Chapter Notes:

Talking it out. Piecing it together.

*Will be catching up on review responses over the next few days. Sorry to have fallen behind*


Chapter 45: Puzzle Pieces

May, 2036 (flashback) / June, 2001

Anne slipped her phone into her pocket. “So patrol's over. Come on. We're going to my place. We'll be teleported out from there.” She frowned, realizing something. “Huh. I'll have to invite you in. Present day you hasn't visited me at this apartment.” She shrugged as she started walking. “You know how you are about Brazil.”

“How I am about--? Never mind.” Spike fell into step beside her. “Awfully calm about all this, aren't you?”

She shrugged again. “Nature of the business. These things happen.”

“No,” he said slowly, frowning at her. “They really don't.”

“In this family? Pfft! This is nothing. Mum always says we've turned weird into an art form.”

“Mum,” Spike repeated quietly. “Buffy as a mother...” He shook out of his thoughts. “Don't suppose anyone's heard of another lost traveler roaming about?”

“Aunt Tara says your time's version of Mum is with Henry. I'd have paid to have seen that meeting.

“Why is that?”

“'Cause my brother looks enough like you to pass for your brother.”

“Bloody hell. You're joking.”

Anne shook her head. “Nope. Can you imagine the look on her face when she saw him?” She laughed. “Comedy gold. I'm sorry to have missed it.” She paused, a few yards short of the cemetery gate. “Dad, do you sense that?” she whispered.

“Three of 'em. And maybe you shouldn't call me that 'til I earn the title, pet.”

“Calling you 'Spike' would just be... awkward.” She looked him over. “No coat. You were at home when you got dumped in the wrong decade?”

“Yeah. So much for a quiet evening with the family.”

She pulled a spare stake from a strap at her ankle and tossed it to him. “Lesson the first.”

“Thanks, pet. Guess we taught you well.”

“Well enough to know to call dibs on the biggest one before you have a chance to.”

As they turned to face the approaching vampires, Spike grumbled, “Got your mother's ego, did you?”

“Funny, she always says I got yours.”

*~*~*

Tara called to the kitchen from the sitting room. “Dawnie? It's gotten awfully quiet in there.”

“I'm fine! Is Giles coming over tonight?”

“Not until after dinner. You're only cooking for the three of us.”

“That's good. I don't think I can take hearing any British curse words if I screw this up.”

On the sofa across from Tara, Buffy slouched against the cushions. “Ditto. I hear enough of them in my own head.” She sighed. “Honestly, Giles is here a little too much. It's great having someone who lives close by who knows us, and can help us with cultural details and car stuff, but I'm starting to feel like I need a break from my very, very fired watcher.”

“He means well, Buffy. He's trying to watch over you while you're in mourning.”

“He's hovering. And it's getting a little annoying. What's to watch? I'm just hanging out at home, killing time between meetings at G&H.”

“He's worried about you.” Tara frowned. “And are you saying the Folly is your home now? I thought the plan was to go back to Sunnydale in August.”

“It still is.” Buffy shrugged. “Maybe both are home. You know how I told you this house is a piece of leverage I can use? From that jump forward? It's in part because in that jump, this was our long-term home, not Sunnydale. I think I'm supposed to be here.”

“We aren't just here for negotiating and break-in purposes, are we?”

“No, but that's the part that matters right now. What I saw in that jump -and Whistler offering to work to make sure it happens- is proof, Tara. What will happen in this house matters, like Big Picture matters. ...As if needing another round of suppressants isn't proof enough.”

Tara shifted in her seat. “You have been noticeably brighter lately. ...And um, twitchier.”

“Yeah. And right when I'm trying to cut down on quality time with my buddy Jack, too.” Buffy closed her eyes and sighed. “God, this sucks. I think I'm wearing out the floorboards, between the pacing and the trips to the coat rack to calm the demon. ...I've got to figure out how to get him home. Soon. And without complications.”

“So this is home. You know, I think you've fallen in love with this place as much Spike did.”

“You will, too. It seemed like you lived here in the future. Between what we saw in that jump, and just the feeling of comfort I get here, I kind of think I belong at the Folly, more than anywhere else.”

Tara read the subtext. “And you don't want to go back to Sunnydale.”

“Not without my mate, no.” There was a long silence. “But I will, with or without him. I'll just have to keep going until he comes back, and hope I don't go crazy in the meantime.”

