Willow stood at the edge of the gaping hole that had once been Sunnydale. Her eyes, bright with unshed tears, played over the rubble of her hometown sharply, looking for something, anything, that might spark a glimmer of a memory.
Instead, all she could see were the twin specters of destruction and death.
It had been ten long years, to the day, since her life in Sunnydale had come to an abrupt end, the shining stars watching them flee the remains of the town like bandits in the night. They had lost so much that night; homes, possessions, resting places, friends never to be seen again. But they had gained something as well. A part of her knew that it was a fair trade, but her heart mourned a time and place that was gone forever.
She hadn't meant to come back to this place. It had not been a conscious decision. But a sense of restlessness had been building for several days, and when she got to the circled date on her calendar, a date she circled now so that she would not allow herself to forget its passing, she somehow found herself in her car, making the day-long trek into her past.
The town of Mendocino was her home now, a small, quiet place with people who tended to keep to themselves. In the summer the place was nearly overrun with tourists, but her small, out-of-the-way house kept the distractions to a minimum. It also afforded her a stunning view of the ocean and she was soothed to sleep each night by the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks below her.
As the sun began to sink towards the horizon, she had thought about returning to the comfort of her home and forsaking this fool's errand, but although she tried to deny it, something kept pulling her here. And when she reached the end of the highway, road signs and barriers proclaiming 'the end of the road', a strange sense of completion fell over her. She was glad she had made this effort.
The sound of another car approaching drew her from her reverie. Perhaps it had been stupid to come this far away from civilization alone. Then again, she had the power to defend herself from almost anything that could be thrown at her. It had just been a while since she had had to call on that sort of power.
Creeping back into the shadows, Willow watched curiously as the second car stopped behind hers. It was hard to tell in the failing light, but it looked like a mid-size sedan, comfortable and sleek, of a neutral color, maybe silver or beige. The driver's door opened, and just before the sun sank completely below the horizon, she recognized the dark-haired, lanky figure from her youth.
"Xander," she cried happily, running and throwing herself into his arms with the uninhibited enthusiasm of a child. Suddenly she was a teenager again, thrust back into the days when a hug from her best friend could make her feel better, no matter what the problem. Dampness touched her cheek, and she realized that he was crying. Or was it her? Both, she realized ruefully.
"Willow," he sighed into her hair. "I should have known you'd be here." He thought for a moment, then spoke again: "Hell, what am I saying, I didn't even know *I* was going to be here. Not until today. I was out driving, and thinking, and then," he hesitated a moment, "and then I just kept driving. I called Maryanne from a gas station, and told her I'd be home late." He shook his head ruefully. "She probably thinks I'm insane."
Willow laughed softly, a little uncomfortable with the subject of Xander's wife of about two years. They had never really gotten along. When Willow had decided to leave Berkeley, where she and Xander had lived and gone to school together post-Sunnydale, she suspected that Maryanne had been more than a little relieved.
Shaking away those memories, she grabbed Xander's hand, pulling him gently along until they reached the edge of the cliff. As they stared down at the remnants of past destruction below them, Xander shook his head and spoke. "I should have done something for her," he managed, between tears that fell freely from his eyes. "A memorial, or a marker, or-just something."
The redhead understood that he was no longer speaking about the current 'her' in his life, but about Anya, the first woman he had ever loved. Oh, he had suffered a crush for Buffy, something that had mellowed into a fierce friendship, but Willow still held that given enough time, he and Anya would have patched things up and lived happily ever after. Or whatever version of happily ever after applied to a money-hungry ex-demon and a Slayerette who occasionally helped save the world.
"I even had the crazy idea that maybe she was still alive, under all that. I don't know how many times I dreamed that she was there, calling for me. Waiting for me." He closed his eyes and he could still see her face. Laughing at something he said, lecturing him on capitalism, frowning at something that confused her, and then crying when he left her at the altar.
"She was gone, Xander. You know it. Andrew saw it. It was horrible and terrible, but it was final. There was nothing you could have done," he laid his head against her shoulder, her hand gently moving over his hair, comforting, calming. Maryanne would never know about this part of his life, and the need to talk about it had bottled up until it had almost choked him. Maybe that was part of what had brought him out here today.
