myrabeth_fanfic wrote in seasonal_spuffy

Fic: The Paper Incursion

Title: The Paper Incursion
Author: myrabeth
Setting: Pre-series to Season 5, post-series
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: 8950
Special Thanks: zabjade
Author's Note: I managed to snag my own birthday for this round's sign ups, and ended up producing a birthday-themed fic, a small gift to a fandom that has given me so much over the years, and continues to do so. Thank you all.  

The Paper Incursion

Every birthday since she was called, she receives a letter from someone who seems to know what the year will bring. Vague hints. A word or two of advice. Helpful. Appreciated. Frustrating. And all from the greatest enemy she has ever known.

1997

Sweet Sixteen, huh? Oh, boy... Where to begin...

Ok, so all the yelling going on downstairs? That's not about you, and it's not about your calling. Their problems and yours are two totally separate issues. Honestly, the slayer gig is the bigger deal. It's going to get rough, starting very, very soon. You're going to take some losses in the coming year, but make some incredible gains along the way. You'll find friends and allies, and get your first screamingly loud wake up call about who you really are. I wish I could tell you more, but there are limits to what I can say.  

Happy birthday, Buffy.

P.S.- I will tell you this, though: When you ask the monster in the shadows who he is, his name is not the answer.

Merrick reread the letter with a frown. He flipped over the page and inspected the envelope, finding both blank. “You say this was tucked into your bedroom window?”

“On the outside of the frame. So either a vampire or someone who knew I'd make them regret trying to come inside.” Buffy frowned at the lack of response, second guessing her deduction. “Right?”

“Hmm, likely.” Merrick was still distracted by the letter. “Computer printed,” he murmured. “Not typed.”

“So it's somebody who's up with the times, then. Less chance of vampire?”

“You're sure there was nothing else? No indication as to the source?”

“Nope.” Her frown deepened at his continued reluctance to provide guidance. “Aren't you supposed to be telling me what kind of demon leaves weird birthday messages and how to fight it?”

“I'm afraid I don't know.” Merrick returned the letter to its envelope and returned it to its owner.

“That's it?” the slayer asked, incredulous. “Aren't you watchers supposed to be all-knowing about this stuff? You know, monsters, magic, and psychic stalkers leaving vague notes?”

“I'd suggest you take heed. Whomever wrote this clearly wishes you well.”

“Take heed of what, exactly? This isn't exactly a road map to a pot of gold.”

“No, it's a warning of things to come, and advice that you ought to tend to your own well-being, both physical and mental.”

She opened her mouth to argue, but his hard stare stopped the attempt.

“I'm sorry, were you about to claim the state of your parents' relationship hasn't been impacting you?”

Buffy would not be swayed from an argument. “Ok, so what about the creepy monster in the shadows thing? That doesn't sound like it's all that good for my mental health.”

“I suspect we will know what it means when it happens.” Merrick gestured to the letter she still held. “Keep that close at hand, for reference.”

*~*~*

1998

Three days after her birthday, Buffy walked into the Sunnydale High library to find Giles frowning at something on the checkout counter. He didn't react to her arrival.

“Uh, I was going to borrow a crossbow and go out for an early patrol, but Statue Watcher might be the bigger issue.”

He didn't look up. “Buffy, Angel may have been here.”

Her facade of casual ease immediately crumbled. “What do you mean?”

Giles stepped aside to reveal an envelope sitting on the counter. On it was written “Buffy” in artful script, the pen used to do so still resting beside it.  

“What makes you think it's from Angel?”

“Who else could have slipped in and out of here unnoticed while I was at my desk with the door open? And would have happened to come so soon after sunset?”

“Good question,” she murmured as she opened the envelope.

I'd wish you a belated happy birthday, but I happen to know this one sucked. Hard. I'm actually sending this letter a couple of days late because I know you wouldn't have had time to deal with it sooner. 

I owe you an apology. You deserved a warning about Angel and his stupid curse. Like I said before, there are limits to what I can say. They tell me some things need to happen, and that there are already a few too many timelines where they didn't. I don't pretend to understand all of it. I only know that if I defy their rules, the letters won't be sent unless I edit out what they don't like.

That said, I did try to slip in one little warning. I'm sure you noticed he didn't answer with his name when you asked “Who are you?” In fact, neither of them did. I was trying to get you to pay attention to those first conversations, and the men you had them with. Different reasons, but... I'm getting the stink eye from one of the people in charge of deciding if these letters get to you, so I'll shut up now.

So seventeen, huh? I wish I could tell you the last year was the worst of it. It's going to get worse before it gets better. But in the very middle of the worst of the worst, you'll find out you aren't as alone as you think. Allies are everywhere, Buffy, even among your enemies.

But that's not the worst enemy you'll face in the coming year, even if it feels like it. The worst... Well, that's me. It's always been me.  

One of the people leaning over my shoulder while I type this says I should say something about “shadows and doubt,” but that's a little too cryptic for my tastes. Now that I think about it, though, I guess this year is all about shadows. Mine, yours, Angel's, the ones that will be cast by coming events, and the looming horror of adulthood.

Growing up sucks, in some ways. You start to see all the shadows and the things that live in them, but it gets way more complex than light and dark. There are a lot of shades of grey in the mix. But I think you're already learning that, even if you'd like to think you aren't.

