Fic: In A Yellow Wood (Conclusion, pt 1)

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series In A Yellow Wood
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In A Yellow Wood
By Barb C.
Disclaimers: The usual. All belongs to Joss and Mutant Enemy, and naught to me.
Rating: PG-13
Synopsis: When Warren Meers traps Buffy in an alternate dimension on his first assignment for Wolfram & Hart, she’s faced with the consequences of dozens of choices she’s made. Even if she escapes, can she be certain that her life’s followed the right path?
Author’s notes: This story takes place in the same universe as “Raising In the Sun,” “Necessary Evils,” and “A Parliament of Monsters.” It takes place simultaneously with the story “The Lesser of Two Evils,” and contains spoilers for the series to date. Many thanks to betas deborahc, brutti_ma_buoni typographer, wildrider, slaymesoftly & readerjane. Additional thanks to harmonyfb and evil_little_dog for the loan of their Buffys.


Buffy watched as Blossom punched the release code into the lock, and the two of them stepped back as the force wall crackled and died. “All right,” Blossom said, with the expression of a woman who’d just found something gross in the sink strainer, “We let you go, you talk to Dinza. Screw us over and you’ll regret it. Capsice?”

“Ooh, Tish, you spoke French.” Vamp Buffy strolled out of the cell with studied nonchalance, traded a look of mutual contempt with Blossom and flashed a wide, insincere smile at Buffy. “I knew I could count on you.”

“Don’t get used to it,” Buffy hissed. “We’re even now. Make one wrong move and you’ll be playing the title role in a re-enactment of Murder On the Orient Express.”

“Anything you two care to share with the class? No? Then let’s get to work.” Blossom indicated the vampire. “This? Your idea, your responsibility. Any blood she spills is on your head now. Come on.”

“Hmm,” Vampire Her stage-whispered, as Blossom strode off down the corridor. “Buffy the Vampire Sitter. Has a ring to it.” At Buffy’s expression, she giggled. “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll be good. I want to get out of here as much as you do.” Her smile was a hungry baring of teeth. “I think we’re all going to be the best of friends.”

Yeah, good luck with that, Buffy thought, trailing behind the others as they made their way back down the hall, Blossom walking as if she expected – or maybe hoped – the vampire would go for their necks then and there. It was pointless to feel thirteenth-wheelish when the people doing the big important world-save-y things were essentially you. It was only slight consolation that Vamp Buffy didn’t look any happier about taking orders than Buffy felt. Who exactly elected Blossom Queen of the Pocket Universe, anyway?

She must have said the loud part quiet and the quiet part loud, because Vamp Buffy dropped back, a feline delight in her eyes. Stupid vampire hearing. “Oh, it was more of a divine appointment. You should have seen the security when she was brought in. She was Number One on Wolfram & Hart’s Ten Most Wanted. The most dangerous of us all. Supposedly.”

“For serious?” From the little Angel had ever said about it, Wolfram & Hart considered Slayers small change. They came, they fought, they died, and nothing changed, and that was the way Wolfram & Hart liked it. If her own piddly little attempts at human/demon detente were considered a threat, then what could Blossom possibly have up her sleeve…? “What in particular about her makes the Senior Partners quake in their Armani socks?”

“That’s the mystery. To hear her talk, back in her home timeline she’s Buffy Anne Summers, Millionaire. She owns a mansion and a yacht. Or a castle and a submarine, at least. Plus hundreds of Slayers at her command.” The vampire’s gaze was fixed upon the back of Blossom’s head, as if she could drill into the secrets of that brain by eyeball power alone. “But the Senior Partners wouldn’t care about that. They trade armies like bubblegum cards. I never saw her file first-hand, but the gossip was that it only had three words in it.” She paused for dramatic effect. “‘Twilight is coming.'”

Buffy blinked. “Um. That sounds devastating, all right.”

The vampire shrugged. “Who knows? And since not my world, who cares?”

