The long, transatlantic plane ride, followed by the drive to Sunnydale, had given Buffy time to recover her equilibrium and begin to integrate her memories – both the good memories and the ones she'd feared reclaiming (but not feared nearly enough, to her dismay). Despite having shaken off the worst of it, her legs still trembled as she stepped from the car and made her way to the sturdy, towering chain-link fence that surrounded her former hometown. She hooked her fingers through the links and stared out at the vast crater below.
The sight left her with an odd sense of duality. Her body had climbed out of that crater.
But she hadn't.
Buffy turned around, and took a startled step backwards when she noticed Xander and Willow standing nearby, gazing anxiously at her. Her pleasure at seeing her friends, in what could literally be called the first time in years, was tempered by the intrusiveness of their presence.
She studied them in silence. With her memories intact, she could see how they'd aged in the intervening years. Willow had grown her hair back out to high school length, and looked more self-possessed than Buffy remembered, while Xander had lost the softness he'd acquired during his final years in Sunnydale. She wondered what changes time had wrought to her.
"Hi," Willow said with a little finger waggle.
"Hey," Buffy said back. They looked at her, and she at them.
"Is everything…?" Xander knocked his fist to his temple.
Buffy nodded. "Got all my memories back. Even the ones I could've done without."
"I'm sorry," Willow said, grimacing with sympathy.
"Nah, it's good. Weird, but good." Or, it would be eventually. She hoped. Buffy frowned at them. "How'd you guys get here?"
"Air Willow." Xander extended his arms and dipped them from side to side like a kid pretending to be an airplane. "Makes me want to upchuck everything I've ever eaten, ever, but beats waiting in security lines."
Willow slanted a glance at the chauffeur leaning against the Bentley, talking on his phone. "How about you?" she said. "How'd you get here without a passport?"
"Turns out three is the magic number for stalkery vampires obsessed with Buffy," Buffy said. "But this one has a private jet, so I'm not complaining."
Xander took in her faint blush with a concerned expression. "You're not thinking of going for the trifecta of relationships with dead guys are you?"
Buffy shook her head. "Roland is – charming. But no. Not even a little. No soul, zero conscience. Been there, done that, really don't recommend it." She brightened. "You don't think he'd get a soul if I asked nicely, do you?"
"Doubt it," Willow said. "He's no Spike."
With curled lip, Xander added, "I can't believe I'm going to say this, but Spike's… unique. I don't think any other vamp would do what he did, not even for you, Buffster."
She sighed. "Yeah, I know. It was just a thought." She looked back at the Bentley. "Too bad. I could get used this kind of pampering."
Willow laughed, and Xander chuckled a little before turning somber once more. "So," he said. "We were just stopping by to make sure you were okay. See if you needed any help."
Buffy surged forward to hug them both, and they wrapped their arms around her in return. "Thanks guys. I appreciate it. I think I just need some time to –" She waved her hand at the crater.
"Say goodbye," Willow said, and Buffy nodded.
"Do you guys want to come back with me? Plenty of room on the jet."
"And miss the fun of my insides roiling violently? Please," Xander said. He handed Buffy her cell phone, along with her wallet and passport. "Call us if you need anything."
"We'll be waiting for you when you get back," Willow added.
Xander shuffled his feet, and with an apologetic half-smile, said, "You are coming back, right?"
Buffy grimaced. "Yes," she said emphatically. "I'm done running. Tell Dawn – oh, god, Dawn, is she – ?"
"She's fine," Willow said. "Worried about you, but not wigging. Too busy panicking about her history test this week to wig over you disappearing without a word."
Was that a hint of resentment? Buffy suppressed a sigh. In all fairness, she deserved it. "I was going to call –"
"Look, we all get it, why you ran. It's no big. I mean it's big, momentous, but –"
"We understand," Xander cut in.
"All we care about is that you're safe. And," Willow added with a slight grin, "Dawn also wants you to know that she doesn't care if you're having an identity crisis, it's still your turn to clean the bathroom whenever you get back."
Buffy snorted. "Talk about lack of incentive."
Willow grinned and hugged her one more time, then grabbed Xander's hand. "Okay, well, if you're...?" At a nod from Buffy, they disappeared with a pop.
The chauffeur, who'd been watching them, didn't even blink.
Buffy turned back to her craterized hometown, her disorientation returning. Years had passed since she'd been here last.
And no time at all.
