“Yo, B! You planning on getting outside at some point this century, or should I just go ahead and leave without you?”
“Just a minute!” Buffy’s voice carried down the stairs. “I can’t find Mr. Gordo, and there’s no way I’m leaving without him. Don’t!” she added quickly, just as Faith opened her mouth to reply. “Don’t say a word. I know we have more important things to worry about now, but I need him.”
Faith often wondered how she did that, knowing when she was going to speak before she’d even decided herself. Slayer thing, maybe. God knew, compared to their insane shared dreams it didn’t even crack the top five in weird talents. Or maybe Faith was just becoming predictable, which was a horrifying concept in itself. She’d been chastised in any case, and decided to haul the bags out to what had once been Giles’ sports car. The chain of ownership after that wasn’t something she understood, but she’d never bothered asking. The bags slid into the small trunk with an inch to spare, and the cupholders up front were already loaded with two bottles of Diet Coke.
Faith rested against the car, looking up at the Summers home for what might be the last time. Her best and worst memories all seemed to live there, and she swore the ghosts of old days were visible in the windows: the time she’d spent Christmas there, sharing meals with Joyce…and then threatening to kill her, swapping bodies with Buffy. Joyce, like almost everyone Faith had ever known, was long gone now. It was a constant heartbreak, knowing that she’d never get the chance to apologize to someone whose kindness she’d repaid with rage.
As Buffy emerged from the house, finally, Faith quickly wiped a tear from her cheek. Her sister slayer would just get the wrong idea, and think she was getting soft in her old age. But Buffy’s cheeks were wet as well, and she wouldn’t have noticed. “I can’t believe this is it,” she sighed. “I always thought I’d grow old in this house. That one day Dawnie would come home from wherever she was living and we’d sit on the porch in rocking chairs and talk about the old days of…of Sunnydale.” Her expression changed from sadness to confusion, and she looked at Faith for clarification.
“This isn’t right. We didn’t leave this house this way – it’s…something happened to Sunnydale.” Faith started to protest, but Buffy’s words caught in her brain like a hook and tugged at memories. Her fingers drummed on the car door, even as the midsection of her white shirt suddenly bloomed red.
What had happened to Sunnydale? A collapsing street sign, a yellow school bus, a lingering question – “what are we going to do now?” Pieces of a puzzle that was coming together much too slowly for Faith’s liking. She’d never been good at them, and this one clearly wasn’t going to be the exception to that rule. “It’s gone,” her voice was a confused murmur when it finally came. “There isn’t a Sunnydale anymore. We moved to Cleveland.”
Buffy’s head snapped up. “Cleveland! Right. There’s another hellmouth in Cleveland. But if Sunnydale’s not here anymore, what is this? It doesn’t feel like one of our dreams, it’s too…mundane. Like this is real life, it’s just not-“
“Your life.” The voice came from behind her, and Buffy’s hair fanned as she spun to face the source. The creature, whatever it might have been, didn’t look familiar. About six and a half feet tall with slate grey skin and no discernible gender, its face radiated an easy calm. “I have to apologize to you, Miss Summers. This usually works much better, but I suppose most of my clients don’t have the mental stamina of a slayer. They simply sink into the illusion and relax. Alas, that doesn’t seem to be the case here.”
Before Buffy could reply, everything began to fade – the house, the car, Faith – and a moment later she was sitting across a teak desk from the creature, who was now clothed in a suit that probably cost more than Buffy had saved in her entire life. “Wha – okay, what is happening right now?”
Her companion shook its head. “Some confusion is perfectly normal. It’ll take about an hour before you really start feeling like yourself again. In the meantime, please allow me to refund the fee I charged you. I simply don’t feel comfortable getting paid for a service that I couldn’t provide. On the bright side, I suppose this is a lesson for me. I’ll post a sign at the door in case any of your fellow slayers come by looking to indulge.” It opened a drawer in the desk and removed an envelope of cash, sliding it easily toward her. “Do you remember me yet, Miss Summers?”
Head down in her hands, Buffy grunted in reply before deciding she could manage better. “No. I don’t know you, and I don’t know where I am. Or even what city this is. It still feels like Sunnydale.” Her hands tugged roughly at her blonde locks before sweeping them back so she could look across the desk once more. “Feel like clearing things up before I start feeling stabby?”
