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Normal Is Just a Word

 

 

Buffy ran her hand over the bare mattress, gazing round the room that had been her home (and prison) for so long.  The walls were empty of the posters her parents had brought, hoping the familiar scenes might help bring their daughter back. The ones she'd outgrown were now out with the recycling, the newer ones rolled up and held with a rubber band.  She walked over to the window and gazed out at the bright sunshine and crowded parking lot.  In the distance she could see the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles.

 

"Are you ready, honey?"

 

She spun around to see her parents smiling at her from the doorway.  She smiled back and nodded.

 

"I'm all packed up.  I just have to stop in to see Dr. Swinson before we leave.  She wants to talk to me one more time."

 

Hank entered the room and hugged his daughter tightly. 

 

"I'll just take your stuff out to the car, sweetheart.  Your mom can stay with you and bring you out when you're ready."

 

" 'k. Let's go, Mom."

 

Buffy led the way, her new confidence lending a firmness to her stride that her mother was hard-put to keep up with.  She walked into Dr. Swinson's office with a cheery, "Hi, Mrs. Johnson," to the receptionist.  Dr. Swinson emerged from her office as soon as she heard Buffy's voice, holding out her hand to Joyce.

 

"Mrs. Summers! How good to see you.  I just need to chat with Buffy for a few minutes and then she's all yours to take home."

 

Joyce nodded and sat down in the outer office, watching with a calm smile as Buffy waved and followed the doctor into her warmly decorated office.

 

Dr. Swinson sat back in her chair and smiled proudly.  She indulged in no false modesty as she studied the girl she'd helped come out of the most detailed and long-running fantasy she'd ever seen.

 

"Oh, Buffy," she said, seemingly at a temporary loss for words.  "I'm so very, very proud of you. You've come such a long way in these past several months, and I know how hard you've worked to get here." Her expression darkened, "Although, I have to say that I never expected you to throw yourself off an imaginary tower to make it happen...." She glanced up and her expression cleared.  "But, as I told you at the time, it was really quite brilliant on your part.  You destroyed the Buffy who was living in that world, and your need to be there died with her. An excellent strategy that beautifully closes the door on any need or chance to return."

 

She smiled at Buffy, who smiled back tentatively, then looked briefly uncomfortable before smiling again. "Yeah, and, hey bonus, I saved the world when I did it."

 

Dr. Swinson narrowed her eyes.  "The imaginary Buffy, the one who is a 'slayer', she saved that world.  Please don't tell me that just as I think you've completely recovered, you think it still exists?"

 

Buffy paled.  "Oh, oh no, Dr. Swinson.  I just meant that it was a good way for me – her – to go out. Saving the world.  Which isn't real, so it really doesn't matter if it gets saved or not, does it?"  Buffy gave the doctor a brilliant smile, hoping she hadn't just blown her chances of leaving the hospital and getting back to a normal life.  Whatever that was in this world – so different from the one she thought she'd been living in for the past five years.

 

The doctor relaxed and leaned back in her chair, steepling her fingers.

 

"You wouldn't be trying to play me, now, would you, Slayer?" she said with a teasing smile, her confidence in Buffy's recovery seemingly restored.

 

"What? No! No, I wouldn't do anything like that.  What would be the point? Just to get out of here?  That's what I'm supposed to want, isn't it? To go back to a normal life with my parents and whatever friends might remember me?"

 

"No, I suppose not.  So, you really have no desire to go back to that strange world? To Sunnydale?"

 

"Dr. Swinson," Buffy was suddenly very serious, fearful that her hard work over the past several months might be going right down the tubes. "You know that world as well as I do. Have you forgotten what it was like? In that world, my parents got divorced, I never see my dad, my mother is dead, my only two boyfriends both left me, the closest thing I have to a romantic life is a neutered vampire crushing on me. I have no money, a mortgage, and I have to save the world every frickin' spring.  Why on earth would I want to go back to that? It was like having a nightmare that lasted for years."

 

Buffy stood up and began to walk around, waving her arms.  "I died twice - did I mention that? That I died when I was only sixteen?"

 

 Dr. Swinson nodded her head. "I believe we've talked about that before; about how you had a brief moment of lucidity that didn't last. But that was before I was on staff here," she said, seeming to encourage Buffy to go on.

 

"Well, it was only for a minute, and I totally kicked his butt when I got back up, but the point is - I died!  And I didn't even get to wake up here, like this time." The doctor started to interrupt and point out again that Buffy had been briefly awake and aware, but shut her mouth as the girl continued. "And then, Spike..." Buffy faltered for a minute, then took a deep breath and went on, "he came to town and he kidnapped Angel and then I...well, never mind that...but Angel lost his soul and he turned into Angelus and killed Giles' girlfriend and I had to kill him to – wait for it – save the world again.  And then, Angel comes back, but he decides to leave me – for my own good.  And I have to – oh yeah, save the frickin' world again. Or Sunnydale, anyway. Not clear on that one. Maybe the mayor only wanted to take over Sunnydale... 

 

 "Where was I?  Oh yeah, and then I met Riley, but he wasn't a college boy, he was a commando and his boss was an evil bitch that tried to kill me.  Then her pet monster got lose and tried to kill everybody, and Spike got chipped – okay, that wasn't such a bad thing—" Buffy stopped again and sank down into the chair.   "And, you know, it was pretty much all downhill from there."  She stared Dr. Swinson in the eye.  "And you think I want to go back there?  Do you think I'm crazy?"

 

Dr. Swinson smiled and stood up, walking around her desk to rest her hand on Buffy's head.  "Not any more, you aren't," she said with a laugh.  "Welcome back, Buffy."

 

She walked Buffy to the door, hugging her tightly before letting her join Joyce in the outer office.  She shook hands with Joyce and graciously accepted the thanks Buffy's mother insisted on repeating and repeating.  After reminding Buffy that she still wanted to see her every week, just to "keep in touch and see how things are going", she watched them walk down the corridor and out of Shady Pines Rehabilitation and Rest Facility.  As she returned to her office, she congratulated herself on the successful completion of what had once seemed a very daunting case.

 

While it was fresh in her mind, she quickly spoke into her recorder, adding to the file on the case.  As proud as she was of having been a part of bringing this young woman back from her delusions and into the real world, she was also not blind to the opportunity it presented. She was sure that once she had time to write it up, she would make the literature with her story of how a perfectly healthy and normal fifteen year-old-girl suddenly slipped into an imaginary world that was so detailed and real to her that she could respond to any question about it with an immediate and comprehensive answer.

 

After adding the new-to-her information about Buffy's first "death" and her subsequent activities, she saved the file and closed her laptop, giving it a satisfied pat.

 

"You're going to make me famous, Buffy Summers."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Buffy and Joyce quickly made their way out to the parking lot and climbed into the big SUV in which Hank was waiting for them. 

 

"New car?"

 

Joyce shrugged. "I think I told you about the new cars, Buffy.  This one is for me – and you, as soon as you get your license.  Your dad has his own new car. It just doesn't hold more than two people, so—"

 

"Dad got a sports car?" For some reason, the idea that her father was driving around in sporty new two-seater made Buffy uncomfortable. Perhaps it was too similar to the way he'd behaved leading up to the divorce in her imaginary world.  Scolding herself for bringing that world into the real one, she put a bright smile on and asked, "So, do I get to drive it when I get my license?"

 

Hank met her eyes in the rearview mirror and laughed. "I'll let you drive it, sweetheart. As soon as I think you're experienced enough.  In the meantime, you just concentrate on getting your license, huh?"

 

" 'k," she said, looking around eagerly. When she'd begun to regain her grip on reality, she had been allowed to leave the facility for closely supervised visits to a small nearby mall, but this was the first time she'd actually been out of the watchful care of one of the attendants.  For just a brief moment, she was seized by fear of venturing out into the "real world" by herself, wondering what might happen to her if she had a relapse while no one was around who knew about her past hospitalizations.  Then her attention was pulled to a theater marquee showing the latest romantic comedy and excitement and anticipation replaced the fear.

 

"Oh, I saw the trailer for that movie on television last week. It looked really good."

 

Her father grumbled about 'chick flicks' while Joyce laughed and promised Buffy that they would go by themselves to see it.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Coming home was both comforting and disturbing.  Comforting because it was home. It smelled like home, it looked like home and yet... Buffy stared around at unfamiliar furniture and curtains.

 

"Um...shouldn't there be a couch there?" She pointed to the area under the windows where a long table with shelves held a couple of houseplants and some magazines.

 

"We've never had a couch there, Buffy," Joyce said gently, her smile a little strained.

 

"Huh! I guess my memory isn't as good as it ought to be.  You're right, of course. I remember now.  The couch is there in--" She stopped herself when she saw her mother's face fall.  "It's okay, Mom," Buffy hastened to assured her. "Dr. Swinson said that my memories of that other place will take a while to fade away completely.  She said it's kinda like when you're dreaming and then you wake up. At first, you think you're still in the dream, and then you know you aren't but you still remember it - then, a few hours later, you can barely remember what it was about.  It's just going to take me more than a few hours cause I was...asleep...for such a long time."

 

Buffy looked around the house with its familiar rooms and nodded. "Even in my fantasy I remembered this house. I just filled it with different furniture and put it in a different town.  But it was this house. I never forgot it was home." She looked at her parents and smiled tentatively.  "That's got to be good, right?  That it always felt like home to me?"

 

"Yes," her father said tightly as he set her suitcase down at the bottom of the stairs. "It's good to know that you hung on to the house, even when you pushed your parents out of your life."

 

"Hank!" Joyce snapped as Buffy's face crumpled.

 

He heaved a sigh and smiled apologetically.  "I'm sorry, sweetheart. I didn't mean that.  It's just that...this has been hard on us, you know?  All those years we've missed while you were growing up without us.  It's hard not to think that you didn't want us around..."

 

When Joyce had glared him into silence, he shrugged and turned around, grabbed a different set of keys off the table and opened the door.  I'm just going to go for a drive," he said, not meeting Buffy's eyes.  "I'll be back by dinnertime."

 

Joyce and Buffy stood in silence and watched as he pulled the door shut. The muffled roar of what Buffy recognized as his version of Giles' midlife crisis car faded as it left the driveway.  They looked at each other; then Buffy shrugged.

 

"It's all right, Mom. It's going to be strange for all of us for a while.  I mean, I know you guys love me and that you've visited me faithfully – even when I didn't know who you were—" She broke off, remembering all the minions she'd vanquished, only to be told when she was more lucid that she'd been screaming at her parents that she would never let Glory have her sister.

 

"Oh, God," she whispered, collapsing onto the couch.  "What I've put you through. No wonder Dad wants to get away from me!"

 

"No, Buffy! No. Please don't think that.  He's just...he'll be fine. He loves you just as much as I do and he's happy that we have you back home.  We just have to get used to each other again.  All of us.  We lost a teenager and we've recovered a young woman.  We've gone from boy bands and "No, you're too young to date" to having someone who should be in college and who has—" She broke off, and Buffy knew she was remembering that in her imaginary world, Buffy had been sexually active since she was seventeen.

 

Wishing the staff hadn't been so quick to share all the details of her delusion with her parents, Buffy blushed from her hairline to her chest.  "Yeah, well, I guess we can just chalk all that up to hormones, huh? Erotic dreams and all that."  She looked at her mother with wide eyes.   "Oh my god! I'm probably the only twenty-year old virgin in LA!  I should go on Oprah!"

 

Joyce laughed and hugged her tightly.  "I'm sure you're not the only one left, Buffy." She pulled back and looked into Buffy's eyes.  "I hope you aren't going to jump into anything...uncomfortable...just because you think you should."

 

"Don't worry, Mom," Buffy said with a wry smile. "If I learned nothing else from my imagination, it's that Buffy and sex isn't very mixy.  They turn evil, or turn out to be already evil – in a sleazy kind of way, or they get all insecure and—yeah, I'm not feeling any sudden urge to find myself a boyfriend. Trust me."

 

"I didn't mean that you shouldn't date, honey.  I want you to enjoy life and get back into the swing of things – it's just that..."

 

Buffy nodded and grabbed her suitcase.  She had a moment of confusion and almost vertigo as she tried to swing it up the stairs; then flushed as she realized she'd expected to be able to handle it just as she would have when she thought she was a slayer.  Hoping her mother hadn't noticed the lapse, she dragged it up the stairs, bumping the wheels from step to step, and down the hall to her room.

 

She dropped the handle and stared around the room that was so familiar- and yet so different.  The bed was in the same place, the walls were the same color, the closet was standing open and almost empty, waiting for her to unpack what few new clothes she had.  With a loud sign, she squared her shoulders and heaved the suitcase up on the bed.

 

"Time to get to work, Buffy. This is the real world - if you don't take care of your stuff, nobody else is going to do it for you."

 

Even as she said that, she knew that her mother probably would take care of anything Buffy needed help with.  Just one more reason to be grateful that this was her real life, and not the pain-filled, unending horror that she had inexplicably lived in for the past five years.   Without meaning to, she let herself remember some of the worst things that had occurred in that strange world in which she'd been so sure she belonged.

 

While she shoved the clothes that she'd worn as a fifteen-year-old to the side, wrinkling her nose at the childish styles, she remembered how she'd felt when Angelus killed Jenny Calendar.  The guilt that she'd had him down and hadn't been able to bring herself to stake him made her shudder all over again.  As Dr. Swinson had advised her to whenever she felt herself slipping into the memories of that life and allowing them to affect her mood, Buffy took a deep breath and tried to clear her mind. She deliberately stared at a poster that she was sure had been dream-inducing when she was fourteen, and that now left her wondering what she'd been thinking.

 

The laughter inspired by remembering her crush on the members of that boy band brought her back to reality and she continued to put her few "grown-up" clothes into the closet with the mini-skirts of a much younger and more carefree girl.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Buffy did her best to slide back into a normal life. Except for the occasional nightmare in which her sleep was haunted by creatures with claws and fangs, she felt she was handling it surprisingly well. In one of their morning chats over coffee, Joyce tentatively mentioned that she and Hank had expected Buffy to have more trouble adjusting to the outside world than it seemed she was.

 

Buffy shrugged.

 

"I don't know, Mom.  I guess I should feel more confused – and sometimes I do. Honestly.  I mean, I'm having to relearn my way around the neighborhood and the city's still a pretty big mystery."  She peered at her mother and said with a smile. "I do know my way to the mall, though.  You really don't need to keep taking time off work to take me shopping."

 

Joyce shifted uneasily.  "I'm sure that's true, honey. But you know, I'm just not comfortable letting a girl your age—"

 

"I'm almost twenty-one, Mom," Buffy reminded her flatly.

 

"Yes, but..."

 

Buffy's face tightened into the expression her parents were beginning to recognize as her "You may think I'm fifteen, but I'm not; and I've been taking care of myself for quite a while " look. Joyce quickly backed down, just nodding and reminding herself that Dr. Swinson had given Buffy an explanation for her seemingly easy adjustment to the world and her surprising confidence in her ability to deal with it.

 

"I know you think it's odd, Buffy," she'd said in response to a question during one of Buffy's weekly visits.  "But you have to remember, in your imagination, you've has been living in the world all this time. As far as you're concerned, only the past couple of months when you began to emerge from your delusion have been spent here at Shady Pines."

 

Dr. Swinson had explained away Buffy's ability to be fairly current on slang, pop culture references and styles of dress by reminding her that she had spent large amounts of time just sitting in the dayroom, carefully restrained and sedated.

 

"Even though you were often lost in your own world, you were being exposed to a steady diet of television, and your subconscious was probably absorbing information from the shows that were on—regardless of whether you were aware of it or not."

.

Shortly after Buffy's return, Joyce had taken her to the nearest mall to purchase some new clothes. Even if Buffy had wanted to wear the same things that had appealed to her as a teenager, they wouldn't have fit her marginally taller, more slender body.

 

Over cookies and iced tea in the food court, they talked a bit about Buffy's concerns about fitting in.

 

"You don't think it looks too 'I just got out of a mental hospital'?"

 

"No, honey. I think it looks fine. But if you want to, we can make an appointment with my hair dresser and you can get it cut some other way."

 

Buffy studied her reflection in the glass tabletop.

 

"I guess I'll leave it long for a while. It's what I'm used to. "

 

Joyce nodded. "It's probably not a good idea to make too many changes right away.  Give yourself a chance to figure out who Buffy is now that she's all grown up."

 

 

 

It was on one of those shopping trips that Buffy began the process of weaning herself away from the constant supervision and attention. Beginning with not being completely financially dependent upon her parents. Although Joyce always insisted she could buy whatever she wanted, Buffy was only too aware of the money her parents had spent over the past several years just to keep her confined and safe from her own imagination.

 

Without consulting either parent, Buffy decided her first step should be to complete her education, and she called her old high school to get information about earning a GED.  Information jotted down and in hand, she began her quest for a high school diploma.

 

She took a bus to the testing center, talked briefly with one of the counselors there, and took a sample test. Mildly surprised at how easy it was, she asked if she could take the real test right then.  The pleasant woman laughed and suggested she come back in a few days, prepared to spend all day taking the five tests involved. She sent Buffy home with a study book and the time of the next scheduled test.

 

Three days later, Buffy walked out feeling confident and wondering if she would be able to keep her secret until the diploma came.  She was home in time to greet Joyce at the driveway and smile mysteriously at her mother's questions as to where she'd been. Joyce responded to Buffy's happy hug with enthusiasm, but some trepidation.

 

"I'm glad you're so happy, honey, but can't you share why?"

 

"I will, Mom.  As soon as I have something to share."

 

Two weeks later, they were all seated at the table when Buffy sprang her news on them.

 

"Oh my god, Buffy!" Joyce was almost speechless as she looked over the diploma, staring at her daughter with new respect.  Hank, too, as he listened to Buffy's explanation about making the arrangements and taking the bus to the testing center and back, had to admit that she had shown herself capable of more than he was willing to credit.

 

"I'm sorry, sweetheart," he said.  "It's just that, to me, you're still Daddy's little girl, you know?  And I worry."

 

"I know that, Dad – Mom.  And I understand it. Really I do.  But I have to start living my life.  And I want to live it as an adult – not as fifteen-year-old Buffy whose mom and dad go everywhere with her."

 

"All right, honey. You've made your point.  We'll try not to be so smothering or so protective.  If you promise not to go running off to see the world or something."

 

"I wasn't actually thinking about going much farther than the mall and the community college.  Since I've got that diploma, I may as well see how well I can handle college-level classes."

 

Buffy made a mental note to ask Dr. Swinson how her subconscious could have learned enough from a television set to pass a test designed for students with much more than a freshman year of high school, when in reality she'd not set foot in one for years. But for the time being, she pushed that disturbing thought aside in favor of taking advantage of the situation and using it to move closer to adulthood.