She remained frozen for a long time, contemplating the shadows as they lengthened across the crater, trying to reconcile her anger with Lindsey and her affection for him. Trying to reconcile who she'd been and who she'd become in the absence of the memories he'd stolen from her.
Not too different, she thought. Not in the end.
Stooping, she picked up a handful of pebbles and tossed them out into the void. They fell a long time. Buffy wasn't sure how long; she couldn't hear when they hit bottom.
When the wind picked up with the setting of the sun, she made her way back to the car. Holding the back door open, the chauffeur said, "Where to, Miss?"
Where to, indeed? Buffy wasn't ready to return to England, not tonight, but she was done here. Maybe her L.A. apartment was still unoccupied. With the painted glyphs on the doorjamb, odds were it had been forgotten and stood empty.
Buffy took one last, lingering look back at the crater as the sun slipped below the horizon. She turned away, and climbed into the back seat. "Los Angeles."
Suitcase handle gripped tightly in one fist, Buffy stumbled up the walk and into the flat. She'd been across the world and back twice in two weeks now – the second time by commercial coach, which was far less comfortable than Roland's private plane – and jet lag was making itself felt in spite of her Slayer constitution. Not to mention the emotional strain of the past two weeks.
First had come the reunions with her sister and friends, where she'd reaffirmed the relationships she'd already begun to repair these past few months. Returning home to Dawn after her panicked flight to Sunnydale had been emotional, but simple. Like slipping a favorite jacket over a cute new top, and finding the combination was even better than as separates.
Her reunion with Willow and Xander, less so. The three of them had grown apart, even Willow from Xander, and it was painful to realize that the new distance between them was a much a part of growing up as it was the result of her memory loss. They'd built new lives since Sunnydale – lives that didn't center on her or her mission. But the ties were there, too strong to be broken by distance and time, or by fake Watchers with minimal consciences, waiting for Buffy to build on them.
Seeing Giles again, with new-old eyes, had been harder still. There were lingering resentments on both sides, unresolved before the final battle in Sunnydale, and certainly not resolved since. Not to mention new ones on both their parts. But she'd tried, and he'd tried. There'd been ice cream, and maybe she was a bit too old to be bought off by an afternoon at the ice cream parlour and a triple-decker hot fudge sundae anymore, but it had felt good just the same. Promising. Like maybe their relationship was tentative and fragile, but they'd figure it out. She didn't think they'd ever recapture their old bond, but as Xander had pointed out, people changed. Relationships changed. She and Giles would be navigating the minefield of her growing up and becoming an adult – and him becoming the head of the very Council they'd both quit – for a long time yet. It wasn't the amnesia's fault. It was just life.
But if all that hadn't been hard enough, Buffy had followed it with an unbearably intense week with Angel. A week she wasn't ready to think about right now. The gamut of emotions she'd experienced during that time hadn't helped her exhaustion any, and she was spent. Beyond spent.
"Dawnie?" she rasped as she shut the front door.
Dawn thundered down the stairs. "Buffy! Hi!" She took the suitcase from her sister and led her to the kitchen, where she pressed a bowl of warm chicken noodle soup into her hands. When Buffy began to eat, a robotic automation of spoon to mouth, Dawn said, "So. How'd it go with Angel? You were there much longer than you expected."
Buffy set her half-empty bowl on the counter. "It was – emotional. Exhausting," she said, wavering on her feet.
"I bet." Shooing her out of the kitchen, Dawn said, "Bed for you. You can tell me about it tomorrow."
"Thanks." Buffy climbed the stairs, and barely managed to shuck off her boots before she fell into bed, dead to the world.
Dawn rolled to a halt outside Spike's flat, but left the car idling. "You up for this?" she said, taking in Buffy's downcast eyes and the way she was picking apart her hem.
"Uh huh," Buffy said, without looking up.
"It'll be okay. It's just Spike…"
"Spike is many things," Buffy said. "But I don't think he's ever been just Spike." At least not to her. Mortal enemy, reluctant ally, pain in her ass, secret lover, and closest confidant, yes.
Just Spike, no.
"It'll still be okay. Getting out of the car is going to be the hardest part, I promise."
"Uh huh," Buffy said again, tight eyes staring out the window at the front door.
Dawn reached across and opened Buffy's door, then none-too-gently shoved her out it. "I'll be hanging down at the pub if you need me." She roared off, leaving Buffy alone on the sidewalk.
