Chapter Three—An Alternative Offer
"What the fuck do you want, Whistler?" Buffy demanded, deep anger showing in her voice. She couldn't believe the bastard had shown up so soon after the explosion.
Whistler, for his part, looked, really looked, at the young girl in front of him. She appeared drained, all vitality gone. Even her bright, blonde locks seemed duller. Her face was noticeably thinner than the last time he had seen her. Her clothes hung on her frame. But it was the eyes that had changed the most. That spark that all slayers possessed, and that Buffy Summers possessed more of than most, was missing. Her eyes, the window into her soul, were dark and empty. Her clothes reflected her mood as well. Her normal choice of bright colors and the latest fashions was in hiatus, replaced by dark, dull colors with a slightly dowdy appearance. Whistler briefly considered delaying his mission for a while, giving Buffy more time to recover. However, he knew that the Powers would not tolerate any delays. They saw too much room for disaster if Buffy's relocation was delayed. It would take a certain amount of time to achieve as it was. Even with a time line spanning years, any extra delays might condemn the world. All he could do would be to break the news as compassionately as possible.
"I think it would be best to go inside. You don't want your neighbors hearing this." Whistler gestured for her to proceed him into the house.
"Fine." Walking past him, she opened the door and walked through. She didn't invite him in, but left it for him to enter if he could. Whistler stepped in behind her, looking around. The house appeared empty, and curiously lifeless, as if it too, were missing those who had died.
"Slayer... Buffy, I have a message from the Powers That Be for you. But first, I wanted to say how sorry I am about what happened to your loved ones. I am so sorry that you are hurting." Whistler's voice was gentle, his eyes filled with compassion. Buffy met his eyes briefly, before looking away. The last thing she needed was to start crying again. Especially when facing Whistler. Knowing that whatever he wanted wouldn't be good. It was unlikely she would enjoy hearing the message he bore.
Controlling her tears with great effort, she replied, "Thanks for that at least. But if you were truly sorry, you would turn around and leave. I'm so not in the mood for you and your bosses right now. I've just come from seeing Faith. She's dead. I don't know if I can take any more bad news."
Whistler winced. This wasn't going well. But it would only get harder. Best to be upfront with her. "Buffy, what happened to all of you was... unexpected. No one saw it coming. Not the Powers, not the seers, not anyone. Xander's been a wild card since the beginning. Being exposed to Janus's influence on Halloween two years ago, only made it worse. Certainly the Powers didn't foresee the deaths of so many. They've been scrambling around trying to figure out a solution. My coming here was a last resort. They don't like to interfere, it really screws with the whole 'free will' thing. But in this case, the need was so urgent, they thought it was worth it. No matter what the cost. So here I am."
"Just spill. Then go crawl back under your rock." Buffy was beginning to come back to life. Anger was replacing the emptiness and lethargy within her. Goddamn Whistler. He only seemed to show up in times of disaster, of personal tragedy. The last time was when she sent Angel to hell, her mother had kicked her out, she was wanted for murder, and her friends were all injured through her negligence. This time, everyone was dead. Next time, the world would probably be ending. Blinking back tears, she forced herself to listen to the demon.
"The world is facing a danger in the near future different than anything it has faced in millenia. About five millenia in fact. An artifact has been uncovered, one that should have stayed hidden. And it is in the control of the United States military. The Air Force to be exact. The artifact is called the Chappa'ai or Stargate if you prefer. It is a device that allows for travel between worlds. It was created by an ancient race that has since ascended. They were of an age with the Powers and have worked together before-"
Buffy interrupted him. "What does that have to do with the here and now? Get to the point."
"They figured out how to use it four years ago, and have been cautiously exploring the galaxy via the Stargate ever since. Not cautiously enough, unfortunately. They've encountered another race that also has been using the gate. That race is the Goa'uld, a parasitic race that possesses and uses humans. The same race that was driven from the Earth five thousand years ago by another slayer and her allies. They use advanced technology, hundreds, if not thouands, of years ahead of Earth's. They are a dangerous foe and will win a direct confrontation. And there are worse things out there. Much worse. That's why the Powers sent me. They want you there. To help prevent these disasters from happening." Whistler wasn't sure how well Buffy was receiving the news. She didn't appear particularly impressed, but then again, she hadn't torn out his ribcage to wear as a hat either.
"So the Powers want to Glenda me to wherever this gate thingamajig is, so that I can save the world again? Is that the jist?"
"Not exactly. The Powers don't interfere. Even my coming here to give you this information was mulled over for two weeks before they decided. They would never use mystical means to interfere. So THEY won't be sending you anywhere." Whistler was hedging. He really was not looking forward to explaining the next part. The Slayer was not gong to be happy.
