Echoes of Beljoxa 16: Present Decisions

Echoes of Beljoxa

Chapter 16: Present Decisions

December, 2000

Xander pulled into the driveway just as Buffy was coming outside to check the mail. She met him on the porch. “Hey, Xan. What’s up?”

“I stopped on my way home from work to see your mom, but the Jeep is gone.”

“She’s at the grocery store. Her second solo trip out of the house since her surgery, and it’s food shopping the week before Christmas.” Buffy shuddered. “She should’ve let me go with her.”

“She’ll be fine. If some old biddy tries to grab the last turkey, she’ll just whack her with it.”

Buffy laughed as they went inside. The sound of an argument drew Xander to the dining room.

“I’m telling you, the Canadians took that hill. I was there -a few hours before the Yanks even showed up, for the record. They were late for the party.”

“Only you would think of a battlefield as a party.”

“Not the point.”

“No, the point is that if I don’t answer based on the book, I’ll get the question wrong!”

“The bleedin’ book is wrong! By the time you lot got there, it was nearly over. But then, that goes for the whole damned conflict, doesn’t it? Doubt your book points that out.”

Xander looked to Buffy, who had followed him into the dining room. She was calmly ignoring the pair at the table as she sorted through the mail, showing no reaction to the argument. He waved to get Dawn and Spike’s attention. “Hi. What’s the hubbub, bubs?”

“World War I,” Dawn answered. “The old fart thinks he knows better than the people who wrote the textbook.”

“I do. Didn’t see any of them out there, getting their hands dirty.”

“Because they aren’t older than the dirt!”

Buffy tossed a bright red envelope onto the table. “Christmas card from Dad.”

“What’s the postmark?”

“Madrid again.” Another envelope hit the table. “William.”

Dawn picked it up. “Spike, since when do you get mail here? Or anywhere?”

Spike snatched the envelope and handed it back to Buffy. “Put that one with the bills, love.”

“My mother is not going to open your mail.” Dawn rolled her eyes. “Hello, federal offense?”

“I think there’s an exception for the deceased, Bit.”

“Feminine handwriting.” Dawn glanced at Buffy. “Young feminine handwriting. You see that, too, right?”

“I see it.” Buffy shook her head in mock sadness. “And I always figured him for a hard-core monogamist. I should’ve known.” She fought back a laugh.

“Wait.” Xander looked around the table. “So there’s another woman, she knows where you live, and Buffy’s not mad?” His eyes narrowed. “So there isn’t actually anything serious between you two?”

Spike gestured for Buffy to hand back the envelope. “Bird’s name is Jenna. Works for my banker.”

“Ah. Hence having the address.” Dawn nodded, understanding. “Somebody has a crush?”

“Somebody’s in charge of handling my money.” Spike tore open the envelope and pulled out a cashier’s check, which he handed to Buffy. “Bottom of the pile, love.”

She frowned at the amount. “You know she won’t accept this.”

“She will when she sees what’s above it.” Spike shrugged. “Managed to talk her into accepting the rent money, didn’t I?”

“That wasn’t rent, Spike. That was the mortgage for the entire first quarter.”

Dawn frowned. “You know how much the mortgage is?”

“Well, yeah! I’ve paid–” Buffy caught herself. “–attention to stuff. You know, so I can help Mom.”

Dawn started to close her history book, but Spike’s hand blocked her. “Aw, come on. We’re just hanging out and talking. And Mom will be home soon.”

Spike waved Buffy and Xander away. “Out. The Bit’s got an exam tomorrow.”

“No gory stories!” Buffy said over her shoulder as she led Xander out of the dining room.

“It was a bloody war, Slayer. They weren’t firing rose petals.”

Xander watched Buffy arrange the bills on the desk, carefully sliding the check below the envelopes from the hospital. “So where did Spike get a bunch of dough all of a sudden?”

“He had it squirreled away.” She turned a couple of envelopes to make the bill pile look more natural. “This one is going to start a fight. Once, she’ll accept it. Twice in a single month?” She shook her head. “Mom’s always complaining about me and Spike arguing, but the fact is, everyone argues with Spike. Including her. And I’m betting this one is going to be a doozy.”

“My money’s on your mom. She’s pretty tough, even if she did just have brain surgery. Maybe Spike will get whacked with a frozen turkey. …Does your mom happen to own a video camera?”

