the front door like she’d done with John. That would give her poor watcher a heart attack.
So how did one prepare a guy for a visit from his late wife, who possibly might not be able to stay for long?
Spike was making entirely too much noise. He was doing it on purpose.
Giles pressed his fingers to either side of his temple and rubbed small soothing circles, trying to ignore the clatter of cups, the bang of cupboard doors opening and slamming, the rattle as the vampire reorganized his refrigerator’s contents. He flinched at the victory shout as Spike emerged with a bag of blood, which he tore open with his teeth and emptied into a round and brightly painted cappuccino cup, almost large enough to be a cereal bowl. Which he then crumbled cereal into.
Giles closed his eyes against a wave of nausea. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. Again.
Spike clapped him on the back as he climbed up on a stool at the center island beside him. “You and Dawnie are quite the pair this morning.” He elbowed Giles playfully, or was it sadistically? “The way she complained about the sunlight, you’d think I turned her.”
The way Spike’s jostling was making his head throb, it was a wonder that chip didn’t have the vampire writhing on the floor. Or was that just wishful thinking?
“We were reminiscing.”
“Drinking to days gone by. Toasting the magnificent Buffy, greatest slayer of them all. Understand the sentiment, but have a care ’fore you go gettin’ kid sister smashed, alright? Dawn’s a lightweight compared to you.”
Giles sipped carefully from his teacup. Still too hot, but the aroma cured his irritability, if not his headache. “And to think, just last night, Dawn was lecturing me on the fact that she’s not a kid and not my responsibility anymore.”
“True enough. Just saying… frail little mortal bodies wear out fast enough as it is, don’t need nobody adding unnecessary mileage.”
With that, Spike jumped up to retrieve his AB+/Shredded Wheat soup from the microwave. And Giles suddenly realized he had more in common with Spike than he’d ever imagined or would ever admit. They were both men who had knowingly chosen women with much shorter life expectancies. All the time he’d been focused on keeping Buffy alive, desperate to stave off the inevitable fate of all slayers, he had never considered that Spike carried the same burden. No matter that Dawn would likely live a long and healthy life, die many decades from now of old age, long after Giles, Spike would still be forced to outlive her, by centuries, by eons even. It made Giles’ personal tragedy shrink in comparison.
When Spike returned to his seat at the center island, Giles looked at him with new eyes. Sympathy, empathy really, stirred inside him, a sense of kindred spirits.
“What’re you lookin’ at?” Spike shattered the moment of tenderness with a glare of total revulsion. “You’re not still drunk, gonna start spouting off that you love me, call me brother, some sorta nonsense like that, are you?”
“Not enough scotch in the world for that, Spike. Promise.” Giles redirected his affection to his tea, breathed in its blissful scent. Tea, were it able to, would appreciate his affection, his understanding. Tea would not turn itself bitter out of spite.
“Good. Only so much family togetherness I can stand, stuck in your house ’til sunset.” Spike spooned up a mouthful of his dreadful morning concoction, and Giles frowned in disgust. Bad enough when they’d been roommates, back when Spike had first gotten chipped, but he shouldn’t have to put up with it now.
“Must you eat in front of me?” Giles made a mental note to throw out the cup and spoon after his guests had left.
“Have to put up with you existing in front of me, don’t hear me complaining.”
“Boys!” Dawn warned, stumbling into the kitchen and raking her tangled heap of bed-hair out of her eyes. She wrapped her robe tighter around herself and pulled the belt snug before plopping on a stool across from them. “It’s not that bad, Giles. You get used to it. I’ve seen live people eat worse stuff on ‘Fear Factor.’”
“Yes, and if my limited grasp of pop culture is correct, they usually vomit shortly afterwards.”
Dawn pulled a face. “Let’s not use that word, ’kay?” She groaned and let her head flop down to the countertop. “I hate you. You are no longer my favorite brother-in-law, substitute father figure. You’re hereby demoted to guy who lives with my niece and nephew.”
Giles chuckled and fetched her a glass of water and two aspirin. “If you’ll recall, you were the one begging me to share and share alike.”
“Well, yeah, sure, if you’re gonna go and treat me like an adult. Where was this side of you when I was in high school?”
At that moment, Xander and Willow wandered in, as surprised to see Dawn and Spike as Giles was to see the pair of them.
“Dawnie!” Willow’s giddy, too-loud squeal made both Giles and Dawn wince.
“Quiet on the set,” Dawn begged as Willow hugged her tight.
Xander ruffled her mess of hair fondly. “Looks like my little Scream Queen had herself a rough night.”
“His fault.” She pointed in Giles’ direction. “And don’t call me that, Xander. It’s been years since I made one of those movies.”
“Dawnie, Dawnie, Dawnie… You should know: I thought of you as the Scream Queen long before you followed in the esteemed footsteps of Jamie Lee Curtis and Neve Campbell. Watching you scream ‘Get out!’ at a horde of rampaging zombies on a 50-foot screen with THX surround sound only made me nostalgic.”
“Is no one happy to see me?” Spike complained.
“Only if you fit in a box this big.” Xander mimed the dimensions of a cigar box. “And what are you eating?”