"I've missed you so much, Willow," he whispered, losing himself in the scent and feel of her.
"And I, you," she admitted softly.
Willow sensed something, a tingling along the back of her legs, crawling slowly up her spine. It had been a long time since she had felt it, but she still remembered what it heralded. "Vampire," she said quietly, releasing Xander and thinking quickly of the most useful defensive spell to cast.
Xander stood calmly beside her, attempting to force muscles and memories rusty from disuse to turn him into a fighting machine once again. Or at least something that wasn't quite a sitting duck.
Figures, he thought ruefully. Even after ten years, some remnant of the hellmouth still managed to draw vampires to its maw. Maybe he should have considered that a bit earlier.
"Oh, you two are right pathetic," came a familiar jeering voice, drawing ever closer. Soon they could see the figure walking towards them through the trees, the platinum hair confirming what the voice and the accent had already told them. Spike.
"Spike," Willow sighed, moving towards him. There was an awkward moment; did they hug or shake hands or just nod coolly to acknowledge the other's existence? She considered the occasion a special one, so instead of a cool welcome, she reached up and gave him a brief hug. "It's good to see you too," she told him, a shy grin settling on her face.
The vampire returned the hug, then pulled back to look at her. "You haven't changed a bit," he marveled. He thought he saw something flicker in her eyes at the statement, but it was quickly gone. "Xander," he said, nodding to her companion.
"So what brings you here?" she asked curiously. Seeing Xander there had been a bit of a surprise, but not earth-shattering. They were both relatively local. But the last she had heard, Spike had been knocking around Europe. This was a far cry from the castles of England and the museums of France.
Spike shrugged, an elegant lifting of shoulders. She noticed with surprise that he had foregone the leather duster for a shorter bomber jacket, partially unzipped to show a hint of a red t-shirt. She decided that it was a change for the better. "Got bored, I guess," he admitted. "Decided to see what was left of the place. I never saw it-after."
"That's right," Xander remembered. "I never really thought about that. You died, and then you were in L.A. Not much of a difference, really," he said, the natural disdain of a northern California resident for all things L.A. strong in his voice.
"Wasn't so bad," Spike admitted. "Got to kick a little evil demon ass, and of course I'm always game for another round of 'annoy the hell out of Peaches.'"
The two males nodded, taking a moment to enjoy the one subject they both agreed on: Angel, and the wanker-ness of said vampire. Willow smiled in the darkness, thinking that it felt just like old times. And of how much she had missed the easy camaraderie they used to share.
"How is Angel doing?" she asked curiously. As much as Spike loved to hate his sire, she knew that he would also know exactly how the other vampire was.
"Oh he's just dandy," Spike said, somehow managing to make the words sound both bitter and proud. "He's still got his law firm in L.A. Oddly enough, it seems to suit him. Now that the 'Senior Partners' are out of the picture, he's able to run it the way he wants, helping the helpless and all that drivel." He stopped for a moment, his voice softer now. "He's still chasing his Shanshu, of course. Wants to settle down and become human, whatever that means to him."
Spike had never been the type to wish for humanity, Willow realized with a wry smile. In his eyes they would always be too weak, too flawed. Probably thought he had the best of both worlds, with the whole 'vampire with a soul' package.
"What's the smile for, Red?" he asked.
'Damn, I forgot all about that vampire sight thing,' Willow thought. Forgot about a lot of things, she realized. Forgot how good it felt to be around others. People who knew and understood her.
She opened her mouth to answer him, but a hand over her mouth stopped her. She looked up to the vampire, who shushed them both, before turning his head back towards the road. They looked at him curiously, wondering what it was he sensed that had him nervous.
Before long they knew: the far-off sound of a car pierced the unnatural silence of the night. Spike motioned them back into the shadows, although Willow had a feeling that such an action was unnecessary. A sense of destiny surrounded her, and she knew somehow that the approaching car contained friend, not foe.