 

Her next step was to find a job. Preferably one that would allow her to attend college classes if and when she got in.  Accepting Joyce's offer of a ride to the nearest mall, she began to wander up and down the corridors, hoping for inspiration to strike.  She was contemplating looking into a waitressing job in one of the restaurants attached to the mall, when she spotted the "help wanted" sign in the window of a small bookstore. On a whim, Buffy entered the store and inquired about the job. 

 

The friendly store owner introduced herself as Marcia and listened carefully to Buffy's stammering explanation for why she wanted to work there.

 

"So, you've been abroad for the past few years?"  Marcia's innocent question had Buffy scrambling to come up with something better than "not around here".

 

"Not so much abroad, as just... not able to do a lot of things other girls do. That's why this will be my first real job."

 

"Were you ill?"

 

"Yes. Yes, I was.  But I'm fine now, and ready to catch up on the things I missed. Like college and working."

 

After more discussion, during which she glossed over her hospitalization as best she could without actually lying, Buffy found herself employed, and with hours that could be flexible enough to allow her to attend classes at the community college.

 

As she met her mother outside, Buffy couldn't keep the happy smile off her face and Joyce quickly responded to it.

 

"You look pleased," she said, pulling away from the curb.

 

"You'd be pleased too if you had just gotten your first job," Buffy said, too excited not to blurt out her news.

 

"Oh Buffy! That's wonderful.  Wait until your dad hears about this."

 

Hank was equally pleased to hear that Buffy was now, not only a high school graduate, but an employed high school graduate.

 

"That's wonderful, sweetheart.  You don't know how good this makes me feel. It makes it all worth it. Every bit of it."

 

Buffy's happy smile faded a bit. "Every bit of what?"

 

"Nothing," Joyce said, sending her husband a glare.  "It's nothing, honey. We're just really, really happy to have you home again. And yourself."

 

"Your mom's right, Buffy. I didn't mean anything. I was just remembering how l much I missed having our family dinners at our own table rather than the Shady Pines cafeteria; and how happy I am that we're all here again."

 

"Speaking of dinner," Joyce said, "I'd better get started on it.  Do you want to help me, honey?"

 

"Oh, sure.  I'd love to.  Just let me put my stuff away and I'll be happy to show you how awesome I am in a kitchen."  Buffy smiled and ran up the stairs with her bags, completely missing the looks that went across her parents' faces.

 

"How the hell does she know if she's awesome in a kitchen?" Hank growled. "Do you think she—"

 

Joyce shook her head, even as she admitted, "Dr. Swinson said this might happen.  All her memories from the past five years are from that imaginary world she thought she was living in.  As long as she realizes that the memories are only memories of an imaginary place and imaginary events, we're supposed to try to ignore it when she talks about them."

 

Hank rolled his eyes and went into the living room, muttering to himself about over-paid psychiatrists who were more interested in hearing about Buffy's delusion than they were in curing her of it.

 

~~~~~~~~

 

 

Three weeks later, Buffy was enrolled in the community college's summer semester – due to begin in another week – and was already enjoying her job in the bookstore.

 

"Sure beats working at McDonalds or someplace like that," she assured herself as she sneezed on the dust she'd just brushed off a top shelf.  She teetered briefly on the stepladder, grabbing the shelf to keep herself steady, then began reaching for the last bit of dust.  Which was one reach too many, as she lost her balance and began to slip towards the floor.

 

Her about to be embarrassing and possibly painful descent was halted when a strong hand gripped one arm while a muscular arm went around her waist, supporting her until she had recovered her balance.  When she was safely standing upright, the hands released her and their owner stepped back.

 

"Lucky for you I was passing by."

 

Buffy looked up into warm (familiar?) brown eyes that belonged to a tall, very handsome man. Even with her standing on the second rung of the stepladder, he was still an inch or so taller than she was, but the ladder put their faces close together, giving her an opportunity to study him in great detail. She blushed at the admiration in his eyes and moved back as far as she could without falling off the ladder again.

 

"Yes, yes it was," she managed to say. "Lucky, I mean.  Thank you for saving me from possible pain and humiliation."

 

"Anytime, Miss...?"

 

"Summers. Buffy Summers."

 

"It was my pleasure, Buffy."  He smiled again.

 

"Is Will here?" he asked, glancing down the long row of shelves towards the back of the store.

 

"Uh, no. No, he isn't.  I actually haven't met him, yet. Not in person. We don't usually work the same shifts.  I'm in school and— And you really don't care about why we don't work the same shift, do you?"

 

"I can't imagine not caring about everything Buffy," the man said with another smile.  "In fact, if you'll tell me when you get your next break, I'll come back and we can sit down in Starbucks while you tell me all about yourself."

 

"I...well..." Buffy stumbled, her actual lack of experience with men interfering with the imaginary experiences that dream Buffy thought she'd had.  She had no idea how to respond to his polite, but very smooth come on.

 

"Come on," he coaxed, obviously sensing her reluctance, "If you need a reference, you can always ask Will the next time you talk to him.  He's known me for years."

 

Buffy nodded.  "No, it's fine. I'm sorry. My social skills kind of suck sometimes.  I get off around 7:00 for a half-hour break."

 

"Great! I'll pick you up at seven, then.  See you later, Buffy."

 

With a wave he turned and exited the store, leaving Buffy staring after him in confusion.  She wanted to run after him and ask him his name, but the phone rang and she got off the ladder to pick it up instead.

 

"Books and Browsers.  May I help you?"

 

"Hey, Buffy, it's Will.  How's it going?"

 

"Will! Hi! I need... I mean do you know a... there was this guy, and he said he knows you, and...."

 

There was a laugh and a sigh on the other end of the line.  "So, you're trying to say that Sean stopped by tonight?"

 

"Is that his name? He didn't tell me his name, he just..."

 

"I'm pretty sure I know what he just..." Will said, laughing again. "That's his MO when he meets a pretty girl.  Don't let him sweep you off your feet, luv. He's a charmer, but—"

 

"So, I shouldn't have told him I'd go out for coffee?" Buffy asked in a small voice.

 

She could hear the smile in Will's familiar voice as he said warmly, "Of course you should, Buffy. It's just coffee.  Enjoy yourself; just don't believe everything he tells you."

 

Buffy had given up trying to convince herself that his slight accent didn't remind her of Spike and Giles, and perhaps that was why they'd formed such a warm, if tentative, friendship over the phone. She could now even hear him call her "luv" and "pet" without flinching and picturing a vampire with shockingly white hair.

 

After some hesitation, she went with her gut feeling that she could trust him, and said, "I don't know much about guys – I've never – I mean I don't date much and I don't think I know what to do."

 

Frustration with her inability to be honest about where she'd been colored her voice and she could hear Will's concern as he said, "Buffy? If you're not comfortable going out with him, don't do it. Just tell him to come by sometime when we're both there and I can introduce you properly and come along as a chaperone."

 

"No," she said, standing up straighter and speaking firmly. "I'll be fine. I'm just being silly.  It's not like I'm some teeny bopper who's never been on a date." She crossed her fingers behind her back and hoped she wouldn't have to explain that said dates had occurred when she was in her early teens.

 

"Of course not! Beautiful girl like you – probably had a lot of dates, yeah?"

 

Buffy giggled. "You don't know what I look like," she said. "But thanks, anyway."

 

"You're welcome, luv.  So, aside from a coffee date with Sean McCarthy, what have you accomplished this evening?"

 

The conversation quickly went into an exchange of information about the day's happenings and the expectations for the evening.   Promising to check back before closing time to see how her date had gone, Will told her "good-bye" and she went back to her dusting chores.

 

Buffy's nerves were calmed considerably by seeing how comfortable her boss was with Sean when he returned promptly at seven; and she went off happily with Marcia's "take your time; enjoy your dinner" ringing in her ears.

 

Instead of Starbucks, Sean insisted on taking her to one of the fast food restaurants in the mall, saying that if it was her dinner break, he was going to be "damn sure" she got a meal.  Finding a relatively quiet table, they ate their meals and exchanged small talk about themselves. Fortunately for Buffy, Sean seemed quite happy to monopolize the conversation, telling her all about his job working for a law firm downtown, about his apartment near the beach and about how he and Will had known each other since high school.

 

"So, you guys are like best friends?"

 

"I guess so.  We've gone in different directions career-wise, but we still enjoy each other's company enough to hang out as much as we can."

 

"He sounds very nice over the phone," Buffy said. "Is he really like that in person?"

 

Sean pretended to think, then laughed. "Yeah. He's pretty much what he seems to be. He's a great guy. As long as you don't piss him off, anyway.  He's a hell of a fighter if he loses his temper.  Studied all sorts of martial arts and stuff like that."

 

Buffy's mind inexplicable strayed to the wide assortment of martial arts moves she seemed to have stored in her memory and she temporarily lost the gist of the conversation.

 

"Buffy? Buffy? Where'd you go?"  Sean was smiling at her with a bemused look on his face.

 

"Oh my god! I'm so sorry! I just--" She blushed and cringed mentally, but he was laughing and seemed unbothered by her zone-out.

 

"Hey, no biggie. I do that myself sometimes – I get distracted by something and the next thing you know, it's Tuesday already."

 

"Heh. Well, I'm sorry, anyway. It was rude of me."

 

"So, what was it?" he asked. "That took you away from me?"

 

"Oh, it was...it was the martial arts stuff, I think. I used to...that is, I think I...You know what? It doesn't matter.  Tell me more about your job. It sounds fascinating."

 

It was soon time for Buffy to return to the store, and Sean walked her back, chatting the whole time about his job, his weekend activities and his latest hobby – making it easy for her to resist volunteering more information about herself.  They got back to the store to find that Marcia had already left and in her place was a young man wearing rimless glasses and too-long curly light brown hair.

 

Before he could introduce himself, Sean bellowed, "Will! What are you doing here? I thought you weren't working tonight."

 

"Had to make sure you were doing right by Buffy, didn't I?" Will said with a smile in her direction.  He extended his hand and Buffy automatically reached out and shook it as he continued, "Did he treat you right? Or do I have to take him out behind the mall and put the fear of God into him?"  He squeezed her hand lightly before releasing it to favor Sean with a mock glare.

 

Buffy laughed nervously at the idea of the slender, bookish man in front of her taking the much larger Sean anywhere, but stopped when she remembered what he'd said about Will and his temper. She quickly nodded, saying, "Yes, he fed me and entertained me and got me back to work on time. So it's all good."  She favored Will with a dazzling smile, pleased when he smiled back at her and stopped pretending to glare at Sean.

 

"Glad to hear it." He turned toward Sean and answered the other man's earlier question as if there had been no interruption.  "Marcia had to leave for some kind of baby emergency, and she called me to come in for her."

 

"What's wrong?" Buffy's anxious question brought his head swiveling back to her.

 

"Nothing serious. Just something the babysitter couldn't handle and Dad wasn't home yet. We're not to worry – those were her direct orders."

 

Buffy nodded and moved away from the two men to wait on one of the browsing customers who was staring at a shelf and frowning.  While she helped the woman find the latest book on becoming multi-orgasmic – "for my best friend," she hastened to assure Buffy – Sean and Will chatted quietly at the front of the store. 

 

It was a busier night than normal for that time of the year, and after having one too many conversations interrupted by either Buffy or Will – or both – having to help a customer, Sean told them "goodnight" and left, promising Buffy he would come back soon and treat her to a real dinner.

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

It was only a few minutes before closing time when the steady procession of customers ended and Buffy and Will actually had time to say more than a few work-related words to each other.  While he leaned against the counter, Buffy sank into a chair and took her sandals off, rubbing her aching feet vigorously.

 

"Note to self - do not wear heels to work anymore."

 

Will laughed as he lounged against the glass case, seeming perfectly fine with having worked all day and then having to come back for another couple of hours. 

 

"Ah, but they look so lovely on you. You have perfect little feet, Buffy. You should show them off all the time."

 

Buffy blushed and muttered something about needing a masseuse to follow her around if she did that; looking down and completely missing the way Will's eyes roamed from her feet up her bare leg as far as he could see. By the time she looked back up, he was smiling sympathetically.

 

"Pay me no mind, luv. If you look around the mall, you'll find that all the experienced saleswomen here have at least two pair of shoes and they change them all the time.  Even in Nordstrom, they don't spend the whole day in heels. I'm surprised Marcia didn't mention it to you."

 

"I guess this is the first time it's been so busy. Usually I have time to sit down or stand behind the counter with my shoes off," Buffy said. "I'll have to remember that about the other shoes."

 

He pulled open one of the drawers behind the counter and showed her the comfy-looking flats that Marcia had stored there.  "There's room for more in here. Be sure you bring yourself something to change into every night."

 

"Good advice. Thanks."

 

"I'm here to help," he said.  "Now let's get the money counted and the store locked up for the night."

 

Buffy watched closely as he turned out lights, checked locks and then ushered her into the mall so he could bring down the metal mesh that covered the store's entrance while it was closed.  He insisted on walking Buffy outside and waiting with her until her father drove up to take her home.

 

"I'm really fine here, you know," Buffy said, smiling at his gentlemanly behavior, but unable to shake the confidence in her own ability to take care of herself that she'd lived with for so long in her delusional world.

 

"I'm sure you are, but my mother would never forgive me if I walked off and left you out here by yourself."

 

"Your mother?"

 

"Lovely woman, but a bit unreasonable when it comes to my manners."

 

Buffy giggled at his disgruntled expression, teasing, "So, you wouldn't be here if you weren't afraid of your mother, huh?"

 

"Maybe not," he admitted. "Guess I should thank her, yeah?" He nudged her arm and winked.

 

Buffy blushed at his blatant flirting, but was saved from having to answer him by the arrival of her father in what she couldn't stop thinking of as his mid-life crisis car.  Giving Will a, "Thanks for waiting with me, goodnight," she quickly opened the car door and got in.  She waved as they pulled away.

 

"Made a new friend?" her father said with a sideways look.

 

"Wha- huh? Oh, Will? No. I mean, yes, I guess he's a new friend. He works at the same store, but he's usually not there when I am. Marcia had to leave early tonight and she asked him to come in to help out."

 

"Did she ask him to walk you to your car, too?"

 

Buffy smiled at her father's gentle teasing. "No. He said his mother would never forgive him if he left me standing out there all alone, so he insisted on waiting until you showed up."

 

"Your mother is going to be so disappointed," he laughed.

 

"Well, I did go out to dinner with his friend, Sean," Buffy said.  "That should make her happier."

 

Joyce was, in fact, quite pleased to hear that Buffy had made friends with not one, but two young men.  Attempts to pick up where she'd left off with her old friends from middle school and her freshman year of high school hadn't gone anywhere. Too many of them remembered that Buffy had been withdrawn from school due to some behavior issues that caused her to be hospitalized; and even those who didn't remember what she'd done had moved on with their lives and barely remembered her.

 

After one too many disappointing phone calls to girls she'd once been sure she'd be friends with for the rest of her life, Buffy refused to call anyone else, telling her mother that she would have to make "new, grown-up friends" among the people she would meet at the community college or the mall.

 

 

~~~~~~~~

 

 

To her surprise, when she arrived at work the next evening, Will was still there and Buffy looked at Marcia in surprise. 

 

"Am I fired?"

 

Marcia laughed and shook her head.  "No, actually, I think you've learned the ropes so well that I don't think I need to be here so much.  Will and I talked this morning, and he has agreed to come in a little later in the day so that he can stay here in the evenings and I can go home to my family.  You don't mind, do you, Buffy?"

 

Buffy glanced at Will's warm smile and shook her head.

 

"No. I don't mind. I'm glad we can let you spend some more time at home."

 

"I can keep in touch from there - if anything comes up that you can't handle, I'm just a phone call away, or an e-mail," she said as she was gathering up her purse and jacket.  "Okay, I'm off. Let me know if you have any problems, I can be back in ten or fifteen minutes."

 

"What? You don't trust us not to ruin your life's work while you're gone?"  Will's voice was gently teasing and Marcia responded by wagging her finger in his face.

 

"If you can live with knowing you'd be taking food out of the mouths of my children...."

 

"Go on," he said with a snort of laughter. "We'll be fine."

 

With a final wave, Marcia left and Buffy quickly went behind the counter to put a small bag in the drawer.  Peering over her shoulder, Will smiled when he realized what was in the bag.

 

"Brought some other shoes with you, did you?"

 

She flushed and nodded.  "I did. It was a good idea.  Especially if we have another night like last night."

 

He nodded his approval and watched her put the shoes away. However, the night remained fairly quiet and Buffy had a lot of opportunity to rest her feet. There was also plenty of time for conversation while they worked at straightening up the tables of remaindered books, and by the end of the evening, Buffy felt as though she'd known Will for years and that he was one of her best friends.  He'd shared much of his life story with her, telling her all about his reluctant move to California after his father died and his mother remarried an American businessman.

 

"So, you don't like it here?"

 

"Now I do. It was just a rough first few months - being wrenched away from everyone and every place I'd ever known.  But I survived it.  Don't think I'd want to move back there now."

 

 

It wasn't long before they had established a regular routine for their quieter nights – Buffy going out for dinner first, sometimes with Sean who stopped by at least once a week – and then Will running out to eat and flirt with the girls in the stores on either side of theirs.  When the store was busy, they kept it running efficiently, working together seamlessly without much need for conversation about what each was going to do next.  It was comfortable and familiar in a way Buffy was enjoying more than she cared to admit.

 

As the weeks wore on and Buffy and Will became more and more at ease with each other, it was becoming much harder for her to avoid mentioning her hospitalization.  She'd told Sean – who was now more of a friend-of-a-friend than a potential date – that she'd been "away" for several years, using that as an excuse for only beginning her freshman year of college at an age when most girls would have been in their junior or senior year.  Now that he had given up the idea of dating her, Sean didn't seem all that curious about her past and he accepted her explanations without question.

 

Will, however, was much more perceptive, and that, combined with the large amounts of time they spent together, meant Buffy found herself having a much more difficult time denying that she was lying by not telling him the truth.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

They were just preparing to close up one night when Will accidentally barked his shin on an open drawer.

 

"Bloody hell!"

 

Her breath caught in her throat and she suddenly flashed to blonder, slicked back hair and a long leather coat.  She stared at him, her eyes unfocused as she fought back the memories now flooding her imagination. While her mind filled with scenes of violent fights, spell-induced kisses, loud arguments and quiet conversations, her eyes were staring blindly at Will, who was trying to get her attention.

 

"Buffy?  What's wrong?  I'm sorry about my language, but damn, that hurt!" When she didn't acknowledge him, he touched her arm gently.  "Buffy? Are you alright?"

