Chapter Notes:

Heads up: If you've gotten out of the habit of reading the chapter date headings, get back into it.


Chapter 41: Opened Locks

May, 2003 (flashback) / May, 2001

Buffy looked over the letter she'd written to herself about Dawn and Glory one last time, making certain she hadn't forgotten anything important. Satisfied, she set the page aside. She poised her pen over a blank sheet of paper for a moment before she began to write.

Dear Year 2000 Buffy,

If you're reading this, something went wrong, and you got sent back in time without being able to keep your memories. I only have one piece of advice for you: Trust Spike.

You can trust him not to go out hunting, to protect Dawn at any cost, and even with your heart. I'm not telling you to jump into bed with him. (But definitely put that on the agenda for later. Seriously, do not pass that up.) For now, at least try working together. A little trust, honesty, and support between the two of you could go a long way. It could even save the world.

Push past the death wish. As trite as it sounds, heaven can wait. You'll get there, but you don't want to go anytime soon. Let Spike help you make survival possible. You two will make a hell of a team. He'll fight at your side and be the other half of your strategy brain when you need to sort things out. More importantly, he'll be your safe port in any storm, who will always watch your back, and always actually listen. (He has an annoying habit of hearing the stuff you won't say out loud, but you'll get used to it.)

What's that old saying? Keep your friends close and your enemies closer? Well, if you keep this enemy closer, he'll turn into the best friend you've ever had. And much more, if you let him. When the world is ending, Spike will still stand with you, even if no one else does. Trust me on this: He's the one, Buffy.

BAS

5/19/2003

Buffy slipped the letter behind the other and folded the two together. She was writing 'Dear Willow' on another sheet of paper when Spike came down the basement stairs. She acknowledged him with a nod and turned her focus to writing the last letter, struggling to ignore his nervous pacing.

*~*~*

Giles helped Willow to her feet, picking up Spike's coat with his free hand. He guided her toward the base of the tower, where Xander and Anya were already standing, watching as the last of Glory's victims wandered away.

“Whistler!” came a shout from the platform above.

Willow looked up at the sound. “Tara?”

A blue flash brought a stranger to stand amongst them.

“Whoa! Who -or what- are you?” Xander asked.

“I don't know,” Anya answered. “But that shade of blue usually means the Powers That Be.”

“You're their case agent?” Giles asked.

“Whistler!” Tara shouted again.

“That's me,” the stranger said, taking the coat from the watcher's hand. “I guess it's time Wood got this back.” He stepped closer to the base of the stairs and called up to the platform. “Down here, Maclay!”

A moment later, a scythe came flying down from the platform, aimed with frightening accuracy. Whistler jumped aside as it neared him. The blade embedded in the concrete where he'd been standing. He gulped as he looked down at the weapon. “Nice to see you, too, Pratt!” he called.

Tara came down the spiral staircase, holding one hand over the cuts on her stomach and carrying a scythe in the other. Her cheeks were streaked with recent tears, but she was quietly composed.

Willow stepped away from Giles' supporting arm to reach for her girlfriend. “Are you ok, baby?”

Tara held up her bloodstained hand to block Willow's advance. “I'm fine,” she whispered. “Whistler, bounce us back, as far as you need to. This... We have to undo this.”

“No can do, kid. You've gotta play the hand you've been dealt.”

They all looked up at the woman coming down the stairs behind the witch. The slayer's expression was a strange mix of shock and fury. She held out a shaking hand to Tara when she reached the bottom, silently requesting the weapon.

Tara hesitated. “Buffy, I think we should talk to him.”

“The scythe can say everything I need to say.”

“It's not all bad news, Pratt.” Whistler said with a shrug. “You did what you came to do. Mission accomplished. You caught the most important stones, and the future's a hell of a lot brighter now.”

“You lying, manipulative, son of a bitch!” she spat, moving toward him.

“Take it easy, kid. I'm on your side.” He held his hands in front of him and took a step backwards.

