Chapter Twenty-one: Strangers on a Train

Giles glanced up from his watch, smiling with relief as he saw Dawn hurrying toward him on the train platform. His smile faded when he saw the look on her face. The reason for her stormy expression became clear when he noticed Buffy hurrying behind her.

“Dawn, good to see you.” He greeted the young woman with a hug. “And Buffy, this is an unexpected pleasure.” Buffy smiled apologetically, holding up two Starbucks cups with a shrug in lieu of an embrace.

“I told her she didn't need to come, but she insisted,” Dawn said. “And I would have been on time, but she had to get coffee.” Dawn's imitation Slayer Death Glare was coming along nicely, Giles noted.

“Well, now that we're here, let's get ourselves seated,” he said, looking up and down the platform in a distracted way. They boarded the train and found a group of four seats. Dawn made a point of sitting by the window and staring out. Buffy sat across from her, and Giles resigned himself to the role of buffer zone.

“I got you your favorite, mocha latte,” Buffy said, handing the cup to Giles to pass along. “And I really, really do understand that you need to be independent. But you're my only family, and I promised mom I'd take care of you, and please stop being mad at me? Please?” No response. Giles shook his head, having some experience with teenage girls in full sulk mode. “Fine, Dawn, whatever,” Buffy sighed, turning away toward her own window as the train began to move.

“There you are! Sorry I'm late! Overslept, blasted nightmares again…” The carriage shifted and Bill Givenson sat down heavily in the seat next to Buffy. “Excuse me, miss….” He trailed off as his eyes met those of the blonde beside him, and for a long moment, the two stared at each other.

Giles cleared his throat. This wasn't the setting he'd envisioned, but when had his plans ever worked as expected, when it came to Buffy? “Bill, I'd like you to meet Buffy Summers; Buffy, this is Bill Givenson.”

Habitual British etiquette came to Bill's rescue. “Pleased to meet you,” he said, though the look on his face was anything but pleased. He turned to Giles. “All right, I suppose I've got to believe you now.” He put his head in his hands, rubbing his fingers through tangled curls. “God, I could use a cup of tea,” he muttered.

“Would coffee do?” He raised his head at Buffy's quiet voice. “I've only had a sip, but you look like you could use it more than me.” The blueness of his eyes shocked her again; she had thought that particular shade lost forever to the world. He took the cup she offered.

“Bill, I also want to introduce Dawn Summers.” Giles motioned to the girl beside him, whose resentment had been washed away by curiosity. “I think I've told her that the two of you have, uh, er, a few things in common. Dawn is hoping to make Oxford one of those things.”

“You throw quite a party, Rupert Giles,” Bill remarked wryly. “Dawn, how'd you do?” He took a long swallow of coffee. The conductor, collecting tickets, was a welcome interruption. Buffy didn't want to stare, but it was hard to take her eyes off the man beside her. Man, not vampire, she thought, noting the slight tan, the longer, darker hair, the neat gray pants and blue striped shirt…so different, and yet something in her knew him. There was vertigo, and a sense of utter familiarity, as if she had walked through a door in London to find herself in her old house on Revello Drive.

He glanced at her, and she felt suddenly embarrassed. “Sorry…I know we've just met, but it feels like you're…” She didn't want to mention Spike, somehow. Giles had explained that he was struggling to accept the strange truth of his identity, and she remembered how hard it had been for Dawn.

“Spike.” He said it for her. “Yeah, I do get it. Much as I hate to admit it. Don't take this the wrong way, but you're the girl of my bloody nightmares.” She looked down at her lap. She'd imagined seeing Spike again so many times over the past year, but he'd always been pleased to see her in those dreams. “Literally, I mean. I've been having this recurring nightmare for a while now. It's dark, you're there, you take my hand, and then all of a sudden I'm in flames. Terrifying, really. More so now that I know it actually happened.”

“Sorry,” she said, quietly. “Dreams can be…I get Slayer dreams, and they're useful sometimes, but mostly they just drive me crazy trying to figure out whether they mean anything. I had one about you—I mean about Spike—the other night…” She stopped in confusion.

“It's all right, Buffy,” said Bill. He felt a need to comfort her, to make this easier for her, and he wasn't sure why, except that it was Buffy. “I still don't understand it, but I've stopped fighting it. I can face facts. But you've got to realize, I don't remember being Spike. I know what I've read about him. I know you and he were…” Now it was his turn to pause in embarrassment. The Watcher's Council report had been discreetly phrased, but he had read between those lines quite clearly.