 

Startled out of her reverie, she jerked in panic and flinched away from him, her breath coming in hard gasps as she looked at him with newly aware eyes.  Without answering, she ran her eyes over his lean, muscular body, noting exactly how tall he was in relation to her and the grace with which he moved.  She looked into his worried eyes, registering the familiar blue color and the dark lashes before moving on to his sharp cheekbones.  Still without explanation, she grabbed his chin and held his head still while she stared at his eyebrows, exhaling in relief when she saw that they were both perfect – unmarred by the scar she'd been afraid she would find there.

 

"You're freaking me out a bit here, pet," he said softly, so as not to startle her. "Want to tell old Will what's going on?"

 

Her shoulders slumped and she shuddered, collapsing into a chair and putting her head in her hands.  She kept shaking her head as he hovered over her, unsure of what to do but afraid to touch her again.

 

"Buffy? Talk to me, luv.  What did I do?"

 

She took a deep breath and raised her head to smile at him apologetically. "Nothing, Sp-Will--" She bit her lip and continued. "You didn't do anything. I just...I need to go now.  I'll talk to you tomorrow.  I'll...maybe I'll explain then. Okay?"

 

"Okay," he agreed, "but you're not running out of here this upset by yourself.  Let me finish up and I'll walk you out."

 

Instead of arguing, Buffy just stepped out into the mall corridor and waited patiently.  She kept her attention sharply focused on the various posters in the shop window, reading them over and over until she was sure she could have reproduced them if needed.  She kept her eyes away from Will, refusing to look at him again until they were on their way outside.

 

"You are going to explain this to me, aren't you?" he asked quietly as they stood waiting for her mother to pull up.

 

"I will...someday. I promise. I just...I need to talk to someone first...and I need to—Oh, look! Here's Mom!"

 

Joyce refused to acknowledge Buffy's frantic clawing at the locked door, choosing instead to get out and come around the car with her hand held out.

 

"Hello," she said with a warm smile. "I guess you must be Will.  I'm Buffy's mother, Joyce. I want to thank you for keeping her safe every night."

 

"It's my pleasure, Mrs. Summers," he responded taking her hand and shaking it with just the right amount of warmth. "I'm sure she's perfectly safe here, but..."

 

Joyce gave Buffy a quick glance, immediately reading her agitation and decided to forgo her planned interrogation of the young man who figured so prominently in Buffy's stories about work in the bookstore.  She gave him another warm smile and clicked the unlock button on her keys.

 

"Well, I appreciate it," she said quickly. "Even if she doesn't. So thank you. I hope to see you again sometime."

 

With Buffy already in the car, Joyce hurried around to the driver's side and got in, not speaking until they had pulled away from sidewalk where Will was staring after them.

 

"What happened?"

 

"I need to see Dr. Swinson," Buffy replied. "Tomorrow."

 

"Buffy..."

 

"It's okay, Mom. I'm still here. It's just that...I'll tell you about it after I talk to her, okay?  It was just a flashback – I never went away, I just couldn't stop the memories and Will..."

 

"What about Will?" Joyce had gone into mother bear mode and was clearly ready to turn around and handle whatever the young man might have done to upset her daughter. "What did he do?"

 

"Nothing, Mom. Relax. You don't need to hit him with an axe or anything..." Buffy let her head fall back against the head restraint. "Oh, crap."

 

"I want an explanation, young lady. And I want it now. If that man did something to make you have flashbacks..."

 

"All he did was curse in British."

 

"Excuse me?"

 

"He said 'bloody hell', Mom. That's all he did."

 

Joyce was silent for a while as she digested that information.  She knew quite a bit about Buffy's delusional world – both from things Buffy herself had said, and from conversations with the doctors when Buffy was younger. 

 

"So," she said carefully, "which one was it he reminded you of? The older man –Giles was it? Or the vampire?"

 

"It was Spike," Buffy admitted.  "He sounded just like him, and I...I just lost it. All of a sudden I was remembering stuff about Spike, things he did, things he said—"

 

"Wasn't Spike the one who was in love with you?  Maybe it was your sub-conscious taking another look at Will and realizing that he wants to be more than just friends."

 

Buffy startled and her head swiveled towards her mother. "Oh my God. I'll bet that's it."  The car was now parked in the driveway and Buffy leaned over to hug her mother tightly.  "Thank you, Mom. Of course that's it. I mean, not that I think Will really...we're just really good friends...but it makes sense that he'd remind me of someone else who was a friend and used words like that."

 

"Remind you of an imaginary someone," Joyce reminded her gently. 

 

"Right. Imaginary someone.  I knew that."

 

 

 

Chapter Four

 

In spite of having an explanation that seemed to make sense to both of them, Buffy and Joyce agreed that she should probably move up her scheduled appointment with Dr. Swinson. The doctor's staff quickly arranged for Buffy to see her the following morning.

 

Dr. Swinson greeted Buffy warmly, hugging her and leading her into the familiar office with its comfortable chairs.  They exchanged small talk for a few minutes, Buffy happily recounting how she'd driven there herself with minimal assistance from Joyce.

 

"I've been taking driving lessons from a professional driving school, and they think I'm ready to get my license.  It's going to be so much easier on Mom when she doesn't have to arrange her work schedule around taking me to school and work."

 

"Doesn't your father help out with that?"

 

Buffy's face clouded briefly. "Well, sure, he does. But you know, he's always busy and his work takes him away a lot, and...." Her voice trailed off.

 

Dr. Swinson studied her face for a few seconds. "Okay. Well, it will be a great day then when you get your license, won't it?"

 

Buffy nodded, eager to bring the conversation back to the things that were going well in her life.  "Yep. And since I have a job, I should be able to buy myself a used car and not have to depend on them at all.  For transportation, anyway."

 

The doctor smiled at her enthusiasm, then sobered. "So, are you ready to tell me why you needed to see me a week early?"

 

Buffy frowned, then briefly recapped the night's events, including Joyce's guess as to why Will's words had triggered memories of Spike.  Dr. Swinson listened and sat in silence until Buffy began to stir restlessly. She immediately lifted her head and smiled with reassurance.

 

"I think your mother might well be on to something," she with a small laugh.  "If this young man is harboring romantic feelings towards you, I can see how it would trigger memories of the last man you remember falling in love with you."

 

"Last vampire who fell in love with me," Buffy corrected.  She hesitated, and then said, "There's more."

 

Dr Swinson raised her eyebrows.

 

"Will... he kind of, sort of... looks like Spike.  I mean, no bleached hair or fangs, but he's the same size and build, and his eyes are the same color...."

 

"Coincidence, Buffy. Surely you realize that?  How many men with that build and blue eyes do you think there are living in the greater Los Angeles area?"

 

"With British accents?"

 

"Okay, I'll give you that. They may be less common. But Los Angeles is a multicultural city. People move here from all over the world – including England. All those actors who come here from England or Australia, plus anyone else who moved here for other reasons like Will apparently did. It's a big coincidence, I'll grant you, but that's all it is.  That's all it can be. You believe that, don't you?"

 

"Oh, yeah. I understand that. It's just that it really freaked me out, you know? Like all those memories were so... so real. And I couldn't stop them. I almost called him Spike!" Buffy paused and bit her lip. "Okay, I have another question for you"

 

"Yes?"

 

"Okay, you explained that Will looking like Spike is probably—" Dr. Swinson raised an eyebrow and Buffy hastily amended, "is a coincidence. But what if I know other people who remind me of people in my delusion? How many coincidences can there be?"

 

"That's an easy one, Buffy. I'm surprised you didn't come to this conclusion yourself.  More likely than your meeting new people who remind you of those in your imaginary world, is that you will find many of the characters in that world actually remind you of people you have already met. Incorporating them into that world would have saved you the energy required to replace everyone in your life completely." She smiled at Buffy.  "Your mother and father had the same roles – even though they behaved differently – so they stayed the same. However, I'm sure most of the other people in that world were based on people you already knew or had seen somewhere.  In fact, if you'd met Will somewhere before you got sick, I would say that you'd probably based Spike on him."  She looked at Buffy intently.  "Is there any chance of that?"

 

Buffy frowned. "I...I don't think so.  I never asked him where he went to high school, and he's older than me... but I guess if he was a senior... or somebody's older brother....  I'll ask him tonight!" she said with excitement in her voice.  "Wouldn't it be weird if he went to Hemery?  That means Sean would have, too – which explains why he seems familiar sometimes."

 

"I don't think it would be weird at all," Dr. Swinson smiled. "I think it would make perfect sense. And it would explain why you invented a character that seems to resemble him."

 

Buffy gave a sigh of relief, and sank back in her chair.

 

"It would explain a lot," she said, slumping with relief. "I knew you would have an explanation. You know everything!"

 

Dr. Swinson gave a soft laugh and looked embarrassed. "I don't know everything, Buffy.  When it comes to you, I'm amazed at what I don't know.  But I do have an idea..."

 

Buffy sat up and waited for the doctor to continue.

 

"I thought about doing this as soon as you began to get well, but I wanted you to remove yourself from that world as much as possible at that time.  However, now that you seem to have such a good grip on the real world, we – you may find this useful.  I want you to get two notebooks.  In one of them, I want you to jot down every time you have a flashback.  What set it off, if you know what it was.  What was it – real 'memory' or just a flash of something familiar? Was it a person, a place or an event? How long did the flashback last and how did it make you feel? What emotions did it elicit?"

 

"Dr. Swinson, you keep calling them 'flashbacks' and 'memories', but if that world was all in my mind, aren't they just... nothing?"

 

"I call them 'memories' because, for you, that's what they are.  That world is where, for all intents and purposes, you have been for the last several years.  Your body was here with us in Shady Pines, but your mind was somewhere else. Those memories are all you have of that time – and all you are ever likely to have. I cannot imagine, as deeply as you were into your imaginary world, that you are likely to have any conscious memories of anything else.  I'm sure anytime the real world managed to intrude into that other life, it was quickly explained away as a dream."

 

"So, my dreams were my real world, and the real world was a dream?"

 

"Basically. I would love to think that at some level you knew what was really going on around you, and that we were trying to help you; but except for whatever your subconscious may have picked up from the television, I seriously doubt it. You were fighting us too hard."  She shook her head, saying, "You said yourself that you think you must have incorporated many of the things going on here into your delusion.  We hated to use restraints or force on you, but as you know...."

 

"Yeah." Buffy sighed.  "At least some of the times I thought I was fighting minions, or chained up—" She stopped to shake her head free of the memory of Spike's unique method of telling her he loved her.  "At least some of the time, I guess I really was fighting... somebody or something."

 

"You were," Dr. Swinson said kindly.  "It was all we could do for so many years – just try to keep you safe and quiet. If you remember what I told you when you first came back to us, it wasn't until we started you on the new anti-psychotics that you began to be here long enough for me to begin serious therapy."

 

"I'd almost forgotten about the drugs," Buffy said, her eyes narrowing. "I'm not sure I like that I was on drugs. How could I have forgotten that?"

 

"It wasn't necessary for you to remember it. As soon as you were able to remain mentally here – with us – for extended periods of time, we began to wean you off the meds.  They're very powerful and can have unintended side effects; but in your case, they were what it took to break the hold over you that your imaginary world had. Once the hold was broken...."

 

"So, I could go crazy again at any time?"  Buffy's willingness to openly express her deepest fear brought a quick response from her doctor.

 

"I certainly hope not!" Dr. Swinson said.  "I'd like to think that once we broke you out of that world, it lost its hold over your imagination. However," she said, staring hard at Buffy, "if at any time you feel yourself slipping away – even if it's just a dream from which you wake up in the morning – I want you to come in immediately. I would much rather you come in willingly before things get bad, than for your parents to have to bring you in because you've lost touch with reality again."

 

Buffy nodded. "I wouldn't want that to happen, either. I've done enough to screw up their lives already."

 

"They love you," the doctor said quickly. "Please don't think of yourself as a burden to them."

 

Buffy shrugged. "So, what's the other notebook for?"

 

"Ah, that one I want you to use to write down everything you know or can remember about your other world. In chronological order."

 

At Buffy's shocked reaction, she smiled. 

 

"I know it sounds strange that I want you to remember it, but this is where you've been. These are the experiences you think you've had."  She hesitated, admitting, "In all honesty, it's as much for me as for you.  I can rationalize much of what you seem to know, but I'm having a hard time understanding how you went from a high school freshman to a college freshman without ever having cracked a textbook. Or, that your mother tells me about the books you've "read" that we know we don't have here at the hospital. There are some really intriguing gaps in your experience that you seem to have managed to fill somehow, and I'd like to try to figure out how.  It could help me cure someone else someday."

 

"Ooookay," Buffy said dubiously. "I don't think one notebook is going to do it, though..."

 

"Probably not." Dr. Swinson nodded her agreement. "But let's just begin with one notebook and see how it goes.  You'll basically be writing the detailed history of the past several years as you think you lived it."

 

"Don't you already have most of this on tape?"

 

"I do. I have a great deal of the major events and facts: that you believed yourself to be Chosen to slay vampires; that those creatures actually exist; and the names of the people who were important to you in that world. What I don't have is the day-to-day record of that life.  The incredibly detailed structure that you created to make the delusion work as well as it did."

 

She paused and looked at Buffy's worried face, smiling her reassurance.

 

 "If you just start writing, almost like you were keeping a daily journal – except, of course, that you will have to remember the events from years ago rather than writing them down as they are fresh in your mind – I think it will work.  You can always go back and fill in other details as they occur to you."

 

"So, I'm not sure I get this: instead of trying to avoid remembering stuff that never happened, you want me to write it down? Just like it was real?"

 

"I do." Dr. Swinson nodded firmly.  "It may actually help you to maintain your grip on the real world, as you record these somewhat... um... unusual events."

 

Buffy gave her a wry grin. "You mean you think having to admit to myself that I think there are such things as vampires and demons and witches might embarrass me out of it?"

 

"Something like that." Dr. Swinson smiled warmly.  "Let's give it a try. If you think it's becoming too stressful, or that you're dwelling on that life too much, then stop immediately and give me a call. I don't want this to backfire on you."

 

"I'm game if you are." Buffy felt a strange sense of relief that she was no longer going to have to smother the memories that popped up from time to time. She looked at the doctor eagerly. "I'm going to get those notebooks on the way home – but I'm going to get three of them."

 

"Three?"

 

"I'm going to keep track of everybody I can remember from before I got sick – and I'm going to try to figure out who I might have made them into in my delusion."

 

"That's an excellent idea, Buffy. The more you understand where the imaginary people came from, the less likely you will be to go back to believing that they are real."

 

"This was great, Doc! Thanks so much." Buffy jumped from the chair, ran around the desk and gave Dr. Swinson a hug before bolting out the door and grabbing her mother's hand.  "Come on, Mom. We've got a stop to make before we get home."

 

As Buffy tried to explain what Dr. Swinson wanted her to do, she could see Joyce's face tightening up.

 

"It's going to be okay, Mom.  Really.  It's like I'll be writing a story – and it will be so weird and unreal that it will help me understand why it can't be true.  And, bonus, I don't have to feel guilty or worry every time I think I'm remembering something that isn't real.  I can just write it down and go about my business.  It'll work. You'll see."

 

"I hope you're right, honey."

 

 

 

Chapter Five

 

 

Since Buffy and Will couldn't be out of the store at the same time, Sean had formed the habit of eating dinner with whichever one was free on the occasional nights he dropped by. Between the two of them, Buffy had learned a lot about their lives and friendship. Both had been jocks – Sean a football player and Will a valued member of the soccer, or, as he insisted on calling it, "real football", team.  They both loved the beach and were weekend surfers.

 

They'd gone to different colleges and pursued different career paths, but somehow had maintained the friendship they'd begun when Will first arrived at South Lakes High School, a stranger to both the school and the country.  Sean had taken the smart, funny and athletic young Brit under his wing.  Will's need for friends and guidance in the ways of his new country was long gone, but he still remembered Sean's welcome assistance when everything was new and different and, in spite of the differences in their current life styles, he still enjoyed his old friend's company.

 

There'd been a few days of awkwardness between them following Buffy's first dinner with Sean, but Will's growing feelings for her were more than obvious to someone who had known him so long, and Sean had eased himself out of the picture without making a big deal of it.  His transition from potential dating material to casual friend was so gradual and seamless that none of them noticed there'd been a change.  Will was Buffy's daily companion, and Sean his charming friend who showed up occasionally to visit with them on slow nights.

 

Having the steady company of two such different but good-looking and entertaining men more than made up for the lack of actual dating in Buffy's life.  And if she occasionally woke in the middle of the night, remembering scenes of fighting with and against men who bore an uncanny resemblance to her two new friends, she just jotted the memories down in her notebook and went back to sleep – happily ignoring both the resemblances and the occasions in which her dream men were wearing fangs and distorted faces.

 

~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Since Buffy took her notebooks with her everywhere, she couldn't hide them from Will for very long.  It didn't take him long to realize that she wasn't doing homework when she sat down during lulls and jotted things down in one or the other of the notebooks, but his first question about what she was writing so vigorously put such a frightened expression on her face that he quickly backed off and assured her that he didn't want to pry into her business.  However, his curiosity was obviously killing him, and one evening when the store was particularly quiet, and she had been scribbling furiously, he couldn't contain himself any longer.

 

"Should I be worried?" he said with a teasing smile.  Buffy blinked at him.

 

"Worried? About what?"

 

"That you're going to be a famous author long before I am." 

 

"Oh—you mean this stuff...." She studied his kind face, searching for any sign of a mean streak that she was sure he didn't have.  When she saw nothing there but affection and genuine curiosity, she beckoned him to sit down opposite her.

 

"If I..." She stopped, shook her head and stared over. "I want to tell you some... stuff... about me, but I'm afraid you won't like me anymore and you'll want to stay as far away from me as you can get."

 

He reached forward and took her hand in his. The calluses from his martial arts training gave her another flashback to a paler hand with similar rough areas and she gasped.  Frowning at her response, but encouraged that she hadn't pulled away, he stroked her hand gently.

 

"Buffy, I think you know by now that there isn't much you could do to make me stay away from you.  I'm your friend, and if you want to tell me what you're doing, I want to hear it. But if you don't, if it's too personal or none of my business, that's alright, too."

 

"I know you're my friend, Will," she said. "And I trust you, I do. I—" A sudden flashback to a time when she hadn't trusted Spike and been surprised to find she could sent her diving for her "memory" book.  She hastily scribbled down enough to remind her that she needed to write about Spike and how he'd earned her trust for the first time.