“Really? When?” she shouted. “What the fuckhave you been actually been doing for almost a year? 'Cause it sure as hell doesn't look like the work of an ally. Were you toying with us for your own amusement? Making us think we had a future worth living for, just so you could snatch it away?”

“I didn't snatch a thing from you, from any of you. Shit happens. This is just how it's playing out.”

“And I'm supposed to be satisfied with that? Shrug it off and move on with my life? There was always a second mission. You knew that from the moment we jumped on this fucking joy ride.”

“You two getting yourselves straightened out was your side job, kid. I had no part in it.”

“No, of course not. You just dangled the carrots, teased us with images of a future, the chance to be happy, even have--” Buffy stopped herself. “We trusted you. ...And you put crosses on the walls.”

I didn't make any of the decisions. And I sure as hell didn't make you any promises. Nothing's set in stone, kiddo. You three know that better than anyone.”

She stepped closer to him, but Tara got in her way. “Allow me.” Tara turned to Whistler and punched him in the jaw, as hard as she could. “Ow!” She stepped back, shaking her hand. “That really hurts!”

“Holy shit, Maclay! You're supposed to be the good one! The Pratts have been an even worse influence on you than I thought!”

You're supposed to be good, too. But to tell you the truth, I'm really not seeing it. Buffy's right; you're an asshole.”

Whistler rubbed his jaw. “Yeah, definitely a terrible influence.”

Buffy grabbed the coat from the demon's arm with her left hand while the right one went in for a hard punch to his temple. As he wobbled, struggling to stay on his feet, she slipped on the coat. Then she threw her left fist at him with equal force. “And that one's from Spike.”

Whistler fell, taking a kick to his stomach before he'd even landed. Giles jumped in behind Buffy, putting restraining hands on her arms, pulling her back. “Buffy! Buffy! He's an agent of the Powers.”

“I don't care!”Buffy jerked free and lunged for her target, but he vanished. “Get your ass back here!” she screamed at the sky.

Whistler reappeared a few yards away, showing no sign of injury. “I'll tell you what, Pratt. You take a little time to cool off, and we'll talk this out later.”

“Like hell we will! I quit! I'm not working for you, your bosses, or the bloody Council a minute longer. I'm out. Do you read me? This is the end of the line. Go find some other monkeys to dance to your tune. You've done all the damage you can do here.”

“It doesn't work that way, kid, and you know it. I'm your case agent. We're stuck with each other.”

“You wanna test that theory?” Buffy snatched the scythe from Tara's hand and raised it. She paused at the glimmer of genuine fear in Whistler's eyes, the first she'd ever seen. “That's what I thought.” She turned around and pushed by Giles, yanking the other scythe from the concrete near the bottom of the stairs. Without a glance at anyone, she turned toward home with a scythe in each hand, Spike's coat lightly brushing the ground as she walked.

Whistler scratched his head under the brim of his hat as he watched her leave. “Bloody Council? Speaking of bad influences...” He looked at Tara, hoping for a smile. “Come on, Maclay. You know him getting in her head like that is funny.”

Tara glared at him without even a twitch of a smile. “I just watched one of my best friends in the world get killed, right in front of me, and you want to joke about it?” She curled her lip in disgust. “How do you live with yourself?”

He shrugged. “I'm just doing my job.”

“Was it your job to fill their heads with empty promises, and drag me into it to feed the lie? Buffy's not the only one feeling really, really used right now.”

“You're not going to quit on me, too, are you?”

Tara got very close to him, nearly nose to nose. “Let me make this clear, Whistler. I don't work for you. I never signed up for that, and neither did they. We were here to save lives and save the world. Our mission. Our work.” She pointed in the direction Buffy had gone. “She doesn't owe you anything. And neither do I. The debt has been paid.”

Willow looked frightened at this violent, angry version of her normally gentle girlfriend. “Tara? ...Baby? What's this all about?”

Tara turned to face the group. She bit her lip, trying to make a decision.

Whistler gestured to them. “I think the cards are already on the table, kiddo.”