“Spike and I had a pretty dysfunctional relationship. He was evil, then I was dead, then I was pretty seriously depressed, then he was crazy. And we were fighting the First, and then he was…gone. We never had much of a chance. Maybe it's better that you don't remember. I was…kind of horrible to him.” He held out the coffee cup, and she took a sip. “Thanks.” She smiled at him, thinking, God, he's still gorgeous. Different, but his eyes are still the most perfect shade of blue I've ever seen.

Her smile took him by surprise. She's beautiful, he thought. I've never gone for those California types, but this girl is stunning.

“Not to change the subject, but how about a change of subject?” Buffy said brightly. “I know you're an Oxford guy, and Dawn is dying to quiz you about the place. So, I hear they've gotten electricity since Giles was here?”


Chapter Twenty-two: Bird and Baby

Buffy was enchanted by Oxford. Dawn and Bill paired up, conversing in low tones, and she followed along with Giles, who told her the names of the elegant old buildings and bits of their histories, as well as a few anecdotes from his university days. She stared up at elaborate stonework and spiraling columns, wrought iron gateways, carved angels perched over heavy wooden doors. She tried to imagine going being a college student here. She felt like she was wandering from one storybook castle to another, except it was palpably real—people her age hurried past carrying books and chatting with friends, or zipped by on bicycles. Occasionally she glanced at the pair ahead of her, wondering if they were discussing the ancient university around them, or their shared experience of memories that hadn't actually happened.

They eventually halted in front of a round building that Giles identified as the Radcliffe Camera; it reminded Buffy of some churches she'd seen in Rome, but Bill explained that it was a library. Giles had made plans for himself and Dawn to lunch with a friend of his, who worked there as an archivist. He looked uncertainly at Buffy and Bill.

“I initially told Nigel there would be the two of us. I left him a message that we'd be a party of three, but…”

Bill interrupted. “You two go on. I haven't been to the Bird and Baby in ages; I'll stand Buffy lunch.”

Dawn grinned, and Giles smiled with apparent relief. “Splendid idea,” he said. Have a pint for me. Shall we meet in say, two hours? How about the Old Quad at Brasenose?” Bill agreed, and Dawn gave Buffy an impulsive hug.

“All is forgiven, I guess,” Buffy said as her sister and her Watcher entered Radcliffe Camera. “So, did she put you up to this lunch invitation?”

“Not precisely,” Bill replied. “Come on—it's a bit of a walk, but it's a nice day. No, Dawn loves you, but she said something about needing to do this herself. And Giles looked like he thought a party of four might be awkward.”

Buffy sighed. “I guess I shouldn't have come along today. But she's the only family I've got.” Suddenly she found it hard to keep a quiver out of her voice. “All these buildings, they've been here for hundreds of years. I'm only 23, and there isn't anything in my life that hasn't disappeared without a trace. Maybe I am being clingy, but Dawn—she's pretty much what's left of home.” Bill took her hand, and she looked up at him in surprise.

“It wasn't just because of Dawn, or Giles,” he said. “I don't need an excuse to take a beautiful woman to lunch, do I?”

“Hello, Mrs. Deerfield? My name's Willow Rosenberg, and I'm doing some research on memory loss. May I come in?” Willow had put on a dark blazer and pulled her hair back, hoping to look plausible as a researcher. As she crossed the threshold of the apartment, she dropped her notebook.

“Call me Sharon, here, let me help you with that. Now, where did you say you were from? The hospital?” Sharon sneezed. Willow had also dropped a handful of grayish powder, which, when combined with the words she muttered, would make her listener highly unlikely to wonder why she was there, or what right she had to ask questions.

“Thank you! I'm such a klutz. Um, yes, I'm a medical student, in psychology, and I'm collecting some information for my department head. I understand your husband Rudy recently suffered a sudden memory loss?”

“Well, yes. Would you care to sit down?”

Half an hour later, Willow closed the door gently behind her. She turned the corner of the hallway before jumping with glee. This had to be it. After six useless interviews with relatives, a genuine lead to follow up. She opened her notebook and glanced again at the crumpled flyer.