Sufficient unto the timeline were the evils thereof, Buffy supposed, but still… an army hundreds of Slayers strong? How many Potentials had the Council flatlined in that dimension? She didn’t have much time to ponder the question; they reached the command center just as B. Finn was escorting the heavily-bandaged Wolfram & Hart technician in through one of the other doors. Sans drug haze, he didn’t look much like the embodiment of pure baby-killing evil, just a youngish guy in a way-worse-for-wear lab coat. He had floppy dark hair and the sort of endearingly goofy good looks she might even have called cute. If he hadn’t been, well, the baby-killing embodiment of pure evil.

Vamp Buffy swept into the control room like she owned the place, deflecting a volley of glares pointier than any stake. She draped herself across one of the console seats with predatory elegance and bestowed a bright smile on their assembled alter egos. “Hi, guys!” The smile sharpened when she saw the technician, and she ran her tongue over newly emergent fangs. “Oooh, he smells expendable. Can I have him when you’re done? You wouldn’t want my tummy rumbling in the middle of an important escape spell, would you?”

It didn’t make Buffy feel any better that it wasn’t the vampire that made the tech flinch, but her. At least he was alive. And conscious. And mobile, sort of. And most importantly, talkative.

“I hear a well-done stake is a sure cure for indigestion.” The vampire subsided with a pout, and Blossom turned on her heel to confront the technician, ‘You’re not important enough for me to watch my back’ writ plain in the set of her shoulders. “OK, Riff-Raff. Doctor Sparrow’s login gets us to the directory where the contact ritual for Dinza is, but it’s password-protected. And seeing as the not-so-good doctor is doped to the gills on Vicodin right now, you’re our go-to guy for industrial espionage. Here’s the deal. You can tell us what the password is, and we can take you down the rabbit hole with us. Or we can all sit here and wait for the Senior Partners to give you a promotion for the great work you’re doing, and then go out for pizza! Sound like fun?”

The technician squinted distrustfully through puffy, bruised eyes. “I’ve got your word that if you find a way out, you’ll take me with you?”

“Signed and sealed,” Blossom assured him. “Up to you whether or not we can deliver.”

The tech slumped in his chair, eyes darting, worrying at his lower lip. “One condition. I get to pick the world I escape to.”

Blossom looked at Bubbles, and shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”

It made sense, Buffy supposed, that the W&H employees would be more aware than anyone that if the Senior Partners intended to quell the Slayer rebellion, they’d consider the field staff acceptable collateral damage. The tech gave a shaky nod. “Okay. Sorry. This is my first official betrayal of the company, you know? I’m a little nervous. Calming breaths, deep calming breaths…the password is Pyth1@s, with a one and an at sign. I’ve only actually seen them do the ritual once. It’s not difficult, though, I swear. What is difficult…”

“…is that you can’t get there from here,” a grim B. Finn broke in, her fingers flying over the nearest keyboard. Folders sprang open onscreen, flinging up battlements of text and fortresses of diagrams. “Nothing here as simple as bell, book and candles, people. The ritual has to be conducted between the light and the darkness, where the earth meets the sky, at the end of the world.

The technician pasted on a sickly grin. “Yeah. That sounds about right.”

A chorus of groans arose from the assembled Slayers. Buffy’s eyes flicked to the porthole in the reinforced door, and the blood-colored desert beyond. If this place was anything like the Shadow Men’s world in a bottle…

Great minds, apparently. Blossom walked over to the door and peered outside. “Luckily for us, boys and girls, the end of the world is within walking distance.”

*********

It had taken approximately two hours to scour the computer for the key codes to the outer door, the compound for anything remotely useful, and the kitchen for anything remotely edible. Except for a pair of closed-circuit radio units, B. Finn had made certain that the communications equipment was smashed beyond repair – if Wolfram & Hart wanted them, they’d have to show up in person.

