Change One Thing

And once again the world had not ended. But there were more graves of people he knew--or, at least, knew of, in Warren's case. Giles had arranged Tara's funeral and made sure Warren's family were notified. He was getting good at taking care of the aftermath of death. He'd thought for several hours on the matter before calling Tara's family back in Arkansas. The conversation had been brief, and Giles was immensely proud of himself that he hadn't raised his voice once. He didn't have to, Ripper had always sounded much more blood-curdling when he was calm, quiet, and matter-of-fact. If Mr. Maclay had shown one ounce of grief, of regret . . .

Well, Tara had declared the people she considered family months ago. Those people said good-bye to her. Giles wasn't sure if Willow had fully comprehended what was going on. Xander had been fairly blatantly holding her up during the simple graveside service. Buffy and Dawn stood with their arms around each other and their heads resting together. Giles had been oddly surprised to realize how much taller Dawn was than Buffy. Anya arrived late, teleporting in, and she said little. Giles noticed her watching Xander tend to Willow, and he'd seen a look on her face of blended affection and jealousy that nearly broke his heart. She hadn't remained after the service ended.

They had all gone to their separate homes--or, in Giles' case, the hotel room that served as stand-in. Willow had gone with Xander to his apartment, holding his hand like a small child afraid of losing Daddy in a crowd. Buffy had invited Giles to the Summers' house, but he needed some quiet hours to think about things, such as the past and the future and how to build a road

between the two.

For a change, he was still on his first glass of Scotch several hours later, when the knock came on his door. He sighed, wondering which lonely Scooby had tracked him down. When he opened the door, however, a stranger greeted him. Not a human stranger, either, though it took several seconds to notice the delicately pointed ears hidden behind longish black hair. The creature's smile showed odd muscles at work in the humanoid face.

"Good evening, Mr. Giles," he said. "I am Benedict. I have been sent to make you an offer."

Giles sighed deeply. "And why on earth do you think I'm going to accept any kind of offer a strange demon offers me out of the blue? I am very familiar with the dozens of legends of stupid people accepting offers they shouldn't. Who the hell sent you, anyway?"

"Your bosses."

Now he laughed. "Oh, yes, the Council sent you. The Council barely acknowledges the possibility that there are demons who even exist who don't want to suck the world whole into mayhem."

Benedict was still smiling. "It wasn't the Council who sent me."

"True enough, I don't really work for them anymore, I work for--" He blinked and went silent.

The demon nodded. "Yes, them. The powers behind the Council--though the Council should really revise several of their procedures. Entrenched power does have an awful habit of becoming terribly conservative."

Giles backed up and felt for the chair he'd been sitting in. "You can't be. Anyone could say they represent the . . ."

Benedict raised his right hand and sketched a symbol in the air that, if drawn by someone of ill intent, would quite likely have wrecked the entire hallway with the divinely retributive fireball that would have landed. Giles himself wouldn't have risked drawing the symbol, not after some of the things he'd done in his life.

"My god . . ." he whispered.

"Oh, nothing so elevated, I promise. I'm just a messenger, a gift bringer."


"You stopped young Willow from taking the dark path her grief had placed her on. She has been given great power, and there are many entities about who have been watching very anxiously to see which way she takes that power. The Hellgod Glory wasn't as large a threat as Willow. Glory's destruction would have been monumental, but Willow would not have stopped until the entire world was scrubbed clean. And she will be needed. We cannot afford to lose her."

Giles almost wished he could blame this confusion on whiskey. "You're saying--because we stopped Willow from destroying the world, the Powers that Be are sufficiently grateful to give us a gift."


"What's the catch?"

Benedict chuckled. "Humans, so suspicious. No wonder your gods have to threaten you as well as offer you joy, you wouldn't trust them otherwise. The only catch is that you all must accept the gift or none of you will receive it. And you must decide now. Humans have a tendency to overthink things."

If he hadn't seen that symbol, Giles would have been certain this was a particularly dark trick. "Who else have you spoken to?"

"You are the last. I have spoken with Buffy, Willow, and Xander. The original Scoobies. The ones who have suffered most here on the Hellmouth. You are the last."

"Did they accept?"

Benedict nodded.

Giles wished for his glasses so he could clean them. "What is this gift?"

"The chance to change one thing. The chance to undo one decision you made in your life, to take another path than the one you did."

Giles fell heavily into the chair he'd been searching for. "Change one thing . . ."

