Chapter Notes:

It's Christmastime in Sunnydale, and everyone has gifts on their minds.


Chapter 16: Flash Decisions

May, 2003 / December, 2000

“Uh, guys? I think we're moving backwards. I just got shorter.” Dawn watched an image of herself walk into the living room. Th image dropped onto the sofa and picked up a magazine, which she flipped through with a decided pout.

An image of Spike followed her into the room. “Bit, there's nothing we can do.” She ignored him. He sat beside her. “You only get one father. Ought to spend some time with him.”

Dawn threw down the magazine. “You're the evil undead, and you can't find a loophole? Please! I'm not buying that for a second. Also, I'm not even sure he is my father. I may be genetically Buffy-ish, but that might make Hank Summers my grandfather or something. We don't even know who the other DNA contributor was that the monks used, 'cause I'm clearly not a clone.”

Spike ran a hand over her long, dark hair. “Don't know, but my money's on the other slayer. ...But your dad's still got legal rights.”

“There's got to be something we can do. We could run away. You could hide me until I'm eighteen.” She frowned at his expression. “You have found a loophole, haven't you?”

“There's a law firm, specializes in dirty pool for demons with a bit of dosh. Peaches has had some run ins with them. He thinks they might be able to help, but it's a big risk, them finding out what you are, getting their mitts on you. Best case, they take something from me instead... and not just money.”

Dawn's head fell back against the sofa cushions. “I'm sorry,” she whispered. “If you've talked to Angel about it, you've definitely pulled out all the stops. And that law firm sounds like a really bad idea.”

There was another flash, and the pair on the sofa were replaced by an image of Willow, taking notes from a thick, yellow-paged book.

The real Willow gasped. “Oh, no... I know that book. I'm working on the resurrection.”

The group watched the image scribbling in her notebook, their expressions worried. “Yeah,” Xander whispered. “This is gonna be one bad Groundhog Day.”

Dawn whispered, “We've been here for over an hour, and they haven't changed it yet. She jumped.”

“We may be seeing earlier images, but that doesn't remove the possibility of no-impact variations,” Elsa said. “The only thing this proves is that they were successful in traveling back.”

There was another flash, and an image of Buffy stood alone by the fireplace, looking at the pictures on the mantle. She turned around and studied the room with a smirk.

Dawn shuddered as she looked into the image's eyes. “Guys, I don't think that's Buffy.”

The First Evil laughed. “You really think this is going to work, don't you? You really think you can smack me down so easily?”

“We can at least make you stop appearing like her!” Dawn snapped.

“Actually, you can't. Even if all of this is successful -and I have my doubts, with you screw-ups at the helm- she has still tasted death. In fact, all three of them have, though they're likely to try to erase the death of the other one.” It gestured to the pair in the circle. “These two are all mine to mimic as I please, and always will be. But that's the least of your worries. If I were you guys, I'd be more concerned about not existing anymore.” It leaned toward Willow tauntingly. “You sent them back so they could make you go away.”

“Wha- What do you mean?”

“You've given them the perfect opportunity to trade up, and they've done just that. Such a shame, too.” It shook its head in mock sadness. “You girls used to be so close.” The First disappeared, leaving the group in silent dismay.

Xander was the first to speak. “Three? Is there a mouse in Spike's pocket?”

Willow shook her head. “No. I think I know what it meant. A death they could erase? Trading up from me? There's only one person that could be.”

“Tara,” Dawn whispered. “Buffy's recruited a different witch this time.”

Giles was carefully watching the expressions playing across Althenea's face. “Which is precisely what you hoped would happen, wasn't it?”

The old witch let loose the smile she'd been holding back. “The First Evil clearly meant to entice you to break the spell before it destroys this timeline, but has instead given us the best possible news.”

“I'm not too sure about that. Tara never had the kind of power I had. She may not be able to handle the last couple of years without my help.”

Elsa spoke up. “Forgive me for saying so, but isn't much of the difficulty of the intervening years triggered by your power and misuse of it? I don't mean to be rude, but perhaps the First Evil is right: They have traded up.”

