Life; Version 2.0

Kirayoshi

Chapter one;

I'm a Hazard to Myself

"Doctor, doctor won't you please prescribe me something
A day in the life of someone else?
Cuz I'm a hazard to myself

Don't let me get me
I'm my own worst enemy
Its bad when you annoy yourself
So irritating
Don't wanna be my friend no more
I wanna be somebody else."

                --Pink

                  "Don't Let Me Get Me"

The moment that Willow first set foot on the Sunnydale High campus, she was assailed by a thousand familiar sights, sounds, smells.  The smells especially brought it back to her.  She recalled something Buffy had said (Would say, she corrected herself absently) about sense memory; "I smell a roasting turkey, and suddenly I'm ten years old again."  Willow reflected on that observation as she located her old locker, passing through the halls; the freshly scrubbed linoleum floor in the main hall, the faint fragrance of orange blossom from the trees outside, the chemical smells from the lab areas. 

As she wandered the halls, halls that she remembered seeing destroyed in another life, her mind flashed back to a thousand memories, a thousand images, some happy, some terrifying.  The gym lockers, where she once saw a dead body.  Oz observing that the monkey animal crackers were the only ones that wore clothes.  Her first contact with Malcolm Black.  Sitting on the lawn with Buffy, discussing their future.


"It's a good fight," she told her (would tell her), "and I want in."

Yeah, right.  A good fight.  Little did I know that Buffy and I would wind up on opposite sides of the fight!

"Willow?" the teacher who walked in with her asked gently, nudging her back to reality.  "You okay?"

"Huh?" Willow hastily collected herself, then faced Jenny Calendar.  "Yeah, I guess.  Uh, you ever feel deja-vu?"

Jenny smiled at the nervous redhead.  "Of course, Willow.  Everyone does, from time to time."

"Well, whatever you call the opposite of deja-vu, I've got it." She glanced around the halls, at the cafeteria door, at the ever-present soda machine ("I press the cola button; you give me a root beer.")  "I know I've been here, but it doesn't feel right.  I mean, I was in my junior year of college just a couple of days ago, now I'm back in high school."

Jenny nodded knowingly, placing a gentle hand on Willow's shoulder.  "Don't worry about it, friend.  I'm here for you."  For a timeless instant, Willow allowed herself to be comforted by Jenny's presence.

"Ahem," an unpleasantly familiar voice broke the moment.  Willow and Jenny turned sharply, glaring as Principal Snyder approached them.  Judging from the overly pleased-with-himself smile playing on his face, he had either suspended an honors student or recently drowned a sack of kittens.  "I trust that I don't need to remind you of my stand on public displays of affection, Miss Calendar?"

"I was merely providing one of my top students some support, Mr. Snyder," Jenny answered.

"That's what the taxpayers pay our school councilor for," Snyder snapped haughtily, ignoring Jenny's smoldering anger and Willow's growing discomfort.

"All that incompetent fool will do," Jenny snarled quietly, "is prescribe her enough Ritalin to calm an active volcano.  She doesn't need drugs, she needs emotional support and friendship.  I know these things are alien to you, considering that you've never experienced them yourself--"

"One more word," Snyder intoned angrily, "and you can start looking for another job!"

Jenny crossed her arms defiantly, regarding the principal with undisguised contempt.  She stepped forward, until her face was directly in front of Snyder's, and looked down at him in an intimidating stare.  "I think you'll find," she spoke with deadly calm, "that the school board handles the dismissal of school staff here, not you.  And I hereby give you notice that I'm drafting a formal grievance, which I intend to submit to the school board, citing you with gross negligence and incompetence in your duties as principal of this school.  And once the board investigates, and hears how you've bullied the teachers and students at Sunnydale High to adhere to your perverse sense of order, at the expense of the school's scholastic record…well, my advice to you is to start job hunting now." 

