Chapter Notes:

There's more than one offer on the proverbial table. Any takers?


Chapter 14: Eternal Monkey

December, 2000

Giles looked up at the sound of the bell over the door. “Buffy.” He tried to keep his tone cool and detached. “What can I get for you?”

Buffy glanced at Anya, who was talking to a customer. “Can we talk in your office for a minute?” She followed him into the cluttered room, and closed the door behind them. “First of all, Mom says thanks for the flowers.”

“How is she?”

“Good. Really good. Every test they've run for the last three days has come up with 'best case scenario' results. I want to buy that surgeon a car, but I figure Mom and the insurance company are going to do that, anyway.” She shrugged. “They're releasing her tomorrow.”

“I'm happy to hear it.” He leaned against his desk, his arms crossed. “And the real reason you're here?”

“I've reached out to the Devon coven, trying to get ahead of Willow's dark magic use. You know, stop it before it starts. Althenea Grace is coming to talk to us about our options. She'll be at my place in about an hour. She's asked for you to be present, and I promised to extend an invitation.”

“Well, I do have a history with the coven.”

“And you haven't only been my watcher. You've been Willow's too, in a sense. Your input might be useful to them.”

“You know far more than I do. ...But it would be nice to see Althenea. Yes, I'll join you.”

“Thank you.” Buffy turned to open the door, but Giles' voice stopped her.

“Althenea is a seer, Buffy. She doesn't advertise it to outsiders, but she has the gift. She's also a master aura reader. The combination of the two means very little escapes her notice. She'll already know who you really are, and possibly some of your personal history you brought back with you. ”

Buffy bit her lip, thinking of the other guest. “Thanks for the warning, but you're probably the one who needs it. Brace yourself, Giles. She might tell you some stories you haven't heard yet.”

*~*~*

The living room furniture was pushed back to make room for the arrival of teleporting witches. When they flashed into the room, Spike shoved the chairs back into a vaguely conversational arrangement near the sofa while Buffy poured glasses of water from the pitcher she'd put on the desk. When she looked up at their guests to offer the first glass, she nearly dropped it. “Spike? Are you seeing this?”

“Yeah.” He turned to the elder witch. “Althenea, right? You wanna introduce us to your friends?”

The old witch smiled to her coven mates and gestured to their hosts. “Meet the anomalies: Buffy, the slayer who fell out of the lineage, and William, the vampire who sought his soul. Buffy and William, I believe you've already met Bryn and Elsa.”

The handshakes offered to the two younger witches were stiff with shock. Althenea laughed as she hugged a greeting to Giles. “I do enjoy giving the warrior types an occasional reminder of where the real power lives.”

“While I agree seeing them stunned is entertaining, I don't believe I understand.”

“In their timeline, Bryn and Elsa helped your Miss Rosenberg send them back in time. In fact, if their timeline has not yet crumbled, Bryn, Elsa, and myself are with their bodies in this room, right now, in 2003, waiting for them to either catch up or destroy that possible path.”

“Oh, goody. Paradoxes. This is going to get fun.” Buffy grumbled.

Someone came in the back door and called from the kitchen. “Buffy? Spike? Am I late?”

Althenea clapped her hands together. “Finally! The one I've been dying to meet!”

“In here, Glinda. You're just in time.” Spike looked at Althenea's excited face. “For what, I'm not sure.”

Tara entered the living room to find herself face to face with a short, smiling old woman, who was scrutinizing her closely. “Um, hi?”

“It's beautiful work,” Althenea murmured, studying Tara's aura. “If I didn't know better, I'd say she was the original.”

The three time travelers traded glances, then looked to Giles, who could only repeat, “The original?”

“No merging markers, no distortion of the aura, no evidence of the Beast's mind alteration scarring.” Althenea shook out of her reverie. “But you remember everything, don't you, child?”

As Tara nodded, Giles sputtered. “Distortion? The Beast? Remember what?”

“Being dead, Giles,” Buffy whispered. “I'm not the only resurrection case in town.”

*~*~*

“I don't understand. Why would you reveal Buffy and Spike to me, but not yourself?”

