Chapter 10: Flash Forward
May, 2003 / November, 2000
Willow and the witches who flanked her slowly lowered their hands, dropping the ring of white light surrounding Buffy and Spike back into the circle of sand on the floor.
Dawn jumped to her feet. “Buffy? Did you do it? Are you--? Willow, why aren't they moving?”
“They're still traveling, child.” Althenea put a gentle hand on Dawn's shoulder. “Give them time.”
Xander frowned at the perfectly still pair in the circle. “I thought you said they'd be caught up immediately, Wils.”
“I said 'almost immediately.'”
“And how many minutes of freaky statues staring at each other are in an 'almost,' exactly?”
The witch at Willow's right, Bryn, started to answer Xander's question, but was cut off by a flash of light. The earth shook beneath them. The walls began crumbling away with a roar. “Don't panic, everyone. Stay just where you are!” she called over the noise.
“It's only an image,” the other witch, Elsa, shouted from Willow's left. “It isn't real!”
There was another flash, and the earthquake was over. An image of Buffy appeared in the suddenly restored room. She was kneeling on the floor, clutching a familiar leather coat, sobbing.
“Oh dear lord,” Giles said from behind the witches. “Is this what I think it is?”
After another flash, Dawn saw herself walking in the front door with a book bag over her shoulder. She called toward the kitchen. “Hey! Guess who aced her algebra final?”
Faith's voice came from the kitchen. “Way to go, kid! But what are you doing home so early?”
“We're on half days for finals week. Where's Spike?”
Faith came down the hall, into the line of sight of their audience. “In his room with the door locked. Probably already smashed. The anniversary is coming up.”
“Oh.” Dawn dropped her bag. “Wait. This is the twentieth, right? This is a different anniversary. Call a Scooby meeting for tonight. Spike has to talk to everyone.”
“He doesn't feel like talking. And I'm not gonna ask him to, not in the mood he's in.”
“He has to hold a Scooby meeting tonight, Faith. Buffy told him to.”
“Dawn, Buffy's been gone for two years.”
“Trust me on this.”
There was another flash, and Dawn came in the front door again. This time she dropped her bag so that she could pick up the toddler who stood at the bottom of the stairs, trying to figure out the baby gate. “Hey, you! Are you trying to get into trouble again? You're just like your dad, you know that?” She called out to the house at large. “Anybody around here missing a kid?”
Spike came from the kitchen and took the child from her arms. “I turned away for ten seconds...”
“Never turn your back on toddlers or vampires. Nothing good can come of it.”
“You think you're cute, don't you?”
“How'd she rope you into babysitting again? After the last time...”
“Threatened to kick Andrew out and give him our house key. Crazy bint plays hard ball.”
“You know she wouldn't do that.” Dawn took the child's tiny hand in hers. “But I think you secretly like babysitting... I bet you would have been one of those super hands-on dads if you hadn't met Dru.”
“Nah.” Spike led her into the living room, and placed the toddler in a playpen. The child whimpered. “It's just for a minute, mate, 'til I get your lunch ready.” He turned back to Dawn. “Wasn't how things were done then. Might have been more involved than the average, but standards were different.”
Dawn leaned over the side of the playpen to tousle the child's hair as Spike headed back toward the kitchen. “You'd have made a great dad, either way.”
“Nice try, Bit, but you're still grounded!” Spike called over his shoulder.
She called back, “You can't blame me for trying!”
The real Dawn finally managed to close her jaw. “What is this? And whose kid is that?”
“They've started changing history, child,” Althenea whispered. “What we're watching is today, or what today might be, depending on the changes they make... or don't make.”
Willow was still watching the image of Dawn leaning over the side of the playpen, playing with the toddler. “I'd know those brown eyes anywhere, Xan.”
Xander stepped closer to the image of the playpen and peered inside. “Really?”
There was another white flash. The room was suddenly dark and musty. The windows were boarded over, dust covers shrouded the furniture, and the only sign of life was a mouse scampering across the floor to a gap in the baseboard beside the sofa.