Turning away from Snyder, she walked back to Willow, who suddenly gazed upon her computer teacher with a new-found awe and respect.  Smiling, Jenny glanced back at Snyder, adding, "I hear the Double-Meat Palace is hiring."  Snyder stood in the hallway, sputtering in impotent rage as Jenny and Willow walked away. 

Willow couldn't help but smile at Jenny as she commented, "Nice bluff, Miss Calendar."

"What bluff?" Jenny asked innocently.  "As soon as I finish that letter, it's in the mail!  That goose-stepping martinet's going down!"

Willow walked alongside Jenny in silence, digesting these words.  She realized that Jenny must have had that letter in her computer hard drive, but was unable to mail it to the school board before Angelus killed her.  If she succeeded in saving Jenny's life, did that mean that the school board would consider replacing Mr. Snyder?  How would that affect her life, Buffy's life, the lives of their friends?

Willow shook her head fiercely, banishing her speculation.  All that mattered was that she was going to save Jenny.  She was going to save them all.  She wasn't going to travel the road that she had before.  That's all that mattered.

"Uh, Willow," Jenny approached the young woman hesitantly.  "Do you remember your class schedule?"

Willow stood still for a moment, blanking on her next class.  She then remembered the backpack she had taken with her.  She rummaged through her book bag, locating a three-ring binder.  Turning to a folder page, she sighed with relief.  "I wrote them down, first day of the quarter.  English for first period, chemistry for second…yeah, got it."

"Good," Jenny smiled.  "Hopefully you won't have any trouble taking these classes all over again after four years.  Okay, here's the plan.  You and I will meet the others in the library during your free period, and we can figure this out then."

"No problem, Miss Calendar," Willow nodded.  "I just hope I can get it right this time."

Jenny glanced at Willow, puzzled.  "Get what right?"

Willow regarded Jenny with eyes that seemed impossibly old.  Jenny found herself staring into Willow's eyes, wondering what the poor girl had seen or done for her eyes to look so haunted.  More so than Buffy's eyes even. 

Willow lowered her eyes, uncomfortable with Jenny's intense scrutiny, and as she turned toward her first class, she simply said, "Everything, Miss Calendar.  Everything."

========

The moment Willow walked into the library, the first thing she noticed was the disapproving glare from Buffy.  Not as toxic as the almost passive dismissal she saw in Buffy's eyes just before returning to the past, but still hurtful.  "Willow," she barked in a serious tone.  "Where were you?  We were gonna do the whole slumber-party-with-weapons thing last night."

"Uh," was all that Willow could say, before Buffy's expression shifted, and a sly smile crossed her face.  "Don't worry, Willow, I'm just yanking your chain.  Miss Calendar called me, she said that the whole magic lesson had taken a little longer, and you were going to crash at her place."

"So, you're, uh, okay with my bailing on you?" Willow stammered, slightly relieved that she didn't have to make any explanations before Jenny and the others arrived. 

"More than okay," Buffy nodded.  "With Angelus out and about, I don't want you going anywhere alone at night, even to see me.  He's trying to taunt me, and it'd be just like him to put you or Xander, or Mom even, in the line of fire.  I'd rather be alone and know you're safe."

"Yeah, I guess," Willow answered.  Hopefully that instinct of his would be curbed soon.  She glanced around, waiting for the others, then smiled at her friend.  "So, Buffy.  How's Dawn?"

Buffy blinked for a second, her brow wrinkling in confusion.  "Dawn?  Dawn who?"

"Uh…" Willow gulped hard.  Remembering Buffy's teen-aged sister and her own deep-seated memories of the girl, Willow had forgotten that her memories of Dawn were a fiction created by a band of monks who had created her to hide the Key to the world's destruction from an insane goddess.  Reflecting on the spot, she realized that she now had two sets of memories; she remembered being kidnapped by the robot demon Moloch, and she also remembered an alternate scenario where she and Dawn were Moloch's captives.  Several situations she could remember, both with and without Buffy's sister.  A very confusing situation, and one that she would have to deal with at a later time.

