Chapter 44: Distant Travelers

February, 2001 (flashback) / June, 2001

Buffy fell against her pillows, gasping for breath. “I think you're trying to kill me.”

“Please! If I were--”

“Yeah, yeah. I'd be dead by now. You know, a fourth time.”

Spike glared at her. “Do you have any idea how good you are at ruining a moment?”

“Was that a moment? Funny, I thought it was just an orgasm.” She was laughing when she threw her hands up over her face to block the pillow being swung at her.

He gave the pillow a second swing before withdrawing it. “'Bout time you scampered off, isn't it?”

Buffy dropped her hands and glanced at her alarm clock. “Ugh. Yes. Day Shift is starting soon.” She rolled out of bed and grabbed her robe from where it hung from a corner of the foot board. “I should have been sleeping while I had the chance. And weren't you supposed to be upstairs, nagging Dawnie to eat her Cheerios before your shift ends?”

“Nibblet understands the concept of breakfast. Thought waking you up early would be more fun.”

“And now you're telling me to scamper off? Again?”

“That's what you do, isn't it?”

She stuck her tongue out at him as she tied her robe. “When this suppressant wears off, Sparky...”

“What? You won't have to escort Glinda to class anymore?”

“Ok, good point.” She started toward the stairs. “You know, this wasn't as much fun the first time around.”

“Yeah, well, be sure to mention that to Glinda. She's convinced we're gonna kill each other before the dust settles.”

“Mostly, she's convinced I'm going to screw this up. Again.”

He tilted his head, studying her expression. “Tell you what, love. After I get back from chasing off Dru, you schedule us a night off duty, and we'll have that midnight picnic.”

“Hmm... Another date night would keep Tara's worrying at bay.”

“Not offering 'cause she's worried, love. I'm offering 'cause you are.”

*~*~*

“Tara, I don't understand this. Why are you going, too?”

Tara taped her box of books closed. “Because they need me. And because I need to go.”

“Then I should come, too.” Willow reached behind the vanity to grab her suitcase.

“Sweetie, no. Faith needs a witch on hand. Besides, you just got home.”

“Yeah. I just got home. In time to almost lose you. Then I find out you're a back-from-the-dead time traveler, who's been keeping secrets from me for months. And here we are, two weeks later. You're leaving the country, and it still feels like you're keeping something from me.” Tears were welling up.

Tara took her girlfriend in her arms, causing her to drop her suitcase. “Sweetie, this isn't about secrets and time travel. We're just going to get away from Sunnydale for a couple of months. I think... I think we just need a little time. And someone needs to keep a close eye on Buffy. I don't think Dawn should have to do that alone. I'm not leaving you. I'm just making sure everyone comes home in August. Ok?”

“It still feels like you aren't saying everything.” Willow pulled out of the hug and reached for her suitcase again. “I'm still her friend. I can help. Just because I've been gone for months, and I'm not in the time travel club, doesn't mean I'm not useful anymore.”

“Be useful here. To Faith. I know you want to help, but... Willow, it's not your grief. It's ours.”

Willow dropped her suitcase, this time intentionally. “So I guess I was right. You're family, now. And I'm not.”

“That's not what I'm trying to say.”

“But it's what you want to say.”

“It's just that... I'm saying you weren't really close to him. We were.”

“What you said at the tower. 'One of your best friends.' ...Did you even see what happened there?” The tears in Willow's eyes were spilling over unnoticed as her temper rose.

“Yes. I did,” Tara snapped. “More than anyone else. You weren't even up there.”

Willow waved her hand. “I'm not talking about that.”

Tara jerked in surprise at the casual dismissal of the events at the top of the tower.

“I'm talking about you. Brushing me off, punching and yelling at a PTB agent, and following Buffy home without even checking on me. It was all so, so unlike you. I don't know who you are, Miss Back-From-Heaven Tara Maclay, but I'm pretty sure you aren't the same girl I fell in love with.”