I know things are shitty right now, but Happy Birthday, anyway, Buffy.

P.S.- You've already earned his respect, and on the darkest night, you'll earn each other's trust. Hold on to that, and try to muster up a little respect for him while you're at it.  

Buffy put the printed letter down on the counter and took a moment to study the unfamiliar handwriting on the envelope before addressing her watcher. “It's not from Angel,” she finally said. “It's from my birthday psychic.”

He blinked at her, certain he had misheard.

“I got a letter like this a year ago,” she explained. “No signature. Computer print out. Plain white envelope. Merrick didn't know where it came from, either.” She picked up the letter and offered it to him. “It wasn't as chatty as this one, but just as vague. And actually less confusing.”

Giles read the letter with a furrowed brow. “No,” he whispered. “It isn't a psychic. It's an alternate universe.”

It was Buffy's turn to blink in confusion. “Huh?”

“This reference to different timelines...” He handed back the letter and rushed off to the stacks, in search of a nearly forgotten book. “There's a theory that for every decision of significance made, every possible outcome can occur, the paths not taken branching off from the moment of the decision into alternate timelines, sometimes called 'alternate universes.' What qualifies as an important enough decision is a subject of much debate...” He came rushing back to the checkout counter with a thick book in hand. “It's a fascinating theory for discussion, full of subsections about free will, 'hand of God' interference, debates about whether a timeline, once split, can interact with another...”

Buffy put her hand on the book to stop his eager flipping through the pages. “Giles, I don't think that's really the point right now.”

He looked up, following the hand that had blocked his view up to the eyes of its owner. “Buffy, you appear to be receiving communication from an alternate timeline, clearly written in an attempt to help you. I fail to see another point.”

“How about who my worst enemy is, if it isn't my own boyfriend? How about suggesting I make an ally out of an enemy -that might be the same person- and that ominous thing about 'the darkest night?' I'm busy being seriously wigged right now, Giles. I don't think I'm up for a lecture about the possibility of a universe where I didn't turn Angel evil.”

*~*~*

Ten months later

“Yeah? You and what army?”

“That would be me.”

Spike's body was slammed backward onto the kitchen island, and the handle of a wooden spoon hovered an inch above his chest.  

On the porch, Angel fidgeted under Joyce's continued horrified stare in his direction. “Uh, Buffy? Maybe an invitation?”

Buffy ignored him, her focus locked onto her hostage. “You shouldn't have come back, Spike. I thought I could trust you to keep your word.”

“I do as I please.” He grinned. “Never made any promises about staying out of here, anyway. Just said I hoped it'd shake out that way.”

Her face scrunched up as she thought about this. “Huh. I think you're right.”

Sensing her grip easing, Spike tried to lift himself up, but was immediately slammed back against the counter. “Hey, now! Play nice! I've got your witch.”

“You have a witch?” Joyce exclaimed.

“Willow,” Buffy explained to her mother while she kept her eyes on Spike. “Is she ok? Also, why?

“Just need her to do a little spell for me.” He nodded toward the open back door. “Souled-up and ready to brood, I see. Big change.”

“It's... complicated.” She eased her grip on him again, this time intentionally. “Where?”

“She and the whelp are free to go as soon as she works her mojo, alright?” 

“Fine.” She took a step back, fully releasing him. “But I'm staying right behind you.”

“He's not famous for keeping promises,” Angel warned from the porch.

“He is with me,” Buffy murmured. “Unfortunately.”

*~*~*

1999

They're never gonna fix this, are they?” Faith murmured.

Buffy wasn't thinking of the broken window. “What about you?”

Faith turned to face her and gestured vaguely to herself. “Scar tissue. It fades. It all fades.”

Not fast enough.” Buffy took a step toward her. “I thought it was you.” She offered a guilty shrug. “Well, you know, the last few months...”

It never was.”

Yeah. I think I finally figured that out.” Buffy frowned at the bloody knife that briefly appeared in her hand.

She's staring you in the face, B. Day after day.” Faith chuckled. “I guess the real question is, is she going to be worth saving?”

She?”

Faith took a step away and turned to survey the apartment, eager to change the subject. “You wanna know the deal? Human weakness. It never goes away.”

*~*~*

Later that day

Buffy stopped short of grabbing the stakes and bottles of holy water from the bottom of the weapons chest. Her hand hovered over the three envelopes pinned under the largest bottle as she debated with herself.  

They had taken up residence there after she'd found the third one in that location, four months before. She'd been in a hurry to gather the tools to save her mother from Kralik when she'd discovered it, and had flung it onto her bed to read later. When she did, she noticed it had left a faintly burnt smell on her pillow, which renewed her suspicions of a vampire delivering it, one who apparently didn't mind getting singed if it meant her finding the letter on her birthday.

She only knew of one vampire with an invitation to her home, but he hadn't been around for almost two months by the time the letter showed up. And if Giles was right about an alternate timeline, the rules about vampires and invitations might not even apply, so there would be no point in blaming Spike, even if he had stayed in town through her birthday.

The letters didn't sound like him, anyway. In fact, they sounded very much like someone else.

Finally, she grabbed the envelopes and turned to face her friend. “I screwed up, Will.”

Willow stopped stuffing weapons into gym bags and looked up to find the slayer near tears. “What...?”