But for now, she had to confront Buffy, and cover her gaffe.  "Oh, yeah, Dawn.  How was the dawn?  I mean, you catch the sunrise?  Pretty cool stuff today.  A few extra reds and golds in the sunrise today.  Real breathtaking."

"Willow," Buffy frowned, not unkindly, "you're babbling."

"Of course, I'm babbling," Willow grinned nervously.  "It's my trademark.  Xander makes bad jokes, Cordy insults everyone, I babble."

"It's okay, Willow," Buffy smiled reassuringly at her best friend.  "I needed my daily allowance of Willow-babble.  Let's get ready for the others.  Hopefully Giles has found that un-invite spell to keep Angelus out of my house."

"Yeah," Willow murmured.  "Uh, actually, there's something big that I gotta talk to you guys about.  But I want to wait until the rest of the gang's here.  Something's happened, and it's gonna change everything."

Buffy chuckled slightly.  "Sounds like an infomercial.  What's the up?"

"Can't tell you right now," Willow answered impatiently.  "Trust me?"

Buffy placed a gentle hand on Willow's shoulder.  "Always," she promised.

Willow said nothing, as she and Buffy took their places at their regular meeting table.  Almost immediately, Giles emerged from the library, as Jenny, Xander, Cordy and Oz filed into the library.  The sight of her former love caused Willow's breath to hitch in her throat.  Willow absently wrung her hands in her lap as Oz approached her.  Oz leaned in slightly to steal a kiss, but Willow turned her head slightly.  "Hey, honey," Oz questioned her.  "Something the matter?"

"Uh, nothing, Oz," Willow answered hesitantly, "I've just got a lot on my mind."  Oz seemed to accept Willow's reticence, and quietly took his seat next to her.  Silence seemed to reign over the table; Giles and Buffy still hadn't forgiven Jenny for not telling them about her Gypsy connections, and her knowledge of the curse on Angel's soul.  Buffy still fumed at her a little; if she had told them sooner, Buffy still felt that they could have avoided the circumstances of Angel being supplanted by the demon Angelus.

Before Giles could begin the meeting, Jenny stood up.  "Guys, Willow has an announcement to make.  If she's right, we may be able to deal with Angelus once and for all."  Jenny motioned to Willow, who stood up on unsteady legs, and swallowed hard to stop her eardrums from popping.  "It's okay, Willow," Jenny urged her.  "Just tell them what you told me."

"What's it all about?" Xander asked his childhood friend.  The others turned toward the scared young woman, uncertain what was going through her mind.  Buffy simply nodded to her, waiting patiently for her to begin.

"Uh, guys," Willow began, "something happened to me, something weird.  I mean weird by Hellmouth standards."  She stalled slightly, and Buffy could smell the sweat on Willow's brow.  "Okay, here it is, the abridged version.  I time-travelled from four years into the future, I'm now inside my younger body, and I'm here to change the future." 

The final sentence flew from her lips in a single rushed breath, and the others almost missed what she was saying.  Finally, Xander flashed a bemused grin at his friend, asking, "Okay, Sam.  What's Dean Stockwell telling you to do?"

"Xander," Willow answered, her voiced edged with annoyance, "I'm not kidding here.  I've seen the future, Hell, I lived it!  And a lot of bad stuff's gonna happen, largely because of my screw-ups, and I've been given a second chance to change things!"

"Willow," Giles responded in his typically calm, analytical manner, "no one here is saying that they don't believe you…"

"I am," Cordy volunteered, only to be stared down by everyone else.  Giles continued, "As I was saying, no one who matters," he added, flashing Cordy a sour stare, "is saying anything of a sort.  But this claim you're making, it would be helpful if you had some kind of proof.  Some knowledge that you would not possess otherwise, something along those lines, would be very helpful."

