Dead Man's Chest (3/3), by dutchbuffy2305
Story note: This takes place in the Spuffy Christmas Universe, like my other Christmas stories "Spiking the Christmas Punch", "Wolf, Reindeer & Heart", "Merry Christmas, Mr. Bloody" and "Hot Springs Eternal".
Author's note: Made for the 2006 Gurnenthat's Ascension challenge at Tea At The Ford
Betaed by: the lovely kassto and gillo, lj-pals in need!
Feedback: *pants, tongue out*</i>
"How much of a time differential in the Gurnenthar dimension? I won't know until I try," Theo said.
His freckles stood out, livid against a pale face.
"Are you going in alone?" Riley said. He tightened his hold on the gun. Brave kid.
"God no," Theo said. "I'm no warrior. Let me think!" He pulled at his hair until it stood out in a wide Afro. "Yes! Okay! I got it!"
He threw himself at a wall and scrabbled at a plug. "Knife, knife," he mumbled, feeling distractedly around in the many pockets of his jeans. Riley couldn't stand it anymore and got out his Army knife.
"What do you want?"
"I need the cord. They probably have a nice thick old-fashioned copper wire in there. I'm thinking you go in there and I hold you in the normal time-stream via the cord."
"Jesus. You think that'll work?"
"It'd better work," Theo said. "You could be dust in seconds. On our side, that is. On your side, you'd live a long boring life or get killed quickly. I mean. I have no way of knowing."
Suddenly it was much less fun to be the warrior in the bunch, the guy the others looked up to.
Together they wrenched the socket from the wall and the power cord came loose easily, taking several layers of wallpaper with it. They hauled up yards and yards and yards of cord. Riley stripped the wire and handed a shiny copper length to Theo.
"Okay. Let's do it," he nodded.
Dawn's eyes were huge. Riley hugged her tight and Dawn kissed him back hard.
"I'll kill you if you don't come back!" she said, her voice high and strange.
"Promise. Nothing so humiliating as being killed by your girlfriend," Riley said.
Theo bound the copper wire onto Riley's wrist. Riley climbed onto the edge of the chest and dangled his legs inside.
"I love you, Dawnie!" He let go.
He landed hard on his tailbone. Next to the chest. Dawn and Theo stared back at him goggle-eyed.
Riley jumped up. "What happened? Did time pass so fast I can't even remember being in there?"
"You never went in. You bounced back, kind of," Dawn said. "Theo, do you have any idea what's going on?"
Theo pulled at his hair. "The portal must be closed. There's no way to get into a closed dimension without a witch."
"It's early morning in England," Dawn said hopefully. " We should call Willow."
"Why don't you open it, Auntie Dawn? Maybe it's susceptible to your key powers."
Dawn could have slapped him. "Who told you that old story? That's long gone. I'm no key anymore."
"What's that about a key?"
"Never mind, Riley, it all happened just after you went off to Yucatan in a snit. I was the embodiment of the key, placed near Buffy so she could protect me, yadda yadda yadda, this goddess wanted to sacrifice me to open up her home dimension. Long time ago. But the key powers went away."
"Far be it from me to cause a temporal paradox or cognitive dissonance," Theo said virtuously, "but why don’t you just try?"
"Hey!" Riley said. "Why did nobody ever tell me about all this? What do you mean - placed near Buffy?"
"Riley, not now," Theo and Dawn said simultaneously.
Dawn took one step closer to the chest and looked in again. It still resembled the eye of a hurricane.
"So what do you think I should do, Theo? Stick my hand in and yell open sesame?"
"Whatever works for you, Auntie," he said.
That wasn't very helpful.
"Get over here, baby," she said to Riley. "I want you close to me when I do my thing, if I in fact have a thing."
Riley didn’t look happy. Was it just because of Spike and Buffy being dead for a gazillion years already, or because he wasn’t the hero right this second, or because she might have a thing? Except being extremely bossy, which she was very sure he had liked up until now, hadn’t he?
Dawn lowered her hand slowly. Halfway down, a big warm hand closed on the one she had stuck behind her back for balance, and that made things fractionally better. There was no tingle, or magical knowledge springing full-grown into her head. It felt like wiggling her pinky in a batch of Jell-O, actually. Before she could even think of trying something cool and nifty, the sensation stopped and she almost overbalanced. Nothing she did, apparently, just something she was.
"It's open," she said, stepping back quickly and cannoning into the wide, reassuring person behind her.
"Now we do our thing?" Riley said.
He didn’t sound eager, and she couldn't blame him.
This time he didn’t say goodbye or look back. He just swung his legs over the chest's rim and was gone. Theo paid out the copper line with a look of utter concentration, and she didn't dare ask what was going on.