Giles gulped. “I get the distinct impression only one of them will make it back to this day, at most. We have yet to see any scenario in which they are both present. So far, most have hinted it was Buffy...”
Willow held up crossed fingers, her eyes locked on the pair in the circle. “They aren't finished yet. I'm not giving up hope.”
There came another brilliant white flash, and an image of Dawn came in the front door once again. She dropped her backpack and hurried into the living room. “Sorry I'm late. Janice and I were talking. Where's the banner going to go?”
The woman draping streamers from the fireplace mantle turned around. “Right there on the coffee table if I can't find the step ladder,” she answered with a crooked smile.
“Tara,” Willow breathed.
“I think it's still on the back porch. The porch light burned out a couple of nights ago. They argued about who left it on all day, and I ended up changing the bulb myself. But it still begs the question...”
Tara laughed. “How many superheroes does it take to change a light bulb?”
“Yep. And the answer is 'None. Leave the human stuff to the humans.'” Dawn pulled her phone out of her pocket. “This little soiree needs grub. Pepperoni ok?”
“I don't know, Dawnie. I think we can do a little better than pizza.”
“The people at the Thai restaurant on State street know their order by heart. We could order from there, feed their addiction.”
“Hmm... Thai food isn't a bad idea. But you'd better order now. We're already behind schedule.”
Dawn looked for the restaurant's number on her contacts list. “There it is! I had it listed under 'Doghouse Escape.'”
Tara laughed. “Spike told me you try to bribe them with food when you're in trouble, but I didn't believe him. I should have known better.”
“Hey, you try living with those two and their 'if you want to get into a good college' nagging without a back up plan. ...I learned from the best.”
“Always have a Plan B?”
“It seems to be a good idea.” Dawn shrugged as her call was answered. “Delivery order for 1630 Revello Drive, please... No, this is Dawn. But I am placing an order for her. Yes, him, too. Their usual will be fine. And could you set us up with a variety of your less spicy dishes, besides? I need to feed a total of 12 people... His card will be fine. Ok. Thanks!”
“Did you just charge dinner to the guests of honor?”
“It's ok, I do it all the time. They know he's good for it.”
Tara smothered another laugh. “Do you think that might be why the food bribery doesn't work?”
Willow wiped her eyes as another flash came. When she looked up, the room was filled with images of many of the Potentials they'd sent to the backyard prior to the spell, all of them bruised and dirty, half of them tending to the more severe injuries of the other half.
Xander met Giles near the living room doorway. “Spike's still not talking,” he reported. “I'm not sure he can. He's in really bad shape, Giles. Burns, broken bones ...and I think he's in shock.”
“He should be in an urn!” Giles hissed. “I told her for years not to trust him, but she insisted. And what did he do? He left her down there.”
Xander rubbed his temple under the strap of his eye patch. “I'm not so sure that's what happened. Give him some time. He'll tell us how she died when he's ready.”
Giles frowned. “Since when do you offer the benefit of the doubt to Spike?”
“Since I brought him home, and saw the look on his face. He looks a lot like how I feel right now.” Xander headed for the front door.
“Where are you going?”
“To break into Willy's bar. I'm sure he left some stuff behind.”
The door slammed, and Giles was alone in the hall, watching his charges bind each other's wounds.
Xander looked around. “Wils, I don't think I like this version. Can we flash back to the last one? That seemed pretty happy.”
“I'm not driving, Xan.” Willow gestured to the stationary pair in the circle. “They are. They're building us a new timeline. But I don't understand why we're seeing so many variations.” She looked at Bryn. “Shouldn't they all be similar? Different versions of the path they're on?”
Bryn shook her head.“I can't be certain, but I suspect too much is in flux for there to be a defined path at this point. I'm sure a pattern will emerge soon.”
“They're changing too much, too fast,” Elsa murmured. “I hope they understand the repercussions of such recklessness.”
