Title: Almost Paradise
Era/Season/Setting: Season 6, during Life Serial
Rating: PG-13 (this chapter; whole fic will be NC-17)
Warnings: Suicidal ideation. There will be some Buffy/other in future installments, but none in this chapter.
Summary: When presented with the opportunity to magically alter the world she lives in, Buffy knows there are a lot of very good reasons why she shouldn’t seize it, but figures things can’t get worse. She’s wrong.
I blame this fic entirely upon the seasonal_spuffy fairytales-retold theme. It was certainly not my intention to write two Season 6 fics back-to-back, but when I was looking up fairytales that I thought I could work into a plausible Spuffy story, this one leaped out at me, and Season 6 seemed the perfect launch-point. When else would Buffy be this desperate? My goal was also to write something short and sweet, but this theme begged for a longer fic, so you’re stuck with a WIP. Only posting one chapter today, and I have no idea how many are ahead. Find future installments at Elysian Fields and AO3.
Many, many thanks to OffYourBird for helping me brainstorm awfulness. And thanks to bewildered, Kimmie Winchester, Niamh, and Behind Blue Eyes for betaing, as always. Final thanks to W.W. Jacobs.
“Umm, this doesn’t look like it did in the pictures.”
Buffy felt her spirits plummet harder, if such were possible, and tried to keep from physically deflating right along with them. Right, because the only thing that could make this day better was a hard-to-please customer who didn’t realize that cameras had limitations and salespeople always talked up their products to make money. But this was her job now—at least today—so she had to make it work.
There weren’t many ways Anya could still be threatening—but cost her a customer, and Buffy trusted the former demon would find creative means of seeking vengeance.
“I’m sure that was just the lighting,” she said in her brightest customer-service voice. Not that lighting could have done much for the hand. It was small, furry, and a bit on the shriveled side. Three fingers were extended, the ring and pinky folded in against the palm, like it had been chopped off in the middle of indicating how much of a certain item it wanted. Or how many minutes to wait. Or maybe how many siblings it had—there were so many possibilities. In all the severed limbs Buffy had seen, and unfortunately that number was likely somewhere in the triple digits, none had ever been in a fixed pose like this. Maybe that was what made it magic.
“Where are the bandages?” the woman demanded, wrinkling her nose and nudging the thing across the cash wrap counter. “It’s not moving, either.”
“You wanted a mummy’s hand that…moves.”
The woman rolled her eyes and gave her a look that women like her had been giving store clerks since the dawn of time. Buffy knew. While she hadn’t been old enough to pull it off, she’d once had the teenage-equivalent of that look. A look that came with an attitude that made the world of customer service a nightmare for all retail associates. Now she was gazing into a mirror of what might have been.
“What is the point of a dead hand?” the woman asked as though scandalized. “Prosperity spells are tricky enough to get right if you have all the correct ingredients. Whatever this is…I don’t think this will work.”
That did it. Her voice evidently carried loudly enough to have Anya’s loss-of-commission radar going off. The next second, the former demon was shoulder-to-shoulder with Buffy, fake smile in place. “Hello,” she said brightly. “I am Anya Jenkins, Magic Box proprietor. How may we help you?”
The woman blinked and gave a nervous look around. Come to think of it, she’d seemed a little shifty ever since she’d whisper-shouted what it was she’d come here to buy. “I need a mummy hand for a prosperity spell,” she said before lowering her gaze to the thing Buffy had brought up from the lower level. “They are supposed to move, aren’t they?”
Anya glanced to the item in question and blanched. “Oh, no,” she said, snatching the hand-thingy up in a flash. The smile on her face was now more a grimace, her eyes wide with something Buffy was suddenly certain was alarm. “This—no. Not what you want. Sorry,” she added, patting Buffy’s shoulder with her free hand. “She’s a little…well, stupid. My apologies.”
“Hey!” Buffy jerked away, scowling. “She asked for a hand and I found—whatever that is.”
“This is not for sale,” Anya went on, not taking her gaze off the customer, whose expression now looked closer to curiosity, even interest. “Buffy, follow me please. We need to get this nice paying lady what she came for.”
The next thing she knew, Buffy had been shoved through the door that led to the lower level by a very harried Anya, who immediately dropped whatever had remained of her customer-service smile. “A monkey’s paw?” she hissed. “Are you out of your mind? Do you have any idea what these things can do?”