“Are you saying you want me to start working on creating a suppressant variant for one?”

Buffy opened her eyes. “Don't give up on this yet, Tara. I need you with me.”

“I am with you, completely. ...But let's say this doesn't go as quickly as you'd like, and I have to. Create something like that, I mean. Will you actually take it? Or will you... do something else?”

“You think I'm suicidal, don't you?” Buffy narrowed her eyes at her friend. “That's why Giles is hanging so close. He thinks so, too.”

“Sweetie, it's a fair concern.”

“No, it's not. Spike stuck it out when I was gone. He didn't leave Dawnie. I can at least try to do the same. He's going to came back, too, Tara. I can feel it. You can see it.” She gestured around herself. “I'm still lit up like a chosen mate Christmas tree, right?”

“Countdown clock not included.” Tara said pointedly. “What if it takes years to happen?”

“Then we'll find some way to drug me up before I crack up. And we'll go back to Sunnydale. Dawn will finish high school in California, like she's supposed to. After that, who knows? I might have Lucy take custody of my mother's house, rent it out to some poor sucker, and come back here until the wait is over.” Buffy lowered her voice. “If we turn out to be right about Dawnie being headed for Watcher-ville, this house is in the perfect place.”

“Two fields and a fence from the new Watcher's Academy.”

Buffy sat up from her slouch. “Oh! Watchers! I almost forgot! Remind me to call Jenna tomorrow. I need to have her shift some money around again.”

“I don't follow.”

“Lydia called today. Travers is still throwing a tantrum about the idea of paying Faith. I think breaking a convicted murderer out of prison and putting her on the Council's payroll might be just a little too much for him. He's pissed off at me about it, of course. But he also doesn't know I'm gone, so I'm still getting paid. I'm going to have to play the middle man, at least for a while. You know, deposit the Council money, and then turn right around and give it to Faith.”

“That sounds like a pain. But then, so is Mr. Travers.” Tara gave her friend a crooked grin. “I haven't mentioned how impressed I am by how well you're keeping up with everything, dealing with all of your stuff, and all of Spike's. I kind of expected to be carrying more of the load myself.”

“I'm mostly just living off of what he built. Not just money, though knowing I'll never have to be Doublemeat Desperate again is pretty nice. But other stuff. Need fake IDs for Faith? Call Spike's ID guy. Need to get the hell out of Sunnydale for the summer? Go to Spike's house. Need that house prepped for you? Call Spike's estate agent. Need money moved around? Call Spike's banker. Well, Jenna's just an employee, but she handles his stuff. You get the drift.”

“He left you everything you need.”

“Everything but the vamp in question.” Buffy fell silent for a few minutes, her thoughts wandering. When she spoke again, it was in a whisper. “We don't actually talk about it. About what happened.”

“I didn't think you wanted to.”

“Chest or back?”

“Buffy, you do not need to be picturing it. It's bad enough that I do.”

“I already do picture it, Tara. Or have you not heard the screaming in the middle of the night? I'm just asking you to tell me if the spectator dream is accurate. You were there. You're the only one who saw.”

Tara took a deep, slow breath and looked at her hands in her lap. “He'd just untied me. He was straddling the hole in the platform to do it. When I saw Doc had somehow gotten back up there, and was grabbing the scythe, Spike turned around to face him, stepping to just in front of the hole. But there was nowhere else to move. One step anywhere but toward the stake, and he would have fallen. And I guess he didn't want to leave me there, with no one between me and the scythe, because he didn't even try to jump.”

“Jumping was never an option,” Buffy said quietly.

“He could have. It would have hurt, but he would have survived it, same as he survived falling the first time. Instead, he stayed in front of me... He went out a hero, Buffy.”

“I already knew he was,” Buffy whispered. A slow smirk formed on her face. “My Sparky, the cookie-dough eating Champion.”

Tara looked confused. “Cookie dough?”

“Long story.” The smirk faded as quickly as it had come. “That's the thing that keeps me hesitating, afraid to make any big moves. That's why I'm taking my time with this. Obviously, it isn't likely, but what if? What if William the Bloody actually managed to earn himself a ticket to heaven? I'd be the worst person in the world if I were to get him pulled out. I've been through all of that. I wouldn't wish it on Quentin freakin' Travers, and I hate that guy almost as much as I hate Whistler.”

“If he did manage it... There's another way out, you know. The way I left.”

“Voluntary.”