Are you troubled by traumatic memories? Is the past causing you pain in the present?

Dr. Gheren can help.


Like Giles, Bill turned the walk into a guided tour of Oxford. Buffy noticed, however, that he never mentioned himself or his undergraduate days. She asked what college he had attended, but after his one-word answer (“Trinity”) he turned silent.

“I'm sorry,” he said a few minutes later. “This is the first time I've come back to Oxford since I took the Watcher's Council job, and it's very…disorienting to realize that it's the first time I've actually been here. As far as I know, at least.”

“I get that,” Buffy said. “But, you know, this is a little weird for me too. I know you're Bill, but there are all these other memories attached to you.” She paused. “I know what this reminds me of! Susie Gerdway!”

“Um, and she is…?” Well, at least I've distracted him, Buffy thought with an inward smile. She hastened to explain.

“Susie Gerdway went to high school with me, back in Sunnydale. She was a really sweet girl, but very heavy. Serious case of overweight. I didn't know her all that well, but we had a few classes together, and she let me borrow her notes a couple of times. I used to fall asleep in class a lot, all those late nights fighting evil. Anyway. I ran into her in Rome about six months ago. I hadn't seen her since graduation, I didn't even know if she had survived. I should say, she ran into me, because I wouldn't have recognized her. She'd lost a hundred and ten pounds. She looked great.”

Bill raised an eyebrow. “And the relevance of this…?”

“We went out for a drink, and it was like double vision. I kept looking at her, but seeing the old Susie, the one I remembered. My brain kept switching back and forth between my old idea of who she was, what she looked like, and the actual person in front of me. Being with you is giving me the same feeling. You look like Spike, you remind me of Spike, but you're not the same person. It's weird.”

“I suppose it would be,” Bill said. “Here we are, at any rate.” The ‘bird and baby,' as it turned out, was a pub called the Eagle & Child, and consisted of a series of small, low-ceilinged rooms. They found an alcove and seated themselves.

“Look.” Buffy said. “I've got an idea. Let's start over. We've never met before, not as Buffy and Bill. I don't know anything about who you are, and you don't know me except for whatever the Council says about me, which is probably all wrong anyway. Why don't we just forget about all this Spike and shunshee or whatever it is, and just get to know each other?”

Bill looked at her, and she felt a warmth in his gaze that she remembered. Not Spike, Bill, she told herself firmly. “Works for me,” he said. “So, does that make this our first date?”

“If you want it to be.” She was outwardly calm, but her inner cheerleader was turning cartwheels at the word ‘date.' She wasn't sure whether she was responding to Bill or Spike, but she found herself wanting to kiss him. Down, girl, she thought. FIRST date.

“So, how did you like going to Oxford? Are there lots of Americans? I'm a little worried about Dawn fitting in….”


Chapter Twenty-three: Find, Dismember, Barbecue, Party

Buffy and Willow were already there when Giles arrived in the conference room. He indulged in a moment of nostalgia for their countless research-and-strategy sessions in the old high school library, and later, around the battered old table at the Magic Box. His Scoobies—silly American word. It suited them perfectly. Though not all of them were here, he mused, setting down his laptop: Xander was currently in South Africa, while Faith was doing a remarkable job contending with the Cleveland Hellmouth, assisted by Robin and some of the Sunnydale Potentials—no, they were Slayers, now. He spared a silent prayer for Anya and Tara, remembering the bright bluntness of one, the soft generosity of the other, both outsiders who had made a place for themselves among the Scoobies, and in his heart. He could almost picture them at the end of the table, where Buffy and Willow were giggling like teenagers. Bill and Andrew stood a little apart from the girls, Andrew cheerfully describing the workings of what he insisted on calling his cyber-leg. He was still pale and thin, decked out in the tweed jacket that Willow called his Watcher-Wear.

Giles' eyes lingered on Willow, who rewarded him with a grin that warmed like sunlight. Dear, beautiful, brilliant, passionate Willow. He smiled back, remembering how she had awakened him that morning, her hands and lips and… No, he told himself sternly. No erotic fantasies in the conference room. Your colleague has called a meeting, you must not imagine her naked. Or in black lace, or… Realizing that his trousers weren't loose enough to conceal the evidence of his wandering thoughts, Giles forced himself back into the present.

