"Sorry!" Willow let Buffy into her bedroom through the French doors. "I didn't hear you." The sun peeked over the tops of the houses on the east side of the street; Willow clicked the lock. "I mean, I did hear you, but I was asleep, and in my dream, you knocking was Ms. Calendar driving nails to hold this portrait of her and Giles from that party her uncle threw for their wedding."
"Not a prob." Buffy peeled off Angel's well-worn leather jacket. She draped it over the duffle bag she'd dropped off the evening before, and then sat sideways in Willow's desk chair. "Sorry to wake you. Do you want to go back to sleep?"
Willow checked her clock. "No, the alarm was going to go off in less than an hour anyway." She tugged at her comforter as if to make her bed, then looked down at her flannel pajamas, and across at Buffy's blouse and slacks. She laughed. "It's like a shift change. You take over sleeping, and I'll get ready for school."
"Isn't it blasphemous or something," Buffy yawned, "a student going to school on a teacher in-service day?"
"I think the word you want is 'heretical,' actually, and yes, that's why I have the special pass." Willow tossed her head and smiled, delighted with the semi-official Teaching Assistant status that had let her help with Ms. Calendar's big software presentation to the faculty that afternoon. "Oh, hey, munchies! Are you all hungry from patrol? Can I make you breakfast?"
"Minimal slayage." Buffy shook her head. Her blonde hair, longer now than Willow's red, made an emphatic swish with the gesture. "Two vamps all night hardly merits making with the Julia Child, but I wouldn't turn down some sugar-frosted honey flakey stuff."
"Unfortunately, the Rosenberg household has a long-standing policy against the kind of cereal that might come with a prize in the box." Willow sighed. "I do know where the actual honey and sugar are, though!"
"Nature's own partially hydrogenated corn syrup," Buffy nodded. "The paths of glory lead but to the kitchen."
"Oooh, you did the reading!" Willow's eyebrows rose enthusiastically as they stepped into the hallway. "I'm so impressed. You are totally getting an 'A' in English this semester!"
"That's me: study girl." Buffy's fists clenched. She unbent her fingers and looked at her claddagh ring. "It's amazing how much time there is to cram when your boyfriend has been in Timbuktu for a year."
"I thought Angel stayed in Mali for only— oh, you meant metaphorically." Willow flipped on the light in the kitchen. As soon as her fingers touched the switch...
* * *
...she was in a dark room, lit only by a digital clock that was running about an hour fast. Willow froze and scanned for exits, weapons and threats, as three years of things going very seriously bump in the night had taught her to.
An alarm clock blared. A hand shot out from nowhere. The shrill bleeps became a radio broadcast. National Public Radio, Willow recognized, just like her parents listened to. The hand kept groping around, passing in front of the clock's glowing numbers.
"Jenny, do you recall where I set my glasses?" Giles's voice, sleepy. Willow jumped.
"Uh, couch." Ms. Calendar's voice, yawning. "You took them off on the couch, so they're probably—"
* * *
Willow was back in her own well-lit kitchen, her hand off the light switch. Buffy opened the utensil drawer, apparently not noticing anything. Willow shook her head and reached down the bowls. Maybe she wasn't entirely awake yet?
"I know Angel had to hide the Judge's arm where no one would ever find it," Buffy said. "It's not like I'm claiming that wasn't tres necessary. And I get it that he had to keep moving as long as he was being followed."
"Right," Willow agreed. What had they been talking about? Oh, yes: why her best friend's boyfriend had left on her birthday last year and not yet returned. "But when you took out that blind vampire Drusilla left in charge—"
Buffy winced, which made Willow wince. It wasn't because of the bespectacled vampire from whom Buffy had taken the Judge's arm in the first place, before his boss gouged out his eyes. No, it was the boss herself. Willow hadn't meant to mention Drusilla to Buffy for a whole smorgasbord of reasons. An appetizer of grief over Kendra's death, a side of fear for Angel's life, and, Willow suspected with concern, a main dish of guilty identification with the mind-shattered vampire herself. As good and loving and noble as Angel was to Buffy, that's how evil and hateful and vile Angelus had been to Drusilla. If Willow had ever wondered what a soul was worth, she measured it now in the abyss between Drusilla and Buffy.
Thank goodness for the Romani curse that made him into Buffy's Angel. Just imagining Drusilla's Angelus hurt Willow's stomach. Especially since that standoff at the factory last year after Angel had left, when Drusilla had cheerfully told them what to imagine. Willow had not needed to know any of that. Ever.
Neither had Buffy.
"Look," Willow tried again. "Angel is as devoted to you as— as Giles is to Ms. Calendar! And I've seen some of those letters Angel writes you. That's probably more actual words than I get from Oz right here in Sunnydale."
