Author's Notes: Judging by the reviews, I'm guessing you guys didn't think the argument in Precious Gifts was as fun as I did. That's a shame. Hopefully, you'll be more entertained by some of the other stuff I have coming down the line. Thanks for continuing to give Echoes your time and attention.
“That wall needs something,” Buffy muttered, studying the space above the bed.
Spike looked up from the CDs he was stacking on the bottom shelf of a nightstand. “Chains?”
“No, smart ass. I was thinking about a painting, or a mirror, or something.”
“A mirror? Great idea, that.”
“Ok, so a mirror is a dumb idea. But an art piece, something interesting and exotic...”
“Joyce got any possessed masks available at the gallery?”
Buffy's eyes widened. “How do you know about that? You weren't in Sunnydale when that happened!”
Her face was bright red as she scanned the basement for something to throw at him. His laughter only embarrassed her further. “I'm going to kill him, then you,” she grumbled.
“Relax, Slayer. It's not like he knew you were coming back. Found solace in telling stories, is all. Can't really blame the bloke.”
“But I can blame you for waiting years to tell me you knew all that stuff.”
“Never came up.” He smirked again. “And you didn't answer my question. Pig or shoes?”
Buffy glared at the intruder. “What do you want now, Whistler? Did we ruin your bosses' plans again?”
Whistler sat down on the edge of the bed, clearly exasperated. “You two geniuses really don't understand the idea of subtlety, do you?”
Whistler ignored the interruption. “I thought I said a few things about making small changes, not straying too far from how you remember things. In fact, I'm pretty sure your watcher said the same thing to you before left your own time. So I'm trying to figure out if that memory boost I gave you didn't take, or if you two just like ignoring people who give you advice.”
“I like ignoring you,” Buffy replied frankly. “And Giles didn't exactly do much to make me want to follow his lead.”
“Yea, I guessed you'd say that. It was too much to hope you'd actually listen. But you're playing with fire here, kids. I'm struggling to figure out what you haven't changed. All your friends know something is different, and two of them know for certain you're not exactly who you claim to be. The kid already knows she's a walking inter-dimensional glow stick, and your mother knows, too. Everyone can tell you're keeping secrets. Hell, even carpentry boy suspects you've got something going with each other. What in the name of all that is Meant To Be are you two thinking?!”
Buffy, though angered at being called out in this way, kept her cool. “I think we're saving the world.” She sat down in one of the club chairs they'd brought from their safe house. “We may not be following your rules, but we're getting the job done. You're the one with a window on the future. You tell me if we've improved our chances of getting everyone out of this alive.”
“It's life, kiddo. No one makes it out alive. But I know what you mean. And I can't answer that.”
Spike dropped into the chair adjacent to Buffy's, putting himself physically in the conversation. “Then answer this: How were we gonna keep it quiet with an aura-reader in the mix? Your bosses forget that little snag? Or did you just forget to mention it?”
Whistler fidgeted with the buttons on his jacket and stole a glance at his wristwatch. “No one thought she'd run to the watcher. The odds said she'd go straight to you. She was supposed to be your help. That's why the bosses sent her back to join you.”
Buffy's jaw dropped. “Wait. What? She's the Tara from our timeline? Huh? How?”
“She doesn't know that. Not yet. And for the record, she was given a choice. She could stay safe and comfy where she was and we'd block this time's Tara from seeing the differences in your auras, or she could come back and take her chances, to help you and have another shot at her human existence.”
“Not much of a choice,” Spike muttered. “Girl she loves is here.”
“Like I said, not much of a choice.” Spike's words were meant for Whistler, but his eyes were on Buffy.
Buffy shrugged off his irritation. “We haven't broken anything, or you'd be doing more than nagging us. And Tara wasn't weak.”
She ignored that, focusing instead on what the demon had said about Tara. “Her birthday is tomorrow. You think she's going to choose to stay here out of courage instead of fear, don't you?”
Spike threw an amber-eyed glare at Whistler. “So Glinda was safe in her grave and her heaven, and you bring her back? Thought we were here so shit like that didn't happen?”