Willow opened her mouth to argue, but no sound came out. All actions ceased. The army of teenaged girls disappeared from the backyard. The chains on the basement wall vanished. The plywood wall behind the sofa was again a picture window. A playpen appeared in the living room, folded and leaning against a wall, beside a wooden toy box, replacing the pile of sleeping bags. The picture frames on the mantle changed and grew in number.

'Well, that's one possible future off the books,' Bryn thought, just before the people in the living room and the 2003 they'd known winked out of existence.

*~*~*

Spike came into the living room, slipping on his coat.“The slayer took an early patrol. She'll meet us at the shop later,” he explained to Tara, who was nervously pacing the length of the room.

That's probably better, anyway.”

She seems to be settling into the routine.”

Uh-huh.” Tara glanced at her watch. “We're going to be late.” She called upstairs,“Come on! Let's go already!”

Just hold your horses, Glinda. There's no rush. A few more minutes won't kill either of you.”

It's been five months, Spike. If you could have made your five month wait a minute shorter, would you have done it?”

He tilted his head toward the ceiling. “Get your arses down here! Plane's touching down any minute!”

Dawn came rushing down the stairs. “I'm ready! Buffy's still playing with her hair and makeup.”

She picked a bad day to get vain about it,” Tara grumbled. She yelled again. “Buffy! In about thirty seconds, you're going to be walking to the airport!”

Buffy woke up from her impromptu nap with a smile on her face. She stretched until her hand bumped the table lamp behind her head. She sat up to steady it as Spike walked into the living room.

“Do we need to have a talk about which one of us is the nocturnal creature?”

She giggled through a yawn. “Vamps don't have exclusive rights to sleeping during the day, you know.”

“Bloody hell. Now you tell me. They left that out of the brochure.”

“You're in a good mood.”

“Just got some good news. Glinda called. Red's--”

“Decided to go to Devon. I know. I just woke up from the PTB memo about it.”

“Another time-traveling slayer dream?”

“And this one made a lot more sense.”

“Yeah? You wanna tell me about it?”

“Not yet.”

*~*~*

Buffy came out to the back porch. “You've been out here for a few hours now.”

Spike shrugged.

She sat on the top step beside him. “So while you were out here, I decided to do something stupid.”

“I'm almost afraid to ask,” he mumbled around his cigarette.

“I'm going to ask you what you're thinking about.”

He watched the smoke drift off on the exhale. “There aren't any shackles downstairs,” he whispered.

She raised an eyebrow. “Should there be?”

“Your sis keeps a sign for her bedroom door, to warn me when the curtains are open upstairs.”

“I keep telling her to move it to the top of the staircase railing, so you'll see it a few steps sooner. You didn't get singed this afternoon, did you?”

Spike shook his head distractedly. “And your mum bought a fourth stocking the hang from the mantle.”

“So? I'm no math genius, but I'm pretty sure there are four of us.”

“Like it's normal,” he muttered, shaking his head. He turned to look at her. “Do you know where I was last evening?”

“You said you were going gift shopping.” Buffy frowned. “What are you getting at with all this?”

He shook his head again and took another drag from his cigarette. “It's just... different. All of it. Not even sure I recognize our lives anymore.”

“Oh, it'll get familiar again. You can be sure of that. Right about the time Glory's spewing threats the living room, the Knights of Byzantium are joining in the 'hunt and kill the Key' party, and I'm scaring the shit out of a few watchers to make them behave, it'll all come rushing back.”

“Not quite as familiar to me. You were still keeping me at arm's length back then. Further, usually.” Spike put out his cigarette in the little sand-filled flowerpot Joyce had placed beside the steps for that purpose, right after he'd moved in. “'Bout time to clean this out again.”

Buffy leaned around him to look at the butts sticking out of the sand. “Yeah, it looks that way.”

“You ever think about why it's there?” Spike shook out of his thoughts. “Never mind.”

“No 'never minds.' Tell me what you meant.”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “You really wanna know?”

“I told you I was going to do something stupid. Talk.”