“I guess they are.” Tara sighed. “But I have to get home. I'm not going to leave her alone. We can talk there, after Dawnie and Lydia get back. ...One last Scooby meeting.”

Her gaze moved upward, at the light of the rising sun filtering through the grid work of the platform, outlining Doc's broken body. The last moments of Spike's life replayed in her head. She touched her injured hand to her other sleeve, shuddering at the ashes that had blown onto her clothes. “Oh goddess,” she whispered. “Why didn't he jump?”

She shook off her thoughts and brought her focus back to earth. “After we explain everything, that's it. It's over. Buffy and I are out of the game.”

*~*~*

Tara came out to the back porch and sat down beside Buffy, who was staring at the phone in her hands. She settled a towel-wrapped ice pack in her lap, and rested her swollen knuckles against it.

Buffy glanced at her. “Are you ok? Do you need stitches or anything?”

“The cuts were very shallow. I'll be alright.” Tara nodded to her hand. “And this was totally worth it.” She took a slow, shuddering breath. “I promised we'd tell them, Buffy. As soon as Dawnie gets home.”

There was silence as Buffy absorbed this news.

“I'm sorry. I guess I should have let you be a part of that decision.”

“It's... It's ok. The dream... I guess it wasn't just about the glamour, after all. 'Tara is going to stand in. Let her.” Buffy swallowed hard. “'It's not supposed to be this way.'” She bowed her head over the phone, breathing deeply to keep her emotions in check.

Tara watched her, waiting for tears to land on the phone. When none came, she asked quietly, “Did you already call?”

“I'm having a little trouble deciding what to say.” The phone was lifted from the slayer's shaking hands. “Tara, no. I have to do this myself.”

“No, you don't.” Tara's voice was gentle, but firm. “Buffy, give me the number to the Hyperion.”

*~*~*

Lydia hung up the phone. “Have a seat please, Dawn. There's news from Sunnydale.”

Dawn stood perfectly still, overwhelmed by the stomach-churning dread Lydia's tone of voice had triggered. “What happened?”

“Glory has been defeated. We can go home now.”

The girl's eyes narrowed on the watcher. “What else?” She swallowed. “Who... Who didn't make it?”

“Your brother in law,” Lydia whispered.

Angel threw open the door. “There's no place like... Dawnie?”

Lydia turned to face the group joining them in the lobby. “Angelus.”

Dawn was choked by a surge of tears, and struggled to speak. “Angel... Oh god...”

The smile Angel had worn when he entered was gone. “Buffy.”

Dawn shook her head.

“Spike.”

She stepped toward him as she nodded.

Angel wrapped the crying girl in his arms. “Drusilla's probably on a rampage by now,” he murmured over her head. “We need to find out where.” He looked at Dawn's companion. “And you are?”

Behind him, Wesley answered for her. “Lydia Chalmers, Watcher. Author of the definitive work on William the Bloody.”

Cordelia looked at the pair embracing in the middle of the lobby. “I guess you have your final chapter.”

*~*~*

The coat hung from its usual hook by the front door. Buffy sat at the bottom of the stairs, staring at it while she sipped her drink.

Xander sat down beside her. “I put the case on top of the dresser, and put the scythes back in it for you. I left the clothes in the duffel, since I wasn't sure what you wanted thrown into the laundry.”

“Thank you.”

“The lock box is on the coffee table. Tara said you might want it up here for this.”

“I told him to date it for the day after,” she whispered, still looking at the coat. “His hand was shaking when he wrote the date. I pretended not to notice. I told myself it was just a twitch, maybe something that hadn't completely healed yet after the surgery. But I knew.”

“Knew what? Surgery? What are you talking about?”

“That it was the worst day of his life. And now it's mine.”

“Um, Buff? Maybe you should save the rum and Cokes for another time? Like, after you've had some food, or some sleep, or it's at least after noon?”

“It's Jack and Coke.”

“Oh. That's new. ...Ahn and I stopped at the bakery on the way from the bunker. There are two lemon-filled doughnuts, just for you, ready to help soak up some booze.”