“I didn't know I'd been sent back until after that,” Tara explained. “My future memories were blocked.”

Buffy slapped Spike's knee. “I told you that was the right term!”

Giles turned to her as if just remembering she was in the room. “And how long have you known?”

“Oh, we were there when she got her memories back. Our PTB handler stopped by to nag us, and stayed to give us our Tara back. So far, it's the only time he's been genuinely useful.”

Bryn frowned. “Your PTB handler? As in, an agent of the Powers?”

“Yeah. A half-demon, half-human guy named Whistler. I met him years ago, but I didn't see him again until we came back. And now he won't go away.”

“What's it been, love? Four visits now?” Spike asked. Buffy nodded. “Bloke seems pretty interested in what we're up to. Guess his bosses are convinced we're gonna bugger it up.”

“That's not how it works,” Elsa said quietly. “Our coven has a long history, with excellent records. We have detailed accounts of some of the work agents of the Powers have done on this plane. It's common for them to put in an appearance -sometimes two- to ensure a job is properly done. They'll give a nudge in the right direction and disappear. But four visits in as many months? That's far less common.”

Buffy threw up her hands. “So we're record-breaking screw ups. Fabulous.”

“There's no need to come down hard on yourself, child. More likely, this agent's assignment is you, not your work.” Althenea smiled kindly. “It's a compliment from the Powers, for them to take an interest. They must have plans for you. Don't be surprised if you still see this Whistler gent after you've completed your mission.”

“Assuming I live that long,” Buffy grumbled. “'Cause if I have to die this time, it's a one way ticket.”

Spike took her hand. He pretended not to notice Giles' raised eyebrows at the openness of the gesture.

Buffy continued, “Which is why you ladies are here. If we can shove some magical ethics into Willow's brain, maybe she'll be less likely to bring me back if I don't make it.”

“How much of the time travel has been revealed to Miss Rosenberg?” Bryn asked.

“We've kept her completely in the dark,” Tara said guiltily. “But she's suspicious. ...She's already tried accessing Spike's soul, but gave up before she figured out why she couldn't find it. At least for now. It's the end of the semester, so she's got too much studying to do to spend a lot of time on wild goose chases.”

“She's definitely interested in wild geese, though. She'll probably get back to it after finals.” Buffy bit her lip. “Not to mention she's definitely noticed how different I am.”

“And assumed the slayer and me stopped fighting because I had her enthralled.”

Tara gave Spike a crooked smile. “You two stopped fighting? Since when?”

He shrugged. “Comparatively less, then.”

“In short,” Althenea looked at the three time travelers, “It's likely she'll expose at least one of you at some point in the near future. Yes?”

Buffy nodded. “Pretty likely.”

“Then I'm afraid we'll have to consider magical restraint.”

“Please don't,” Tara whispered. “I don't want to do anything to her behind her back.”

Althenea reached across the coffee table to pat Tara's knee. “I know you don't, child. But time travel is delicate work, and preventing an uprising of the First Evil is no frivolous task. The--”

“Oh, dear lord.”

“Yeah, Watcher. The First.”

“How bad was it?” Giles asked faintly.

“Kidnapping, torture, mass murder, psychological taunting, and outright mind control,” Buffy said. “And that's just the crap it put Spike through. The tip of a big damn iceberg.”

“Worldwide uprising, not just local to the Hellmouth. Most of the Potentials and nearly all the Watchers were dead by the time we left. We told you it got ugly, Rupes.”

While Giles cleaned his glasses, Althenea finished her thought. “The risks associated with being exposed by an undisciplined witch -one who may learn by the exposure she was the source of the traveling- are many and great. Her reaction could be extreme if she learns the truth.”

“Oh, no... The trance thingy,” Buffy whispered. “The spell to see spells. She already knows it. It was earlier than this the first time around when she showed it to me.”