“Your mum and sis, they treat me like family.”

“'Cause you are.”

Spike jerked in surprise at this reflexive response.

“What? You know it.” Buffy frowned at his uncertain expression. “Unless you're planning on bailing out on us...”

“You know better than that.”

“This is about all the 'family Christmas' stuff, isn't it? We're throwing way too much garland and domesticity at you at once.”

“After the amount of laundry that came with you running a bloody refugee camp here, I think I've built up an immunity to 'too much domesticity.'”

She chuckled and leaned against his shoulder. “So we're not scaring you away?”

“You do remember who the scary one is in this house, don't you?”

“The Slayer?”

“The Slayer of Slayers.”

“Two words: Tulip mug.”

He pushed her off his shoulder. “Bugger off.”

She laughed and shoved him back. “You're evading.”

“I used that mug exactly once.”

“Still evading. Out with it.”

He stared out into the yard, gathering his nerve. When he spoke, his voice was a whisper again. “Don't ever revoke my invite, Buffy. Please.”

Understanding his meaning, she put a hand to his knee and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “I won't.”

“Promise?”

“Promise. You're stuck with us until the girly domesticity, open curtain warning signs, and cheesy Christmas decorations scare you away.”

He pulled her close to him, so she was again leaning on his shoulder. “Should know by now, I'm not easy to scare off.”

“That's what I'm counting on.”

*~*~*

Dawn danced to her favorite funny Christmas carols as she hung up the ornaments, nearly tripping over her mother, who was kneeling on the floor, smoothing the tree skirt. “Oops! Sorry, Mom!”

Joyce stood up and studied her work, giving the skirt one last nudge with her toe. She looked to the sofa, where Buffy was unwrapping and attaching hooks to ornaments as fast as Dawn could grab them. “What do you think?”

“Tree skirt: good. Dawn's dancing: not so good.”

Dawn stuck her tongue out at her sister as she snatched another ornament from the coffee table. “Buffy's just cranky because she hasn't finished her Christmas shopping.”

“Tattle-tale.”

Joyce sat in the armchair nearest her daughter. “Honey, tomorrow is Christmas Eve. You're running out of time.”

“I know, I know. And I have most of them. You know how I always get Willow seven of her favorite candies and one big gift for Hanukkah? Well, I can't decide what the eighth thing will be. It's sort of a going away gift, too, and we haven't been super close lately, so I want it to be something really good.”

“Anything she can take with her will be appreciated, especially something to remind her of home.”

“I thought about a photo album, but Xander's doing that. He's got stuff from childhood, so he can do it better than I could, anyway.”

“I got her an English dictionary,” Dawn said proudly. She shrugged at their expressions. “Well, I thought it was funny. And Giles always complains about you guys butchering the language. Spike does, too, but I'm pretty sure he doesn't have any room to talk.”

“And that's the other present I haven't figured out,” Buffy said. “What do you get for the vamp who wants nothing?”

“You could always take Anya's suggestion.”

“Dawn Summers! Don't ever repeat anything Anya says while walking by Victoria's Secret.”

Joyce covered her face with her hands. “Quiet, girls. I need to pretend you're both little toddlers in pigtails for a moment.”

The sisters exchanged grins, then turned to their mother and whined in unison. “Moooooommmmy!”

Joyce pulled her hands away. “Ok, I'm over it. Dawn, have you picked out a college yet?”

Spike came in the front door to the sounds of laughter. “What's so funny?”

“We were just torturing Mom,” Dawn answered.

Joyce stood up. “Spike, now would be a very good time for you to save me from my children. Are we still on for coffee?”

“Yeah. Just came back to pick you up.”

The young women watched in surprise as their mother grabbed her jacket and followed Spike out.

“Uh, Buffy? I think Mom just ran off with your boyfriend.”

*~*~*

They sat down at a small table, with three cups of coffee between them. “So, how'd you make out on that li'l job, Joyce?”

She pulled a ring from her pocket. “I found it. And I gave it a thorough cleaning and polishing.” She pushed it across the table. “But I don't understand why you couldn't look for it yourself.”

