“A time traveller walks into a bar. He enjoyed his food so much he went back four seconds.” – Faith to Dawn’s children, autumn 2022
When Buffy opened her eyes she was in someone’s living room, which was surreal and disturbing. She hadn’t been in any room with actual walls and a roof since they lost continental Europe. She was also still standing, and the pain didn’t seem quite so bad as last time. Maybe she was finally getting used to the whole time travel thing? And then suddenly Spike was kissing her, and her eyes were closed and it was like another trip back to her past. But just as Buffy was losing herself in the feel of him, he shoved her backwards and snarled, “Who the fuck are you?”
She stumbled back, tripping over an occasional table and sitting down abruptly on the sofa. As she fell, she caught a glimpse of long, dark brown hair in her peripheral vision.
“Faith?” It was Willow’s voice, and it sounded wobbly.
“Buffy,” Buffy gasped, unable to tear her eyes away from where Spike was dropping to the floor like his strings had been cut. “I’m Buffy.” Her voice resonated all deep and throaty in her head as she spoke, just as disturbing as the last time she’d been stuck in Faith’s body.
“Not possible,” Spike breathed, scrambling away from her, crab-like, as fast as he could. He’d lost control of his limbs in a way Buffy’d never seen before; he even banged his head against the wall when he crashed into it. “She’s been dead twenty-two years.”
Buffy watched his lips keep moving without sound. A tiny part of her hoped it was a count of months and days, but the rest of her knew that was pure, self-indulgent fantasy. “Surprise?” she said tentatively.
Buffy forced herself to look at Willow, who was sitting on a sheepskin rug in front of the fireplace, same old familiar bowl in front of her. Her hair was still red, but straggly and dull, like she hadn’t been looking after it. Her skin was hanging off her bones, and her eyes had dark circles under them. She’d aged, much more than any of the other Willows. Weirder, her bare arms showed dry patches with scabs, and her eyes were glassy and not quite focussing properly. She looked strung out on something.
“Prove you’re Buffy,” Spike snapped. He seemed to have regained some control over himself, and was now curled into a protective ball, arms clasped around his knees, sitting rigidly upright against the wall.
“But Buffy’s the only thing that explains the change,” Willow said, excitement evident in her voice. “The other times Faith went back, nothing really happened. This is the first time I can feel something.”
“I take it I succeeded in not being resurrected,” Buffy said drily.
Willow gaped at her, horror-stricken. “We – I took you out of heaven?”
Spike buried his face in his knees and a tremor ran across his shoulders.
“You thought I was in a hell dimension,” Buffy said quietly, tearing her gaze away from Spike and back to Willow. “You were saving me.”
Tears were running down Willow’s cheeks and she was scratching furiously at the skin just above her left elbow. “I’m so sorry.” She stopped scratching and swiped a hand across her face, frustrated. “And it’s so not my place to cry over it.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, laying her hands down on her knees. When she looked up again, she was back in control. “That should never, ever have happened. I was arrogant, and stupid, and you trusted me to have your back and I hurt you and I am so, so sorry.”
All the air left Buffy’s body in a violent whoosh, leaving her gasping around an unbearable ache. “Thank you,” she choked out. Willow had never apologised like this before – making it about Buffy, instead of herself. And even though it wasn’t this Willow who did the damage, she understood it. Buffy had never known how much she needed that until Willow said the words.
“D-did I-?” Spike asked shakily.
“You knew nothing about it,” Buffy said quickly. “But you were the only one I told for a long time. And you helped me get through it.” Like that wasn’t the gloss-over of the century. But this Spike didn’t need to know about that.
He nodded, seemingly satisfied.
Desperate to talk about anything else, Buffy asked, “So whose place is this?”
“Theirs,” Willow said softly. “Faith and Spike’s.”
“It’s … nice,” Buffy said, looking around again. The walls were rental-beige and naked of anything that might give the room personality. The only things besides the rug that didn’t look like they came with the apartment were the TV and ten or fifteen books crammed willy-nilly onto the single shelf. “So you’re together?” she asked.
