Spike’s eyes burned from trying not to blink. Faith was leaning away from the circle of his arms so she could drop her all-powerful seed into Willow’s all-powerful bowl to send herself back in time. The sick churning sensation in his gut of magic and wrongness just kept getting worse, but this time, he’d promised to catch her. Do what he could to distract her from the pain.
The seed was taking forever to fall, and Spike couldn’t help it: he blinked. For the fourth time, he missed the half a heartbeat when her body was vacant before the jolt of re-entry that shuddered through her and into him, leaving his legs weak and wobbly. He kissed her, but it didn’t feel right. Faith didn’t melt into him like this, and she never kissed back like her life depended on it.
It would be just like the dozy witch to bring back the wrong person, abandoning Faith to her body-hopping in the past. Willow’d been vacillating between catastrophising worse than Cassandra and all the signs of a full-blown God complex ever since they’d forced her back into practising magic last year. They were long past due a balls-up of apocalyptic proportions.
Spike shoved the bodysnatcher away and she stumbled back, tripping over the side table and sitting down abruptly on the sofa. “Who the fuck are you?”
“Faith?” Willow asked carefully.
He tensed. Clearly she had her doubts, too.
“Buffy.” It sounded wrong in Faith’s voice, especially minus the venom she usually added when speaking that name. “I’m Buffy.”
Buffy Buffy Buffy Buffy Buffy Buffy Buffy.
Spike didn’t notice he’d fallen until he clocked he was staring up at Faith’s body from the floor. “Not possible,” he breathed, scrambling away from her and crashing into the wall like a complete berk. “She’s been dead twenty-two years….” Four months. No, three months and twenty-eight days. He tried to hold onto every scrap of memory, but they were already slipping. It made him hate himself.
“Surprise?” Faith’s voice – tentative, almost frightened – snapped Spike out of his fit of the guilts. It was so bloody wrong on every level imaginable for either woman to sound like that.
But he could only sense Faith. He couldn’t smell Buffy, couldn’t feel that siren thrum of Buffy-and-slayer whose absence had resounded in his head and his heart ever since she jumped off that tower. He jerked himself back into some semblance of control and said, “Prove you’re Buffy.”
“But Buffy’s the only thing that explains the change,” Willow said, almost gleefully. “The other times Faith went back, nothing really happened. This is the first time I can feel something.”
Spike suddenly thought of the stranger in Buffy’s body he’d run across a couple times in the nineties: kept insisting she was Buffy, but he’d known absolutely it was someone else. He’d reckoned on all those memories being brand new today, created by Faith when she started mucking about in their past. But that stranger hadn’t acted anything like Faith, either. Could it have been Buffy all along?
“I take it I succeeded in not being resurrected,” Buffy-Faith said drily.
Willow gaped at her, horror-stricken. “We – I took you out of heaven?”
It was the answering expression on Faith’s face that finally convinced him. No one could pull off carve-my-own-heart-out-to-make-you-feel-better like Buffy Anne Summers. Spike tucked his nose between his knees and absolutely did not cry.
“You thought I was in a hell dimension.” Faith’s voice echoed in his skull while he tried (and failed) to remember exactly how it should have sounded. “You were saving me.”
Willow kept talking, but all Spike could think was that if he thought for a single second that Buffy was trapped in hell, there was nothing he wouldn’t have done to get her out. “D-did I-?” he asked shakily.
“You knew nothing about it,” Buffy-Faith said quickly.
Spike wasn’t sure whether it hurt or healed him that she knew immediately where his mind was going, and how quick she was to reassure him.
“But you were the only one I told for a long time,” she continued. “And you helped me get through it.”
His head seemed to nod itself, relief coursing through him. For all that it was his fault she’d had to jump off the tower in the first place, at least he hadn’t buggered up her afterlife too.
Buffy-Faith seemed suddenly very interested in the living room. “So whose place is this?”
“Theirs,” Willow said. “Faith and Spike’s.”
Spike instantly felt ashamed. This wasn’t a home like Buffy was used to. He and Faith never stayed anywhere more than a few months – both transient at heart – and they travelled light. He had a sudden, visceral memory of Joyce’s carefully curated living room, from the very first time he stepped inside their house in Sunnydale. He remembered being surprised by the touches of taste in such a horrifically suburban setting.
“It’s … nice,” Buffy-Faith said, nowhere near as tactfully as she thought she had. It made Spike feel both heartsick and relieved. Like he was the one in the wrong body.
“So you’re together?” she continued, just as un-tactfully.
