Disclaimer: All characters herein are the brain-children of Joss Whedon. No matter how I’ve twisted them, they’re not mine, no money, and so on and so forth.
The Other Side
It was the best moment of her life.
And isn’t it just my luck it would be at the very end of my life, she thought with no small hint of bitterness.
The sweetest words she knew she would ever hear – the words she had longed to hear for so long – had finally come from her beloved’s lips. He’d said I love you, and for one second, everything disappeared. There was no movement, there was no sound, there was no burning from the amulet or from the sun. There was just him, just those words.
And for that instant, she believed him. He meant it. It was true. It was real.
Then reality came crashing back. The cavern was collapsing around them, and he was still there, still holding her hand, even as the flames danced around their fingers. She knew he wanted her to run, to go with him. Oh, she thought, staring up into his bright, bright blue eyes and feeling the sting of tears in her own, I wish I could, baby, but I can’t. I’ve gotta stay, gotta do it right. Gotta prove it to you…
And there was only one way to make sure that he would be safe, that he would leave her there, no matter how it broke her heart.
“No, you don’t,” she whispered, giving him a tiny sad smile, “but… thanks for saying it.”
As if it had waited for just that moment, the earth shuddered again, jerking his hand away from hers, and she wanted to weep as that connection was severed, and the flames that had burst out at his touch began to sear her flesh. She bit her lip to hold the pain at bay. He staggered back a few paces, staring at her in shock and confusion.
But he still wasn’t leaving, and if you don’t leave, she thought, desperately afraid for him, what was the point of me saying that? I want you to live! “Go!” she shouted, an outlet for some of the agony she felt, and the cavern lurched again. Another wave of… of whatever it was that wouldn’t let her move pressed her back harder against the wall. “Get out!”
She wanted to imagine that the look he gave her was as full of despair as she felt, that he really wanted to stay and go up in flames with her, but she wouldn’t, couldn’t let herself. That’s just wishful thinking, she scolded herself firmly.
And then he moved. He ran. Part of her rejoiced that he would make it out and live the life he so deserved, and part of her felt nothing but heartache that it was so easy to push him away.
But it’s always been that way, she remembered, trying not to let the hurt and regret overwhelm her. He’s always run from me, one way or another.
The light was still sprouting from the amulet on her chest, and she watched as he ducked under it, heading for the crumbling stairs to the upper level of the school. She knew he was too far away, knew he couldn’t possibly hear over the roar of the cavern falling to pieces, but she couldn’t stop herself, and quietly murmured, “I wanna see how it ends.” And she just smiled serenely at the destruction all around her, because it didn’t matter anymore.
She’d known since the moment the amulet had tumbled into her hand that she wasn’t going to make it, not this time. And this time – it just didn’t matter. She had learned. She had fought and struggled and bled. She could die for him.
It was painful – every molecule in her body was screaming as it was pulled apart, but she didn’t waver. And when the end came, when whatever it was that had protected her for so long in the sunlight finally gave out, Elizabeth the Bloody – the vampire known as Buffy – laughed as she crumbled to dust.
She wouldn’t have been laughing if she’d known she was going to come back.
At first, she wasn’t sure that’s what was happening; all she knew was brightness and something roaring all around her. Then everything started to hurt, to burn.
All of the pain that she’d suppressed in the final moments of her existence came back ten-fold. All of the elements of her body were being forced back together by some windy force that didn’t seem to care that they didn’t fit anymore. She shrieked, long and loud enough to hurt her own ears, just to release some of that torturous pain that had overtaken her as she’d dusted.
It didn’t help much.
It was all too bright, too loud, too much. She couldn’t even form a coherent thought.
And then it was over, and the wind that had sprung up only to blow gale-strong around her died away. Panting heavily as reaction set in, she crouched in a defensive stance, eyes darting around, flicking from one unfamiliar face to another, barely able to concentrate on their words.
“Buffy.” The blond woman breathed her name in something like awe.
“Who?” asked a girl with dark hair, her lips painted bright red. Buffy eyed her warily.
Oh, God, where am I? she wondered, trying not to let her thoughts fracture into a thousand brilliant pieces. Is it dangerous here? Where’s Will?