"You want knowledge, Giles?" Willow challenged the Watcher.  "You have the means of restoring Angel's soul in your office.  The Orb of Thessula, I think you've been using it as a paperweight."  Giles attempted to talk after Willow's declaration, but somehow the power of speech seemed to elude him.  "The night he tried to summon Acaltha from his eternal sleep, Buffy fought him off, Xander rescued you from him and I led the others in the Ritual of Restoration.  We managed to resoul Angel, but he had already summoned Acaltha, and Buffy had to send Angel to Hell to save the world." 

"Dear Lord!" Giles whispered.  The others glanced at him, taking their cue from the shock in his watery green eyes.  "Is it possible…no one else knows about the Orb.  I never told any of you.  I…I didn't even consider the possibility that his soul could be restored."

"None of us did," Buffy admitted, "except Miss Calendar."  She turned her attention to the computer teacher, her gaze now softer than it had been.  "Is this true?" she asked hopefully.  "Were you gonna try and restore Angel's soul?"

Jenny nodded.  "Yes, Buffy.  After all my silence had cost you, how could I do any less?"

"And you weren't going to tell any of us?" Giles raised his voice at his semi-estranged girlfriend.  "You're going to place yourself in Angel's crosshairs, the least you could do is inform me!"

"I wasn't sure that you'd care, Rupert," Jenny answered calmly, fighting to hide any bitterness she still felt for the way her lover had been avoiding her lately.

"Dammit woman, I'm in love with you, which bloody well means that, yes, I would care!"

Jenny gasped at the normally reserved Englishman's sudden and very public declaration of his love.  She glanced at the others, who suddenly seemed to find her and Giles the least interesting things in the library.  Except for Cordy, who simply gave Jenny a wry smile, and said, "'Bout time you two got it out in the open."

Jenny stammered slightly as she regained control of her vocal chords.  "I love you too, Rupert.  That's why I couldn't let you get caught in the crosshairs with me.  It was my fault for not informing you and Buffy about the nature of Angel's curse.  It's my responsibility to correct my mistake."  She lowered her head in anguish.  "But now, with Willow's advanced warning, that may be academic."

"Sounds like you believe Willow's story," Cordy observed.  Glancing back at Willow, he hastily added, "I mean, no offence Willow, but even by Sunnydale standards, this one's pretty off the meter."

"I think I believe her," Oz said suddenly.  When the others turned to him, he added, "It's not just a story.  Look at her.  Her walk, her posture, her face, they've all aged since we saw her yesterday.  She's either telling the truth, or she's the greatest actress alive."

Buffy gawked at Willow, who simply sat beside her, her hands resting in her lap, her brow furrowed with a sorrowful knowledge.  She averted her eyes from looking directly at Buffy, and the Slayer found herself wondering if something was destined to happen in the future that would damage their friendship.  She found herself studying Willow's face for a sign of recognition, of the friendship and affection they had always felt for each other.  It was there, under whatever burden Willow was carrying.  Buffy resolved to make sure that Willow knew that she was still loved, that Buffy would always be her friend.

"You're telling us the truth, aren't you, Willow?" Buffy asked in as gentle a voice as she could manage.  Willow only nodded once.

"Could you explain how this happened, Willow?" Giles questioned her.  Willow shook her head.  The last thing she wanted to do was let the people who trusted her most know that their trust in her was misplaced.

Xander suddenly smiled, pulling a notepad out of his back pack.  He handed the pad to Willow, saying excitedly, "Okay, give me three columns, Willow.  First column, Super Bowl champions.  Second column, World Series winners, and the third column, NBA champions.  And if you can remember any Kentucky Derby or Belmont winners, write those along the bottom.  We are so gonna clean up!"

"Xander!" Willow nearly shouted, her voice strained and tired.  "Sit down, and shut up!"  Oz flashed Xander a sour look, then returned his attention to Willow.

Xander timidly returned to his seat, glancing at his childhood friend.  "Uh, at what point in the future did you lose your sense of humor?"