 

She finished her notes and looked up with an apologetic smile.  "I'm sorry. I did it again, didn't I?  I'm going to explain, really. You just have to promise you won't think I'm crazy.... Er, well, actually, that's kinda what I have to tell you – that I am crazy. Or, I was, but now I'm better and all this writing stuff down is supposed to be helping me stay better."

 

Taking a deep breath, she glanced around to be sure there weren't any customers and then began. "I spent the past few... okay, several... years in a mental hospital," she said, looking him firmly in the eye as she did so.  He just nodded encouragingly and sat back in his chair.  Twenty minutes later, she was winding down just as a mother and her daughter came into the store looking for some research materials and Buffy got up to wait on them.

 

When she had checked them out, she walked slowly back to where Will was still sitting in his chair, seemingly staring off into space. He glanced up when he felt her approach and gave her a warm smile.

 

"So," he said, "I was right. You will be a famous writer long before I am. There's no way I can match that imagination."  There was no mockery in his voice, or on his expressive face, just a soft understanding and a trace of admiration.

 

"Yeah, that's me. Buffy the imaginer," she agreed with a wry smile.  "Pretty weird, huh?"

 

"It's pretty amazing, actually."  He picked up the notebook in which she was recording her memories of her daily life as well as she could remember it.  "May I?"

 

Buffy nodded shyly.  "I'm supposed to be keeping a journal—except it's all stuff that happened a long time ago, so I tend only to remember the exciting stuff.  Sort of like a diary, I guess. Only with blood and killing things."

 

Without responding, he skimmed through the first several pages, pausing occasionally to read something more carefully, then skipping ahead again.  Buffy fidgeted in her chair, grateful when she had to get up again to wait on customers and didn't have to watch his face as he read through what she still sometimes thought of as her life.

 

"Will?" she said, interrupting his reading. "It's time to go home."

 

He stood up and handed the notebook back to her, gesturing at the other ones. "So what's in those?"

 

"Oh, well, this one is for my flashbacks. Each time it happens, I have to write down what it was and what I think might have triggered it. "  She flushed and looked at the rug. "I think that's Dr. Swinson's way of making sure that I'm not spending too much time out of touch with reality. If I have to stop and write stuff down, it reminds me that it didn't really happen."

 

"And this one?" He pointed at the one that seemed the least used.

 

"That was my idea. I was going to write down everything I can remember from my real life, before I got sick.  To see how many things or people I put into my delusion that are actually based on real people or things that happened."

 

"And how's that working out?"

 

Buffy frowned. "Probably not as well as she thought it would. Except for my parents, I haven't come up with anybody I used to know who reminds me of somebody in Sunnydale." 

 

He cocked his head at her in a gesture already so familiar that she no longer bothered to enter it in her "flashback" notebook.

 

"Does this have anything to do with asking me and Sean what high school we went to?"

 

Buffy blushed. "Yeah, it does.  I thought maybe if you guys went to Hemery, even if you were, like, way ahead of me, I might have seen you often enough to...."

 

"To make us part of your fantasy?"

 

"It isn't... wasn't a 'fantasy'. It was a delusion. An imaginary world." Buffy glared at him, which felt much too familiar considering that this was the first time Will had so much as mildly annoyed her since they'd met.

 

"And we were part of that imaginary world?  Seriously?"

 

"I don't know," she mumbled, embarrassed at how silly it sounded when she said it out loud. "I just know that you look a lot like Sp—one of the people in my delusion. You even have sort of the same name," she added when he started to shrug.  "And Sean kinda looks like An—another person I knew there. And you're kind of connected. I mean being friends and having gone to high school together and stuff, so I just thought...."

 

"But we didn't go to Hemery, Buffy," he said.  "We don't even know anyone who did.  We're from the opposite side of the city."

 

"I know," she pouted. "You told me.  But you look so much like him!"

 

"Ah, come on, luv." he said, "How many men must there be who look like me?  I mean, granted, they can't all be this good-looking, but—"

 

"And now you're starting to sound like him," she said, stamping her foot.  "Don't do that!"

 

"Why not?" His brow wrinkled at her uncharacteristic vehemence.  "I thought you wanted to have more flashbacks to write in your little book there."

 

"I don't want them! I want to understand them.  And right now, every time I look at you, you say or do something that makes me think of Spike!"

 

"Spike?  I remind you of some guy called 'Spike'?"  Will did his best to look only curious, but something in his expression made Buffy narrow her eyes suspiciously.

 

"Yes, Spike. Why?"

 

"No reason. No reason at all."  He bit back a comment about not caring to be compared to someone whose name reminded him of a dog.

 

"You're lying. You've always been a lousy—I mean—" Buffy slumped back into the chair and moaned.  "Oh, God. Now I'm starting to talk to you like you are Spike.  I knew this was a bad idea."

 

Torn by her obvious distress, Will dropped to his knees in front of her.

 

"I'm sorry, luv.  Please don't be upset. We'll figure this out.  There's got to be an explanation.  Maybe we met somewhere else.  I used to work at soccer camps in the summers when I was in high school; maybe you were at one of them?"

 

Buffy shook her head. "I was an ice-skater and a gymnast. I never played other sports because I was afraid I'd get hurt and not be able to compete when I needed to."

 

"Well, I'm sure there's a reasonable explanation for all this. We just have to sort it out."

 

"The only reasonable explanation is that I'm going crazy again."  Her shoulders tensed and her face fell into unhappy lines.

 

"Don't say that!" he snapped, fighting the urge to shake her.  "You're here now, and you're going to stay here. You're going to finish college and...and lead a perfectly normal life."

 

"Don't be so sure," she grumbled, even as she relaxed a little.  "You don't know that."

 

"I know that you're strong and brave and smart, and that you're not going to let this thing ruin your life.  I won't let you."

 

Buffy suddenly leaned forward to where he still knelt in front of her and brushed her lips across his.  Then gasped as the memory of another time and place, another grateful kiss, hit her.

 

"What's that, then?" Will asked quietly, not moving away.

 

"Thank you. Thank you for being my friend and for believing in me and for not wanting to run away when you found out you were working with a crazy person."

 

His eyes asking for silent permission, Will leaned in and touched his lips to hers, lingering just long enough to make it clear that it was a kiss, but not so long as to make her uncomfortable.  He sat back and cocked his head again, noticing her tiny flinch, but ignoring it in favor of saying what he wanted to say.

 

"I can't imagine anything you could do that would make me want to run away from you," he said, raising one hand to tuck a piece of hair behind her ear.

 

When her only reply was to blush from her hairline to what he could see of her cleavage, he sighed and rose gracefully to his feet, holding out his hand and pulling her up too.

 

"Let's get you home and we'll figure this out some more tomorrow, yeah?"

 

"Yeah, okay. Let me get my stuff."  She scooped up her notebooks and pen, got her purse and good shoes from the drawer and walked outside to wait for him to drop the anti-theft barrier.  They walked through the mall, not speaking but in a relatively comfortable silence for two people whose friendship had perhaps just moved to a new level.

 

As they walked towards the parking lot, Buffy tried to come to grips with this new development in her life.  She'd made a lot of casual friends among the other girls her age working in nearby stores, and even had a few "study buddies" from the college.  However, no one had become a part of her life the way Will had.

 

Buffy's admission that she'd been in a mental hospital, and the subsequent exchange of kisses, contributed to a few anxious moments when they approached Will's car. What had begun as a friendly gesture on his part—dropping her off at home after work so that her parents didn't have to work around her schedule—suddenly loomed much larger.

 

When he moved ahead to open the car door for her, she froze and stared at him with wide eyes.

 

"What's wrong?"

 

"Nothing. Except... I can open my own doors.  You don't need to—"

 

Will sighed and closed the door, leaning up against it to look at her.

 

"Buffy," he began, pausing and running his hands through his hair.  "I can't take back the kiss.  And I can't take back anything I said tonight.  But if it's going to make you uncomfortable to be around me—"

 

"I'm sorry," she whispered.  "I don't mean to... and I'm not saying we can't... but I...." She blew out her breath in a loud sigh.  "I just told you a big, important secret about me.  And I did it because you're my friend. I trust you, and I... I need... I need to know that you're still my friend."

 

He reached out a hand and pulled her closer, almost, but not quite holding her in a loose embrace.

 

"I will always be your friend, Buffy. No matter what else does or doesn't happen between us—nothing will change that.  I can't tell you what it means that you shared your secret with me.  That you trust me that much.  I don't want to do anything to jeopardize that relationship.  And I sure as hell don't want you to be uncomfortable or afraid to be alone with me."

 

Buffy shook her head in frustration. "See? This is the problem. I don't know how to do this. In real life, I've never had a boyfriend—not since ninth grade, anyway.  In my imaginary world, I've had at least some—or, well, two maybe... if you don't count that jerk, Parker... and Spike isn't.... Anyway, the point is, I don't know how to behave with a guy who likes me. I don't know how to date, I don't know how to not date if I don't want to, and I don't know how to tell what the guy wants.  It scares me. I don't want to do something wrong and lose you as my friend."

 

"Not gonna happen, luv."  He stood up and opened the car door again.  "Tell you what. You decide if, when and how much you want our relationship to change. I won't push you, and if anything I do or say makes you uncomfortable, you just tell me, yeah?  I'll stop."

 

"Really?" Buffy said, as she slid into the car.  "You'll let me be the decider?"

 

"That's what I said, isn't it?" He got into the driver's side and pulled his door closed.  As he worked on putting the key in the ignition, he turned his head to grin at her.  "Doesn't mean I'm not going to be hovering around, mind you. Just in case you do decide you want more; I don't want to be too far away."  He waggled an eyebrow at her and gave her a theatrical leer.

 

Buffy giggled and relaxed into her seat.  The rest of the ride home was spent in easy small talk that ended when they reached her house.

 

 

 

Chapter Six

 

"Do you want to come in?" Buffy asked. 

 

They'd formed the habit of having tea or hot chocolate with her mother one or two evenings a week if she was still up when Buffy got home.  Joyce was becoming quite fond of the young man who was doing so much to keep Buffy out of her imagination and in the normal world.

 

"Not tonight, pet.  I'm meeting Sean at some new club he found. He needs a wingman, so I said I'd come by when I got you safely home."

 

"Wingman?"

 

"I'll explain tomorrow," he said with a chuckle.  He opened his door and was around to her side of the car before she could step out. Offering his hand, he helped her to the sidewalk and closed the door behind her.  They walked slowly to her front door, suddenly aware that they would be saying "goodnight" on the front porch—a classic "should I or shouldn't I?" situation.  Will stopped before the steps and stayed there while Buffy started up. She stopped and turned around, her position on the bottom step putting her face level with his.  Their eyes locked and for a full minute they just stared at each other, neither one willing to risk tipping the balance.

 

Finally, with a "Bloody hell!" that seemed only too familiar, Will leaned forward and brushed his lips across hers.  Before he could move away, Buffy grabbed his face and held it still while she planted a chaste but firm kiss on his mouth.

 

"Goodnight, Will," she said, quickly backing up the steps before he could turn the kiss into anything more. "Thanks for the ride."

 

"My pleasure, Buffy. See you tomorrow."

 

"Tomorrow," she promised, opening the front door. "Tomorrow."

 

She watched through a crack in the curtain as he walked back to his car and got in, not dropping it until she couldn't see the taillights anymore.  She gave a guilty jump when she turned around and found her mother watching her.

 

"Is Will not coming in tonight?" Joyce asked with a smile.

 

"No. He's going to meet Sean somewhere." Buffy started towards the kitchen for an after-work snack.  "Mom, what's a 'wingman'?"

 

Joyce blinked several times, then laughed.  "I think it has something to do with picking up girls.  The wingman's job is to... you know, I'm not really sure what his job is. But I do know that it's the man who needs the wingman who's on the prowl," Joyce said with a shrewd glance at Buffy's face.  "The wingman isn't there to pick up a date. He's just a helper."

 

Buffy's shoulders relaxed and she opened the refrigerator. "Oh. Well, that's okay then."

 

"And it wouldn't have been okay if the wingman was picking up girls?"

 

"Well, no.... I mean, yes. Of course it would. Will and I are just friends, and he can— Are you laughing at me?"

 

Joyce shook her head and tried to hide her smile.  "Not really. I'm just happy to see you taking an interest in such a nice young man. That's all."

 

"He is nice, isn't he?" Buffy said.  "I think I like him."  She shrugged and picked up her notebooks. "Which, considering who he reminds me of, is really wild.  Spike would be so happy—" She caught a glimpse of her mother's suddenly tense face and quickly added, "If, of course, he was real. Which he isn't, so we don't care if he's happy or not. And I'm just going to...." She gestured at the hall and began sidling towards the escape route.  "Goodnight, Mom."

 

"Goodnight, Buffy," Joyce sighed, sitting on a kitchen stool and fighting the urge to cry.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Halloween proved a bit of a challenge to Buffy's ability to put her delusional world behind her.  The occasional costumed adult wandering through the mall sent adrenaline coursing through her veins at every glimpse of a distorted face or cheap, plastic fangs.  She almost backed out of her agreement to accompany Will and Sean to a party that night—afraid she might lose it and try to stake one of the guests. However, Will had laughingly assured her that very few of the guests were likely to be wearing vampire costumes.

 

"They're mostly Sean's friends from work. Lawyer types. Scary enough all on their own, really," he said with a straight face.

 

"You're sure?  I don't want to embarrass Sean by trying to drive a cocktail toothpick into the chest of one of his friends."  She bit her lip and gave a worried shrug.

 

"You'll be fine. Just keep reminding yourself, 'Yes, lawyers are evil, but they are allowed to be so in this world.  No staking or beheading is required'."

 

"Very funny," she muttered, punching him in the arm, then rubbing it in apology.

"I don't know why you put up with me," she sighed.  "I'm sure you could have found a sane girl to take to the party."

 

"Got the girl I want, don't I?" he replied, giving her a small hug.

 

True to his word, he hadn't physically followed up on the gentle kisses they'd exchanged after her confession about her illness. They had, however, begun to act more like a couple and less like co-workers and friends. Tonight's party was their first venture out into a social setting at night. Until this point, their only contact outside of work and rides to and from the store had consisted of the occasional trip to the beach with Sean, or an afternoon watching an LA Galaxy game at the Home Depot Center with some of Will's soccer-loving friends.  

 

There was no way, however, that tonight was not a date, and Buffy was nervous enough about that aspect of the evening without having to worry that a costumed guest might give her the flashback to end all flashbacks. 

 

She gave Will a grateful smile and stood up straighter. 

 

"I'll be fine," she said firmly as they arrived just in time to see Sean getting out of his car. 

 

"Know you will, luv."

 

Will waved at Sean, who waited for them to catch up and walk into the party with him.  He gave Buffy a friendly hug and said, "Try to see that he doesn't embarrass me, will you, Buffy?  These guys wouldn't know a Battlestar from a Space Shuttle. If he starts talking geek at them..."

 

Buffy giggled.   "I'll do my best. But you know how he is when someone asks him what he writes about..."

 

"My point exactly.  Keep him under control. No aliens, no alternate dimensions, and for God's sake, don't let him tell them he writes Science Fiction."

 

The first time Sean had twitted Will about his writing, Buffy had become wildly indignant in his defense. Now, she was more comfortable with their tradition of exchanging insults, letting the barbs flow over her as they sparred about evil lawyers and UFOs.

 

She gazed around at the other guests, noticing that, as Will had predicted, the vampires, witches, goblins and other familiar creatures that she might have expected to see at a Halloween party were few and far between. Those guests who had chosen to dress up were usually costumed as historical figures or pirates.  Only once had her heart rate sped up when a guest in a long red cloak spun around and leered at her, baring his very real-looking fangs. 

 

Will's whispered, "Easy, luv," calmed her immediately, and she just took a deep breath and smiled at the man.

 

"Hey, there, Drac,' she said, her voice steady. "Long time, no see. How have you been?"

 

Without explaining herself, she turned away and let Will lead her across the room.  He was chuckling to himself at the expression on Dracula's face and Buffy wrinkled you brow at him.

 

"What?"

 

"Nothing, pet. It's just – I'll bet that's not a response he's used to."  He looked at her quizzically. "So, Dracula, huh?  I must have missed that entry."

 

"I'm not quite caught up to that, yet," she said.  "But, yeah, Dracula.  Pretty clichˇ, huh?"

 

"Yeah, actually. Got to say, I'm a bit disappointed in you."  He grinned to take the sting out of his words and she laughed with him.  The fact that he could get her to joke about her illness and the things she'd done in that imaginary world was just one more reason to be very glad that he had found his way into her life.

 

That night, when he took her home, the goodnight kiss they exchanged was still brief and chaste, but full of promise. Buffy went to bed with a warm, comfortable feeling in her chest that had nothing to do with the party, and everything to do with the man who'd brought her home.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

 

alHaAfter a busy Saturday night, when it seemed as though everyone in Los Angeles had decided this was the night they would look for that obscure book that they couldn't find at Borders, Buffy and Will pulled the anti-theft barrier down while they had a temporarily empty store. Telling customers that they were closing hadn't seemed to discourage anyone from begging for "just five more minutes", so Will had decided he would just prevent any more people from entering.

 

They collapsed into the comfy chairs in the center of the store, and breathed matching sighs of relief.

 

"Wow! I can't wait for Christmas time, if this is what it's like already!"

 

"It's just going to get worse," Will assured her.

 

"Wonderful.  Is it too late to become a streetwalker? Oh wait, that'll make my feet hurt too... damn!"

 

He laughed softly and pulled her feet into his lap, gently massaging first one foot, then the other.  She tried to muffle her moan of relief and pleasure, but what he was doing felt too good.  Instead, she left her feet in his lap and slid down in her chair so that he didn't have to reach too far to continue his soothing motions.

 

She closed her eyes and leaned her head back, losing herself in the sheer sensual pleasure.  Unlike what happened so often when she was completely relaxed, there were no unwelcome memories of another life intruding on her quiet enjoyment of Will's attentions.  Her murmurs of appreciation were made almost in spite of herself as she basked in the attention. She was so relaxed it took her a few seconds to realize that the wonderful sensations had ceased.  She opened one eye to find him flushed and staring at her.

 

"You stopped."

 

He took a deep breath and began to rub her toes again.  "Yeah. I did. Sorry."

 

"No, it's okay." She sat up and gently pulled her feet back to the floor.  "I didn't mean that you had to keep doing it if you don't want to, I just..."

 

Will shifted uneasily, then stood up and turned his back to her. 

 

"I'll just get the money sorted and we can lock up for real," he said as he walked away.  Buffy stared at him in bewilderment, turning bright red when she realized what was wrong with him.

 

Oh my God! He got turned on rubbing my feet. He's got an erection that he's trying to hide.  I am soooo stupid!