Right. She was the Slayer. The one and only Buffy Summers. She could face a vampire.
Not just any vampire, her brain reminded her. Spike.
Buffy threw her shoulders back and marched inside. She smoothed down her skirt, which had provided more than adequate coverage when she left home, but had somehow magically shrunk on the drive here. Her blouse had also morphed into something far too revealing. Buffy crossed her arms over it, then uncrossed them. Taking a deep breath, she raised her fist to knock.
The door opened before she could connect. She stared from Spike and his duffel to his ransacked room, and back again. "Spike?" she said, resisting the urge to cross her arms once more.
He leaned against the doorjamb, expression inscrutable. "Slayer," he said. "What brings you by?"
The cold flatness of his voice left her flummoxed. Unable to come up with anything more clever, she said, simply, "You."
Spike looked her up and down. "Just pop by for a quick visit on your way elsewhere?"
"Um. No?" She crossed her arms over her chest, defending herself against his belligerent glare. "I was hoping we could… talk?" Buffy glanced at his bag once more. "Were you going somewhere?"
Spike shrugged. "So talk," he said.
Buffy hugged herself more tightly. "Wow. This is so not going the way I thought it would."
"And how'd you envision this little scenario? Me falling at your feet?"
"More civilized," she snapped, fed up with Spike's hostility. She'd finally gotten up the courage to talk to him, and wasn't about to let his random moodiness scare her out of it. Buffy grabbed his arm and hauled him inside, and with a splayed hand to his chest, shoved him backwards to sit on the couch.
She hovered over him, glaring. "You're pissed at me," she said.
"Aren't you observant."
"You know, the snark's less attractive than you think. Care to tell me why you're pissed at me?"
Spike surged to his feet. "Maybe I'm tired of being treated like dirt, Slayer. Thought we'd played that scene out years ago."
"How am I –"
"I dunno," he said, flinging his arms out. "Maybe by stopping by to see every single other person on the entire bloody planet except yours truly? Leaving me off until weeks later?"
Oh. That was what he thought? The big dummy. "Or maybe I was terrified."
Her hushed admission cut his ranting short. "Terrified of what?" he said, eyes boring into hers.
Buffy looked down at his boots. "Can we sit? Unless..." She glanced at his duffel again.
Spike heaved a tremendous sigh. "Sit," he said, pointing to one end of the couch, and perched on the arm on the opposite end.
She sat, and wrapped her hands in the hem of her shirt, then let go and folded them in her lap. "I – I had a lot of thinking to do, you know. After – everything. It's not easy merging two different realities into one." Spike remained silent, and she took a fortifying breath. "I had to sort things out. Sort out who I was, what I wanted."
"And did you?"
"I don't know." Buffy looked up to see Spike shredding a cigarette, his gaze fastened to his knees, and she smiled a little. Knowing he wasn't quite as blasé as he was pretending to be made it easier to go on. "I think I squared things away with the others. Dawn, Giles, Xander and Willow. And Angel," she added. "I had a lot of things to sort out with Angel."
Buffy let his snide tone roll off of her. "Angel and I spent a lot of time talking. And in the end, I – we – decided that we were over." She willed him to look at her, and when he met her eyes, she said, "He's not the man for me."
"Oh I see. Decided it was too dangerous, so you've come for the consolation prize?" He stood. "Well, forget it."
She moved to intercept his storming off. "No, you idiot." Buffy threw out her hands. "God, have you always been this self-involved?"
"You're one to talk."
"Sometimes," she admitted.
Spike narrowed his eyes. When she didn't back down, he perched on the arm once more. "Go on."
She leaned against the other arm. "When Angel called, wanting to see me, I went. I knew he – our past – was something I had to deal with. And better sooner than later." Like ripping off a bandage. Buffy would've gladly put it off, forever, but that wasn't what mature, non-amnesiacs who were trying to get their life in order did, right? "So I went to LA with the intention of putting a future between us to rest. I knew Angel was hoping for a relationship now that I have my memories back, and he didn't take me suggesting otherwise too well. He thought he should have a chance to prove we still had something. And I thought, well that's fair. I mean, we hadn't much been around each other for a long time. Maybe we just needed some time to reconnect, you know?" She shrugged. "Old dreams die hard. I didn't want to spend the rest of my life wondering 'what if'."
"So you two back together now?" Spike said. "That why you were so afraid to see me, thought you'd hurt my poor widdle feelings?"