Willow's head shot up, regarding the others with a cold rage, an old pain.  Her eyes smoldered like coals as she spoke in bitten-off words; "I don't know, Xander.  Maybe it was when the woman I loved more than my life died of a bullet in the chest before my eyes.  Or maybe it was when I killed her murderer in the most gruesome manner I could imagine!  Or, quite possibly, when I dove so far into the black magic pool that all I wanted to do was to end the world!  Maybe at some point during that period, I misplaced my sense of humor!  You think that's what happened?"

By the time that Willow finally reigned in her mouth, the damage had been done. The silence that followed Willow's outburst stretched like a tangible gulf.  She dared to look at Buffy, and regretted it instantly.  She saw shock on her brow, fear and suspicion in her eyes. 

The same fear and suspicion she saw in her eyes at the gravesite, a lifetime ago.

Willow gulped her breath, choking on her tears.  "Oh, Goddess, I'm so sorry…I'm… so…"  She kicked her chair away, shot up on unsteady legs, and bolted for the door.

As she rushed out of the library, she collided with a student heading toward the library, knocking him down.  She stopped long enough to glance at the student, and her recognition of his face only stoked her anger.  "Jonathan," she murmured sotto voce.

"Hey, Willow," Jonathan answered, as he scrambled to his feet.  "Is something wrong?"

"The only thing wrong here," Willow snarled at Jonathan, "is you.  You would do well to steer clear of me from now on!"  Without another word, Willow turned away from the startled student. 

Jonathan stood for a second, shaking his head and collecting his thoughts, before turning back toward the library.  He succeed in taking two steps before being slammed back onto the floor by the figure of a blond comet who catapulted past him.  Buffy sprinted down the hallway, but lost sight of the fleeing redhead.  She stopped in the hallway, quietly debating where her friend may have run to. 

"Miss Summers," Mr. Snyder's annoying voice echoed across the hall.  "Do my eyes deceive me or are you out of your class without a hall pass?"

"Mr. Snyder," Buffy moaned, barely even trying to hide her annoyance, "I don't have time for this.  Willow ran away from the library, and I'm just trying to find her."

Mr. Snyder chuckled in a condescending tone.  "I have no doubt that Miss Rosenberg can look after herself.  You, on the other hand, would do well to return to the library, before I find some reason to give you some detention time."

Buffy stepped close to Snyder, putting her face directly in front of his.  "Look, Snidely Whiplash, if you value the use of your legs, you'll end this interrogation now!"

"Oh, you just bought yourself a suspension for that crack, Miss Summers!" chortled Snyder.

"Buffy," Giles called as he approached Mr. Snyder and Buffy.  "I forgot to give you a hall pass, and that list of things I need from the supply room."  He gave Buffy a knowing look, and Buffy took the hint.  "Right, Giles.  I'll just get these things now.  Later, Mr. Snyder.  It's been grins."  With a nod toward Snyder, Buffy ducked out of sight down the hallway.

"She's not coasting out of this one, Mr. Giles," Snyder growled quietly.  "I'll see her expelled for this."

"For what?" Giles asked.  "For responding to a threat from a school principal?"

Snyder whipped his head around to Giles, eyes wide with dismay.  "I did no such thing!  You heard what she said to me…"

"I couldn't hear a thing from my vantage point," Giles smiled blandly.  "All I saw was you getting into her face."  He made tut-tut noises with his tongue on his palette.  "This isn't going to look good in the report Miss Calendar and I are filing with the school board."

"But…but…" Snyder stammered, before Giles raised his hand to silence him.

"Quit while you're behind, Mr. Snyder," Giles advised him.  He turned around and walked back toward the library, leaving behind a small man who suddenly felt much smaller.

========

She sat on a bench in the campus plaza, sobbing without reason or relief.  She thought that she had run out of tears when Tara had died, but her younger body seemed to have an unlimited supply.  All she could do was mourn what she had lost.  For the first time, she mourned for Tara.  She mourned for Kendra, for Jenny, for Joyce.  She even mourned for Warren and Rack. 