“Good morning, all,” he said. “ Buffy, I assume Dawn's safely back in Rome?”

“Saw her off at the airport last night,” Buffy said. “She desperately wants Oxford, but she's willing to settle for King's College, or possibly the London School of Economics. “

“With her gift for languages, I suspect she'll be able to take her pick,” Giles said. “Before we begin, I'd liked to share an interesting email I received this morning. He opened his laptop, clicked on a window, and braced himself for the high-pitched squeals.

“Xander!” Buffy cried. The photo, sent from an internet café in Johannesburg, showed Xander and a young woman, his deep tan seeming pale beside her blue-black skin. Both were smiling broadly. “And… she's a new Slayer! From Zimbabwe, he says.”

Giles pulled Andrew aside.“I've forwarded this to your Council mailbox, ” he told the younger man quietly. “This young woman will be arriving in London in a few weeks. I was hoping you could help with her orientation. That is, if you're ready to come back.”

“Oh, I'm ready. In fact, I'm sort of already back, Willow asked me to help out with the research on Gheren.” Andrew gave him a confident smile, and Giles realized with a shock that he was looking at a man, not a boy. His children had all grown up. For a moment, he felt every minute of the gap between his age and theirs, but then Willow caught his eye and licked her lips suggestively. Not so old after all, he decided. They were just catching up with him.

“I'll send round copies of Xander's email and photo to anyone who wants them,” he said, “but I suppose we ought to get on with our meeting.”

Willow looked up. “Great.” She passed a stack of copies around as the others took their places at the table. Bill sat next to Buffy, his chair perhaps a bit closer than necessary. Giles watched the look they shared. It seemed clear that Buffy and Spike, in whatever form, would always be drawn to each other. He could only hope that an older Buffy and a post-Shanshu Spike would be able to form a healthy relationship.

“Andrew has been working with the Research group to see what we could find out about Dr. Gheren. They pulled up some very interesting material from the archives,” Willow began. “He's a sorceror, and he's been kicking around Europe for centuries. The last record we found places him was in London, in the mid-1950s, although he hasn't used the name Gheren since the early eighteenth century. Apparently he derives his power, and his immortality, by stealing memories.”

“But not just any memories,” Andrew added. “Bad ones, especially violent ones. Murder and war and mayhem. There were a lot of veterans in London in the ‘50s who lost their memories, but the doctors and everybody thought it was a psychological reaction, a post-traumatic stress thing. Combat fatigue, they called it. Then it just stopped.” He looked through the stack of papers. “We found a similar in pattern postwar Germany in the 20's, and Russia in the teens.”

“Our interviews with the families of some of his recent victims confirmed this,” Willow said. “Rudy Melton, for example. He served in Belfast with the British Army, and was discharged after he shot and killed a ten year old boy. There was also a woman, Sylvia Clarkson, who was just out of prison for beating her abusive boyfriend comatose with a brick. There's another guy who emigrated here from Rwanda a couple of months after the genocide there. We have evidence that all three visited Dr. Gheren, and suffered complete memory loss shortly afterward.”

Bill leaned back in his chair. “So maybe that's what he was trying to do to Spike. If he feeds on atrocities, well…”

“William the Bloody would have made quite a meal,” Buffy finished. “And didn't you say Drusilla warned y—warned Spike?”

Willow leafed through her papers. “Your dreams gave us some great information, which is outlined on page seven of the handouts. Firstly, the fact that you both had the same dream on the same night definitely points to a mystical origin. Secondly, it doesn't matter to Gheren wheher somebody's human or undead, as long as their memories are violent. Since we don't have a huge surplus of war veterans or torturers around London, he may be attracted to vampires.”

“Not just vampires.” Buffy looked at Giles. “Being a Slayer is a pretty violent occupation. We need to warn all the Slayers in the active rotation to look out for him, and to stay away from his hands at all costs.”

“That goes for you as well, Buffy. More than most, since you've been a slayer for so many years.” Giles turned to Willow. “Good analysis; please make sure that all Slayers on the active roster get a full briefing. ”

Andrew spoke up. “The other important data-point from the dream sequence is the hands. Drusilla seemed to be having a vision about Gheren, and she specifically warned Spike about his hands.”