“You don’t want to know,” Giles assured him.
Willow, undeterred by Spike’s lumpy soup of blood and cereal, crossed the room to give him a hug and a smack on the cheek. He squirmed away from her and scrubbed the echo of her lips from his skin like a fourth grader afraid of cooties.
“Where’re the twins?” she asked.
“Upstairs,” Giles said. “Still in bed, I imagine.”
“Hiding out from Giles,” Dawn added. “They are in so much trouble. Snuck out last night, remember?”
“Worse than that,” Spike insisted. When Giles tipped his head and furrowed his brow in puzzled inquiry, he only answered, “Better be having a sit down with that son of yours, Rupe. He’s been holding out on you. Both of them, actually.”
“Spike.” Giles’ tone was warning. “What do you know?”
A shrug and the now empty bowl and spoon were dumped in the sink. Mental note: new sink. “Promised the kid I’d give him a day to come clean ’fore I ratted him out.”
“Speaking of coming clean…” Willow slipped over to Giles’ side and looped one arm through his.
Xander nervously jumped in with a joke. “Your doctor girlfriend is imaginary! I knew it!”
She rolled her eyes, and he muttered an apology. “We need to meet with you in your office,” she told Giles seriously. “At Council headquarters. We’ll explain on the way. Spike and Dawn can stay here with the twins. We’ll give you a few minutes to clean up.” She ghosted the back of her knuckles across his morning stubble with a wry grin. He hadn’t showered or shaved yet.
As he headed out of the kitchen, he heard Willow’s voice trail behind him in his wake, an irked protest aimed in Xander’s direction: “What? I just thought he’d want to look nice. Or at least not like he’d—”
Whatever critique Willow was about to offer on his appearance, he was already upstairs and out of earshot when she made it.
The front door had barely closed before Spike heard the patter of timid feet down the stairs. Pair of eavesdroppers knew the moment their father had gone and the coast was clear. They greeted Dawn enthusiastically, but kept their distance from Spike, solemn eyes blinking up at him owlishly in fearful anticipation of a reprise of last night’s tongue-lashing.
He was used to Robin’s wary distance, although she usually warmed to him by the end of a visit. Alex, on the other hand, had always been his eager shadow since the child had learned to walk. Spike wasn’t used to the pitiful look of a whipped puppy from those green eyes. Like he was any kind of authority figure to be dishing out punishments.
“Enough sulking, both of you. Pair of brooding Angels. Look, I said my piece last night; rest of it’s between you and your dad. So stop giving me those poor, orphan looks.”
He tugged the boy to his chest for a rough one-armed hug and felt the slayer strength deceptively coiled in the child’s muscles. Stronger than him, and yet not even as tall. Same could’ve been said about Buffy, though.
Spike stretched his free hand towards Robin, smoothed his fingers through her hair and rested them against the nape of her neck, as he had done countless times when comforting Dawn. Robin closed her eyes and leaned into his touch, still too wary to risk closer contact. She looked so much like her mother, he wondered how Giles could bear it.
“Dawn, you go ahead and run upstairs, make yourself human. I’ll keep the twin terrors here out of trouble.”
He waited until he heard the upstairs shower turn on. “Right, then. You wanna play watcher and slayer? Let’s see what you got.” He led them both towards the basement. “Mind you, the fight will be mostly one-sided, on account of this bleedin’ chip in my skull, but still… let’s see if you can take down a real vamp. I’ll teach you some moves you won’t get from no prissy Council lessons.”
Xander chauffeured them. Willow sat sidewise in the backseat beside Giles, her feet tucked underneath her and her nervous babbling ratcheting up his stress levels with each passing block.
They were parked in Giles’ usual spot before Willow and Xander swallowed in unison and finally briefed him on what exactly was waiting for him in his office. Or rather, who exactly.
The demon was back. With such a perfect track record for prophecy and a penchant for gloating – You will let her fall – seemed like the blasted thing would have mentioned a return visit. He should be angrier with the others for keeping the secret from him, but he could only focus on the thought of Buffy, an alternate Buffy, waiting for him in his office.
He leaned heavily on his cane as he followed them inside, feeling his age and every war wound. His legs were like jelly, and without the support of his cane, they would have folded beneath him.
Stein stood sentry outside Giles’ office, arms crossed, his muscular bulk and imposing glare warning away any possible gawkers like a bouncer at the Bronze. Surely someone must have seen her entrance, and the rumor would spread like wildfire. There would need to be a memo or a meeting or something to address the situation with the rest of the Council, but he could leave that to Stein to handle.
Giles paused for a moment outside his door, marshalling his wits about him, grateful for Xander and Willow’s calming presence, though he suspected underneath their bravado, they were as rattled as he.
He entered and there she was, perched on the edge of his desk, legs swinging, chatting with Wesley. Her eyes lit up the moment she saw him, a broad silly grin warming her expression like the dawn breaking in glorious colors across the horizon.
“Give us a moment, Wes,” she requested, a teasing note in her voice that hinted she might jump him at the first opportunity.