Tara leaned back on the sofa. “If she thinks of it, she'll do it. She won't even hesitate. And she'll see it, all of it. Maybe not me, because of the source, but definitely you two. The flashing caused by the merge, the different versions of you in the flashes, and her own magical signature all over you both.” She rubbed her eyes with the bases of her palms. “Buffy's right: Willow already knows that spell. If she tries it, we're in trouble. And she has the means to do it at any given moment.”

“Will you consent to restraint, then?” Bryn asked.

Tara brought her hands away from her face and into her lap, where they clasped each other nervously. “What are our other options?”

“Under such serious circumstances, the only other option is to remove her from the situation.”

“Gee, that doesn't sound ominous.” Buffy frowned at Althenea. “I thought you were the good guys.”

“It's not like the Council's wet works team, Buffy,” Giles said quietly. “She's talking about what she did for me, thirty years ago. She had me cloistered at the coven's sanctuary in Devon, for what I suppose you might call rehabilitation.”

“Magic rehab. Yeah, you took Willow there after...” Buffy gestured to Tara, but her eyes were drifting back to Althenea. “This is why you asked me to invite him.”

“The act would be pre-emptive, in this case,” Elsa said. “She would need to be willing.”

“And that's the other reason I want Rupert involved. He can recommend she come to us for training. Someone she already trusts should lead the way.” Althenea looked to Tara. “And you--”

“I know,” Tara whispered sadly. “I have to support her leaving.”

“And how's Glinda supposed to explain not coming along? Our witches come as a pair 'round here.”

“Tara's situation is entirely different from Willow's, even from Willow's single timeline perspective,” Althenea said. “I can explain the differences in their needs, and the need for Willow to come to us alone, quite easily. I only need someone to facilitate the introductions.”

“And if she won't go?” Spike asked.

“We'll have to restrain her magically.”

“How are we going to explain that?” Buffy scoffed. “'Yeah, Wils, that's what happens when you don't go for training. Your magic just goes poof overnight.' No way will she buy that.”

“There will be no need to lie to her,” Bryn said. “I see no reason why she can't be told she is verging on a dangerous path, and these are her options.”

“Ultimatums. Bloody wonderful.”

“Only if she refuses to go, Spike.” Giles looked thoughtful. “And I think I know how to make her willing to accept. We're fortunate you're here just before the holidays, Althenea. I'm certain you'll have a new pupil in January.”

*~*~*

While Giles and the witches were telling Tara more about the sanctuary, Buffy and Spike slipped out to the kitchen to talk. “There's no possible way this is what Whistler meant,” she whispered. “We've basically prevented the resurrection and all the other Willow-with-dark-magic stuff with one international phone call. It's too easy. Even if she starts to go off the rails after this, the coven will be watching her, will pull her back before she goes too crazy.”

“I know. That li'l bugger is up to something.”

“Oh, I think I know what he's up to. It goes something like 'Dance, monkey! Dance!'”

“You aren't the first to feel like a puppet,” came a voice from the doorway. “But there's a reason for it.” Althenea came into the room and took a stool at the counter. “Obviously, getting Willow proper training is extremely important, and could have wonderful ramifications down the line, but you already had what you needed to solve this problem. You only needed a nudge to use it.”

“The sanctuary's phone number.”

“As well as Rupert's presence. He would have happily served as intermediary, had you asked him.”

“I can't see past the man he became, Althenea. There was just too much damage done.”

“I'm not chastising you, Buffy. I understand. You don't get to go back to your time. This is your life now. You have to serve your own needs, as well as those of the mission at hand, same as anyone else.”

“Try telling Whistler that. Bloke seems to think we're better off living everything exactly the same as we did, save what has to change to stop Glory a different way.” Spike shook his head. “That's not the plan we came into this with.”

“We want to do better with everything,” Buffy said. “I don't think that's asking too much. But our PTB babysitter likes to nag us about it. I don't think it hurts to get a better life as a bonus for all the crap we went through.”

“I agree. I also think any agent could have been assigned to give the nudge that inspired you to call me. And it wasn't necessary that an agent even be seen to perform the spells to strengthen your memories and restore Tara's. ...What was the other visit? You said their were four.”

“I think that one could be summed up as 'Bad monkey! Dance better!'”

