Author's Note: This is fluff - light relief between two longer and more complicated works. A bit of fun for the holidays. :D

Chapter 1

The Initiative HQ was exploding into chaos, demons and humans killing each other through all its underground chambers and corridors. In Room 314, Willow was desperately casting the Adjoining spell as fast as she could before Adam could destroy Buffy. That spell would give Buffy the four elements she needed to defeat Adam: Giles's knowledge of Sumerian that would let her speak the incantations, Willow's talent with magic that would power them, Buffy's own fighting skills to allow her to get close enough to Adam for the spells to take effect, and Xander's unshakable normality anchoring the whole.

Right now, in Adam's hidden bunker behind 314, Buffy was definitely losing.

"You can't last much longer," Adam told her with satisfaction. The fluorescent lights blazed down on him, cruelly exposing that grotesque mixture of human and demon and machine that the Initiative had created.

Willow's Adjoining spell flared into being. Buffy's eyes glowed orange.

"We can." Buffy's voice reverberated with the sound of four people speaking simultaneously. "We are forever."

A casual pass of her hand turned the missile he fired at her into birds.

Adam jolted to a stop in disbelief. "How...can you...?"

"You could never hope to grasp the source of our power."

She flung him into a wall, then rammed her hand into his chest and yanked out the uranium core attached to his spine.

"But yours," Buffy continued, amused, "is right here."

Adam fell lifeless to the ground, his face incredulous even in death. Riley ran staggering into the room, having finally defeated Forrest, then stopped short, realizing that they had won. He caught his breath, then moved hesitantly towards this changed Buffy, looking at her in awe.

Buffy was concentrating on the uranium core. It levitated towards the ceiling as she chanted in Sumerian, then disappeared.

Inside Room 314, everyone dropped, drained of energy, as Willow ended the spell.

"Wow!" Willow gasped. "That was..."

The door smashed open and a demon snarled in. No one had the strength to fight this new threat, found themselves gaping at it blankly. A moment later Spike charged in after the demon. There was a flurry of violent motion, then Spike broke the demon's neck.

They all gawked at him and he smirked at them.

"Nasty sort of fellow. Lucky for you blighters I was here, eh?"

Since they were all aware that he had conspired with Adam against them, they knew darn well that the rescue was self-serving. He was trying to get back into their good books and remain undusted. However, the demon really had intended to kill them and he had indeed stopped it. Giles started to say something, then whirled at a yell from the inner room.

"Willow!" Riley was screaming. "Willow, help!"

"Oh, dear Lord!" gasped Giles. "Buffy!"

Everyone scrambled for the inner room. They tumbled in, then froze in shock at the sight of Buffy sagging unconscious in Riley's grasp. He looked around at them in desperation.

"Do something!"

In his arms, Buffy was fading, turning translucent. They could see the room behind her through the mist of her dissipating body.

"I knew that spell was volatile!" cried Giles. "Something's gone wrong! Willow!"

It was too late. Buffy vanished, just as the uranium core had.

"Christ, Red!" said Spike in shock, still frozen in the forward-leaning stance with which he had thrown himself into the room. "What did you do?"

Days later they still didn't know. Buffy had vanished into thin air and every effort they made to bring her back or even locate her failed.

Adam was dead. The Scoobies had managed to fight their way through the chaos and out of the Initiative's underground labyrinth, managed to open the locked doors and get everybody out. Adam's plan to create more demon-human hybrids had been stopped cold, and so was the threat posed by the Initiative's interference and experimentation. The Initiative was being pulled out of Sunnydale now and all the demons trapped by them were dead. But also dead were too many humans—so many of the Initiative's soldiers, scientists and technicians. And Buffy was gone. The cost had been too high.

Willow did spell after spell without result in the inner room behind 314. There was a vague sense of Buffy's presence there. But there was an equally vague sense of Buffy's presence at Giles's place. And at the dorm. And at Revello Drive.