“With Faith. With everything.” Buffy gestured with the envelopes. “I told you about the letters. After the third one came, and everything started going downhill with Faith, I was sure it was her. I thought the stuff about her in the last letter was the author covering for herself in advance, you know? Making herself not look so bad?”

Willow frowned, confused. “So you thought Faith wrote the letters because she's the bad guy? Or she's not the bad guy because she wrote them?”

“Uh... both? I'm not really sure. The person who wrote them called themselves my worst enemy. I've been thinking it had to be her. 'Cause lately?”

The frown eased a little. “I can't disagree with that. But now you don't think so?”

“It isn't her, Will. And it isn't some random person who happens to like cryptically helping slayers. It's...” Buffy bit her lower lip. “Someone who not only knows me and cares about me, but talks like one of us.”

“Faith talks like us. Mostly.”

“Faith didn't put anyone in a coma last night.” Buffy slid the most recent letter out of its envelope and offered it to her friend. “I did.”

Welcome to adulthood, where the crappy days just keep on coming.  

Don't worry, you'll have your powers back in a few days. How you make peace with the causes and reasoning behind all of this is up to you. We all have moments in our lives when we have to tell those in authority where to shove it because our own moral code is better than we're told it should be. It's always a hard choice to make, and most of us flounder through the process, making wrong choices for the right reasons, and right choices for the wrong reasons. Sometimes, we manage to do all of that at the same time.  

One of your bigger moments of that type is coming up soon. If you don't understand exactly what's just happened to you now, you will then. Try not to hold a grudge. It's a bad spiral neither of you wants to go down.

Speaking of things spiraling downward, I wish I could tell you everything you need to know about Faith, but I've just been nagged into deleting an entire paragraph about her. I guess all I can say is that she isn't who she thinks she is, but neither are you. I have to believe there's a chance you'll cut both her and yourself a break, because otherwise, we've gone through the effort of writing and delivering these letters for nothing. 

Ultimately, nothing else matters. There are a million little things (and a few dozen big ones) I could give you advice about, even if the babysitters lurking behind my chair would force me to be all cryptic about it, but “cutting screwed up slayers some slack so they have room to better themselves and maybe end up less damaged in the long run” is the biggest thing. Tell your friends.

Ok, maybe there's one thing that ranks higher: Trust. Trust your instincts. About everything. Some of the worst mistakes you'll ever make are the ones you make when fighting your instincts. When your brain says one thing, and your heart another, go with your gut.

And trust those who have earned your trust. But never take that trust for granted. It can be broken easily if you aren't paying attention. Sometimes it's right in front of you, sometimes it's behind your back, and sometimes you walk around on the shards of it for years before you even realize it. Trust is a fragile object carried between two people. You're both responsible for what happens to it. Try to secure it when you can and fix it when it gets dropped.

Happy Birthday, Buffy.  

P.S.- So apparently somebody screwed up, and you're going to be able to easily identify the person delivering these letters before you receive the next one. I know it's weird and confusing, but don't flip out about it, ok? The person you'll be yelling at if you do will have no clue what you're talking about.

Willow handed back the letter. “Yeah, that definitely sounds like Faith to me.” She switched her voice into a mocking tone. “Oh, I didn't break trust between us, we both did. I don't need to be given some special leeway for screwing things up, we both do.” She rolled her eyes and huffed as she switched back into her natural voice. “It definitely sounds like she's trying to make herself feel better about being a murderous psychopath.”

“Except that Faith didn't write it.” Buffy slipped the letter back into its blank envelope and stacked it with the others. “She didn't write any of them.”

“Or maybe that's the guilt talking, because you had to put her in a coma?”

“'Had to' might be overstating it.” She sighed. “There's only one person who could have written all of these letters, Will. One person who knows me, my life, and how my mind works well enough to know that out of 365 days, this was one of the ones she needed to focus on in her letter.”

“She?” Willow asked. “But not Faith?”

“She,” Buffy confirmed. She glanced toward her vanity. “Staring me in the face, day after day.”

“Huh? Who?”

“Someone from another timeline who has been through all of this. My worst enemy ever.” She fidgeted with the letters. “Buffy Summers.”

*~*~*

Five months later

Buffy set aside her mixing bowl and went to answer the knock at Giles' front door. She was met with the sight of Spike, cowering in the scant shade provided by the townhouse, the raggedy blanket wrapped around him beginning to smoke. He looked even paler than usual.

“Help me.”

Her instincts told her to grab him and drag him inside, but she didn't move. “Let's start with 'Hello.' Or better yet, with your version of what happened in my dorm room last week. Willow's version didn't exactly make you out to be the good guy.”

He sighed. “I buggered it up, alright? Thought I'd get you back for taking that ring from me, and locking me up in that bloody place--”

“What place?”

“Commandos and lab coats.” He looked at her quizzical expression. “You don't have a clue, do you?”

“I have a clue that you tried to kill me when you had that ring.”

“Well I can't now. She tell you that, too? Can't bite anyone. Haven't since I got out. So come on, let me in. I'm parboiling out here.”

“She told me. If I help you out, you tell me about the lab coats?”

“What little I know.”

“Good enough.” She called over her shoulder. “Giles! Invite, please.”

The watcher took off his glasses and squinted in her direction. “Buffy, are you quite sure--?”