“Aah. I believe I understand. You made a mistake?”

“Big enough to get someone hurt,” Spike murmured in the direction of his boots.

Althenea gave him a sympathetic smile. “That conscience is still rather raw, isn't it?” She turned to Buffy. “There's absolutely no indication you need your hands held to complete this mission. You both seem to have a firm grasp on your goals. The most likely explanation for this agent hovering over you is that he is using this time travel expedition to learn about you, to study you.”

“So we're downgrading from dancing monkeys to bugs in a jar?” Buffy looked at Spike. “Plan A is sounding better and better. We break it, the PTB fixes it later.”

“Got my vote. Be glad to see the back of Whistler, at least.”

The old woman chuckled. “I've read of this a few times, as I've gone through the coven archives. There's a pattern to it. They seek out young, righteous warriors, witches, and mediators. It's always the independent types- no coven witches, no slayers, no watchers, no military servicemen, etc. An agent starts visiting the subject during a difficult trial, observing the journey. At the successful conclusion of the job at hand, if there is such, the subject finds himself offered an opportunity to become an agent of one type or another. The Powers are clearly considering you for something. It's quite an honor, not to mention the security and safety that comes along with it. Don't underestimate the value of being able to teleport at will. That ability alone is extremely valuable.”

“I'm not sure that applies to us, Althenea,” Buffy said. “I'm definitely a slayer, and there are no young independent types in this room.”

“Relatively speaking, William is quite young. As for you, you may carry a slayer's demon essence, and bear the responsibility of guarding this Hellmouth, but you haven't been the Chosen One, haven't been a part of the slayer lineage, since your first death. You're a freelance demon hunter, Buffy, same as William has become. The slayer title is merely an honorific.”

“I swear, you die for like, two minutes, and it haunts you forever.” Buffy rolled her eyes. “Six feet under for five months? Yeah, that sucks, and coming back breaks things, but what really counts is that you drowned in a puddle when you were sixteen. Can we at least pretend the second and third ones count for something?”

Spike's eyes went wide. “There was a third? When--”
Althenea held up a hand to stop his question. “My point, Buffy, is exactly that. Three deaths puts you not only as an anomaly among slayers, but as a separate entity altogether. And you, William, are as separate from your own species as you can be, with a profound knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the Powers' mortal warriors, besides. The two of you are uniquely equipped for the sort of work the Powers have difficulty achieving through normal means.”

“The slayers,” Spike said, understanding. “They not good enough for the Powers, now?”

“I spoke to an agent directly once, many years ago. I've been one of the people who has needed a one-time nudge, believe it or not. She told me the thing this plane needs most is warriors with some wisdom, who live long enough -and want to live long enough- to accumulate experience for themselves, rather than being dependent upon the books of the Watchers.”

“Slayers without death wishes?” Spike clarified. “Good luck with that!”

“And now they've got one,” Buffy said, realization dawning. “I'm all 'been there, done that' with the death and reward thing. I don't plan to go back until I absolutely I have to. They want to get a full human lifetime out of me to support the next few slayers.”

“I would think they'd want more than a few decades, Buffy. Generations more.”

Buffy stole a glance at Spike without making eye contact. She shifted her weight uncomfortably. “Althenea, if you're talking about children, I'm not exactly leading the kind of life where that happens.”

“No, of course not.” Althenea chuckled. “And I think you know what I mean. You're leading the kind of life that puts you at ease with the idea of immortality, and have been for many years, specifically with the immortal who stands beside you. Do you really think that's a coincidence?” The old witch climbed down from her stool and turned to walk out of the room, intending to leave them alone with that thought, but Buffy's voice stopped her.

“Althenea, if it's not too personal to ask, what was the nudge you needed?”

“I was waffling about taking in a troubled young warlock who had dropped out of Watcher training. It seems the Powers thought it important I get him back on track. Thirty years on, I'm beginning to understand why.”

“Oh.” Buffy watched the woman leave the kitchen, then took a seat on the recently vacated stool. “I know she's only theorizing, but that's a huge idea to take in. I accepted it, you know? I got some time bought for me, more than once, but I accepted the reality: Slayers die young. Period.”