"So, if they don't want to magically send me to where this gate thingy is, how do they expect me to get there? Drive Mom's jeep?" Buffy tried to keep the bitterness from her tone. But it was just like the Powers to want her to do something, while having no intentions of helping.
"No. That wouldn't work anyway. You can't drive to a top-secret base near Colorado Springs, Colorado. Besides, the events that are the most problematic are not coming for nearly five years by the most recent estimates. To be in a position to help, you must start now. You must start at the bottom." Whistler watched Buffy's eyes widening in horror as she began to comprehend what he was saying. He continued, "You must enter the military. You must excel at being a soldier. You must be promoted to where you will be needed. Only then will you be able to stave off the coming disaster."
"You... you... you..." Buffy stammered. She felt like she had just been sucker punched. The Powers wanted her to be all G.I. Jane? That was so not her. She was Dolce & Gabbana, not olive drab fatigues.
"It is the only solution. You are no longer needed here on the Hellmouth. The Council believes you dead. Another slayer and watcher are coming. You have no ties here any longer."
"You expect me to just join the Army? I'm sooo not the Private Benjamin type. Buffy and the military are non-mixy things. Like oil and water. Or Posh and Ginger Spice." Buffy's frantic argument picked up steam. She was so not doing the whole basic training montage, ala Rocky.
"Not the Army. The Air Force. And not join directly. Instead, enter the Air Force Academy. After graduation, you will be a commissioned officer. With your abilities, you should shine enough to have your pick of assignments, including with the Stargate, which is located not far from the academy, in Cheyenne Mountain. The Powers can probably give that a small nudge, if necessary. However, you will have to do the work to make it happen." Whistler's voice was calm and persuasive. He really hoped Buffy accepted. The alternative was disastrous and would only push her further away from them.
"I didn't apply to the Air Force Academy. Even I know that you can't just waltz in at the last minute. There are no more open slots this late. And you need the sponsorship of a congress-type person. Unless the Powers were lying about interfering, I don't see how I can get in." Buffy felt her argument trumped Whistler's. Thank God. She didn't really want to stay in Sunnydale. Too many memories. But heading to wherever the Air Force Academy was located was not in her plans either.
"You can get in late. You scored a 1430 on your SAT's. You survived an incredible tragedy. Your local senator will sponsor you because of what happened here in Sunnydale. At worst, you might need to take a psych evaluation to make sure you weren't negatively affected. And if someone needs a small nudge, we can do that. But only a small one. Free will, remember? We did cheat in one way." Whistler pulled several pages seemingly from mid-air. He handed them to Buffy. "These are letters of recommendation from the Mayor, Principal Snyder, and the Chief of Police. They all commend you for your civic-mindedness. They also mention how you plan to take a year off to spend working in the Peace Corps before applying to the Air Force Academy. All you have to tell the Academy is that you changed your mind after the disaster. That you no longer want to put off doing what you'll spend the rest of your life at. Life is too short." Whistler studied Buffy's face intently. She didn't appear convinced. He did not want to pull out the big guns. That would not be good.
"Whistler, why me? Why can't I just rest? Why won't they leave me alone?" Buffy's desperate plea was heartfelt. She did not want to spend the next several years of her life on some kind of harebrained mission to save the world.
"You want to know the real reason?" Whistler asked, making eye contact.
"Repeat much? Duh! Of course I want to know." Buffy stared, wondering how he thought he could convince her.
"Because there isn't anyone else. Angel was going to be a champion, but now he's dead. Willow was going to be an immensely powerful witch, but now she's dead. Xander, Cordelia, Giles, Oz... all of them had their roles to play, which now will not happen. Everything has changed. Before the explosion, you would have stayed here and gone to college. People you met while in college would have eventually joined up with the group around the Stargate, providing you with an in. Now, that won't happen. None of the things that need to, will happen. And..." Whistler hesitated, not wanting to say it. Too bad he knew she wouldn't let him get away with withholding anything.
"And what? Don't hold back on my account."
"And if you stay here, you'll be dead within four months. The seers are not certain exactly what happens, but all of them agree that you're killed by a vampire. And the world ends less than five years later. C'mon kid, we need you to do this. The world needs you to do this."
Buffy felt her gorge rise. Another prediction of her death. This time not written in an ancient text, but instead stated by seers. Either way, she was dead. She looked bitterly at Whistler. Buffy would rather have not known. Either way, stay or go. Now she would never know if she made the decision because it was the right thing to do, or if it was because she was afraid. Because she was afraid. Not of death, but of living. She was more afraid of joining the Air Force and taking on the challenges there, than of dying in four months time. She was tired and the peace offered by an early death was not be taken lightly. The hardest thing in the world was to live in it. She wasn't sure she could. Just as she wasn't sure if she could allow the world to end because of her weakness. So be it.