Buffy fell into a chair, shaking her head to dismiss the joke. “You have no idea how stubborn Spike really is, Xan. Mom will yell and threaten and maybe even throw something at him, but he’s not the type to give in. He’s tenacious.”

“Well, that explains why you fight with him so much. You know, aside from the whole ‘he’s an evil vampire’ thing, which I hope accounts for a lot of it. You’re stubborn, too.” Xander took the chair across from hers. “That’s why I’m trying not to get in your way with this thing too much. I know I’d lose.”

“You would,” she said quietly.

“I’d also have to fight with Anya about it. She seems to like the idea of you two being together. She said -and I quote- ‘Spike has been a good influence on Buffy. She’s much less annoying now.’”

Buffy laughed. “I notice she didn’t say anything about him being less annoying.”

“I don’t think she thought he was to start with, which puts her in the minority.”

“More like unique. ‘Minority’ implies at least one person in the world agrees with her.” Her smile faded. “Tell me seriously, Xan: what are your thoughts, besides ‘don’t fight it, you’ll lose’?”

Xander looked at his hands. “I don’t understand it at all, Buff. It was like someone flipped a switch one day, and poof! You and Spike aren’t enemies anymore. Then he moves into your house, and the next thing I know, you two are acting like a long-term couple. It’s all kind of left my head spinning. I do have one question, and you don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to.” He looked up at her. “Was Spike living downtown before he moved in here?”

Buffy bit her lip as she thought through her response. “Yes. But I never cheated on Riley. I went to Spike’s place to talk. And to sleep. I… I find his presence …comforting.”

“That’s not a word I ever would have associated with William the Bloody.”

“I used to think the same thing, before I really got to know him. He’s not all fangs and British curse words, you know.”

Xander frowned. “I really don’t.”

“Maybe you should try to find out?”

*~*~*

Spike intercepted Xander on his way out. “Harris, I was wondering if I might ask a favor.”

*~*~*

Buffy came out to the back porch, late the following night. “You’ve been out here for a few hours now.”

Spike shrugged.

She sat on the top step beside him. “So while you were out here, I decided to do something stupid.”

“I’m almost afraid to ask,” he mumbled around his cigarette.

“I’m going to ask you what you’re thinking about.”

He watched the smoke drift off on the exhale. “There aren’t any shackles downstairs,” he whispered.

She raised an eyebrow. “Should there be?”

“Your sis keeps a sign for her bedroom door, to warn me when the curtains are open upstairs.”

“I keep telling her to move it to the top of the staircase railing, so you’ll see it a few steps sooner. You didn’t get singed this afternoon, did you?”

Spike shook his head distractedly. “And your mum bought a fourth stocking to hang from the mantle.”

“So? I’m no math genius, but I’m pretty sure there are four of us.”

“Like it’s normal,” he muttered, shaking his head. He turned to look at her. “Do you know where I was last evening?”

“You said you were going gift shopping.” Buffy frowned. “What are you getting at with all this?”

He shook his head again and took another drag from his cigarette. “It’s just… different. All of it. Not even sure I recognize our lives anymore.”

“Oh, it’ll get familiar again. You can be sure of that. Right about the time Glory’s spewing threats in the living room, the Knights of Byzantium are joining in the ‘hunt and kill the Key’ party, and I’m scaring the shit out of a few watchers to make them behave, it’ll all come rushing back.”

“Not quite as familiar to me. You were still keeping me at arm’s length back then. Further, usually.” Spike put out his cigarette in the little sand-filled flowerpot Joyce had placed beside the steps for that purpose, right after he’d moved in. “’Bout time to clean this out again.”

Buffy leaned around him to look at the butts sticking out of the sand. “Yeah, it looks that way.”

“You ever think about why it’s there?” Spike shook out of his thoughts. “Never mind.”

“No ‘never minds.’ Tell me what you meant.”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “You really wanna know?”

“I told you I was going to do something stupid. Talk.”

“Your mum and sis, they treat me like family.”

“’Cause you are.”

Spike jerked in surprise at this reflexive response.

“What? You know it.” Buffy frowned at his uncertain expression. “Unless you’re planning on bailing out on us…”

“You know better than that.”

“This is about all the ‘family Christmas’ stuff, isn’t it? We’re throwing way too much garland and domesticity at you at once.”

“After the amount of laundry that came with you running a bloody refugee camp here, fair to say I’ve built up an immunity to ‘too much domesticity.’”