“You know he'd rather be here.”

“The demon would. What about the man?”

“They both call you mate, Buffy, just in different ways.”

“My mate-desperate inner demon agrees with you. The slayer who was ripped out of heaven? She's not so sure it's that simple.” Buffy slouched back onto the sofa cushions. “Nine months of our lives spent on this mission, changing the world to save it, and I blew it. I missed the most obvious contingency, because I didn't think it was possible. Cocky on his behalf, as well as on my own, I guess.”

“We didn't have any reason to think he'd take more than a bad fall.”

“Well, we should have thought of it. I should have thought of it. I was so focused on the idea of him being left behind being the better option than us both going, I never stopped to consider that I could be the one left behind. I mean, what are the odds? Spike, who hadn't died since the first time, all the way back in 18 freakin' 80, or me, who racked up three deaths in about five years, one of them from that very same place and time?”

“Hey, guys?” Dawn called from the kitchen. “Dinner's almost ready, but I have my hands full. Can one of you come in here and set the table?”

Both women got up and walked to the kitchen, but Buffy stopped in the doorway, a realization hitting her. “A dinner party.”

“I wouldn't call this a dinner party. It's just the three of us,” Dawn said, opening the oven.

“A missing guest.”

“Oh, sweetie...” Tara reached toward Buffy to put an arm around her shoulders, but Buffy held her hand up to stop her.

“He said, 'And you're the missing guest at a dinner party with the bosses.'” Buffy looked up at them, a huge smile forming on her face as the pieces started falling into place. “I told Spike I thought it meant he was supposed to be ...gone. Whistler didn't argue, and the conversation moved on. We just filed it away as meaning that our suspicions were right, that the amulet was probably lethal, and didn't give it any additional thought.” She grabbed Tara by the shoulders, shaking her excitedly. “If that was a part of the plan then, it probably didn't change. There was no reason for it to change. In fact, there's more reason for it now than there was then, because the cookie dough-eating Champion has proven himself!”

“Buffy, you aren't making any sense. We already knew they had contingencies...”

“No! For what happens in between! 'A dinner party with the bosses' doesn't sound anything like the allegedly eternal rest I was signed up for. You?”

Tara shook her head.

“No. It doesn't. It sounds like work. That's not eternal rest, by any definition.”

Dawn took off her oven mitts. “Tara, has she been drinking again?”

Tara shook her head again, still being gripped by the shoulders.

“Tara, I'm sure of it. It's safe for us to pursue this. Spike's not in heaven. He's on a job.”

“I think she's lost it, Dawnie.”

“I haven't, I swear. If he's not in heaven, that means we can force their hand, without screwing him up like I got screwed up. We can get him home sooner.” She looked into Tara's eyes as she eased her grip, remembering something from a dream. “...And I think I just figured out how we can actually use our leverage. It's all starting to make sense now.”

“What? How?”

“We're going to use what we've been given. I'll be right back. I'm about to fall from another handstand.” Buffy took off like a shot, running upstairs to the master bedroom.

Whistler appeared in the kitchen. “Hey, Glow Girls. Where's the Queen of Violence and Silence?”

“She'll be right back,” Tara said distractedly, still staring at the place Buffy had been standing.

“Maybe you can make her make sense,” Dawn muttered. “You know, before she starts punching you.”

Buffy came running back to the kitchen with a scythe in her hand. She pulled a chair away from the table. “Here, Whistler, have a seat.”

He hesitated, sensing something not quite right about the offer.

Buffy pointed at the chair with her scythe. Her tone shifted abruptly, suddenly far less friendly. “I said sit, demon.”

Whistler sat.

She stood next to him, her scythe on the table. She ran her hand the length of it, blade to stake. “You know, we still can't tell the difference between them. The Guardian said we eventually would. My theory? We'll know after the claim. In the meantime, I don't even know which one of them it was that...” The blade was suddenly poised at Whistler's throat. “Do you?”

She chuckled at the fear in his eyes. “Oops. I guess I forgot to mention that I figured that out, too. Punches and kicks don't hurt you, but these little beauties are loaded up with power -some of it from your plane of existence. A little PTB power should be able to take down a PTB agent, right? From the look on your face, I'm going to say yes. And from the not disappearing, I'm going to guess they mitigate your power all around.” She gave him a cold smile. “That's good. I think I like that.”

Whistler's voice was barely a whisper. “How-- How did you...?”