"It's as if her essence is everywhere," Willow said. They were all at Giles' place now, since it didn't seem to matter where Willow tried her spells and Giles' living room was more convenient than the room behind 314, in the midst of all the devastation and bodies. "And I can't...I can't seem to pull it together and bring her back."

She broke down and wept. Tara rocked her back and forth in her arms, crying too.

No one said a word—the situation was too appalling.

"Always a price," Spike muttered under his breath. "Always a price with magics and she was it."

"Shut up, Spike!" Angel snarled. He and Spike had been giving each other antagonistic glares ever since Angel had arrived, but were both carefully avoiding starting any kind of fight, out of respect for the gravity of the situation. Angel and Riley were also studiously ignoring each other's presence.

Spike didn't even look at Angel. He frowned at the air instead, away off in his head somewhere. Giles gave him a suspicious glance. He was being remarkably subdued for Spike.

Angel paced back and forth. Giles had got in touch with him after several desperate, unsuccessful days and had begged him to contact the Powers That Be. Buffy was the PTB's Champion. Surely they would find a way to bring her back from wherever she had gone. Word came back that Whistler would be along to see them today.

"Where the hell is he?" Xander muttered. He was steadily working his way through a box of donuts, the chewing motion of his jaws on the comfort food the only thing keeping him from freaking right out. Anya patted his shoulder.

"He'll be here," muttered Angel. "He's reliable, even if he is a pain in the ass."

"Is that a way to talk about someone willing to do you a favor?" sniffed Whistler, offended, as he materialized in the middle of the living room. Everybody jumped, then flung themselves at him.

"Where's Buffy?"

"What did the PTB say?"

"Can you get her back?"

"Hey, back off! Talk about being grabby, people!" Whistler slapped at their clutching hands. "Give a man some breathing room!"

He took off his ugly hat and fanned himself with it.

"Everybody sit down. Got a few things to say." He gave Giles a significant stare. "Parched with thirst here. Got anything to drink, Watcher?"

Giles hurriedly poured him a glass of Scotch. Whistler disposed himself comfortably in the best armchair and took a deep swallow.

"Right. First off, that spell of yours, Miss Rosenberg. That was a real whoppalooza. Big mojo."

"I found it for her," mumbled Giles, blaming himself.

"It wasn't all her fault then. Thing is, a spell like that has a price and you didn't pay it."

"Told you," muttered Spike.

"And you were quite right, Mr. Pr..." Whistler broke off at the dangerous glare Spike gave him. "Er...Spike. The spell therefore took its own price. Which was Miss Summers, its focus."

"You mean, she's dead?" Xander blurted.

"No!" cried Willow. "She can't be! I can sense her!"

"You're both right. She's not dead exactly. But she's not alive exactly either. Her molecules have been dispersed across the face of the planet. Basically, her essence, for lack of a better term, is everywhere."

"But...that's just the same as being dead!" exclaimed Giles.

"Well, yes. In its effects. However, she isn't. Not really. She's in a kind of limbo."

"Well, bring her back!" snarled Angel.

"We can't. We tried. We really did. But there are certain rules even the PTB can't bend. Break those and you bring down galaxies. The Slayer exists to prevent apocalypses, not to cause them."

"You mean, she's gone?" Willow was weeping bitterly. "Really gone?"

"For all intents and purposes, yes. And the thing that you especially might find pertinent as a Watcher, Mr. Giles, is that, since she isn't officially dead and her soul remains on this plane, no other Slayer can be called. And forget about that Faith chick. The Slayer line passes through Buffy."

"No Slayers?" Giles was in shock. "Ever again? How am I going to tell the Council?"

"Oh, well. I wouldn't tell them yet. The PTB are trying to find a way to bring her back. In the interim, however, there might be something we can do. There is a possibility..."

"What?" Giles looked up hopefully. "What possibility?"

"That we can bring over another Slayer temporarily."

"But you said the Slayer line passes through Buffy," Tara objected, wiping at the tears on her face. "And Buffy's gone."