“Familiar with the concept.” Spike narrowed his eyes on her. “Some of them three times.” His expression softened. “We've never talked about... Do you understand what she's hinting at? What it is Glinda sees between us?”

She looked down at her hands. “I do. I've... I've read some things.”

“Not Council books, I hope.”

“Um, the first time I got curious, yeah. ...A few years down the line, I realized they had some stuff wrong, so I looked deeper.” She didn't look up. “But I didn't know it would already be... um, active. Tara mentioned seeing it light up when I wanted to talk to you.”

“That's a bit off from what I expected, too. Seems early.” He studied her for a moment, trying to interpret her silence. “You mean to fight it, when the time comes. To reject...” He sighed. “Figured as much.”

Buffy slowly brought her gaze back to his. “There are other ways I could be pulled out of time, Sparky. Ways that don't get you involved at all.”

“So it's not the idea of it. It's me. Thanks, Slayer.”

“That's not what I mean.” She reached for his hand, trying to calm his rising temper. “Can we please talk about something else? Anything else?”

“Yeah...” Spike shook away all signs of emotion. “So, about that third time, General?”

She was visibly relieved at his choice of subject. It felt like safer ground. “When Tara got shot, I was the actual target. She caught a stray bullet in the back, that went right through her heart. Willow said she was gone in a matter of seconds. I got hit in the shoulder. Xan was with me. He called the paramedics, and I got to the hospital, but I flat-lined in the ER. Willow came in before they'd given up on me, all rage-magicked up. She pulled out the bullet, and healed my wound. So technically, she's brought me back from the dead twice, both times with dark magics.”

“And you never mentioned this because...?”

“By the time you came back, and weren't on the verge of ten kinds of crazy, it had been like six months. It wasn't exactly news.” She shrugged. “Besides, anything after the first one apparently doesn't count.”

“No need to be flippant about it,” Spike grumbled. “Three's enough for now. Fourth time should be a century or two down the road, at least. One way or another.”

Buffy shrugged again. “Or, you know, this coming May.”

“I told you, I'm not gonna let you jump.”

“And I hear you. Really.” She squeezed his hand. “But we can't count on Althenea's theory being right. I won't count on it. There might be a big pot of anti-aging cream and teleporting blue awesomeness at the end of the rainbow, or there might just be a painfully zappy portal to a hell dimension.”

“You just sap the fun out of every little daydream, don't you?”

“Oh, please! Like you really want to have to put up with me for centuries! Even you aren't that crazy.” She slid off her stool and went to the living room to check on their guests.

Spike whispered to the empty kitchen, “Some days, I think I am.”

*~*~*

Dawn was at school. Buffy was at the hospital pharmacy, picking up a refill for her mother. Joyce was in her own bed, resting. Spike was sprawled on the sofa, talking on the phone.

Tara was pacing the floor of her dorm room. “I'm still not sure I can go through with this,” she said into the phone. “It feels like a lie. Not like a little white time travel lie, but like a big, fat scam. I don't want to do that to her.”

“She needs the training, pet. She's going to get it this way, and know that's what she's agreeing to. Where's the lie in it?”

“I don't know,” Tara whined. “I just feel off about it, you know?”

“Maybe it's not about getting her to go. Maybe it's about her being gone.”

“Maybe.” She sighed. “If I weren't needed here, I'd go with her in a heartbeat.”

“Me, too. Grab Buffy, Joyce, and the Nibblet, and run off to the old country, hide out at the farmhouse 'til it all blows over.”

“The farmhouse?”

“Got a place in Bath, right near England's sleepy little Hellmouth. It's the one house that's not leased out. Figure the crazy bitch and her Doctor Boy box would run out of time 'fore they tracked us down.”

“It's an idea... There's just one problem.”

“We can't take this bloody Hellmouth with us. I know. She'd never leave it unguarded, or leave Glory to run loose without being around to keep an eye on her.”