Buffy swallowed the immediate response. Obviously, no, she didn’t know what they could do because she clearly couldn’t tell the difference between a mummy hand and a…whatever that was. Twenty minutes into her first day in customer service and she already knew this was not the vocation for her. She took a healthy amount of crap from regular vampires and demons—she really didn’t need to add Anya to her list of harassers.
“How did you even get it out of its case?” Anya asked when they reached the ground floor. “Giles swore he put a protective charm on it, and if he lied to me on top of bringing one of these things into my shop, I’m going to call the Department of Immigration and have his British butt deported.”
Well, there was a lot of questionable information delivered in that sentence. “I don’t know. I was just looking around, opening stuff—it is really hard to find things down here, by the way. And I opened this thing and it was there.” Buffy glanced down at the thing, wrinkling her nose. “What did you say it was?”
“A monkey’s paw.” Anya took the time to enunciate each syllable, as though the speed at which she spoke was the barrier between Buffy and understanding what the big deal was. “Don’t you know anything?”
“About monkeys? No. Even less about paws.” She wrinkled her nose and glanced around the storage room. It wasn’t a place she’d made a point to visit often, being neither witch nor Magic Box staff. Aside from a few things she’d been forced to hunt out and grab in the year since Giles had bought the place, she’d spent very little time among the inventory, which seemed more a haphazard collection of assorted crap than anything anyone would want to actually buy. “It took forever to find, too. Are you saying you have more chopped off body parts down here?”
Anya shook her head, sighing hard and striding with intent toward a cupboard pressed against the far wall. “Monkey’s paws are extraordinarily rare,” she said matter-of-factly, plucked something off the ground—the fancy case, Buffy saw—and shoved the hairy appendage back inside the satin-lined interior. “And dangerous.”
“So you’ve said. Which begs the question, why do you have one, especially if it’s not for sale?”
“Because Giles has decided that it’s not enough that we sell magical wares to the public,” Anya continued, shoving the case back onto a shelf—right between a creepy looking doll and a bizarre statuette of a naked lady demon with a lolling tongue that would make Gene Simmons jealous. “Anytime he gets wind of a dangerous dark object, he insists on pulling out all the stops—not to mention all of my money—to acquire it.” She rolled her eyes and brought up her hands to make air quotes. “To ‘prevent potential catastrophes of apocalyptic proportions’ or something like that.”
Buffy frowned, eyeing the case warily. “So…that thing could set off the apocalypse?”
How? It was so little. Not to mention furry.
“Possibly,” Anya replied, walking past her now, focused on something on the other side of the room. “It depends on what one wishes.”
“Monkey’s paws grant wishes.”
That hardly sounded apocalyptic. Buffy watched as Anya foraged through the inventory, trying and failing to come up with a reason why an item that granted wishes was a bad thing, which she was sure said something about her and her state of mind. Obviously, wishes could go very wrong—Anya herself had been in the trade long enough to tell some truly horrific stories that Buffy could never unhear. But those instances had involved people who either hadn’t known they were talking to someone with the ability to bring their wishes to life or hadn’t considered the consequences of what they were asking. Such as the instance that had spawned a universe with a skanky vampire version of Willow. Buffy was vague on the details but knew it had involved Cordelia and a wish gone wonky—one that had been thankfully righted.
Of course, there was also the obvious. If someone wanted to end the world and got hold of a paw, well, that would be a surefire way to do it.
“Just so I know,” Buffy asked, wandering toward the shelf Anya was currently pilfering, “how many thingamabobs out there have the ability to grant wishes? Like, are magic lamps a thing? Shooting stars?”
“What?” Anya didn’t even bother to look at her, rather scowled and placed another box aside. “Damn mummy hand.”
“And how do you keep track? How does anyone? If something that small can make a big kaboom, then—”
“They aren’t common, Buffy,” Anya said, still not looking at her, squatting now to investigate the lower shelf. “I’ve only ever seen one other aside from that one, and I’m pretty sure the one I saw was that one. Three fingers extended, one per wish. There’s a scar on the index knuckle that was the same pattern as one of Olaf’s birthmarks and unless all monkeys just come that way—”
“So magic wishes aren’t something I should worry about.”