It took a long time for Tara to formulate a response. “No, I guess I'm not,” she eventually whispered. “But I think I'm a better person than I was. I expected you to be proud of me.”

“I was, at first. In some ways. But that was before you decided that -even though your big, top secret, time-travel mission is over and I'm home to stay- you're going to prioritize other people over trying to make things better between us.

“You're right.” Tara's voice was still a whisper. “I'm prioritizing my family and myself right now. Can you live with that?”

Willow took a step backward, shocked that Tara wasn't giving in. “I-- I don't know.”

Tara took a deep, slow breath, gathering her nerve. She picked up the suitcase from the bedroom floor and offered it to Willow. “Let me know when you have an answer.”

*~*~*

Dawn came down the basement stairs to find Tara and Buffy lying across the bed, staring at the ceiling. “Since when do ceiling chats happen down here? And without me?”

Tara pulled another tissue out of the box and gestured to the open space beside her. “Join us, Dawnie.”

“I'm not sure I should get too close. I could suffocate under the cloud of depression around you two.” She approached the bed, despite her words. “You're not drunk, too?”

Tara shook her head against the quilt.

“No, but there might be a need for break up ice cream. A few gallons, at least,” Buffy murmured from Tara's other side. “I wonder if I can make a Jack and Coke ice cream float?”

“Well, we know she's hammered,” Dawn sighed as she settled in beside Tara. “Do you want to talk about it with someone sober?”

“Mostly, I want to undo whatever it was I did that sent my entire relationship into a tailspin.”

“No, you don't,” Buffy whispered to the ceiling. “You helped to save the world. At the very least, you saved me.”

“Or me,” Dawn added. “I thought she was getting used to the whole time travel thing.”

“It's not that, Dawnie. It's me.”

Buffy sat up to take a sip of the drink she'd left on the nightstand. “Short version, Dawn? Willow's quiet, semi-Scooby girlfriend turned into a bad ass Time Scooby, and Willow's handling it about as well as she handled me being so different when we first jumped back. As in, not. She needs time.”

“I think 'bad ass' is overstating it a little, Buffy,” Tara said.

She fell back onto the bed. “I don't.”

“It's funny that this happened right before we leave.” Dawn frowned at the ceiling. “This isn't totally about you, is it? This is about us. About you going with us. She wants you to stay here.”

“It's both, sweetie. I've changed, and so have my priorities.”

“You aren't mad at her?”

Tara shook her head. “She'll come around. ...I hope.”

“If she doesn't, maybe you'll meet someone in Bath.”

“I'm nowhere near ready to start another relationship, Dawnie.”

“But there's a hell of a lot to be said for a sexy English accent.” Buffy grinned at the ceiling. “Even if it is, like, fifty percent fake.”

Tara and Dawn lifted their heads to look at her in surprise. “It was fake?!” they asked together.

“Sort of. You didn't really think a guy who could read Greek and Latin like it's second nature started out with a working class accent, did you? He acquired it after he was turned. On purpose.”

“Tara, pour her another. I'm think this is going to be one of those nights she's up for telling stories.”

“I really don't think she needs that sort of encouragement.”

The cordless phone sitting between the bottles of Coke and Jack Daniels rang. Buffy sat up again. “The night shift babysitter is early tonight.”

Tara climbed off the bed as Buffy answered the call. “Tell Angel we said hi. Come on, Dawnie. Let's go upstairs and eat too much ice cream. I think I need it.”

“Give your boyfriend our best,” Dawn said, ducking away from Buffy's casual attempt to swat at her. She followed Tara up the stairs, giggling.

“Hellspawn!” Buffy called after her. Into the phone she said, “I used to be an only child, you know. And then a bunch of monks decided I hadn't suffered enough.”

“You love her,” Angel said, chuckling. “And I think I'm starting to understand why she and Spike were so close.”

“They're both evil?”

“Well, that goes without saying.”

“They both classify you as one step up from 'barely tolerable' and love giving me shit about you?”

“That's not how I was going to phrase it, but yeah. That.”