 

Giving Will the space and privacy that he obviously needed, Buffy pulled on her sneakers, collected her extra shoes, notebooks and purse.  She walked over to the barrier across the front of the store and turned the key that would raise it.  In the months that she'd been working at Books and Browsers, she'd fairly quickly picked up the important things to know.  Although Will was still technically the store manager, he had taught Buffy how to do almost everything he did, giving her even more confidence in her ability to function in the real world. Sending a warm smile in his direction, she stepped into the mall and waited for him to join her.

 

They walked side-by-side to the employee entrance, Will apparently once again in control of his body as he brushed against her shoulder and teased her gently about having not had time to write anything in her notebooks.  Buffy bit her lip, then said, "You know what happened when you were rubbing my feet?"  At his panicked expression, she remembered what had happened to him and rushed on before he could stammer out an apology.

 

"To me! Do you know what happened to me?"

 

He shook his head dumbly, looking away from her and blushing.

 

"Usually, anytime I relax like that, I get flashbacks, or memories, or something. I almost feel like I'm getting pulled away.  But, when you were rubbing my feet, all I felt was warm, and comfortable and really happy that you were touching me.  No memories. No flashbacks to Spike. Just Will. Taking care of me."

 

"Always will—if you'll let me," he mumbled, still worried about his own reaction and wondering if she'd noticed it. 

 

"I'd like that," she said softly, slipping her hand into his and linking their fingers.  "You make me happy to be here."

 

"You weren't happy before?" He gave her a sharp look, as he squeezed her hand.

 

"Oh, yeah. In the 'I'm not crazy anymore and I can go shopping by myself' kind of way. But there was always...something.  Those flashbacks—I'd worry about those people in the other world.  They were my responsibility, you know? And I'm not there anymore.  I feel... guilty, sometimes."

 

"Buffy...." He stopped, not really sure what, if anything, he wanted to say.

 

"But not when I'm with you," she went on as if he hadn't spoken.  "When I'm with you, I feel... whole."

 

She dropped her head and let her hair cover her face as she felt him stop and turn towards her.  He put a finger under her chin and tipped it up so that she had to look at him. 

 

"Do you mean that?" 

 

She nodded, never taking her eyes off his.  With a groan, he pulled her against his body and dipped his head to meet the lips she was offering. Nothing in the light, chaste kisses they'd shared before had prepared her for what his lips and tongue were doing to her now. She felt her knees weaken and was sure only the strong arms wrapped around her so tightly stood between her and an embarrassing collapse to the sidewalk.

 

They'd been kissing for several minutes, oblivious to the last minute shoppers and other homeward bound employees hustling past them with looks ranging from benevolent smiles to frowns of disapproval.  When someone finally yelled, "Get a room!" they broke apart with embarrassed laughter.

 

"Whoa! And wowie, wow, wow," Buffy said, blushing furiously and grateful that the parking lot wasn't as brightly lit as it could be.

 

Will laughed and took her hand again, pulling her along towards his car.  "There's more where that came from."

 

Although Buffy, with advice from both Will and her father, had bought herself a used Honda, she didn't use it to get to work on nights her mother could drop her off. Joyce was more than happy to take Buffy to work as often as possible, knowing that it allowed her some extra time with the man who had clearly worked his way into boyfriend status.

 

They reached the car, and Will had just unlocked it when three teenagers ran up.  While two of the boys pushed him away from Buffy and into the car door, the other made a grab for her purse.  Without thinking, Buffy snapped out a kick, sending the boy to the ground holding his knee and screaming.  She fell into a fighting stance, dropping her notebooks on the pavement but keeping her purse on her shoulder.  As soon as she realized the boy wasn't going to get up to try again, she relaxed a little and switched her attention to Will and the two young thugs who had gone after him.

 

One of them was already on the ground, apparently unconscious, while Will threw the remaining, now terrified, boy against the car and drew back his fist.  Buffy could hear his muffled curses as he prepared to take out his fear for her and his anger at having their moment interrupted on the easiest target. He'd only managed to hit the boy twice before Buffy grabbed his arm.

 

"Will!  Will!  Stop it. He isn't fighting back."

 

Buffy's frightened voice got through the rage that had taken over when Will thought she was in danger, and he let go of the crying boy, watching dispassionately as he slid to the ground to join his friends. The one he'd knocked out was now struggling to sit up, throwing terrified glances at the two people glaring at him.  Finally climbing to unsteady feet, he began to back away.

 

"Oi!" Will's accent suddenly became much more noticeable.  "Take these wankers with you or I'll call the cops on the lot of you."

 

With a fearful look at Buffy, who had begun bouncing lightly on her feet as he started moving, the one she'd kicked in the knee got slowly to his feet.  He limped over to his friend and between the two of them, they managed to drag the still groggy third boy away from the car and over to the building.  Mall security came driving up just as they reached the relative safety of the sidewalk, and Will walked over to explain what had happened. The security guard rolled his eyes in disgust.

 

"I know these guys. I've kicked them out half a dozen times.  Do you want to press charges?" he asked hopefully.

 

Will shook his head. "No. They didn't get anything, and my girl and I have plans for the night. Don't want to spend it filling out papers and whatnot."

 

The guard nodded, disappointed but accepting. "I'll handle it then."  He looked again at the subdued would-be purse snatchers.  "Did you take out all three of them?" Respectful admiration colored his voice.

 

Will started to answer, then turned to look at Buffy with sudden realization. She had stopped bouncing once the boys were out of reach, but her posture still screamed "ready to fight" to anyone who was familiar with martial arts. 

 

"No," he answered slowly, never taking his eyes off Buffy. "She did for that one." He pointed to the boy who was trying not to put any weight on his leg. 

 

"Guess she really wanted to keep that purse," the rent-a-cop said with a smile.

 

"I guess so...." Will waved his goodnight and walked towards the car, watching Buffy visibly relax as the security guard put the boy she'd kicked in the back of his three-wheeler and ordered the other two to walk towards the mall office.

 

Buffy picked up her notebooks and smiled at him hesitantly. She hadn't missed the expression on his face as he told the mall guard about her actions.

 

"Kind of a mood-killer, huh?" she ventured, walking around to her side of the car.

 

He didn't answer, just slid behind the wheel and put his bloodied hands on the steering wheel.  They sat in silence for several minutes before he turned to look at her.  As he'd expected, she was opening her flashback book and searching for her pen.  She seemed intent on her writing, so he started the car and pulled out of the parking lot, automatically turning towards her neighborhood.

 

They drove in silence, even when Buffy had closed the notebook and put it away. As they turned onto her street, Will finally spoke.

 

"So, which notebook did that go into, luv?" he asked, his voice tight. "Was it a flashback, another memory to add to the story, or did those gits remind you of somebody you knew?"

 

Buffy's head whipped around to stare at him.

 

"Are you... are you sorry that I kicked him?"

 

He sighed and pulled over to park several houses down from the Summers home.

 

"No, luv. I'm not sorry. It was bloody brilliant.  But it was a pretty good move for an ice skater.  And for a while there I wasn't sure who I was looking at—Buffy the college student, or Buffy the..."

 

"Buffy...the vampire slayer?" she asked, her whole body tensing up.  "Do you think I wasn't... wasn't me?"

 

"Were you?"  When he saw the sheer terror on her face, he reached for her hands and pulled her towards him.  "I'm sorry, love. I didn't mean that.  Of course you were you; you just accessed some information you probably never knew you had and you used it.  It's like the other stuff you told me about. You probably watched a lot of martial arts movies while you were in hospital and you absorbed enough of it to be able to use it."

 

"I scared you," she said dully, her eyes down and her hands lying limply in his.  "You were afraid of me."

 

"No!" he said with more force than he meant to.  "I was afraid for you.  That you might have slipped away from me, and it scared me more than I want you to know." He squeezed her hands tightly, as if he could force her to believe what he was saying.

 

"I didn't, you know.  I didn't leave. I just suddenly knew what to do and how to do it.  It would have been pretty cool, actually, if I hadn't seen your face and thought—"

 

"You didn't scare me, luv. I thought you were magnificent. Another girl would have screamed or cried; you just took him out with one well-timed kick and then waited for more action."

 

"But...  what if you should be afraid of me?  What if I do slip away and I think you're Spike? What if I try to hurt you, or stake you?"

 

"Not gonna happen, Buffy. You did a good job for a girl who has never studied the sport, but you can't hurt me.  I could easily stop you before that happened."

 

"Huh! That's what Spike always says. Usually just before I kick his ass."

 

"I'm not Spike." He tried to keep his voice light, ignoring her use of the present tense.

 

"No. No, you're not. You're Will—and your hands are bleeding.  Let's get to my house so we can clean them up."

 

He put the car into gear and eased down the street and into her driveway.  "Maybe I shouldn't come in," he said. "It's later than usual and I don't want to frighten your parents by looking like I got into a fight."

 

"You did get into a fight. But you didn't start it, and we won, so yay.  Anyway, Dad's probably asleep already; maybe they both are."

 

Without further argument, she got out of the car and started towards the door, glancing over her shoulder to be sure that he was following. 

 

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

Joyce was dressed for bed but still awake, and she fussed over Will's bloody knuckles while Buffy went for the first aid kit.  Their eyes met over Buffy's head as she began pulling out supplies and muttering to herself about what was missing.  While Will washed his hands, assuring Joyce that most of the blood was from someone else, Buffy laid out the items she wanted and waited calmly. As soon as his hands were clean and dry, she quickly and efficiently evaluated the damage and handled them with the calm manner of an experienced ER nurse.

 

Will sat with an ice pack on his one swollen knuckle and ointment on his barked ones, exchanging looks with Joyce who was clearly fighting panic at seeing Buffy handle fight injuries in a way that indicated they were neither new nor bothersome to her.  Joyce was opening her mouth to comment when Will shook his head, his eyes pleading with her to ignore what she was seeing.  She gave a tight nod and wished them 'goodnight', taking her worries about Buffy's state of mind off to bed with her, leaving the discussion to the man she was coming to trust.

 

" 'nother set of good skills you've got there, pet," he said mildly.  "I'm guessing they come from the same place?"

 

Buffy sighed, closed the first aid kit and came to stand beside his stool.

 

"I guess so—if, by that, you mean lots of TV when I wasn't aware of watching it."

 

"Because anything else is unthinkable?"

 

Her eyes flew to his. "Of course, it's unthinkable!  I was crazy, Will. Not living in a... a...."

 

"An alternative universe?"

 

"What are you saying?" she whispered.

 

"Nothing, love. I'm just trying to figure out what the options are.  I'm afraid that sooner or later you're going to find yourself with knowledge or a skill that can't be explained away by background TV, and I don't want you to go to pieces on me when that happens."

 

"You think that world is real?" Buffy stared at him as though she was beginning to think he was the former mental patient.  "Will, I've worked really hard—and taken some heavy meds—to convince myself that Sunnydale doesn't exist, and now you're trying to tell me it does?  Do you want me to be crazy?"

 

"No, pet, no. I don't." He dropped the ice pack and pulled her into a loose embrace, spreading his knees so that she could get closer to the stool.  "I want you to be happy. And that's not going to happen until we can suss out why and how you know these things that you shouldn't know, but the other Buffy would. I'm a science fiction writer, pet. It just popped into my head.  I'm not saying there is such a place; I'm just throwing it out there as one potential, if highly unlikely, option."

 

Buffy leaned in to rest her head on his chest.  "I don't want it to be real," she whispered. "I want to be here. With you and my parents and a nice normal life."

 

"And you will, love," he whispered back, his breath stirring tendrils of hair over her ear.  "I'm not going anywhere, and I'm not letting you go anywhere, either."

 

"Promise me?"

 

"With all my heart..." he drew a cross over his chest, "and hope to die," he added with a small smile.

 

"Don't say that! People die all the time in that other world."

 

"We're not in that other world, are we?" he purred in her ear.  "We're right here, and you're all warm and soft and...." He pushed her gently away. "And I'm going to have to leave before I get myself in trouble with your parents."

 

"What trouble? They're in bed and I'm...." She moved back to him, making no attempt to avoid the growing bulge nudging her thigh. "I'm right here."

 

He groaned and pulled her closer. "Yes, you are.  You most definitely are." Even as he murmured to her, he was running his lips down her neck and smiling at her little gasps of anticipation.  "But I don't want our first time to be on your mother's kitchen floor—even if she is asleep."

 

"Point," Buffy gasped. "That wouldn't be appropriate at all." In spite of her agreement, she continued to press up against him, raising her lips for another one of his bone melting kisses.  They were soon breathing hard and running their hands over each other's body, while continuing to kiss without letup.  If one of her parents had not flushed the upstairs toilet, Buffy had no doubt that they would have ended up on the kitchen floor—or possibly the countertop.

 

However, the sound reminded them that they were not alone in the house, and with a shaky laugh, Buffy pulled away and straightened her clothes.

 

"Guess we'll have to take a rain-check, huh?"

 

He nodded wordlessly, picking up the ice pack and pointedly placing it on his crotch. Buffy blushed and turned away, laughing in spite of herself as he chuckled behind her.

 

"Sorry, pet," he said, not at all apologetically.  "Got to do something so I can walk out of here."

 

She turned around and grinned at him.  "I guess this is another one of those things I got from TV, huh?"

 

"What is?"

 

"Not being totally wigged by what you're doing, and knowing what it is you're doing it to."

 

"Not following you, love."  He set the ice pack on the counter and stood up, trailing her out to the front hall.

 

"Don't you remember what I told you a long time ago? About how many boyfriends I've had—and when?"

 

He frowned, and then his face fell into a surprised smile.  "You haven't had any—not in the real world.  Not since you were—"

 

"Fourteen," she said. "Well, fifteen, I guess. But by then I already thought I was off in the world of slaying vampires, so not much time for boys—even imaginary ones."

 

"Then you're..."

 

"I guess we'll find out, won't we?" she said, wrapping her arms around his waist and resting her head on his chest.  "I wonder what I'll 'know' about having sex?"

 

"Jesus, Buffy! I forgot all about that.  If this is rushing you...."

 

She shook her head against him, too embarrassed to look up, but determined to make him see how much she wanted it.  "It's not rushing me. It feels right." She stepped back and trying to control another blush said, "Just not on the kitchen floor, okay?"

 

"Got it. No floors. Not yet, anyway." He leered at her, the warmth in his eyes putting the lie to his wolfish expression.

 

With much kissing and breaking apart, and kissing again, they managed to say goodnight.  Will suggested they rent a movie and spend a quiet evening at his apartment after work the next evening. Left unspoken was the obvious reason for going there rather to Buffy's house.  After another promise from Buffy that she really really wasn't feeling pushed or pressured, he tore himself away from her lips and left the house, turning to wave at her before getting into his car.

 

Buffy floated up the stairs, humming and never noticing her mother peering out of her bedroom.  Joyce smiled to herself at Buffy's good mood, and went back to bed, much more comfortable about her daughter's mental health than she had been earlier.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The following evening at the shop went more smoothly, with enough business to keep Marcia solvent, but with enough breaks in the busy spells for Buffy and Will to talk, and for Buffy to add a few things to her notebooks.  She was glad Will had forgotten his question about what she had written down the night before.  No sooner had the fight been over, than she'd been struck with how completely familiar it felt fighting with Will by her side.  Without identifying why it was familiar, she'd felt it was important to write it down while it was fresh in her mind.

 

Once she'd calmed down from the arousal brought on by Will's kisses and roving hands, her sleep that eventful night had been full of dreams she struggled to remember when she woke up.  She'd jotted down the highlights when she awoke, and was now spending her free time filling in the missing information.  Into her book about her life in Sunnydale, she entered what she remembered of her dream—in which Spike and she ended up fighting on the same side against a group of vampires.  The fight dynamics were so similar to what had just occurred that it was easy for her to understand why it had felt familiar. 

 

She already knew that delusion Buffy and Spike fought well together.  That Buffy had enjoyed her fights against him when he was trying to kill her, and she'd enjoyed fighting with him at her side after he got his chip and demons became his only painless outlet for his need for violence and bloodshed.  That she could feel as relaxed and confident with Will at her side was both comforting and frightening.  The more he seemed like Spike, the harder it was to keep telling herself it was only a coincidence. And yet, there was no logical—or illogical—explanation for it.

 

As they closed up the store the following evening, Buffy could feel her heart rate go up, anticipating an experience that, in real life, was going to be new to her, but in her mind was something with which she was quite familiar—if not exactly brimming with experience.  She caught Will looking at her, the hunger in his eyes barely concealed and she gave him a tremulous smile back.

 

Will closed up quickly and they walked out, their hands tightly linked as they almost ran to his car.  He stopped for a quick kiss that turned into something very different before they remembered where they were and broke apart laughing.

 

"I was going to ask you if you're sure, but I'm going to take that kiss as a yes," he said, brushing his lips across hers again before opening the door.

 

"I think 'yes' would be a good translation."

 

The drive to his apartment was only fifteen minutes or so, but it seemed like forever to Buffy.  If she was bothered by how much she wanted to make love to Will, in spite of theoretically having no idea what that really meant, she shoved the thought down firmly.  She was determined that nothing would spoil the night for her. When he showed her the movies he'd rented earlier, she just nodded, already sure that she wasn't going to be watching any of them.

 

I don't care if we get attacked by real vampires, if Angel shows up, if Will's neighbor looks like Giles—I'm going to sleep with my boyfriend and Sunnydale can just fall into the Hellmouth.

 

Will ushered her into his small apartment, taking the notebooks from her and placing them on a small table.

 

"No Sunnydale tonight," he murmured, pulling her close.  "It's just Buffy and Will"

 

She giggled and rubbed her face on his shoulder. "That's exactly what I was thinking when we pulled into the parking lot.  The hell with Sunnydale. I'm about to have sex with my boyfriend."

 

"Your boyfriend is about to make love to you," was the gentle correction as he led her towards his bedroom.

 

"That's what I meant," she mumbled, embarrassed that she'd sounded so clinical about something that clearly meant a great deal to him.

 

He shrugged and sat on the bed, pulling her over to stand in front of him.

 

"Don't know if that's what you meant or not, but I do know that's what you're going to get."  He tugged gently until she sat down beside him.  "I'm not taking this lightly, Buffy. I want you to know that.  Want you, yeah. Can't deny it.  But that's not all I want. I want Buffy. I want her ups and her downs, her giggles and her tears, her dreams and her nightmares.  I want this to be the beginning of something important. Something good."

 

She put her hand on his cheek and swallowing a familiar urge to keep her thoughts and emotions to herself, she said, "I know it will be good.  I think you're the best thing that has ever happened to me—in this world, or any other."