“Hey! I'm just the messenger!” Whistler put up his hands in surrender. “The bosses made this deal with her, not me. I was sent here to do the job, and give you a heads up.” He looked at his watch again. “And heads up time is over. Hopefully, I'll be right back.”
In another flash of blue, he was gone. Before the two left behind could speak, there was the sound of someone moving upstairs. Both Spike and Buffy stood up. Joyce was at work, Dawn was at school, and no visitors were expected.
Spike sniffed the air as the soft footsteps came closer to the kitchen above. “It's Tara.”
Buffy let out a breath she didn't know she was holding. “Well, I'll say this for him: he has good timing.”
“Buffy? Are you home? Spike?” Tara's soft voice was little more than a muffled murmur to Buffy, but Spike could hear her calls clearly.
He stepped to the base of the staircase. “Downstairs, Glinda!”
The footsteps paused at the top of the stairs. “Spike? I'm sorry. I didn't wake you, did I?”
Buffy stepped into her line of sight. “No. I wasn't going to let him sleep until he got off his lazy ass and finally unpacked his stuff. Come on down, Tara.”
Tara descended the stairs with a resolved expression on her face. She locked eyes with Spike. “You said you owed me a debt. I'm here to collect.”
He invited her to sit with a gesture. “I guessed as much.”
Tara settled into one of the recently vacated chairs. “You've been through all of this before. You know what happens. Do you know my family is in town? And why?”
“Tell me what happens.”
Spike shrugged. “They tried to take you away. Said you weren't human. I punched you. Chip went off. Proved your father was lying. Sent 'em packing. You stayed.”
She studied him for a moment. “It sounds like you're leaving something out, but ok. Thank you.” She rose to leave. “One more thing: Why did I stay?”
“You have school, Willow, and your friends to stay for, plus freedom from your family.” Buffy shrugged. “It could have been any or all of those reasons.”
“What about you guys? Do you guys need me?”
Buffy tried to keep her expression neutral. “Things are different this time around. We know what's coming. It’s an advantage.”
“Is it enough, Buffy? Would my magic be helpful? I can do things for you. I don’t know how much help I was the first time, but I know I can help now. I could--”
Tara's words were cut off by a blinding flash of blue light immediately in front of her. Whistler studied her eyes at close range for a moment. Satisfied with what he saw, he placed a fingertip to her forehead. “Restore!” Another blue flash disrupted her vision. The demon stepped back to watch his magic work.
Tara blinked, winced, and was suddenly unsteady on her feet. Spike rushed forward to push her back into her chair before she hit the concrete floor. She doubled over, her face in her hands. For what seemed like a long time, they watched her and listened to her breathe into her palms. When she finally looked up, her eyes were wide. “Whoa!” was all she could say.
She nodded. “I’ve never met you, though. You're the agent they told me they'd send?”
Whistler smiled. “Yea, that's me.” He looked at Buffy and Spike. “You two can take it from here. And try to play by the rules once in a while, ok?” He was gone before anyone could respond.
Tara leaned back in her chair, and took a deep breath. Then she looked at the two people standing before her. “So you guys are the reason I now have two versions of the two months in my head?”
Buffy smiled. “That would be us. How much do you know about what happened after you... um...”
“Died? Just the basics. I know Willow went off the deep end with the magic. And the resurrection spell finally came back to bite everyone, upsetting the balance of power on this plane so badly that Willow set up a time-travel expedition with some other witches to try to undo the damage. They didn't tell me it would be you two that came back, but I should have known.”
She studied Buffy for a long moment before jumping to her feet and pulling her into a strong hug. “You should have beaten all of us to a pulp. I know what we took you away from now. I'm so sorry!”
Buffy returned the hug, albeit a little awkwardly. “It's ok, Tara. I've had time to get used to it. I'm just amazed you gave it up on purpose.”
Tara pulled away. “I think it will be worth it.” She turned to Spike. “And I really should have been a better friend to you.”
“It's alright, pet. You had other troubles to see to, like that bird of yours and her magic.”
“Yea... I'm going to have to find a way to fix that this time around.”
Buffy grinned at Spike. “Hey! She sounds like us now!”