It stood up slowly and headed toward a sideboard made of the same rich teak as the desk. It picked up a teapot and two cups, pouring one for itself and setting one in front of Buffy. “Drink – slowly. As I said, you’re not unusual in being disoriented. Most of my clients are. But I think you’re having an adverse reaction because you pulled yourself out. So drink your tea and I’ll explain, and hopefully by the time we’re done everything will become clear to you.” Had Buffy been at her peak, she’d have reached across the desk for the creature and threatened to beat answers out of it; as it was, all she could do was nod slowly and hope that the lingering feeling of having her home ripped away would fade with what she was about to learn.
“My name is Dannis. I’m a Telluric demon,” it began, and Buffy’s confused look made it laugh. “The name is a bit of a misnomer. I don’t have anything to do with telluric currents, but some demon hunter or another called us that years ago and it just sort of stuck. There aren’t many of us in this dimension, to be honest, most of us live in a parallel one that humans don’t make a habit of visiting. But I can tell I’m talking a little over your head right now, so let me start again.”
Dannis sipped its tea and cleared its throat. “Two days ago, you and a girl named Willow came to my carnival. As I understand, you’d heard reports of people who’d visited us and come away with glimpses of their future that caused them to become insane or evil and do harm to others. When you realized that the owner and operator was a demon, things seemed very clear – a demon planting visions in people to make them do awful things. You stormed into my tent with weapons drawn, ready to deal out your brand of justice.” Its lip quirked in amusement at those words. “Fortunately, Willow was in less of a hurry to maim and dismember, and we actually struck up a very nice conversation. At one point she phoned your English friend and confirmed what I was saying all along – that my visions are in no way dangerous or evil.”
The fog in Buffy’s head felt like it was clearing a little, and the tea was helping with that as much as the conversation. “But you do give people visions?” she confirmed. “That Sunnydale that I saw, that was your doing?”
“If they ask for them. And if they pay well. There’s no small amount of effort required from me, and I don’t give them away for free. But yes, what you experienced was part of my gift. After we cleared up our little misunderstanding, you and your friend left and I assumed I wouldn’t see you again. But the very next night, my tent door parted again and there you were. No weapons, no anger, just a curious expression and an envelope with my usual fee inside.” Dannis gestured to the envelope sitting in front of Buffy. “You asked me to use my gift, and I made sure that you understood what I could provide. You paid me and took a seat in my comfortable chair over there, and we began. Is all of this sounding at all familiar now?”
Buffy nodded. She still didn’t recall the ins and outs, or why she’d come back to see the vision she’d been given, but the broad strokes were starting to fill in. “Getting there. I’m sorry to make you explain this again, but I’m still pretty fuzzy – what, exactly, are these visions that you provide and why did I want one?” There must have been some reason why she felt it necessary to ask for this demon’s services.
“I don’t mind. I cleared my schedule when I realized what had gone wrong. The easiest way to describe my visions is to call them alternate presents. I don’t tell the future and I don’t dredge up the past; what I do is ask for one piece of information from my clients and then show them what their life would look like based on that information.”
“Specifically, I ask them for one thing they wish they could go back and change. For some people it’s very basic. That a relative never died, that they’d never gotten divorced or cheated on their significant other. Some people provide a very intricate scenario. Either way, I put them in a light trance and allow them to experience what their lives would be if those changes were made. Most people are surprised at how comforting the experience is; they find that their lives generally aren’t better, just different, and they come back ready to live the life they have to the fullest.”
A question immediately sprang to Buffy’s mind, but she repressed it for a moment to satisfy another curiosity instead. “So why were people going homicidal? This doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that would inspire people to go all axe-murdery.”
Dannis sighed deeply. “It isn’t. Even the people who do come out of their visions wishing they could turn back time and change their lives are usually only sad for a day or two until the intensity of the vision begins to fade and starts to seem like a pleasant dream. But the three people you were investigating were less than honest with me. They presented themselves as individuals, and there was no way for me to know that they were actually a convoluted and occasionally violent love triangle who were trying to get confirmation that each of them had made the right choices in the past. Whatever they saw, it led to an explosion of violence among them and ended with all three people dead. I wish that it hadn’t happened, but I don’t think I could have prevented it.” It studied Buffy for a moment and shook his head. “But that’s not what you really want to know.”
It annoyed her to be so transparent, but Buffy decided she might as well not try to deny it. “What did I ask to change?” It was one of the few major holes left in her memory and she hoped that the question would explain the vision she’d seen.
“You’re sure that you want to know now?”
“Very well. When I asked you what you’d like to change if you could. Your reply was that you wanted to know what your life would be like now if you hadn’t allowed Faith to go to prison.”