Spike twitched. “‘S complicated.”
Buffy’s heart ached. If her Spike had lived this long, he would never, ever have accepted so little. He’d learned he deserved more a long time ago, and even better, he’d learned to demand it. His last apartment had been lush and welcoming, an oasis of warmth and comfort that she’d always felt balanced out the world’s hardness, no matter how bad it got. She treasured every minute she spent in it.
“You died,” Buffy said softly. “Six years ago.” Seven months and…. It had been seventeen days when she’d thrown the first seed in the bowl. Was it still seventeen? Or twenty-one now? She knew how pointless it was keeping count – she’d seen Spike turn to dust that last time. But she still felt she owed it to him. Just in case.
He looked up, something approaching interest in his eyes for the first time. “Yeah?”
Buffy nodded. “Hero’s death. Champion, even.” Her voice wobbled at the word ‘champion’. They’d fought over that word, so many times. All she’d wanted was for him to be safe, but every time she said it, he heard ‘caged’. Or on their worst days, ‘unworthy’.
He laughed. “I’m no hero, Buffy.”
“I know you are.” She paused, wondering whether this Spike had also missed his chance to die saving the world. “But you don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to.”
“Were we friends?” he asked cautiously.
Now Buffy laughed. “We were never friends.”
“‘Course not,” he snapped. “What can I have been thinkin’?”
It was disturbing, meeting this Spike. The two past-Spikes she’d met didn’t know her well enough to love her. But this one used to, once upon a time. And he’d got over it.
“You were my everything.” Buffy said it under her breath, and Spike’s whole body jerked towards her in response.
Willow cleared her throat ostentatiously. Buffy’d completely forgotten she was there.
“Um, not to interrupt old home week or anything, but we still need to fix the past.”
Buffy nodded, forcing her focus back onto Willow. “Right. I had two priorities. Make sure no one resurrected me in 2001.” There was a slightly awkward pause. “And stop all the potentials from being activated a year and a half later.”
“All the – woweee.” Willow was practically vibrating with excitement. “That sounds like a doozy of a spell.”
“So how’d you end the apocalypse of 2003, then?”
Willow’s eyes darted to Spike and then back to Buffy.
“Doesn’t matter,” Spike said curtly. “Hardly the issue at hand, is it?”
Buffy sighed; she hoped his reluctance to talk about it meant he’d been the one wearing the amulet. “I take it me staying dead creates more problems than it solves?”
“Old Ones’re comin’ back,” Spike said. “Closed Hellmouths springin’ back to life, new ones popping up. It’s all we can do to keep up with them.”
“Everyone we can get,” Willow said quietly. “The Council, various covens, about thirty mercenaries and rogue demon hunters on our best days, plus both slayers.”
Buffy blanched slightly at the notion of there still being two slayers; Faith must have died and come back in this timeline. “But I thought – there was this whole cosmic balance thing, and my resurrection overbalanced the good side because it screwed up the slayer line, and then we overbalanced it even more by activating all the potentials. Stopping all that was supposed to fix everything.”
Willow frowned. “Oh, no. Magical resurrections are … they cost, but once the debt is paid, they don’t affect the balance.” She smiled kindly. “Even if it’s a slayer.”
Buffy really hoped that wasn’t the voice of experience talking. It had been some mystic demon prophet thing who said The First’s opportunity came from her resurrection, hadn’t it? Hardly the most trustworthy source. Would everyone have believed it without checking? Giles and Willow always said her resurrection was the root cause, way back when, and then again as the war was kicking off. But everyone felt so guilty about her losing heaven, that was exactly the sort of thing The First would want to exploit…. Or this Willow could be wrong.
“I don’t want to leave heaven if I can help it,” Buffy said finally, willing her voice not to waver but falling short.
“We sent Faith back to stop you from jumping,” Willow replied quickly. “I don’t think a resurrection is an option anymore. The me I was, back then I mean, I would’ve checked where you were first.”