“I tried to stress the importance of maintaining most of their history, but I suspect they did not feel obligated to heed my advice.” Giles looked across the room at the image of himself. “Willow, this particular scene looks like ill results from...”
“Plan A. I know. It's as if they relived three years and the only thing they changed was not going back in time in the first place.”
“No-impact variations,” Althenea murmured. “Some of the variations we're seeing could easily be from unaltered or nearly unaltered timelines, versions wherein the time travel had little to no impact.”
Xander turned to her. “I think I speak for most of us when I say, 'Huh?'”
“Me,” Dawn whispered. “It could happen because of me. If they lost their memories when the monks created me... All of this was for nothing.”
Althenea's wrinkled hand squeezed her shoulder again. “Any number of events could occur to cost them their foreknowledge, child. And we don't know that has happened. We know only that it's a possibility, one we already knew could be.”
There was another flash. Xander looked around, taking in the changes. “Uh, guys? Should we be seeing this?” He gestured to the images of Buffy and Spike, standing almost exactly where their real counterparts stood, kissing. A knock on the front door drew their attention, and they broke apart.
“Come in, Red!” Spike called as he moved to the bar that stood in the place of Joyce's old desk.
An image of Willow walked in, waving an envelope. “Is it silly that I'm excited about this? I'm dying to know what's in here.”
Buffy laughed. “Are you telling me I gave you two years to cheat and you didn't do it? Really?”
Willow shook her head. “No way was I peeking at this. First, you made it sound super important. Second, I like having a surprise to look forward to... This is a good surprise, right? It doesn't say the world is going to end tomorrow, does it?”
Spike and Buffy exchanged a look, and both burst into laughter.
Willow looked back and forth between them. “What? What's so funny?”
Buffy wiped her eyes. “It says,” she gasped. “It says it almost did.”
Spike turned back to his drink mixing. “Just read the letter. Then we'll talk.”
Willow began to tear open the envelope just as another flash emptied the room. The furniture changed. Photos of strangers decorated the mantle.
“The letters,” Willow said. “If they lose their foreknowledge, they still have the letters.”
“If Spike still has his coat,” Giles said. “We've only seen it in one variation thus far. And in that one, I suspect...”
“Spike didn't make it.” Dawn looked across the room at the watcher. “You know that's why she was crying. And you know it's a real possibility. She could lose him along the way.”
“It would destroy her resolve, I fear,” Bryn whispered.
“I don't think it would be that bad,” Xander said. “Sure it would mess up her plans, and rock her back on her heels for a while, but she'd handle it ok.”
Dawn followed Bryn's gaze to Buffy' still face, to the eyes that looked into Spike's with such confidence. “No,” she whispered through another flash. “I don't think she would.”
Willow frowned. Everyone in the room had an image of themselves standing in nearly the same spots, staring at the pair in the circle of sand. The image of Dawn said, “Willow, why aren't they moving?”
Giles shook his head. “I should have known. There's a possibility they'll repeat the same mistakes and have to go back again. We're seeing the second attempt at the spell.”
“Whoa, that's some seriously bad Groundhog Day,” Xander said. “Can you imagine living the same three years over three times in a row? Or more?”
Willow crossed her fingers again. “Please don't let us stop on this one,” she whispered. “We could be stuck here watching two or more layers of time shift echoes for hours.”
“Hours!” Dawn squeaked. “That's not anywhere close to 'almost immediately,' Willow.”
Willow blushed. “It could only be another few minutes. Like I told Buffy, this isn't an exact science.”
“Given what we've seen so far, with the vast differences in possibilities, I daresay 'hours' is a more accurate guess.” Giles ran a hand through his hair. “At some point, the images must narrow down to fewer -or at least less wild- variations.”
“And soon after that, we won't remember any of this... I think.”
Dawn and Xander exchanged worried looks. “You think?”