“I'm fine. But thanks.” Her gaze didn't leave the coat. “Xander?”

“Yeah?”

“It was supposed to be me.”

“Buff, you can't start thinking that way. It could have been any of us. Or all of us.”

She emptied her glass and stood up. “I need another refill.”

*~*~*

Dawn sat on her right, still clenching her latest tissue. From her left, Tara rested her hand over the one that held the keys. “You don't have to do this, Buffy. I can stand in for you both, or we could wait.”

Buffy looked around. Everyone's eyes were focused on what was in her hands, either the keys to the mysterious box, or the contents of the freshly refilled rocks glass. She took a sip.

“No, you were right to promise them we'd talk. The letter was meant for this meeting.” Buffy moved her hand out from under her friend's, and unlocked the box. She opened the lid and pulled out a heavily used yellow legal pad, the pages covered in notes in two very different handwriting styles, its cardboard back broken to fit it into the small box. Its removal revealed two ring boxes tucked into the front corners, held in place by a densely packed pile of loose paper of various types and sizes.

“Whoa. What is all of that?” Willow asked.

“The evidence,” Buffy answered quietly. “Ideas and plans, a few bits of research, all scribbled down when we thought of them, and added to the box as we went along. The end of the world is sketched out on a cocktail napkin in here, someplace.” She tapped the legal pad. “This was the primary planning book, where most of the notes went.” She dug through the box, pulling out some of the larger pieces of paper as she worked her way to the bottom of the pile.

“That looks like my stationery,” Giles commented at the sight of two folded pages.

“Um, yeah. Tara and I once broke into your office to get some info.”

“Buffy!” Tara hissed. “I'm sorry, Giles. It was for a good cause.”

“Oh.” Buffy pulled out a sheet of paper. “We were just talking about this.” She set aside the copy of the marriage license, intentionally not looking at it. The next thing she pulled out was a note she'd written to Spike. She showed it to Tara. “My response to you telling me to give him some space.”

Tara smiled softly. “I remember. I told you he'd come home on his own, but you insisted on hurrying him up.”

Buffy reached the bottom of the box and lifted three envelopes from beneath the other scraps of paper. There was another folded sheet of paper tucked between two of them. She pulled it out and opened it. She gasped audibly when she saw her own handwriting, as hurriedly scrawled as Spike had claimed, on paper stolen from an abandoned bungalow on Hillcrest Drive. “He must have still had it in his coat... smuggled it back...”

“What is it?” Anya asked.

“Some twisted love child of a Dear John and a thank you note,” Buffy whispered.

“Oh, that.” Tara leaned in to look at the letter. “Buffy, I hate to say it, but...”

“I know. Sanskrit in a rush.” She folded the letter back up with a sigh.

“And this Sanskrit was smuggled back from where?” Lydia asked.

“When,” Buffy corrected. She gestured to the papers in the box and on the coffee table. “All of that is from 2000 and 2001.” She displayed the envelopes in one hand and the smuggled letter in the other. “These were all written about nine months ago... in May of 2003.”

Lydia broke the long silence that followed. “Time travel? Is that actually possible?”

Buffy nodded. “Possible and necessary. It was a last ditch effort to save the world. We came back to undo the events that triggered the rise of the First Evil.”

“The First...” Anya shuddered. “That's End Days stuff.”

“It was. We didn't have a lot of options, and we were losing the war. Badly. This was our best bet.”

“And I made a deal with the Powers That Be to come back and help them,” Tara put in. “I didn't come from their time, exactly. My journey back was... different.”

Xander tilted his head back toward the ceiling as realization set in and a hundred familiar comic book scenarios ran through his mind. “Of course it's time travel! Why didn't I guess that? That's why you three became like best buds so fast. All the stories you guys wouldn't tell us... The reason you and Spike act like you've been together for years. You have.” He caught himself. “I mean, you were.”

“Off and on, in various ways.” Buffy placed her hastily written letter back in the box.

“Even as General and Lieutenant,” Anya said, finally understanding the nicknames. “That code...”

