DISCLAIMER: We know they're Joss', right? Which really is a shame, because most of the time, we're so much nicer to them than he was.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: The Immortal explained about the significance of the clocks, while Buffy discovered that Giles was a Fyarl demon and her mother was still alive...

* * *

There had been that moment outside, when she had first spotted Tara, that Buffy had had the thoughts about the possibility of her mother being alive in this world. But she’d given them no credence, dismissing them when she learned the truth about what had actually happened.

Even so, it did nothing to buffer seeing Joyce Summers standing in front of her, very much alive, very much looking as shocked to be confronted with her as Buffy was about her mom.

Her hair was shorter, thick waves starting to overtake what had probably been a very cute pixie cut at one time. Fresh lines were around her eyes, and the ones Buffy remembered being there before were deeper, etched into shadowed grooves that testified to the horrors she’d had to face. But it was the stunned pain in them that was hardest to witness. It took several frozen seconds for Buffy to remember this Joyce had lost her daughter almost as long ago as she had lost her mother; they were both seeing ghosts.

The spell was broken when Joyce tried to reach out to her.

“Buffy?” she whispered again.

The moment she felt the fingertips on her cheek, Buffy turned on her heel and ran.

The sting of rushing air and tears from nowhere made her only half-aware of the commotion her flight caused behind her. Someone called out her name, or maybe it was a lot of someones, but Buffy didn’t stop, didn’t care, didn’t want to go back and face this particular specter from her past. It was one thing to see Tara and Spike walking around as if they hadn’t been torn from her life. While she loved both of them, they had only been around for a small portion of it.

This was her mother. The woman who had been there for all of it, beaten back vampires with axes and held her close when her father cancelled yet another date and smiled at every lame gift Buffy had ever given her, including the ashtray she had made at summer camp when she was seven when neither of her parents even smoked.

It was too much. She had no choice but to run or risk losing it altogether.

Doors opened as she fled past, and people emerged, and more than once Buffy knocked someone down in her haste to get as far, far away from all of it as she could. But while she knew the upper part of the school like the back of her hand, the basement was a chaotic catacomb she couldn’t navigate. Too soon, she was lost in a dark corner, huddled against the cold brick wall, trying to forget everything that had happened in the past few hours, wishing that she had never gone exploring in Paolo’s house in the first place.

Wishing for anything, really, anything that wasn’t here and now and populated with faces she had never dared hope to see again.

The footsteps seemed to take forever to approach. Buffy continued to stare into the darkness, trying to block out the look in her mother’s eyes at seeing her. She only looked up when she heard the muttered swearing.

She couldn’t see Spike, but she could still hear him. His low cursing had switched to arguing, Tara’s soft tones answering each of his statements. When neither came into view, Buffy rolled her eyes and pushed off the wall to stand up again.

“Do you have any idea how annoying that is?” she complained. She followed the hall around the corner and almost immediately ran into the pair, stopping just in time to see Spike grab Tara and pull her back out of the way. Her eyes flickered to Spike, who looked less than pleased to be there. “Guess it doesn’t matter if it’s Tara who has the leash, huh?” she said, more than a twinge of bitterness leaking into her voice.

His furious scowl and lunge forward was stopped by Tara’s hand to his chest. “Don’t,” she said softly.

For the first time, Buffy thought Spike was going to ignore Tara’s gentle presence. Everything about him was ready for battle, down to the flashing in his eyes, and she wondered if he was even aware of how tense he really was, coiled so tight that she was sure he would snap without a natural release. Maybe a fight wouldn’t be remiss after all, even if their fights had a tendency to lead to other, more satisfying, physical activities.

His mouth opened to argue further, but Spike froze, nostrils flaring almost imperceptibly before he growled and whirled around to stomp off through the maze. It wasn’t until after he was gone that Buffy realized her train of thought had made its stamp on her body, and that Spike, as was ending up being the norm, had picked up on it. Again.

“I’m sorry,” Tara said, turning back to face her. “He’s---.”

“---Spike. I know.”