Spike twitched. Another so purely Buffy expression on Faith’s face did odd things to his stomach. “‘S complicated.” It wasn’t. The sex and companionship he had with Faith was by far the simplest part of his life. But he couldn’t imagine Buffy approving, or even understanding.
“You died,” Buffy-Faith said softly. “Six years ago.”
Their eyes met. “Yeah?”
She nodded. “Hero’s death. Champion, even.” Her voice wavered at the word ‘champion’.
He laughed, convinced she was making up stories. “‘M no hero, Buffy.” Saying her name again set his mouth on fire, burning his lips and tongue.
“I know you are.” She paused, expression unreadable. “But you don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to.”
“Were we friends?” he asked cautiously. He couldn’t imagine any other reason for her to be so solicitous. The Buffy he’d known wouldn’t have bothered. Not for him.
Buffy-Faith laughed, a surreal mishmash of both women. “We were never friends.”
“‘Course not,” he snapped, angry with himself for daring to hope. “What can I have been thinkin’?”
He caught the faintest suspicion of hurt on her face. Then she whispered, “You were my everything.”
Never, not even in his wildest fantasies, had Spike imagined hearing that. He’d spent a quarter century believing the best he’d ever get was ‘trusted ally’. On a really good day. His entire universe quietly imploded, realigning itself along a different axis.
Willow cleared her throat ostentatiously; Spike had completely forgotten she was there.
“Um, not to interrupt old home week or anything, but we still need to fix the past.”
Buffy-Faith nodded, turning away from him and towards Willow. Spike kidded himself it was reluctant.
“Right. I had two priorities. Make sure no one resurrected me in 2001.” There was a slightly awkward pause, which he assumed was for Willow’s benefit. “And stop all the potentials from being activated a year and a half later.”
Willow was talking again, probably about something important, but Spike was transfixed by Buffy-Faith’s frown of concentration, at complete odds with the lines around Faith’s mouth and smooth forehead. It really was Buffy in there.
“So how’d you guys end the apocalypse of 2003, then?”
Spike snapped back into the conversation, glaring Willow into silence. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Hardly the issue at hand, is it?” If Buffy cared at all, she definitely wouldn’t want to hear that story.
Buffy-Faith sighed. “I take it me staying dead creates more problems than it solves?”
“Old Ones’re comin’ back,” he replied, exhausted by the telling of it. “Closed Hellmouths springin’ back to life, new ones popping up. It’s all we can do to keep up with them.”
Spike zoned out of the conversation again, hungrily watching for more signs of Buffy. There was definitely something about the set of her shoulders. Faith always looked ready for a fight; Buffy didn’t. Faith fidgeted. Constantly. Buffy held herself almost vampire-still.
“I don’t want to leave heaven if I can help it,” Buffy-Faith said. She sounded shaky and unlike herself. It made him want to do something – anything – to fix it, take that look off her face. But he had no idea what to do.
“We sent Faith back to stop you from jumping,” Willow said quickly.
Spike blinked. That had never been the plan, so far as he knew. Everyone agreed Buffy’s death was a fixed point, unchangeable.
“I don’t think a resurrection is an option anymore,” Willow continued, resolutely avoiding eye contact with Spike. “The me I was, back then I mean, I would’ve checked where you were first.”
Buffy-Faith sank back against the sofa. “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.”
Spike could practically see the penny dropping. “Was Faith supposed to stop me from dying, or stop me from dying instead of Dawn?”
Willow shrugged, a combination of guilty and brazen that made Spike wish he could take all Buffy’s hurt out on her. They’d brought Dawn kicking and screaming through to adulthood together, goddamnit. How dare she shrug like that. “Either one would do the job,” he grunted.
Buffy-Faith turned her rage and betrayal on Spike. Because of course she did; two decades and a completely different bloody dimension were hardly going to change that. Eyes narrowed, entire body tensed and ready to fight – no, ready to kill: “You promised to protect her.”
He wanted to drop to his knees and beg for forgiveness. Instead, he said, “It’s the end of the world. An’ it wasn’t my decision.”
“Dawnie said to do it?” Her knuckles were white where she gripped the chair.
Spike nodded. “Insisted.”
“How is she?” The pure want in Buffy-Faith’s voice made him wonder if her version of Dawn was gone.
“Good.” He said it quickly, trying to be reassuring. Even though it was all bollocks. If – no, when – Faith succeeded in changing the past, Dawn was going to disappear from this reality and everyone but Faith would forget she’d ever survived Glory’s tower.