Riley landed lightly on a sunlit hillside. He spread his hands out wide and shifted his weight to his right foot. Okay. No bad guys in sight. The copper wire on his wrist went straight up into the sky, held taut by something not of this dimension. He circled slowly, gun in hand, keeping the copper wire behind so it wouldn't tangle. The world felt peaceful and incredibly quiet. Not a sigh of wind or tinkle of birdsong anywhere. Just silence, green grass, and a little higher up a grown-out hazel coppice, on the only hill and the only grass in sight. The rest of the world seemed to be flat, marshy stretches of blue growth with lots of water. No gurnenthars anywhere. He'd imagined a darkling world with blood-red skies and pink-skinned orphans crying disconsolately. Or gurnenthars spawning great gobbets of yuck in his face. This was almost nice.
His eyes slid past the stand of trees again. Was that a cross there? And those white branches sticking out of the grass? Oh God. He did not want to tell Dawn about this, not at all. Or Theo, of course, although Theo seemed to have the psyche of a rubber ball, all surface and bounce.
Oh God. It was a makeshift cross, or had been, because the crossbeam was sagging at a sharp angle instead of a square one. The white branch poking up was an upper arm bone. Which was odd. So it was Spike in the grave, and Buffy who'd died on top of it? Because a dead Spike fell to dust. He hesitated on his knees beside the grave, uncertain if he should dig it up, or take it as evidence, or leave them to their eternal rest.
A tug on the copper wire nearly unbalanced him and he grabbed hastily at the cross and the bone. He tugged three times in return. How would he get back? He stuffed the evidence in his inside pocket, pulled down his sweater over his hands and climbed hand over hand up the copper wire. It wasn’t easy — a good thing Dawn hadn’t come along. A few feet up, something grabbed him with jelly hands and whirled him back into his own world, where he hit the rim of the chest with a sickening thud straight in his midriff. Yowf.
He climbed out and gritted his teeth. "Dawn. Theo. I have bad news."
Dawn's hand went to her mouth. He felt he couldn't hug her, not when Theo was there, who was closer to the deceased. Deceaseds.
"I found a grave. Unmarked, but it was within the only green growth on the entire world, so I feel quite sure that this is from Buffy."
He showed them the cross and the arm bone. Dawn inhaled in deep, sobbing breaths and Theo went whiter.
"No, no, Riley, it can't be true. It can't be them!"
Theo grabbed the bone and held it against his own upper arm. "It's too long, Uncle Riley. It can't be Mom's."
Riley dug his fingernails into his palms.
"Then it's…But that can't be. Dad would turn to dust if he died."
"I'm so sorry, Theo, but I think we must accept that they died. A long time ago. Maybe as much as a hundred years ago."
Theo wrenched his arm loose from Riley. "I'm not going to give up just like that! A hundred years. I can work with a hundred years. I'm going in there and I'll go back and I’ll get them!"
"Hold him!" Dawn snapped.
Riley obeyed and they both clung onto the struggling boy.
"Let me go," Theo said, clearly making an effort to appear calm. "I know I can do this."
"Have you ever gone that far back in time before?" Riley asked.
Theo bit his lip. "No."
"We can’t let you do it," Riley said. "We’ll consult Willow and the others first."
"Dawn!" Theo begged. "I know I can do it. The others told me to. They wouldn't tell me if they hadn't survived, would they?"
Dawn’s voice had sharp, jagged edges. "Theo, just before we came over here, we saw one of you. You carried a nasty old scar and looked unhappy."
"That doesn’t have to mean anything," Theo said.
His taut body went limp under their hands.
"You understand that we can’t let you sacrifice yourself for your parents, son," Riley said kindly, "even if I think well of you for doing it."
Dawn thought that was going a bit too far. Patronizing. Theo squeezed her hand twice and Dawn decided that she couldn't keep him from trying. She eased aside a little bit and prepared to grab Riley’s arms when Theo tried his thing.
In the end, he did it before she was ready. With a scream, he tore loose from Riley’s arms and hurled himself face first into the portal.
Riley bashed his fist in his other hand. "Dawn, dammit. That was completely irresponsible."
"I believed him. He has the right to choose for himself, baby."
"He's only a kid. How old is he, eighteen, nineteen?"
"Exactly, not that much younger than me. And years older than Buffy was when she had to save the world on a weekly basis, all by herself."
Riley’s stiff shoulders relaxed. "That doesn't make it right. It’s never sat easy with me, the choosing of young girls for this work."
"Someone has to do it," Dawn said. " Why would sex or age matter? Are you more ready to die than Theo is?"
"No. I don’t want to die. I want to have a life, with you."