Then they were alone. She hopped off his desk and raced over to him, stopping short the moment before collision. Her eyes inspected him, seemingly cataloguing every difference. Her hand hovered inches over his, over the hand curled tight around his cane’s smooth silver grip. She never touched him, but traced her finger down the dark walnut staff instead.
“This is new,” she commented. “Is it for show, or do you… need it?”
“Some days I do.” His eyes drank her in too. She was thinner than he remembered, her shoulders squared as if through force of habit. “Your hair… it’s longer than I’ve ever seen it.”
She brushed her hands through it self-consciously and examined the ends. “A little darker, too, with highlights. Do you like it? You said you did.”
She smiled brightly and bounced up on her toes to press a kiss to his lips. He tensed and didn’t return it, frozen where he stood. She rocked back to her heels, frowning at him, clearly hurt by his emotional distance.
“You’re not my Buffy,” he explained. He wanted so much for her to be his, to belong here in this world with him. A mistake, a terrible mistake, and she had never died. Or maybe resurrected after the fact by Marcus’ spell or someone else’s. Maybe even Ethan and no ruse this time.
But they had made it clear to him. She wasn’t his Buffy. She was an alternate version, one who hadn’t died. And to pretend otherwise… that way laid madness.
She took a careful step backwards, respecting his personal space, forfeiting her right to the intimate distance between them. She then reminded him very softly, “I am your Buffy. Just… plus another couple years.”
She sighed and started pacing the width of his office. “However screwed up this is for all of you, it’s a hundred times worse for me. You all have each other, but my whole world is different. You’re different. Not the Giles I went to bed with last night. And everyone keeps looking at me like… It makes me feel like I’m stepping on my own grave. And all I want to do is see our kids, but I don’t know if that’ll make things worse or better for them. But what if this is a second chance, for all of us, to put things right, and I shouldn’t waste it? I have to see our kids, Giles. I have to.”
She stopped her pacing and spun on her heel to face him. Her eyes were desperate.
“Let’s… let’s not rush anything just yet.”
“I have to rush, Giles. I’m the Slayer. I’m already on borrowed time as it is. And if I’m gonna get a second curtain call, I want it to count for something.”
He nodded absently. What would be best for Alex and Robin? He honestly had no idea. Would it be worse to subject them to losing their mother a second time, or worse to deny them this second chance at goodbye?
“Please, Buffy, I think we should research first, find some answers as to why you’re here and for… for how long. At the end of the day, we’ll see where we’re at and decide where to go from there.”
Giles assigned every watcher to the task. He tabled ongoing research on finding the next slayer. Every book cracked, every word breathed, every call made, from the newest recruit straight up to the inner circle revolved around either the Vaurabyll demons and their prophecies or alternate timelines and dimensions. The Library turned into a war room, and at the center table sat the core four, as Xander had once dubbed them, Sunnydale’s original and inseparable team: Giles, Buffy, Willow, and Xander. They fell into a comfortable, familiar rhythm, and Giles could almost believe they were back at the high school library and he had not buried his slayer twice already.
“She’s not an alternate, not really.” Anya joined them at the center table, dumping her jacket over the back of a chair before sitting in it.
“An, honey, what is she then?” asked Xander, with the infinite patience of a man who had been married to her for thirteen years.
“A most ingenious paradox,” Willow finished, grinning to herself. Off the other’s puzzled stares, she wiped the amused look from her face. “Not Gilbert and Sullivan fans? Giles, you get it, right?”
Anya ignored Willow and continued. “I pulled in some favors, old contacts from my vengeance days. Someone is trying to change the past. And the past is fighting back.”
“Let me just say what everyone here is thinking,” Xander said. “Huh?”
She smiled kindly and patted his hand. “All those shows you like to watch, Xander, with the spaceships and the laser swords and the refreshingly forthright android who wants to be human—”
“And the chicks in the skintight catsuits. Don’t forget those. That’s really why I watch them,” he insisted.
She smiled indulgently and patted his hand again. “Everyone already knows you’re a geek, Xander. You don’t have to pretend. So… all those shows, invariably someone starts mucking about with time. They usually end up invalidating their own existence and create a great big paradox, and really, it could never happen that way. Take it from a former vengeance demon. Half the wishes I granted required me to twist around the time stream in one way or another. You can’t go around creating alternate universes every time a southern belle catches her plantation owner diddling the field hands and wishes the North had won. There’d be so many fracking universes, they’d be bleeding into each other. But you can’t really go around changing actual history either. Way too much fallout. So you have to creatively rewrite the present.”
She folded her hands neatly on the table in front of her, pondering for a moment the easiest way to clear up any confusion. “Let’s say you wish your cheating boyfriend had never been born. Poof. Wish granted. But if he’d never been born, he’d never have cheated on you, and you would have never made the wish in the first place. Paradox. Plus, you couldn’t gloat. So, instead, the power of the Wish changes the world around you, from that moment forward, and leaves you untouched. Your personal timeline stays the same. In fact, the past technically stays the same; it’s only the present and everyone else’s memories that change.
“Cordelia wished that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale. When I granted her wish, I could change the entire world around her, but I couldn’t change her. Her past had to stay the same, so she could still make the wish. And when Giles- that Giles- undid the wish, the world changed around me. My timeline stayed the same. My powers were still gone.”