“One of the most notorious vampires that ever existed,” the blond woman went on, and Buffy couldn’t help but wince a little inside as the words struck home.
Must be a Watcher, she thought. All of Joyce’s recent betrayals flashed in her mind, igniting a slow burn of anger. Gotta make sure I keep an eye on her.
The blond woman was still speaking. “She’s second only to…”
“Only to me.”
The sound of Drusilla’s voice behind her – that accent so like Will’s, but stronger – brought her up short. Buffy spun around, surprised, and saw her there, the vampire that had put Will through so much mental and emotional trauma, so much pain, that he hadn’t been able to see Buffy except as something soulless and evil. And even after everything she’d done, he still loved Dru, had kissed her in that tomb…
Anger and hurt and jealousy and every other emotion she felt for her grandsire flooded her, overcoming the shakes that had kept her nearly immoble. Without a pause for thought, Buffy vamped out and leapt toward Drusilla, snarling out her rage and intending to pound her into the next thing to dust.
She ended up sailing right through Dru, landing awkwardly half imbedded in the heavy desk behind her.
“What the hell?” She stood there for a moment, all kinds of stunned, staring down at herself. It wasn’t long, though before she somehow managed to collect her wits and advance on Dru again. “What did you do to me?” she growled around her fangs, using her most menacing tone. Because apparently that’s all I have right now...
Dru shuddered, one hand on her stomach where Buffy had just passed through her, and just stared at her. “Nothing. We didn’t do anything.”
“Then why am I here?” The anger died away as quickly as it had come, and reaction overtook her again. She was barely able to control her voice, and couldn’t stop trembling. She wanted nothing more than to wrap her arms around herself, for comfort if not for warmth, but she couldn’t, not with Dru there, watching her for the slightest weakness…
“You came out of this,” the blond woman said, kneeling down to pick up a garish diamond-like pendant on a heavy chain. “Have you seen this before?”
Buffy recognized the amulet immediately, and opened her mouth.
“What is it?” This from a guy – not much more than a kid – with bright blue eyes and dark hair.
“It’s something I gave to William in Sunnydale.” And there was an insufferably smug note in Drusilla’s tone, as if she were remembering that kiss, as if she knew Buffy had seen them.
It snapped Buffy’s attention away from the amulet. “Where is he?” she demanded, and didn’t care that her voice quavered, that she couldn’t keep herself from shaking. It’s just a reaction to coming back from dust, she told herself. It’s so not important compared to Will. “Where’s Will? Is he all right?”
“They stopped in a few weeks ago,” Drusilla said, dark eyes twinkling with even darker humor. “You just missed them, poor thing.”
“Is. He. All right?” she gritted out, catching Dru’s gaze and holding it. The air seemed to shimmer between them in waves of heat, Buffy’s determination to know battling against Dru’s desire to taunt.
Finally Dru looked away, and around them, Buffy heard a soft sigh of relief from Dru’s Scooby club, or whatever they called themselves. “He’s fine,” Dru said, brushing some non-existent lint off her blouse. “So were Joyce and Dawn and all the others who made it,” she added pointedly.
“I knew they were okay,” Buffy retorted, and shook her hair back over her shoulders. She still didn’t feel quite right – duh! Ghost, here! – but at least the shivering had subsided to a more manageable level. “They’d already pulled out before the cavern came down. Glad to hear about Dawnie, though.” She stopped there; no sense letting the bitch know how attached she’d gotten to the Slayer’s little sister.
Then it struck her. Why am I here trading insults with Dru when I could be back with Will? “So, here’s a question,” she said. “Where is he?”
She affected a nonchalant pose as Dru’s eyes raked her up and down. Of course, Will would have told her where they were going, she thought, and tried to tamp down the jealousy curling around her heart. Will told Dru things he wouldn’t ever tell her. Don’t be stupid, Buffy, you were dead, remember? she reminded herself.
Dru’s reply was careless, clearly designed to ignite her anger once more. “I don’t know exactly,” she said, looking down at her perfectly manicured nails. “The last I heard from him was an overseas call. Europe, I think.”