The car pulled up behind the two others, the doors opening to disgorge two figures. Buffy's shining blond hair was a beacon in the darkness, and even if Willow hadn't already somehow known who was in the car, that would have solidified the suspicion in her mind.
Willow flew from the shadows, surprising Giles with a football tackle of a hug, squeezing the breath out of him with a whoosh. The watcher started in surprise before recognizing the feel of the warm body in his arms. He held her close, running his fingers through her hair as he murmured words of greeting.
"So very good to see you," he told her, holding her tight. Willow relaxed into his arms, reveling in the feel of him close to her again.
"We tried to call," she heard Buffy tell Xander. "We had a layover in San Francisco, and figured we'd see if we could get the old gang together. But for some reason," she added, the smile on her face leaking over to her voice, "nobody was at home today."
"Poor Andrew and Dawn will be beside themselves when we tell them what they missed," Giles commented, releasing Willow and taking a good look at the young woman. "Andrew insisted on staying back in London to keep an eye on things, silly boy. And Dawn was positively silly about some concert. If they had only known what they were missing, I imagine they'd be on the next plane out here."
"Hey," she heard Buffy say casually, and from the tone Willow imagined that she'd just noticed Spike. She wondered how Spike felt about Buffy now, after everything that had happened between them. As far as she knew, they hadn't seen each other since he had died. Word had reached them about his return to this world, but she didn't think that they'd been in touch since then. Apparently whatever had been between them had died back in Sunnydale, when Spike did.
Willow looked at Buffy and noticed her eyes not on Spike, but on Willow herself. She stepped into Buffy's waiting embrace, laughing and crying at the same time. It just felt so good to be with them again.
She turned her head, feeling Spike's eyes upon her. He was standing off to the side, and although at first she thought he was watching Buffy, she quickly realized that it was her his eyes were focused on. His gaze was contemplative and curious, and she knew that he would be the one to figure out her secret. A sudden sense of elation and relief filled her, joined quickly by fear and uneasiness.
Buffy, Xander and Giles fell quickly into conversation, their animated voices filling the air with laughter and excitement. Feeling a sudden need for quiet, Willow wandered over to Spike, who still looked out at the ghosts of the past.
"There's just something about this town," he mused, that and a curt nod the only acknowledgement of her presence beside him. "Got my ass kicked here more times than I can remember, but I always came back. Still coming back, even now."
He shook off his thoughts, turning to again to face her. "What about you, Red? What have you been up to?"
She knew he was fishing, trying to figure out something his intuition told him was off, but couldn't quite explain. A part of her wanted to tell him what it was; the part of her that was tired of carrying around that burden in lonely solitude. But her stubbornness kept her silent, instead choosing to answer the question he had asked, and ignore the one he hadn't asked. "I live in Mendocino now. A little house that overlooks the ocean. It's peaceful and quiet. I work from home, designing computer games and making more money than I'll ever spend." She gave him a wry smile. "Being a computer geek comes in handy every once in a while."
He pondered that for a moment. "Girlfriend? Boyfriend? Spouse?"
"No," she sighed, turning away from his prying eyes.
"You've managed to shut yourself away from them all, haven't you?" he asked as her life took shape before him. No friends, no contacts, working from a solitary home in a small town.
She thought about it, as the voices of the others wrapped around them like a blanket of white noise. "It started with Maryanne, I suppose. Xander's wife."
He took her arm and they drifted away from the others, stopping in a small clearing within shouting distance, but private enough for a quiet conversation.
He nodded encouragingly, and she continued. "She was never comfortable with me. I guess she felt threatened by all of those memories we shared, things she could never be a part of. So when they got married, I decided to give them a few weeks, just so they could get settled and stuff." She turned her face to his, and he saw the fat, wet tears rolling slowly down her face. "Then weeks turned to months, and months to a year, and then I moved north, and I guess we just let things go too long."
"And the others?"
"Well, Buffy was off with Giles, in England, doing the training thing. You know, finding the new slayers and bringing them into the fold. Or helping them to deal with their power and then leaving them be. Whichever seemed best. And Giles was so excited that she had decided to join him. I guess he's done a wonderful job of recreating the Watcher's Council. Only better, because he's more open-minded than those other stuffy Watchers could ever be."