Beyond the shock of seeing her mother alive and well, Buffy noticed for the first time how swollen Tara’s face was, cheeks blotchy and eyes tiny from the force of crying. She seemed composed now, but the question of what could have set her off in the first place lingered in the back of Buffy’s brain.

“I didn’t mean for you to find out like that,” Tara explained. Her voice was low, meant to be soothing. “And I warned Joyce that you were here, but…I guess the part where she actually saw you was a little more intense than we thought it would be. For both of you.”

“That’s an understatement,” Buffy muttered. She frowned. “How did you know it would bother me?”

A slow flush crept up Tara’s neck. “The meditation spell. When I was under, I…saw what your life had been like. That your mother had died. What happened with you and…” She swallowed. “Spike.”

“Oh.” The greater implications of what Tara had seen made Buffy’s eyes widen. “Oh!” No wonder she’d run off upset. Between Willow’s turn to black magic and Spike’s death, not to mention Tara’s own, it made perfect sense that she would need space from Buffy.

“It was just hard,” Tara was saying. “Because I know Spike, and I know what he can do, but I never…I didn’t…it’s different experiencing it like that. Your dimension had so much pain in it. And then seeing him sacrifice himself…?” A shudder wracked her body, and she stepped back, taking a deep breath to calm down.

“But he did it to save the world,” Buffy said softly. “Knowing that makes it easier. Trust me.”

The two women regarded each other in silence. The familiar compassion in Tara’s eyes was almost as hard to take as seeing her mother in the flesh again.

“You love him.”

It was such a simple statement. The last time Buffy had heard equivalent words from her friend, it had been a wary question, a gentle probe to try and understand why she was so upset. It had torn her apart to even consider that she was so wrong, that she was twisted enough inside to have feelings for Spike, and her subsequent denials had been as much about her as him. But what struck Buffy even more strongly now was that she hadn’t heard anybody else utter those words to her since. Not one person had made that realization out loud after the fall of Sunnydale. It was actually a relief to hear it.

“Yeah,” Buffy conceded. “I do.” She shook her head, a sad smile twisting her mouth. “Seeing him like this has been both the best and worst thing that’s happened to me since he died.”

Tara nodded in sympathy, but then her eyes widened with alarm. “Spike and I aren’t together, you know,” she rushed to say. “I know it looks that way, and since you saw Giles, he probably filled you in on how things work around here, but Spike and I are just friends. Best friends, if you can believe it. Nothing sexual.”

“I can. And I know. He was very quick to remind me of the whole lesbian thing.”

Glancing back over her shoulder, Tara chewed at her lip before speaking. “Did you…want to go back and talk to them?” she asked. “Spike and your mom, I mean. I know Joyce would love to hear what your life is like, and if Spike knew---.”

“No. Spike doesn’t find out.” Buffy took a deep breath, calming the sharp edge to her voice. “I’m the one who’s responsible for the way things are here, and this Spike hates me for that. I’m not going to be the one to make things even more awkward by letting him find out that what I feel for him is more than physical. That’s a mess nobody wants.”

“More than…did something happen between you two? After I ran out?” The guilty slide of Buffy’s eyes was the only answer Tara needed, but instead of recriminations, Tara merely nodded. “That would explain why he didn’t want to help me find you then. Just…be careful with him, will you? Until we figure out how to get you back? He’s not as big and bad as he wants everybody to believe.” She flushed. “But then you knew that.”

As the two women began to navigate back to the main quarters, Buffy stayed silent while Tara started talking about the different magical possibilities that could have brought her to this dimension. Most of it went over her head anyway, but her thoughts were too distracted with images of her mom and Spike and Fyarl Giles and everything else to keep the details straight.

The only thing she knew was that she was going to do everything she could to try and make things better for these people before she left. She owed them that, at the very least.

* * *

It made his fangs itch to see the wanker fawning over the unconscious Slayer, but with Angel just as wound up next to him and Ilona standing between them and the bed, Spike knew he would have to wait another day to get his hands around the Immortal’s neck. This was the git’s fault, even if he claimed Buffy was the one to break the bonds that had kept her out of the room. None of this would have happened in the first place if he only collected something a bit more normal for demons, like bloodied hearts or Kurosawa memorabilia.