Buffy sank back against the sofa, relieved. “So why’s it such a problem that I died?”
“It’s not so much you dying as how you died. Because you closed Glory’s portal and not Dawn, there was a tiny crack. Something on the other side has been using a sort of mystical crowbar to slowly pry it open ever since.”
Buffy’s blood ran cold at Willow’s earlier phrasing: ‘stop you from jumping’. “Was Faith supposed to stop me from dying, or stop me from dying instead of Dawn?”
Willow’s face flooded with guilt. “Either one would do the job.”
Buffy’s focus snapped back to Spike. “You promised to protect her.”
“It’s the end of the world,” he said quietly. “An’ it wasn’t my decision.”
Buffy’s heart lurched. “Dawnie said to do it?”
He nodded. “Insisted.”
“How is she?”
“Good,” Spike said. Then, “Hang on a tic.” He pushed himself to his feet and left the room.
“I never … it never occurred to me that anything like this was even possible.” Willow said, awed.
“What do you mean?”
“You really shouldn’t be here instead of Faith. With bells on. Best I can figure, we’re not part of each other’s ‘normal’ reality.” Willow paused ominously. “We’re just a … a temporary branch you created on one of your trips to the past.”
“Take it that means Faith’s gone for good,” Spike said from the doorway.
Willow was scratching at the skin above her elbow again. Buffy didn’t think she knew she was doing it.
“I don’t know,” Willow said sadly. “If we’re just a temporal blip, this entire dimension will cease to exist – no more any of us. If it’s an alternate dimension in its own right, and we’ve somehow just intersected with each other, then maybe Faith comes back after you leave.”
Buffy gave herself a shake. “Time travel makes my head hurt.”
Willow smiled at her sadly. “Not really your problem. No matter what happens, you’ll never see us again.”
Spike dropped an unlocked phone into Buffy’s lap. On it were photos of Dawn, more grown up than Buffy’d ever seen her, laughing and happy with twin girls who grew from tiny babies to toddling children right before her eyes. Her hair was still long and impractical, and she was with a guy Buffy hoped might be Michael. They looked at each other with nothing but love.
“I’m sorry I’m not Faith,” Buffy said as she scrolled through the photos, tears pricking at her eyes.
Spike shrugged. “Let’s get you gone. Save the world and all that rot.”
She reached the end of the album, then went back to the shot of Dawn breastfeeding and making a goofy face at the camera. Stroking the screen one last time, Buffy gave Spike his phone. “Thank you. You don’t know what this means to me.”
“Died, did she?” he asked gruffly.
Buffy nodded. “She saved a lot of people, though.”
“That’s my girl,” Spike said proudly.
“She didn’t have much of a life for a long time before that. Seeing her so happy….”
Buffy could feel Spike’s hand hovering over her shoulder for a long time before his fingertips skimmed her skin in a barely-there squeeze. Then he slipped his phone into his pocket and hightailed it back to the other side of the room
“Got any advice?” Buffy asked, trying to surreptitiously wipe her eyes.
“Staying alive would be good,” Willow said. She shrugged. “You’ve done this a few times – I’m guessing you already know going back to the day of the battle won’t change much.”
“Got that memo.”
“You wanted to die by the end of that year,” Spike blurted. “Don’t reckon you ever planned on comin’ back from the tower.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and stared at the floor near Buffy’s feet. “Need to fix your death wish. Give yourself reasons to live.”
Buffy smiled wryly. “I don’t think anything good happened that year.”
“Can be depressed without wantin’ to die,” Spike said sharply.
“Boy howdy,” Willow added, nodding. “And even if you know you can’t change something, try harder. Sometimes, if you know you tried, it’s easier to live with yourself after.”
Buffy suddenly knew when she wanted to go back.
“Or not,” Spike said harshly.
Willow threw him a sympathetic glance.
Buffy put her hand into Faith’s skin-tight jeans and pulled out a seed. She got up off the sofa, and dropped it into the bowl.