“She saved him.” Bill spoke quietly. “Gheren had his hands on my temples—well, Spike's, but that whole dream, or vision, whatever it was, I saw it from Spike's point of view. I was going all foggy, and Drusilla jumped on Gheren's back and distracted him, and then I cut off his hands.” He paused. “The whole idea of love, or affection between vampires…it's bizarre to me, but Spike and Drusilla seemed to be taking care of one another.”

“Spike was a very unusual vampire, even before he was souled,” said Giles. “In any case, the fight ended when Gheren's hands were cut off. That, and Drusilla's warning, does suggest that his power is centered in his hands.”

“And he can either grow them back, or reattach them somehow, since he's back and preying on London again,” observed Andrew. “Cutting them off is only the first step. It just weakens him, and we need to destroy him once and for all.”

Willow leafed through her papers. “What we found in the Council archives suggests beheading will do the trick, but given his power, I'd want to burn the corpse just to be sure. Cleansing flames. There are also some herbs we can burn with him that will dissipate any lingering mystical energy.”

“So, we find, I dismember, Willow barbecues, we party?” said Buffy. “Sounds like a plan to me.”

“Your gift for summary is alive and well,” Giles remarked dryly. “Starting with, we find. Willow, do you think he realizes that we're aware of him? The easiest thing might be to corner him in his office, if he's still luring victims there.”

“No such luck,” said Andrew. “I thought of that, so I called his office to check. The phone's disconnected. I don't know how he'd know that we know, though, so maybe it's a coincidence. Anyway, we're working on a locator spell—well, Willow is.”

Bill looked at Buffy. “You said ‘I dismember.' How long are you planning to stay in London?”

“As long as it takes.” She ran her fingers through her hair, twisting it into a knot behind her head and letting it fall down her back again. “Dawn's staying with a friend till I get back, and I don't think her family will mind keeping her a while longer. They've practically adopted her. By Italian standards, no parents and one sister barely counts as a family. I can give her a call tonight.”

“I hate to say this, Buffy, but I think Gheren would find you a very attractive target, and you're probably our best chance at defeating him. I do recognize you have retired from active slaying, but…” Giles paused.

She grinned at him. “Buffy-bait, at your service. I guess I'm back in the slaying game.”


Chapter Twenty-Four: No Shrimp

“That went better than I expected.”

Trafalgar Square was lively on a Friday night, full of couples and tourists enjoying the clear, cool weather. Giles had his arm around Willow's shoulder, while hers rested comfortably at his waist, under his jacket. A few paces ahead, Buffy and Bill were hand in hand, talking softly. It was good to hear Buffy laugh, Giles reflected.

“What, dinner?” said Willow. “Silly man, of course it did. They're a good couple, and I knew you'd figure it out once you saw them together. I was right, admit it.” She leaned her head against his chest.

“You were right, Willow. I admit it,” he responded obediently. “A double date was in fact a brilliant idea, although I'm feeling rather enormous after all that food.” He kissed the top of her head, gleaming under the streetlight.

“Me too, but the walk should help,” she said. They both realized at the same moment that Buffy and Bill had stopped short, and shifted into defensive stances. “Shit.” Without further conversation they separated and took up positions behind the other couple, slightly behind and outside, forming a phalanx facing the tall, pale man with the mocking smile.

“How lovely to meet you,” Gheren said. His voice was deep, British, cynical, sinister. “I learned that you were seeking me, so I thought I would save you the trouble. You all have so much to offer me.” Willow could perceive a faint green glow, perhaps not yet visible to the others. She glanced nervously to the side; the evening was young, with a fair number of Londoners still on the streets, unaware of the impending violence.

“The only thing I'm offering you is a quick death, Gheren,” said Buffy. She shook her arm, and a slender blade slipped from its sheath into her hand. Bill did the same. Damn, thought Giles, I should have known better than to come out unarmed.

Gheren raised a hand in a casual gesture, and the streets around them went silent and dark, leaving the group in a circle of light from a streetlamp. “Let's get all these bystanders out of our way, shall we? None of them are innocent by any means, but I hate having my meals interrupted.”

Buffy moved suddenly, sweeping her knife toward Gheren's wrist. He slipped away, but her blade grazed the skin, leaving a line that growed vivid green before sealing closed. “You want a fight, do you? Pleased to oblige, but four against one seems a little unfair to me.”