“When the monks created Dawn,” Buffy added, catching on to Anya’s meaning, “they gave us all fake memories. It felt like she’d been there her whole life, even though she hadn’t.”
“So where did vamp-Willow come from?” Xander wondered. “If it wasn’t really an alternate universe?”
“From an earlier point in my personal timeline. Technically, vamp-Willow and Willow-Willow were the same Willow, just at different points in my timeline. And since the wish was undone, the spell could pull her forward without changing the past. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have worked.”
Willow nodded, following along with Anya’s lesson. The most important question, of course, was still unanswered. “So how does Buffy fit in? How can she be here, alive, and yet all of us remember her dead? If something changed, shouldn’t our memories have changed too? Shouldn’t we remember her alive?”
“Whatever is happening to the time stream, it’s still in flux. It could go either way at this point. Her version of things or ours. Who knows which one will win out? So right now, she’s a paradox. Two possible outcomes existing side by side. You see, this isn’t magic or wishing. Someone is actually, literally changing the past, which shouldn’t be possible. And the past is trying to heal itself. Like a scab on a wound.” Anya looked at Buffy and reconsidered her words. “Or like a grain of sand irritating an oyster, and it turns into a pearl. You can be the pearl, Buffy.”
“Better than a scab,” she mumbled.
“Until whatever is happening gets resolved, until time is fixed again, we have both a world where Buffy died and a Buffy where she didn’t, both at the same time. And if that’s not confusing enough, if the past changes anymore, the world may not hold together. Too many wounds, more than time can scab over—” An apologetic look at Buffy and a quick backpedal. “I mean, too many grains of sand, and the oyster of time is choking on pearls.”
“Maybe we can forget the metaphors,” Buffy suggested.
“My point is that whatever is changing the past needs to be stopped or our entire reality could completely unravel. End of the world. Apocalypse, with a whimper and not a bang.”
Giles nodded, putting one more piece of the puzzle together. “You mean this could unmake the world.”
“The Vaurabyll,” Anya agreed, remembering her original warning about them. “Legend said they could unmake the world. Now I guess we know how.”
“I need to know how I died.” Buffy took charge, squared her shoulders, brisk, efficient, and authoritative. “Compare notes. We need to figure out what’s been changed.”
Giles couldn’t meet their eyes. He felt the weight of all their stares. No one had ever pushed him for details before, probably had no idea that it was beyond his ability to give them.
“Giles is the only one,” Willow pointed out softly, “the only one who knows.”
Buffy sighed, the same irritation she’d shown in the Magic Box when they’d been researching final battles and he’d started to speculate on why the watchers failed to keep adequate records. “Giles, I know it’s painful, but we need all the facts if we’re gonna keep the world, you know, made.”
He met her eyes, hoped she would understand. “I can’t.”
“Buffy, I can’t remember. It’s a blank, almost as if I blacked out. I really, truly can’t tell you anything.”
He turned his back on their pity, limped over to sift through a stack of books on a nearby table, leaning heavily on his cane. Emotional exhaustion wore on his muscles as strongly as physical exertion. And he had avoided his physical therapy sessions for too many weeks.
When he returned to the group, they were silent, absorbed in books. Only Anya seemed inclined to poke at him further.
“Maybe we could find a spell to help Giles remember.”
“Maybe,” Giles snapped back, “it would be more useful for Buffy to share her version of events with us, how she managed to survive.”
She shrugged casually. “Nothing special. The demon never showed. I never fought it. Never died. The end.”
Hardly the end of the story. Something in her eyes was evasive. She didn’t want to relive that night anymore than he did.
When Giles came home from the office that night, Willow and Xander trailed in behind him. They took Spike and Dawn into the kitchen for a private discussion. Giles ordered his children into the living room, and they waited politely, shoulder to shoulder in front of the fireplace, standing ramrod straight like little soldiers at morning inspection. Their wide eyes followed him, their demeanor cowed as if he might beat them. As if he would ever beat them.
“I’m very angry with both of you.”
They nodded, accepting this.
“Sneaking out of the house is unacceptable. Especially after dark. It’s foolish and dangerous, and you both know better.”
They nodded their agreement.
“I won’t tolerate this kind of behavior. And you will be punished for it. After I’ve had more time to think clearly and devise a suitable penalty.”
They nodded, although it was hardly what they were hoping to hear. Waiting and dreading and guessing at their future punishment would likely be worse than anything he could come up with.
“Now, come here.” He drew them forward, one hand gripping a shoulder each, and hugged them, one to each side. He rested his chin against Robin’s head. He rubbed his hand up and down Alex’s arm. Dear God, he prayed this was the right decision.
“Something’s happened. Please understand, by telling you this, I’m asking you both to be far more grownup than your age. This will be difficult, and I’m sorry. I am so sorry. But we didn’t think it right to keep this from you.” He took a breath, felt them trembling in anticipation in his arms. “The demon that killed your mother has returned. And it’s… changing things. There’s now a version of events where your mother didn’t die. And she’s… here. She’s back.”
They turned hopeful faces up towards his. So eager, it broke his heart.