"All right, Whistler, I'll do it. I'll be their puppet. But first, I want something."
"What's that?" Whistler asked nervously.
"Bring them back. Please. I'll go into the Air Force. I'll do whatever you want. But, please, bring them back." Buffy didn't care that she was begging. Her self-respect was worth even the chance of regaining her family. She would do anything to get that.
"Buffy, please don't ask that. You don't know the consequences of what you're asking. The price."
Buffy met his eyes. "I would do anything to bring them back. I'll pay any price."
Whistler met her eyes. Gravely he began, "The Powers anticipated you asking for something like this. They can't do something like that, Buffy. They can't change history or it would destroy causality. But they understand your sacrifice. It has power. Balancing the two, allows them to make one change. But it can't affect everyone. Or even most of those who died. Bringing them back would change history too significantly. Only someone who would not affect the world, who would not truly change things to come, can be saved. Someone not mystical or tied to the supernatural. Of those who died, you have the choice of your father or mother. Only the two of them. But you have to choose. Only you. So, would you rather your father lived that day or your mother?"
Buffy's head spun. None of her friends would survive. No Xander, Willow, or Giles. No Angel. Only her mom or dad. And she had to choose between them. Even a week before graduation, the choice would have been easy. She hadn't seen or spoken to her dad since junior year. But he had come back. Back for her graduation. Back to make things right. He obviously cared after all. Buffy had always been closer to him growing up. "Buffy was Daddy's little girl," everyone would say. And she had loved it. But since the divorce, Buffy and her mother's relationship had waxed and her and her father's had waned. Minus the whole 'throwing her outta the house' thing, their relationship had progressed steadily. Especially this past year. Seeing her daughter, the hero, in action, had changed Joyce's perception of her. They'd spoken long and hard about the choices Buffy had to make, the sacrifices. Joyce had come away from those discussions with a far greater understanding of who her daughter was. She had been immensely proud of her. So proud, that she wouldn't leave town for graduation. Joyce couldn't run away while Buffy and the others risked their lives.
To choose hurt more than Buffy had ever imagined, but choose she did. "Bring back Mom. I choose her." Her face wore an expression of pain, like a glaze over her features, aging her. Being the Slayer had always been about hard choices. But none had ever been harder.
With an expression of sympathy, almost pity, on his face, Whistler seemed to listen to the wind. "It's done. In a moment, you won't remember the last part of this conversation, except that you agreed to do as we requested. They will save you the pain of remembering having to choose. Good luck, Slayer." With that, he walked out the door.
Buffy looked around. Where was her mother? Whistler had promised. Shouting, "Mom! Mom, are you here?" she raced through the house.
Checking the dining room, kitchen, and den, she was about to run upstairs when her mom appeared at the stop of the stairs. Clad in a bathrobe with a towel secured around wet hair, she looked like she just come out of the shower. "Buffy, what's wrong?"
Running up the stairs two-at-a-time, Buffy reached her mom and pulled her into a huge hug. Not understanding, Joyce hugged her back until her ribs started to creak. "Buffy, it's getting hard to breathe." Her daughter didn't let her go, but squeezed her less forcibly. Joyce freed a hand, and began to stroke her hair. "What's wrong, baby?"
"Thank god you're here. Thank God you're alive." Buffy's voice was sad and broken, her hurt so obvious.
"Sshhh, baby. I'm here. I'm here. Don't worry, baby. I'm here." Joyce's soft murmurs in her hair helped calm Buffy. Joyce didn't know why Buffy appeared so upset. She hadn't been like this since that terrible night.
"I don't know what I was thinking. I just had a bad feeling. The house felt so empty. Just like it did when I got back here after the explosion. I couldn't find you that night and thought you'd gone after all. When you finally walked in, I'd never been so happy to see someone. I love you so much, Mom." Buffy appeared confused to Joyce. Her baby had been so down the last two weeks. Sometimes Joyce wished she could wave a wand and make everything better.
Joyce hurt too. Xander and Willow had almost felt like her own children. Losing them hurt so badly. But she was still the mom, and would always be there to comfort her daughter. "You're not alone. I'm with you. I didn't go to your graduation after all, just as you wanted." Looking into her daughter's eyes, Joyce continued, "I will always be there for you. Together, we'll get past this. Someday, we'll be able to talk about them without it hurting so much." Even as she reassured her daughter, Joyce's thoughts went back to that terrible day.
Hearing the reports on the television, she had rushed out. How she had avoided having an accident, Joyce didn't have a clue. But somehow she had reached the site of the explosion. The flames had been dying by that time, smothered under the deluges of water applied by the numerous firetrucks at the scene. She had run around frantically, looking for her daughter. She had questioned everyone at the scene, all of whom had tremendous sympathy, but no real information. Joyce had been devastated when one of the EMTs had told her that identification was going to be almost impossible since most of the bodies had been too badly damaged by the explosion.