“You gave it away the first time I raised one of them toward you. You looked scared. And you've never teleported near them. Ever. Upstairs, near the laundry, near the punching bag, and frequently near the foot of the bed. But never near the scythe case on the dresser. You never showed up when we were carrying them, until the tower, when you had to.

“Even then, you didn't teleport after Tara punched you. You stayed for a round from me, when your usual habit is to poof after round one. You didn't have to give me an opening to pummel you, but you did. Why? It wasn't pity. You made it very clear you didn't feel sorry for us in the least. You had to wait to teleport, didn't you? She was still holding one of the scythes in her other hand, and you couldn't disappear until she had taken a step back and I had kicked you an extra foot or two away.” The cold smile took on a vicious glint. “What's the matter, demon? Don't you like my pretty little toys?”

“Buffy, are you sure about this?” Dawn sounded nervous as she eyed the blade at the agent's throat.

“Oh, I'm sure. Very sure. This is answer we've been waiting for. Hell, this might be all the answers, or at least a bunch of them.” She turned back to Whistler. “You know, I thought 'the twins must be wielded' was part of the 'go home' message, part of my leverage to remind the PTB why Spike needs to be here, but it apparently had a double meaning, just like telling me to let Tara stand in had a double meaning. The question is, why would the PTB send me dream tips on how to kill your kind? Answer: they wouldn't. Someone hijacked my direct PTB line when we came back in time, didn't they?” She pulled the blade an inch away from his throat, so he could safely speak. “Who?”

“The Guardian of the Legacy. You've been out of her jurisdiction since your first death, but she found a way to reach you... She's got a problem with how the bosses have handled you over the years. Are handling you.” Whistler's eyes were locked on the blade. “And with me.”

“Smart woman,” Tara said. “I knew I liked her.”

“Me, too.” Buffy shifted the blade back to Whistler's throat. “I should have figured out a long time ago that the time traveling slayer dreams were unnaturally helpful. You and your bosses have never been so generous with your info.”

He tried to lean his chair away from the blade, but Buffy brought her foot down on the front edge of his seat, right between his knees, slamming his chair back down. He jerked forward on the impact, and would have sliced his own throat if Buffy hadn't moved the scythe back again.

“Who's sending the spectator dream? And the memory dream of my old timeline?”

“No one, kid. That's all in your own head. Man, you've got issues.”

“Probably. What's the job?”

“I don't know what you're talking about.”

“Like hell, you don't. You know I've figured it out. Now be straight with me for once. What's the job your bosses have him on?”

“It's not a job, exactly. More like a job interview.”

“Whistler, the man is a century and a half old. If you're doing case histories...” Buffy tightened her grip on the scythe. “I don't have that kind of time. Details. Now.”

Whistler sighed. “I can't tell you what he's doing.”

“What can you tell me?”

“It's... It's nothing. He won't even remember it.”

She narrowed her eyes on him. “Why not?”

“He doesn't need to. He's just taking care of some little projects, same as you did for the first part of the time you were gone. That's why you don't recall much more than fuzzy emotions, if you were wondering. You had some memory wiping, too.” He bit his lip at the near growl from Buffy's throat. “The um, interview process is sort of a... an internship, I guess you could call it.”

“So Althenea was right,” Tara murmured. “This is about an agent assignment.”

“How long?”

“Weeks. Years. Who knows?” Whistler shrugged. “Time doesn't mean all that much to the bosses. I can't give you a date, Pratt. It doesn't work that way.”

The blade was back at his throat. “I'll tell you how it works, demon. It's been 32 days. That leaves exactly 115 days for you and your bosses to get your shit together and send him back, or I swear, I'll visit on you every single torture memory I've ever been given. Including the scarabs.”

Tara stepped closer. “And you won't make him pay for the return trip, in any way. At this point, I'm pretty sure you're the ones who owe them.

Buffy eased the blade another inch closer. “Agreed. If you assholes want us to be your bloody puppets, there's nothing we can do to stop you. I know you'll force us into it, somehow. But I'll be damned if I'm going to let you charge us in sweat and misery for the privilege.”

She leaned in close to the blade, eye to eye with him, her voice chillingly low. “If I don't get Spike back, I'll go and get him. And I will leave a bloody, gory mess in my wake that will make it look like the First stopped by for a picnic.” She stepped away, taking the scythe with her. “Go, minion. Consult with your masters.”