“You can’t keep me from him!”
“He’s not mine to keep,” Dru replied, just loud enough for Buffy to hear. For one second, Dru looked up at her, and Buffy was shocked at the misery in her face. Quickly, as if realizing she was showing too much, Dru smoothed her expression to calm, with the expected hint of exasperation at Buffy’s presence.
Buffy opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again silently. There was no way she could tease Dru, not when she knew just how her grandsire felt.
“Hey.” It was the kid, using the sudden quiet to his advantage. “I hate to interrupt the touching reunion, but don’t you think that maybe we should find out what’s going on? Why Blondie –”
“Buffy!” she interrupted indignantly.
“– er… Buffy popped out of that amulet all ghost-like?”
“And perhaps how the amulet got here,” the blond woman added, studying Dru closely, “when for all we knew it was lost in the Hellmouth.”
“So, scanner time?” the dark haired girl said, her brightly painted lips stretched in a grin.
The kid grinned back. “Scanner time.” He gestured to Buffy. “Come on. Maybe if we figure out why you’re all ghosty, we can figure out a way to get you all non-ghosty.”
For the first time since falling out of the amulet, Buffy smiled. “That sounds good to me! Scan away, kid.”
“Connor,” the kid replied, then gave her a sidelong look, his eyes blue and intense, but, Buffy felt, not a patch on the Slayer’s. “Okay, so actually it’s Liam Seamus Connor Donnelly, but my parents were kind of overachievers in the name department.” He led Buffy down wide beige corridors humming with fluorescent lights.
She smirked. “And apparently very Irish. Didja go to Notre Dame?”
Connor laughed. “No way, I went to MIT, then started grad work out here, and avoided Notre Dame like the plague. I’m in charge of the Science and Research division here at Wolfram and Hart.” He pushed open the door to the blindingly white lab.
Wolfram and Hart? Now why does that sound familiar? Buffy wondered, as she moved to the place Connor indicated he wanted her to stand.
The rest of the group found out of the way corners to wait in, trying to stay out of Connor’s way as he waved his electronic thingamajig. The blond woman took the opportunity to examine the amulet under a large magnifier.
“Well,” Connor said slowly, peering down at the computer screen. “You’re not a ghost, precisely.”
“Then what, precisely, is she?” Dru interrupted. She was tapping her fingers against her crossed arms.
“Ghosts suck, for lack of a better term, light and heat from their surroundings, which means that the aura around them is always cold. Around Buffy, there’s an area of warmth.”
“Are you saying you think I’m hot stuff?” Buffy asked, giving the kid her biggest grin. “Aw, thanks! I think you’re pretty cute yourself.”
Connor’s cheeks colored a little. “You’re just a little above room temperature, anyway. But no physical body – everything else suggests a spiritual being. Not consistent with a ghost, but clearly… well… not all here.” He winced and gave Buffy an apologetic look.
Dru gave one of her nastier laughs. “I could have told you that.”
“What’s the matter, Grandma?” Buffy shot back. “Feeling like your exclusive little soul-having club’s a little crowded?”
The blond woman looked up sharply from studying the amulet, her gaze pinning Buffy in place. “Soul-having? What do you mean?”
Connor and the other girl looked back and forth between Buffy and Dru, and Connor took a discreet step backwards.
It was Buffy’s turn for a humorless laugh. “So the Wicked Witch of the West there didn’t tell you that I have a soul? That I saved the world? You can’t say you didn’t know about the soul, Dru, ‘cause I heard Will tell you.”
Dru shrugged, seeming a little discomfited by the incredulous looks she was getting from her team. “It didn’t seem important.”
“And isn’t that the story of my unlife,” Buffy muttered. Louder, she went on, “What’s the verdict, cutie? Can you de-ghostify me?”
Connor shook his head. “It’ll take a little time, I think. I’ve got all the information I can get,” he added, lifting the scanner. “I’ll see if there’s anything I can do.”
“You were connected with the amulet,” the blond woman said. “Your essence, if not your physical body. I’d like to ask you some questions about what happened in the Hellmouth…”
“Darla,” Dru raised her voice to override the blond woman’s. “Can I talk to you for a moment? And you, Connor.”