Buffy kept one eye on the vampire and the other on the sullen cadre of guards in handcuffs clustered near the door. Despite custody of one of the radios, the guards didn’t look any too confident about the technician’s promise to call them once the Slayers had activated a portal out. All things considered, Buffy couldn’t muster up loads of sympathy. According to the schematics in the computer, the pocket universe was a dome about fifty miles across and a mile high at its apex, with the prison compound located right in the center. If everything went according to plan, they could hike to the ends of the earth in less than eight hours, do the ritual, and be home in time for dinner. The guards could follow them in a day or two.

Things never, Buffy reminded herself, went according to plan. And the question for her wasn’t really whether she could get home in time for dinner, but what – or who – she’d find served up when she got there. She couldn’t Scarlett O’Hara the possibility that Spike had killed Warren forever. But for now? Subject change.

She slung the canvas bag full of plastic water bottles (Wolfram and Hart didn’t recycle, apparently) over one shoulder and took a last look around the decimated control room. Bubbles was packing an odd assortment of items into her own bag: six stumpy white candles, a ball of red twine, a pewter goblet, two small sandalwood boxes, twenty-six cents in pre-1965 pennies, and a grubby-looking plastic baby doll with one missing eye. The components, the technician had assured them, that Doctor Sparrow had used the last time Wolfram and Hart had occasion to summon Dinza. Buffy sidled over, low-voiced, “How much did Angel tell you about this Dinza chick?” She couldn’t remember her-world Angel ever mentioning the name.

Bubbles’s eyes narrowed fractionally, gauging Buffy’s need to know. “Not a lot.” She examined her own water bottle for leaks and screwed the cap on a little tighter. “She told him where to find the McGuffin that got Cordelia’s attention in Paradise.” Her tone suggested that this was a crime on the order of mass-murdering Dalmatian puppies. “So pretty obviously not trustworthy, considering how that turned out.”

Not a big Cordelia Chase fan, then. Or just not a big fan of Angel being a big Cordelia Chase fan? Granted the whole Angel-slash-Cordy thing was a heaping helping of Extra-Crispy WTF Flakes, but… had Bubbles’ Cordelia taken the Powers up on their offer? Maybe, Buffy thought, she should have read a few more of those personnel files. “Did he say anything that might help us keep her honest?”

With a shrug, Bubbles shoved the water bottle into her own makeshift pack. “Yuh-huh. There’s a secret handshake. Come on, if he had, I’d be mentioning it.”

Buffy gave it up and did another inventory of her shoulder bag – blankets, a few first aid supplies scrounged from the infirmary, and… that was about it. No one had offered her a taser. She’d have thought that she’d get along with herself a little better. She’d always thought of herself as… well, OK, she could be a little high-maintenance, sometimes. Spike enjoyed high-maintenance, and it wasn’t like he was so very low-maintenance himself. She was basically a good person, wasn’t she? Not just a good Slayer, but a good friend, a good… She twisted the wedding ring on her finger. She was still getting used to ‘wife;’ how could she leap straight to ‘mother?’

She hadn’t wanted this. It wasn’t that she was against the idea of children. She just wasn’t exactly for it, either. She’d thought, if she and Spike ever did want a family, they’d adopt. Some cute, sweet, safely human kid. Not a potential lizard baby. And besides, a child was one more thing that Slayers didn’t get to have – or if they defied tradition and had one anyway, they died young, like Nikki Wood, leaving orphans behind them. Because Spike killed her, the cold uncompromising Slayer-voice in the back of her head pointed out. And the fact that Spike had knocked up her successor? Probably not the kind of redemption Nikki would appreciate.

Spike hadn’t been conflicted. Heck, he’d been overjoyed. Ecstatic. He might not have realized it until that moment in the parking lot, but he wanted children.

“You can still get rid of it, you know,” the vampire said casually. She examined her nails. “One moment of heaven doesn’t commit you to eighteen years of hell.”

Gah, she’d been doing the hand-on-belly thing again. Probably in conjunction with the ‘bloody great constipated cows’ eyes’ expression, as her husband the poet put it. Way to telegraph, Buffy. “If I need parenting advice I’ll ask someone who’s not you.” But two could play the ‘Let’s make Buffy uncomfortable’ game. “So Spike killed you, huh? Someone got sloppy.”