Whistler vanished.

Buffy put her scythe down on the table and turned to her housemates. “So, should I set the table?”

“Wow...” Dawn shook her head. “That was... That was like, full-on bad ass.”

Her sister took a bow and came up with a shrug. “It helps that I kinda mean it.”

“Ok,” Tara said, giggling away her tension. “Now it's funny.”

“What's funny?”

“You, talking like Spike. 'Bloody puppets'?”

“I told you I had his words in my head, didn't I? But even with Spike's words, I think I was mostly channeling my own inner demon.” She smiled to herself as pieces continued to fall into place in her head. “Letting it roar.”

“I'll say!” Dawn said, still visibly impressed.

Buffy pulled three plates from a cabinet, and was just getting them to the table, when Whistler flashed back into the room. She traded the plates for her weapon. “Well?”

“Your request... is being considered.” He took a step backward. “Just watch it with that thing, will you? Maclay, can't you restrain her or something? A month without her mate, and she's already cracking up. Maybe another dose of that suppressant?”

Buffy edged closer to him, backing him up against the counter.

Tara shrugged. “Sorry. No Spike, no suppressant. That spell only works with both subjects.”

Whistler looked for support. “Summers? Can't you charm your sister into not holding that thing so close? Come on, Glow Girl, help me out.”

Dawn crossed her arms over her chest. “Sorry, that's out of my league. But you know who can keep her in check? My brother in law.”

Buffy raised the scythe over Whistler. “Let's make this simple.” She brought the flat side of the blade down on his head. He went down in an unconscious heap. “Tara, find me some rope. Dawnie, go get the other scythe.” She tilted her head to the ceiling. “Any agents listening, this is now officially a hostage situation! Prisoner exchange, only! No negotiations.”

*~*~*

Whistler was tied to a chair with one scythe entwined in the ropes at his back. The chair was pushed up against the table, leaving his drooping head hanging over the other scythe near the table's edge. The women dined around him, making light conversation about Dawn's improving kitchen prowess.

Tara got up to clear the table. “You realize Giles will be here soon, right?”

“Yeah, Buffy, I think he's going to freak when he finds out you've taken a PTB agent hostage. He'll think you're ready for the funny farm.”

“Been there, done that. Twice. Sort of.” Buffy was studying the prisoner. “Dawnie, run upstairs and get a bandana or something for me, please. I need to make sure we can shut him up when he comes to.”

“Oh, yeah. Giles heart attack, here we come.”

*~*~*

When Giles knocked on the front door of the farmhouse at William's Folly, he was surprised by the sly grin on the face of the woman who answered. “Tara? Is something going on?”

She ushered him in. “We're hanging out in the kitchen tonight, Giles. Join us.”

When he walked into the kitchen, he found Buffy sitting at the table, playing cards with Dawn. The agent he'd met below Glory's tower was in a neighboring chair, bound and gagged.

Whistler looked up at Giles, his eyes wide with desperation. “Mmm! Mmm!”

Buffy poured herself a shot of whiskey, ignoring the noise. “Do you have any twos?”

“Go fish.” Dawn took a sip of her Coke. “Hi, Giles. We'll deal you in for the next game.”

“Buffy...” Giles asked faintly. “What is the meaning of this?”

“What? Him?” Buffy made the gestures of introduction. “Giles, former watcher. Whistler, current hostage.”

“You're holding an agent of the Powers hostage.” Giles looked ill. “Oh, dear lord. What have you gotten yourself into?”

Dawn laughed. “I think the better question is, what's gotten into Buffy? I'm telling you, this is going to end in funny farm tickets all around.”

Giles took the gag off.

“Thanks.” Whistler turned to Buffy. “Have you lost your marbles, Pratt? You do not play games with the bosses. This kind of stuff runs on their schedule, not yours. Maclay, I know you're a decent person. Will you get these things away from me, so I can leave? I'll even let you punch me again.”

Tara ignored him. “Giles, would you like something to drink?”

Giles looked to Buffy. “What is this all about?”

“Getting Spike back.” Buffy said casually.

Giles dropped into a chair. His eyes fell on the whiskey bottle. “Tara, just a glass with ice, please.”

“Summers? Please? Just get the weapons away. You don't even have to untie me.”

“Sure, I can do that. As soon as Spike gets home. Buffy, do you have any sixes?”