Buffy stared in shock. She’d privately wondered that a thousand times, of course, but didn’t know it had been weighing on her enough to consult a demon about it. If she’d tried to guess she’d have assumed it was keeping her mother alive or not having to kill Angel. But now that she knew, it only raised more questions. “But-“
“I have to warn you, Miss Summers. If you’re going to ask me about the contents of your vision, I wasn’t there to experience them. The only reason you saw me at the last was because it was already collapsing around you and that present mingled with this one.”
Buffy snapped her fingers. “That’s it – that’s why it doesn’t make any sense. Because my brain was fighting against it, right? Otherwise, it’s just…it’s impossible. There’s no way that keeping Faith out of prison could have changed all of that.”
Dannis shrugged. “I can’t say for certain, Buffy. What I can say is that my visions are always accurate. Even with you fighting against it, the present that you were experiencing is absolutely the one that you would be inhabiting now if that part of your past had changed.”
“Impossible,” she repeated softly. If stepping up back then and keeping her fellow slayer out of prison could have prevented the fate that befell Sunnydale or allowed them to have what felt like a perfect life together, that was heartbreaking on a level she couldn’t begin to comprehend. To be spared those years of hating each other, to have defeated the First without losing her town – or maybe to have not fought it at all – if she’d made one better choice in her life was knowledge that she didn’t know how to live with. Draining the rest of her tea, she looked Dannis desperately in the eye. “Please…we need to try again.”
“Miss Summers?” It looked shocked, and she couldn’t blame it. “We can’t. It would only end the same way, with the vision collapsing. And the way that your mind rejected the alternate present makes me worry that we’d be risking permanent damage to subject you to it again.”
Putting on what Willow would have called her “resolve face,” Buffy didn’t back down. “I don’t care. Here.” The envelope of cash slid across the desk again. “I need longer, there are questions I need answered and I can’t just walk away without even trying. I can’t.” Dannis worried at its lower lip, and she seized what looked like an opening. “You can keep the money whether it works or not. And Willow’s got experience pulling me out of my own head, in case anything goes wrong. Please, Dannis. I need this.”
The demon rubbed its temples in an alarmingly human gesture, clearly thinking things through. “Fine. One more attempt, no more than that. And I don’t guarantee you’ll have any longer than you got the first time, so if you have questions to ask then make them quick. Am I clear?”
One more moment of hesitation, and Dannis gestured to the comfortable chair he’d mentioned earlier. “Take a seat, and close your eyes. Take slow, deep breaths and listen for the sound of my voice.”
“I always thought I’d grow old in this house. That one day Dawnie would come home from wherever she was living and we’d sit on the porch in rocking chairs and talk about the old days of…of Sunnydale.” The hitch in her voice jogged Buffy’s memory, and this time she didn’t pursue it. Instead she tried to redirect the conversation.
“After all, it’s hard to leave the place where we kicked the First Evil’s ass.” Faith, halfway into the car, looked over at Buffy with a furrowed brow.
“The First? I’d think you’d have picked a better one than that, B. That was barely a fight. Now Glory – there was one for the ages.”
Buffy went with it, trying to wring as much information from the vision as she could. “Well, sure, but those Ubvervamps that the First had, and Caleb…I mean, tough, right?”
Faith’s expression had turned from confusion to concern. “B, are you tripping on something? You didn’t get into my stash or something, did you?”
“I have no idea what you’re on about right now. There were no ubervamps, and I don’t remember meetin’ anyone named Caleb. The First barely had any juice when it showed up, and the most we had to do was knock off a couple of those Bringer things and say a couple words over that seal thing in the school basement. Done like dinner, Hellmouth sealed up for good.”
They really had beaten it. Without the casualties, the army of slayers, or forcing Willow back into magic. But if that was true, then when they fought Glory she couldn’t have – well, one more thing to ask Faith. Buffy slid into the car, though, not wanting to seem any more off than she already did. Faith turned on the car and pulled out of the drive, waving at it as they went. “So long, house. May your new owners treat you well and have fewer demon attacks in you than we ever did.” Buffy mimicked her gesture, staring at the house until it was out of sight.
“You’re right. Glory was a much better battle.”
“Shit yeah!” Faith grinned. “All I can remember from that day is racing up that damn tower while you were beating the hell-bitch with a hammer. I was so sure I wasn’t going to make it and that Doc asshole was going to slice Little D. He made a move for me, this cheap little fakeout with his tongue before he went after me with his tail. If I hadn’t had my knife with me he’d have knocked me off the tower and that’d have been the end of it. Instead I chopped it off for him and kicked his scrawny ass to see how far he’d fly. Cut D down, Glory missed her shot, and we went home triumphant heroes. I don’t think I’ve ever been as drunk as I was that night.”