He shook his head. They needed to understand. He couldn’t let them risk their hearts so completely. “I don’t know how long this will last. The demon has to be stopped. And when it is, everything might go back to the way it was.”
“But it might not,” Alex insisted.
“I don’t know, son. All I know is that right now we have your mother back. But it’s quite possible that her return is only temporary. You need to both prepare yourselves for that.” He cupped their cheeks in his palms, looking back and forth between son and daughter, trying to gauge whether they were strong enough to carry this burden, or whether it would break them. “If this is too much… You don’t have to see her. She can stay at the Council until her future is more… certain.”
“No!” They both begged, pleaded, clamored, implored to see their mother, insisting they could handle it, for however long she was with them.
He mentally crossed his fingers – here’s to second chances – and fetched Buffy in from where she’d been waiting in the car. He spied the others loitering in the kitchen doorway, Spike and Dawn waiting their turn, and led her into the living room.
The twins launched themselves at her before she’d barely passed through the French doors. She stumbled slightly, nearly bowled over by their enthusiasm. The children pressed themselves tightly to her, almost as if trying to burrow all the way inside her. And she, in turn, clutched them so tightly, he actually worried she might forget her slayer strength.
They called for her, between choking sobs, claimed her with the names they mumbled against her shoulders: “Mommy” and “Muffy” over and over again like a mantra.
She murmured softly to them, nothing he could hear, and wept as she stroked their hair. Earlier in the day, when he had first seen her, he had been grateful to have his cane to keep him on his feet. Watching her, he knew the children kept her on hers. Without a child beneath each arm, he was certain she would have folded to the ground.
When they finally pulled back, she wobbled slightly where she stood, but recovered quickly. She turned to Alex first, framing his face between her hands, tears still streaming down her cheeks. He was crying too, looking so impossibly young and lost, and Giles doubted whether he had made the right decision.
“Look at you. More like your father every day.” She pulled him up next to her and studied the top of his head. “My Lord, two more inches and you’ll be as tall as me.”
Alex grinned through his tears, a silly, goofy grin Giles hadn’t seen in far too long.
She ruffled his sandy-brown hair and kissed him soundly on the cheek, and this time he didn’t scrub away the mark of her lipstick or protest that he was too old for his mother’s kisses.
She turned to Robin next, and smoothed her hair back from her shoulders, wiped the tears from her face. “My precious girl.” Buffy kissed her on the cheek, and then admired her nails. “Been borrowing my ‘Cotton Candy Pink,’ I see.” A teasing wink. “Looks better on you anyway.” She tugged on the girl’s shirtsleeves. “And when’s the last time your father took you shopping? Your arms are too long for your sleeves.”
Robin rolled her eyes, and Buffy pulled her in for another hug, shooting Giles a scolding look over the top of her head. “Just so long as you don’t let her legs get too long for her skirts, mister.”
He couldn’t help but fall into the familiar rhythm of teasing her back. “Never fear. If the skirt doesn’t touch the floor when she kneels, she’ll not leave the house in it.” Of course, if Joyce had instituted that policy, Buffy would have missed her entire sophomore year of high school.
Buffy reached out and dragged Alex back into the hug again, holding tight to both children, and watching Giles expectantly. She wanted him to join them in their group hug, he guessed. But he couldn’t let himself forget that she was a paradox, a fleeting mirage in the desert. Odd, that in this situation, his thirteen-year-old children were braver than he.
By the time Spike and Dawn took their turn, Buffy had pulled herself together, helped herself to the handkerchief Giles kept in his breast pocket, and cleaned the tears from her face. She was all smiles and playful teasing with her sister.
“Hey, ’nough of that,” Buffy chided, using Giles’ handkerchief to clean away Dawn’s tears as well. “Your big sis coming back from the dead should be old hat to you by now.” Buffy frowned as a sudden thought occurred to her. “And aren’t you supposed to be starring, you know, off-off-Broadway right now? My dying didn’t derail your career in this world, did it? ’Cause where I come from, you’re almost at the top of the B-list.”
Dawn smiled, successfully distracted from her tears. “No. And it’s off-Broadway, not off-off. My understudy’s filling in. When the Council calls, I still come a runnin’.”
“Good. I’d hate to think I ruined your Oscar chances. I’m counting on seeing you on that stage one day, holding your little gold statue in the air, telling the whole world: ‘This is for Buffy, who gave me my start—’”
“Gave me my start?”
“Well who else gave you all those opportunities to master that trademark scream?”
Dawn huffed and stamped her foot. “For God’s sake, I stopped making those movies years ago!”
“And yet, every time you’re on Leno, they play the little clips.”
Dawn smacked her on the arm, and Buffy giggled, and Dawn armed herself with a throw pillow, and Buffy defended herself with another, and the sisters regressed to teenagers again as they pounded each other with pillows, laughing. The twins piled on, three against one, until Willow and Xander came to Buffy’s defense and evened the odds. All out war raged across the living room, and Giles stood in the entryway, shaking his head.
Spike looked sideways at him and commented, “I got a chip in my skull. What’s your excuse?”
“Leave it, Spike.”