A familiar laugh came from behind them. There was a long moment of hesitation like an indrawn breath, none of the four wanting to turn their backs on Gheren while facing the new threat. Buffy glanced to the side,where Bill stood beside her—but that sounded like him, behind her…? Willow was the first to turn her head.

“It's us,” she murmured.

There was no more time to think, only to respond with fists and blade to the attack. Giles doubled over, gut-punched by his duplicate, cocky and young in heavy boots and a leather jacket. “Ripper,” he muttered, taking advantage of his stance to aim a fist at his counterpart's most vulnerable area. As they grappled, he could hear Buffy, no, the other-Buffy, fighting with words as well as fists.

“You're supposed to be dead, you know. Wasn't it better that way? Peace and quiet. Being back in this world is totally not worth it. The only thing you can feel is pain. Just give it up and let go. I'll can make it stop hurting again.” The real Buffy was finding it a challenge to fight herself; both she and her opponent could predict each other's moves, neither could use the element of surprise. She grinned at the false Buffy, in the lank hair and drab clothes of her post-resurrection self.

“Don't even bother, chickie. I decided a long time ago that I was going to live, and I've already killed you once. I shop, I sneeze, and I'm going to punch you into the next dimension. No shrimp for you!” Quipping always helped her keep her energy up during a fight, but she was worried—it was now five to one, and Gheren's distraction was all too effectively keeping them from dealing with the primary threat. Even worse, she was tiring fast—why?—while the other Buffy showed no sign of fatigue.

Bill and Spike were circling each other, lashing out with steel. In the heavy eyeliner and leather duster of his punk days, Spike was laughing, bouncing on the balls of his feet, waving a huge knife. “Martial arts!” he scoffed. “Let's have a little real violence then, you know that's what you want! Blood in the gutters, blood in your teeth, it's always blood. You're not the proper gent you pretend to be, Billy boy.” Bill set his teeth and focused on the his punches and kicks, not daring to waste his rapidly dwindly energy on words.

Willow was terrified.

Black hair, black eyes and crackling sparks of power faced her, power that fascinated and repulsed her all at once, power she craved and dreamed about at night only to awaken trembling. A veined hand rose and from it flew a ball of blue light, which she managed to stop barely in time. “Sooner or later,” said the dark Willow, “you will come home. You are nothing without this power. Don't hold yourself back.” Willow managed to fling a counterspell that knocked the dark witch off her feet, but she arose with a contemptuous smile. That took more out of me than it should have, thought Willow. She's as strong as I am, and there's nothing she won't do. We are in so much trouble.

Giles' younger self had given himself up fully to the fight, and the Watcher, even as they traded punches and jabs, recognized the strange wild joy of being consumed in the immediate struggle to survive and win. But his years of practice gave him a slight edge, the ability to recognize where a blow was coming from and block it a split second before it landed, and more important, the ability to think and fight at the same time. He fought defensively, desperately trying to figure out a strategy. How can we defeat ourselves, that's the question, he thought.

Then he laughed.

We can't.

The force of the realization coincided with a spectacularly successful punch in the nose that knocked Ripper to the ground. Instead of taking advantage with a few swift kicks, Giles reached down and helped a slightly dazed Ripper to his feet. “I can't beat you,” he told the other man, gripping both of arms. “I am you. You're me, you're part of me, I'll never be rid of you, and I don't want to, you gave me myself. Thank you, Ripper.”

“Sentimental old tosser,” Ripper said with a grin as he faded into the night.

Giles turned to the others, still trading blows. “Stop fighting yourselves!” he shouted. “They are not our enemies! They are us!” He jumped between the two Buffys trying to hold them apart. “Forgive yourself for dying, Buffy, for wanting to die or wanting to live, she's only your past, she's only yourself.” The other Buffy lifted him off his feet, wrenching his shoulder, but through a haze of pain he saw his Buffy smile.

“You're right.” She changed tactics, moved in close, and grasped her counterpart in a tight embrace. “It's all right. We can live, we can be happy! I promise you, there's so much for us, Rome, cute shoes, everything. We can save the world and be loved, we don't have to choose, I promise you. I promise me.” The other Buffy let out a sob and slowly faded, leaving her arms empty.