“I'm sure.” She locked her eyes on Spike's. “I have his word. ...Don't I?”

He nodded his assurance.

“Giles, issue the invite. Everyone who isn't currently dying on the couch, plan to donate.”

*~*~*

2009  

In the dining room of an old farmhouse, in another timeline

Buffy leaned back in her chair and waited for Spike to read the laptop screen.

“'Close Enough?'” he quoted when he'd finished.

“I'm not here to feed your ego, genius.”

“Other than that, I like the postscript.”

She shrugged. “You said you wanted me to emphasize the point.” She glanced over her shoulder toward the doorway, and lowered her voice. “Are they still distracted?”

Spike listened for a moment, then nodded. When Buffy hit the Print button, he rushed to the corner of the room where the printer was set up, grabbing an envelope from the table on the way.

In the kitchen, the PTB field agent assigned to the project frowned in the direction of the dining room. “Do I hear the printer?”

Tara matched her expression. “I think so.” She led the way toward the sound. “Hey, don't you want me to proofread this one?”

“I looked it over, pet,” Spike hurriedly folded the printed letter and stuffed it into its envelope. “No typos.”

The agent looked from slayer to vampire, taking in their tense expressions. “What am I missing here?”

“Nothing, Elise,” Buffy assured her. She cracked her knuckles and opened a new document. “I'm ready to start the fifth letter, whenever you are.”

Elise held out her hand for the fourth letter. “Hand it over.”

Spike shook his head. “No need. Let me grab a coat, and I'll be ready for the delivery.”

“I can't send a letter through without vetting it, William. You know that.”

Tara crossed her arms over her chest as she studied the room. “Oh, they both know that. And I'm pretty sure that's the point.”

Buffy tried to play it cool. “It's just one letter.”

To Elise, Tara translated. “That means they went completely off the rails because we left them unsupervised for ten whole minutes.”

Elise still had her gaze locked on Spike, who was hesitant to relinquish the letter. “How can you possibly...?”

“I put up with both of them more than you do,” Tara replied. “Look at their eyes. See that look that reminds you of a kid caught with his hand in a cookie jar? On these two, it means they're in the middle of setting up some kind of disaster that will end in bloodshed, me coming in to save them from themselves, or both.”

Buffy glared at her friend. “Your faith in us is overwhelming.”

“Sweetie, I love you, but I don't trust either of you not to go to extremes and mess up a delicately balanced situation. ...Probably because that's what you usually do. Spike, she's not going to send it through without reading it. You might as well hand it over.”

He placed the envelope on the table. “Right, then. She doesn't have to. Just send me in, two days before her birthday, as scheduled.”

Elise looked horrified. “You can't mean to talk to her?! Mr. Cartwright explicitly said this was to be a no-contact operation.”

“Rules are made to be broken,” Buffy and Spike murmured in unison.

Tara rolled her eyes.

Elise snatched the envelope from the table and opened it.

I wish I could prepare you for 19, but there's really no way of doing that. I could write you a fully detailed rundown of what's coming, and it still wouldn't be enough. A list of events doesn't show you the internal impacts, the long term impacts, or provide any guarantee you won't treat it like a syllabus.

Honestly, there's not much I can tell you that I haven't already said. You'll either trust your instincts, or you'll end up in all kinds of horrible situations. You'll either try to reinforce trust, however imperfect it is to begin with, or you'll stand by and watch it break, taking all kinds of amazing potential with it. You'll either accept the unexpected ally for all he has to offer, or you'll find yourself adrift. 

You'll either take these letters to heart, or you'll die.

Sorry, that was Anya-level blunt. But crunch time is coming, and I think these letters have been too vague to get the message through your thick skull.

There are ways you can live a longer, happier life, Buffy. But they depend on you not getting in your own way all the damned time.

And that's all this really comes down to: We were given a chance to help create a timeline in which you don't paint yourself into a corner that ends up coffin-shaped, so we did. From what we've learned of this 'intentional incursion timeline split' so far, not much has changed. They tell us all the little things add up, and yeah, we kinda know that from experience, but it doesn't feel like enough.

This is my last chance to make you listen before things start to spin out of control, and if I don't take it, all of this will have been for nothing. You'll end up dead, and it will just get worse from there.

You have the tools to save yourself. Friends, allies, family, good instincts, more power than you probably think you have, and definitely a hell of a lot more brains than you give yourself credit for.

Happy Birthday, Buffy. Keep counting up. The countdown doesn't have to be to an ending.

P.S.- You're right, you know. It's doomed. Not exactly for the reasons you think, but your instinct to avoid is right on the money. So is the pull to connect, unfortunately. He's an ally you'll need, but a boyfriend you don't. Don't waste precious time searching for Mr. Normal, ok? Just keep working on you, and Mr. Close Enough To Right will show himself.

Elise lowered the letter to give herself a clear look at Spike. “No.”

“Don't look at me, pet. She wrote it.”

“Thanks,” Buffy grumbled. “I haven't been under a bus in a while.”

“That's what you get for that 'Close Enough' crack.”

“Don't start,” Tara warned. “I can't take your bickering on top of everything else tonight, and I have ways of shutting you up.” She gestured for the letter to be passed to her. When she finished reading it, she handed it back to Elise. “Well, I was right about you two going off the rails.”