“No more so than you were already.” She grunted, then hooted in victory and shot to her feet, a box in hand. “Here we are,” she said, thrusting it into Buffy’s arms. “One mummy hand. Now go make that sale.”
Buffy blinked at the box, her throat dry. “But the monkey—”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Buffy, don’t worry about the monkey’s paw. Giles is looking up ways to destroy it, and since I am ninety-nine percent certain it’s the same paw I saw in 1158, I doubt wayward wishes cast by a cursed severed primate appendage are worth your concern.” She gave the box a little push—and Buffy by association, since she was still holding it. “Sell this item. And don’t let her talk you down from the sale price. They always try to do that with exotic imports. Now, this has taken up enough of my time. I have an order that must be ready before the nice man from the postal service arrives, so try not to mess anything else up, okay?”
Anya was gone the next instant, rushing back up the stairs at a clip, leaving Buffy feeling a bit railroaded, but nothing was new there. That was just the way things were now, at least when it came to newly not-dead slayers navigating the afterlife, minus the after part. Other people got blissful detachment, a sense of utter completion and peace, not to mention the comfort of knowing that their loved ones, despite the pain and turmoil, would be all right. Other people—not Buffy. No, Buffy got well-meaning friends and a one-way ticket out of Heaven so she could resume the life that had rejected her. Get back to the daily grind of avoiding death every night so that her friends could live their lives every day.
That was life. Not what it had always been, granted, but the thing it had become. Instead of freedom, she had this—surfing through magical wares to find enchanted items that did god-knows-what for snot-nosed customers who thought they could magic their way to prosperity. Like Buffy would be working retail if prosperity was a thing she could just get.
It wasn’t, was it? She’d have to ask Willow. Maybe. If she still cared enough to ask later. Right now, all of her energy was focused on getting through this moment, because the next one would be just as bad.
Buffy shuffled her way toward the staircase, jostling the box under one arm. Then she paused, cast a glance across the room at the other shelf where Anya had stuffed the monkey’s paw. She had thought it looked a bit small for a mummy hand, but she’d never seen a mummy hand to make a comparison. If her adventures in the wide world of retail lasted beyond today—fat chance but she wasn’t exactly rolling in options—she supposed that was the sort of thing she should know to avoid other goof-ups, of which she assumed Anya would only be so forgiving. Best to get a look down here to avoid the inevitable face she would make upon presenting a paying customer with something ookie.
So Buffy placed the box on a nearby pallet of what looked to be crushed weed—all the herbs looked like weed to her—and pried open the lid.
And immediately wished she hadn’t. The bandaged thing—and yes, it was bandaged; one point to the British lady—seemed to have been waiting for some unsuspecting idiot to let it loose. She barely had a chance to frown at it before it leaped from the box and wound its fingers around her throat in a surprisingly strong grip for something attached to nothing at all. The box went tumbling to the floor as Buffy backed up into a rolling cart of things she really didn’t want to break, prying at the hand intent on crushing her windpipe. It took a few tugs, but she managed to loosen its hold on her long enough to toss it back onto the pallet. A quick look around and a dagger-grab later, and she had the murderous thing run through with the blade. A blade garnished with a fancy an inlay mother of pearl handle. Giles never let her have things that nice.
Buffy frowned and raised the kebobbed hand to eye-level, surveying the damage. Something told her that the prosperity spell was a moot point, but she supposed she owed it to Anya to try. She had just damaged Magic Box property, after all.
With a sigh, she headed upstairs.
This was one of those “if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry” scenarios, but Buffy wasn’t laughing. Someone had put the whammy on her. Not a good whammy, either—a Bill Murray whammy. There was a reason Groundhog Day had never been one of her favorite movies, much to Xander’s horror and continued admonitions. Something about watching a guy live through each day over and over again had only increased her anxiety, to the point that it had almost more of a relief for Buffy than for Bill’s character when “I’ve Got You Babe” was interrupted by Andie McDowell on the day that today became tomorrow.
But at least Bill had had an entire day to loop and an entire town to explore. He’d been able to fill the hours with different things—even if those things had been finite, there had been options. Buffy’s loop was much less generous. A stretch of ten to twenty minutes, give or take, entirely dependent upon whether or not she could sedate the damn mummy hand without killing it. Or bring it up to the customer in the box, as she’d tried several times. No dice. The second she opened the lid—because she had to open the lid so the customer could see the goods—the mummy hand would lunge for her throat and she’d be forced to kill it, which landed her back at square one.