Xander walked into the Magic Box just as a customer walked out. Anya was at her register, happily tidying the cash within. Giles was behind the counter with her, focused on the vendor order form he was filling out. Willow and Tara sat at the round table with a pile of books, the thing Buffy had called a Dagon's Sphere nearby, tipping him off as to what they were researching. Dawn sat with them, doing a poor job of pretending to do her homework while she read from one of the books Willow had pushed aside. Everyone appeared oblivious to the noise coming from the back room.
After a warm exchange of greetings with Anya, and casual waves to the group at the table, Xander turned to Giles. “So what's the Buffster pummeling back there, anyway?”
Giles didn't look up. “Just Spike. Anya, how much thistle root should we order?”
Xander couldn't mask his grin as he moved toward the training room. “It's about time she gave him a good beating!”
His grin faded quickly when he cracked open the training room door to peek inside. The sound beating he’d been hoping for was merely a sparring session. Buffy and Spike were dodging attacks from each other easily, almost gracefully. Each seemed to be trying to hurt their opponent, not pulling any punches, but they were still making very little contact. They anticipated each other so well, the effect was almost that of a choreographed dance. Xander stood open-mouthed as he listened and watched.
“Dropping your shoulder like a Potential, love. You know better than that.”
“I think you spent too much time with them. You've gotten slow. Or is that just old age?”
Spike growled as he aimed a kick at her middle, which she barely dodged. “You'll regret that!”
“Not if you keep proving my point!” She laughed. “Come on, Sparky! Relish the fight! I know you’ve still got it in you!” She danced out of his reach, swinging around behind him to land a kick at his backside. “Pick up the pace!”
He turned on her with a flash of amber eyes, followed by a lascivious smirk. “You think you can keep up this time?”
Buffy's grin widened. “There's the Spike I know.” She bounced on her toes. “Come on. I've been waiting for this for a long time.”
“Me, too.” Spike lunged toward her, but stopped himself just before making contact, when the slight opening of the door came into his line of sight.“Think we got company, Slayer.”
“What?” Buffy's eyes followed his to the door just as it was opened the rest of the way. “Oh. Hi, Xander.” She stepped away from her opponent and reached for a bottle of water.
“Uh, hi. Question: A potential what? Also, 'Sparky'?”
Buffy and Spike exchanged a look Xander didn't understand. “I'll explain it to you sometime, Xan. It's not important right now.”
“Guess that's it for the warm-up.” Spike nodded to the clock on the wall.
She made eye contact with him, but didn't reply. She walked to the open door, ushering Xander through it ahead of her. Spike followed, but stopped at the training room entrance. Buffy moved through the store and took a seat on the stairs near the front door, trying to look casual about it.
Taking her cue, Tara picked up the Dagon's Sphere and scooted her chair back from the table. Then she waited, her eyes darting between Buffy and the front door. When the door opened, she dropped the sphere under the table. “Oops! Dawn, will you get that for me, please?”
Dawn ducked under the table just as the first Lei-Ach demons came through the front door. Buffy met them head-on, fists at the ready. Spike slipped back into the training room, the sounds of fighting a few seconds later left the rest of the Scoobies certain they had no easy exit. They were between two battles, one at each door.
Fortunately, it didn't last long. Slayer and vampire were able to dispatch the marrow-sucking demons quite easily. Buffy was standing on the stairs, catching her breath, when Spike reentered the shop. He gave her a nod, which she returned.
Dawn emerged from under the table. Tara's father came in the door, followed by his son and niece.
Tara immediately stepped forward, her eyes locked on her father's. “You should go home,” she said, her voice unusually strong. “I'm not coming with you.”
“Yes, you are. The camper's waiting outside.”
Willow looked at Tara in alarm. “You're going away?”
Tara shook her head, but kept her gaze on her father. “No. I'm no good to him. I know it's all a myth. I'm not a demon. It would be hard to make me a good housekeeper if I know I can be free, wouldn't it... sir?” She loaded the last word with strength and sarcasm, which only angered her father.
“The evil in you is playing with your mind.”
“Sorry, no. I'm not evil, not a demon. Am I, Spike?” She called over her shoulder.