“Because your daughter is a slob. She's spilled so much holy water over the years, the bottom of that chest is practically consecrated.” Spike pocketed the ring. “Thanks. I owe you.”

She pulled the cashier's check out of her other jacket pocket placed it on the table. “No. You don't.”

“Joyce...”

“The insurance covered a lot, and my savings has helped. Not to mention that alleged 'rent' deposit. You don't owe me anything, Spike.”

“You could use the help, and I've got it to give.”

She tapped on the check. “Put this in savings. Earn some interest on it. As simply as you live, this check could fund an entire decade.”

“You don't take it, I'll just blow it on whiskey and smokes. Maybe a bauble or two for Buffy.”

“Baubles for Buffy? Are we talking last minute gifts? 'Cause I've got you covered. I am so the man.” Xander dropped into the chair across from Spike's as Joyce discreetly slipped the check back into her pocket, pausing the argument. “It's in the car. But you still haven't told me what it's for.”

“We will.” Spike pushed the third coffee cup toward the newcomer. “Thanks for doing it on short notice.” He reached into his pocket. “What do I owe you?”

“$30 would cover the materials. As for the labor...” Xander bit his lip. “How about a beer? …Um, you and me? At Willy's sometime soon?”

Spike raised an eyebrow.

Joyce laughed at the vampire's expression. “My thoughts, exactly. Xander, are you feeling alright?”

“Well... the truth is, Buffy wants us to get along, like be buds or something.”

“She said that?” Joyce asked.

“Not in those exact words, but that's the hint she's been dropping. And I guess I'm willing to give it a try.”

“This keeps up, I might start believing in miracles.” Spike handed Xander $30. “Next week alright?”

“Ha. ha. And whenever is fine. So... did you get the pictures?”

“I left it to Spike,” Joyce said. “My boxes of duplicates are stored in the basement.”

Spike pulled an envelope out of his coat pocket and slid it across the table. “See if you can make any of that work for your album. Got some good ones in there.”

Xander pulled out a few pictures. “Aww! Itty-bitty Buffster and even tinier Dawnmeister.”

“A little young for your clock to be ticking, aren't you, Harris?”

“You can't tell me you didn't melt when you saw those chubby cheeks, Spike.”

“No, but I questioned the '80s all over again. What made you dress her that way, Joyce?”

She shrugged. “Freudian revenge on my own mother? I was a child of the '60s. You can guess how horrible my childhood wardrobe was.”

Xander's eyes lit up. “Ooh! Pictures!”

“Absolutely not.”

“No worries, Harris. I know where she keeps 'em. I'll go digging tomorrow, while Buffy and the Bit are keeping her occupied with party preparations.”

“No, you'll be upstairs helping me. Buffy will be gone all day.”

Spike frowned. “First I've heard of it.”

“She asked to borrow the car to drive out to Valley State.”

“Oh,” Xander said. “I didn't see that coming.” He glanced at Spike, whose expression had grown very dark. “And I'm apparently not the only one.”

“I didn't think you even knew...”

“I know enough, Joyce.”

*~*~*

Faith sat down and picked up the phone receiver, staring hard at the woman on the other side of the glass. “What do you want?”

“Ok, so I guess we're skipping the 'how are yous.'”

“If you were going to come to gloat, you'd have done it sooner. And I know you didn't drive all the way out here to check on me. So what do you want?”

“Your word as a slayer,” Buffy whispered into the receiver. “I need to know you'll be on the job, that you'll fulfill your destiny. You know... if...”

Faith's glare faded into something Buffy thought might be genuine concern. “What've you gotten yourself into?”

“Hellgod. She's laying low right now, but it's going to get bad before it gets good again. I might not live to see summer. I need to know Sunnydale will be guarded after I'm gone.”

“B, have you noticed where I am? You remember why?”

“I remember that you're a slayer, and there's a Hellmouth right down the interstate, one that will need you if things don't go right. I need your promise. I need to know you'll get out of here and do your job if you find yourself the 'one girl in all the world.'”