But Spike was always too damned insightful. “Letting her in means letting her go again.” He leaned in closer, relishing the fact that he had Giles’ number. “Might be a problem, if you’d ever actually let her go.”
The Great Pillow War came to an end with neither side victorious, and with one vase, three picture frames, and two candle holders from the sideboard as casualties of collateral damage. Giles called for peace when he feared the glass bookcases could be next. Willow and Xander made hasty farewells, Xander apologizing profusely as he belatedly did the math on four boys plus one Giles with a grudge, all let loose in his house. Good thing no one had smashed through the glass doors on the bookcases.
Much later, as the evening wore down, and the twins could no longer stifle their yawns, they worked out sleeping arrangements. The twins doubled up in Robin’s room – Dawn’s original room when they’d first moved to Sunnydale – and Dawn and Spike would take Alex’s – Buffy’s old room before she’d moved in with Giles – which left Giles and Buffy their own room.
Buffy put the children to bed, ending their protests with the firm reminder that they had school in the morning. She was wiping away tears as she came back down the stairs. Sensing the need for private time, Spike and Dawn made themselves scarce, and Buffy and Giles were left alone in the living room.
She smiled at him, and he forced a smile in return, and then she started straightening up after the earlier pillow fight. He helped, and they orbited around each other awkwardly, never actually touching.
As she passed the fireplace mantel, she gasped and let the pillow she was holding slip through her fingers. She stepped closer, noticing for the first time what was different between her house and his. There between the familiar picture frames and candles rested the precisely folded triangle of the American flag. It had draped across her coffin, and her commanding officer had presented it to him from clean white gloves. Giles had clutched it like an anchor as each of the three volleys rang out from the rifles.
Displayed beside the blue and white flag: a large black vase, the elegant curves of its surface so dark and smooth they reflected back to him her shocked eyes.
“Please don't tell me...”
He had no words, merely bowed his head.
“This is me? You keep me in an urn on the mantel?” She reached hesitant fingers towards the vessel, so dark and flawless, it was like a black hole. But in the end, she could not bring herself to actually touch it and drew her hand back. “How can I be in there and out here at the same time? Am I still in there, you think? And if I touched me, would the universe like implode or something?”
She faced him then, a disappointed frown tugging at her lips. “You were supposed to scatter me on the beach or somewhere pretty.”
“I… I will. I just… haven’t yet.”
“I guess I should be grateful you cremated me. I used to have so many nightmares about turning into a vampire.”
“I made sure,” he reassured her. “After the official services. I promised I would.”
“Good. Don’t think I could rest in peace thinking some Marcus copycat could get their hands on my body and make those nightmares come true.” She busied herself making sure all the pillows were returned to where they belonged and all the knocked over knick-knacks were righted. She straightened and fluffed longer than necessary, past the point of having everything cleaned up again.
Giles sank into an armchair and absently massaged his left leg.
Buffy noticed and approached him, tentatively replacing his fingers with her own. She worked out each knot, pressing hard with her slayer strength. He could feel the constant ache ease somewhat beneath her talented fingers.
“How’d you end up needing a cane?”
“A vampire with a mace.”
“Ouch.” She kneaded the muscles alternately with fingers and knuckles, keeping up the firm pressure no mortal could have hoped to match. He sighed and sank deeper into the cushions. Over time, he had learned to tune out the constant pain in his leg, aware of it only when it became more acute than normal. But now as he noticed what it felt like to have some relief, he fully realized how much he usually hurt.
“The doctors weren’t sure I’d walk again.”
“So, worse than when you were shot?”
“Much.” He closed his eyes and relaxed as he enjoyed her steady massage. He hadn’t felt this good since… well, since a vampire had smashed a mace into his femur. “Hmmm, that’s… that’s bloody marvelous,” he told her drowsily.
“Giles, can I ask you something?”
“Have you gone on a date yet?”
He sat up straighter. “A date?” As if they were discussing a new piece of technology he had never heard of and had no use for.
“I know we never had any actual dates, but I know you know what a date is. Coffee? Lunch? Even once in two and a half years?”
“I haven’t exactly been flush with free time.”
She stopped her massage and patted him on his thigh. “So that would be a ‘no.’”
Was she disappointed? That he hadn’t been in a hurry to replace her? “Can we not have this discussion?”
“So it’s safe to say my unexpected return from the dead won’t crimp your love life,” she mumbled.
She gave him a hand up, which he reluctantly accepted.
They had all agreed that she wouldn’t patrol. Firstly, if Buffy – this temporary paradox of Buffy – was pivotal to winning against this demon who could alter the past and unmake the world, then they couldn’t risk her. Secondly, they couldn’t risk any chance encounters with anyone in the general public who knew her, had attended her funeral, had sent flowers and casseroles, and now gave him pitying looks as he passed them on the street. If even one squad car caught sight of her, their lives would suddenly get a lot more difficult.
His growing network of trained watchers had been handling the routine slayage since Faith’s final battle. And they would continue to do so until they solved the mystery of the Vaurabyll and eventually found the next slayer. Buffy would stay sequestered either at home or at the Council.
