AN: I'm back again! This is the last chapter I had in reserve and I am very excited to reveal that I've started writing the next chapter! Apparently it IS possible to come back to a fic after years being absent and try to pick things up. Your encouragement is greatly appreciated!
It was strange, Buffy thought, to be sitting down with Giles and Spike and planning on a path to find, well, her. While it had been one thing to greet all these people, both the same and different from her own world, it was another prospect entirely to come face-to-face with her own double.
Spike had listened in grim silence as she told her tale of what happened to her the year she'd run away. She'd glossed over her grief for Angel, sensing the blond vampire's anger was secondary to her own realisation that that part of her past didn't hurt anymore. Still, it was the vehicle that had projected her urgency for escape, on a bus out of the place where she couldn't seem to do anything right. Because of her Giles's girlfriend, Jenny Calendar, had been killed, Giles himself kidnapped, another slayer taken out and her friends attacked and in hospital. And to top it all off, her own mother couldn't bear to accept her as she was—whether she'd chosen this life or not.
She'd found freedom and anonymity in L.A. Sure, she'd found starvation and misery there too, but those things had sparked something in her, a sense that she deserved all of this and more after being the cause of so much devastation.
She'd only donned the Slayer cap when Lily had begged her to help find her boyfriend.
When she described the dimension she'd found and the scam to work teenagers to death, Giles turned to Spike and without words they expressed a new excitement.
"Never knew of that one, Rupes," Spike confided, and just like that hope sparked around the table. "Sounds like your average hell dimension, though. Makes sense how the Slayer could have served nine months of pregnancy in a matter of days."
Sure, Buffy thought, it might explain that, but none of them were willing to voice why she didn't come out of that dimension bearing her own babe in arms. They didn't have to say it, though. Without words the hope that had flourished not seconds before suddenly took a dive so low that no one could raise their head and look at anyone else.
A rapid knock on the door startled them out of their morose ponderings. Xander had been looking through a book on dimensions, with Dawn studying something in a language Buffy had no hope of understanding, and now with this unexpected prospect at the door, everyone seemed too on edge to make the trip to the door and answer it.
Buffy did the honours, flinging the door open and stumbling back as a very emotional Willow threw herself into the slayer's arms and wept. "Oh God, Buffy. I could hardly believe it could be you after all this time, but as soon as you showed up on my map, I booked a ticket and flew straight here."
Something told her that no one had informed Willow of the current state of affairs.
"Oh. Willow. How lovely to see you again. I take it England is treating you well?" Giles got awkwardly to his feet and made to advance on the overwrought girl, his glasses held absently in his hand. He looked to the floor, embarrassed, then glanced up and took in the redhead's excited face. He hated to destroy that hope when theirs had so recently been deflated.
"England?" Willow asked, confused. She sniffled and pulled away from where her head had rested on Buffy's shoulder, but she didn't let her friend go. "Oh, England has been just peachy. Why didn't anyone tell me Buffy was back?"
Rather than let the guilt swallow him whole, Giles peered closely at the girl who had once been quite shy and reserved, and flinched a little at what he saw. She was older now, yes, but there was an edge of hardness he'd never have expected this girl to project. "A more relevant question at this point might actually be how you yourself found out?"
"I—I've been doing locator spells every week since Buffy left." She stood before them all proud of her talent, appearing slightly arrogant that she'd been able to skill up in something completely in secret to them. And while Buffy was sure the circumstances in this world were vastly different to her own, she couldn't rid herself of the fear that Willow could turn dark and destructive toward them all in a blink of an eye.
"Why would you keep something like this a secret?" Giles asked. "I could have sent you to some of the best witches known to the Council. I never disagreed that you showed promise. Practising without supervision will weaken you in the long run. Some good solid instruction from the Coven would have helped you immensely." He turned away from his visitor and rubbed his forehead in realisation. "I've been such a fool. We could have had Althena or one of the others in our search all along. If only I'd gone behind the Council to ask her, but I feared the Coven is so much in the Council's pocket that they'd never consider it. I should have tried."
Before anything could get out of control—before hurt feelings could take hold and diminish the hope Willow had brought through the door with her—Buffy snagged her friend's attention and offered her a smile of regret. "I'm not your Buffy, Wills. I'm from another dimension, but I'm helping Spike and Giles find her so we can go bring her back."
Willow stared at her like she'd been kicked in the gut. Her hold fell from Buffy and she stepped back, her eyes tearing up again. "You aren't our Buffy?" She searched the room until she found Xander, and the way she started shaking made everyone finally aware of the devastation losing her friend had had on the redhead. "That's why I left, you know? I was too late giving Angel his soul and I knew Buffy would hate me for that."
"Oh, Willow." Buffy had no idea that Willow had felt that badly about not getting Angel's soul back into him in time. That Willow had lived with this guilt for so many years twisted her heart. "I can't say for sure what your Buffy thought, but I know I never blamed my Willow for that. You were never responsible for Angelus's actions. I was."
"Seems to me that gypsy bint is the one to blame. Keeping secrets never helps anyone."
Buffy shot Spike a disapproving glare, horrified he could be that insensitive to Giles—especially this Giles that had a less-adversarial relationship than the pair in her world. Even her Spike had never stooped so low as to raise the subject since he'd been chipped. Perhaps that had been a survival tactic for him, but for the rest of them, Jenny Calendar was a subject they had learned to mention sparingly when referring to any events of their past.
"Of course, we can't possibly blame Angelus himself. That would make too much sense, I suppose." Giles turned his back on all of them and Buffy felt the small intake of breath that he took to regain control in a way that wouldn't betray his emotion to the most oblivious of them.
Willow made her way into the apartment like an old lady, hand held out in front of her to grasp the sofa as soon as she reached it, and then carefully lowered herself into it.
"I left England so excited," she cried, her face a picture of devastation. "I thought Buffy was finally home, and then I was really angry because no one had called to tell me." She looked up and her eyes clashed with Buffy's, her expression becoming hard. "You're really not her?"
For a second Buffy felt scared of her friend in a way she never thought she would. This Willow was an unknown entity; no one in this world knew of what she was capable. They'd had glimpses of their Willow losing the plot, but this one seemed both more vulnerable and more secretive all at once.
Buffy shook her head slowly, suddenly fearful of what could explode in front of their faces, then immediately felt guilty when Willow covered her face with her hands and started shaking. Sobs of grief rocked her body until she was able to find some calm from whatever thoughts that ran through her head.
"I missed exams to come here. It's time to bring Buffy home. What have you been planning so far? Do you know where she might be?" Willow had turned from emotional wreck to 'I-mean-business' girl in a matter of seconds. Buffy felt dizzy from the change.
They crowded back around the dining table with Buffy quickly outlining what she thought the possibilities might be. Willow nodded, looked thoughtful, then started looking at books.
"Wow, this is so much like old times," she exclaimed excitedly, the grin Buffy was used to seeing firmly on her lips as hope seemed to finally infiltrate and spur on their activity. In that moment, Buffy caught a glimpse of the old Willow, and the new one that had returned to Sunnydale with her tail between her legs and fear a great burden on her shoulders. They'd all descended into darkness at one point or another, but the slayer suspected the Buffy of this world had never left it.
The question of the day remained: why?