“And whether we stay or go, Glory stays dangerous, in addition to the thousand other weird things that are drawn to the Hellmouth stirring up trouble.” Tara dropped onto the edge of her bed. “So I'm needed here.”

“She'll still be your girl, even apart for a while.”

“I hope so.”

“She will be, pet. I know it.”

“Spike, I've tried not to ask, but after I died...”

“Eventually, there was someone else, but she still had you on her mind, more than a little. Never dealt with the grief right, and it bit her in the ass. Got most of that story secondhand, though. Buffy did, too. We were busy with something else at the time.” Spike rubbed the back of his head and sighed into the phone. “Point is, it'll take more than living apart for few months to break you two up.”

There was a brief silence. “Thanks, Spike. I needed to hear that.”

“You think you can do it now?”

“I think so.”

“Good luck, pet.”

*~*~*

Tara met Willow after class, and walked with her to Giles' apartment.

“Did Giles say why he wanted to see me?”

“No, he just said it was important,” Tara lied.

“I bet it's about Buffy. He probably wants to explain why she dropped him like a bad habit, and ask for help getting her to come to her senses about going watcher-less.”

“Hmm... Maybe.”

“But why wouldn't he want to do it at the shop? That's where most of the spell books are.”

Tara frowned. Willow was apparently closer to giving Buffy a magical inspection than they'd thought.

When they were admitted to Giles' apartment, he ushered them to the sofa. “Willow, Tara, I'd like you to meet a friend of mine, Miss Althenea Grace.”

Althenea offered her hand to them each in turn. “Althenea, please.”

Willow and Tara introduced themselves, and accepted cups of tea from Giles. Willow seemed confused. “This meeting isn't about Buffy, is it?”

“She is part of the reason for it, certainly.” Giles took the chair across from Willow. “Among many other things Buffy has said of late to give me pause, she reminded me that I have been, in some ways, your watcher, as well as hers. And I believe I have failed in that duty.”

“Huh? No way. Giles, you've been great... I don't understand.”

“You've been a practicing witch for a few years now, and I have neglected to provide you with proper training. I'm attempting to correct that error.”

Althenea, seeing that Giles was struggling, cut in. “I am part of a large coven, based in Devon. Rupert told me about you, Willow, and I suggested inviting you to come to us for training.”

“Like, over winter break?” Willow grabbed Tara's hand excitedly. “That would be great! We'd love to!”

“Willow,” Giles said quietly. “There's a reason we're having this conversation before you register for the spring term. We're suggesting you have a lengthy and thorough training session, that you take some time to develop a firm understanding of the power you possess, and how to use it. Think of it as a semester abroad. In fact, that might be the best way to phrase it to your parents, your adviser, and any other outsiders.”

Willow's elation faded. “The whole semester? But what about Glory? Buffy will need a witch.”

“She'll have one,” Tara whispered, lowering her gaze to the floor. “I'll be here.”

“What? You won't come with me?” Willow released Tara's hand in dismay.

“The invitation is just for you, child. Tara doesn't need the same guidance you need.” At Willow's pout, Althenea continued. “She was born of a witch, and trained in using her innate abilities from the moment she could speak. She has a good grasp of balance and wise uses of magic. You have none of that background, and have acquired a significant amount of power.”

The startled dismay had developed into an expression of mild horror. “You think I'm dangerous.”

“I think you have only a superficial understanding of your capabilities, and an untamed view on how they should be used.” Althenea kept her voice low and soothing, despite her words. “Being well-meaning does not make you a good practitioner. Training does. One does not grow wise from time alone, but how one uses that time. Yours is being wasted. You could easily find yourself traveling a treacherous path if you are not soon properly educated.”

“I didn't get into her hands in time, Willow,” Giles said. “I'd already done quite a bit of harm to myself and others by the time the coven took me in. I don't wish the same to happen to you.”

Willow was silent for a few moments. “You really think I might... like you did?”

“Unfortunately, it's possible. And I never had the degree of power you already possess.”

“You're saying I could do more damage.”

At his nod, Willow fell silent again. “A semester abroad, huh?” She reached for Tara's hand again. “I guess it's worth considering.”





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