Vamp Buffy hmphed and waved any implied fallibility away. “He caught me off guard. To be fair, I did tell him I wanted the Spike who was dangerous back. I didn’t expect he’d take it quite so literally, but I should have remembered – where Spike is concerned, whatever Buffy wants, Buffy gets.” Her eyes glittered. “Worked out for the best, don’t you think?” She lifted the fall of tawny hair from her neck, displaying the near-invisible scars with a grin. “How can I stay mad at Spikey-Bear when he gave me what I’d been craving ever since they brought me back from the dead?”

Buffy couldn’t suppress her shudder. “What you’ve got isn’t heaven.”

The vampire gave a soft chuckle. “No. It’s better. It’s freedom. That’s the real reason they hate you, you know,” she said, re-arranging her light, flowery skirts. “You took what you wanted. And they were too afraid even to try.”

“Do you love him?”

The vampire blinked as if she’d grown a second head. “What?”

“Your Spike,” Buffy demanded. “Do you love him?”

Her undead doppelganger stared, then threw back her head and laughed, a lovely bell-like peal of mirth. “Of course not. God, what a stupid question.”

Fortunately for the future of their current enterprise, Buffy’s desire to wring her charge’s head right off were derailed by Blossom’s shout of “Time, people! We’re moving out!”

B. Finn entered the access codes into the outer door’s keypad with such tight-lipped concentration that Buffy half expected the Mission:Impossible theme music to start playing in the background. Everyone held their breath as the last number bleeped acceptance. For a long moment nothing happened, and then, with a whooshing pneumatic groan, the door swung inward. The closest Buffys swayed back, away from the blast of hot, grit-laden wind. Blossom pushed to the front of the crowd and set one cautious foot outside. Her boot disappeared up to the ankle in the ruby sand. She pulled her foot free and shook it, scattering rivulets of crimson from the boot’s eyelets. “One small step for a Slayer,” she muttered, looking back into the compound’s interior. “Let’s go.”

*********

Buffy had never been big on the great outdoors. Not that this particular outdoors was all that great. As a CGI background for a Star Wars prequel it would have been impressively otherworldly: the endless blood-red dunes, the jagged spires of obsidian rearing up out of the sand, black glass claws raking the sunless golden sky. Toss in a couple of Jawas and a sweeping Lawrence of Arabia soundtrack, maybe.

In reality, it was hot and lifeless and it sucked. Literally. The sand slorped at their ankles with an almost sentient malice as they slogged along, slowing their progress to a crawl. The ever-present wind whipped the sand into stinging whorls and eddies of red, slithering past the flimsy barriers of shoes and shirts and underwear to collect scratchily in every sweat-damp fold of skin. The lack of anything that could be called a sun meant an equal lack of anything that could be called a shadow. Diffuse halos of slightly dimmer light pooled in the hollows where a cluster of black glass monoliths was placed just right, but that was it.

The Slayers trudged single-file across the dunes, a straggling line of ants in a way-too-big sandbox. The unhappy tech staggered along in their wake, white-faced and panting. Buffy checked – no, not sorry for him yet. She wiped sweaty locks of hair from her brow and shaded her eyes with a palm, squinting up at the featureless dome of the sky. Her lips were dry, her head ached, and she was getting a blister on her left heel. Had they been traveling for four hours? Six? With no sun to mark the passage of time, they might as well have been marching forever. The shiny white geodesic of the compound roof had disappeared behind the rolling red hills, at least. If they were making three miles an hour, and two trains left St. Louis at 9:00 A.M….

“Water break!” Blossom yelled, and the column of Slayers stumbled to a halt. They’d reached an irregular circle of upthrust black rocks, some pointing skywards, others leaning crazily this way and that. A few of the volcanic spires had half-toppled over on their neighbors to form unsteady-looking arches of stone. The other versions of her spread out, some collapsing against the pillars of stone, others flopping down on the sand where they’d stood.

