Dedicated to zabjade, who read early drafts and kept me going when the story was fighting me.
"I'm tempted to take up time travel, but I'm not sure there's any future in it." – Willow to Buffy, spring 2011
It was warmer, inside the tent, but only barely. There was a hell of a wind – or possibly a wind from hell? Whatever it was, it felt like needles wherever it touched bare skin and it made every single one of her bones ache just like they were being shattered all over again. Buffy stood in the entryway as her eyes adjusted to the lower light, scythe held out in front of her, just in case. She was so very, very tired of this war.
"General Summers," Willow's voice whispered out of the murk at the back of the tent, with the same sort of intonation you'd expect to hear when someone said 'General Barbie'.
"Willow," Buffy grunted, already exhausted by that much conversation.
As her eyes adjusted to the light, she could see Willow sitting in a camp chair at the back of the tent. Or at least, Buffy hoped it was her eyes adjusting. It could just as easily be Willow dispersing shadows she'd magicked around herself as camouflage. She wasn't evil, but she didn't much bother with playing normal these days.
Willow braced herself to stand up. She was wearing that ooky cloak again. Buffy had long suspected it had a mind of its own, and the fact that its movements were in completely the wrong direction to be caused by the gust of wind she'd just let in did nothing to change her mind.
As Willow stood, Buffy sniggered. Nice to know that even at her dark and veiniest, Willow still couldn't get up out of a camp chair gracefully.
"I have a proposition for you," she said, miraculously not reacting to the laughter.
"Does it involve a duel to the death?" Buffy asked breezily. "'Cause I'm pretty sure we've tried that already. A couple times."
"I'm tired of fighting," Willow said wistfully.
"You and me both."
"I've finally found a way to end it."
Buffy blinked once slowly. "And by 'end it', do you mean me? You?" She waved a hand in the general direction of outside. "All that?"
"It was never supposed to be this way."
She still sounded wistful; it pissed Buffy off. "That's hardly my fault."
Willow pulled out a bowl from inside her Cloak of DoomTM. Then she put it on the floor between them and spat into it. Not only did her spit hit the exact centre of the bowl and make a deep pinging noise that was probably all full of magical whojamawhatsit, but it also somehow filled the whole thing up with something that might have been liquid and might have been smoke or maybe some kind of combination of the two. Then it swirled, whatever it was.
"Well that's just all kinds of disturbing," Buffy muttered, unconsciously worrying her fingers around the bump in her left shoulder where a small, flat stone lay beneath her skin.
Willow looked up from the bowl, her face taking on that annoying smirk that was now her neutral face. "You have seven days to change the world," she said.
"Uhhh, okay. Is that, like, the notice period for this month's wacky spell?"
Willow shook her head, smirk slipping away. "I've been looking into the future. It doesn't go well."
"Well, duh." Buffy mentally slapped herself. She always seemed to end up channelling her inner valley girl around Willow. Must be something to do with her being the only one left who remembered Sunnydale. "In what universe was this ever going to go well?"
Willow shrugged. "I found a few where it did. But something else was always wrong with them." She shuddered. "Like, you and Giles being married and living in Vegas."
"Bleurgh!" Buffy's whole face scrunched up in disgust, despite herself.
Willow held her hand out above the bowl and waved it around a few times. It started swirling a little faster. "I'm going to send you back for seven days so you can fix it."
Buffy laughed. "You've picked out some random week that's supposed to erase all of this? Yeah right."
"Seven separate days." Willow rolled her eyes. "Why anyone still follows you into battle…."
Buffy sighed. "Pretend like I haven't done all the same research you have – oh, wait, no need to pretend because I actually haven't! Just tell me what it is you think you can strong-arm me into."
"Now, now, Buffy. Would I force you into anything?" Then she batted her eyelashes.
Willow giggled. "You say the sweetest things. But you'll do it once I explain. I've found a spell that'll let you – and only you – go back in time. Seven times, from waking to sleeping. Whenever you want. And you'll be able to do-over whatever you want."
"How will that help?" Buffy asked. "I mean, we tried the time travelling gig, what, fifteen years ago?"
"Whatever. And it barely changed a thing!"
"It wasn't you," Willow said simply, "and that limited how much we could change. Guess that one-girl-in-all-the-world mojo is pretty powerful stuff: almost nothing is fixed in your timeline, unlike the rest of us mere mortals."
"Since when have you been a mere mortal?"
"I was back then," Willow said scathingly.
"Is this whole no-fixed-timeline shebang something you know for sure? Or just one of those nifty things you think is true without actually checking?"
Willow shrugged. "I give it six months before we're sucked into a hell dimension. Tops. Do you really care if this is a long shot?"
"Why should I trust you on any of this?"
"It's not like I can hurt you anymore."
Buffy laughed. "You sure can't hurt me any more than you already have."
Willow pouted. Actual pouting. "I never wanted to end the world," she whined.
"Summer of 2001 ring any bells?"
"It was 2002, and I tried to fix that twelve years ago! Tried to make it so you never had to be brought back. I still want that."
"'Brought back'? Is that how we're referring to ripping me out of heaven these days?"
"Will you never let that go? It's been over twenty years!"
"I'm thinking no. Particularly since it comes with a side of 'I can't die' so I won't ever go back!" Buffy could finally say that without crying. It had taken her a very long time and she was rewarding herself by bringing it up with Willow every single opportunity she got. Petty, but oh-so-satisfying.