Above all, she mourned for herself.  For the person who once sneaked out to watch "A Charlie Brown Christmas" with Xander.  For the person who comforted Buffy when Angel chose to leave for Los Angeles.  For the person who told Buffy, "It's a good fight, and I want in."  For a girl named Willow Rosenberg.

She was only vaguely aware of two slim, strong arms encircling her shoulders, and a warm and gentle voice, asking if she was well.  She almost laughed out loud; it seemed pretty obvious to her that no, she wasn't well.  But the arms still held her, the voice still calmed her, and eventually her body stopped lurching with her sobs.  One minute, five minutes, ten minutes, Buffy sat next to Willow, rocking her in her arms, whispering assurances to her. 

Finally, Willow calmed enough for her vocal chords to work in sync with her mouth;  "Shortly after we started college," Willow said meekly, "Oz left me.  He wanted to find a way to tame his inner wolf.  It hurt like hell, until I met Tara.  She was a shy witch, part of the local wiccan group.  She and I became close, spell-casting buddies.  Then we became more."  She stalled for a moment, turning to face Buffy, to gage her reaction from her face.

Buffy regarded her friend with an arched eyebrow, saying, "So you're saying that you're gay?"

"Is that a problem?" Willow challenged Buffy.

"No," Buffy answered.  "You're my best friend, no matter what."

"Yeah, right," Willow barked quietly.  "Anyway, she and I were close for over a year, until… something terrible happened… you… you died, Buffy.  You saved the world from something really powerful, and you both died in the final bout."  Buffy blanched at what Willow had said.  She knew that she would probably die sooner than most, but she preferred not to know the exact date in advance if she could avoid it.  "I didn't take it well, Buffy.  In my nightmares, I saw you, reaching out for me, begging me to save you from Hell.  So I did.  I got the others together, and we did this ritual with the Urn of Osiris.  We brought you back to life."

Buffy smirked sardonically and said, "Thanks."

Willow lowered her head in shame.  "I didn't know until later that I was wrong.  I didn't save you from Hell, I dragged you out of Heaven.  By then, I was getting more powerful.  Too powerful.  I started getting into darker stuff, black magic.  Tara knew I was in trouble, and tried to help me.  When I refused her help, she left me.  When I nearly got… someone killed on a magic high, I tried to stop.  And I did, for a couple of months.  Tara and I got back together, you were doing better, and everything was good in Willow-ville for a moment."

"Then something happened to Tara." Buffy guessed.

"Yeah," Willow answered.  "Some punks who just wanted to gain power, decided to kill the Slayer.  But they killed Tara instead.  A bullet passed through her midsection as I watched.  And I fell apart after that.   I stalked Tara's killer.  I followed him to prison.  And I skinned him alive."

Buffy sat silently without speaking.  She knew that Willow had to speak, to unleash her guilt, to reveal what was destroying her.  "I had my revenge, but the pain was still there.  I fell back into the black magic.  I didn't care anymore.  All I wanted was to feel no more.  No more pain, no more love, no more anything.  And I nearly destroyed the world to keep from feeling."  She captured Buffy's eyes with her own, rivulets of tears streaming down her face.  "If Xander hadn't stopped me, I would have destroyed everything.  But I still hurt.  There was someone else, a friendly demon.  Well, kinda friendly.  She granted me a wish.  She sent me back here, to undo everything that I did, to change what I could.  Now do you see, Buffy?  Now do you understand why I had to come back?  I couldn't let myself become your enemy, not again!  Not after all you've been through!  I couldn't!  I love you too much to let it happen again!"

Willow could say no more.  Her sobs again overtook her, and she fell into Buffy's arms, crying piteously.  Buffy rocked her gently in her arms, murmuring into her ear, "It's okay, Willow.  It's gonna be okay.  I'm not gonna let anything to you.  We'll change it, Willow.  We'll change everything, I promise.  Whatever you went through before, you're not gonna go through it again." 

She kissed Willow's cheek, held her tightly in her arms, and simply said, "I love you, Willow."  And as the words left her lips, Buffy knew them to be true.

The truest thing she knew.