Buffy laughed. She couldn't help it. "Um, that would be a no. After a few days of enforced quality time, it became pretty clear Angel and I are a thing of the past. Even he had to admit it."
"Oh," Spike said. His eyes burned a little brighter, but beyond that, his expression remained neutral. Buffy was impressed – his poker face was usually far from poker-y.
"Did you know he has a kid? An actual human – ish – kid? That I never knew about?" Spike's mouth tightened, and she shook her head. Focus, Buffy. "Point being, we've grown up. Grown past each other. And anyway, even before I left to see him, I was pretty sure my heart belonged to somebody else. Spending time with Angel confirmed it."
Spike blinked. "Is that right?" He didn't give her anything else to go on, clearly determined to make her work for it.
Well, fine. She could be the one to do the speech thing, this time around. "I have recently rediscovered you and I also have a – past," she said, opting for the most neutral term. "A very messy, convoluted past. Which made coming here, to talk to you, way harder. I thought everything would be easier once I got my memories back, but it isn't. Bringing it back meant reliving it all over again, which is even less fun than it sounds like."
Spike grimaced, his aloofness quickly melting into dismay. He opened his mouth – she could guess for what – and Buffy cut him off with a slash of her hand. She had already re-assessed and then come to terms with everything that had happened between them in the bad old days, and didn't want to focus on that just now. It could wait until later. Assuming there was a later for them.
"Leaving aside the long list of memories that would give nightmares the cold sweats, there's the fact that nothing has actually changed for me. I mean, I've figured some things out, but I still don't know who I am, or what I want. I really thought my path would be laid out before me. But no, that would be too easy. I still have no clue." With a pout, she said, "It sucks, majorly."
Spike huffed out a dry laugh. "Welcome to the real world, Slayer." His expression had gone neutral once more, but his eyes were as bright and focused as ever.
Buffy dropped her gaze to the floor. "And then there's the abandonment issues I didn't know I had until now. Makes it even harder to tell someone I love them. It seems to be a surefire way to get guys to head for the hills."
She looked up to find him studying her, head cocked. Buffy stared back. "Or they tell me I don't really mean it," she said pointedly.
Spike flinched and looked away, but didn't say anything. She was starting to get a little freaked out by his continued terseness.
"So. You'll forgive me if I don't say the words right now. Even if I'm thinking them."
His gaze whipped back to her face. He swallowed, Adam's apple bobbing, gaslamp eyes burning into her.
Buffy swallowed too, toying with her hem once more. "I – I have a lot of things I still need to figure out. Like what I'm going to do with my life now that it's mine again. What I want to be when I grow up. But there's one thing I know for sure. I've gotten to know the real you, Spike, twice now. Even after Lindsey brainwashed me to despise you, I saw who you really were. Strong. Loyal. Stubborn. A friend. A hero. You've been there for me, for my sister, even when there was nothing in it for you. And the real you is somebody I want in my life. It's – terrifying." She held her hand over her heart. "But real. Even before I got my memories back, I knew I – cared about you."
Spike stared at her, his wondering, disbelieving expression painful to witness. She reached out her foot and poked the toe of his boot with hers. "You can say something any time now."
He shook his head. "I'm still waiting for the punch line. Figure there'll be a 'but' any moment now."
Her hands clenched into fists. She'd screwed up by letting her fears keep her away, she got that now, but this was getting ridiculous. Buffy knew one well-aimed punch would break him out of his melodramatic self-pity routine, and likely progress their relationship to the next level too. But they'd spent the past several months building a mature friendship, and she had no desire to destroy that by reverting to their old ways. "God, you're a stubborn ass."
He smirked half-heartedly. "Thought you said you liked that about me."
"I'm pretty sure that's not the way I phrased it." Nothing was going the way she'd planned – okay, yeah, she had imagined Spike falling at her feet in a paroxysm of joy. He must have worked overtime to convince himself she didn't care about him these past weeks. She'd just have to fix that. Buffy scooted along the couch, tugged Spike down from his perch to sit next to her, and interlaced her fingers with his. "I want you in my life, Spike. Always."
He was trembling now, vibrating with the effort to contain himself. "What's that mean, then?"
"I dunno. I mean, I know you have your own life, and I don't expect you to drop everything and come to Oxford. I don't know if you want me in your life."
Dawn had told her to quit being so stupid when she'd wondered aloud if Spike still loved her. But better to give him an out, just in case.