“Give me one good reason I shouldn't say every word of that,” Buffy challenged.

Tara bit the inside of her cheek while she thought it over. “Elise,” she finally said in a low tone. “Take that to Cartwright, to see if he'll approve it.”

“He most certainly won't!”

“Ask him, anyway.”

Elise reluctantly nodded her agreement and disappeared from the dining room in a flash of blue light.

Tara sat down at the table with a sigh. “You couldn't do just one thing the easy way, could you?”

“Cartwright's more likely to stroke out than approve that letter, pet.” Spike took the chair nearest the printer. “So I'm thinking you just wanted Elise out of our hair for a few.”

“There's a chance he'll let it through, since it's me asking and not General Troublemaker over here.” She jerked a thumb casually in Buffy's direction, ignoring the tongue that was stuck out at her in response. “But everything in that letter is stuff she needs to hear.” She took a deep breath. “So I think that means it's time for a Plan B.”

Buffy and Spike exchanged grins across the table. “What'd you have in mind?” asked the latter.

“The obvious. Spike, she knows you're the one who's been delivering the letters, right?”

“Has to, by this point. From her perspective, it's been about two months since she got a good look at how I write her name, among other things. If she hadn't figured it out before, she knew it then.”

“Good. So she won't be too surprised to see you. We need to smuggle you into that timeline before Elise gets back. And we have just the experienced smuggler to do it.”

“Yeah... And we know he'll be willing. But why can't we both go?”

Tara raised both eyebrows at Buffy. “Really? You, talking to yourself? You guys don't have enough trauma with that stuff?”

“At least we'd be corporeal.” Buffy huffed, relenting. “Fine. I'll reprint the letter and send it with--”

Tara shook her head resolutely. “I agree that she needs to hear what you said, but if we have the option of her hearing it in a better way...”

Spike answered Buffy's outraged expression. “She's right, love. One of us knows how to go easy on you, and one of us doesn't.”

*~*~*

2000

Two men appeared in the quiet hospital corridor

“You sure you wanna do this?”

Spike nodded and moved toward his destination.

“Best I stay out of sight. Her point of reference, you know?” The other man took a seat on a plastic chair. “Just keep it short, man. Quicker I get you back--”

“I know.” Spike stepped to the doorway of an open room.  

Buffy had her back to him, her chair close to the bed. “...By the time we realized the demons were the sacrifices, it was almost too late. Riley hooked me up to some rope line thingy on his Batman utility belt, and I had to dive in after the last one.” She shook her head. “Weird night.”

“A pretty important one, from where I'm standing.”

She tensed in her chair. “How did you know where to find me, Spike? I haven't told anyone I--”

“You will. A few years from now, over a table full of Thai food in the middle of the night. At least, that's how it went for us.”

She replied as she turned around. “Huh? And what are you doing here, anyway? I thought you were staying at Xander's this week?” She did a double take at the sight of him. Different clothes, different coat, and he was standing still in the doorway, waiting patiently for her to put the pieces together. “Oh. You must be the mailman.”

He chuckled at the title as he took a step into the room. “She's gonna get a kick out of that. How'd you know?”

“You fidget less than the Spike I know. And my birthday is in two days. ...And what happened to your old coat?”

“Long story. I take it you know how this works, then? My timeline isn't lined up with yours by the calendar, because they--”

“Run at different speeds and start from different trigger points,” she finished. “Giles explained it to me. Or, he tried. So where's her letter?”

Spike had come far enough into the room to get a good look at the patient's face, and stopped, staring at her. “At home,” he murmured distractedly.

Buffy studied his reaction. “If you were my Spike, I'd have to do introductions. But you know her, don't you?”

He approached the side of the bed opposite her chair with slow steps, almost as if he were forcing himself to do it. “Seen her in a hospital bed before. Nature of the business, you know. It happens. But not like this... So small and still.” He shook his head. “Just reminds me of someone else, is all.” He greeted Faith with a kiss to her forehead. “Evening, Slayer.”

“You two are friends?”

“Not as close as you two. ...Uh, could be. She's a tough nut to crack. Don't suppose anyone else has ever had half the cards in her favor as you have.”

“So she's going to wake up, and we're going to be friends. And that's why you're here, isn't it? To tell me the things your timeline's Buffy couldn't say in her letters?”

“Haven't told you anything.”

Buffy leaned back in her chair and nodded her agreement to play along. “Of course not. But why now?”

“She's worried about you. The road you're on... If some things don't change soon...” He kept his focus on Faith, smoothing her hair away from her face as he talked. “The whole point of the letters was to get you to change your own path.”

Buffy's eyes followed the movement of his hands, and locked onto a ring catching the light from one of the monitors above the bed. “Since when do vamps get married?”

“They generally don't.”

“You aren't going to tell me--?”

“No,” he said quickly, pulling his left hand out of her line of sight. “Not here to talk about that.” He smirked. “Your love life, now, that's something to talk about.”

Her shoulders sagged. “Riley. You came in person to talk about me maybe dating one of the Initiative commandos.”

“I came to say, 'Don't.'”

“Well, that's definitely the opposite of all the vague in her letters.” Buffy sighed. “I like him, but...”

“But he doesn't understand you, pet.”

“He doesn't even know me yet.”

“He never will,” Spike snapped. “Not the way he should. And he's a bloody hazard to have in your life, besides.”