“Thank you, Tara.” Giles filled his glass. “Buffy... One of the stages of grief is bargaining. It's quite normal. But I'm not sure this... Oh, dear lord. Buffy, he's an agent of the Powers.”

Buffy handed her sister a card. “I'm not bargaining. I'm not negotiating at all. This is a straight up trade. His bosses get theirs when I get mine. Easy.”

Giles looked at Dawn and Tara. “And you're supporting this insanity?”

Tara shrugged. “I guess it does look a little nuts from the outside, but it was only a matter of time before something happened. I didn't expect it to be this, but something was bound to happen.”

Giles took a sip of his drink, putting things together in his mind. “That's why you came here. This isn't a place to grieve. ...It's a place to make a stand.”

“Well, I really did need to get out of Sunnydale for a while.” Buffy drained her glass. “But I was kind of hoping to not go home a widow.”

There was a blue flash in the room, and a stranger was leaning against the refrigerator. “You're every bit the firecracker Angel said you were,” the man said in a distinctly Irish accent.

Buffy was on her feet, one hand hovering close to the scythe on the table. “You know Angel.”

“Eh, 'knew' might be more accurate.” He held out a hand. “The name's Doyle.”

She shook it. “The guy with the visions. Cordy's doing ok with them, in case you haven't heard.”

“I get updates now and again. Nice to hear it from someone else, though.” He nodded to Whistler. “You gotta cut him loose, sweetheart. This isn't gonna get your husband back.”

Buffy pulled her hand back. “They sent you to negotiate.”

“Did you think this was a social call?”

“I'm not going to bend on this. Whistler has already confirmed that I'm right. Spike's not... where I thought he might be.”

“That's what I expected to you say.” Doyle nodded to Whistler. “How long do you plan to keep him?”

“As long as it takes.”

“You're not giving any ground at all?”

“I have two scythes, Doyle. I'd hate to have to babysit two hostages, but I'll do it.”

He held up his hands in surrender. “Hey, hey! I'm just doing what I was told. I guess they were hoping you'd be a little more flexible for a friend of the family.”

“I can't be, Doyle. I'm sorry.”

“And I get that. Really. I wouldn't have even asked if I didn't have to.”

Buffy took his hand again. “I'll tell Angel and Cordy you said hello, ok?”

“You stay in touch?”

“Lately, I talk to Angel almost daily. It's not normally this frequent, but he's been checking in, you know, since...”

“Since you lost your chosen mate. Angel's a bit of a mess in some ways, but he's a good friend to have.” Doyle squeezed her hand. “I'll ask to be the one sent if there's any other message, alright?”

“Thank you.” Buffy pulled her hand away, and Doyle disappeared.

“So you're nice to him.”

“Shut up, Whistler.”

*~*~*

Buffy sat the back porch steps, the phone held to her ear as she stared up at the cloudy morning sky. “He even offered to be the one to make any other house calls while I'm holding Whistler, but there's really nothing to say.”

“Did Doyle tell you you were crazy? Someone needs to.”

“Everyone else beat him to it. Angel, the suppressant is gone. It may not be long before you're all literally right about me. Meanwhile, something's already different. I don't know if it has anything to do with the bond and the separation, or if it's... just me. I've been feeling different, twitchy and angry. Like the spectator dream rage isn't totally fading away after I wake up anymore. It's sort of always there, lately. Just below the surface.”

“You haven't been drinking as much, Buffy. You're starting to let yourself feel things. ...To feel the demon and its needs.”

“The voice of experience.”

“Sort of. Mine never chose a mate, but I definitely understand the concept.”

“So you aren't going to yell at me for pulling an impulsive, Spike-style stunt?”

“You know I've got your back on this, even if you have cracked up, but...” Angel sighed into the phone. “This isn't... right, Buffy. There are some things you just don't challenge. Period. The plans of the Powers pretty much top the list.”

“But this is right, Angel,” she argued. “This is what all the cryptic babble from various seers has been about: That I'm going to have to cross this line to get where I'm going. I've figured it all out. Dru was sure the claim would happen, and that what I'd learn about this house would be important. Althenea was sure there was a long term PTB job at the end of all this, either the Glory mess specifically, or the time-travel mission in general. She strongly implied we were being tested. And it's really starting to look that way.