“Wasn't really a code,” Buffy finished. “Just memories, put in a different context.” She sorted through the envelopes. “The night before we left, I wrote four letters. They were our insurance policy, and the only tangible thing we brought with us. ” She held up the envelope addressed to herself. “Two of them were for Year 2000 me, and placed in here. They were for guidance, in case we lost our... future memories.” She closed her eyes for a moment, pushing back a memory. “We got lucky, I guess. I never had to open it.” She dropped it into the box.

“Stuff about me being the Key?” Dawn asked.

“The first page, yeah. You and Glory, and all that stuff. The second page...” She took a sip of her drink and held up another envelope. “This one gets opened in a couple of years.” She returned it to the box and held up the last one. “This one is for you.” She offered it to Willow.

“'To be opened on twenty-third May, 2001.'” Willow read. “Spike's handwriting?”

“He addressed it for me,” Buffy whispered, looking around at the samplings of that same handwriting, now scattered all over the coffee table. “Beautiful penmanship... and I gave him hell about it.”

“Why me?”

“Because you were at the center of the mission, even more than we thought you were back in '03.” She shrugged. “We kinda pieced some stuff together along the way. ...Go ahead. Read it.”

Willow opened the envelope and pulled out a letter written in Buffy's messy hand. “Out loud?”

“There's nothing super personal in there, if that's what you're asking. It was written in wartime, Wils. Girl talk was so far on the back burner, it had fallen behind the stove.”

“That explains a lot, actually.” Willow turned her attention to the letter.

Dear Willow,

If you’re reading this, I died last night. I guess I wasn’t able to stop the portal without jumping into it. I’m sorry I couldn’t do better. I can’t explain everything, but Spike will fill you in in a couple of years. Until then, please don't ask.

“You thought you were going to be the one to...?” Lydia asked.

“That's how it went the first time,” Buffy whispered. She continued over Xander's quiet 'Oh!' of understanding their earlier conversation, “Whistler said the mission is over because I didn't. That was half the job. We planned for everything we could think of.” She gestured to the papers on the table. “As you can see. But we didn't think... this could happen.” She nodded for Willow to continue.

Meanwhile, there are a few things I need you to do for me, since I’m not going to be around to do them myself:

1. Do whatever it takes to keep Dawn with the Scoobies. Give her all the love and support you can. And don’t keep her out of research. She loves it, and she can handle it.

2. Don’t try to resurrect me. You will literally be putting the world in jeopardy if you do. Don’t worry; I’m not in a hell dimension. Kind of the opposite, actually. Please leave me there. If you try to bring me back, Spike will do anything he can to stop it, even kill you if he must, and he would be right to do so. Don’t put him in that position. Let me go.

Willow looked up, visibly stunned. “You died... and I pulled you out of... out of heaven?”

Buffy nodded. “I was gone for about five months.”

Tara looked around guiltily. “Anya, Xander, and I helped perform the resurrection... And it eventually came back to bite everyone. Yanking a slayer out of heaven with dark magics was a big mistake. It messed up the power balance. The First Evil used the imbalance to gain a better foothold on this plane.”

“Saving the world from the Scoobies,” Xander said under his breath. “That's what you were talking about.”

“It was me?” Willow's eyes were wide with shock. “I nearly ended the world?”

“Twice, actually,” Buffy said. “Between the resurrection and the repercussions hitting, you went Book-Sucking, End All the Suffering, Dark Magic Rampage-y. Saving you from going down that road was the other half of the mission. Hence the semester in Devon. Giles didn't call Althenea, Wils. I did. It was better to send you in for training than to wait and risk having to send you in for rehab. Again.”

With a shaky voice, Willow continued reading.

3. Focus on getting comfortable with your power. That’s a lesson you and I both learned too late. Ask Giles to contact the coven in Devon, get them to take you under their wing for training. You’ll be better for it, I promise.

“You had a similar problem?”