“Wow. Ok.” Buffy let out a slow breath. “It sounds like there's some baggage there.”

“I'm not here to talk about me, Slayer.”

“Except that you're telling me a lot.” She let the silence settle over them for a few minutes while she mulled over their interaction thus far. “So that's why you were willing to be her mailman,” she finally whispered. “That ring--”

“You don't know what you're on about.”

“I know you clearly care about someone you think of as more her friend than yours. I know you're acting all protective of me, like I'm someone who matters a lot to you. And I know her letters have been pushing me to trust you -I mean, my Spike- even when I kinda think I shouldn't.” She gestured toward his left hand. “I can think of one answer to all of the 'Why' questions that come with that stuff.”

“It's not about that, pet.” He sighed and took a step back from the bed to lean against the wall. “It's just that we know from experience he's an ally you need, that you kept at arm's length too long. Letting him in close to you early enough can be a massive turn in your favor. It could save your life. And even if it can't, it can change it for the better afterward.”

“I don't get to know how that works, do I?”

“Your watcher and your mates... They care, and they'll try, but they'll never be quite close enough to make it easy for you to talk out the biggest problems, strong enough to back you up on the riskiest plays, or have as much faith in your instincts as you and I both know you should have.”

“So my best chance for survival is to hook up with... No offense, but you're kidding, right?”

He rolled his eyes. “As much as I hate to admit it, it doesn't have to go that far. The idea was to start early, teach you to go with your gut instead of the voices in your ear, and set you up to accept the ally you'll need most. Your gaggle of Scoobies is fine for some things, but a problem for others, love. They'll never be a substitute for the partner you need.”

“Just a partner, Spike?” she asked with a smirk.

“He's already in love with you, you know. He's just not ready to admit it to himself yet.”

“We're friendly. Most of the time. Partially because of the letters, now that I think of it. But I don't--”

“I know. Not saying you ever have to. Just telling you where some of his motivation is coming from.”

“Some?”

He returned the smirk and tapped on the side of his head. “A little more complexity and a touch less evil going on in there than you probably think.” His gaze drifted back to Faith. “Big picture,” he whispered. “It's not about how you two decide to settle what that bloody engagement spell got you both thinking about. It's about you keeping him close enough to help you, and getting there before...”

“Coma or worse?”

“Yeah.” He looked up, and waited for her to make direct eye contact before he continued. “You already know you can trust him, love. Even when he buggers up, don't give up on him. Same for you. Gods know you're far from perfect, but you're worth saving.”

There was a knock on the wall beside the door, drawing their attention. The source of the knock stayed carefully out of sight, but Spike knew what it meant.

“Time for me to head home, Slayer.”

She rose from her chair and met him at the foot of the bed. “Tell her... Tell her I have been listening. I was only considering dating Riley to get inside the Initiative. I've got a really bad feeling about those guys.”

“Go with the feeling,” he grumbled. “But don't whore yourself out for the mission unless you have to.”

Buffy winced. “Well, that's one way to say it. Maybe I should try to get in as an ally, instead?”

He nodded his approval. “Good girl.”

“I've been listening to the other stuff she wrote, too. Tell her that. About my parents' divorce, losing Merrick, Giles and Council stuff, trusting myself and the people around me who want to earn it...” She shrugged. “I'm trying, anyway.”

“I can tell.”

“How?”

“You've been listening to me.” He dropped a kiss on her cheek. “Happy Birthday, Buffy.”

She called out to him as he walked away. “Hey, Spike? What about the P.S.? She always adds something extra to the end of her letters. Right after 'Happy Birthday.'”

Spike turned back around, just beyond the doorway. “Give your mum a hug from us.”

He disappeared in a flash of blue light before she could reply.

*~*~*

Ten months later

“Why are you still walking with me?”

“Maybe I'm seeing you home.”

“I'm more likely to need protection from you than by you.” Buffy increased her pace.

Spike hurried to keep up. “You know, you're not half as witty as you think you are.”

“Did you or did you not just spend the entire evening telling me stories about you-- How did you put it? --'Offing Slayers?'”

“Hey! You asked! If that was the wrong conversation for a first date, it's on you!

She stopped in mid-step on the sidewalk and whirled to face him. “This was not a date.”

He looked at her skeptically. “You asked me out to a club for dinner, drinks, pool, and a long talk. What's that sound like to you?”

“Information seeking. I asked you to the Bronze as a friend, Spike. It's not a date when I ask Xander or Willow to go Bronzing with me. This is no different. Clear?”

“Crystal.”

She resumed her walk. 

He fell back into step beside her.

“If this isn't a date, Spike, you aren't 'seeing me home.' So what are you doing?”

“Me? Just out for an evening stroll.” He gestured to her mother's house as they approached. “Might stop in to see Joyce, if she's up. Been a bit since we've had some hot chocolate and a chat.”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “I hate you.”

“Then why'd you ask me out on a date?”

She opened the front door as she replied, “For the last time, this is not-- Do you have any idea how absolutely infuriating you are? This is why we're supposed to be killing each other instead of--”

“Dating?” Dawn offered from the foyer.

Spike nearly fell off the porch laughing.

Buffy stepped across the threshold and slammed the door between them.  