Faith scoffed at the quotation. Then she leaned close to the glass. “You really mean it, don't you?”

“I do. Get your head on straight while you still have some down time. If any of the Scoobies come to see you, get the hell out of here and go home with them. Replace me.” Faith didn't respond. “I need to know you'll be on the job,” she said again.

Faith nodded slowly. “Alright. I promise. ...But I have to know: Why do you trust me with this?”

“Because you're a damned good slayer, and I happen to know you've got leadership potential. You're the current Chosen One, Faith. Not me. I'm the spare slayer.” Buffy fidgeted with the phone cord.

“What else is on your mind, B?”

“I have another request. And you don't have to promise me this one. I just want you to think about it.”

“Uh... Ok. Shoot.”

“If it's me that comes to see you, will you consider coming back, anyway?” She stood up. “I have to go. Hopefully, I'll see you before summer. Wish me luck.”

“Good luck, B.” Faith watched Buffy hang up the receiver and walk out of sight. “Merry Christmas.”

*~*~*

Joyce stepped out onto the front porch at the sound of her Jeep in the driveway, leaving the door open behind her. “How much higher will my insurance rate be next month?” she called to the driver.

“The car is fine, Mom.” Buffy rolled up the window and climbed out of the Jeep. “And so am I, thanks for asking.”

“And Faith?”

“She's holding up ok.”

“It was very kind of you to pay her a Christmas visit, after all she's put everyone through.”

“She's a slayer, Mom. She may have gone off the deep end, and royally pissed me off more than once, but she's still a slayer.” Buffy joined her mother on the porch and handed her the car keys. “Thanks for the loan.” She peered into the house. “It's awfully quiet in there. Did you have to tie up your elves?”

“Dawn has just locked herself up in her room to finish wrapping gifts. Spike helped us all afternoon, but he left a few minutes ago, as soon as the sun had set.” Joyce fidgeted with the keys. “Honey, he's very upset about this trip. Did you fight about it?”

“The 150 year old man is having another childish tantrum, that's all.” Buffy rolled her eyes. “Is there time for me to find him and coax him home before he ruins Christmas?”

Joyce looked down at her watch. “If you hurry. The guests will be here by eight.” Buffy's feet had hit the sidewalk by the time she looked back up.

*~*~*

When Buffy walked into Willy's Bar, she was surprised to find it packed. Willy gave her a significant look, his eyes darting around to some of the unfamiliar faces. “If you're here for information, Slayer, I got nothing to offer you.” He put down his bar towel. “Except a Christmas drink? On the house?”

Buffy played along with the ruse, knowing a good relationship with a slayer could prove bad for Willy's health with some demons. “Sure, I'll take a bribe. Just this once, for Christmas.” She pointed down the bar to her destination. On receiving his nod, she went in that direction. When she reached the far end of the bar, she tapped a brunette woman on the shoulder. “Excuse me. You're in my seat.”

The woman turned away from the man she'd been talking to. “No, I'm not, Slayer.” Her eyes flashed golden. “Find your own seat. Preferably in another bar.”

“You're wasting your time, you know. He's not going to go home with you.”

“Yeah? How do you know that?”

“Because he's going home with me.”

“Sure he is.” The brunette snorted. She turned back to face the bar, and resume her flirting.

Buffy tapped her shoulder again, causing her to whirl around with another golden-eyed glare. Buffy matched it with her own angry expression. “I'm done playing nice. Get away from my boyfriend or you leave here in Willy's dustpan.” She reached under her jacket to the back of her waistband.

The brunette's hands went up. “Ok, ok. I'm gone.” She grabbed her drink and edged away, keeping one eye on Buffy until she had reached a corner table.

Buffy took the vampire's seat just as Willy delivered her rum and Coke. “Thanks.” She glanced at the vampire the brunette had been flirting with. “Hi.”

“There's that B word again,” Spike muttered, his eyes on his drink.

“It seems like an appropriate word... Do you disagree?”

“What's it matter if it's only for five more months?”

