"No." The statement was final and decisive, even though it was whispered through doubtful lips.
"I know you probably don't believe me -"
Buffy walked into the living room and slipped gently onto the couch. Her hands were wrapped in fists; a tear trickled down her nose. Her friends were oblivious to this, as if Joyce had taken Buffy out of the equation again.
"I know in your heart you know this is true." The words were spoken as if from another person. Her mother wouldn't show her this world. Yes, thousands of times she pondered what it would be like if Dawn hadn't been conjured by those monks. Before it happened and after, but she never imagined it would go like this.
"Dawn wasn't the reason. For any of this," she muttered at last.
"I'm sorry. I really am. But she was."
Then, Buffy started to breathe heavier. Her eyes widened, her body heated like a furnace. It started to fit into place, like a jigsaw puzzle from Hell: had Buffy not sacrificed herself for her sister, no powerful resurrection magic would have tampered with the Slayer line. No final war, no First Evil, no destruction of Sunnydale, and Anya… still alive.
"I can't believe this!"
"You must, honey! Try, for me."
Had Buffy not died and suffered post-traumatic stress, she would have stopped the nerd Troika with her clear head before it was too late. And she clearly did here. Tara… still alive.
"This is - this is too much!"
Had there been no Apocalypse because of Dawn, Xander and Anya would have taken things slowly, just as planned. Here they were now, together and happy. She watched as Xander and Tara fondled Anya's stomach as her baby kicked for the first time.
Had she not had to deal with the stress, she wouldn't have slept with Spike in the first place. Robin would have come to town to find her, he would have avenged Spike in cold blood, and neither of them would have cared...
"You deserve this! You deserve so much better after everything you've been through!"
"This isn't about me, mom," Buffy whimpered through tears of disbelief.
"It is! You have given yourself, your life, to the people who love you, even the people who don't know you," Joyce said, her voice broke as much as her heart when she spoke. "You have saved the world again and again, and for what? For once, all I'm asking is that you do something good for you."
"Mom, don't do this!"
Everybody came into the living room and huddled around the crackling fireplace. Buffy and Joyce watched unseen as Xander went to the window and looked out into the cold, dark street.
"Hey, everybody," he beckoned, waving his arm for them to join him, "it's snowing!" Buffy dodged as they stampeded to the window. The snow fell from the blackness and purified the beautiful world.
"You can live a better life," said Joyce, "evil may still be around, but it always will be. This is the safest place."
It appeared her friends could see her again. Tara glanced over to see Buffy upset, but her strangeness tonight was automatically excused. Things always got emotional round the holidays anyway.
"Buffy," called Tara, "isn't it wonderful?"
Going over to join them, she felt normal again. Was this really how it went? How it was supposed to go? What does it mean to question how something is supposed to go? Looking up into the starry sky, Buffy wondered whether this was her fated life... And it just went wrong.
"I can't wait for tomorrow," Anya yelped with happiness.
"We'll have to get our sled out," Xander suggested.
"You mean your sled?"
"As in I made it, yeah. And hey, it'll come in handy when the baby comes!"
There were smiles as they recoiled back around the fireplace and flicked on the TV. Buffy couldn't help but join in as if this were real. She almost forgot about the ghost of her mother next to her.
"Such a small price to pay," she said. "Tomorrow, you'll wake up in your bedroom. Your girlfriends will rush into your room, bringing your presents. Anya will burn the turkey; Tara and Willow will end up using their spells to make it all better. You and this young man, Robin, will curl up in an armchair, and by the end of the day, you'll be singing carols and you'll laugh and be happy. This is all possible!"
Buffy glanced at her friends. Even now, they were laughing and joking.
"But instead, tomorrow, you'll wake up in that school. You won't have time to open your presents because Mr. Giles will want you to train young girls how to fight each other. Willow and Xander will think, as they do every day, about Anya and Tara, and emotions will run high, and they'll cry in each other's arms. You'll cry, only by yourself, because you'll wish you didn't feel so alone at Christmas time."
Even now, Buffy's tears were reforming and trickling down her face.
"You have to see that this is the right choice, Buffy!" The anxiety in her mother's voice was intense and passionate. Fleeting moments passed as her daughter observed the almost cliché Christmas scene. Everything was so colourful and bright and contrasted to the darkness of the Academy as she had left it.
"But it isn't the right choice," Buffy strained at last.
"How can you say -" started her mother.
"Because of Dawn. I don't know much about destiny, ironically. Or if there are right or wrong paths. But I know this choice is wrong."
"How is it wrong? What is so wrong about taking back what is owed to you?" Joyce was almost wailing now. It was desperate, but Buffy could relate to it. It was motherly.
"Tara and Anya died. They were done, even if it was before their time" she mumbled through tears, "and Dawn didn't die. And I'm not going to deny her existence for what is only good for me."
"But Buffy…" Joyce's eyes pleaded for her to choose what she thought would be right.
"I'm sorry, mom."
"I can't watch you do this, I can't watch you go back to that place! Dawn is not your sister! She ruined your life."
"No," Buffy replied, "she made it. Maybe not for the best… but she made me who I am."
For what felt like minutes, they stood there looking into each other's eyes. Joyce didn't want this made official, and Buffy did. There was a friction between them, but it was made out of love.
"I'm so, so sorry, mom."
"I just wanted you to be happy…"
Over her shoulder, she saw the old gang together, still joking, still laughing, still talking.
"Take me back." Buffy ordered. Joyce took her in her arms and embraced her as they both wept. And there she was in the Academy again. Stillness, darkness, but warmth. Her mother was gone, and so was the happiness. She tiptoed around her friends and watched as they slept. Dawn lay on the chair by the window. Buffy smiled, knowing she had awaited the snow to fall for most of the night. Buffy gently brushed her hand against Dawn's hair and smiled.
"What are you doing?" mumbled Dawn as her eyes gradually opened.
"Nothing. Just go back to sleep." Dawn heaved herself up to look out of the window. Together, they looked up to the sky and waited for the snow to fall.
When it didn't come, and as the wind howled at trees, there was still a satisfaction Buffy felt that she couldn't begin to describe.