“Welcome to my world, Peaches.”

“Wonderful. Quoting Spike again, and it's not even midnight. You and Jack got an early start tonight?”

“Solidarity drinking, Angel. Legitimate excuse. Tara broke up with Willow.”

“I thought you said Tara wasn't much of a drinker.”

“She isn't. So I'm drinking for two.”

Angel sighed into the phone. “This trip to Bath had better work out. I'm not sure anyone is going to be able to tolerate you like this much longer. Especially me.”

*~*~*

Tara found Buffy in the kitchen, staring at an open bottle of Jack Daniels. “Are you sure about this?”

Buffy looked up. “No, but I think I'm going to do it, anyway.” She took a generous swig from the bottle. “Blegh! I might need a few more years of self-loathing.”

“I'm going to pretend that makes sense.” Tara shook her head. “I mean, are you sure this is the right move? Whistler chattering about the Powers' Plan A and forward jump contingencies still isn't exactly solid.”

“It's not just that,” Buffy said, her gaze drifting back to the bottle. “But it does support Althenea's agent theory. Also, the forward jump didn't need to happen, as far as we can tell. That means something.”

“You're still not going to tell me what that was about?”

“When I can tell you, I will. You know that.” Buffy took another swig. “Blegh! Oh yeah. Way, way more self-loathing. In the dream, Angel told me to go home, and you told me to use what I'd been given. You were both talking about that jump. I'm sure of it.”

“I'm with you, no matter what. You know that. But what if you're wrong?”

“I'm not. Those contingencies for Plan A that Whistler told you about match with everything else, Tara. PTB job or not, stuff from the forward jump or not, there's a recurring theme showing up in every hint or plan we've gotten about the future: Spike's a part of it.” She took another swig, and forced herself to shudder away the affects without comment. “Do you have everything you want shipped ready to go?”

“I finished packing my boxes last night. Buffy, I have to say this, because Dawn and Angel won't, and no one else knows what you're up to: Even PTB plans can change. This may actually be permanent.”

Buffy locked her eyes with her friend's. “It can't be. One way or another, Tara. One way or another.”

“And what if he doesn't?”

Buffy took the open bottle and headed for the basement stairs. “I have to finish packing.”

Tara followed her to the top of the stairs. “You have to ask yourself that question, Buffy. And you have to answer it honestly. What are you going to do if he doesn't come home this time?”

“It's a toss up. Either you'll come up with some weird suppressant variant that works with only one half of a pair, or I'll lose my mind.” She raised her bottle. “Here's to insanity.”

“I'm not joking around, Buffy.”

“You told Wils you're going to Bath to comfort the grieving widow, right?”

“Something like that.”

“If I'm wrong, that won't be another lie on her list. If I'm right, I won't be a widow for long.” She went down the stairs to pack her final box for shipping, her bravado faltering a little when she saw the leather duster folded on the bed, waiting to be packed. She took another drink.

*~*~*

Buffy taped the thick layers of bubble wrap into place and put the scythe case into the sturdy shipping box, on top of the lock box. A blue flash caught her attention. She looked up to see Whistler standing near the foot of the bed. She marched over to him and struck with enough force to slam his body into the punching bag ten feet behind him. He disappeared on impact, leaving the bag swinging in his wake.

He reappeared in the laundry corner. “How about you and me talk from a distance? I'm getting a little tired of getting nothing but violence and silence from you.”

“I told you I didn't want to see you again.”

“You don't call the plays, Pratt. The bosses aren't done with you, so you're stuck with me.”

She advanced on him. “Then tell your bosses to stop sending you here empty handed.”

He backed up against the dryer. “Come on, let's be civilized and talk this out. Beating on me every time I pop by for two weeks straight clearly isn't getting us anywhere.”

The force of the punch shoved the dryer against the wall. “16 days,” she corrected.

Whistler disappeared.