“Sort of. It took me too long to accept the source of my power for what it is. I argued with freakin' Dracula about it. And Spike and I fought about it for years before the Shadow Men forced me out of my denial. Yes, Giles, I've met them. I've used the slayer emergency kit. That was my first time jump.”

“Buffy, the kit has been missing since before you were even born.”

“It can be found. I know who has it.” She gave Giles a significant look. “The offspring kept it, as a memento.”

“The offspring of what?” Anya asked. “And weren't the Shadow Men the original Watchers?”

“They were.” Buffy took a deep breath. “The kit is in the hands of a man Spike made an orphan back in '77, the son of a slayer.” She winced slightly, remembering a night club balcony in New York.

“A slayer with a kid?” Dawn asked, blinking. “Whoa. You never told me that part.”

“Yeah, well, there are reasons I don't like to talk about him much.”

“So slayers aren't barren,” Willow muttered to herself. “I never knew that. Huh.”

“But he gave you the kit, Buffy,” Giles said. “Despite the um, other issues, there was that benefit.”

“I didn't accept what the Shadow Men offered, Giles. It scared me. I did accept the meaning, though, after the fact.” Buffy addressed the other Scoobies. “A slayer is like a vamp, guys. The package is human. The power is pure demon, forced on an unwilling person. Only the proportions and delivery method are different.”

Giles looked uncomfortable. “Buffy, there's a reason it's never phrased that way.”

She held up her left hand, displaying her wedding ring. “This reason? Or the reason the wrong person handed Willow that letter?” She took another sip of her drink.

Willow was looking around at the group. “So Dawnie knows some of this stuff, and so does Giles.”

“Giles knew about the time travel because I because I made a mistake when we first arrived,” Tara explained. “After that, we were very selective, only telling people we thought could benefit -or benefit us- by knowing.” She gave her girlfriend an apologetic look. “I'm so sorry, sweetie, but you were the one person we absolutely could not tell until the mission was over.”

“Because I was too dangerous,” Willow finished. She stared at her girlfriend for a long moment, a tangle of emotions visible on her face. She looked back at the letter. “So is this is my 'all clear'?”

“We've changed your path,” Buffy whispered. “And the coven knows to keep an eye on you. Hopefully, if you Scoobies miss a danger sign, the coven will catch it in time.”

“You Scoobies,” Xander echoed. “So you meant it. You're really quitting.”

“Xan, this job has taken everything and everyone I love from me, at least once. Even Dawnie.” Buffy addressed her sister. “I wasn't exaggerating when I told you our relationship was pretty much ruined. You have no idea how much better you have it with this version of me.” She took another sip from her glass. “I've died three times, guys. Three. And I still came back to the job. But this? I can't bounce back from this. To be honest, I don't even want to. ...Keep reading, Wils.”

4. Break Faith out of jail. Get her a new identity and ask her to stay in Sunnydale. Help her. Trust her.

She’s a good slayer, and she will be a good leader with a little practice. Try to let the past go and start fresh. You need each other.

“That's the main reason I let this letter see the light of day. I need you all to know this isn't an emotional decision, made at the spur of the moment. Faith deserves a second chance, and she'll make good use of it if she gets one. But she needs a team. This team. The Sunnydale Hellmouth is no place for a lone slayer.”

“Did you break her out of prison in your time?” Anya was genuinely curious.

“Wes did that. They needed her in LA. After she helped them, Wils brought her up here, to help us.” Buffy shook her head. “Like everything else back then, it was a total disaster. She and I got into a fight, totally typical for us. But the next thing I knew, her presence had triggered a mutiny. Conveniently while Spike was out of town on a mission, I might add.”

“Gilroy,” Willow murmured, putting the pieces together.

“Gilroy,” Buffy confirmed. “So I was totally on my own. I got kicked out of my own house faster than you could say 'second slayer.'”

“And you want her to come back again? How drunk are you?” Xander asked.

She drained her glass. “That was round four, I think. Maybe five... It wasn't Faith's fault. She didn't even want to lead. But when she found herself in that position, she stepped up, did the best she could. She had a fight with my lieutenant when he got back, but didn't try to stop him when he went looking for me.” Buffy's hand drifted back to the box, touching the smuggled letter. “She also led the girls into an ambush, and nearly got one of them called.”