Also, Giles and Anya seemed equally apathetic about it. Or perhaps they both thought she was nuts. After attempting to explain what was going on for the seventeenth time, Buffy gave up. The limited time window tied her to a fixed set of circumstances. The customer was hers to deal with—she’d trying pawning her off on Anya to no success. By the time she managed to communicate what was happening to Giles—and the few times she’d gotten him to believe it was real—the loop closed again. She’d tried stalling. She’d tried bolting. She’d tried throwing a temper tantrum that would embarrass a toddler. Nothing had worked. This was her life now, apparently.
Buffy had lost count of the hours. At this point, entire weeks might have flown by. She wasn’t hungry—whoever had caught her in this loop had been considerate enough to make sure her body reset to the place it had been before the loop started, so things like food and bathroom breaks weren’t a concern. Although that also might mean she’d literally be stuck here forever without the prospect of starving to death to look forward to.
And those were thoughts no one needed, least of all her. The dark turns her mind had taken after the resurrection had been mostly navigable, even in the bleaker moments when she’d thought she might actually follow them to see where they led. But she couldn’t, wouldn’t let her mind stay there for long. Death might not scare her but the thought of killing herself did. She wasn’t sure what the difference was, but there was a difference—a line in her head dividing the two concepts.
Now, though, in hour whatever of this infernal torment, the prospect no longer felt off-limits. There was a way out of this, she knew, but how long before she found it? How much could she withstand before she lost whatever was left of her mind?
There was an alternative, though. One she kept coming back to—almost literally—every time she plodded down the stairs to take another swing at mummy-hand wrangling. An alternative situated on a shelf between a creepy doll and a Gene Simmons statuette.
How bad would it be, really, to wish the loop would end? And even if it was bad, could it be worse than this?
Yes, the logical side of her head had proclaimed for a few hours. If Giles wants it out of circulation, it’s definitely a bad.
But as her patience thinned and the loop grew no closer to closing itself, she began to doubt just how rational her rational side actually was. The thing she was trapped inside was something she couldn’t fight—at least, not in a way that was obvious—and whatever happened as a result of her monkey’s paw wish could be handled. Really, after facing down a hellgod and being yanked out of Heaven, there really wasn’t much Buffy feared in terms of repercussions.
Though once she opened that mental door, there was no stopping her. If one wish was easy to rationalize, why not two? Why not all three?
So for the next two hours or so, in between running interference with mummy hand lady and being ignored by her watcher and Anya, Buffy let her mind go in a different direction entirely. What, exactly, would she wish for, if she were to wish at all?
First of all, she would wish her way to financial stability. No more of this retail business. No more getting flak because she happened to be stronger than every guy on Xander’s construction team and a few of them were too testosterony to admit their butts had been saved by a girl. If she didn’t have to work, she would be in a position where she could apply her focus elsewhere. Say on whoever the hell was screwing with her at the present, as they had an ass-kicking appointment she was determined to meet. Money didn’t solve all her problems but it would solve the ones that kept her up at night, worrying about paying the electric bill or field trip expenses or, well, anything else. It was simple and not very imaginative—she figured most people would wish for money—but there was a reason the classics never went out of style.
The second wish was an offshoot of the first, and came to her almost as quickly. She needed money because she was the sole provider for the family and had to prove herself responsible and capable of taking care of her sister. Not having to worry about losing Dawn would be a massive check in the Win column.
The third wish took longer to dream up. Perhaps that could be the throwaway wish—what got her out of this loop. But now that she’d ruminated on the fact for a while, that seemed a waste of a perfectly good wish, and she just knew something brilliant would occur to her afterward that would leave her kicking herself. She made all the mental stops—her friends were all about as happy as clams, whatever that meant, her family was her sister and her sister was the subject of Hypothetical Wish Number Two, and then…Giles. Giles had already done what she’d needed him to do in coming back. The only other person in her life wasn’t a person at all, though he was the only non-person person she could stand to be around these days.