 

Without further talk, except for Will's murmured endearments, they began to make out, moving quickly from sitting up on the edge of the bed to lying side-by-side so that their hands could roam.  Buffy had thought she wouldn't be able to stand it if he stopped kissing her—until he ran his lips down her neck to her chest and sucked a lace-covered nipple into his mouth.

 

With a muffled gasp, she arched into him, her mind going blank of everything but what his mouth was doing to her. She wasn't even aware that she'd shed her clothes until she felt his warm skin against hers.  His mouth was everywhere, leaving wet, open-mouthed kisses and swipes of a tongue that had to be longer than normal.  Her head was tossing from side to side as he worked his way down her body, her "Oh, God! Oh, God!" all that could be heard when he buried his face and put his tongue to good use.

 

While she was still recovering from the shuddering orgasm that had caught her completely by surprise, Will grabbed a condom from the nightstand. He guided her hands as she willingly assisted him in putting it on.  She forced herself to ignore the voice in her head whispering that she'd never even seen a condom up close, let alone touched one, and really shouldn't have felt so comfortable with its use.  She told the voice to shut up and sighed as Will slid up her body, pushing gently, but waiting until he could see the encouragement in her eyes before starting to nudge his way in.  They both flinched when he encountered what was left of the small physical barrier that Buffy—if she were being honest with herself—hadn't really expected to be there.  A brief memory of a much larger man gently forcing his way past her maidenhead was quickly wiped out by Will's gasp when she pulled him towards her, wrapping her legs around his waist.

 

"God, Buffy. I want you so much..." She could feel him trembling as he fought to resist his urge to plunge into her.

 

"Just do it," she murmured.  "I want you too.  Do it, Will."

 

With a relieved groan, he pushed harder, easily parting the tiny piece of flesh and sliding into her.  They remained locked together for several minutes, Will waiting for her to give him some sign that she was ready for more, Buffy basking in a familiar and at the same time, totally new sensation.  The phrase "joined as one" suddenly took on real meaning for her as she surrendered to the feeling of completion she got from being so intimately connected to a man she was becoming more and more sure was someone she could love.

 

"Can't wait any longer, sweetheart," Will said, his hips beginning to move gently. "You feel so good. Like honey and Heaven you are," he whispered. "Could stay in you forever."

 

Less articulately, Buffy whimpered and began to move her own hips, meeting his increasingly powerful strokes with her own upward thrusts of her pelvis.  He seemed to instinctively know exactly where and when to roll his hips against hers, sending her into another frenzy of calling upon God to witness her complete surrender to sensation.  As Buffy felt herself falling over the edge into another, more intense release, she bit his shoulder to keep from screaming.  His own shouted, "Buffy!" as he jerked against her brought a small smile to her face—a smile that grew broader as his hips kept working until he collapsed atop her body, breathing so hard she wondered if he was going to lose consciousness.

 

Eventually, his breathing went back to normal and he stirred, rising up on his elbows, but keeping their lower bodies connected. Buffy gazed up into loving eyes that now looked nothing like the identically-colored ones belonging to her imaginary vampire.  Will rested his forehead against hers, whispering, "I love you, Buffy Summers."

 

"I think I love you, too," she whispered back.  "If I hadn't been crazy for the past five years, I think I'd be sure of it."

 

He snorted and rolled off her sated body, pulling her with him to lie with her head on his chest. "That'll do me for now, love," he said, dropping a kiss on the top of her head.  "You'll let me know when you're sure, yeah?"

 

"Yeah," she agreed softly.  "I'll let you know."  She squirmed against him, one leg draped over his thigh as she asked tentatively, "So, can we do that again sometime?  I think I liked it."

 

His body shook with laughter as he pulled her completely on top of him and began to nuzzle her neck. He pulled off the used condom and dropped it over the edge of the bed. Buffy watched with interest as he opened another packet and placed it within easy reach.

 

"Just give me a few, pet, and I'll see what I can do about that."

 

"You mean we can do it again...right now?" 

 

A brief memory of a night spent in spell-induced non-stop sex with Riley flitted through her brain and was immediately discarded.  She admitted to herself that she'd expected all her memories of sex with her imaginary lovers would turn out to be unrealistic. It was a pleasant surprise to learn she'd been wrong.

 

"I'm pretty sure with you around, I could do it all night.  Might need to rest a bit between goes, but I can't imagine not rising to the occasion anytime you want to, sweetheart."

 

"Cool."  She snuggled against him, feeling his cock stir against her leg.  "I don't think I knew that. Or believed it, anyway."

 

"Guess that other Buffy wasn't as smart as you thought she was, huh?" he murmured, pushing her down until she was once again where he could slide into her.  He gently urged her to sit up until she was riding him, wriggling her hips around and experimenting with different angles and positions.   The expression of absolute devotion on his face smothered the inhibitions and embarrassment that had come over her when she realized what she was doing, and she gave him a shy smile as she unintentionally squeezed his cock.

 

"Oh, Jesus! Like that, love. Do that again, Buffy."  His eyes had rolled back in his head and she giggled, reveling in her newfound power over him and determined to make him as mindlessly turned on as he'd made her.  She sat on his hips, alternately squeezing her vaginal muscles and rotating her hips, her hands planted on his chest and an expression of complete concentration on her face. Her hair hung down on either side, tickling the skin of his chest and stomach as she moved around on him.

 

Before long, his hips were thrusting up and he was muttering incoherent obscenities as he held her down tightly.  It briefly occurred to her that his fingers were probably going to leave marks on her hips, but she quickly dismissed it as unimportant and not something anyone would ever see.  She watched with almost detached interest as his face clenched and his eyes closed in ecstasy. Before she could register that he'd climaxed and was softening within her, his hand was between them, quickly rubbing her to her own third orgasm of the night. 

 

She collapsed on his chest with a small moan, lying limply in his arms as he held her in place and stroked her back.  After several minutes, she felt him stir to life again and she sat up abruptly.

 

"You've got to be kidding me!"

 

He laughed and pulled her back down to snuggle against him. "I told you, pet. It's what you do to me.  But if you're too tired or sore, we can wait.  There's always tomorrow."

 

Buffy ran a quick mental check over her condition, and squirmed into a more comfortable position on him.

 

"I'm not tired," she said gamely.  "And I'm not really sore, either, so..."

 

"What does 'not really sore' mean," he was quick to ask.  "Did I hurt you?"

 

"No, not really. And don't worry about it. I have a really high pain threshold."

 

"And you know this...how?"

 

"Doctors used to tell my mom that all the time when I was growing up.  I broke a bone in my foot one time when I was skating, and I finished the whole program before I even noticed it," she finished proudly.  "So, a tiny little tear in something that was meant to be torn?  Not even worth noticing."

 

Seeing the relief on his face, she tilted her head and asked, "What did you think I meant?"

 

"Nothing," he said quickly.  "I just wanted to be sure it was really you talking and not some flashback to somebody made of tougher stuff."

 

"I'm made of tough stuff!" she protested, more bothered than she cared to admit that his first thought had been of the "other Buffy" as they'd taken to calling her delusional self.  However, his actions within the following few minutes drove any thoughts of her alter-ego and that life completely away. No matter how intense her memories of the disastrous night with Angel, the regrettable night spent with Parker, and the sweet love-making she'd enjoyed with Riley may have been, they couldn't hold a candle to the real, live, and more than willing man now making love to her again.  By the time they fell asleep, wrapped in each other's arms, there was no room for thoughts of anything except how perfect her life was now.

 

 

Chapter Eight

 

The filtered light reaching the bedroom awoke Buffy just as Will was emerging from the bathroom.  She blinked in confusion for a moment, then blushed as she remembered the night before. She blushed again when she realized he was naked and so was she.  She sat up and clutched the sheet to her neck, turning her eyes away from his obviously wide-awake body and laughing face.

 

"What's this now?" he purred, slipping back into bed and pulling her down onto his chest.  "Gonna go all modest on me, are you?"

 

"It's morning!" she said, her voice cracking just a bit. "I stayed here all night!"

 

"Yes," he murmured, nuzzling her neck and smiling as she relaxed in spite of herself.  "You did. And it was wonderful. What's the problem?"

 

Resolutely pushing him away, Buffy said, "Have you forgotten that I live with my parents?  The parents who still want to think of me as a fifteen-year-old?  They're going to freak out!  I'm freaking out!  I've never done anything like this before."

 

"Ah," he sighed, releasing her and lying back with his arms behind his head, giving her a distracting view of his toned and fit torso.  "I did forget that, love. I'm sorry.  There's nothing about you that seems like a little girl. I forgot that to your parents, that's who you are."

 

"They try," Buffy said, somewhat mollified by his apology. "I mean they know I'm not a kid anymore, but they still worry about me, and...."

 

"And staying out all night without letting them know has probably worried them sick.  I get it, pet."  He got up and grabbed his cell phone from the pants he'd left on the floor. He quickly turned it on and handed it to Buffy, wincing as he noticed all the missed calls from Joyce.

 

"Here, call your mum and let her know that you're all right.   We'll deal with the rest of the fallout later, yeah?"

 

Making a face, Buffy took the phone, staring at it as though it might bite her.  She took a deep breath, and punched in the number of her mother's cell.  It was answered on the first ring.

 

"Will? Where's Buffy?  Is she with you?"

 

"I'm here, Mom.  I'm sorry I didn't call. I wasn't expecting to...I didn't plan to stay out all night, but I...we...I fell asleep and..."

 

"Oh, thank God!"

 

"Thank God?"

 

"That you were just... whatever you were doing that was so engrossing you couldn't remember to call home.  I thought maybe you—" Joyce paused, reluntant to say what both she and Hank had feared might have happened.

 

Buffy flinched, guilt overcoming her relief. "I'm sorry, Mom. Really, I am. I should have realized you'd think... I'm sorry.  It won't happen again." She glared at Will as he made an anguished face at her and mouthed, "It won't happen again?"  Ignoring his silent laughter, she tried to salvage what she could of the situation.

 

"I'll be home in a little while, Mom.  We can talk then, okay?"

 

"I'm going on in to work," Joyce said. "Now that I know you're safe, I need to get to the office.  We can talk tonight."

 

"Okay. Tell Dad I'm sorry, too, please?"

 

"All right. I'll see you later." Joyce paused. "And tell Will I'm holding him completely responsible for this!" Her voice carried, and Buffy's "Mom!" was barely audible over Will's shouted, "I'm sorry, Joyce. Don't get out the axe!"

 

Buffy slowly closed the phone and stared at him.

 

"What?"

 

"Why did you say that? About the axe? My mom doesn't even own an axe."

 

"I don't know, pet. It's something you've mentioned once or twice. I thought she did have one, from the way you talked about it."

 

"The other Buffy's mom has—had an axe. Well, not her axe. A fire axe. She hit Spike with it one time when he was trying to kill me."

 

"Ah," was the best he could offer as a reply.  He shook his head and came over to tip her face up to him.  "I'm sorry, pet. Didn't mean to bring up anything like that. I thought it was some sort of family joke."

 

"In that world, it is—was," she said, swallowing hard.  "But my mom is dead in that world, so—"

 

"So, even worse that I should bring it up. Shit, Buffy! I am so very sorry."

 

"No biggie," she said, giving him a brave smile. "If you can handle having a crazy girlfriend, I can handle being reminded of the crazy place.  We're good."

 

Heaving a very visible sigh of relief, he pulled her against his bare chest and put his lips on her neck. His still-alert cock pressed against her stomach.

 

"Didn't you get enough last night?" she grumbled, even as she felt a glow of pride that she was still having the same effect on him as she had before they'd made love all night.

 

"Did you?" He sounded so crushed that she could help laughing as she hugged him back.

 

"For now, I did," she admitted.  "I've got to get home, change, get to class and then to work—where I'll get to see my sexy, desirable..." She ran a bold hand down his chest and brushed it across his erection.  "...and always ready boyfriend," she finished, spinning away and heading for the bathroom, leaving him laughing through his curses as he gave up and pulled his pants on.  By the time Buffy came out, wrapped in a towel, he was already clothed and sipping his coffee.

 

Trying not to look as disappointed as she knew she shouldn't feel, Buffy quickly dressed and joined him at the kitchen counter to drink the cup he'd fixed for her.

 

"Ready any time you are, love," he said, putting his own cup in the sink and picking up his keys.

 

She nodded and gulped as much of the coffee as she could without getting the hiccups.

 

"What do you do in the mornings?" she asked, putting down her cup and walking to where he was holding the door open. "When you're not driving debauched virgins home, that is."

 

"I debauched a virgin? I think I like the sound of that.  I wonder if I could do it again tonight?"

 

"Nope," Buffy said cheerfully. "Once is all you get."

 

Their banter continued as they got in the car and made the relatively short trip to Buffy's home, where Will was relieved to find neither of her parents still there.  He kissed Buffy good-bye and returned home to get some writing done, leaving her to get herself off to class.  It wasn't until he got to his apartment that he found the notebooks she'd left in her haste to get out the door.  Instead of opening his own laptop, he found himself sitting down to read the detailed history of Buffy's life in the imaginary world that had held her captive for so many years.