Buffy couldn’t help the tears now. With Faith at her side, she’d never died or been pulled out of Heaven. No one had drained Dawn’s blood, and Glory had been defeated without spilling a drop. The more she was learning of this life, the harder she judged her past self. “You were so brave,” she managed in a choked voice.
“Me? I just had to fight a bunch of crazy townies and whatever Doc was. I wasn’t the one who took on a god all by herself.” Tearing her gaze from the road, Faith looked at Buffy and couldn’t miss the tears. “Geez, you really are all kinds of nostalgic today, B. You’re not regrettin’ the move, are you?”
“Definitely not,” Buffy ignored the way the world was starting to flicker around them. “I can’t wait to go to Cleveland with you. To go anywhere with you.” Faith’s answering smile was shy and brighter than the sun at the same time.
“You’re already getting lucky in whatever motel we stop in, you don’t have to sweet talk me on top of that. Besides, you’re not going to be singing that tune when your California ass deals with a Northern winter for the first time. You’ll be under four blankets and wearing a fluffy robe and cursing my name.”
The vision came apart at the seams, but Buffy had just long enough to say “I love you,” and see Faith’s eyes fill with tears of her own before she was back in Dannis’ office once more.
“Did you get what you needed?” it asked gently. “Because I don’t think I can get you under again without both of our heads exploding. And as fun as that sounds, I’d really rather not.” Buffy shook her head, unable to speak around the lump in her throat. To her surprise, Dannis wrapped her in its arms and just held her quietly while she cried herself dry. “I know it hurts right now,” it whispered when her sobs were over. “But in a few days, it’ll all feel like a nice dream you had once and not like a life you might have had.” She knew that her reaction must have been common, but it didn’t take away the raw feeling in her throat or the pain in her heart. Like a nice dream, he’d said. But that wasn’t good enough. Not anymore.
“Buffy? Geez, we were getting worried. Dawn called you a half-dozen times.” Willow’s voice on the other end of the phone was just a little too loud.
“I’m alright – I’m sorry, I had some stuff to take care of. I’ll have dinner out, so don’t worry about me.” She paused and spoke again before Willow could reply. “Do you know where Faith is tonight?”
The hesitation on the other end was palpable. There had been too many blow-ups between them for Willow to know why Buffy might be asking the question. “She’s on the East side. Checking the cemeteries and then going to the Pink Slipper for the night. Why? Did she do something?”
Buffy hopped into her car and started the engine. “No, it’s nothing bad. I just need to talk to her. Thanks, Willow, I’ll be home soon.” She hung up without another word and put the car in drive, struggling with her GPS until it finally decided to cooperate and show directions to the Pink Slipper. She had a date.
Of all the gin joints in all the world, Faith had never expected Buffy to walk into hers. The Pink Slipper wasn’t exactly her usual sort of hangout, and not just because it was a lesbian bar. Her first thought, of course, was that an emergency had come up and Buffy had once again forgotten how to use her cell phone; sometimes it seemed like she’d never get the hang of it. But there was no urgency in her walk, just a hip-swaying casualness that both put Faith at ease and made her worry all the more.
“B? You feelin’ alright?”
“Five by five.” Getting closer – uncomfortably close, if Faith was honest – she leaned close enough to whisper in her ear. “Do you ever wonder what might have been? If you hadn’t spent three years and change rotting in a cell?”
“Rotting? I never felt like I was rotting. I did bad shit, B. Needed to pay my debt and all that.” Faith was deeply confused. “And as far as I remember, you were leading the parade for me to go away.”
Buffy nodded. “You’re not wrong. But the more time that goes by, the more I think I was. I think our story would have had a much better ending if I’d never let that happen. In fact, I know it would have.” She wrapped both arms around Faith, who froze in place. The last time they’d been this close she’d been getting punched in the face, and with the inscrutable expression on Buffy’s face there was no way for her to know whether or not that was about to happen again.
Something she’d said, though, caught Faith’s attention even more than the embrace. “Our story? I didn’t know we had a story. We fought, we threw each other through windows, you stabbed me, I stole your body…not much of a story there, B.”
“But there could have been. We would have had a story that changed the world.” Buffy’s lips were so close to hers now that Faith could feel her breath and it made her tremble. “And maybe we can’t have that story. But I think we can have one just as good. And I think we can still change it all.”
Faith didn’t have time to reply before warm lips were on hers. It was a fantasy that had brewed for a long time in her head before being discarded as unrealistic. But here they were. If they had a story, this was its genesis. And in the beginning, there was Buffy and Faith. And it was good.