Which meant that the next stop was bed. He couldn’t avoid it with an all-night research session. He had slept precious little the last few nights, and her massage had made him relaxed and drowsy. She couldn’t avoid it either, stuck in the house and without patrol as an excuse. Although, from her perspective, he supposed, sleeping together would still feel quite normal, nothing to think twice about.
He glanced one last time at the urn on the mantel before heading upstairs, reminding himself that she was dead and this was temporary. A paradox.
The first thing Buffy did was examine the contents of the closets and drawers. Most of her things were gone. He was not so masochistic as to torture himself with all her belongings crowding his living space, perfectly preserved like a shrine. But she did find the few things he had kept, tucked away in the far back of the closet. A few carefully chosen pieces of clothing hanging behind his old tweed suits from Sunnydale High. A banker’s box with a couple of neatly folded shirts, her diaries, the music box with the ice skating figurine, and inside the more valuable or sentimental pieces of jewelry.
She slipped on her wedding ring, duplicate to the one she was already wearing, and laughed to see the two identical rings on her finger. “This is so weird.”
She rifled through the box one last time and sighed. “I suppose it’s too much to hope that you saved my favorite pair of jeans. Or that halter-top I liked with the blue swirls. Or,” she grinned and threw him a sly sideways glance. “Or were kinky enough to save your favorite bra and panty set, the ones with the—”
“Buffy, what on earth are you playing at?”
She shoved the box back to the back of the closet once more and stood. “The fate of my paradoxical clothes remains to be seen, and I’d just like to be prepared. I mean, this wasn’t even in style when I died. And it’s not like I can go on a mall crawl.”
She ran her fingers over the array of shirts he had hanging in the closet, testing the feel of each between her fingers, before settling on a steel blue, long-sleeved tee of soft cotton and tossing it to the bed. It was one of his favorites as well.
She stripped off her blazer first, holding it over the bed between two fingers before deliberately letting go. It never landed. It faded away to nothing first.
Curiosity piqued, he took a step closer.
She’d dressed for work that morning, Detective Buffy Giles, business casual rather than formal uniform these days, but still a cop. Her gun holster was next. She unclipped it without removing her gun and laid it on the bedspread. The moment her fingers broke contact, it was gone. He knew she didn’t care much for her gun, didn’t find much need for it, had never used it, but her badge meant more to her. She slipped it off her belt and regretfully laid it in on the bed. She stroked her fingers across the shield one last time before she pulled back and it faded, too.
Her boots, her belt, her shirt, her pants all shared the same fate. Standing in just her underwear, she fingered the lace straps of her bra before thinking better of it and deciding to leave it on. She slipped his shirt on over her head and rolled up the sleeves. It hung to mid-thigh on her, and the steel blue matched her eyes.
He dressed for bed, too, and then he couldn’t put the moment off any longer. They slipped beneath the covers, side by side. Out of habit, she started to cuddle up against him, but then retreated to her side of the bed when she caught sight of his panicked expression. She turned off the light, and her presence was easier to bear in the dark.
How many times had he wished he could hold her again? And here they were on opposite sides of the bed as if there were an imaginary line drawn between them. What was wrong with him?
She seemed to be thinking the same thing. “I can only imagine how this is messing with your head.”
“It is a bit… bewildering.”
“It feels pretty twisted to me, too, you know. I keep thinking this has to be like the most elaborate practical joke ever, and you guys are all gonna crack up laughing, ‘we got you good,’ and admit that you’ve been pretending this whole time. I saw you last night, Giles, except without the cane, and we had spaghetti with meatballs for supper, and you were… Giles.”
She sighed, frustrated, irritated, with him apparently, for not picking up where they left off like she hadn’t died. “Now you’re… all Emotional Marathon Man again, all walled off and British. And I feel like I’m in high school again, and you’re gonna lecture me about personal boundaries and getting overly familiar with my Watcher – shake your finger and say it’s too unseemly. ‘Six-inch rule, young lady, otherwise people might get the wrong idea.’”
“Tell me then, what is the proper response to all of this? It isn’t real. It’s a paradox.”
“Right now it is real.” Her hand crossed the imaginary line between them and clasped his. “Just look for the silver lining. You can be with me right now, Giles, for however long it takes us to figure this out. And I can… Look, don’t knock second chances. Most people don’t get them.”
He laced their fingers together and squeezed gently. He could do this. He could hold her hand through the night. He could start there.
Spike was already waiting by the tree, leaning against its stout base, when the twins dropped to the ground. He pushed off the trunk and strolled out of the shadows.
“Busted,” Alex groaned.
Spike planted his hands on his hips. “Apparently, you’re both slow learners. Thick skulled. Idiots. Soon to be someone’s dinner if left to your own devices.”
Alex planted his hands on his hips in a matching pose. “I’m the Slayer, Spike. I’m supposed to patrol. You know I’m right.”
“Clued your dad into that fact yet?”
He shifted on his feet, eyes sliding away guiltily. “Things got a little crazy. With Mom and stuff. But I will. You promised you’d let me tell him.”
“You asked me to give you a day,” Spike corrected. “Been just about exactly that.” He turned his attention to the little girl at Alex’s side. “How ’bout you, Little Miss Sunshine, you’re not the Slayer. Destiny-free, against all the odds. So what makes you think you’d be anything more than a liability, wandering around with your brother on patrol?”