“Passes the human test according to my li'l brain buzzer. Smells human, too.”
The Scoobies all understood this explanation, but Tara's family didn't. Buffy grinned. “If Spike's chip and nose say 100% human, she's human. He's a handy vampire to have around.”
Willow grabbed her girlfriend's hand. Tara smiled at her, and looked at the group standing behind her. She kept the crooked grin on her face as she returned her eyes to her father. “You're right, Dad. I need to be with my family. It's a good thing they all live in Sunnydale.”
Buffy eyed the man carefully. “Before you even think about trying to take her against her will, you should know that there is enough power in this room to bring down this entire plane of existence, and none of those people are your allies. You should leave.”
Joyce leaned against the kitchen counter, giggling. “I wish I could have seen his face!”
Spike pulled the dishtowel from his shoulder to dry his hands “Was some bickering from her brother and cousin 'fore they finally cleared out, but the poor old bloke looked scared. Didn't say much after that.” He threw the towel at Buffy's head as he stepped away from the sink. She stuck her tongue out at him as she caught it, and threw it back.
Joyce frowned at the interaction, but kept her focus on the conversation at hand. “Buffy, you were exaggerating a bit, though?”
Buffy shrugged. “Not really. Even Xan could find a way, with the access to mystical stuff he has. For me, it would probably be a matter of doing nothing when I should be doing something. Spike isn't much of an end the world type,” she smiled at him, thinking of their first truce. “But he could find a way. Dawn's full of untapped power we don't even understand yet. Anya could go back to vengeance demon work in a heartbeat, and trigger a nuclear war or something. That leaves two witches and a young-warlock-turned-middle-aged-watcher, whom I think you know.” She quirked an eyebrow at her mother, who had the grace to blush. “It's a good thing we're the good guys. Otherwise, we'd be dangerous.”
Buffy went upstairs to dress for Tara's birthday party, and hurry Dawn along, who had already been doing so for half an hour. Spike stepped outside for a cigarette. After a moment's indecision, Joyce followed him. She pulled her cardigan tightly around her at she stepped out onto the back porch, where Spike was leaning against the railing, closing his eyes against the wind with a soft smile on his face. She closed the door behind her. “There's a storm blowing in.”
“A right good one, I'm guessing. Worst thing about California is the weather. Always preferred places where I'd either see plenty of snowy winters, or plenty of stormy summers. California's got neither, but once in a while, it'll surprise you.”
“I don't know. I see two particularly stormy Summers all the time.” Joyce joined him at the railing. “I actually wanted to talk to you about one of them.”
“I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess you don't mean Dawn.”
“Good guess.” Another gust of wind whipped across the yard and into their faces. She waited until it had passed before she said, “I know this is going to sound like I'm prying, and maybe I am, but I've known you for a while now, and I'd like to think we're friends.”
“I think so, too. What's on your mind, Joyce?”
“Buffy went from fuming at the very mention of your name to having silly arguments with you about who's stuck with the dinner dishes in just a couple of months. She broke up with Riley -for no reason she could articulate- and had you moved into the house a week later. It was all very fast.”
“Your girl didn't stray on her soldier boy, if that's what you're asking.”
“I had hoped not,” Joyce murmured. “But she knows you're in love with her, doesn't she?”
“And that's what changed everything between you?”
“A bit more to it than that, but yea.” Spike shifted his weight. “Gotta earn some trust 'fore it goes any further, you know? And right now, worrying about the Nibblet is taking priority.”
“Whatever is holding her back isn't a problem of trust. If she didn't trust you, you wouldn't be living in this house, and she certainly wouldn't be sleeping beside you, even if that's all it is.” She chuckled at his raised eyebrow. “I can see what's going on in my own house, Spike. She comes upstairs in the mornings dressed in either the clothes she'd worn the previous night or pajamas, and they've clearly been slept in, not spent the night on the bedroom floor. Yesterday morning, I even went downstairs to wake her up. I wouldn't have done more than call from the top of the stairs if I thought...”
“What are you getting at?”