Buffy took another drink and resumed packing. She emptied the pockets of Spike's coat into her purse and wrapped the timeworn leather in layers of tissue paper. The bundle just filled the space at the top of the box. She sealed the box shut with packing tape, and carried it upstairs to Xander, who was waiting for her. He took the box from her, struggling slightly with the weight.

“Do you need help?”

“No, I can do it.” He smiled. “Hauling boxes to the post office will make me feel all useful and manly.”

“I can come with you.”

“I'll manage.” Xander leaned around the box in his arms to give her a peck on the cheek. At close range, the smell was obvious. “Whoa! Buff! Are you sauced? It's only three o' clock.”

“Well, I wasn't planning on driving to the post office.”

He set the box on the floor and put his arms around her. “More Xander hugs. Less day drinking. Ok?”

“I'm pretty sure your arms won't stretch all the way to Bath.”

He pulled back, but kept his hands on her shoulders. “Then don't go. Stay in arm's reach.”

“I need to be at the Folly right now, Xan. I can't explain it. I just need to go there.”

“The Folly,” he echoed. “That's a strange name for a house. ...Not that most people name their houses.”

“William's Folly is the name of the entire farm, not just the house.” She picked up the box. “I can at least take it to the car for you. Is this the last one?”

He held the front door open for her. “As far as I know. My guess is, with the way shipping goes, they'll be a couple of days behind you.”

“That's fine. Have you heard back from the plumbers?”

“They've penciled you in for the second week in July. Are you sure the house needs a re-pipe?”

Buffy put the box in the trunk of his car. “Oh, yeah. In another few months, the basement will flood if we don't get ahead of it. So I hear Wils is at your place, driving Anya crazy.”

Xander closed the trunk and led them to the driver's door. “For the moment. She's going to sign up for a few summer courses and go back to the dorms. I knew she wasn't thrilled about the time travel stuff, but I didn't think they'd break up over it.”

“I think Wils just needs a little time to catch up. Too much has changed, too fast, and she's fallen a few steps behind.”

“You sound like you know what you're talking about.”

“I sort of do.” She reached into the pocket of her jeans. “So about the plumbers...”

“I'll check on the work every day they're here.”

She smiled gratefully. “You're the best, Xan. I owe you.” She handed him a wad of cash, “This should cover the shipping.” The cash was followed by a folded check. “For the plumbers. Just fill in the amount when the work is done. I'll see you and your fiance at the airport in the morning.” She tried to draw him into a hug, but found his hand raised in a 'stop' gesture, blocking her.

“You know?”

Buffy winced, realizing what she'd said. “Uh-huh.”

“And you didn't say anything?”

“Xan, don't be mad. Tara and I decided we didn't want anything from the first time around to ruin a good thing, so we kept our mouths shut. You guys are much happier together this time. I promise.”

“The ring... She said she'd put it on when all nine of us came home.” Xander looked pained. “That was right between... Right after Eddie and right before Spike. ...We haven't talked about it since.”

Buffy pushed down his hand and hugged him. “She's giving you some space. Just wait it out, Xan. It will happen,” she whispered in his ear. “She loves you.”

“Can I ask? How it went the first time, I mean. When it was you?”

She pulled away. “She didn't wear it until after I came back. I'll see you in the morning.” She gestured to the cash and check he still held. “Thanks for taking care of things, Xan.”

Xander watched her walk back into the house before he unfolded the check. It was made out to Sunnydale Ace Plumbers and signed in Buffy's familiar scribble. He read the printed information in the upper left hand corner.

William H. Pratt

Buffy A. Pratt

1630 Revello Drive

Sunnydale, CA 93103

He tucked the check into his wallet. “So much for domestic dreams,” he murmured.

*~*~*

Faith was seated near the bottom of the basement stairs, watching as clothes were stacked into a suitcase on the bed. “Yeah, I mean, it looks like it's gonna work out. But if there's one thing I know about Sunnydale, it's that things can go downhill fast.”

Buffy turned to face her. “They're a good team, Faith. Even when things get really bad, they'll do what they think is right. You guys may not always agree with what that is, but I can guarantee they will mean well. Always.”