“Whistler hinted at the job thing almost a year ago, but I didn't understand it at the time. Now, he's confirmed it, sort of. Whatever they've got Spike working on as a test run might be important. Hell, it might even be the same thing I worked on when I died, for all I know. But maybe we're both still being tested. Maybe... Maybe this is my final exam. How does this old slayer hold up on her own after years of leaning on Spike?”

“Maybe seeing if you can handle the absence gracefully is the real test. I'm pretty sure taking Whistler hostage is bad for your agent prospects, in either case.”

“Probably, but that's a risk I accept. Because for me? Sitting back and taking it like I have been is far worse than what I'm doing now. ...What the spirit guide told me is what really matters.”

“'Death will bring you to your gift.'”

“She said it was about power. The power of memory. The power of experience. Those are the same words I used when I described the under-utilized benefits of having an immortal lieutenant. She was talking about time, Angel. The gift Spike offered, and I put off, mostly because I was afraid it would be me on the tower. This is going to bring me to my gift. This is how I'm forging strength from my pain, how I'm reaching the demon within myself, and letting it roar. I have to pose a challenge to higher beings. This is what the spirit guide was telling me I'd have to do to be brought to my gift. I'm sure of it.”

“And how long are you willing to go, to test this theory? The Powers aren't known for quick, direct responses, Buffy. I don't know how much holding one agent is going to change that.”

“Plan A is to try to hold out as long as Spike did. Another 114 days. If there's nothing soon, I might have to change tactics... and Plan B won't be pretty. The inner demon is going to do some serious roaring. As soon as they realize I'm not messing around, they'll cave. This may not take long at all.”

“And if you're wrong? If this drags on for months?”

“Then I need to figure out how to transport my hostage, with a scythe tied to him, halfway around the world. We have to be back in Sunnydale before school starts, you know. Maybe I can bribe someone from the Devon coven to teleport him.”

“I wish I had your confidence. If this comes crashing down on you... Buffy, you know they're all about balancing the scales. Sometimes, that's just a nice way of saying retribution.”

“Angel, seriously, you don't have to worry. I'm on the right track.”

“I could try to negotiate something, talk to the hostage for you. He knows me. Where is he right now?”

“Right now, Dawnie's supervising him washing the breakfast dishes while he has a scythe strapped to his back, because he was bitching about being tied to a chair. So I guess he's a guestage now.”

“He's a what?”

She sighed. “Never mind. It's just an old joke from another time.”

“Something Spike would get.”

“Have I mentioned this sucks? For a ton of reasons, obviously, but that's one of them. No one else gets my language anymore. I'll tell you what isn't right: those cloud-hopping wankers figuring it's perfectly alright to break up a time-travel team. So, so stupid.”

“Wow... You're really channeling Spike tonight. How much have you had to drink?”

“Angel, it's morning here. I'm not that bad. Lately. It's just... He's in my head, you know? Not in a direct way, obviously, or I wouldn't still be here, but his voice, his phrases, it's all crammed in my head, and I sometimes feel like the words have to be spoken, have to be heard...” Buffy bit her lip, making a decision. “Can I tell you a secret?”

“You know you can.”

“I talk to him. Daily. Like, out loud. Full-on crazy person.”

There was a brief silence. “I'll have to check flight times, and probably have to deal with at least one big layover, to make sure I'm not in the air during daylight hours, but I can be there by tomorrow.”

“Yeah, I definitely shouldn't have told you that.”

“I think I'm entitled to be worried, Buffy. Now more than ever.”

“I didn't say he was responding. I'm not that crazy. And I don't need another babysitter. That's what Tara and Dawnie are for. And Giles is spending almost half his waking hours here, besides. He's watching the crazy widow like a hawk.”

“I still think you need me. There. Not just all these phone calls.”

“Angel, no. I appreciate it, but do you have any idea what kind of tantrum Spike would throw if he came back to find you in his house with me? Speaking of people not surviving a war...”

“Good point. You know, if this plan works.”

“If it doesn't, Plan B will. I should go. I need to make sure Dawn hasn't beaten up the guestage. He's pretty annoying, and she's been training. I'll talk to you tomorrow?”

“Of course. I'd tell you to stay out of trouble, but you're apparently still out looking for it.” He sighed. “Some days, I wonder if Spike's brought out the worst in you.”

“Right now, that's probably a compliment. I need all the bad ass, wild, reckless vamp vibes I can get. As for staying out of trouble, I'm sure you've pissed off a higher power once or twice in your time, and you're still ok. I will be, too.”

 





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