There was another flash, and an image of Dawn was again leaning over a playpen, tousling the hair of a chubby, brown-eyed toddler, with Spike standing beside her.
Spike turned away from the playpen to stare at the fireplace, remembering something.“You know what today is, don't you, Bit?”
“The day you can safely tell Willow what she did.”
“Wasn't supposed to tell that story alone.”
“You aren't alone. Tara is going to stand in.”
“Glinda wasn't supposed to be the one that made it this long.”
“The world isn't ending, Spike. That was the mission. And you got it done. That's what she wanted.” Dawn turned to their unseen audience and said again, “Tara is going to stand in. Let her.”
“It's not supposed to be this way,” Spike whispered in the same direction.
Buffy woke from her dream with a gasp. She rolled away from Spike carefully, trying not to wake him.
She failed. He watched her dress through half-open eyes. “This is familiar,” he grumbled.
“Don't be an ass, Spike. If you're going to stay awake, come upstairs for breakfast.”
“That's new. Not the morning after pillow talk, that's as charming as ever. But breakfast with you after? Could get used to that.”
She shrugged. “I'm starving, and we need to talk.”
“Should've known it was too good to be true.” Spike watched her climb the stairs with a feeling of dread. “You've done it now, William,” he muttered to himself. “Got all poncy and sweet, and now she's over it. Bloody brilliant.”
When he finally forced himself to follow her to the kitchen, the coffeemaker was gurgling, and Buffy was presiding over the griddle. “Do you want some pancakes?” she asked without looking up.
“Yeah, sure.” Spike pulled a container of pig's blood from the refrigerator and emptied it into a mug. While the mug was in the microwave, he leaned back against the counter, crossing his arms over his chest. “This the part where you tell me you want me to pack up and bugger off at sunset?”
“What? No. Of course not.”
“Then what's with the Ice Queen Slayer flashback?”
“It's just... how I woke up. The first batch is almost ready. Grab a plate.”
Spike clenched his jaw as he handed her a plate. “Woke up and realized exactly how the general is rewriting her history, eh? Tangled up in the sheets with the cellar dweller again.”
“I took the stairs to the basement this time. I think that counts as progress.”
The words were flippant, but the tone was cool and distant. He placed a second plate on the counter and backed away from her. “If you've got something to say about last night, Buffy, spit it out and be done with it. No games. Not this time.”
“I don't... Maybe I do.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Last night was... different. New. It felt like... like starting over.”
“Yeah, a bit like a first time for us. A second first time, but I'll take it.” He shrugged. “There not gonna be a second second time?”
“Don't get too attached, William. I could be dead in six months.”
“A bit late with the warning,” Spike scoffed. “Should've dropped me that memo a few years back.” He came up behind her and rested his hands on her shoulders. “I'm not gonna let you jump. Last night sure as hell doesn't change that.”
“That's just it. Something has changed. And I'm sure it's something that just happened. I woke up this morning from a slayer dream- a time traveling slayer dream. Something has changed.”
“Doubt the wheel of time spins 'round our bed, love.”
“We changed two things last night, Sparky. The other was the Scoobies seeing us on a date.”
“You certain the rugrat belonged to Harris? I thought Anya was smarter than that.”
Buffy drained her coffee cup. “I can't promise Anya was the mother, but I would know those eyes anywhere.”
“Figures it would be the eyes. Poor bloke.”
They were silent for a few minutes, as Spike absorbed the details of the dream she had related to him. “If I told you it's not supposed to happen that way, I'd guess that means you're supposed to be there. So why would Nibblet tell you to let Glinda cover for you when I told them about the traveling?”
“That's what I don't get. Mixed messages, much?”
“Better question is why you had that dream when you did, love. This the first since we came back?”
She nodded. “And I'm seriously wigged about it. The timing makes me think we've just blown it, that we're about to lose our Scooby support -except Tara- and be on our own. You know it will take more than just the three of us to bring down Glory and her minions, even if I jump.”