She chuckled and leaned against his shoulder. “So we’re not scaring you away?”

“You do remember who the scary one is in this house, don’t you?”

“The Slayer?”

“The Slayer of Slayers.”

“Two words: Tulip mug.”

He pushed her off his shoulder. “Bugger off.”

She laughed and shoved him back. “You’re evading.”

“I used that mug exactly once.”

“Still evading. Out with it.”

He stared out into the yard, gathering his nerve. When he spoke, his voice was a whisper again. “Don’t ever revoke my invite, Buffy. Please.”

Understanding his meaning, she put a hand on his knee and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “I won’t.”

“Promise?”

“Promise. You’re stuck with us until the girly domesticity, open curtain warning signs, and cheesy Christmas decorations scare you away.”

He pulled her close to him, so she was again leaning on his shoulder. “Should know by now, I’m not easy to scare off.”

“That’s what I’m counting on.”

*~*~*

May, 2003

“Uh, guys? I think we’re moving backwards. I just got shorter.” Dawn watched an image of herself walk into the living room. The image dropped onto the couch and picked up a magazine, which she flipped through with a decided pout.

An image of Spike followed her into the room. “Bit, there’s nothing we can do.”

She ignored him.

He sat beside her. “You only get one father. Ought to spend some time with him.”

Dawn threw down the magazine. “You’re the evil undead, and you can’t find a loophole? Please! I’m not buying that for a second. Also, I’m not even sure he is my father. I may be genetically Buffy-ish, but that might make Hank Summers my grandfather or something. We don’t even know who the other DNA contributor was that the monks used, ’cause I’m clearly not a clone.”

Spike ran a hand over her long, dark hair. “Don’t know. Maybe they worked some mojo with the other slayer. …But your da’s still got legal rights.”

“There’s got to be something we can do. We could run away. You could hide me until I’m eighteen.” She frowned at his expression. “You have found a loophole, haven’t you?”

“There’s a law firm, specializes in dirty pool for demons with a bit of dosh. Angel has had some run ins with them. He thinks they might be able to help, but it’s a big risk, them finding out what you are, getting their mitts on you. Best case, they take something from me instead. …And not just money.”

Dawn’s head fell back against the couch cushions. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “If you’ve talked to Angel about it, you’ve definitely pulled out all the stops. And that law firm sounds like a really bad idea.”

There was another flash, and the pair on the couch were replaced by an image of Willow, taking notes from a thick, yellow-paged book.

The real Willow gasped. “Oh, no… I know that book. I’m working on the resurrection.”

The group watched the image scribbling in her notebook, their expressions worried. “Yeah,” Xander whispered to himself. “This is gonna be one bad Groundhog Day.”

Dawn looked defeated. “We’ve been here for over an hour, and they haven’t changed it yet. She jumped.”

“We may be seeing earlier images, but that doesn’t remove the possibility of no-impact variations,” Elsa said. “The only thing this proves is that they were successful in traveling back.”

There was another flash, and an image of Buffy stood alone by the fireplace, looking at the pictures on the mantle. She turned around and studied the room with a smirk.

Dawn shuddered as she looked into the image’s eyes. “Guys, I don’t think that’s Buffy.”

The First Evil laughed. “You really think this is going to work, don’t you? You really think you can smack me down so easily?”

“We can at least make you stop appearing like her!” Dawn snapped.

“Actually, you can’t. Even if all of this is successful -and I have my doubts, with you screw-ups at the helm- she has still tasted death. In fact, all three of them have, though they’re likely to try to erase the death of the other one.” It gestured to the pair in the circle. “These two are all mine to mimic as I please, and always will be. But that’s the least of your worries. If I were you guys, I’d be more concerned about not existing anymore.” It leaned toward Willow tauntingly. “You sent them back so they could make you go away.”

“Wha- What do you mean?”

“You’ve given them the perfect opportunity to trade up, and they’ve done just that. Such a shame, too.” It shook its head in mock sadness. “You girls used to be so close.”

The First disappeared, leaving the group in silent dismay.

Xander was the first to speak. “Three? Is there a mouse in Spike’s pocket?”

Willow shook her head. “No. I think I know what it meant. A death they could erase? Trading up from me? There’s only one person that could be.”

“Tara,” Dawn whispered. “Buffy’s recruited a different witch this time.”