Spotting another set of EMTs wheeling a covered form away from the scene, she had raced up to it. Not asking any questions, Joyce had stripped away the covering from the body, exposing the still face of Mr. Giles. The top of his head was missing, leaking blood and thicker, more viscous things. Joyce had dropped to her knees and vomited, until nothing remained in her stomach. A female EMT had helped her to her feet, draping a blanket around her shoulders, her expression bleak. The young woman reflected the helplessness all of the personnel at the scene felt. With no one alive to help, they had no purpose, merely acting as tourists in a macabre world. Joyce just didn't have room for sympathy for the girl, her focus on finding Buffy taking up her entire span of attention.
Finally, she had been persuaded to go home. Walking up to the front door, she found it unlocked. Racing inside, she discovered the still form of her daughter laying on the stairs, still sobbing her her heart out. Joyce had wrapped her arms around Buffy, ignoring the accumulation of ash and blood that covered her. Together, they had mourned the loss of the others. They had comforted one another. In that moment, they'd grown closer than ever before. Eventually, Joyce had persuaded Buffy to get cleaned up, then had dressed her various wounds. Later, they had fallen asleep in Joyce's bed, holding one another.
The next two weeks had been difficult. Joyce had helped where she could. Sheila and Ira Rosenberg had been devastated at the loss of their daughter. Despite treating her with a kind of benign neglect while alive, they had both loved Willow very much. They had spent a great deal of time hugging and touching Buffy, as if being with her made them somehow closer to Willow. Xander's parents had barely even spoken to either of them at his funeral. His father had been drunk, tears running down his face. His mom had been silent, face empty of anything but grief. The only time she'd approached anything resembling life was when she sent an accusing stare at Buffy as they lowered Xander's casket into the ground. Joyce had just been happy her daughter was too wrapped in her grief to see the look. It was obvious Xander's mother blamed Buffy, at least somewhat, for his death.
Once the funerals had been over with, things had settled into normality. Joyce running the gallery. Buffy patrolling. Joyce had difficulty letting her perform her first patrol. She'd struggled with her worry about her daughter. Eventually, she stepped back and allowed Buffy her 'space'. It wasn't just Buffy who needed space. Joyce had her own demons from that night beyond even the ones created by her worry over Buffy. She felt a tremendous amount of guilt over not being able to stop Hank from attending Buffy's graduation. Joyce had known for weeks about Hank's intentions of attending. He had hoped it would be a first step to reuniting with his daughter. When Buffy had come to Joyce a couple of days before graduation and explained to her that Joyce couldn't attend her graduation and why, Joyce had fully intended to notify Hank. But she hadn't been able to reach him.
Joyce had chalked it up to Hank planning to miss yet another event in Buffy's life. Then she'd gotten the message on her home answering machine that Hank was in town and he would see her at Buffy's graduation. Joyce had cursed fate because Hank had for the first time regained some sense of propriety. He apparently hadn't stopped by her house in an effort not to 'intrude.' And it had killed him. Joyce had desperately wanted to race to Buffy's graduation and pull him away, but remembering her promise, hadn't. Despite Hank's death, it was just as well. If Joyce had gone, she would have died too, leaving Buffy alone. It was a horrible thought. Yet, Joyce still felt guilty for surviving while Hank hadn't. Maybe if she had somehow found a way to contact Hank... Her reminiscing was interrupted.
"I have some bad news." Buffy wore a bleak expression as she recounted the events at the care facility. While Faith had not been Joyce's favorite person, it was hard to hear of the death of yet another child. Then Buffy hit her with the capper: Whistler's visit and message.
"Are you certain, Buffy, that you have to do this? I know I wanted you to go off to school, but the Air Force? That wasn't exactly what I had in mind." Joyce was worried about Buffy going into yet another dangerous field.
"It's what I have to do. I want you and everyone else to be safe. And the not dying in four months would be of the good as well. If I have to dress up as Private Benjamin to accomplish said saving, then I'll make that fashion sacrifice." Buffy appeared to be trying to convince herself as well as Joyce.
"And the job, this 'stargate'? Where's it located?"
"Umm, around the same place as the Air Force Academy. Colorado Springs, Colorado. At least that's what Whistler said."
Joyce briefly contemplated the situation. There was no way she was letting her daughter go off alone and risk her life, with, at most, infrequent visits. While the gallery was doing great, it was just a business. If she sold both, she would have more than enough money to start over in Colorado Springs. And with Sunnydale not holding much allure these days, it seemed like the best choice.
"Buffy, sit down. I have some news for you as well."