Bill had seen Ripper and Giles end their fight from the corner of his eye, but the distraction was enough to give Spike an advantage. Now Bill lay on the ground clutching his bleeding right arm, his blade a few crucial inches out of reach. Spike had a boot on his belly. Despite the pain, Bill let out a short ironic laugh. “I give up! I'm you, I admit it! William the Bloody, the Big Bad, that's who I was. But you're me now. You gave up evil for love, and you got this mortal body, this new life, Spike. We saved the world for love, Spike! Both of us! There's no bloody difference!”

“Ain't that a kick in the ass, mate!” Spike was laughing as he faded, his coat disappearing last, like the Cheshire cat's smile.

The three turned toward the two Willows, who were separated by a field of vibrating greenish-yellow light. Instinctively Buffy felt that light was deadly, there was no safe way to physically intervene. Cautiously, Giles moved to the side of his Willow. He could see the strain in her face, the terrible determination it was taking to hold the other woman's power in check. He spoke quietly but urgently.

“Willow, beloved, remember when you first came to England? You were afraid you could never be loved again, never be human, that your power had taken you outside the bounds of humanity. And you learned it wasn't true. I love you, Willow, every part of you, your dark and your brightness and your amazing power.” He turned to the dark Willow, who glared at him, and suddenly he felt himself sagging, collapsing, all strength draining suddenly from his body, and Buffy's strong arms catching him before he hit the ground. “I am not afraid of you, Willow, don't be afraid of yourself.”

A sudden burst of light and heat engulfed the two Willows, and then faded, leaving Willow herself incandescent with white light, smiling. “I can do this,” she said, and turned toward Gheren. He was leaning against a brick wall, panting as if from great exertion. Willow raised her hand. “Bind,” she said, and a wall of white light surrounded and held him still.

Giles sat up. “Hands and head,” he said weakly. Buffy and Bill nodded, and their blades flashed in unison. Gheren's head rolled to land at the Watcher's feet, his hands following. The white light flowed down along the body and its severed parts, flickering along the surface and resolving into vivid flames, which leaped up and suddenly went out, leaving four piles of ash, one slightly larger than the other, and a sharp, acrid smell.

“Pretty cool, Will,” remarked Buffy.

This time all five of them went to the airport, in a huge old-fashioned London taxicab. Buffy's luggage (plus a bag borrowed from Willow, to accommodate her London purchases), had disappeared behind the AlItalia counter, and they lingered near the security checkpoint to say their goodbyes.

Andrew smiled indulgently at Buffy and Bill. “Did anyone bring a crowbar? Because I think we're going to need one to pry those two apart.” Buffy raised a mock-fist and Andrew pretended to cower, both grinning. “Seriously, you guys are so cute.”

“Thanks. As the former Big Bad, I find that highly insulting,” said Bill. “But since I know you're insanely jealous, I'll forgo the severe beating you deserve.”

Buffy peeled herself off Bill and turned to embrace Willow. “I'm going to miss you so much,” she murmured into her friend's shoulder.

“Me too. But it's only for a couple of months. We'll be there for Dawn's graduation, and then it's arrivaderci, Rome, and hello London!” Willow said.

“I know I ‘ve said this before, but I am so pleased you've decided to come back,” said Giles. “The Council will certainly benefit from your input, as will the new Slayers. And don't worry--if an apocalypse threatens, I'll have you on the next plane back.”

“You'd better!” she laughed. “Andrew's going to do the legwork—um, oops, bad word choice! I mean, Andrew said he'd check out apartments for me.”

“Flight 833 to Rome, Italy, now boarding at Gate 17,” a tinny voice intoned.

“That's me,” Buffy sighed. She and Bill embraced again, their kiss gentle but infused with passion. “I don't want to leave you…” she whispered.

Bill interrupted. “I'll be here. This is just temporary, pet. We're all done leaving each other, remember? This time we'll get it right.”

Eventually she turned from him, eyes only slightly damp, and wrapped her arms around Andrew, who emitted a startled squeak when she picked him up off the ground. “Keep an eye on Obi-Wan for me, okay?” He nodded.

Finally, Buffy flung her arms around Giles. “Thank you so much. If you hadn't figured it out, I'd have killed myself, which would have been my most ironic death yet.”

Giles returned a tight hug, utterly lacking in any British reserve at all. “You're the only person strong enough to beat you, Buffy. I suppose that's true of all of us.”

She stepped back and smiled at him. “So by that logic, we're unbeatable, right?”



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