 

~~~~~~~~~

 

Two hours later, Will's eyes had been opened.  Reading Buffy's account of her life after she'd slipped into that world had given him a completely new understanding of why she still made so many references to it in her daily conversations.  The notebook he'd been reading—an after-the-fact journal of her first few years as a slayer—was full of notes in the margins, inserted as Buffy had remembered more and more of that life and gone back to stick her new memories into their proper places. There was much more detail than had been there when he'd originally skimmed through the notebook only a few months ago.

 

Along with the big, potentially world-ending events and daily dangers that she'd faced, were the minutiae of her daily life as a high school student by day, heroic savior at night.  Alongside the aptly named "Scoobies," she'd spent her days being as close to a normal teenager as she could, and then after school they all went into what he could only think of as "superhero and her sidekicks" mode.

 

As he fixed himself another cup of coffee and settled in to read more, the novelist in him almost wished he had been a part of that life; that these were his notes that could be fleshed out to make an incredibly gripping story. He had to keep reminding himself that it probably wasn't in Buffy's best interest to encourage her to spend any more time remembering that world than she already did.  The more distance between her and her imaginary life, the more firmly she would be anchored in this one.

 

As he'd gone through the notebook, he'd been sucked in, and he found it hard to remember that it wasn't real—not really Buffy's history, only a very detailed illusion brought on by mental illness.  Eventually, he found that if he treated it as a novel, one in which he was really engrossed, he could maintain the boundaries between the two worlds without losing the thread of the narrative.  However, he also couldn't wait to move on to the next installments.

 

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

 

Marcia raised an eyebrow when he rushed into the store, apologies falling from his lips as he immediately got to work.  It was over an hour before there was enough of a lull for her to give him a hard time about being late.

 

"Long night?" she asked, then narrowed her eyes when he blushed and avoided looking at her.  His non-committal mumble about being busy this morning, had her sighing and pursuing him to the back of the store.  "Are you cheating on Buffy?" she demanded, then flushed and apologized.

 

"I'm sorry, Will. That was out of line. It's just that sometimes Buffy seems so fragile, and I--"

 

"It's alright," he said, smiling at her.  "And, no, I wasn't cheating on Buffy.  Trust me," he laughed quietly. "She knew exactly where I was last night."

 

"Oh? Oh!  TMI, Will!"

 

"Sorry. Didn't mean it to come out like that.  But I didn't want you thinking I would do anything to hurt her.  I wouldn't. Ever."

 

"All right, then. So why were you late this morning?"

 

"I was reading and I got caught up in it."

 

"Must have been one hell of a book. Is it something we carry here?"

 

He coughed and shook his head.  "In a manner of speaking. But, no, to what you're really asking.  It's not a published book. Not yet, anyway."

 

"Oh, so it's yours?"

 

"Nope. Not mine. And that's all I'm saying about it.  I'm sorry I was late. It won't happen again."

 

"I wasn't really yelling at you, you know," Marcia said softly.  "I know you wouldn't have done it without a good reason."

 

"I knew that." Will did his best to hang on to his dignity.

 

 Marcia gave an unladylike snort and went to wait on a customer, leaving Will to ponder the story that had kept him so engrossed.  He'd had a general idea what it was like in that other world where Buffy's mind had trapped her; he knew the names of some of the other inhabitants, which were good, which bad—although he gathered that could change from time to time. And he knew that Buffy had jumped off a tower to save both her sister and the world.  But until he'd sat down to really read her account of her life there from the very beginning, he'd really had no idea what she meant when she said she was living in another world.

 

He smiled to himself as he waited on a sudden influx of customers, comparing their seemingly mundane lives with what Buffy's imagination had provided her.  While he worked, smiling and chatting automatically with the people he waited on, a portion of his mind was always on the notebook and the new things he'd learned that morning. He had made it all the way through the first journal, taking him up through her last year of high school and the heartbreak when her vampire boyfriend decided to leave town to pursue his redemption in Los Angeles before he'd realized how late it was getting and he'd reluctantly put it down to rush to work.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

When Buffy arrived that afternoon, he looked at her with renewed understanding and admiration.  Fighting the urge to greet her with a kiss, he settled for squeezing her hand tightly when she came behind the counter to change her shoes.

 

"How was class, luv?" he asked.

 

"It was class. It was mostly stuff I already know."

 

He raised his eyebrows.  "You've studied psychology?"

 

Buffy flushed, remembering that she hadn't really.  "You live in a mental hospital long enough, you pick up stuff," she mumbled, hoping he would drop the subject and not force her to admit that, in her memory, she'd taken psychology at UC Sunnydale only a year ago.

 

Ignorant as he was about the later parts of her life in Sunnydale, he accepted her remarks at face value and just nodded.

 

"Oh," he said, remembering. "I brought your journals with me.  You left them at my place this morning."

 

Buffy smiled her relief.  "I thought that's probably where they were.  Thanks for bringing them."

 

"My pleasure, love."  He hesitated and then continued, "I hope you don't mind. I read the first history notebook this morning. Cover to cover."

 

Fear flashed across her face, fading as his expression didn't change from its usual fondness.

 

"All of it?" she squeaked, remembering how graphic some of her descriptions had been—including her night with Angel.

 

He grinned at her and stepped closer.

 

"All of it," he whispered.  "By the time I'm done with you, you won't even remember that vampire's name."

 

Buffy shivered as his warm breath stirred tendrils of hair.  "What vampire?" she murmured, batting her eyes at him.

 

"That's my girl," he said, laughing and moving away before Marcia could stop rolling her eyes long enough to send them back to work.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Much later that night, as they rested, temporarily sated, in his bed, Will turned the conversation back to her journals.

 

"You, know," he began in a conversational tone, "I'd like very much to read the next installment in the life of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Would you object if I read the next one?"

 

Buffy giggled. "You make it sound like it's a book or a movie."

 

"It would be an excellent book—or a movie.  But right now, I just want to know what happened next."

 

"I could just tell you that," she said, twirling the hair on his chest around one finger.

 

"Why don't you, then?  Tell me a story, Buffy."

 

"Just like Scheherazade, huh?"

 

"Just like," he agreed with a smile. "Except that you don't have to keep coming up with stories so that I won't kill you."  He reached over the side of the bed and took his phone out of his pants. "But first, call your mum and let her know that I've got you and you're perfectly safe."

 

Buffy giggled as she took the phone. "I think I might word it a little differently, but good idea."  She looked at his phone for a second, then handed it back to him.  "But I think I'll use my own phone. I don't want them to think you've kidnapped me and all communication has to go through you."

 

She walked over to the dresser and took her cell phone out of her purse, missing the anxious frown on Will's face at her casual mention of kidnapping. Something, he couldn't help recalling, that seemed to happen to people fairly often in her journals. When she'd left a quick message that she was at Will's and didn't know what time she'd be home, she dropped the phone back in her bag and asked, "Where did you stop reading?"

 

"Right when your wanker of a boyfriend decided that being somewhere that he wouldn't be tempted by your nubile little body was a good move—even if it broke your heart."  A small smile touched Buffy's lips at how aggrieved Will sounded on her behalf. She got back into bed and snuggled up against him.

 

" 'kay, then.  Once upon a time..."

 

Buffy talked about her quiet summer, when she'd had little to do but think about how miserable she was without Angel.  Her story of how she met Riley by dropping books on his head in the college book store made him laugh until he realized that the man she kept referring to as "our TA in Psych" was actually another boyfriend. 

 

She skipped quickly past Parker, just saying that she'd fallen for a line of bullshit and learned her lesson.  He raised an eyebrow, but didn't bother to pursue it.  Will knew himself to be a possessive man, but even he couldn't see the point in being jealous of imaginary people who were long out of Buffy's life and not important to her.

 

"So," he said instead, "you met this teacher's helper and he turned out to be a soldier?"

 

"Yeah, The Initiative they called themselves."  She gave him a strange look and cupped his face briefly.  "It turned out they weren't the good guys we thought they were at first. Although I can't complain about the chip they put in Spike's head..."

 

"Chip? Spike? That's the vampire I remind you of?"

 

Buffy nodded. "Yes," she said. "That's the one." When he didn't pursue it, she went on to tell him about the experiments they were running on captured "hostiles" and how Spike had somehow escaped, but ended up coming to them for help when it turned out that he couldn't hunt for himself.

 

Will shook his head.  "Okay, let me get this straight—this guy spent two years trying to kill you. You hated each other. And yet, when he was helpless, he came to you for help?"

 

Buffy shrugged and gave him a crooked smile.  "Hey, it was Spike.  Great fighter: not so big with the planning and thinking."

 

Will cocked his head at her.  "You like him, don't you?  When did that happen?"

 

"Okay, see, here's where it starts to get really weird."

 

She smacked his arm when he murmured, "Now it gets weird?" 

 

"Shut up. Okay, so Willow's boyfriend, Oz-" 

 

"The werewolf?"

 

"If you're going to keep interrupting..." He mimed zipping his lips and nodded at her to go on.  "Yes. The werewolf. Just go with it, 'kay?  Anyway, he had a little... thing... with a female werewolf and when she tried to attack Willow, he killed her.  Which freaked him out, or something, so he left Sunnydale and Willow was, like, devastated.  And she thought nobody was paying enough attention to her, so she did this spell--"

 

"Spell?"

 

Buffy glared.  "You're interrupting again. You know Willow's a witch. I told you that a long time ago."

 

"Right. Sorry. All right, so Willow did a spell. Then what?"

 

"Then, smart-ass, Spike and I got engaged." She grinned triumphantly as Will stared at her with his mouth open.  When he didn't shut it, she gently touched his chin and pushed it closed.  "So, is that what it means to be 'gobsmacked'?" she asked, blinking wide, innocent eyes.

 

He shook himself out of his daze and said, "Yeah, that would be a pretty good example of it, I reckon.  You are going to explain this, right?"

 

She snuggled back into his side and nodded.  "It was all because of Willow's spell..." She went on to tell him about the "My Will be Done" spell and the resulting chaos, ending with, "So, Spike and I spent that whole time smooching in Giles's big chair and planning our wedding."

 

"Should I be jealous?"

 

Buffy bit her lip as though actually considering the question seriously; then giggled and shrugged. "Nah, I don't think so.  You're a much better kisser." 

 

"And I'm real," he reminded her, not wanting to show how much it bothered him that she seemed to have slipped into telling her story as though it had really happened to her, and yet, too worried about it not to bring it up.

 

"You are," she said quickly, pulling him down for a languorous kiss that soon had them both breathing hard and forgetting all about Buffy's story.  They made love again, slowly and with more tenderness than passion, before falling asleep in each other's arms. Sunnydale and its citizens had faded completely away.

 

 

 

Chapter Nine

 

Buffy had been full of apologies again when she stopped by Joyce's office on the way to class. They'd had a long talk about her relationship with Will and the fact that she was, for all intents and purposes, a grown woman closing in on her twenty-first birthday. Joyce had finally agreed that as long as Buffy checked in at some point during the evening, her parents would not panic when she didn't make it home.

 

"I'm not sorry that you have someone like Will in your life, Buffy.  You know how much I—we like him.  But, like it or not, you're not the average young adult and your father and I can't help but be concerned when we don't know where you are."

 

"I said I was sorry," Buffy said with a trace of a pout. "And I've promised to check in. I don't know what else you want me to do."

 

"Just be happy, Buffy. That's all I've ever wanted for you. For you to be happy. Oh! And careful... "

 

Buffy interrupted quickly before Joyce could begin a conversation about anything that would be embarrassing to them both.

 

"Got it covered, Mom.  Seeing the doctor tomorrow."

 

"Oh. Well, okay then," Joyce said with relief.

 

She'd had a short, private talk with Will. If he was embarrassed to be talking to his girlfriend's mother about the fact that her daughter was sleeping with him, he managed to hide it well. He made it very clear that, while he liked and respected both her parents, Buffy and her wishes came first with him, and as long as she wanted to sleep in his bed, he was going to have her there.  He promised to let Joyce know if there was any sign that Buffy was slipping away, and to encourage her to keep her twice monthly appointments with her doctor.

 

"I love her with all I am, Joyce," he'd said quietly.  "I'll never do anything to hurt her, or let her do anything that might cause her to hurt herself.  And God knows I don't ever want her to slip back to that place where so many horrible things happened to her."

 

Joyce had nodded and sighed.  "I know you don't, Will. I'm trusting you to take care of my daughter.  I can't tell you how happy we are that she has you in her life.  It's just...we worry."

 

"Of course you do," he soothed. "As well you should.  I can only imagine the nightmare those years were for you and Hank.  I'm going to do my best to see that she is too happy in this world to ever think about going back to that one.  I promise you."

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

 

 

With Joyce running interference with Hank, who finally admitted that Buffy was old enough to move out on her own if she thought she needed to in order to see her boyfriend when and wherever she wanted, her parents gradually got used to the idea that she would be spending more time with Will than with them. On those rare nights when Will was hanging out with Sean or other friends, Buffy came straight home from work and spent time with her parents, catching them up on work and school. Normally, however, she came home in the morning—usually in time to have coffee with her mother and father—took a shower, changed her clothes, packed up whatever she expected to need for the rest of the day and night, and went off to class and work.

 

In spite of the joy brought by having a sane, happy Buffy around, Christmas that year was a fairly subdued affair. With Buffy and Will both working long hours and being tired at the end of the evening, they were spending most of their time at his apartment, staring mindlessly at the TV until one or the other of them fell asleep.  Buffy did her best to get up early enough to spend some morning time with her parents, but the holiday season was nothing like what she remembered from her childhood.  Balancing a boyfriend, his family, her family, and a very busy job left little time to actually enjoy the season. She was just grateful that classes were over for the semester and she didn't have exams adding to the stress.

 

By mutual agreement, they hadn't bothered with decorations at the apartment, choosing instead to spend as much time as possible with their families and allowing them to provide the Christmas trappings. Between their parents' homes, and a mall that had been decorated since before Thanksgiving, the urge to decorate the apartment they slept in just wasn't there.

 

On Christmas Eve, they had a pleasant dinner with Will's mother, Jane, and her husband. Long before that, they had welcomed Buffy into their lives in a way that almost brought tears to her eyes.  When she'd worried aloud that they wouldn't want her dating their son if they knew about her past, Will laughed.

 

"Told Mum about you a long time ago, love."

 

"You did?"  Buffy's eyes darted around the kitchen, as if expecting Jane to come in and order her out of the house any minute.

 

"I did. And she's fine with it. She likes you and she thinks you've been good for me. Settled me down, so to speak."

 

"You should have told me she knew," Buffy said with a pout.

 

"Why? So you could worry yourself into a tizzy every time you came over here?  You know you would have been watching for...I don't know what, but you'd never have relaxed."

 

"I suppose you think you're smart," she muttered, smiling in spite of herself.

 

"Know my girl, don't I?"

 

Buffy slept in Christmas morning.  She and Will had both agreed that she needed to spend Christmas Eve night and Christmas morning with her own family.  She woke up at 10:00 a.m. feeling rested and content.  Joyce met her at the bottom of the stairs with a cup of hot chocolate and a hug.

 

"Merry Christmas, honey," she said.  "We thought you were going to sleep all day."

 

"Are you complaining?" Buffy asked.  "It could be worse, you know. I could still be getting up at six and making you two come downstairs with me to open presents."

 

Joyce laughed and followed Buffy into the living room where Hank greeted her with a smile and a kiss on the cheek.

 

"There's my little girl," he said.  "All ready to see what Santa brought?"

 

"Uh, Dad..." Buffy said.  "You do remember that I'll be twenty-one next month, don't you?"

 

"Just kidding you, honey.  Ready to open gifts?"

 

Shaking her head at her father, Buffy sat down and sipped at her cocoa.

 

"You guys go first.  I want to see if you like what I got you."  Her pride in having been able to buy them gifts with money she'd earned herself was clear, and they happily complied.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Moving some of her clothes to Will's, a few things at a time, just seemed like a sensible thing to do, as did buying a new toothbrush, deodorant, and other necessities that were annoying to pack and unpack every day. Gradually, Buffy was having fewer and fewer reasons to go home in the mornings.

 

Time passed, and they were dressing one morning when he said casually, "What would you think about making this official, luv?"

 

"Making what official?" Buffy stopped in the process of pulling on a new shirt that Will had given her for Christmas.

 

"Living here. With me.  You may as well be my roommate, as much as you're here."

 

"You mean move all my stuff in?  Change my address and all?"  She stared at him, her heart beating faster.

 

"Well, yeah. I think that's what I mean."  He stopped pulling on his socks and walked over to her, tipping her chin up.  "I love you. I want you with me all the time. Twenty-four, seven. I want us to be officially living together. Significant others, or whatever it's called."

 

"I love you too," she said slowly.   "But I don't know how my parents—"

 

"How much do you see them now, Buffy?"

 

"Well, it depends on how late I get up... Okay, you're right. I only go home to change clothes and do laundry.  Point taken."  She frowned. "But they'll be hurt anyway.  They didn't have me there for all those years, and now here I am living somewhere else again."

 

"But this time, they know how to reach you, and you know who they are," he argued. "You can call them, drop by whenever you want.  We could plan to have dinner with them every weekend, if you think that would keep them happy."

 

"You really want to do this, huh?" she asked, slipping into the arms he was holding out.

 

"Don't you?"

 

She rested her head on his chest and nodded.  "I do. I want to be with you all the time, too. I want us to grow old together and—" She stopped, afraid she'd said too much, but he pulled her in more tightly and dropped kisses on her head.

 

"Do you mean that? About wanting to grow old with me?"

 

"I think so.  I guess I shouldn't have said that, huh? It makes me sound like I'm husband-hunting or something and that's not really what I me—"

 

"Hush," he said, releasing her.  "Stay right here. Don't move."

 

While Buffy stared at him in bewilderment, he ran to his closet and rummaged in the pocket of his dress coat.  He came back, holding his hand behind his back and watching her anxiously.

 

"I wasn't going to do this until we'd been officially living together for a few months, but...." He brought his arm around and extended his hand to her. Nestled in it was a small box from the jewelry store located in the mall.  "I don't have much; you know that.  Can't offer you a good living yet, but if you don't mind sharing your life with a starving writer...." He opened the box, exposing the small but beautifully set ring within.

 

Buffy gasped and stretched her hand towards the box, wanting to touch it and afraid to.

 

"For me?  You got that for me?"

 

"Don't see any other formerly crazy bints standin' here do you?" he asked, his shaky voice belying the sarcasm in his words.

 

With a trembling hand, Buffy took the ring from the box and slipped it on her finger.

 

"It fits me!"

 

"Yeah. Had to guess at it, but I was pretty sure I was right.  You have such delicate little fingers."  He picked her hand up and kissed the palm; then closed it into a fist.  "Will you marry me, Buffy Summers?"

 

Still staring at her hand and the stone glittering there, she felt tears filling her eyes. She raised them to his and nodded silently before flinging herself at him. 

 

"Is that a yes, then?" he laughed, catching her and breathing a sigh of relief as she wrapped her arms and legs around him.

 

"Yes," she squealed into his ear. "Yes, it's a yes.  I will marry you, William Patterson."

 

Wriggling until he let her go, she dropped to the floor and ran to grab her cell phone from her purse.  Will watched with a bemused smile as Buffy used vocal ranges that could make ears bleed to tell Joyce her news.  He frowned as Buffy's excitement dipped and her face became less happy as she listened to her mother.

 

"I know it is, but—" She shook her head as though the woman on the other end of the phone could see her.  "We love each other, Mom. I'm not 'jumping into' anything.  We... we're going to live together and I thought you'd be happy that we're not just shacking up."

 

Obviously Joyce changed her tactics as Buffy's face cleared and her enthusiasm returned.  "Oh yes, Mom! Of course you'll be involved. It's not like we're going to run off and get married tomorrow.  You'll have plenty of time to plan it. And we'll have plenty of time to get to know each other better.  Okay. I'll come by tonight for sure.  Bye. Love you. "

 

"Not the response you were hoping for?" Will walked up behind her and put his arms around her from behind, dropping his head to kiss her on the ear.

 

"It's okay. She was just surprised and worried that I was latching on to you without knowing what else is out there." She glanced up at him slyly. "I don't, you know—know what else is out there. Maybe I should—"

 

Will gave a growl that would have done credit to one of her imaginary vampires and tightened his embrace.  "Maybe you should just forget that whole idea. Unless you want to be visiting me in jail—where I'll be after I take out any other man who even looks at you."

 

Buffy giggled and turned around to face him.  Her expression turned more sober as she met his eyes.  "I don't need to try anybody else. If I learned nothing else from being Buffy the romantically-challenged-vampire-slayer, I learned that a good man is hard to find; and when you find one, you don't let go."

 

"Just so we're clear," he muttered, his dignity offended by her giggles. 

 

"We're clear," she said, going up on her toes to brush her lips across his.  "And now, I have to get to class. And you have to get ready to go to work.  I'll see you this afternoon. 'kay?"

 

"Alright, love.  Off you go. Get that education so you can support your poor, starving artist of a husband."

 

"You're not starving," she said with quick loyalty.  "You just don't make enough with your writing to quit the day job."

 

He shrugged and nodded. "True enough.  Someday though..."

 

"Maybe you can sell my story?  Or the other Buffy's story?  You could make it into a book and nobody would ever know... well, some people would know, but it's my story, so...."

 

"Maybe," he agreed.  "We can talk about it later. Right now you need to get yourself off to classes."

 

"I mean it," she insisted. "I know that Dr. Swinson thinks she's going to write me up and get famous off my story.  I'd rather you did it."

 

He shrugged.  "I doubt the good doctor is planning to write a fantasy novel."

 

"Well, just in case, you should do it first."

 

"It's not a half-bad idea, pet. Now that I think about it. But it would have to be sold as a collaboration.  I'd never try to take the credit for your imagination—might even sell it as your own story 'written with' or something like that. I'd be more of a ghost writer."

 

Buffy smiled as she realized that he was actually considering her sudden burst of inspiration.

 

"You'd be a ghost?"

 

"Ghost writer, love. I've done it before.  It helps pay the bills.  Someone else's story—my ability to put it into readable prose.  Sometimes I get my name on it, sometimes I don't."

 

Buffy frowned. "That doesn't seem fair. After you—"

 

"Sometimes I don't want my name on it," he said with a wry smile.  "Trust me, it doesn't hurt my feelings at all."  He shrugged.  "I see it as being paid for a service I can offer.  It's got nothing to do with anything I write on my own.  Those few little stories that I've sold are good for the ego, just not all that helpful with the bottom line."

 

"I like your bottom line the way it is," she said, running hands over his ass and giggling at her own boldness.

 

"Aren't you turning into the cheeky one?" he laughed, giving her a quick grope. "I must be a bad influence on you."

 

"On that inappropriate and very distracting note, I'm off to class.  See you later."

 

"Drive safely, love."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Ten

 

Although Sean couldn't resist teasing Will about giving up his life and being willing to wear a ball and chain, he was actually pleased that his friend had found someone to marry.  Sean knew that, even though he was thoroughly enjoying the life of a perpetually eligible bachelor, that wasn't true for Will.  As flirty and as fond of women as Will was, he had always been happier when he had a special girl in his life, and Sean was pleased that Buffy had become that special girl.

 

To celebrate the engagement, Sean had convinced Marcia to give Buffy and Will the same night off so that he could take them out to dinner at a nice restaurant.  He picked them up at the apartment, giving Buffy a congratulatory hug and kiss before settling in for a night of giving Will a hard time about giving up his freedom.

 

Will and Buffy took his ribbing in the spirit in which it was meant, reminding him that he couldn't seem to keep a good woman for more than a month, and pointing out that Buffy was giving up her freedom, too.

 

"That's right!" Sean said. "And I saw her first, didn't I?"  He turned his warm eyes on Buffy.  "Are you sure you don't want to get a taste of the real thing before you settle for this second-rater?"

 

Buffy smiled back, so used to Sean now that she barely registered his slight physical resemblance to Angel.  He was so open and good-natured, and his attempts to put Will down were so obviously the teasing of someone who cared deeply for him, that she barely had to smother her anger when they sometimes struck a little too close to the bone.  Once in a great while he would say something that sounded more like Angel expressing his disgust at Spike, but she smothered the flash of irritation, knowing it had more to do with her remembering how much her imaginary vampires disliked each other than it did with Sean's actual feelings.

 

When Will left the table for a few minutes, Sean took advantage of it: "You've made him very happy."

 

"He makes me very happy," Buffy replied, turning her hand and admiring the way her ring caught the light.  "I'm a very lucky girl."

 

"You're both very lucky people," he said, almost wistfully. 'I wish you nothing but the best..." Will's return interrupted the serious talk and Sean immediately added, "But just so you know, I intend to embarrass both of you as thoroughly as I can when I stand up to make that best man's toast at your wedding."

 

Will shook his head and sat down, automatically reaching for Buffy's hand.

 

"Ah, everyone knows what a wanker you are. They won't be listening...or believing a word of it."

 

Buffy smiled at the banter between them, basking in the affectionate aura that seemed to surround their small table. While the two men tried to outdo each other with embarrassing anecdotes from their high school days, Buffy zoned out and began mentally designing her wedding dress.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

 

Buffy and Will settled into a comfortable domesticity, enlivened by the obligatory family meet and greet, where Joyce and Jane established an immediate rapport.  In no time they were calling each other regularly, discussing both the wedding, and the other things they'd found they had in common.  Hank and Jane's husband had enough activities in common that they had no trouble carrying on conversations about cars and golf on those rare occasions when they had to spend time together.

 

Every once in a while, Buffy would still get flashbacks to her life in Sunnydale, and she marveled at how wonderfully different it was here in the real world.  She insisted that Dr. Swinson figure out what could have triggered a need for her to escape her very ordinary and happy real life to spend years in one that offered only heartbreak and horror.

 

"Dr. Swinson, I know enough about psychology by now to know there had to be a reason.  Only a crazy person would go somewhere like that when she could be here, having boyfriends, getting engaged..." Her voice trailed off when the doctor just stared at her with raised eyebrows.  "Oh... yeah. Right. Crazy.  I was crazy." Buffy bit her lip.  "But why? Why did I go crazy like that?  I was happy—I think. As much as anybody is happy in high school."

 

Dr Swinson sighed. "Buffy, there's so much we don't yet know about the mind and how it works.  It's not uncommon for teenagers to have problems dealing with reality.  There are chemical changes in the brain, hormonal fluctuations..."

 

"Other teenagers don't go to live in another world where they have to fight vampires and demons every day," Buffy muttered.  They'd been over all this many times before and the answers just weren't satisfying her desire to understand why she would have ever left her very nice life.

 

"I suspect a chemical imbalance of some kind," the doctor said, giving a mental sigh and wondering how many times she was going to have to repeat herself.  "You started getting better when we started you on a new drug for treating schizophrenia.  I think we have to assume—"

 

"I'm a schizophrenic?"

 

"I think you have a form of it, yes.  Certainly you are not a classic case—you fell ill at a younger age than is normal, your episodes of being in touch with reality were very rare and never lasted long enough for us to make any progress—"

 

"My dreams," Buffy interjected. "When I was asleep in that world, I was awake here."

 

"Sometimes, yes.  But as I said, those episodes were very few and far between; they really didn't give us enough to work with."

 

"Am I going to go crazy again?" Buffy's question was blunt and she stared hard at the doctor, daring her to lie.

 

"I think...I certainly hope not.  You've done beautifully since you recovered, and I'd like to think you can tell the difference now.  Is it a possibility? Of course, it is. But your entire experience has been so unique, so different from anything we've seen before..." She gazed at Buffy with sympathy and warmth.  "Your life is so wonderful right now, I cannot imagine your wanting to escape to anywhere else."

 

"I can't imagine it either. I have everything I ever wanted here. I don't think anything could make me go back to that terrible place."

 

"And as long as you are faithful about taking your meds, I see no reason why you should have to worry about it."  Dr. Swinson smiled confidently.

 

"Yeah, I know. A pill twice a day keeps the vampires away."  Buffy made a face.  "Am I going to have to take them forever?"

 

"Well, for the foreseeable future, certainly.  As your flashbacks begin to fade and you have no episodes, we can talk about reducing the dosage - but even if, at some point in the distant future, we wean you off them, I would never want you to be without a pill or two within easy reach.  Think of these pills as your safety net. Always keep a few in your purse for emergencies. If you have a stronger than normal flashback and feel yourself slipping away, you should call me immediately, but my advice might very well be to take a pill right that second."

"Don't worry," Buffy said.  "I've got a pretty good handle on those flashbacks and memories now.  I don't even get them much when Will's around.  He's a very stabilizing influence. And I think the journals are helping a lot."

 

"I've seen that." She smiled at Buffy. "And I do want to congratulate you on your engagement, even if I would have to agree with your mother that you could have spent a little more time exploring the world you've missed. But I cannot deny that he seems to be a good man and he's been very good for you."  She sat up a little straighter. "About the notebooks—journals...when am I going to see them?"

 

"Oh," Buffy said, ducking her head and evading the doctor's perceptive eyes. "Well, I'm still working on them.  I keep remembering new stuff and I don't want to give them to you until I think they're complete."

 

Somehow Buffy was sure that Dr. Swinson wouldn't think much of the idea that Will was reading the notebooks before she was. Let alone that he was taking notes on major events and outlining a novel on his laptop.  She gave what she hoped was an open and innocent smile.  I wonder if lying by omission to your psychiatrist is a sign of being crazy?  Deciding it wasn't, she waited for the doctor's reaction to her reluctance to turn over her journals.

 

Visibly trying to hide her disappointment, Dr. Swinson nodded in agreement. "I suppose that's the best course," she said.  "I do want them to be as complete as possible. And, of course, their primary purpose is to keep you aware and centered."

 

"That's what I thought." Buffy smiled and rose to leave.  "I'll let you know when I think I've remembered everything there is to remember."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

 

It was the end of a busy night in the store - with Christmas long over and sale and inventory time also finished, they hadn't expected any heavy store traffic. However, this particular night was almost as busy as during the holiday season and time to talk had been in short supply. Both Buffy and Will were exhausted.  They put the cash and receipts in the safe in Marcia's office, locked up, and walked to the parking lot, anxious to get home and put their feet up.

 

After a quick shower, Will joined Buffy in their bed, snuggling up behind her and nuzzling her neck. 

 

"Are you asleep already?"

 

"Nope," she said, rolling over. "Just thinking."

 

"About...?"

 

"Will you be mad at me if I tell you?"

 

"Don't know, do I? Why would I be?"

 

"I was thinking about Spike..."

 

She could feel the tension in Will's body, even as he tried to keep his voice neutral.  "Were you?"

 

Buffy put a hand on his cheek and stroked it gently.  "I was thinking about how much he changed that last year—about how much I came to trust him—and I was wondering how he took it that I died. If he hung around Sunnydale to protect Dawn, or if he left and went somewhere he could get minions to kill for him."

 

"What do you think he would have done?"  Will struggled to keep his face expressionless, to hide the fear that always gripped him when Buffy spoke of people from her delusion as though they were real and continuing their lives without her.

 

"I don't know," she said, rolling onto her back.  "I think he really liked Dawn, and he did promise me he'd protect her till the end of the world..." She saw the expression on Will's face and quickly recovered.  "I'm just speculating. In case you want to, you know, keep the book going longer than—"

 

"It's alright, love. Won't deny that it frightens me a bit when you get like that, but as long as I know that you know it's not—"

 

"It's not real," she agreed immediately, interrupting him.  "I know that. I promise. It's just that...  those people...they are—were real to me for a long time. I can't help but wonder about them sometimes.  I'm sorry," she whispered, turning to face him again. "I didn't mean to scare you."

 

"'s alright, sweetheart.  As long as you don't leave me, I don't mind if you wonder about them.  Just promise me you won't go there and try to find out what's happened, yeah?"

 

"I promise. No peeking in at them."

 

The kiss that accompanied her promise soon grew into something sufficiently distracting that neither one of them mentioned Sunnydale again.  After a sated and happy Buffy had snuggled into his side, safe and secure with Will's arms around her and his warm breath on her hair, she sighed happily and drifted off to sleep.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eleven

 

Buffy woke to a complete and utter absence of light. Disoriented and confused, she was aware only of a need to get out of the dark, airless space in which she found herself.  Instinctively, she put her hands up, encountering something unyielding and yet soft.  Fear-inspired strength allowed her to punch through the fabric and wood in front of her face—to find herself spitting out dirt that fell into her open mouth.  Panic set in. She clawed, punched and dug until she felt one hand emerge into open air.  Putting forth a last effort, she pushed her head out of the dirt and pulled herself out to lie gasping on the dew-soaked grass.

 

She staggered to her feet and stared around. Everything was blurry and indistinct, including the large stone in front of her. She frowned at it, something about the name carved upon it seemed familiar but her mind couldn't process what she was seeing well enough to — she froze.  It was a name. She squinted at it, rubbing her eyes to no avail. After another minute of confusion, she wandered away from the puzzling monument, her dark clothing shedding dirt as she walked through scenes of destruction.

 

Broken windows, small fires here and there, damaged cars...it was all so bewildering and strange.  And hard to see.  She squinted from time to time, hoping the blurry vision would clear up soon and she would be able to figure out where she was. 

 

Still struggling to see, she found herself on the outskirts of a group of rough-looking men with distorted faces and strange mannerisms.  They were looping chains around the arms and legs of a girl who looked oddly familiar.  Just as the motorcycles roared and their tires spun gravel onto the girl they were about to pull apart, Buffy recognized her. Her scream, "No!" was instinctive, as was the way she ran when the entire gang turned to focus their attention on her.

 

Her leap over the fence dropped her in front of a small group of unfamiliar people who all began talking at her and calling her by a name that barely resonated. She still couldn't see them very well, nor could she understand their muffled voices. She retreated, crouching in upon herself and hoping they would go away.  Their voices washed over her as their cries of "Buffy!" were interspersed with discussion of what she was doing there and what had happened to her.

 

A dark-haired boy stared at her, horror on his face.  ".... She was right where we left her," he said. "In her coffin..." Buffy's hearing was still as blurry as her eyesight; she wasn't sure what he was saying to her, only that he seemed to expect her to respond somehow.  "... You're home," he concluded, only those two bewildering words actually reaching through the fog in her brain.  "Home?" What did he mean?  What was home?

 

While she'd been distracted by the strange people all trying to speak to her, the motorcycle riding demons had found them.  She remained fearful and immobile until she saw the people who seemed to know her being hurt. Then, without any conscious thought, she stood up and fought, somehow knowing exactly what to do.  She faltered once or twice, the actions unfamiliar to her, but each time she recovered quickly and continued to use whatever weapons she could find to decimate her opponents. 

 

As soon as the demons had been defeated, she retreated into the frightened confusion that had been her companion since she'd clawed her way out of what she now understood to have been her grave. She ran away, ignoring the cries from the chattering people she still didn't recognize.

 

The sight of the rickety metal tower halted her escape to nowhere.  Drawn to it in a way she couldn't explain, she approached it cautiously and began to ascend the stairs.  She was staring out from the platform on top, flashbacks to events she couldn't understand or explain causing her to squeeze her eyes tightly closed, when a whispered, "Buffy?" caught her attention.  Another unfamiliar face was staring at her. A younger girl, one with disbelief and hope in her eyes. "Buffy?" she repeated.  "Is it you?"

 

Buffy looked back at the end of the platform, once again drawn to the end projecting out into space.  The platform swayed and the girl grabbed onto a pole.  Buffy moved closer to the end.  "No!" the girl shouted. "Don't! Just walk to me, Buffy. Please!"

 

The platform continued to sway, the tower making creaking noises as though in pain.  The girl began talking rapidly: "I'm your sister, Dawn.  We were up here... together...and then we weren't. You went away... and... " Buffy tuned her out, continuing to stare with fascination at the swaying ground below them. She could feel herself being drawn more and more toward the edge, her progress halted when the other girl pleaded, "Talk to me! Say something!"

 

"Is this...Hell?"  Buffy's voice was rusty with disuse and she repeated her question, hoping this girl could tell her what was going on.  "Is this Hell?"

 

"No!" Dawn began to babble again, doing her best to keep Buffy's focus on her and off the tempting drop.  But it wasn't until Dawn screamed at a particularly violent tremor of the tower that Buffy turned with something approaching recognition in her eyes.

 

"Dawn!"  Her instincts once again taking over, she ran to her sister, grabbing her in one arm and a nearby pulley in the other.  When they had ridden as far as they could before falling, landed safely on the ground and scrambled away from the collapsing tower, Dawn pulled Buffy into a tight hug.  "You're really here," she said. "You're alive and you're home. You're home."

 

Buffy wondered why those words weren't making her any happier as she submitted to Dawn's embrace and stared over her shoulder with blank eyes.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Later, when Dawn had led her home and helped her to clean up, she began to remember more about who and where she was.  But, even while she returned Dawn's tearful hugs, she was conscious of the immense void where there should have been joy. A void that was all the emptier for her not being able to figure out what should be filling it.  All she knew was that she felt like she was missing a big part of herself, and that something wonderful had been ripped away from her. Which made no sense at all. She'd been dead. Now she was alive. Shouldn't she feel happier about it?

 

It was when she came slowly down the stairs to find Spike staring at her with awed eyes that the empty space seemed to shrink just the smallest bit. Although his eyes never looked anywhere but her face, she tried to finish buttoning the open shirt, only to end up hiding her hands behind her back when he noticed them and correctly guessed why they were so torn up.

 

She allowed him to lead her to the couch and felt herself relax a little when he took her hands in his. His expression remained kind and understanding as he sent Dawn to get the first aid supplies.  She stared at his familiar face, wondering why he had remained in Sunnydale.  Perhaps she'd been gone only a few days or weeks?

 

"How...how long was I gone?"

 

"One hundred and forty-seven days yesterday. Uh... hundred and forty-eight today" He gave her a tentative smile that didn't reach his awed eyes. "'Cept today doesn't count, does it?" He waited for a response, dropping his eyes to her hands, then back up to her face.  "How long was it for you...where you were?"

 

"Longer," she said simply, searching his face for some sign that he might be able to tell her what had happened.  Before he could say anything else, her friends burst in calling for Dawn, and Spike was soon pushed aside.  She watched the door close behind him, confused by the pang of loss she felt when he left; a departure that shouldn't have mattered when the people who were really important to her were all there making a fuss over her return.

 

 