Suddenly, he had an idea. Time-travelling Buffy would remember today, no matter what Faith did. She could remember Dawn and her girls for the both of them – because whatever front she thought she was putting on right now, he knew this was killing Willow just as much as it was him.
“Hang on a tic,” Spike said, almost giddy. He pushed himself to his feet and went into the bedroom, where his phone lay next to his wallet and keys on the dresser. He picked it up and navigated straight to the photos of Anouk and Michelle.
As he walked back down the hallway, he heard Willow saying, “We’re just a … a temporary branch you created on one of your trips to the past.” He paused to close his eyes and breathe. He tried not to take the bouts of doom-and-gloom too seriously, but it knackered him all the same.
“Take it that means Faith’s gone for good,” Spike said evenly. As he stepped through the doorway, Willow started scratching herself again. As ever, completely unaware she was doing it.
“I don’t know,” Willow said, a little of her old excitement about magical discovery leaking through the edges of what passed for resolve face these days. “If we’re just a temporal blip, this entire dimension will cease to exist – no more any of us.” She turned back towards Buffy-Faith. “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.”
That pout was all Buffy; Spike’s chest ached at the sight of it.
“Time travel makes my head hurt.”
“Not really your problem,” Willow said brightly, with a gleam Spike had learned to mistrust. “No matter what happens, you’ll never see us again.”
Spike pointedly turned his back on Willow and dropped his phone into Buffy-Faith’s lap. He could smell her tears from the first picture, although he never saw any fall. He’d intended to tell her more about all the people she was looking at, but watching her flick through everyone and everything he was about to lose, he could never find the words quick enough.
“I’m sorry I’m not Faith,” Buffy-Faith said, halfway through.
Spike stifled a giggle at the surreality of it all. He and Faith had said their goodbyes before her first jump. All his panic was reserved for who he’d be after losing Buffy and Dawn in 2001, if he’d still exist at all. He wasn’t sure he could survive it today, let alone back when he was barely more than a hanger-on in their old band of buggered.
He pulled on his old and comfortable armour of disdain. “Let’s get you gone. Save the world and all that rot.”
Buffy-Faith reached the end of the album, then went back to the shot of Dawn breastfeeding and making goofy faces at Faith. Stroking the screen one last time, she returned the phone. “Thank you. You don’t know what this means to me.”
“Died, did she?” he asked, wanting to be sure.
Buffy-Faith nodded. “She saved a lot of people, though.”
“That’s my girl.” Spike grinned through the pain. Because of course she had. Selfless bitches, that whole bloody family.
“She didn’t have much of a life for a long time before that. Seeing her so happy….”
Spike wanted to shag her. Quick and dirty up against the wall, if he was completely honest. It’d knock at least one major regret off his list, even if it was in the wrong body.
Alongside that though, he wanted to offer Buffy comfort. He just didn’t know how. She’d never let him before, not truly. Was a hand on the shoulder alright? She’d seemed to appreciate that once. He expected there to be some kind of explosion of love or power or something when his fingertips skimmed her skin in a barely-there squeeze. But it was just Faith’s shoulder under his hand, same as it always was. He slipped his phone into his pocket and fled back to the other side of the room
“Got any advice?” Buffy-Faith asked Willow, trying surreptitiously to wipe her eyes.
“Staying alive would be good,” she replied. “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.”
That answered that question – it had been time-travelling Buffy he’d met those times.
“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 to stop himself from grabbing onto her and begging her not to leave. The Buffy he loved would never agree to stay, and it could only hurt her to have to refuse. “Need to fix your death wish. Give yourself reasons to live.”
Buffy-Faith smiled wryly. “I don’t think anything good happened that year.”
“Can be depressed without wantin’ to die,” Spike said sharply, willing it to be true for himself as much as for her. Maybe more.
“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.”
“Or not,” Spike growled, fists clenching with barely-contained violence.
Willow threw him a pitying glance; she knew him far too well.
Buffy-Faith pulled a seed from her pocket. She got up off the sofa, and walked towards the bowl.
Willow’s voice hissed in Spike’s mind: Say something before it’s too late!
Before Spike could do anything better than croak awkwardly, Buffy-Faith was dropping her seed in the bowl. His eyes locked onto hers as it fell, unable to blink even if he’d wanted to.
A half-heartbeat later, Faith fell to her knees, roaring, “You fucker, you promised you’d catch me!”
“Hooo!” Willow breathed, sagging against the wall. “And we’re still here.”
“Not for long,” Faith said, voice hoarse with pain. “I know how to fix the past.”
When Spike finally rubbed at his burning eyes, his hand came away wet.