Benedict nodded, still smiling. "A do-over, as young Xander put it. Instead of going into a particular building on a particular night, you stayed home and watched television. Or anything."

"That--that would rewrite history."

"Yes, it would."

"Each of us would choose something different, our lives would fragment from each other."

"Surprisingly not. The choices they made would change fundamental things, but the prevailing tide of history remains. None of them asked never to be born or to never have heard of the Hellmouth or that they'd never met any of the others. They accept their lives, they just wish certain important things had never happened."

"May I know what they chose? Did Buffy ask that Joyce not have died?"

Benedict found another chair and made himself comfortable. "She thought of it, but her mother's death was not the result of any choice Buffy made. I'm afraid Joyce must remain departed. Buffy asked that she never caused Angel to lose his soul. And it was not solely because she lost her love when Angelus returned."

"Jenny," Giles whispered. Benedict nodded. Giles flexed his hands, felt the click and catch in his joints from the damage which had never healed properly. If there had been more time, he was certain Jenny would have told him about Angel's curse and that they would have been able to find a way to deal with it. "So Buffy doesn't have to send him to hell?"

"No, but they don't have a happily ever after. The curse is still there, and he is reluctant to risk anything that could bring Angelus back. They fight about it, and he becomes a bit brutal in describing just how bad an idea it would be for his old self to return. He realizes how young she is and breaks off the romance. After a few dramatic moments on the theme that fate is cruel, Buffy realizes that it's not merely her heart at stake and they manage to become friends. Though not without the occasional wistful look of 'what might have been.'"

Giles nodded in approval. "What did Xander ask for? That he hadn't left Anya at the altar?"

"He went even further. His request was that he hadn't kissed Willow in that little drama which ended up nearly killing Cordelia and which brought Anyanka to Sunnydale in the first place."

"He chose Cordelia over Anya? Cordelia would never have stayed with him."

"On the contrary, my projection shows that Xander is pivotal in Cordelia coping after her family loses everything. His nobility makes her look beyond herself, and her refusal to accept defeat helps him become more than he was afraid to dream he'd be. Though I imagine the very successful male modelling career will take him quite by surprise." He smiled kindly at Giles' shock. "Best not think about it, I think."

Giles shook his head hard. "And Willow?"

"No Lethe's Bramble. And so Tara is there to keep her from losing herself to darkness."

"And so Tara survives," Giles smiled. It faded as Benedict shook his head.

"Nothing that was chosen affects Warren's path. But Willow is able to channel her grief more constructively. She becomes very strong and wise. It's really quite lovely to see."

"And so it falls to me, then, to chose my own one thing and bring all this to pass. My god." He got up to pace.

One thing. One thing out of dozens, hundreds, thousands. Leaving Buffy to her own devices out of some bizarre belief that such a strong woman could only thrive best on her own. Her strength had always been her friends, and children always grow up and become independent. Tell the truth, Rupert, you were desperate to see if you could function on your own anymore. You were afraid you were becoming dependent on the once-children and that you'd be left behind if you didn't leave first. Stupid pillock.

No, further back. That obscene ritual on her eighteenth birthday, his obedience to the Council despite his every instinct screaming that it was so bloody wrong. The look on her face when she realized there was no one she could trust completely anymore. He should have refused to allow it, defied them when they tried to replace him.

Forbidden her to see Angel? He laughed and dismissed that immediately. He wasn't sure that even the Powers were strong enough to stand in the way of an adolescent who'd been told "No, don't play with the pretty toy." There were choices to do over, and then there were pipe dreams.

One thing. One thing out of his entire life that he most bitterly regretted. His hand crept to his left arm, to the tattoo that had bound him to Eyghon. Dear god, what they'd done. He'd told the children hints, enough for them to give him the sort of looks all youngsters get when they realize their parents have had sex, evidence of parthogenesis being quite thin on the ground. Eyghon was the most egregious example of excess, but only one part of the whole. There were still the weeks on end of drinking and hellraising--not always literally--and brawling and--well, simply and.

Ethan. He could ask that he never met Ethan. Never fallen into that maelstrom of sensory overload that were the months with Ethan. Better yet, never gone to London at all, channeled the rebellion into something positive, pulled himself from that self-destructive brink. His knowledge of the old books had led them to Eyghon, without him Randall, Thomas, Phillip and Deirdre would still be alive--or, if not, it would not be on his head.