"Not every Buffy in every parallel dimension is gone. One of them might agree to come over and help out. Pinch hit, as it were."

He puffed out his chest and beamed at them as they all stared at him, their mouths open.

"Brilliant, isn't it? It was my idea. The PTB said run with it, if you all are agreeable."

"But..." Giles looked pole-axed.

"Another Buffy?" Xander asked blankly. "But...would it really be Buffy?"

"Oh, yes. It will be Buffy Summers. Not your Buffy, of course. There might be some changes, depending on what her experiences were in that other dimension. But it will be a Buffy, with her mind and personality and soul and whatever it is that makes a person a unique individual."

"But what about our Buffy?" Tara said plaintively.

"We're working on that," Whistler said with genuine sympathy. "Oh, yes! We won't give up. There might be a couple of loopholes. We may find a solution, so don't give up hope yet. But we're dealing with some massive forces here. Who knows how long it could take? Years maybe! And you need a Slayer right here and now, otherwise things would turn into chaos. So how about it?"

"Do it!" said Riley.

"Yes!" said Willow and Xander in chorus.

Tara and Anya both looked nervous, but nodded reluctantly.

"It will be Buffy?" Giles asked. "You're sure?"

"Just because she's presently in another dimension doesn't make her any less Buffy Summers. The thing with parallel dimensions is..." Whistler searched for an easy way to explain. "Say someone asked you to marry them. That would be a divergent point in your life depending on what decision you make. In one dimension, you say yes. In the other, you say no. The results are different, but the 'you' in both dimensions still remains the same."

"All right," said Angel. "All right. Let's do it."

"I wouldn't," muttered Spike. "Dangerous. Don't know what the consequences might be. Always consequences with magic."

"You don't have any say in this, Deadboy!" Xander snapped and Spike pulled a mocking face at him, grinning.

"Oh, don't listen to Cassandra here," said Whistler and shook his head resignedly. "There's always someone that rains on the parade. Do I have a go, people?"

"Yeah!" said Xander enthusiastically. Everybody else nodded, except Spike who had stretched himself out in his seat, his arms folded behind his head, and was watching them all with derision.

"Right," said Whistler with satisfaction and got up. "I'll go see who's willing to come."

Buffy was in a cold rage. Spike had been back and they hadn't told her! All of them had known about his being back. Andrew had seen him in L.A. when he went to recover that damaged Slayer, Dana, and had told Giles at once. Giles had contacted Angel and Willow and Xander, and they had all put their heads together and decided that it was best not to let her know. After all, she was happy, wasn't she? She was getting on with her life. Why upset things now? It was for her own good. All for the best.

Only, she wasn't happy and she wasn't getting on with her life. She was just going through the motions of living, caught in a bubble of pain and guilt and bitterness.

Why hadn't she realized what Spike meant to her until that very last minute in the caverns?

'I love you.'

'No, you don't. But thanks for saying it.'

Of course he hadn't believed her, not after the way she had always treated him. Of course he had thought it just a sop thrown in pity to a dying man. And so he had burned, sacrificing himself for her.

She bit back the tears that were always present just under the surface these days, but which she had never allowed herself to give way to—out of guilt and self-hatred and bitterness, out of despair. It was her own fault. She knew that. So many things she could have done, should have done, but hadn't. And if life seemed pointless and empty and desolate now, well, she deserved it, didn't she?

And now to find that he had come back! She could have been with him! Could have had the time to convince him that she really loved him! But he had died again, caught up in Angel's stupid war with the Senior Partners—before she even found out that he was alive!

She fought back the tears and glared instead with blazing eyes at Angel, sitting all pompous and smug and alive, damn him, in Giles' office at the new Council of Watchers' premises in London. Giles was head of the new Council and was rebuilding it and collecting the new Slayers that had been called after Willow's grand spell. Buffy lived in Rome now, helping to train the ones there. Word of Angel's battle had brought her to London. To learn that she had lost Spike a second time.