They hugged silently, unwilling to move away from the chest. Time went by. Dawn’s legs started to cramp.
"Riley. How long are we going to wait?"
A realization clunked into her stomach like a donut binge.
"The babies! We forgot the babies!"
panic in Riley's eyes would have been comical in any other circumstance.
"I'll go and deal with the babies. You wait here. You have your cell phone? Anyone I should call?"
"Where's Faith? Anywhere near?"
"I don’t know. I’ll call."
Dawn ran down the stairs. It took four tries with shaking fingers to open the car door. She blinked hard on the drive back over the snow-bound roads, so tears would not blind her and leave the little babies alone in the house with even less family. No brother. No father and mother. No. No, she would no cry. Not yet. Buffy always won. Spike had died twice. Or more, even. She could never remember who was leading in the who-died-the-most contest, because it wasn’t something she could bear to make fun of.
Theo fell hard on his hands and head. He rubbed his nose while he looked around. Exactly as Riley had described it. Now he would have to go back in time and find out what had happened. He'd never done something like that before. He could go back in time to any place or object or moment he could remember, and he'd been taken to Theo-bashes in the future. But just go back to somewhen he'd never been? He knew his older selves could do it, but didn't like to try.
He took a deep breath and stepped outside the flow of time, where moving objects were like gray squishy tubes coiling all over the place. Times Square was absolutely inaccessible for time travel for that reason. This place was empty and restful, with only the trees trembling a little in the time winds. He went back into time with one sharp burst of effort. The trees imploded and he stared into a night scene with rain stuttering across his visions. A gigantic black glistening thing roared a red maw in his face and lashed at him with its diamond-pointed tail. God, he really hoped that was a tail. He cannoned back to the future.
The trees were too tall - he'd overshot. He was going to have to be more subtle.
Theo looked down at the grave. It was a few days before Riley had disturbed it. He couldn't help wanting to know, could he? He dug into the ground below the grave. He found the skeleton that was too tall to be his mother. Perhaps vampires did not fall to dust like they did in this world. He was no forensic-scientist who could tell how the body had died. In the layer below the bigger skeleton he found the smaller one he’d been expecting. Of course. His father had taken his own life when his mother had gone. He’d never expected anything else. Not in a world without his children.
Okay. He scrubbed away the silly tears with his hand. He was never going to tell anyone about seeing this. It didn't exist. Time was putty in his hands. He would go back and mold it so this tragedy never happened.
A half-naked man was digging a grave in the rain. A rotting T-shirt covered the face of a very old woman. Her feet were wrinkled and callused like an elephant’s.
The man looked up, his eyes like pools of rain in his face. "Theo?"
"Dad, is she …"
Spike interrupted him.
"Go back. Further back. You’re fifty years too late."
A woman with gray-streaked brown hair roasted a row of tiny carcasses on a stick over a low, smoky fire. It rained. The scrubby trees behind her didn't give any shelter against the rain.
"Theo! Oh honey, you’re too early. Or too late. Time travel and Buffy are not matchy things. Go early. I'd love to have eaten less of these things, you know."
"Wait. Give me a kiss first, baby. Oh, your skin is like Spike’s - all cool and smooth. Yum. Go now."
Theo landed in sunshine on a thin covering of grass and couldn't decide what to do first- blush, turn around, or clap his hands over his eyes.
"Okay, honey, we're decent."
Theo turned around. His ears were throbbing and probably would have given off light in the dark.
His father was laughing sheepishly and his mother was looking glowing and red in the face. A boy didn’t want to know these things about his parents.
"You’re a little early. Can you come back in a couple of months?"
"But Mom! Everybody is freaking out because you guys are trapped in this dimension. They think you’re dead!"
"Theo, we knew you would get us back. At some point in time. We're just rally enjoying a little vacation from the baby stress in this wonderful sunny place. And they have these little creatures that are just delicious when roasted. Like frogs. Look!"
"You mother loves eating gurnenthars or some strange reason. Give us a hug and then scoot, all right? We need some more sleep and rec time."
Theo sighed. "Yes, sir. Bye, mom."
It was raining again. It always rained in this place, except, apparently, for those first few months his parents had been there.
"Oi!" his father called out. "About time! It’s been raining here for bloody weeks."
"Do you want me to go earlier?’
He was a good boy. At least, in a crisis, he could be.
"Come on then. I’ll try to get us back right after I've gone, because otherwise everyone will be in a very un-Christmassy mood."
"We’re ready for it. All rested and up for everything. And if we can't have bloodshed, we'll take Christmas brunch."
Theo thought they wouldn’t have known about Christmas brunch yet. Well, whatever.
"Go, honey," Buffy said.
"Uncle Riley. Uncle Riley, wake up!"