Joyce sighed, not sure she should say what she was thinking. “Willow called me a couple of days ago. She seems very concerned about the possibility of something called a 'thrall.' She explained it, but--”
“Thrall's not my style. Wouldn't do that to Buffy, even if it were.”
“I didn't think so. But Willow is right; there is something very strange about all of this.” They stood in silence for a few minutes, as Joyce waited for an explanation to be offered. When none came, she whispered, “Just promise me this won't turn out like... that you won't turn on her.”
Spike tightened his jaw. “I'm not him, Joyce. Not fond of the comparison, either.”
“I'm not saying you-- Where are you going?”
“Out.” Spike stomped down the porch steps.
Joyce watched him leave the backyard with a frown. “What did I just do?” she asked herself. She turned to go back into the house, opening the door just as another gust of wind struck her back. She looked down at the kitchen floor with a sigh. “Perfect.”
A minute later, Dawn came into the kitchen, with Buffy a step behind her.
Joyce looked up from her sweeping. “You look great, girls. Buffy, honey, sit down for a minute. We need to have a little talk about Spike before you leave.”
Buffy noticed the broom in her mother's hand and her face went white. “Tell me you didn't stake him,” she whispered. “Please tell me... I know he deserves it a lot of the time, but you wouldn't--”
Joyce dropped the broom and rushed across the room to her side. “No, honey. No. Some leaves and dirt blew in on the storm, that's all.” She guided Buffy to a stool. “But the look on your face answers a few questions.”
“Where is he?”
“He went out for a little while, probably to get away from me.” At the look on the slayer's face, Joyce backed away. “I was... expressing some concern.”
“About?” Buffy's eyes were hard in the wake of her moment of shock.
“You and him. And if this might turn out like your last... involvement with a vampire.”
“Not possible. They're nothing alike.”
“I'll say,” Dawn snorted. “Angel was a big stick in the mud.”
“Are you sure, Buffy?” Joyce tried to keep her tone gentle. “I don't want to see you hurt again, or anyone else, for that matter. I know Spike is a little different from most vampires, but things have changed so quickly between you--”
“It won't happen again, Mom. It's literally not possible.”
“Is this a soul thing?” Dawn asked.
“No,” Buffy was quick to answer. “This is an 'I know Spike' thing. Mom, do you know what Angel I never were? Friends. In fact, it was Spike who first pointed that out to me. That whole Angel thing was based on cryptic comments and Romeo and Juliet attraction. Spike and I... It's a lot more than that, and it's more -I can't believe I'm going to use this word- stable. But don't you dare tell him I said that.”
Joyce picked up her broom. “I won't, honey. But maybe you should.”
“Are we done with the serious stuff now? I want to go to the Bronze.”
Buffy smiled at her sister in relief. “Yea, we'd better get going.”
On their way out the front door, Buffy caught sight of the leather duster still hanging on its hook. She brushed her hand across it, her unease about Spike's sudden departure displacing the feeling of comfort the sight of that coat by the door usually offered.
Buffy struggled to find an opportunity to talk to Tara alone. When she finally did, it was in the crowded ladies' room. They held a whispered conference by the last sink while Buffy pretended to fix her wind-blown hair. “... So apparently, Mom made a comparison to... the other one, and he took off in a snit.”
“He'll be home by morning. He's your personal bad penny. You know he can't stay gone long.”
“Not really. He could be gone for days. I might have to go pull him out of a dark hole some place. He's been different since the... spark. I hate to say it, because it annoys him so much, but he gets kind of broody. Not day in and day out, like you-know-who, but he has these moods. He gets quiet and stuck in his own thoughts, and sometimes the guilt goes to his head.”
“The funny thing is, the one person who knows what he's going through is also the last person he'd want to talk to.”
“Trust me, Tara. The irony was lost on no one in our... place. But I'm not sure how much help he'd be, anyway. I've heard some stories over the years. Faith rolled into town with some real doozies on her last visit. The short version is, he didn't handle it well, and spent a cent- a very long time avoiding... normal food, because he had crappy self-control.” Buffy was watching her words carefully, keeping a close eye on the reflections in the mirror, making sure no one took an especial interest in their conversation. “William's path has been the total opposite.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Take Dawnie home and hunt his tantrum-throwing ass down. He knows these comparisons are going to come up, that they're unavoidable. He's just being pouty about it. Running out on Mom like that was odd, and unusually rude, even by his standards. They have such a good relationship. I'd hate to see him ruin it, especially right now, you know?”