He didn't take her up on it, so she went on. "I don't know if I'm even going to stay in Oxford. I don't – I just don't know." Buffy reached up to cup his cheek. "I was kinda hoping we could figure it out together. If that works for you."
Eyes closed, Spike leaned into her touch. "Yeah," he breathed. He opened his eyes, his expression beatific.
This. This was how it was supposed to go. Buffy smiled, relief mixed with joy. Spike searched her eyes, his smile melting into the crinkly-eyed one she secretly loved.
It wouldn't have to be a secret anymore, she realized.
"Yeah," he said again. "I suppose we could do that."
Buffy took her turn to cross the stage and receive a diploma in exchange for a handshake. She could hear Dawn's whoops in the crowd, and Spike's ear-piercing whistle, along with the more muted cheers from the rest of her friends. In a bit of a daze, Buffy grasped her rolled paper and returned to her seat to await the end of the Graduation ceremony.
When it was over, she found herself surrounded by other gowned well-wishers. Buffy exchanged hugs and congratulations with her fellow students, and then accepted more congratulations from her friends and Dawn.
"You did it sis," Dawn said. "How's it feel to finally be a university graduate?"
Buffy stuck out her tongue. "Like I'm not the stupidest Summers anymore."
Her younger sister had graduated with a degree in Classics the year before, and, with Giles' encouragement, was now at the University of Cyprus studying antiquities. Dawn had to fend off his none-too-subtle attempts to steer her into becoming a Watcher every time she saw him, but Buffy figured it was a losing battle. With Andrew still claiming to be his top man, Giles was desperate for colleagues more to his taste, and wasn't about to give up.
"I don't think it had anything to do with being stupid," Dawn said. "More like… Mom died… and then you were dead… and the university shut down on account of apocalypse… and then it disappeared into a crater…"
"Yeah, Buffy, even I never graduated from college. Well, not properly," Willow said with a modest shrug. There was the not-so-little matter of the computer science degree MIT had awarded her a few years back. Buffy still wasn't clear on how that had worked out, seeing as Willow had never spent a day in Massachusetts, but whatever. It wasn't like she didn't deserve it.
Bronwyn whispered something into Willow's ear, and Willow blushed. Before Buffy could teasingly question her about it, Giles took the opportunity to congratulate her, eyes suspiciously moist as he pulled her close. "I am so proud of you, my dear," he said.
When Giles finally let her go, Xander was there, hugging and laughing and taking potshots at the 'brains' he was forced to associate with. "I guess I'm the last of the illiterates," Xander said with a wry grin. "Unless…" His eyes slid to Spike.
Buffy opened her mouth to defend her vampire, but immediately forgot everything but Spike when a glance his way revealed him devouring her with hungry eyes. A shiver radiated up her spine as she locked gazes with him.
"Love this look on you," Spike said when he'd edged through the crowd surrounding her and sidled up to her. He ran a finger down the red trim on the front of her long, black robe. "When'd you say you had to return the gown?"
"Very, very soon," she said, trying hard to control her blush. "And it has to be in once piece."
"I can work with that."
"Behave," she whispered, slapping him on the shoulder.
Spike wrapped his arm around her waist, and pressed a kiss to her forehead. "Seriously, love. University graduate is a good look for you. And my alma mater too. I'm doubly proud."
"Mmm," Buffy said, leaning into his embrace. "I still say we should strategically appropriate that honors plaque with your name on it. It would look good on our mantle."
"An' I'm telling you it was the equivalent of an attendance award. I'll not be disgracing my rep with that, thank you."
She rolled her eyes at Spike's feeble attempt to maintain his facade as Big Bad, and snuggled into his side. He tightened his hold automatically, and turned to engage Giles in another of their never-ceasing arguments over football. They'd soon dragged Xander into it. Off to one side, Bronwyn and Xander's new girlfriend discussed the Cleveland Hellmouth, while on the other side of them, Dawn and Willow were off on another discourse on some ancient culture or other.
Buffy listened in to the conversations around her, just enjoying the ebb and flow of her loved ones' voices as they bickered good-naturedly. She still didn't have her life mapped out, still didn't know where she was going. She probably never would. But she'd learned something in the last few years. Something important.
It was the journey that mattered, not the destination. And her companions along the way were what mattered most of all.
Lacing her fingers with Spike's, she smiled. It was going to be one hell of a trip.