To not know the depths to which he could sink. To not have the knowledge of how happily he could wallow in depravity. That would be sweet.

"I know what I want. I want--"

Benedict smiled. "I see it. It's a good choice. Without Ripper, the world is a much more peaceful place, and you'll sleep far better." He raised his hands and closed his eyes. "I do enjoy my job. Contentment and success and peace and wisdom." He began to chant.


Benedict looked over, puzzled. "Excuse me?"

Giles began pacing again. "Forgive me for being human and paranoid, but I'm leery of offers to make everything better. Let me think a moment longer, I have to be sure this is right."

"Mr. Giles, what did I say? Humans overanalyze things. The first instinct is generally the correct one."

"I understand, it's just--project my life, please. If I hadn't gone to London."

"You stay in Oxford, you continue your studies. You take a First in History, and you soundly trounce Cambridge's star fencer in a tournament your final year. And you have a reputation for singing in pubs till they're forced to throw you out. But you stay the course, and the Council is very proud of you."

He thought of those men of the Council, those grey men, those quiet, calculating men. Proud of him for being what they most want him to be.

"Bugger that."

Benedict smiled in understanding. "Yes, there were good moments in London, I'm not denying that you would lose that. But you have a chance to make a fundamental change in your life, to be what you were meant to be."

"I was meant to be a Watcher. And I am. I'm a damned good one, too."

He saw his own self, projected forward. That first year in Sunnydale, he'd struggled so hard to maintain the proper Watcher's detachment, the proper sternness. But he'd seen this young girl, this vibrant creature with a whole bright future ahead of her, except for the gnawing fact that she was a Chosen One, doomed to die. And he remembered trying to tuck his own soul up quietly in tweed and book dust, obedient to his own destiny, and how much it hurt.

What if he had not gone to London? What if he had not seized the universe in both hands and shaken it until all the stars fell out? He'd have told himself that he had survived the loss of all his dreams and that Buffy would survive too--at least, she would survive long enough. Willow and Xander would have been inconvenient distractions, the Cruciamentum would have been a sad but necessary test. He would have been the Council's man, not the Slayer's, and Buffy would not have survived.

He saw the costs of dreams deferred, and the cost was too high. Every excess, every depravity had taught him that ways had to be found to feed the dreams, else all hope was lost.

"Don't do it," he whispered. "Please. Leave it all be."

Benedict slowly lowered his hands. "Mr. Giles, there's no need to be a martyr. She will still be one of the most successful Slayers ever. She will still have a good long run."

"That's not enough. She has been happy--not often enough, but she has had authentic joy. And such emotions are considered extraneous for a proper Slayer. If I were a proper Watcher, instead of a good Watcher, I would have denied her that happiness. I can't do that. I would know, somehow, that I had chosen willingly to deny her joy. And I simply can't do it."

The representative of the Powers That Be gazed at him for several moments, then nodded solemnly. "As you will."

He saw the other lives in his mind, disappearing into the mists of alternity. "You're not mentioning the others, how I'm denying them their choices."

"Do I need to?"


Buffy learning maturity and wisdom as she accepts that one cannot always have what one wants and that other hearts can be broken too. Xander finding success and approval in a world far, far from the limitations he'd grown up with. Willow touching the truth of her power, that joy is mirrored in pain, that life only exists with death, that the cycle turns and nothing is ever truly lost.


"Please don't let them know what I've done to them."

"No," Benedict said easily. "They may remember odd dreams, but they won't know how close it was to reality." He nodded again, sadly, then headed for the door. He paused with his hand on the doorknob. "You won't either. You won't know what nearly happened."

A weight fell from Giles's heart. "I thought--don't these sorts of things always involve the person making the choice knowing exactly what they've lost?"

"We're the good guys, Mr. Giles. We like to think we know better. Go to bed, get some sleep. Tomorrow will be another long day. Pleasant dreams, for tonight at least."

"Yes, thank you. And thank you for the offer, it's just--"

Benedict nodded. "Humans. If you don't suffer, you think you're doing something wrong. It's quite disheartening. Go to sleep, Mr. Giles."

He left, and Giles found himself getting ready for bed, his mind numb with alternatives and the impossibility of weighing choices. In the morning, it was just one more sad day after an excruciating one, with more choices to be made. At least he had the compassion born of knowing how far one could go, when the darkness was so seductive. He was the man he needed to be in the world he'd found himself in. After all, one rarely had a choice.