“I guess the question is if they still think they're your team, or they're actually ready to be mine.”

“The slayer doesn't matter, Faith. Just the mission. The Slayer Scoobies will get that, soon enough. Before long, they won't even miss me. Or the other Time Scoobies.”

“B, you're talking like you don't wanna come back.”

Buffy frowned. “I told you we'll be back before school starts.”

“That's not the same thing as wanting to be.” Faith looked around the basement. “This room looked a hell of a lot less bare a couple of days ago.”

“Xan shipped off a bunch of mine and Spike's stuff this afternoon. Stuff I can't be parted with right now. Some of the books and CDs, the scythe case, the oak tree pictures. His coat.” Buffy took another swig from the half empty bottle on Spike's nightstand. “Oh! I almost forgot. Something from the coat.” She dug a scratched Zippo lighter out of her purse and brought it to the bottom of the stairs. She placed it in Faith's hand. “For luck. Take good care of it for him, ok?”

She tried to hand it back, but Buffy stepped away, ignoring the gesture. “B, I can't take this. I only ever even met the guy by a technicality.”

“He knew you, though. And he respected you as a slayer.”

“I still can't take this from you.”

Buffy returned to her packing, tucking a red leather book between layers of cotton shirts. “You're just holding it for a while, Faith. It's a loan. He'll be back for it.”

The comment caught the slayer off guard. “Whoa! B! Don't slip into Denial Land on me. You know as well as I do, dust is the end of the story. They don't come back from that.”

“Trust me, Faith. He'll be back. He has to come back.”

Faith stood up, preparing to go upstairs to talk to Tara. Her eyes roamed the basement bedroom. “'The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future,'” She read from a print on the wall behind the bed. “That's one way of putting it.”

Buffy looked up from her suitcase as Faith ascended the stairs. “We're all still sinners, aren't we, Sparky?” she whispered to the empty room.

*~*~*

“Buffy!” Dawn called from the top of the stairs. “Are you ready?”

“Almost!” Buffy called back. “Is Giles here?”

“He's going to meet us at the airport. He had to run by the shop to drop off some books. He's not planning on coming back when we do, and Lydia might need them.”

Buffy climbed up on the bed and took down the print at the very center of the wall. She emptied Spike's duffel, shoved in the small canvas, and repacked his clothes around it. She was almost finished when Dawn came down the stairs.

“Would you hurry up? They aren't going to hold the plane for--” Dawn stopped when she noticed the bare spot on the wall. “You're taking one of them with you?”

“Yep.” She slung the duffel over her shoulder and picked up her suitcase. “The most important one.”

*~*~*

The car came slowly down the long drive, past fields that had been leased out to local farming families for over a century, stopping right in front of the large, stone house. Dawn was the first to speak when they had all climbed out of the car. “Wow. This place looks great. I half expected it to be falling down, as old as it is.”

“Big accounts buy good caretakers, Dawnie,” Buffy said. “They've even bought and placed new linens for us. We just need to hit a grocery store, and we're ready to move in.”

“What I don't understand is why Spike gave a successful farm such a downer of a name,” Tara commented.

“The name is Angel's fault.” Buffy's eyes were on the building before them. “This was Spike's first investment, and the orchard died the year after he bought it. Angel gave him hell about the failure, and nicknamed the place William's Folly. To spite him, Spike made the name official, and had the trees uprooted for ground crops. This was in the early 1890s. It's been profitable almost every year since.”

Giles began unloading baggage from the car. “That certainly wasn't in Lydia Chalmers' thesis.”

Buffy dug Spike's key ring out of her purse. “If she knew what I know, she'd laugh her head off. The houses are in Santa Fe, Barcelona, Bath, Rome, Cleveland, Oslo... Do I need to go on?”

Giles chuckled. “I should have known. All Hellmouth towns, though some of them are now defunct. And Sunnydale, as well?”

“Yeah, they paid off the mortgage as fast and sneakily as they got married,” Dawn said as she looked around worriedly. “Bath is one of the defunct ones, right?”