“Called?” Lydia echoed. “Girls? Are you talking about Potential Slayers?”

Buffy nodded. “My refugee army.”

“Molly and Annabelle,” Willow whispered. “They were two that you lost.”

“Among others.” She studied the empty glass in her hand, and set it aside. “So yeah, Faith and the girls had a close shave. She was pretty messed up by the time we came home. But what matters is that she tried, even when she was handed a situation that no slayer should ever be expected to manage on her own. She wasn't called by mistake, guys. She's a slayer, to the core.”

“So you've been planning to quit? To relinquish active duty to Faith?” Lydia asked.

“At Christmas, when I put forth the idea of her taking over for me, I thought -if I survived this- I'd be giving up being the active slayer for a part in a larger mission, that Spike and I would be busy with other work. Now... I'm just done with it.” She looked at her friends. “I need to know Faith will have a clean slate and full support from you guys. She's going to be your slayer, and she'll need you.”

There was another long silence, as everyone in the room contemplated such a regime change.

“I mean it, guys.” Buffy nodded to the women sharing the sofa with her. “The Time Scoobies are out, but Sunnydale still needs... Slayer Scoobies, I guess you'd say. Faith needs Slayer Scoobies.”

“I would be willing to act as her watcher,” Lydia offered, breaking the ice.

“I guess I'll be hosting Scooby meetings at the Magic Box,” Anya said.

Willow hesitated. She looked up at Tara. “You think we should be her magic support, don't you?”

“I'll help out in an emergency, but otherwise...” Tara sighed. “Right now, I need a break, at the very least. I don't think the Powers can begrudge me that, no matter what deals I made. You'll be the slayer's main witch, sweetie. I'll just be your back up. Like it used to be.”

“While I can't speak to being physically present, as I may be returning home to Bath at some point, I would be willing to offer assistance when needed, even via telephone or...” Giles shuddered. “Email.”

“Well, I hope she still likes doughnuts.” Xander shrugged. “I do have one question about this mutiny story, Buff: Where was I? And the rest of the Scoobs? You said you were on your own.”

“Who do you think the mutineers were, Xan?”

“Well that explains that,” Anya said, leaning back in her chair. To the stares in her direction, she shrugged. “What? Xander and Willow both spent the entire autumn bitching about Buffy being distant, and now we know why. Her Scoobies weren't exactly awesome friends.”

“Not possible,” Xander said, shaking his head. “We'd never do that.”

Buffy began repacking the box. “Sure you would. It happened. Right here in this room. With ringleader Dawn Summers, and her right hand, Rupert Giles, already experienced at conspiring to undermine me. And what do you know? Those same two people concocted the mission that got Spike out of town immediately before. Crazy coincidence, huh? Had to get rid of my lieutenant, one way or another, right, Giles? Are you happy now?”

“No, I'm not,” he said quietly. “Buffy, I think you should try to sleep it off. At least have some coffee.”

“I threw you out?” Dawn squeaked, staring at her sister. “And sent Spike away?”

“Yeah.” She closed and locked the box. “I tried not to bring any of that stuff back with me. Something else I failed at.” She looked up at her old watcher. “I'm sorry, Giles. That was out of line. You're still getting the brunt of it, and I'm sorry for that, too.”

“Today, Buffy...” He softened his expression. “It's understandable, given the circumstances.”

She picked up her glass and stood up. “I think I need another.”

Willow held up the letter. “Don't you want me to finish reading this?”

“If you want to. But I don't need to be here for that.” Buffy walked out of the room.

5. That needing each other thing applies to Spike, too. He has a promise to keep, to take care of Dawn for me, so get him sobered up and back on his feet as soon as you can. Help him help you. He’s still learning what it means to be one of the good guys. He’s going to stumble. Someone should be there to help him up for once. Give him a chance. There’s a good man under all that Big Bad attitude, I promise.