Angel had survived that battle. And so had the blue woman, god, whatever. Illyria. But she was gone, fled into another dimension, heartsick at her losses in this one. Buffy wished that she could do the same.

"You should have told me he was back."

"He didn't want you to know," said Angel.

"Didn't he?"

She saw the shift of his eyes. Spike would have wanted to come to her. She knew it, knew Spike. But he hadn't believed that she had meant what she had said in the Hellmouth. He would have thought that he would be intruding on that bright new life of hers, would have been completely hesitant to see her, to be rejected yet another time. And she was quite certain that Angel had played upon that insecurity, kept him from coming to Rome.

"If I had known he was back, I'd have kept him from being in that stupid, useless fight of yours. He'd be alive right now!"

"You sound as if...What was he to you, Buffy?" Angel demanded accusingly.

"My heart!"

"You don't mean that! You can't!"

"No, you all know what I mean better than I do, don't you?" Her gaze went past him to Giles and Willow and Xander looking at once guilty and defiant behind him. "You all think you have the right to make my decisions for me, force me to live my life the way you want it."

"Buffy!" Willow protested. "We don't! We really don't! It was just that..."

"You all knew what he meant to me. You just didn't want to believe it."


"Did Dawn know? Did you tell her that Spike was back?"

"No," said Xander very low, avoiding her eyes.

"For fear that she would tell me. I'm glad. At least there's one of you who didn't betray me this time."

"Buffy!" all of them exclaimed in anger and hurt.

"We did what was best!" Angel flung at her.

"For you," she said bitterly. "Always for you. Not for me. Or for Spike. You let him die. I let him die once," she said softly, almost to herself, "and I'll never forgive myself for that. But now he's died twice and this time he won't come back."

She stood up and looked at them all, her gaze moving coldly from one face to another.

"Right. I'm through being manipulated by you. I'm done."

"What do you mean?" Giles asked, bewildered.

"I'm through being a Slayer."

"You can't!'ve got a responsibility, a duty!"

"Duty? You can take that and shove it, Giles! There are hundreds of Slayers now. Go destroy their lives! I'm done with having my strings pulled. I never want to see any of you again."

She turned on her heel and stalked out, ignoring their voices protesting and babbling behind her.

She had spent all her life fighting for them and dying for them and doing what they had told her to do, thinking the way they had told her to think. And what had that got her? Being thrown out of her own house at a critical point in the battle with the First. Spike had been the only one who had stood by her, given her the strength to go on fighting. That should have taught her something, but it hadn't. She'd gone right back to being spineless again, fearing their opinions, trusting their judgments ahead of her own, caving under the pressure they had no right to put on her in the first place.

No more.

She was free of them now. She had finally got the guts to stand up and say no. Way too late.

Now she had to figure out what to do with herself, what to do with her life. It stretched out before her, empty and purposeless and pointless. Well, she had time—years and years of it. She'd take a sabbatical, wander around the world a bit. She had enough savings to do that for a while. Dawn would be okay. Giles had got her into an expensive boarding school in Rome where she was happily involved with new friends, especially a few male ones. Dawn had access to the bank accounts as well and could call Giles for help if necessary. Whatever the rift between Giles and Buffy, Giles would take care of Dawn, even if it was just out of guilt and what he considered to be his duty. Very big on duty was Giles, right? She'd give Dawn a call and tell her what was going on. Dawn might not like it, but she would understand.

She got back to her hotel room to find a small man in a preposterously ugly getup sitting comfortably in the one armchair, sipping at booze he had taken from her mini-fridge. Her first instinct was to attack the intruder. Then she recognized him.

"I hope you are paying for that, Whistler," Buffy snapped.

"Hospitality is a virtue."

"Uninvited guests don't get any. Mind telling me what you're doing here before I rip your head off your shoulders? And if you say it's an apocalypse, I'm going to make a good attempt to find out how small I can fold an agent of the PTB before he pops out of this plane of existence."

Whistler cringed, then recovered himself. "Sounds like you're having a bad day."