"Nice try, Will." Buffy poured them two bowls of cereal. "But you know there's a big difference between your man of few words sliding his arm around your shoulders in the cafeteria, and mine mailing sketches from Tibet and Burma and Zambia and— why don't we have a geography class this year? I would get such good grades now!"
"And yet, somehow, both Northwestern and UC-Sunnydale accepted you." Willow got out the honey, sugar, milk and some bananas, just in case the Slayer metabolism didn't run entirely on empty calories. All binaries for Buffy: here or there, sucrose or fructose, Northwestern or UC. Willow envied those fifty/fifty odds of making the right choice. She swallowed hard, and then asked, "So the long-distance relationship thing isn't working out?"
"No, I don't mean that." Buffy stirred her concoction. "I'm on the front lines facing the Mayor and Faith, but he's behind enemy lines with Drusilla and Spike on his heels. It would be wrong with a capital 'raw' for me to fall out of love with him just because we're growing apart a little while we're apart a lot... wouldn't it?"
"Well, do you think you'll grow back together when you're back together? You said the other day that he's on his way home now to help fight the Mayor's Ascension. He should get here in time for prom, right?"
"Yeah," Buffy nodded. "Thanks, Will." A few bites later, Buffy dropped her spoon. "Wait a minute! Was that really about you and Oz? Because you know Oz will follow you. Whatever university you pick, Dingoes Ate My Baby is going to find a four-year gig in suspicious proximity to campus."
"I wasn't thinking about that at all," Willow lied primly. She promptly deflated. "Oh, Buffy, I wouldn't have applied to so many schools if I'd known they would all accept me! What if I pick one where Oz didn't even apply, like Oxford? What if he throws away his whole future just to be with me? And who would take care of Xander? And what if you need—"
The alarm in Willow's room went off.
"Oops." Willow ran and pounced on the clock before she remembered that her parents were at a conference in Paris and couldn't be woken by it. Time to get up, anyway.
Buffy appeared in the door, bowl and spoon in hand.
"So you know where everything is." Willow looked around her room: computer, closet, fish-filled aquarium, Amy-the-rat's cage, and a plastic tub of thick acceptance packets from universities. Oxford, MIT and Stanford sat open on top. UC-Sunnydale's worn envelope stood up at the edge, pulled out and put back many times. "After I help Ms. Calendar present the new software today, you wanna go to the Bronze with Oz and Xander? And then I'll come patrolling with you and watch your back, so we'll actually be hanging more like your mom thinks we're doing this weekend." Willow pulled two small cloth bags from under her bed and set them on the comforter. "Are you ever going to tell her? About being a Slayer, I mean?"
Buffy ate another spoonful of cereal, then sighed and put the bowl on Willow's dresser. "Sometimes, it's right on the tip of my tongue to tell her — especially when she's so disappointed about me staying local for college."
"If Faith hadn't—" murdered, lied, betrayed; Willow didn't say "—would you have gone away?"
"We'll never know." Buffy crossed her arms and leaned on the doorframe. "After so many near-misses, it's pretty clear my mom just doesn't want to know what's hiding under the bed, Will. I don't blame her."
"But if you need her to know, to explain about college and stuff, that matters, too." Willow turned her pillows over, and began moving things from under them into the two cloth bags. "I know Giles says, oh, all, secret identity, but I think she can handle it, if you'll give her the chance."
"Even after the Hansel and Gretel family barbeque? No, sorry, don't answer that." Buffy looked apologetically at Amy-the-rat, and then at the bolts Willow had installed on the inside of her doors.
Willow's mom hadn't asked about the bolts, which either meant she really did remember attempting to burn the girls at the stake — Sunnydale's amnesia epidemic aside — or that she was back to noticing nothing outside academia. One strike in the 'con' column for elite higher education, there, Willow thought. Or maybe 'pro,' actually. As Xander had first pointed out all the way back in elementary school, when Mrs. Rosenberg had brought her child-development graduate students with her when she chaperoned a field trip, Willow's mom really did love her work. Like Giles and Ms. Calendar, Willow thought now, but not like Xander's parents, or even Oz's dad. She didn't know about Buffy's mom.
Buffy sat on Willow's bed and nodded at the bags. "So what are you resting your head on these days?"
"From this pillow, a key, a horseshoe, and daisy roots." Willow pointed. "And this is a bone blade, peach leaves and the shell of a double nut. They have to be separate, because the metal in the key and the horseshoe would de-magic the bone."
"What's it all for?"
"They, um, invite dreams." Willow pulled the drawstrings on the bags. "Of your future. I mean, my future. I figure if I can see where I'll go to college, then I won't have to choose, and I can make absolutely sure I don't make the wrong choice."