~~~~~

 

Inexplicably, her first act when she went out to patrol by herself was to let herself into Spike's crypt.  She was idly looking at some magazines on an unfamiliar table when he came up the stairs carrying a knife - which he quickly put down.

 

She knew he was waiting for her to tell him why she was there, but she really had no explanation to give him. Her feet had taken her to his crypt and she hadn't cared enough to question why.   She perched uncomfortably on a chair as he struggled to make conversation, ending an apologetic speech with a sorrowful, "Every night I save you."

 

Her eyes, blank until this point, flew to his, reading the grief and sincerity there. A sliver of understanding slid into her numb mind and she smiled briefly.

 

"You kept your promise," she echoed his earlier remark.

 

"I've tried to, love.  Done my best for you since... But I should have been quicker, smarter, more... something!"  He stood up, becoming more agitated as he thought about what she'd been through.  "You never should have had to jump!'

 

Buffy rose to her feet and waited for him to calm down and stand in front of her.

 

He sighed.  "But you're back now.  Came through it like the amazing woman you are... You're back, and I... I can't be sorry about that."

 

Buffy twitched a little as he voiced what she'd been thinking – that for whatever reason, she did seem to be sorry about it.  She shook her head and walked towards the door. Just barely loud enough for him to hear, she whispered, "I'm glad one of us is happy about it."

 

She left the crypt and began her patrol, only to find Spike catching up to her before she'd gone very far.  He made no comment, just fell into step with her, watching with narrowed eyes as she staked two fledglings who had been sure the Slayer was dead and gone.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

As the days went on, and Buffy struggled to adjust to the harsh world in which she found herself, she began to understand where she must have been.  Only Heaven could have been so right, so warm and safe and totally different from the world to which she'd been returned.  It seemed strange that the only times she felt at all comfortable about being back were when she was alone with Spike, but she didn't question why she was so at ease with him, or why she trusted him so much that she shared her thoughts about where she'd been. It just took too much energy to worry about it.

 

"I think I was in Heaven..." Spike's face reflected shock. In spite of his knowing how dangerous it had been for Willow to have attempted the resurrection, he'd accepted her later explanation that it had been necessary because Buffy had probably been trapped in a hell dimension. That there had been another, more likely, possibility hadn't occurred to him. "They can never know," she whispered as she stepped away from him into the sunlight.  She couldn't have said why she was so confident that he wouldn't tell her friends; she just knew he wouldn't.  She moved quickly away, knowing the sun would prevent him from following her.

 

As her unhappiness lingered, she found herself spending more and more time with the vampire. The tentative trust and friendship they'd been forming just before she died was still there; and knowing that he'd had nothing to do with bringing her back made him her companion of choice most days.  They patrolled together, attended Scooby meetings, and often finished the night by sitting in the kitchen of her house or in front of the TV in his crypt. When her friends commented on how much time she was spending with Spike rather than with them, she stopped inviting him to come home with her and began spending even more time at his crypt.

 

She did her best to ignore the way he looked at her, telling herself they were just friends, patrol buddies who liked each other and who got along most of the time; that she didn't have to pretend with him, and that was why she was spending so much time in his presence.  The occasional bizarre dream, from which she woke up expecting to find a Spike she almost didn't recognize sleeping next to her, she attributed to the weirdness that was her life after death.

 

The sadness that pervaded her life in a way that nothing else – even her mother's death – ever had was only slightly relieved by his constant presence. That Spike was the only one she trusted enough to confide in was an irony not lost on Buffy as she went through her nights mechanically staking whatever other vampires crossed her path.  It occurred to her one night, as she struggled to stake a stronger than normal fledgling, that without Spike's unasked for backup, she might very well have fallen victim to any one of the smarter or stronger vamps she'd faced since her return. It was a fate that was often more tempting than she would admit to him...or to herself.

 

As she coughed out the dust and stood up, she voiced her thanks.

 

"Good thing you carry a stake now, isn't it?"

 

"So it seems.  Bit off your game tonight, are you, Slayer?"

 

"I'm fine. Just a little tired... or bored. Nothing to worry about."

 

She shrugged off the danger, confident in his ability and desire to keep her safe. If she sometimes noticed the concern on his face whenever she faltered or took a misstep, she ignored it in favor of accusing him of stalking her.

 

 

 

And then Sweet came to town.

 

Nothing here is real

Nothing here is right....

 

...I just want to feel...alive...