Abandoned, Buffy let her face settle into a pout, and kicked at the lab benches. Her foot passed through the cabinet door and she sighed. Quite clearly, she overheard Dru say, “... not using Wolfram and Hart resources to…”
Just then, the dark haired girl stepped into her line of vision and looked her up and down, one eyebrow arched. “So, Buffy, huh?”
Buffy gave her the once-over in turn. Soft curls of thick brown hair, full lips, curvy figure outlined by a suit in which she clearly felt uncomfortable. Her eyes were cold and hard, though, and there were a few lines in her pretty face, telling of a lifetime of hardship. Tough chick, she assessed, then gave her a smug little grin that she knew from experience was the most annoying one she had. She wishes she could take me. “Yeah?”
The girl jerked her chin in the direction of Connor and Darla, now conferring with Dru in the corner of the lab, not quite out of earshot. “So B, you as bad as Doll-face made you out to be?”
Loaded question, Buffy told herself, and studied her once more, head cocked to one side. She’s more than just the muscle. “I’ve done some things I don’t like to think about,” she allowed. “But just ‘cause I got a soul doesn’t mean I’m a pushover.”
“Yeah?” The girl leaned in, close enough that if Buffy had had a body, they’d have been almost touching. “Here’s your one and only warning, B. You step outta line the littlest bit, give Big D any amount of grief and I’ll make sure you fit in a dust buster.”
“Yeah, whatever.” Buffy waved one hand airily. “Like I haven’t heard that a thousand times before from the Slayer.” Bitterness spiked her heart for a second – just what the hell does Dru do to get such loyalty? From this group, from the Slayer? She was always such a bitch to us! – but she pushed it down hard; she had some intimidating of her own to do. “But just so you know, girlie-girl, I’ve taken down two Slayers and fought side-by-side with another for more than three years. You’re not taking me without some serious backup and hey! I don’t see your army anywhere around.”
“Don’t let your mouth write any checks, Blondie,” the girl shot back, “’cause there’s no way your lack of body is up to cashing… Hey!”
The girl’s expression morphed from mocking to shocked just as Buffy’s world faded into Hell.
Being incorporeal sucked more than anything she’d ever experienced.
Being incorporeal and stuck in the evilest of evil law firms with her broody twat of a grandsire and no way to reach the Slayer? That was a kind of torture that Hell only dreamed it could have.
The windows, however, were very nice. And hey, she thought, not being sucked into Hell anymore, so, bonus there!
Buffy had curled herself in one of the window embrasures in Drusilla’s gigantic office, right up against the vamp-flambé-proof glass. I wish they all could be California girls, she sang silently, luxuriating in sitting in the sun after more than 120 years. I so would have been a beach bunny in another life. Then another thought struck her. I wonder if ghost-vamps still dust in direct sunlight?
That was definitely something she wasn’t looking to repeat, especially if she was just going to get un-dusted again. Darla and Connor were still trying to figure out why she’d gotten trapped in the amulet in the first place, and they couldn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t happen again if she dusted.
The coming back hurt worse than the dying.
“Everything’s too bright and too hard and… and too violent.” Will’s eyes were unfocused, as if he were staring at something inside himself, and Buffy felt an overwhelming urge to put her arm around him, to give the comfort that she knew wouldn’t be wanted. But she wasn’t going to cry. She wasn’t. “I was in Heaven and they pulled me out, and now I’m in Hell…”
She shook off the memory. That moment counted as one of the best and worst in her life all at once.
Trying to think of something – anything – else, she closed her eyes and willed the sunlight and warmth to leech into her, to give her some semblance of a body, but everything remained stubbornly ghost-like. Well, what did you expect, Buffy? she asked herself. It’s not going to be any different this time than any of the others. At least not until the Brain Trust figures out how to re-bodify me. If they can.
With a sigh, she slipped off the seat and through the blinds. They didn’t even rattle; she passed right through them. This, despite having been just solid enough – or maybe just scared enough, she allowed – to be able to write in the condensation on Connor’s mirror.