"Well, if you can, those'd be good things to change."
"Again with the duh! What kind of idiot do you think I am?"
"You don't really want me to answer that question, do you?"
"No entering and/or leaving heaven, check. Bonus points for avoiding world-icidal Willow."
"Have you forgotten about stopping the war?"
Buffy rolled her eyes. "And no activating every potential all at once. Plus I promise to eat all my veggies. Any more pearls of wisdom you wanna lay on me?"
"There's not a lot of point in changing anything after 2003," Willow said drily, pulling her hands out of her cloak again. She held what looked like seven seeds, dark brown and roughly half the size of Buffy's thumb. "Here," she said, holding them out to Buffy. "Once you decide when you want to go, concentrate hard and drop one into the bowl."
"That's it?" Buffy said, shoving the seeds into her pockets. "You haven't worked out in exhaustive detail just what I'm supposed to do to stop all this?"
Willow shrugged. "I did that last time and it didn't work. And whenever you come up with a plan in advance, you just second-guess yourself into a panic attack. You do your best work on instinct."
"Gee, thanks, Dr Phil."
Willow gestured towards the world outside the tent. "If you hadn't spent so much time agonising over every little thing, a lot more people would be alive right now."
"How dare you blame me for this?" Buffy had gone shrill.
Willow cocked her head to one side. "I think you blame yourself enough for both of us. I find guilt's overrated, personally."
Buffy only just restrained herself from punching stupid Willow in her stupid face. But they'd burned that t-shirt years ago and it sure hadn't made any difference then. All they had left to hurt each other with was words. "If Tara could hear you now…."
Willow smiled crookedly, looking almost like the red-haired, morally upstanding girl she'd once been. "Make it so she can, Buffy. Go on, I dare you."
Glaring venomously at her, Buffy concentrated hard and went to hurl her first seed into the bowl.
"Wait!" Willow shouted.
Buffy froze, arm raised above her head.
"Your amulet," Willow said expectantly. "You need to take it off or my magic won't work on you."
Buffy's stomach lurched. "Is that what this is really about? Some trick to leave me unprotected from your spells again?"
Willow shook her head. "I don't want to go to hell. I've seen it and I'm scared."
Buffy stared at her uncertainly. Willow had been able to lie with her eyes as easily as falling off a log for years now. Almost as long since the last time she'd admitted to being scared. But Buffy couldn't imagine Willow holding back the vitriol as long as she had unless she really, really meant it.
Sighing, Buffy laid her scythe down on the floor in front of her and pulled a knife out of the sheath strapped to her calf. She rolled up her sleeve and exposed the flat stone buried in her shoulder. Then she proceeded to dig it out.
"That's just unhygienic," Willow said, face screwing up in distaste. "Where has that knife even been?"
Buffy shrugged. "Not like the infection'll kill me." The stone fell out with a wet plop, and she tried to use her shirtsleeve to staunch the considerable amount of blood now flowing from the wound – it wasn't enough. "You wanna," she gestured vaguely at the mess with her chin, "you know, be useful?"
Willow rolled her eyes and muttered an incantation Buffy couldn't quite catch. The blood stopped flowing, though.
"So do I need to worry about other Buffies running around when I land?"
"You're welcome," Willow said, clearly annoyed.
Buffy gave her an I-would-rather-die-than-say-thank-you look.
"No time twins," Willow snarled through clenched teeth. "You'll be … possessing yourself is probably the easiest way to think about it."
"Ooh, possession!" Buffy grimaced. "Again. Super-fun."
Willow's glare darkened. "Do you want to hear this, or just figure it out as you screw up?"
Buffy could feel the level of power in the tent go up a notch; her ears even popped. "Fine. Tell me."
"Past-you won't be able to get at your thoughts, but she'll keep the memories of what you've said and done from the day. Like remembering a movie."
"Will she know it wasn't her?"
Willow shrugged. "You're pretty good at denial. I figure she'll just rationalise it away."
"You pay the best compliments. What about me? What will I remember?"
Willow made a face. "It took me a couple weeks before the new-old memories caught up with my brain; coming back could be a little disconcerting."
"So I do come back here between trips?"
"Can you think of another way to get at those seeds in your pocket?"
Buffy counted to ten in her head; it kept her fists at her sides. "What about after? You can remember both pasts, right?"
Willow nodded. "The original past is fuzzier than it used to be – more like a half-remembered dream, now. But it took years to get that way."
"Will you remember?"
"I'm not sure," Willow said slowly. "No one did when I went back." Then she shrugged. "But I was the only one working the spell, so…."
"Right," Buffy said. She raised her arm again, then stopped, looking over at Willow. "What went wrong? When you went back before, I mean."
Willow frowned in concentration. "I think we went at it too directly," she said cautiously. "Like, the first time I went back, we killed this snake-demon-guy so he wouldn't be able to get Dawn's blood flowing. But then that one minion just did everything the demon had anyway. Maybe if I'd changed something completely unrelated, it would have made room for a different ending."
Buffy nodded. "Butterfly theory, check. I'll be all oblique-girl."
"Oh, and Buffy?"
"The trip ends as soon as you lose consciousness, so don't get knocked out or fall asleep before you're ready to leave."
Buffy nodded. "Guess I better go save the world then, huh?"
She threw a seed in the bowl.