Giles was carefully watching the expressions playing across Althenea’s face. “Which is precisely what you hoped would happen, wasn’t it?”

The old witch let loose the smile she’d been barely holding back. “The First Evil clearly meant to entice you to break the spell before it can destroy this timeline, but has instead given us the best possible news.”

“I’m not too sure about that. Tara never had the kind of power I had. She may not be able to handle the last couple of years without my help.”

Elsa spoke up. “Forgive me for saying so, but isn’t much of the difficulty of the intervening years triggered by your power and misuse of it? I don’t mean to be rude, but perhaps the First Evil is right: They have traded up.”

Willow opened her mouth to argue, but no sound came out. All actions ceased. The army of teenaged girls disappeared from the backyard. The chains on the basement wall vanished. The plywood wall behind the couch was again a picture window. A playpen appeared in the living room, folded and leaning against a wall, beside a wooden toy box, replacing the pile of sleeping bags. The picture frames on the mantle changed and grew in number.

‘Well, that’s one possible future off the books,’ Bryn thought, just before the people in the living room and the 2003 they’d known winked out of existence.

*~*~*

December, 2000

Spike came into the living room, slipping on his coat.“The slayer took an early patrol. She’ll meet us at the shop later,” he explained to Tara, who was nervously pacing the length of the room.

That’s probably better, anyway.”

She seems to be settling into the routine.”

Uh-huh.” Tara glanced at her watch. “We’re going to be late.” She called upstairs,“Come on! Let’s go, already!”

Just hold your horses, Glinda. There’s no rush. A few more minutes won’t kill either of you.”

It’s been five months, Spike. If you could have made your five month wait a minute shorter, would you have done it?”

He tilted his head toward the ceiling. “Get your arses down here! Plane’s touching down any minute!”

Dawn came rushing down the stairs. “I’m ready! She’s still playing with her hair and makeup.”

She picked a bad day to get vain about it,” Tara grumbled. She yelled again. “Buffy! In about thirty seconds, you’re going to be walking to the airport!”

Buffy woke up from her impromptu nap with a smile on her face. She stretched until her hand bumped the table lamp behind her head. She sat up to steady it just as Spike walked into the living room.

“Do we need to have a talk about which of us is the nocturnal creature?”

She giggled through a yawn. “Vamps don’t have exclusive rights to sleeping during the day, you know.”

“Bloody hell. Now you tell me. They left that out of the brochure.”

“You’re in a good mood.”

“Just got some good news. Glinda called. Red’s–”

“Decided to go to Devon. I know. I just woke up from the PTB memo about it.”

“Another time-traveling slayer dream?”

“And this one made a lot more sense.”

“Yeah? You wanna tell me about it?”

“Not yet.”

*~*~*

Dawn danced to her favorite funny Christmas carols as she hung up the ornaments, nearly tripping over her mother, who was kneeling on the floor, smoothing the tree skirt. “Oops! Sorry, Mom!”

Joyce stood up and studied her work, giving the skirt one last nudge with her toe. She looked to the couch, where Buffy was unwrapping and attaching hooks to ornaments as fast as Dawn could grab them. “What do you think?”

“Tree skirt: good. Dawn’s dancing: not so good.”

Dawn stuck her tongue out at her sister as she snatched another ornament from the coffee table. “Buffy’s just cranky because she hasn’t finished her Christmas shopping.”

“Tattle-tale.”

Joyce sat in the armchair nearest her daughter. “Honey, tomorrow is Christmas Eve. You’re running out of time.”

“I know, I know. And I have most of them. You know how I always get Willow seven of her favorite candies and one big gift for Hanukkah? Well, I can’t decide what the eighth thing will be. It’s sort of a going away gift, too, and we haven’t been super close lately, so I want it to be something really good.”

“Anything she can take with her will be appreciated, especially something to remind her of home.”

“I thought about a photo album, but Xander’s doing that. He’s got stuff from childhood, so he can do it better than I could, anyway.”

“I got her an English dictionary,” Dawn said proudly. She shrugged at their expressions. “Well, I thought it was funny. And Giles always complains about you guys butchering the language. Spike does, too, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have any room to talk.”

“And that’s the other present I haven’t figured out,” Buffy said. “What do you get for the vamp who wants nothing?”