"As if you didn't know all about it."

"I do know. And I feel for you," Whistler said in a heavily sympathetic tone.

Buffy gave him a scornful look. "Which means it falls in line with some plan of yours. Don't try to snow me, demon."

"You've become very untrusting."

"Gee, I wonder why."

They gave each other grimly amused looks.

"Okay. Down to brass tacks," Whistler said. "You've gone and cut yourself loose of Giles' shiny new Council. Understandable under the circumstances. That means you've got some time on your hands now, right? I wonder if you wouldn't mind doing a little job for us."

"Another PTB special? Whoopydo."

"You don't have to be like that," sniffed Whistler.

"How do you want me to be?" Buffy snapped back. She took one of the miniature bottles of bourbon out of the fridge herself and knocked it back defiantly.

"Just listen, okay?"

Buffy shrugged indifferently and threw herself onto the bed, leaning back against the headboard. "So talk."

He laid it all out for her—what they wanted of her and why, what had happened in that other dimension, how Willow's spell had gone wonky and how Buffy had disapparated and now existed in limbo or in tiny particles spread over the planet, depending on whether one looked at it spiritually or physically.

"Another one of Willow's freaking spells," muttered Buffy scornfully. "Wonder what she did wrong. The spell worked fine in this dimension. So. No Slayer there now. Crying shame."

"This is serious!" said Whistler reproachfully. "We can't bring that Buffy back. We're trying, but who knows how long that might take? It might be years. And no other Slayer can be called because she's not really dead and the Slayer line there is linked solidly to you. Well, to Buffy Summers."

"And so you want this Buffy Summers to cross dimensions, go back in time and go through all that crap all over again?" She laughed bitterly. "Yeah, right. Been there, done that, got kicked in the teeth for it. Not once, but several times."


"I don't mind a couple of months taking out demons. That would be no change in my routine. But you say it could be years. Go through the last four years again? God, no! Save the frigging world for what? The Scoobies? My dear beloved trustable good buddies? Try another Buffy in another dimension, Whistler. Me? I'm not feeling too happy with them right now or hadn't you noticed?"

"You could change that. Change them. Events don't have to go the way they did. How about we leave you your memories? That would give you an edge, wouldn't it? You'd know what was going to happen and you could deal with anything before it even starts."

"Okay, that's a plus. But..." Buffy sighed deeply. "I've hit the end of my rope, Whistler. I feel like a rat on one of those stupid wheel things, running and running and getting no place. Before it was all for 'sacred duty' and waving the flag and because I loved my friends. I cared, Whistler. Right now, I don't care. Don't care about anything anymore. Scarlett, I don't give a damn."

"Can't blame you," said Whistler seriously, sounding as if he really meant it. "You've been screwed over, no question. But you're forgetting one really important thing."

"Yeah, what?"

"Spike's there."

Buffy's eyes widened and she sat up sharply.

"We're not late, are we?" Willow gasped, tumbling through Giles' front door. "Buffy's not here yet, is she?"

"No, not yet." Angel was wearing a furrow in Giles' rug with his pacing. "Whistler said he'd be here at eight and we've still got half an hour to go."

Tara came in more calmly behind Willow and gave a shy smile to everyone. Xander and Anya moved over to make room for her on the couch. Willow touched down for a moment on the arm of the couch, then flew up again, too nervous to sit still. A knock on the door heralded Riley. He and Angel gave each other glowering glances, then pointedly pretended that the other didn't exist.

"Anyone want a drink?" Giles asked, just as the door opened again and Spike strolled in.

"Wouldn't mind one if you're offering, Watcher," he grinned and Giles sighed.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Riley snarled, his nerves already exacerbated by Angel's presence. For Hostile 17 to be shoving his nose in here at this delicate moment irritated him unbearably. Riley never could understand why Buffy and the Scoobies put up with him. Spike was a vampire after all, even if he was chipped. He belonged back in the lab or better yet staked.

