At first, it’s just cheese. Buffy wakes up craving cheddar and shreds some to put on the eggs Joyce scrambled for her. Giles finds himself laying in a supply of gorgonzola and stilton. Willow doesn’t notice how often she’s been toasting pepper-jack tortillas until Tara, laughing, starts marking them on a calendar. Anya tells Xander not to ask her over anymore unless he’s prepared to serve her something other than grilled cheese.
Nobody thinks to mention the sudden dairy preference to anyone else. It doesn’t seem apocalyptic or supernatural or Scooby-worthy in any way.
Buffy dreams of soft white havarti with crackers and wine. She dreams of Danish Blue stacked in wheels upon wheels, each shot through with the fungus that gives its color and its name.
She thinks she sees someone sometimes, a wraith, a shadow even in this world of shadows, but when she turns no one is there.
If these are Slayer dreams Buffy’s having, they’re like none she’s ever had before. They have the same clarity; it sets all her senses on edge like too much caffeine. Yet the urgency that thrums through her after every Slayer dream like a like a plucked guitar string, not in her chest or her stomach but her being - that’s missing. There’s need here, and sorrow, but it isn’t hers.
There’s nothing to be done here, she thinks as she swims to wakefulness through a sea of molten cheese. It’s not her fight.
By the time she’s fully woken, all she remembers is a plate of epically tasty enchiladas. Cheese, of course.
Something’s happening to the cheese world. Well, it’s a dream-cheese world, or a cheese dream-world, Willow isn’t sure which, but something’s happening to it. If the foundations of this world rest on bricks of parmesan? Those bricks have cracks.
There’s a man that wanders the streets of the world (paved in yellow cheese). He ghosts through it like a wraith, haunting the hallowed halls of camembert. He is old and bald and frail and feeble, his frayed business suit hangs on him like a tarpaulin on a tree, and wherever he looks, he squints.
“Are you looking for something?” she asks. “I mean, not like I can give you directions anyplace, ‘cause, not a native here, but...”
He reaches out and clutches her hands between his. As he squints up at her with rheumy eyes, she thinks, suddenly, that what he needs are glasses. “If the cheese falls where you can’t hear it,” he says, “do you make a sound?” His grip on her wrists tightens, desperate.
Willow wakes with a gasp, the stench of burning mozzarella still hanging in her nose.
Mounds of cottage cheese are piled in each of the elderly gentleman’s outstretched hands. Curds fall to the ground in wet plops. “Only the cheese can accompany you,” he says.
Honestly, Giles thinks. The most appalling people.
When he wakes up, he knows.
A meeting is called. It seems only the central four – the hand, the heart, the spirit, the mind - have been dreaming of cheese, and soon enough the others drift away.
There’s something wrong with the cheese world, the four agree. The cheese man is not what he was.
“Can we help him?” Willow asks.
“Should we?” That’s Buffy. “I mean, I could slay him. I have mad skills with a cheese fork.”
“It’s from the enjoining spell,” Giles says. “It is connected to us, somehow. I think we must find out what is happening. I think we must speak to him.”
“You really think that’s going to help?” Xander says. “He’s not the most straightforward of the zen cheese masters.”
“We must try,” Giles says.
“How?” Willow says.
They all sit in Giles’s living room, the central four, the Enjoined. They’re holding hands as Giles chants. There is a moment of spinning, of disorientation on the scale of galaxies. Then they are there, Buffy and Giles and Willow and Xander, standing on the yellow cheese road. Around them, white and yellow and blue-riddled towers lie where they’ve fallen. It is a ruin the four walk. A wasteleand.
“Hello?” calls Willow. The sound of her voice is absorbed in the crumbled ramparts of asiago; there are no echoes here.
“When the cheese walks, it walks alone.” And Xander hears: It is too late.
They turn, and there is the cheese man. He is ancient now; he sags everywhere.
“Can you tell us what’s happened here?” says Giles.
“We sleep on beds of cheese” the cheese man says, and Buffy hears, The taint has come and will not leave again. With the thought comes an image wrought in shades of cheese: the First Slayer.
“We brought her here,” Buffy says. “We did this.”
“Where is here?” asks Xander.
“It’s Dream,” Giles says. “The First Slayer came to us in Dream, but she came from the nightmare lands. She brought the mold – ah, that is, the nightmare – with her. And now the land of dream is dying.”
“Is she still here?” Buffy asks. “Do I have to slay her?” But what the others hear is, Am I a nightmare, too?
As one, the three close ranks around her, fingers brushing against her arms, her shoulders. You’re ours is what they say, and that will have to be enough for now.
“She isn't here anymore,” Giles says, and they believe his certainty.
“So what do we do?” Willow asks the cheese man.
“Only the cheese remains,” he says, but they hear more words than those.
“Another cheese man?” Xander says. “One of us?”
“I like cheese,” Buffy whispers.
“What happens if we don’t?” Willow asks.
“All the world goes insane,” Giles says. “We cannot live without dreams.”
They stand a long time in the gleaming mizithra square, deliberating.
Buffy likes cheese, she declares again, but they remind her about Riley and her mom and Sunnydale and the world, and she agrees; she doesn’t really like cheese that much.
Xander thinks about how this time last year he had no girlfriend, no job, no purpose, but it’s different now. They nod, understunding.
Willow’s game, she says, trembling only slightly. It’s pretty nifty, this whole world made of dream, and there doesn’t have to be any opera in it at all once she has a say. But Tara, they say, and college and your magic. And okay, maybe Willow would have been willing to give up those things to be Dream, but she isn’t going to say that yet, not if she doesn’t have to.
“It must be me,” Giles says. Through their exclamations of dismay he cites the reasons, ticking them on his fingers. Unlike Xander, he has found no new purpose this year, no plan, no life.
“You have a purpose,” Buffy says, eyes gone wet.
His smile for her is infinitely fond, but he continues, “I have no ties, no connections.”
“Except for us!” Willow says.
“But I won’t leave you,” he says, and when he says it they know it’s true. This second enjoining wraps them like cellophane, binds them like gravity; they’ll never dream apart again. “I am the mind, am I not? I can still answer your questions, still guide you. Better here than I ever could in daylight, I suspect.” They can’t argue; as he speaks the words they feel the boundless knowledge buried all around them beneath the dunes of cheese.
“No,” Buffy says. “There’s another way.”
“There’s always another way,” Buffy mumbles.
“What must I do?” Giles asks the cheese man. Even as he asks it, they feel a trembling beneath their feet like a far-distant earthquake. Giles blinks and says, “Am I dead, then?”
The cheese man blinks rheumily back. He is swaying where he stands and Xander reaches out to catch him as he falls. The man reaches up to Giles and clasps his hand. “The cheese thanks you,” the cheese man says.
“But why?” Willow says. “Why is Dream made of cheese?”
She doesn’t expect an answer, but after a moment the man smiles vaguely to the pale yellow sky and says, “I like cheese.”
Dream is a library now, the stacks all built of polished wood and extending to infinity, the card catalog a marvel of indexing. When the three visit, a sharp hot tang of whiskey always hangs in the air, and the master of dream is always glad to see them.