Buffy slumped against the slick black surface of the nearest monolith and slid to the ground. She wanted nothing more than to pour her remaining water bottles over her head, but when they might have a dozen or more miles left to go, that was probably a bad idea. She roused herself and looked around. Blossom and B. Finn were studying the map they’d printed out before leaving – compasses didn’t work here, so they were plotting their course from one distinctive obsidian outcropping to the next. Bubbles was rummaging through her pack, double-checking the various items they’d need for the summoning spell. Buttercup was keeping an eye on the technician, who’d fallen in a moaning heap and was loudly claiming he couldn’t get up.

Her very own Vampire Barbie lounged against a nearby outcropping, one ankle crossed delicately over the other, a slight, superior smile on her lips. Easy to do when exterior temperature didn’t affect you that much. Buffy eyed her sourly. Vampires did sweat, as she had good reason to know, but not because they were overheated. “Do I need to tie your feet up, or can you refrain from killing anyone for five minutes while I pee?”

The vampire rolled her eyes. “Exactly how remedial do you think I am? Go take care of your gross bodily functions.”

“Like you don’t have a few of your own,” Buffy muttered, stashing her bag in the lee of the stone and clambering to her feet. Yeah, sure, vampire elimination was minimal as long as they stuck to a strictly-blood diet, but few vampires did, and – her stomach did a back-flip. Oh God. What was she going to feed this baby? How would she even know? What if it needed blood? Or something even weirder? What if it needed some kind of freaky demon breast milk she couldn’t produce?

What if it needed some kind of freaky demon breast milk she could?

She managed to make it around the back of a small outcropping before she threw up, and sank to her knees in the sand, alternately sobbing and retching. When she got home she was going to find whoever it was who made all those soft-focus pregnancy commercials, and barf on them. For better or worse, there wasn’t much in her stomach to come up. She knelt there doubled over, riding out the futile convulsions, fists clenched in the sand and eyes squeezed shut, until the sound of voices made them fly open. She unscrewed her water bottle, took a quick swig, and spat bile onto the ruby sand. Wiping her mouth, she peered around the edge of the outcropping.

A blonde head and a turquoise one bobbed up over the dune – Bubbles and Blossom, glancing warily over their shoulders. They stopped fifteen or twenty feet away, conspiratorially close. “So what do you think?” Blossom whispered.

Buffy pressed her cheek to the translucent black stone, straining her ears. Her close encounter with the demon essence hadn’t left her with any spiffy-keen new superpowers. Any changes were small and subtle, to the point that it was easy to convince herself, most of the time, that it hadn’t changed her at all. No cape and tights in the offing for this little Slayer. But every now and then she wondered if catching the whispered words under the moan of the wind would have been quite as effortless, before.

Bubbles made an eh-face. “Like Igor said, the ritual’s plug and play. Problem is, Dinza’s contract isn’t with us, it’s with Wolfram and Hart. Igor’s not singing tenor in the choir invisible, so she won’t negotiate with him directly, but since he’s on the payroll, that may be enough. If it’s not… we’ll improvise. I don’t trust the vampire. Or anyone who trusts a vampire. Wolfram & Hart may have done the multiverse a favor by locking one or two of us up.”

“I’m not arguing.” Blossom looked grim. “For now, she’s an evil that’s necessary. But once the portal is open…” She shrugged. “No one’s going to notice another handful of dust in the wind around here.” She threw a sharp look in the direction of Buffy’s outcropping. “This place gives me the heebies. Are we sure there’s nothing else out here?”

Crap. Buffy ducked down and fumbled with the buttons of her jeans – she had come out here to pee, after all, and it wasn’t her fault if someone else decided to barge into her bathroom and plot secretively. Plus, pretty sure that they’d think she was too far away to have heard them. But before Blossom could take more than a step in her direction, someone back at the stone circle shouted, “Look! Up in the sky!”