As for Buffy, the Immortal had been right about one thing. To anybody without enhanced senses, she could have been sleeping.

Spike and Angel knew the truth, though. They could smell the temperature raging through her body, could hear the accelerated pump of her heart. This wasn’t a normal sleep, even if she looked beyond beautiful lying on the bed. This was going to need something a bit more effective than tossing water over her head or jumping on the end of the bed to wake her.

The Immortal finally straightened to regard his guests. “I have exhausted what I can do for her,” he said. “Now I will need Wolfram and Hart’s resources to find the means to bring her back to me.”

Spike’s nails dug into his palms, drawing blood from how tightly he clenched his fists. “Thought we knew that an hour ago,” he growled.

“I will send the best of our shamans---,” Ilona started.

“No.” The single word was a bark in the warm room, and all eyes turned to Angel. “Spike and I are taking Buffy with us.”

The Immortal smiled. From the distinct lack of warmth in his eyes, though, Spike thought it was one of those automatic gestures for the bastard when really, he wanted to do something far worse. “I am afraid I cannot allow that,” he said. “Buffy will stay here.”

“And I’m afraid you don’t know who you’re dealing with.” Angel took a menacing step forward, only to be stopped by the full force of Ilona’s breasts pressed up against him.

“He knows not how we do such things here in Rome,” she shot back over her shoulder to the Immortal. When she returned her gaze to Angel, Spike could see the warning glints in her dark eyes. “Angelus, of all people, understands there are ways to accomplish what needs to be done. Procedures to be followed.”

“Sod your bloody procedures,” Spike complained, pushing forward to flank Angel. “This is Buffy. We’re not leaving here without her, even if it means testing just how immortal the Immortal really is.”

“An interesting endeavor, to be sure,” the Immortal replied. Nothing about him moved, not even a hair on his head, but Spike could’ve sworn he was taut for a fight. “But Ilona is correct. And as CEO of Los Angeles, I am certain Angelus knows this.”

Spike waited for Angel to intercede and argue, but the debate never came. When he glanced up at the other vampire, all he could see was the drawn brow in profile as Angel glared at the Immortal.

“It’s going to happen like this,” Angel finally said. “Ilona and I will go back to the Wolfram and Hart office to start the shamans on the job of waking Buffy---.

“You’ve got to be bloody kidding!”

“---while Spike stays here to be my eyes and ears. You’ll give him full access to whatever he wants, or neither one of us are going anywhere.”

The codicil had Spike snapping to attention. He caught the fury passing over the Immortal’s face before the mask fell back into place, but he also recognized the stubborn set of Angel’s jaw. He meant what he’d said. It was going to be the only way he’d willingly walk out the door.

“Don’t think this is because I think she’s going to pick you,” Angel muttered without moving his head. “It’s because I know you won’t let anything happen to her and Ilona’s right. I can’t stay.”

Spike’s lips twitched. It was as close to an admission of what he and Buffy had had that Angel would ever make. It must have burned for the old man to get it out.

“This is not acceptable,” the Immortal was saying. While his tone was smooth, there was an underlying anger that made Spike’s skin crawl. How the birds kept falling for the prat, he would never know. “This is my home, and Buffy---.”

“---is our friend,” Angel finished. “And no offense, but considering our own personal history, the only person I trust around her right now is Spike, which believe me, says a lot.” He folded his arms across his chest. “He stays.”

He had to give it to Angel. Sometimes that incessant need to throw his weight around definitely worked in their favor.

Looking from the vampires to Buffy and back again, the Immortal finally sighed and waved his hand in dismissal. “He stays,” he agreed. “Now go. Do what you can. I do not pay Wolfram and Hart as much money as I do to have them treat my emergencies as less than such.”

Spike half-expected Ilona to fall out of her dress with as quickly as she moved, but Angel was slower to turn away. “You have my permission to kill him if he even looks at Buffy wrong,” he murmured as he brushed past Spike. “Make it hurt.”

With that, they were gone, leaving Spike, the Immortal, and a sleeping Slayer all waiting for the other proverbial shoe to drop.

 

To be continued in Chapter 8