“I know, but maybe dragging him home isn't the best option,” Tara said gently. “Maybe you should give him a little space to work out his thoughts.”
Buffy turned away from the mirror. “I guess I could, but if I don't hear from him by tomorrow night, I'll have to hunt him down, space or no space... just to make sure he's alright, of course.”
Tara's crooked smile took on a sly, indulgent quality. “Of course.”
When Dawn awoke the next morning, she peeked into Buffy's room on her way to the bathroom. The slayer was asleep in her own bed, but the rumpled state of the bedclothes spoke to a night of tossing and turning. After her shower, she went downstairs and discovered a bouquet of daisies and daffodils in a simple vase in the kitchen. She grinned and started down the stairs to the basement, planning to congratulate Spike on choosing her mother's favorite flowers. But he wasn't there.
Tara opened her dorm room door and nearly tripped over a small box. Inside were a variety of essential oils in tiny apothecary vials and a note written in near-perfect script.
Happy Birthday, Glinda. Sorry to have missed your party.
She called Buffy as soon as Willow left for class. “I don't know if Spike came home last night, but I can tell you he's not wallowing in some dark hole.”
“Yea, I gathered as much from the apology flowers he left for Mom. Also, he took his coat when he made the flower delivery, so I know he's ok.”
“That means something?”
“Um, yea. The coat was in storage for months. Guilt about its source, I think. Wallowing Spike doesn't wear his favorite trophy. How did you know he was alright?”
Tara described the gift and note. “There wasn't a signature, but only one person in the world calls me 'Glinda,' so the source is kind of obvious. I guess this means he's working out his tantrum on his own?”
Buffy smiled against the phone. “He's bought himself a few days of not being hunted by a stressed out slayer. I'm glad I talked to you. Giving him some space seems to be a good idea... so far.”
Two nights later, Spike emerged from his crypt, enroute to Willy's. There was a note wedged in the door, which dropped to his feet as he stepped outside.
Both your gifts were appreciated, but I think the recipients would have preferred to tell you in person. You're going to have to make your peace with it, Sparky. Comparisons are going to happen, even in this new timeline. We may be able to change a lot of stuff, but one thing we can't do is escape that big, broody shadow. All I can offer you is the promise that you aren't in his shadow to me. I moved past that long before I realized I did. Come home soon, and try not to get kidnapped in the meantime.
PS- I finally bought that lock box. I put our notes in it. Now I just need the letters from your coat pocket, and to give the second key to its owner.
Spike slipped into her bedroom early the following morning. He crouched beside her bed. “Buffy?” he whispered. “I'm home, love.”
Buffy rolled onto her side to face him. “You smell like a distillery,” she mumbled. She opened her eyes. “And you look like hell.”
“I'll be alright. Sun will be up soon. Gonna get some kip.”
“Downstairs.” He kissed her forehead as he stood to leave.
She smiled softly as she drifted back to sleep.
The tall, elderly woman rested her wrinkled hands on the ornate round table before her, her frustration visible on her face. “And there's to be no other support?”
“They have the guidance they need. They will follow the path set for them.”
She pointed to the short man standing across the table. “That isn't a guide.” She shook her head. “This is nothing but exploitation.”
“They are our weapons to wield.”
The woman looked around the white room, an idea coming to mind. “You should remember you aren't the only ones with weapons.” She turned to walk out of the room through the blue-framed doorway.
“This is above your position.”
“We'll see about that,” she replied without turning around.
If you are under the age of 17, please use your head and do not read fics that are labeled "NC-17". Parents, I cannot control what your children are reading, so please be advised that the majority of the fics archived here are NOT suitable for those under the age of 17.
I do not own Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I am in no way making any profit from this site. This is for pure entertainment purposes only.
Concept: (c)bringonthebloodshed.com (2004), Code & Design: (c)Diabola (2006), Graphics: Selene & Always