Spike smiled at her unflagging loyalty. Giles could never do wrong in her eyes. None of them could, really. She had almost a childlike faith in all of her friends. Even him, he fancied.
"He asked me to come out there too, to England, but," she stopped for a moment, looking back at him and then looking away again, "I just couldn't."
He watched the secret play across her face, wishing he could physically pull it from her body. It was obvious that something was wrong, making her feel that she had to separate herself from her friends and those who cared for her. The two of them had never exactly been friends, but he knew her, just like he knew the rest of them. This life she was living wasn't right; it wasn't her.
Her face - she looked scarcely a day older than the last time he had seen her, almost ten years ago. No wrinkles or crow's feet, not a blemish on her young skin. Buffy had looked older. Not much, but the march of time had moved inexorably across her features, giving her a seriousness and maturity that had been lacking when he saw her last. Xander had changed as well, laugh lines digging deep into his face.
But not Willow. And he knew that it wasn't a romantic notion of her timeless beauty or any of that claptrap. The plain and simple fact was, she looked exactly the same.
She felt him stiffen beside her as the truth finally dawned. Tilting his head slightly, he brought his hands to cup her face, gazing at her intently. Thumbs reached up to caress her cheeks, inadvertently wiping away the tears that were still falling and casting them to the ground.
"You're immortal, aren't you?" he asked softly, already knowing the answer even before her eyes closed and her head nodded in his hands.
She hid her head against his chest, and he could feel the warm wet tears as they soaked into his t-shirt. They were warm for a moment, before the coolness of the night stripped them of their heat, and they became just wet.
"I guess it was a reward for being the one to free the Slayers. I didn't even realize it until..." her voice faded away as she remembered. The car that hit her while she was on one of her long midnight walks, ploughing into her and sending her flying, and then driving off without ever slowing down. Bones had been broken, and she knew from her labored and bloody breathing that one had punctured a lung. She had lain there in that ditch for hours, the pain overwhelming her and making her pray for death. But then something odd happened. Instead of passing away, she had begun to feel better. The pains had lessened, and then disappeared altogether. Within twelve hours she was feeling normal again, her cuts and bruises healed, and everything else back the way it should be.
"I tested it, of course," she told him, her voice cold and analytical. "Put myself through tests, broke legs, cut wrists, but nothing happened. Sure, it hurt. I think that's what finally stopped my tests. The pain. But I was always fine later. Healed, as good as new," her voice turned bitter at the last sentence.
She expected him to react with horror or pity; she had deliberately hurt herself, testing the limits of her mortality. But instead, when she lifted her head and looked into his eyes, she saw nothing but understanding.
"So why not tell them?" he asked, tossing his head in the direction of the others.
Willow smiled bitterly. "Sure, that'd be a fun conversation. Hey guys, guess what? I'm immortal now. Yup. Never gonna die. But hey, I'll get to watch all of you turn to dust, and your children, and your children's children." She hesitated, turning away from him and looking out at nothing. "They'd hate me. Or if they didn't hate me, they'd see me differently, probably come to resent me."
"So instead they never see you at all?" he asked quietly, trying to show her that things didn't have to be the way she made them.
"I just-" she paused, tensing as she felt him come up behind her, his hands coming down lightly on her shoulders and rubbing them encouragingly. "I wanted it to be like it was. At least for as long as it can be. But then somehow it got all messed up, and I never see them at all now." He could smell the tears again, the scent of saline mixing with the smells of the forest.
"What good is immortality if you're all alone?" she cried sadly, wondering if he had ever asked himself that question. Probably not. His family and friends were long dead by the time he received his soul; and before the soul, he probably wouldn't have cared.
"It's not supposed to be a punishment, Pet," he reminded her, setting his chin on top of her soft hair. "It'll take a little getting used to, but cutting yourself off from everyone who could help you isn't the way to go."
He could hear her sniffling, and realized the sound and smell of her tears had lessened. She was pulling herself together. Had probably just needed to let go with someone who would understand.
"So what are you doing tomorrow?" he asked her, turning her to face him and searching her eyes.