Robin stepped in front of Alex, a bit of backbone in her after all, and Buffy’s spitfire in her eyes. “I’ve been training for it, plus I have… I have magic.”
Amused, he cocked one eyebrow, the one with the scar. “You have what now?”
“Magic,” she insisted, more forcefully.
He crossed his arms, leaned back, and waited for a demonstration. He nodded at her expectantly.
She traded nervous glances with her brother and then shrugged. Her face screwed up in focused concentration. “Get Back!” she commanded. Nothing happened. “GET BACK!” a little louder, but still nothing. She took a deep breath. “GET BACK!” and this time with accompanying hand gestures as she mimed shoving him backwards. Still nothing.
Spike busted out laughing, and she huffed, stamping her foot.
“It worked before,” she complained.
“It did,” Alex confirmed. “She sent that purple-eyed demon flying. You shoulda seen it.”
His laughter suppressed, more serious now, with a hand pressed to his heart in an unconscious show of sincerity, Spike got back to business. “Look, you two, here’s how it’s gonna be. I’m of a mind to do a quick patrol myself, see what’s changed since I’ve been gone, and maybe get a tip on this demon everyone’s so keen on. If the pair of you are set on tagging along, I ain’t gonna stop you. Just stay out of my way, let me do the talking, and if I say run, you sure as hell better run. Got it?”
“You’re letting us patrol?” Alex asked in disbelief.
“I’m letting you tag along,” Spike corrected. “Safer with me where I can keep an eye on you than blundering about on your own. ’Cause if you try and tell me you won’t sneak out again the moment my back’s turned, I’ll know you’re lying. Uncle Spike’s not as daft as your dad.”
“Does Dawn know you’re going out patrolling?” Robin asked.
He glared at her, completely affronted. “I’m over a hundred and fifty years old, feared throughout half of Western Europe for over a century, killed two slayers with my bare hands, earned the name Spike by drilling railroad spikes through my victims… You think I need permission to leave the house?”
“Does she know?” Alex parroted.
Spike blew out an impatient breath. “Yes. Now are you coming or not?”
He never intended on exposing them to anything more dangerous than a dive bar full of demons looking to be bribed. Thanks to Giles’ Council money, Spike always got the information he needed in a hurry. After that, he hoped a quick run around the cemeteries would satisfy the boy’s sense of duty. Maybe if they bumped into a fledgling or two, he’d even let Alex break in his new superpowers.
He certainly never intended on landing smack in front of the demon in question. But that’s what happened. Just inside the gates at Heavenly Hills, the purple-eyed demon was apparently also scouting cemeteries for fledgling vamps.
Spike shoved the twins behind him and ordered them to “Run!”
The man-shaped demon stared at Spike, that strange purple glow to his eyes, and his voice echoing inside his mind. “William the Bloody.”
Damn kids hadn’t budged. “Run or I’ll show you why they call me William the Bloody!” he growled. Meaning, of course, why they called him that after he’d been turned, not why they called him that before.
“A vampire without a soul seeking redemption.” The sneer in the voice sounded as clear as each word, though the demon’s lips never moved. Spike could smell a hint of fear from the man, although considering he fed off vampires, that might just be how he lured his prey. “We have watched you. We have wondered whether your good deeds sweetened your blood or spoiled it.”
Spike inched backwards, realizing suddenly that he was a vampire facing down a demon that fed off vampires.
Alex stepped forward, attracting the demon’s attention. Why was Spike surprised? This was the child who had laughed in merry delight at his uncle’s game face before he could even walk. Always far too fearless and now souped up with added slayer power, the boy must feel well nigh invincible.
“You said the world would change.” Alex bravely stood his ground and demanded answers. “You said I would die, and the world would change.”
The world had changed. Buffy had returned. And her son thought this demon would know why.
But this tall, skinny git who looked like he might snap in two with one well-placed punch only shook his head, clearly baffled. “I said that?”
“Yeah, last night. And now the world has changed, and I wanna know how you did it.”
“The Vaurabyll have watched the ages of man rise and fall, the ebb and flow of demonkind carried with it in its wake. But we have watched behind glass. We are powerless to change it. We are slaves to Fate.” The echo in their minds became thunderous, and they all flinched. “Nothing can change! The world is fixed!”
Undeterred, Alex pressed on. “You said I stole something from you. Is that my prophecy?”
The demon’s attention shifted back to Spike. He licked his lips as if considering whether vampire marinated in a decade and a half worth of good deeds would taste sweet or sour.
“You want your fortune, boy? You must render unto me the proper sacrifice.”
The demon faded to mist, and when he solidified again, he had Spike restrained in a chokehold. True, as a vampire, he didn’t need to breathe, but he couldn’t free himself either. And then he felt the needle-like pricks, sharp stings covering his entire body. He writhed in the demon’s grip, struggled against a deceptively stronger foe even while he felt himself weakening.
With Drusilla, it had taken her longer to drain him. And even then, she hadn’t taken it all.
As Spike blacked out, he hoped the twins would finally have the good sense to run. His last thought was for Dawn.
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