Take care of each other.

Love, Buffy

Willow slowly folded the letter and slid it back into the envelope. “I don't understand something, Tara. The locator spells didn't work on Buffy or Spike. He said there was some magic on them that was causing the problem. I guess he meant the time travel. But they picked you up in the bunker with us. ...Baby, what kind of deal did you make with the Powers?”

Tara whispered, “The thing that made you go crazy with the dark magic... was that I was murdered. By the time the Buffy and Spike's time travel expedition was set up, I'd been dead for a year.” She looked around at the shocked faces. “I was in heaven, but I had a lot of regrets about my life, the biggest was not being strong enough to help you stay out of trouble, sweetie. When they decided to go back, I was given the option to tag along, to try to undo my regrets, in exchange for helping with their mission.”

“You gave up heaven... For me?” Tears were forming in Willow's eyes.

“Of course I did, silly. I love you.”

“That's why you stopped stuttering,” Anya said. “You're all 'back from the dead' confident.”

“Huh,” Willow murmured. “I guess that makes sense. I kind of assumed that part was my influence.”

Tara's eyes drifted to the box on the coffee table “I sometimes wonder how things would have been different if Buffy had come back from heaven the same way: willingly. She's never been quite the same since we pulled her out. For months, Spike was the only one she could connect with at all.”

“That's when it started between them, isn't it? Wait...” Realization lit up Willow's face. “That's why no one noticed when he got it! Spike got his soul back before the time travel!”

“I called it. I just knew he had it.” Anya held out her hand to Xander. “Pay up.”

Xander reached for his wallet with a sigh. “I should have known.”

“Almost a year before,” Buffy whispered from the doorway, sipping on another Jack and Coke. “After I broke up with him ...among other um, issues. Some days, I really wished he hadn't done that to himself... He was so different when he came home, so not my Spike, I was afraid I'd never get him back.”

She looked down at her glass, lost in thought. “Eventually, it became the thing we fought about, the only real argument in all the silence between us. We were in the middle of a war. I needed my lieutenant dangerous and deadly, the bad ass master vamp... Instead, I had this soulful, guilt-ridden doppelganger living in my basement, and no idea how to handle him.” She shook her head. “The general in me needed the infamous killer at my side, but another part of me... just needed Spike, and any version would do. After the worst Christmas ever, especially.”

Dawn frowned. “Another story I haven't heard. What happened?”

“He missed Christmas,” Buffy's voice was still very low. “Kidnapped, tortured... for weeks before I managed to slay the demon who held him. When I finally did, having him home and safe was enough.” She shook her head. “It was a different time. There wasn't a romantic reunion when I got him out. Or ever, really. We just got back to work. It was all about survival. What could we do to live long enough to see tomorrow?”

“And the answer was to see yesterday,” Lydia said.

“Plan B.” Buffy took a drink. “Supposedly the answer to everything. Willow just read you the insurance policy. The ultimate Plan B was Spike. If I had to jump again, he'd make sure it was a one way ticket. I always thought, in the back of my head, that if we lived through the war, we'd get around to that romantic reunion, me and whatever version of Spike had evolved by then. The war is finally over now. Plan B worked.” She toasted the air. “We pulled it off,” she said bitterly. “Go us.”

They watched her turn and leave the room, then began to whisper to each other.

Dawn said, “She nevertalks that much to anyone but Spike. About anything, let alone 2003.”

“Because she's three sheets to the wind,” Anya whispered. “I think she's fudging her drink count.”

“I'm with Ahn on that. She's starting to slur.”

“Alcohol aside,” Lydia said, “She's taking it quite well.”

“More likely, she's pretending to take it well,” Giles replied.

Tara whispered, “She just needs some time. And maybe some sleep.”

Buffy sighed at the hissing of whispers from the living room. “I don't know how you did it for 147 days, Sparky,” she said to the empty kitchen. “It's only been a few hours, and I'm already struggling.” She took a swig from her glass. “This helps a little, though. I told Giles to buy stock. He really should have listened.”





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