She propped her elbows on the bar and dropped her forehead into her palms. “Can we please not have this argument again?” She was careful to keep her volume as low as his. “They're called contingency plans, Spike. I'm not going to drop them. If you recall, contingency planning is a big part of the reason you're even here.”

“That's what you thought. I never had any intention of letting it get that far.”

She looked up to study his profile. “No matter what we do, jumping is still a possibility.”

“No, it's not. Got a contingency plan of my own, if it gets that bad.” He sipped his whiskey. “Told you not to go out there to see her. No need for it.”

“We could have dozens of contingency plans and still have things blow up in our faces.”

“Not likely.”

“Not impossible.” She took a drink. “Will you at least look at me?”

He finally made eye contact. “I'm not gonna let you jump. I keep telling you, and you won't listen.”

Buffy bit her lip. “I'm listening. I hear you, loud and clear, every time you say it, subtext and all.” She looked back at her glass, her voice dropping even lower. “And I love you, too.”

There was no reaction from the neighboring stool, only stillness and silence. She slowly brought her gaze back to his. He was staring at her, dumbstruck. Eventually, he reclaimed his composure with a shake of his head. “It's about bloody time.”

“That wasn't the response I was expecting.”

“Seems like the response you deserve.” Spike drained his glass and set it on the bar. “Right then, Slayer. Go ahead. Stake me now, and be done with it. You'll never get a better chance to catch me off guard.”

She leaned in close. “Can I tell you another secret? I was bluffing when I reached under my jacket. Where I was today? You can't take weapons in there. I've got nothing on me.” She sat up straight and resumed sipping on her drink. “So who was the little vamp tramp, anyway? I don't recognize her.”

“Eh, just some young thing looking for a good time. Very young thing. Couldn't see past the sense of power she got from me.” He gestured to Willy for a refill.

“Ah. Hence the flirting. She didn't notice the spark.”

“Or that I smell like a bloke who shares his bed with a slayer.”

“Not too bright, huh?”

“She stood up to you, at first. Points for that. Was older than her when I first stared down a slayer.”

“Great. In another century, she'll steal your title.”

“The hell she will!”

Buffy smirked. “Ego, much?”

“Feeling pretty good just now, love. Don't ruin it.”

*~*~*

“Last Christmas sucked. Worst. Christmas. Ever.”

“Oh, yeah? You got tortured, too?”

“Ok, so yours was worse. Hey, Willy? Another?”

“What are we gonna do about this Christmas?”

“Enjoy it. Glory's not up in our faces right now, and Mom... you know.”

“I mean about the bloody Scoobies, Red and Rupert, mainly. Harris may have taken the edge off his hate, but I'm sure Red's still looking for answers, and I think Rupert wants me gone. Again.”

“I think it's me -you know, this version- he really wants gone. But they can both suck it up and behave themselves. I'm a resident of the hostess' house, and so is my date. Thanks, Willy.” Buffy took a sip of her fourth drink. “Besides, she's leaving in ten days, and he's not my watcher anymore. So screw 'em.”

“Won't work out too well if you go in with that attitude.”

She looked at him, her eyes wide with surprise at this reproach. Then she noticed his poorly hidden smile. “You like it when I get bitchy, don't you?”

“Not directed at me, now is it?”

“I sometimes wonder if you like that, too.”

He ignored that comment. He caught Willy's eye and nodded toward his empty glass. “You know, I was starting to think you'd never get around to actually saying it.”

“Yeah, well, me neither.”

“You gonna make a habit of it?”

Buffy shrugged. “Probably not. You ok with that?”

“Wouldn't mind being reminded once in a while.”

“I think I can manage that.” She took a gulp of her drink.

He watched her, shaking his head. “Some days I still wonder what happened to my slayer making faces every time she had a drink stronger than apple juice.”

“She discovered mixers. I still have no idea how you tolerate any of this stuff straight.”

“Practice. And a lot of years of self-loathing.”

“You're in an honest mood. I should take advantage of it.”

“Still not drunk enough to quote you any poetry.”

“Dammit.”





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