Buffy looked up. What she saw wasn’t bird nor plane nor even frog, but a vast black crescent of sky, opening in the exact center of the dome. Faint milky striations pulsed in the ebony void. Slowly it widened, peeling down towards the horizon on all sides, replacing the burnished gold with silver-shot black, until the entire dome was sheathed in a night as uncanny as its day had been. Shivering – the temperature was dropping rapidly – Buffy buttoned her jeans and blinked hard. As her eyes accustomed themselves to the darkness, she could pick out the outlines of rolling dunes and obsidian spires, limned in a faint, ghostly silver light. She could just make out the divots in the sand that her own feet had made walking out here, so she backtracked to the stone circle.

“We can’t go on now,” the technician was chafing his heavily-taped sides gingerly in an effort to get warm. “We were probably going in circles even when it was light out, and – “

“How long does this last?” Blossom interrupted. “We’ve been stuck in Cell Block Forty-Nine, remember?”

The technician’s features were indistinguishable in the dome-light, but his shoulders drooped with pain and weariness. “Seven, eight hours.”

Blossom stood with head bowed for a moment, nibbling on a fingernail, then nodded. “OK, we’ll wait it out here. Get some rest, everyone.”

***********

The ruby desert was supposed to be devoid of life, but Blossom organized them into watches anyway. At Bubbles’ direction, three or four versions of her gathered up armloads of obsidian fragments from the piles which had spalled off the larger outcroppings, and heaped them up in the center of the stone circle. A few mumbled words and passes of her hands, and a cold blue flame leapt up from the heart of the stone. The light only extended to the perimeter of the circle, but it was better than nothing. Vampire Her retreated to a sulky huddle as far away from the uncanny fire as she could get, but even she seemed unwilling to chance the even more uncanny darkness beyond.

No one said much as they gathered around the crepuscular light of the fire. Someone started handing around full water bottles to replace the ones depleted by the day’s journey. B. Finn cut the empty water bottles in half with a purloined kitchen knife, making a set of irritatingly skinny bowls with which to divvy up the spoils of Buffy’s grocery bags. Buffy plunked herself down on a hassock-sized rock where she could keep an eye on the vampire, and peeled off sand-crusted sneakers. Her socks were limp with sweat and blister goo. Ick. At least the blister itself was history. Yay Slayer healing.

“I don’t suppose you can summon marshmallows?” Buttercup asked, hugging her knees in the chill blue light. Buffy felt a brief pang of sympathy; at least she had been wearing sneakers when Warren zapped her here. She didn’t envy Buttercup her stiletto-heel boots.

“That would be no.” Bubbles waved her share aside. “I have to be fasting for the ritual.”

B. Finn licked the knife and grimaced. “Lucky you. When we get home, Riley had better have the biggest cheeseburger in existence waiting for me.” A couple of tired chuckles. She raised an eyebrow at Bubbles. “You?”

“My world? Not so much super with the sizing anymore.” Bubbles gave a wistful half-smile. “But it has its compensations.”

Buffy prodded at the contents of her half-bottle with a plastic spoon: Cold refried beans, half a hard-boiled egg, a spoonful of tuna, and a gooey tomato slice. Blargh. Dawn would probably love it. She could practically hear the “God, Buffy, you have no sense of adventure!” now. How many versions of herself were missing their sisters now? How many even had a sister to miss?

“Forget food,” said Buttercup. “The first thing on my When-I-Get-Home list is crawling into a hot tub and staying there until I evolve gills.”

“Oooh, so getting a mani-pedi!”

Suggestions flew around the circle, tired faces lighting with the first laughter Buffy’d heard since waking up in this place. Mistrust and animosity vanished, at least temporarily, but Buffy couldn’t shake an industrial-strength case of the gloomies. What was she going to do when she got home, and maybe possibly found – who was she kidding? I’d do it. Right person. Person I loved. I’d do it. There was no question of what she’d find.

Buttercup tapped her knee with a spoon. “What about you?”

Startled into candor, Buffy blurted, “Talk to Spike about – ” Yeah, ‘The 99.99% chance of Warren Meers’s untimely demise’ would go over really well with this crowd. Her mouth snapped shut and her hand dropped to her belly. “College funds,” she finished lamely.