“If I'm gonna cost you your mates, pet, why would the Bit and me expect Red to pop by for a chat? And Harris' kid in my care? And Dawn herself, besides?”
Buffy pushed aside her empty plate to drop her head on the counter. “I don't know!” she whined. “I'm all time loopy and confused. I hate slayer dreams. They only make sense in retrospect.”
“Retrospection, we have. In spades. Don't have a hell of a lot else.”
“Then why doesn't the dream fit with what we know? Or the changes we've made so far?”
Spike began gathering the dishes from the counter and putting them in the sink. He was elbow deep in sudsy water before he spoke again. “That makes sense,” he murmured to himself.
“I'm glad something does.” Buffy looked up. “Share, please?”
“You think you got the dream now because we've finally changed something that counts, yeah? If we're on a new path, that dream could be a guide for how to walk it.”
She wrinkled her nose in thought. “...Oh. I get it. Because hindsight can't help us with the things that are different.” She stared off into space for a minute, processing that idea. “So what happened last night that was so momentous, if it wasn't alienating the Scoobies?”
“Thanks, Slayer. My ego needed a fresh dent or two.”
“I thought the wheel of time didn't spin around our bed?”
Spike shrugged. “It may not, but I'd accept it as a possibility.”
“We have to be missing something else, something important.” She caught the dishtowel in mid-air and threw it back, laughing. “I'm messing with you. Sort of. You know I'm right.”
“I hate that look on your face, honey. Please don't worry. I'll be fine. The doctors just need to know a little more. When they figure it out, they'll fix it. This will all be forgotten by Christmas, I'm sure.”
Buffy's lip quivered slightly. “And what if it's, you know... Not something they can fix? Or they try, and it doesn't stop you from...”
“Oh, honey. You worry too much.” Joyce's arm went around her daughter's shoulders. “The only thing you two need to worry about is how you're going to talk Dawn into going to school tomorrow.”
Spike leaned back in his chair. “Best give up that dream, Joyce. Lost cause from the start.”
“I know. Maybe it's for the best, since you can't travel during the day.” Her gaze drifted back to Buffy.
“I'm a grown up, Mom. I can handle my hospital phobia. I don't need anyone to babysit me. If Dawnie's not going to go to school, she can stay here with Spike.”
“Take her with you, love. She'll insist, anyway.” Spike stood up. “Gonna put the kettle on. Joyce?”
“Nothing for me, thanks. I need to get to bed.”
“Slayer?” Spike nodded toward the back of the house. “With cocoa?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Spike stepped close to the sofa to give Joyce a peck on the top of her head. “G'night, Joyce. Best of luck with the doctors.”
She smiled up at him. “Thank you, Spike. Goodnight.” She watched him leave the living room before turning to her daughter. “What with cocoa?”
“A talk. He, um, can tell when I feel like talking. We'll be on the back porch for a while.”
“That's sweet. And last night's date went well?”
“Yes, very.” Buffy chuckled nervously, and tried to hide her blush. “This is awkward.”
“You're certain I can't get any untimely grandchildren out of a 'very well,' right?”
The chuckle returned. “Certain. No grandchildren, timely or otherwise. And again with the awkward.”
“But you're happy, right? You plan to keep seeing him?”
“Yes. Yes. What's with the prodding?”
Joyce bit her lip. “You know Spike is in love with you, don't you?”
“Yeah... but you do?” Buffy's eyes widened. “Exactly how much do you two talk when I'm not around?”
“Enough for me to call him a friend, so I want to keep tabs on things from both sides. But you don't tell me much. You never even told me why you broke up with Riley, though I have a good guess.”
“Riley... Riley and I weren't nearly as good a match as I once thought. He's a great guy, but...”
“He's not Spike.”
“I didn't say that.” Buffy looked away. “Riley never really got me. You know, like how my brain works? He was very thoughtful, but it was intentional thoughtfulness. I know he meant it genuinely, but it was never... intuitive.”
“Like planning to meet you on the back porch for a talk without being told you need it?”