"Your logic pretzels my brain." Buffy's eyebrows went to her hairline. "Is this something you worked up with Ms. Calendar?"
"No." Willow tucked the bags back under her bed, and went to get her clothes. "But don't worry. After what happened with Amy and Anya, I'm being very careful. I mean, there's a totally easy spell to actively see into the future by just eating an eel's heart, but am I doing it? No. I'm passively inviting a foretelling dream. Because I'm careful!"
"Also: eww! Eel heart!"
"Oh, yeah, totally. And besides, it's on the same list as Xander's Canadian bacon pizza."
"Someone bothered to forbid eel heart?"
"No, the whole eel. Because: no scales. But still, talk about unnecessary, right?"
"Ewww!" the girls agreed in unison, and then broke into giggles.
When Willow returned from the shower, Buffy had changed into pajama bottoms and a white tank top, wrapped up in a blanket and huddled solemnly in the middle of the bed like the little round Buddha Giles kept next to the six-armed Kali on his desk. Willow felt Buffy's eyes on her as she brushed her hair and put on earrings and a necklace. "Do I look all right?"
"A definite 'do'," Buffy nodded at the yellow sweater set and blue skirt. "Professional, but not more professional than the teachers. They'll be wowed by your obvious expertise."
"Hey, thanks!" Willow reveled in the compliment and reached for her happy-face backpack.
Buffy smiled back, but then rubbed her temples, hands wrapped up in the blanket. "Do you have a few minutes before you have to go?"
"Sure. I'm just going this early for set-up; we're actually on after lunch. Oh, hey, do you want to see the new application we're demonstrating?" Willow flipped on her computer and waited for it to boot up. "The predictive algorithm is so cool! Ms. Calendar's idea for the school calendaring system — heh, Ms. Calendar's calendar—"
"Actually, Will, I..." Buffy looked at her lap. "Foretelling dreams aren't all they're cracked up to be."
"Oh." Willow sat down at her desk. "Well, yeah, I know it won't be like your Slayer dreams, Buffy, if it even works. And I know better than even to want your Slayer dreams, honest." Willow looked down at her hands. She didn't desire Buffy's apocalypse-now, death-and-destruction, soul-slicing insight, true, but she did envy the perfect certainty those visions seemed to bring. Buffy had never seen herself striding in the grip of her purpose after one of those dreams. Assurance incarnate. No questions, no choices, no mistakes. Willow sighed. "What have I gotten so far, anyway? Just flashes of Ms. Calendar hanging a portrait, and you kissing Spike. Sounds like regular—"
"Me and Spike? Your subconscious is a sick, sick place."
"Well, exactly! Regular, ordinary, silly dreams that don't make any sense and aren't even about me. Notice the not-eating eel heart!" Feeling both guilty and misunderstood, Willow slapped the disk into the computer, sure that this was one thing, at least, where she was definitely more skilled than Buffy, and even all Sunnydale High's teachers except Ms. Calendar. As soon as Willow typed the 'run' command...
* * *
...she was in Giles's and Ms. Calendar's apartment. Willow swayed, put out her hand to catch herself, and fell through the desk chair Giles was sitting in. He turned a page of the book he was reading.
Willow shrieked. Giles turned another page.
"Oh, great." Willow rolled her eyes and got to her feet without benefit of being able to touch the furniture. "Ghosted again, and this time somebody pressed 'mute.' Giles? Are you sure you can't hear me? Giles?"
The librarian leaned back in his chair and pulled off his glasses. His eyes were wet.
"No, Giles, don't worry! I'm not dead! Buffy probably thinks I am, though," Willow fretted. "I was just typing at the computer, and then— poof! How can we de-ghost me if you can't hear me?"
Ms. Calendar, with her black hair cut since Willow had seen her in class yesterday, but wearing the same blue-striped cardigan, strode through the front door and slapped a stack of forms down on top of the book on Giles's desk. "We're taking the girls."
"What?" Giles put his glasses back on and stood up to embrace his wife.
Crossing her arms and pacing right through Willow, the computer-science teacher didn't let him. Something metal in her purse clinked as it bounced against her hip. "Hank Summers is scum."
"Ah. Quite." Giles sat down again. "We wondered where you went."
"He offered money, Rupert! Money! Joyce is dead, and his response is that of course he'll keep paying child-support for Dawn. As if his girls care about his money! He couldn't even be bothered to take a day off work to come see her and Buffy."
Willow sat down on the floor, shaking. She grasped that Ms. Calendar thought Buffy's mom was dead, and Buffy's dad was letting her down again, but who was Dawn?
Slowly, Giles said, "In all these years watching the Slayer, I've never once met her father."