A ring of silent eyes surrounded her, some incredulous, some uncomprehending, all of them her own. Buttercup gave them voice. “You’re keeping it? Seriously? A demon baby?”

Buffy resisted the urge to duck her head. My demon baby. Our demon baby. “Maybe. I don’t know. That’s what I need to talk to Spike about.” Among other things. “Fine, I get it, no one but me gave Spike a membership card to the Buffy Boyfriend Club. But like it or not, I am you, and just because the you version of me didn’t make the same decisions the I version of me did doesn’t mean the you version never could have been the me version, and, uh…” Where exactly was she going with this again? “Besides, I know a lot of you were involved with Spike, too, even if it didn’t work out!”

“That’s the thing.” Bubbles tossed her turquoise hair. “None of us wanted it to work out.” Buffy thought she saw a flicker of something in Blossom’s eyes at that, but it was gone too quickly to identify. “I’m not proud of what happened with Spike. It makes me sick to think about what I let him do to me. Sometimes I thought I’d never feel clean again. But I came out of it stronger. Lucky for me, Angel understands a thing or two about despair.”

“I get that.” No, I really don’t. Maybe I had to be there. “But it was never about despair for me.”

“What else could it be about?” Blossom demanded, fierce eyes studying Buffy’s face.

The answers to why-she-shouldn’t-have and why-she-did were obvious and identical: Because it was Spike. Buffy sifted blood-colored sand through her fingers, studying the ruby lines it inscribed across her palms in the firelight. “I guess… he crawled under my skin like no one else ever has. Got me – and got to me – in ways no one else did. I think maybe I did the same to him. When someone’s that close…” Would stirring the tuna into the beans make them any more palatable? “You either love them or you hate them. And after what he did for Dawn, I couldn’t hate him any longer.”

“You couldn’t have loved him, either.” Blossom shook her head, definitive. She sounded as if she were trying to convince herself as much as anyone else. “Even if you weren’t… he had no soul. He was evil.”

“I don’t love him because he’s evil. I love him because he’s Spike. And if you don’t… didn’t…love him” Buffy puffed out a frustrated sigh. “That’s your call. But in that case I don’t get why any of you ever slept with him at all.”

Blossom stared into the fire. “It was easier than not sleeping with him. For awhile, anyway.” She poked the stony embers with a shard of crystal, and blue sparks crackled where it met the flame. “And that’s why I ended it.”

How could a Slayer shacking up with a soulless vampire possibly be easier than the alternative? Buffy swallowed a mouthful of tunabeans. Ew. Not really an improvement. Even Cast-Iron Chef Dawn would disapprove. “I never claimed that falling for Spike was smart. But it happened. I can’t just ignore it and pretend it didn’t.” Several pairs of eyes went shifty on her. “I mean, you said he – your Spike got a soul.” Buffy looked from Blossom to Bubbles, bewildered. These people were her. How could they be such strangers? “How does that even work out? You must have helped him get it, right? Or at least packed him a sack lunch?”

Blossom’s eyes were hooded, her face tight with an emotion Buffy couldn’t identify. “You could say I was his inspiration.”

“That’s one way of putting it,” Bubbles said with a snort. “Look, even if I’d known a vampire could just waltz off and ask for his soul back, helping him do it? Worst idea ever. He’d just chalk up another notch on the ‘I can make Buffy me love me!’ board.” She shook her head in annoyance. “Spike just never knew when to quit.”

Spike wasn’t the only one. “But once he got a soul – “

“Gaah!” Bubbles threw up her hands. “He was still Spike. He went crazy for awhile. I thought it was guilt, but no, First Evil. And then the Apocalypse went down, and he jumped in someplace he wasn’t wanted and totally screwed everything up. And Dawn died, and I quit. Why not? Angel and I didn’t owe any of them anything any longer.” She glowered from beneath blue-green bangs. “How does it work out for you, him not having one?”