“Exactly. I know it's not a fair comparison.” Buffy smirked. “Spike's been studying slayers for a century, and me for years. He knows me better than I do. Some days, I feel like I'm still trying to catch up, trying to get to know him as well as he knows me. Some days, I think I'm already there, interpreting his silences as easily as his words.”
“I wonder if there's too much silence,” Joyce mused. “There seems to be a lot you don't say to each other. If you care about each other the way you seem to, I think you should talk about it.”
“He'd like nothing better. But there's all this baggage. You know, ex stuff, former sworn enemies stuff.”
“Everyone has baggage, Buffy. You kick it into a ditch or you carry it together. There aren't any other options -none that actually work, at any rate. And it sounds like none of the baggage you're worried about has any bearing on the here and now. The question is, how do you feel about Spike today, not when you were enemies, or were with other people, or whatever.”
“Think in present tense,” Buffy murmured, her thoughts racing.
“Trust me, honey. It's the only way forward.” Joyce patted Buffy's knee. “You'll talk to him, then?”
Buffy's brow furrowed. “I'm having trouble figuring out if I'm talking to Spike's friend or my mother.”
“Both. Does that give me extra pushy privileges?”
“Not really, but whatever makes you feel better,” Buffy grumbled playfully.
Joyce was laughing when she stood up. “Go on outside before your cocoa gets cold. G'night, honey.”
Buffy stood and gave her mother a hug. “G'night. And thanks for the girl talk. I think I needed it.”
“We'll talk about that problem after the doctors are finished poking at me.” Joyce gave Buffy a significant look as she headed for the stairs. “Don't stay up too late. We have to be at the hospital early.”
They sat on the top step in silence, staring out into the backyard. Spike's arm was around Buffy's shoulders, and she was leaning comfortably against him. Their empty mugs sat on the porch rail, forgotten for the moment. “It feels like a hangover,” she whispered. “Like a bad night of drinking came back to haunt me twice over. And this is just the beginning of it.”
“Seemed to be having a good chat while I was in the kitchen. Tried not to listen.”
“I know. I heard you humming. That 'good chat' came with some seriously awkward poking and prodding... She wanted to talk about us.”
“My thoughts exactly. And I mean that literally. I've officially been around you too long. My internal monologue cusses in British.”
“You're welcome.” Spike smirked and kissed the top of her head.
“She gave me some relationship advice, but I think it applies better to something else. The reason the dream doesn't make sense is that we're putting it in the wrong tense, the wrong timeline.”
“Back up, love. I'm not on this train with you.”
She pulled away so she could turn to face him. “Ok, so we keep thinking the thing about Tara standing in is about 2003, because that's the setting of the dream. But I had the dream in 2000. Maybe this is when it's applicable. It's not a 2003 Scooby meeting I need to let her stand in for. It's something much sooner. We're mentally stuck in our own time, and it's messing with our perspective.”
“Right. I can follow that. And it's sound enough. But how is your mum giving you advice about time travel dreams? You didn't...”
“Of course not. But honestly? I think I'd be ok with her knowing. She was actually giving me a speech on not looking at past baggage with you, with us. That's just what I got from it. Also, I hadn't realized how much she was an interested third party.” Buffy glared. “My mother, Spike? You couldn't have those conversations with anyone else on the entire planet?”
Spike shrugged. “She sees what's happening in her own house, love. Reads people pretty well, besides. Never had to tell her much.”
“You had to have told her something. She knows way too much.”
“Again, we're living in her house. She sees us together more than anyone else, save Nibblet, who likely thinks the same things, doubtful with much nuance, of course.”
Buffy slapped her hands on her knees. “That's it! I'm moving out.”
“Yeah?” he laughed. “Where you gonna go? Move in with Rupert? Take over my crypt?”
“Hmm... Talk about shortening the commute to work...”
“Add that to the list of reasons you and the Farm Boy shouldn't have blown it up.”