The rim of the chest hurt like hell against his cheekbone, and yet he must have fallen asleep. He opened his mouth to apologize but of course there was no point. Theo and his parents looked happy and vivid even in the gray light of morning. He felt as leaden as the sky outside, but forced his mouth into a smile. He was a soldier, he'd slept under worse circumstances. Although he'd never had so many nightmares about baby bottoms before.
Riley drove them home, unaccountably stony-faced. Buffy couldn't understand it. They were saved, Gurnenthar hadn't been able to ascend, and in fact, she had prevented many more gurnenthars from ever ascending, and he was being a grumpypants. Theo had, of course, escaped as soon as she’d noticed how he’d torn that perfectly nice wall apart. Boys.
Anyway. Her hair was a mess, after washing it in muddy water for three months, her party dress and new shoes were a distant memory, but she hadn't felt this rested in forever. Just what every new father and mother needed - a few months off in a nice sunny dimension. Until it had started to rain, and she’d been obliged to eat her gurnenthars raw. Ewww was the only word for that.
Her sister was asleep on the couch. Buffy felt a tiny pang of guilt when she saw Dawn’s tear-streaked face). A good thing she’d bought such a nice present. The babies were sleeping like angels, all three of them for once, and she bent over the triple-wide crib to inhale the delicious odor emanating from their fat creased necks. Like little warm apricots.
Grumpy Riley was deposited in the guest room and after a long shower and several hair treatments Buffy curled up to Spike in her own bed.
"I love you, honey," she murmured sleepily.
"C’mere, darling," he growled, but she knew he was already asleep.
Of course Dawn was overjoyed that Buffy and Spike had returned home unscathed. But she hadn't exactly spent a restful night, and if she had known how rowdy Spike and Buffy's Christmas brunch was going to be, she’d have preferred to check into a Ramada Inn or something.
The sisters hid behind the Christmas tree and leaned against the wall. "I thought I’d gotten used to it, but I’ve never seen as many Theos in one room together as I have this past hour. Who knew there were so many?" Dawn said.
"Who knew they would eat so many lox and bagels? I now know why Theo was sneaking in huge bags of food all day yesterday. It's traditional. Christmas Day is free-for-all day. Free-for-Theo day. Theos are apparently prohibited, by me and Spike - although I have yet to issue the prohibition – to jump in and out of our lives, except at Christmas."
A rather portly Theo with a riot of white curls was telling a filthy joke to a goggle-eyed sixteen-year-old.
"Don’t you think he’s a little young for that?" Dawn asked.
"Please, Dawn, have you forgotten who his father is? Spike has many wonderful qualities, but swallowing obscenities is not one of them."
Dawn hugged Buffy. "I have to get back to Riley. We’ve hurt his pride in some way, and I really don’t want him to feel bad about last night. He did great."
She owed everyone an explanation about how she'd opened the portal, but since Buffy and Spike hadn't seem to notice any gaps in their story so far, she thought she could get away with waiting until after the brunch from Hell.
Dawn came up to Riley for the second time in ten minutes, this time with a bagel. The last time it had been coffee, and before that champagne. He knew he must be looking wooden and bored, but really, it was just lack of sleep. And maybe feeling a little out of place among the magical creatures. Which had suddenly come to include Dawn. He needed time to think that over.
"It's all right. I'm just tired. And the Theos keep mobbing me."
Dawn hooked her arm in his. "You must be their favorite uncle. Perfectly understandable."
He wished she'd stop trying so hard.
She walked him slowly back to Buffy and Spike, who were both holding a baby and juggling champagne. A very old man appeared right in front of them and stepped up to Buffy and Spike.
He nodded perfunctorily to Spike and bowed before Buffy. Buffy smiled vaguely and extended the champagne-holding hand, giggling in surprise when the old man kissed it reverently.
"I just wanted to see you one more time," he said in a paper-thin old voice.
Dawn gasped and Riley knew she wanted to tell Buffy this had to be a Theo too, although with his bent old figure and pink scalp he could have been any old man. He clapped one hand over her mouth and collided with a cold one that was doing the exact same thing. His eyes met Spike's over Dawn's head and for the first time ever there was perfect understanding between them.
The old man bowed and disappeared with a little plop. They needed a distraction, fast.
"Ho ho ho!" Santa Clause boomed as he shattered the picture windows with his reindeers and his bone sleigh. "I have present for all the good little Theos! Line up!"
The little Theos shrieked and ran for older Theos. "Santa, Santa!"
Riley exhaled in relief and nodded to Spike. Buffy didn't need to understand the implications of all this right now. They couldn't keep it from her forever, and she was no fool. Some truths needed time to mellow them.