“No, but it's just a weak one, Dawnie. Barely worth patrolling. Especially these days, with all those trainee watchers around.” Buffy turned the key in the lock. She whispered to herself, “Welcome home, Mrs. Pratt,” as she opened the door.

While Giles brought in their suitcases, Dawn and Tara wandered around the house, inspecting and exploring. Buffy went straight to the kitchen. The new appliances were not the same ones as in her memory, and all the linens were different, but everything else was familiar. She ran her hand along the scratches and scars on the old kitchen table, finding it less marked than she remembered. She brought her hand to rest on the chair in place of the one she remembered Henry occupying, and her eyes to where she remembered first seeing Anne, standing beside a version of her father.

Giles found her there, staring into space with tears rolling down her cheeks, a few minutes later. He put an arm around her. “Did you have to travel halfway around the world to find a place to cry?”

“I think so,” she whispered. She wiped her eyes on her sleeve, taking deep, ragged breaths. “I need to stay on top of things. First, we need to get some groceries into the house.”

“Giles and I can do that,” Tara said from behind them.

Buffy turned around, wiping her eyes again. “Um, that would be great. Giles, do you mind?”

“That's why I'm here: to show you poor, lost Americans around my hometown.” He squeezed the shoulder he still held, trying to get her to smile.

“Does everything look ok, Tara? Lights? Hot water? I need to call Lucy to let her know we've arrived, and she'll want to know how the caretakers did.”

“Everything works and looks fine. You'd never know the house hadn't been lived in for... How long?”

“Um, the last time the house itself was leased out was for couple of years in the '80s. It's always been sporadic. Spike never really wanted this one occupied. He wanted it available for himself, whenever he stopped moving around so much.” Buffy looked around the kitchen again. “But Dru had sand in her shoes, so the dream house got put on hold for over a century. He never lived here.”

Dawn came thumping down the stairs and down the long hallway. “Hey. It's not all farmland. I saw a fenced in backyard from the upstairs windows.”

“Um, yeah. And a big back porch.” Buffy pointed to a wide hallway at the other end of the kitchen. “The back door is through there, Dawnie. Past the laundry equipment. I'm about to call the estate agent. Is everything ok upstairs? Clean and working right?”

“It's fine,” Dawn said as she headed for the back door. “No leaky plumbing. No dust bunnies.”

The words hit Buffy like a punch in the gut. She doubled over, nearly collapsing into a chair, her arms around her middle. “Oh, god. I think I'm going to be sick.” She leaned forward, her forehead on the table. Her voice dropped to a faint whisper. “I don't know if I can do this, Sparky.”

*~*~*

Dawn and Tara stepped out of their respective bedrooms, a few seconds after a scream had woken them. “Ok,” Tara whispered. “So a change of venue is definitely not going to stop the nightmares.”

“Go on back to sleep. It's my turn,” Dawn said tiredly, reaching for the door to the master bedroom. She opened the door, peeked inside, and then closed the door again. “Never mind. She's dialing the phone. It looks like Angel's got this one.”

“I kinda feel sorry for him. He's getting more than his share.”

Dawn waved a hand casually as she headed back to her room. “He's fine. No one is making him answer her calls.”

*~*~*

Dawn looked in the kitchen garbage. “Tara, there's another one.”

Tara put down her coffee cup. “I wish I were surprised.”

“She's still averaging a bottle every other day. We should make her stop.”

“She'll stop when Spike comes home.”

“And if she's wrong, and he doesn't?”

“She's not ready for that conversation. For now, we wait.” Tara sighed. “It's still possible she's right.”

“And how long should we expect to wait?”

“148 days, tops. She'll be ready to talk about it then, if not sooner.”

Dawn looked confused. “Is this another traveler thing?”

“I guess so.” Tara shrugged. “It's something she once told me. While she was dead, Spike kept count of the days. She was gone for 147.”

“Do you think she's counting now?”

“I know she is.”

 

 





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