He followed her in, speaking as soon as he'd opened the door. “Come on, Slayer. You know I--” He caught sight of Buffy running up the stairs and the serious look on Dawn's face. “What's wrong?”

*~*~*

Two hours later

Spike stepped onto the back porch with a mug of hot chocolate in each hand. He handed one to Buffy and settled in beside her on the top step. “Nibblet's finally asleep.”

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“Can see the wheels turning, love.”

She shook her head. “If I talk, I'll start crying again.”

Unsure what else to do, he hesitantly reached out to put his arm across her shoulders. To his surprise, she leaned into the embrace.

They sat like that for nearly half an hour before she spoke. “The visitor I got instead of a letter this year, he told me to hug Mom for them. This must be what he was talking about.”

“Or maybe they just don't live close to her. You don't know. You've never said who that bloke was, anyway. You sure you can trust him?”

“Yeah.” She tilted her head to look up at him. “I'm sure.”

*~*~*

2001

Dawn sighed in relief when she answered the door. “Oh, thank god.”

Spike raised an eyebrow. “Not usually how people greet me.”

“This isn't a usual night.” She waved him inside. “You have got to get your girlfriend out of here before she tears the whole house apart.”

“She's not my girlfriend.” He called up the stairs. “Slayer! Get down here! We have a date!”

“I rest my case.”

“Patrol date, Nibblet.”

“Which you guys have almost every night, lately,” she countered. “She's pretty much abandoned Faith to the Scoobies for patrols.”

“Big sis likes the company while she walks. Gives her a way to think things through and talk out her plans, is all.” He frowned at the lack of Buffy on the stairs. “We're trying to keep you safe, Bit,” he added distractedly. “What's keeping her?”

Dawn followed his gaze. “Insanity, mostly. Right now, I'm less worried about Glory having me for lunch or whatever than I am about Tornado Buffy destroying more than her own bedroom. All my stuff is right across the hall, you know.”

His expression growing concerned, Spike slipped out of his coat and draped it over the banister as he started up the stairs. He came to a sudden halt at Buffy's open bedroom door, grabbing at the frame with both hands to stop his feet from crossing the threshold, lest he accidentally step on something.

The room had been ransacked. The bed was stripped. Drawers hung open, with much of their content on the floor below them. The weapons she normally kept in her footlocker were scattered around the room, as if they'd thrown out while she dug for the bottom. The cause of the mess was kneeling on the floor beside the closet, sticking her hands into her entire shoe collection, one pair at a time.

Spike stared, speechless.

She waved to him with a sneaker. “I'll be ready as soon as I find it.”

He shook his head, and slowly began to find words. “Buffy... I... What the hell?”

“I'm trying to find my letter. My birthday was three days ago, some crazy woman is after Dawn, and I haven't found the letter. It's never been more than two days late before, and I need it.” A look of realization crossed her features. “No coat.”

“I left it downst--”

“You're not wearing the coat.” She scrambled to her feet and rushed over to him. “Hands.”

He studied her eyes, trying to determine if she was under the influence of something.

“Hands!” she demanded again. “Show me your hands!”

Spike released the door frame and held his hands out to her. “What--?”

She frowned at the lack of rings on his left hand, then turned away. “No such luck.” She immediately whirled back to face him. “Wait a minute. Think, Spike. If you were going to choose where my birthday letter would appear, where would you put it?”

He entered the room slowly, picking a careful path to the bed while he thought about this. “One to your bedroom in Los Angeles, one to the library, one to the weapons chest, and a visit to Faith's hospital room, yeah?”

She nodded.

“Seems to me they turn up at the place that's most important to you at the time they're delivered.”

Her eyes widened. “The Magic Box!” She knelt before the closet again. “Just let me get some shoes on, and we'll head out.”

“To a shop full of watchers?”

“I don't care about them. I'm just playing along so they'll give Giles whatever books they found instead of having him deported.” She brought a pair of boots with her to the bed, where she sat beside him as she put them on. “Also, if I play nice, they're more likely to leave Faith alone.”

“Helps that she's conveniently out of town while they're here.”

“Oh, I forgot to mention: she called to check in a couple of hours ago. She said to tell you your fake ID guy is a jerk -not the word she used, but Dawn's awake and the door is open- but she likes the emergency safe house.” Buffy looked up from her boots to lock her eyes on his. “...Even if it is in a demon neighborhood.”

He shrugged helplessly. “What kind of connections you think I have, Slayer? The concierge at the Ritz Carlton? You wanted a place out of Sunnyhell and under the radar. That's what you got.” He nudged her shoulder with his own. “Now do your bit and make sure we don't need it.”

“Yeah, yeah. I'm working on it.” She finished tying her boots and stood up. “Starting with finding my letter.”

He rose to face her. “Love, she hasn't exactly been packing those letters full of revelations and shortcuts. What makes you think this one will be any different?”

“I'm not looking for a shortcut. I need to know I'm not messing this up. And she'll tell me if I am, I'm sure of it.”

“What else could she expect you to do? You've got an escape route planned, if it comes to that. Your witches are trying every spell they can think of to figure out how the bloody bitch stays out of sight so much. Me and Faith are at your beck and call for backup, and keeping an eye on the house whenever we can. And now you and Rupert are sucking up to the Council of Wankers to get more to work with. What else is there?”

She shrugged. “I don't know. Something. All I know is, I have to get this right, and not die trying.”