“You could always take Anya’s suggestion to get a black fishnet–”

“Dawn Summers! Don’t ever repeat anything Anya says while walking by Victoria’s Secret.”

Joyce covered her face with her hands. “Quiet, girls. I need to pretend you’re both little toddlers in pigtails for a moment.”

The sisters exchanged grins, then turned to their mother and whined in unison. “Moooooommmmy!”

Joyce pulled her hands away. “Ok, I’m over it. Dawn, have you picked out a college yet?”

Spike came in the front door to the sounds of laughter. “What’s so funny?”

“We were just torturing Mom,” Dawn answered.

Joyce stood up. “Spike, now would be a very good time for you to save me from my children. Are we still on for coffee?”

“Yeah. Just came back to pick you up.”

The young women watched in surprise as their mother grabbed her jacket and followed Spike out.

“Uh, Buffy? I think Mom just ran off with your boyfriend.”

*~*~*

They sat down at a small table, with three cups of coffee between them. “So, how’d you make out on that li’l job, Joyce?”

She pulled a ring from her pocket. “I found it. And I gave it a thorough cleaning and polishing.” She pushed it across the table. “But I don’t understand why you couldn’t look for it yourself.”

“Because your daughter is a slob. She’s spilled so much holy water over the years, the bottom of that chest is practically consecrated.” Spike pocketed the ring. “Thanks. I owe you.”

She pulled the cashier’s check out of her other jacket pocket placed it on the table. “No. You don’t.”

“Joyce…”

“The insurance covered a lot, and my savings has helped. Not to mention that alleged ‘rent’ deposit. You don’t owe me anything, Spike.”

“You could use the help, and I’ve got it to give.”

She tapped on the check. “Put this in savings. Earn some interest on it. As simply as you live, this check could finance an entire decade.”

“You don’t take it, I’ll just blow it on whiskey and smokes. Maybe a bauble or two for Buffy.”

“Baubles for Buffy? Are we talking last minute gifts? ‘Cause I’ve got you covered. I am so the man.” Xander dropped into the chair across from Spike’s as Joyce discreetly slipped the check back into her pocket, pausing the argument. “It’s in the car. But you still haven’t told me what it’s for.”

“We will.” Spike pushed the third coffee cup toward the newcomer. “Thanks for doing it on short notice.” He reached into his pocket. “What do I owe you?”

“$30 would cover the materials. As for the labor…” Xander bit his lip. “How about a beer? …Um, you and me? At Willy’s, sometime soon?”

Spike raised a skeptical eyebrow.

Joyce laughed at the vampire’s expression. “My thoughts, exactly. Xander, are you feeling alright?”

“Well… the truth is, Buffy wants us to get along, like be buds or something.”

“She said that?” Joyce asked.

“Not in those exact words, but that’s the hint she’s been dropping. And I guess I’m willing to give it a try.”

“This keeps up, I might start believing in miracles.” Spike handed Xander $30. “Next week alright?”

“Ha. ha. And whenever is fine. So…” He turned to Joyce. “Did you get the pictures?”

“I left it to Spike,” she replied. “My boxes of duplicates are stored in the basement.”

Spike pulled an envelope out of his coat pocket and slid it across the table. “See if you can make any of that work for your album. Got some good ones in there.”

Xander pulled out a few photographs. “Aww! Itty-bitty Buffster and even tinier Dawnmeister.”

“A little young for your clock to be ticking, aren’t you, Harris?”

“You can’t tell me you didn’t melt when you saw those chubby cheeks, Spike.”

“No, but I questioned the ’80s all over again. What made you dress her that way, Joyce?”

She shrugged. “Freudian revenge on my own mother? I was a child of the ’60s. You can guess how horrible my wardrobe was.”

Xander’s eyes lit up. “Ooh! Pictures!”

“Absolutely not.”

“No worries, Harris. I know where she keeps ’em. I’ll go digging tomorrow, while Buffy and the Bit are keeping her occupied with party prep.”

“No, you’ll be upstairs helping me. Buffy will be gone all day.”

Spike frowned. “First I’ve heard of it.”

“She asked to borrow the car to drive out to Valley State.”

“Oh, wow. I didn’t see that coming.” Xander glanced at Spike, whose expression had grown very dark. “And I’m apparently not the only one.”

“I didn’t think you even knew…”

“I know enough, Joyce.”

<Chapter 15: Tree Trunks
Chapter 17: Tipsy Truths>

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