"That's what I'd like to know," muttered Xander and Riley gave him an approving look. Xander at least had the right idea about Spike. The others didn't like Spike, but for some reason they tolerated him, bewilderingly brushing aside the arrogance and the attitude and the snide remarks that drove Riley up the wall.

"Tou-chy," smirked Spike, giving him a scornful glance. "Didn't want to miss the show."

"It's not a goddammed show!" yelled Riley. "It's a matter of life or death! It''s Buffy!"

"Yeah, that's what I came to see. That's what you lot all want, innit? A Buffy. And that's a giggle. Any Buffy would do, right? Couldn't miss that."

"Of course we'd like to have our Buffy," Giles protested. "But circumstances prevent that. You seem to be implying that another Buffy is just a cheap copy. And that's untrue!"

"That's not what I'm implying, Watcher. I'm saying another Buffy might be different. And that's what's gonna be fun! Seeing the difference and watching how you sods take that."

"But it's Buffy!" protested Willow. "How could she be different?"

"Things that happen to you change you, right, Red? The only way she'd be exactly the same is if Whistler brought her back from exactly the same moment in that other dimension. I'm betting he won't be able to do that. Gonna be real interesting," he grinned.

"She's not a fucking lab experiment!" Riley roared.

"If I can be, she can be," Spike sneered. "Gonna get a charge out of her being the lab rat this time."

"Don't you talk about her like that!"

"You're a lab experiment too, aren't you, tin soldier? It'll finally give you something in common with her. Haven't got much else."

Riley lost his temper entirely, grabbed him by his duster and flung him against a wall. Spike ducked the first punch Riley threw at him, then was held still by Riley's hand around his throat.

"Oh, brave," he said with utter contempt as Riley's fist drew back. "Can't hit you back. That gives you balls, doesn't it? If I weren't chipped, you'd be peeing your pants right now. Sodding coward. You and Harris both."

"You...!" Riley's fist drove forward.

And was stopped by Angel's grip.

"He's right," said Angel softly. He and Spike exchanged hostile but understanding glances. "He can't fight back. If he could, you'd have been dead the minute you laid a hand on him. I don't like him any more than you do, Finn. But anyone who hits a man who's under that kind of handicap is a bully and a thug."

"He's not a man! He's a vamp!" For Riley, that allowed everything.

"So am I. And I'm not chipped." And would love an excuse to take apart the man presently in Buffy's life, Angel didn't say.

He didn't have to. It was perfectly obvious to everyone in the room.

"Stop it, all three of you!" Giles said forcefully. "This is neither the time nor the place. May I remind you that this is my home and you're guests in it? Riley, Angel, back off. Spike, keep that mouth of yours shut."

Riley let Spike go and flung away sulkily. Angel and Spike gave each other hard, challenging stares. Spike might not be able to hit Riley, but there was nothing keeping him from fighting Angel and, for reasons going back over a hundred and twenty years, they both would have loved to get it on. But, as Giles had said, they were guests under his roof, so they turned stiffly away from each other, Spike going to sit on the stairs and Angel back to pacing.

"Testosterone levels high right now?" remarked Whistler, suddenly very present in the middle of the living room. "You gents are always so amusing."

"Pick your moments, don't you?" snapped Spike as everyone jumped.

"I wish you'd give some warning before you decide to pop in like that," Giles sighed. He had very nearly dropped his drink and Xander had spilled the popcorn he was munching.

Whistler giggled. "So. All of you ready for the big reveal? All set to go through with this?"

Giles frowned at him. "Shouldn't we be? This was all your idea, Whistler."

Spike snickered from where he was sitting on the stairs, watching them all with bright-eyed interest as if he were watching a scene from some play.

"Tell them the catch, mate. There's always a catch."

Whistler shifted uncomfortably under that sardonic blue gaze and the doubtful looks the others were giving him.

"Well, you've got to be prepared, see?"

"Prepared for what?" Giles demanded. "She is Buffy, isn't she?"