“You won't.”

“Die or get it right?”

He took her cheeks in his hands and brought her eyes to his. “Love, maybe there isn't a letter because you don't need one. They kept pushing you to go with your gut and trust your people, yeah?”

“Uh, pretty much.”

“You're doing that.”

She gently took his wrists and brought them down, where she shifted her grip to hold his hands. “There's something else in the letters I didn't tell you about, something that got screamingly obvious when I got that visit last year.”

“What's that?”

“Something to think about.” She bit her lip while she tried to decide how to say it. “An option... um... A possibility I wasn't considering. And this is probably a really bad time to think about it, but I want you to know I am. You know, for later.”

Spike's brow furrowed as he tried to interpret her words around his own wishful thinking. Before he could come up with a reply, she kissed him.

“For later,” she repeated when she pulled away. She started working her way around the piles of clothes and scattered weapons toward the door. When she realized he wasn't following her, she turned around. “Ready?”

He shook off his stunned expression and tried to act casual. “We're still going to the shop, aren't we?”

“Oh, hell yeah.”

*~*~*

The watchers gathered around the research table looked up at the sound of the door opening. Quentin Travers put down his tea cup. “Shouldn't you be out patrolling, Miss Summers?” He narrowed his eyes on her companion. “Without your prey?”

Buffy didn't reply immediately, being too distracted by the tired, stressed out look on Giles' face as he filled a garbage bag with take out containers from the most expensive Italian restaurant in town, evidently the remains of the watchers' evening meal. Her threadbare willingness to play along with their games broke with a sudden impulse to retaliate.

She gave in to the feeling.

“Shouldn't you be paying the watcher and slayers who are actually doing the work, instead of sitting on your asses, blowing all your money on catering?” She marched over to Giles, snatched the garbage bag from him, and dumped it upside down onto the table, disturbing both teacups and watchers.

Over the offended shouts and complaints from the visitors, most of whom had been splattered with hot tea and cold marinara, Buffy said, “If a slayer can learn how to save the world by 16, then you guys are definitely old enough to learn how to clean up after yourselves.” She pointed to the books and briefcases they'd brought with them, which had apparently been set aside to make room for their lavish meal. “And then get back to work.”

“We don't follow orders from you,” one of them objected.

“You do if you want the next apocalypse stopped,” she snapped back.

She looked toward Giles for backup, and discovered he had slipped out while her back was turned, as had Spike. She went to the training room, where she found both of them doubled over with laughter.

She answered their mirth with a shrug. “It serves them right. How many times have we had to pool our pocket money just to afford research doughnuts?”

“That was glorious!” Spike exclaimed through his laughter.

“If you enjoyed it that much, maybe it was a little too crazy, and I shouldn't trust all my instincts.”

When Giles could gather enough air for words, he pulled himself upright enough to lean against the wall. “What in heaven's name were your instincts telling you that would lead to that?”

“Same thing they've been telling her all night, apparently,” Spike answered. “Startle the hell out of people and make a mess. You should see her bedroom right now.”

Giles started a bit at the casual reference to Spike having been in Buffy's bedroom, but his reaction was thwarted by her explanation.  

“My birthday was three days ago, and I haven't found my letter.”

“If I'd known you were so eager, I'd have called.” He gestured to the couch in the corner of the room. “I found it there a few hours ago, the last time I took a break from those berks.”  

Buffy's eyes lit up. She called out to Spike as she darted across the training room, “I told you we needed to stop by here!”

“After that show, you're getting no arguments!”

“First time for everything.”

The plain white envelope sitting on the couch wasn't the familiar letter-sized one she'd expected. It was decidedly more square, the dimensions of a greeting card. 'Buffy' was written on the outside of it, in her own handwriting. She opened it and pulled out a card, expecting a separate note to fall to the floor in the process. There wasn't one. The cover of the card was a picture of a chubby, furry little creature, standing alone in a field of grass.  

She held it out to Spike, who had followed her to the couch. “Is that a groundhog?”

“We call 'em woodchucks. Same thing.”

“Weird.”

She pulled away from him for a little privacy as she opened it. The expected letter was instead a handwritten note on the left side of the card, clearly penned by her other-timeline self.

You're not as alone as that fuzzy girl on the cover, but you know that. You're on a different road now. A better one. It's not going to come out perfect. It never can. But that's life. It's wild and imperfect. It's heartbreak and tears of laughter. It's love and hope. 

When I was where you are, I was seriously lacking on the hope front, and I'd spent too many years closing myself off from all the things I ended up needing, besides. Friendship, trust, and yeah, my own instincts. It didn't end well.  

So when I was offered a chance to prevent some of the damage to some version of me, I had to take it. Because being your own worst enemy is only funny when lives aren't on the line. I wanted you to live, and hopefully do it better than I did when I was where you are.  

I have a lot more hope in my life these days. And now, you're a part of that. Good luck. I love you.

There was no pre-printed message on the right side of the card, just a short message in Spike's handwriting.  

Happy Birthday, Buffy. There are a lot more coming.

Love,
William and Buffy Pratt

Buffy closed the card and turned to stare at Spike as her suspicions of the previous year were confirmed.  “Oh my god.”

He looked panicked. “What's wrong? Something about Nibblet? What did they tell you?”

“Your last name.”


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