"You're not missing anything." Ms. Calendar took a deep breath. She unfolded her arms, dropped her purse by the desk, and found a way onto Giles's lap. "He's so ordinary, Rupert. No fangs or slime or horns to clue you in. He means well, by his lights, but he's washed his hands of his family. I don't think I've ever been so disgusted in my life."
Giles cradled her for a moment, then kissed her forehead and shifted them to their feet. "This really requires a larger chair now."
"Are you saying I'm gaining weight?" Ms. Calendar's eyebrows rose.
The grief and tension drained out of Giles's face. He smiled. "There is a certain — glow."
"Cool." She tucked her head against his shoulder. "And you're okay with giving him two big sisters? Of course Buffy's too old to need a legal—"
* * *
"Will? Look, I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings."
Willow came to herself sitting at her own desk in her own room. "Buffy?"
"I'd be happy to look at your and Ms. Calendar's new datebook planner forecast thingamabob, honest."
Willow barely stopped herself from launching into a hug. "Buffy!"
"That's my name; don't run up the mileage." The Slayer looked at her suspiciously. "Are you all right?"
Buffy could hear her. The chair was solid. "Does the name 'Dawn' mean anything to you?"
"I just had the weirdest experience! Well, not the gold medal for weirdness, but definitely in the weird rankings, with aspirations." Willow let the story tumble out. She hoped she wasn't going too fast for Buffy, but she couldn't make sense of it herself if she let her tongue fall behind her thoughts. Finally Willow took a breath, and found herself fumbling to avoid mentioning that the other reality's Mrs. Summers had died. "And then Ms. Calendar said— well, never mind what she said. Does your dad have any other kids?"
Buffy dropped the blanket, leaned forward and felt Willow's forehead. "No fever. You don't do drugs. I'm the one all sugared up for the hyper. This therefore suggests Hellmouthy badness, and I've gotta say I'm thinking of those things under your pillows, Will."
"Oh, those are harmless." Willow turned back to her computer. "It must be something else. I had just started up the program when it happened. Here's the presentation sample I made with Ms. Calendar and Giles's honeymoon trip to England this summer, you know, assuming we defeat the Mayor." Willow clicked on the icon...
* * *
...and she was in the Magic Box. From the angle of sunlight pouring through the front windows, Willow judged it was lunchtime. The shop owner — a gentleman with a real Brooklyn accent and fake Romanian accent, who had gently talked Willow out of her really bad idea to cast an anti-love spell on herself and Xander — wasn't there. Instead, a woman stood behind the cash register and polished crystals for the display in the glass counter.
"Excuse me, miss?" Willow wasn't too disappointed at the lack of response. She tried to pick up one of the crystals, and confirmed that she couldn't. At the sound of Ms. Calendar's voice, Willow walked right through the shelves of charms and ingredients until she came out in an aisle next to her computer science teacher.
"Call me Jenny," Ms. Calendar had extended her hand to a young woman in a denim jacket.
"Tara," the girl replied, her smile both hesitant and warm as she took the offered hand. Her linen blonde hair was pulled straight back from her forehead, but somehow still fell across her face from the sides when she ducked her head. "It's really nice meet you in an— an ordinary way like this."
"Sometimes it's hard to believe that what happens around Buffy is real, isn't it?" The corners of Ms. Calendar's eyes crinkled with amusement. "You were a tremendous help against the forces of darkness the other night."
"Thank you." Tara blushed and looked at her feet. "Um, if you don't mind me asking, Buffy said, you, we— we're looking for a new adviser for UC-Sunnydale's Wicca circle. I should explain that most of them are not, um, serious?"
"But you are. Buffy told me." Ms. Calendar cocked her head. "Her best friend is getting to be pretty serious, herself."
"I heard." Tara nodded. "B-Buffy said you taught her."
"Magic? Eh, she exaggerates." Ms. Calendar grinned. "I teach computers. When it comes to magic, I'm a user, but Willow's a born hacker." She turned toward the shelf. "They're gouging for these single-spell packets of valerian, but they get away with it because 'all-heal' stinks like a tomcat's alley. The last time I bought in bulk, my husband—"
* * *
"So what does it do?" Buffy asked.
"What?" Willow blinked hard.
"The thing you clicked. Nothing happened."
"Oh, something happened, all right." Willow backed away from her computer. "This time I was in the Magic Box. Do you know a Tara?"
"No." Buffy leapt up and faced the computer with her arms in martial arts defensive positions, as if the CPU might lunge at her. "Can I yank the cord?"
Willow cringed. All the things that can go wrong when you don't properly shut down leapt to her lips. But she nodded anyway.
Like a striking cobra, the Slayer unplugged the Mac. The monitor popped and the fan whined into silence.