"Oh, yeah, yeah. She's Buffy Summers all right. Only she's the Buffy of four years in the future. The others closer to this time frame, well, they're too occupied with the problems in their own dimensions to be able to leave. This one's the only one who had time to spare."

"She's four years older than our Buffy?"

"Big deal, right? Four years, what's that? Just makes her a little more savvy, a little more experienced. That's what you need, isn't that so? Someone who knows how to handle things?"

"I guess so, but..."

"You're buying a pig in a poke here," Spike murmured. "Better be sure. Can't send her back if you don't like her. Policy is no returns, isn't it, Whistler, old sod?"

"Why shouldn't we like her?" Willow exclaimed. "It's Buffy!"

"Yeah," snapped Xander. "Big surprise a demon doesn't want a Slayer around. Stay out of it, Spike! You shouldn't even be here. Riley had that right. You weren't asked and you're not welcome. So shut the fuck up!"

Spike held up his hands, grinning.

"He's right though," Whistler said, suddenly serious. "Once you bring her, you can't send her back unless the PTB manages to recover your own Buffy. So be absolutely sure, people."

"We're not sure," said Giles. "How can we be sure? But we need her. So, yes, Whistler. Bring her through."

"It's a go then. Right." Whistler snapped his fingers.

In the center of the room, something began to coalesce. A slender form in dark clothes, a blur of long golden hair...

"Buffy!" breathed Willow.

The form took complete shape. It was Buffy. Recognizably the same person. Only she was a woman rather than a girl, sleeker, leaner, honed like a knife blade to fighting fit, dressed in black designer jeans and tank top, her face cool and calm and reserved. Four years had made a difference.

They would have surged forward to greet her, but something in her face held them back—the aloof, assessing way she was looking them over.

"Wow," she said, echoing what they were feeling. "Four years sure changed things. You're all so much younger! Still innocent. I lost my innocence a long while ago."

She stepped forward, smiling a little twistedly. They all stood frozen, staring at her in bewilderment.

"Giles," she said, looking at him intently. "Yes. I believe we might get along at this point in time."

"Well, um, yes, of course we will," stuttered Giles, taken aback. "Why shouldn't we?"

"Oh. Things change, you know." She gave him a tight smile. "You'll have to adapt to this me. Because I'm different from your Buffy and I'm so not going to adapt. Not this time."

They all blinked at the calm, sure voice with its underlying edge of challenge.

"Willow," she nodded coolly. "Xander. Tara!"

And suddenly the missing warmth was there. Tara found herself caught up in a crushing hug.

"I've missed you, Tara!"

"W-we've missed you too, Buffy," Tara stammered, her eyes wet.

"And Anya!"

Anya's jaw dropped at being hugged herself. Buffy had never been that demonstrative to her before.

"Gosh, it's good to see the two of you!" Buffy exclaimed.

"We're not around in your dimension?" Anya remarked shrewdly.

There was a tiny hesitation, then Buffy shrugged. "Well, you know how it is. People drift apart." Her gaze went past them and widened. "Angel. What are you doing back in Sunnydale?"

He stepped forward, smiling, and bent to kiss her, but she turned her head slightly so that his lips only brushed her cheek. He frowned a little.

"Giles called me in when you...when our Buffy vanished. I talked to the PTB. That's how Whistler ended up looking for you."

"Oh, I see. Interfering again. Makes sense."

His brows snapped together at the careless words, but she was already turning.

"And Riley!" she exclaimed with amusement as Riley stepped eagerly forward. "Good grief! I'd forgotten that you were still underfoot right now!"

Riley's face was a study. "I don't understand..."

"You will." She was looking around again, searching for someone. "Ah!"

Smiling widely, she moved towards Spike watching the show from the stairs. His brows rose in surprise, then he stood up warily as she came towards him, ready to jump in any direction if she tried to punch him out.

She stopped in front of him and grinned up at him.

"Hello, lover," she said and pulled his head down and kissed him hard.