And it was just him. Spike. Buffy had thought it might be the fact that he was the closest thing to hanging out with death that she had these days, being that he was a vampire. That bothered her—more because she knew it should bother her. Pre-mortem Buffy would have been appalled at the thought of spending so much time with Spike. Or, maybe not mortified—there at the end, after he’d sacrificed himself to protect Dawn and her feelings had taken a sharp left turn that she’d never been given the chance to explore—but it would have wigged her out a little. Bothered her probably a lot. Spike being anything other than an evil fiend had twisted her up and good, though she’d been too focused on keeping her sister safe to really allow herself to think it through, much less talk it out with the people she typically relied on.
But since she’d been back, those thoughts had existed more as memories than actual beliefs. A reminder of how Buffy Summers viewed the world and those around her, which did more to make her feel like a shadow of herself than perhaps anything else. Buffy Summers didn’t fraternize with the undead, and when she did, it was out of need, not want. Unless the undead in question was Angel, and then it became all about the want.
Except that wasn’t what had happened. She’d gone to him—ready to offload all of her mixed up feelings and experience that blessed relief with the right person. The person who made sense, whose silences wouldn’t be awkward and attention would be absolute and without judgment. The ball of dread that had taken up camp in her belly whenever she found herself alone with her friends was supposed to stay away—far away. After all, no one knew her better than Angel.
But Angel didn’t know her, either. And she didn’t know him. Not like she had. Seeing him had left her feeling more hollowed out than she’d been since the first night. All that expectation, all the assurance, all the certainty that simply being in the same space with Angel would bring her that Spike-brand of comfort had evaporated so fast she’d crashed hard. It was natural, she told herself, that two people separated by so much time would have nothing to say to each other. That catching up would amount to little more than small talk, even with something as large and ungainly as a resurrection to keep the conversation going. She’d coughed out how hard it was to live, and Angel had given her a hug and patted her back and told her that it would get better, she could overcome anything, and it had felt like he was talking to a Buffy who didn’t exist anymore.
If he hadn’t moved away, or if things had managed to work out, life would be very different. No awkward silences. No forced small talk. No empty platitudes in place of anything meaningful. He would know how to talk to her, and she would know how to talk to him, and maybe being alive again wouldn’t be so damned suffocating.
That line of thinking solidified into her third wish. That things had worked out with Angel, so at least he could remain the sole freaky thing in her freaky world that made sense, as he had so long ago.
Once the wishes were there, all in a line—money, Dawn, Angel—the resolve to keep from migrating toward the case containing the monkey’s paw went from solid steel to wisps of straw. Particularly when she considered that a world where Angel was still with her would be a different world, one without a mummy hand loop. Probably. And even if the loop continued, he could help break her out. That world was alight with all sorts of possibilities.
Still, Buffy didn’t rush over to the shelf the second the plan locked into place. She still had her misgivings, having seen more than one wish go badly. It took perhaps another hour, maybe two, of repeated attempts to offload the mummy hand before something inside of her snapped and she found herself, instead of striding toward the box Anya had shown her approximately seven lifetimes ago, closing the distance between herself and that creepy doll. Like the paw was calling to her or something—or maybe that was just the call of sweet relief. The knowledge that not only would the loop likely end, but the world she’d find out there would be a better one.
And if it wasn’t, Giles would help her switch it back. He’d know what to do. Given enough time to explain a predicament to him, he never failed to come up with a solution. Or, at the very least, lay the groundwork for Buffy to get there herself.
The monkey’s paw seemed strangely warm to the touch when she collected it out of its casing. She released a shaky breath, shoved aside the last niggle of doubt, and said, “I wish I didn’t have to worry about money.”
Nothing happened—at least, not at first. Then, slowly, one hairy finger curled in on itself.
Holy moly, does that mean it worked? Invigorated, Buffy plowed on ahead, though her brain started throwing up roadblocks immediately. If this was working, it meant she needed to do it right. No tripping over verbiage—she needed the right combination of words, which seemed suddenly evasive.
Finally, after a few seconds of fumbling—and then worrying she had waited too long—she swallowed and blurted, “I wish for Dawn to stay with her family.”
A second monkey finger coiled.
All right. One to go.
“I wish there had been a way for Angel and me to stay together.”
She held her breath as the extended thumb folded inward, shivering with a bizarre combination of excitement and dread.
It was done. And if it worked…
God, if it worked?
The thought had barely blipped across her mind before the lights in the basement flickered and died, pitching her into darkness.
Originally posted at https://seasonal-spuffy.livejournal.com/717041.html