Surprisingly well. Until now. Buffy set her beans down and tugged the crinkly thermal blanket free of her bag – the wind had died down, and there was no logical reason why a black-and-silver sky should make her feel colder than a golden one, but it did. Drawing the blanket around her shoulders, she tucked her hands between her knees. “Did he… change a lot? After getting a soul?”

Eye-roll from Blossom. “Well, he wasn’t a remorseless killing machine who slaughtered thousands for the fun of it any longer, so yeah, I’d say he changed a lot.”

“That’s not what I meant.” How could she not know what she meant when she asked that questions? “Was he still… was he still Spike?”

“He was… a person. Finally. Whole. You could see it in his eyes.” Blossom, utterly expressionless, tossed her eggshell into the fire, where it exploded with a POP! Of green and orange sparks. “It doesn’t matter now. He’s gone.”

She didn’t know why the idea of Spike as some sort of crippled, incomplete thing rankled her so. That there were certain facets of human emotion he wasn’t capable of grasping was just a fact. But it did rankle. It was… patronizing. Buffy scowled into the flames. He’s always been a person. Why do you think it was always so hard for us to kill him? But she knew better than anyone what a terrifying road that was for a Slayer to walk down: if one vampire counted as a person, then maybe another vampire might count as a person, too. And another, and another, and where did you end up then? Shacked up with one and maintaining a dozen uneasy truces with the rest of them, trying to balance the good of the many against the good of the one, when the one was a guy with a body count in the tens of thousands. She retrieved her half-eaten beans. “I’m going to check on the vampire,” she announced. Stilted, yet awkward. That had gone well.

The vampire was a silver-brushed shadow in the artificial night. She looked up as Buffy plodded over, a wicked smile flitting about her lips. “Search for validation not going so well?” she asked, dripping fake concern.

“Shut up, or I’ll give you the rest of my beans.” Buffy leaned back against the fluted column of black glass, bare toes scrunching in the sand. She ran one hand along the sculptural convolutions of stone, fingertips ghosting over barely-perceptible ripples and bubbles of air. Tiny imperfections. She snatched her hand away with a hiss as her finger encounter the razor-sharp edge of a bubble that had burst. Or not so tiny. The vampire’s nostrils flared, but she held her peace. Buffy sucked on her bleeding finger. “They’re going to try to kill you once you’ve spoken to Dinza,” she said. “I thought you should know.”

The vampire laughed, rich and low. “Pretty much what I expected from myself. Do you plan on trying to stop them?”

Buffy stared at her own perfect, eternally youthful profile. They – she – had made a promise. But the days when she could make that kind of promise with no thought for the consequences were long gone. How many people had Spike and Drusilla killed after she’d blithely dismissed them from Sunnydale? But she couldn’t be everywhere, couldn’t do everything, either… “Spike wants to be good. Even without a soul.”

“Spike wants to be whatever he thinks I want him to be,” the vampire countered. “Even with a soul. He’s kind of pathetic that way. If he weren’t so good in bed…” She stretched, smiled. Posing for herself. “You want to believe there’s some spark of goodness in me, don’t you? I’ll save you some time: there isn’t. It might be fun to string you along and then crush your tender, girly hopes with a brick, but I don’t think we have time to do it properly. I told you why they hate you, but why do you think they hate me? Because they know that deep down, we’re all the same. I’m what you get when you strip all the doubts and fears and restrictions away.”

There was nothing in the universe she wanted to believe less. “Maybe we are,” Buffy said, keeping her voice steady. “But we don’t have to be. I saw Spike change. And if he can do it…don’t you think there’s anything better to do with eternity than shoe shopping and working out your daddy issues killing middle-aged financial consultants?”

“In a word? No.” The vampire yawned, patting her mouth with delicate fingers. “You’ve cleared your conscience. Now take your distractingly tasty blood elsewhere and let me get some sleep. You wouldn’t want me to be all cranky when Dinza comes calling.”

**********

Continued

Originally posted at http://seasonal-spuffy.livejournal.com/469388.html

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