"Nothing much," she confirmed. "Might sleep in, do some work, maybe go to the store."
"How about you hang out with me for a while? I can show you how to live, how to enjoy this whole 'immortality' thing," he asked softly, almost laughing at the small glimmer of interest that sparked in her eyes.
"You feeling sorry for me?" she asked cautiously, watching his face for signs of pity or obligation.
"Nah," he drawled, opening up to her and showing what he hoped would confirm his motives. For once they were relatively pure. Sure, he had been a bit bored lately. A new project would be fun. Maybe life might look a bit more interesting when seen through her eyes. "I've been bored. Just need a change. Maybe we can help each other. What do you think?"
Throwing caution to the wind, she gave him a brilliant smile and nodded happily. "Okay, I think-I think okay." Suddenly she felt shy and tongue-tied. "What do we do?"
He laughed, sounding happy and even excited. "Whatever we want, pet. Whatever we want. Wanna go see Europe? We can charter a plane tomorrow night and be in London by morning. Walk the Thames, see a show. Whatever." The excitement that flared in her eyes at the suggestion confirmed that this was exactly what she needed.
"Sounds wonderful," she sighed, smiling that smile that he remembered from days gone by, the one that went all the way into her eyes.
"Okay, now that that's settled, and that smile is back on your face, let's go and be sociable, shall we?" he asked, his hand on the small of her back guiding her back towards the others.
"I wondered where you two had gone off to," Buffy remarked upon their return. "Xander's been telling me all about Maryanne, and their wedding, and everything else. I'm so sorry we've had to miss all of it, but when duty calls, well, you know how it is," she groused. "It's funny, I wanted so badly just to live a 'normal' life. Now I finally have the chance, and what do I do? I get mixed up with this guy again." The smile on her face as she laid her hand on Giles' arm belied her words, and the two smiled at each other with a mutual understanding.
They reminded Willow of an old married couple, happy together, but somehow afraid to admit it, as if it should just be understood. "I'm glad you two are so happy with your work," Willow told her, knowing how important it was to Buffy. The two of them had drifted apart over the years, perhaps more because of their changing and evolving personalities than because of distance and the circumstances of their lives. But the past still tied them together, and always would.
"Have you been watching Manchester United this year?" she heard Giles ask Spike. Spike responded with something that sounded like a growl, and then 'bloody worthless wankers. Arsenal's got it all over them this year.' Giles nodded wisely, but allowed that he couldn't stop cheering for his favorites just because they weren't going to finish at the top.
The talking, joking, smiling; it felt so good, just like it had a thousand times before. Spike was right; cutting herself off from them hadn't been the answer. She needed to immerse herself in humanity, or risk losing hers forever.
As she sat alone on the edge of the crater of Sunnydale, her feet dangling loosely over the edge, Willow acknowledged that a darker chapter of her life was coming to a close. Tomorrow something new, something better would begin, and she couldn't wait.
One by one the others came and joined her, until they all sat on the edge of oblivion, staring out across the landscape of the past, looking eagerly towards tomorrow.
"This was a good idea," Giles murmured, the others nodding their agreement. "I think I needed it more than I realized. We left so quickly the last time that we never had a real chance to say goodbye."
"We lost so much, left so much unsaid," Buffy agreed, thinking of her mother, buried out there beneath the rubble.
"Yeah," Xander concurred, his own thoughts still haunted by Anya. "But we still have a lot left," he added, giving Willow's shoulder a squeeze. "We can't forget that either."
"I feel like we should be drinking a toast or something," Willow said, the fanciful notion making her smile. She thought of Tara, sweet Tara, her ghost still haunting Sunnydale, and sometimes Willow as well. Yes, they had all lost quite a bit here.
She pantomimed holding out a glass, raising it above her. "To Sunnydale, to the past, and," she took a deep breath, "to the future."
The others followed her motions, and her declarations, some out loud, while others said the words only to themselves. They all cried, although some refused to let the tears fall.
And in the silence of the night, they all made the same promise. Every ten years, no matter what, they would return to this place, to remember all that had happened, and all that they had lost.
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