Dru was behind the big desk, busily shuffling papers around from anally neat stack to another. Wonder what would happen if I gave one of those stacks a push? she thought, and grinned. Can’t hurt to try, can it? She stepped toward the desk, concentrating hard on being just a little bit solid, in the tips of her fingers.
“Don’t be naughty, Elizabeth,” Dru said without even looking up from her paperwork.
Caught, Buffy shoved her hands in her coat pockets. “You never let me have any fun, Grandma,” she sulked.
Dru glanced up at that, and massaged the spot between her brows the way she’d seen humans do. “How many times have I told you to not call me that?”
She grinned and rocked up on the balls of her feet. “Apparently not enough.”
“Have I mentioned how much I miss it now that you’re not getting sucked away into Hell anymore?”
“Only twice today, Granny,” she replied and leaned forward a little. “I must not be annoying you enough.”
“Oh, you’re annoying me quite enough, Elizabeth,” Dru said, standing up. “Why don’t you go play with your dollies… oh, wait, you can’t.”
She put on her best pout. “You’re a mean old granny. I hope some kids shove you in an oven.”
Score so far for today, Buffy thought almost happily as she strode through the door, Buffy – 6, Dru – 2.
Once outside, her good humor dissipated and she hesitated by Riley’s desk. Riley glanced up at her and then back down to the next stack of papers he was going to pass on to Drusilla. And just how did the big cornfed goof get to be Dru’s secretary, of all vamps in the world? she asked herself almost absently. Most of her attention was focused on where to go next.
As much as she wanted to go and prod Connor or Darla into a little more clandestine helping, if she did it too much, she was pretty sure that would stop the helping altogether. Faith didn’t have much tolerance for her hanging around, and was probably in court today anyway. Anyanka had told her in no uncertain terms to stop haunting the clientele.
Guess that means you’re on your own, Buff. She melted through the nearest stairway door and headed up to the apartment floor.
Since she kept boomeranging back to Wolfram and Hart whenever she tried to leave town, she figured it was just best to stay there, most of the time. But the law firm was boring. She didn’t need to sleep – for a while, she hadn’t dared – and she wasn’t quite consistently solid enough to work a remote control. Wandering around had occupied her for a while, and in the course of her wanderings, she’d discovered the secret suite.
It probably wasn’t really a secret; in fact, it was spotlessly free of dust or dirt, so at least the cleaning staff knew it existed. But Dru never went there, nor Anyanka or any of the others. Darla still kept an apartment outside the building. So, whenever Dru’s crew had made it clear she was being a pest, Buffy disappeared up here until she thought they might tolerate her again.
It’s just like Sunnydale, she thought, only worse, because now not only can I not hit people, I can’t leave.
She phased through the door, settled carefully on the sofa and wished she could do something more than just wish that she could feel how plush the carpet was. It looked like it’d be wonderfully soft against bare feet.
Instead, she swung her booted feet onto the sofa and stretched out, staring up at the ceiling.
In a couple of minutes, her thoughts – as they nearly always did when she was still – drifted to Will.
Wonder what he’s doing right now? She contemplated a few different options, and finally settled on something that kept Dawnie in line, kept Joyce off his back and the rest of the Scoobie club out of his business. She chuckled at that last; the less Queen C and all the others knew about Will’s business, the better. Especially when I get all solid again. Then I can leave this graciously appointed pit of evil and go see him and…
There, her plans stopped short; she didn’t know what would happen when she saw him again. Did he mean it? The question was worn and familiar from the number of times she’d asked it and gotten no answer. Does he miss me? Would he be happy to see me if… I mean when… when I…
Dru knew where he was, or had a phone number or something; there was one drawer of her desk that she kept locked all the time, even while she was there. But she wouldn’t share it. The last time Buffy had called her on it, Dru had just sighed, and Buffy couldn’t recall her grandsire ever looking so old before. “He deserves better than you,” she had said, and when Buffy had bristled, she had added, “He deserves better than me, too.”
Buffy had long since accepted that having a soul didn’t make up for all the deaths she’d caused over her long life. There had been days back in Sunnydale where it had taken an immense effort to remember that Will believed in her, that he trusted her, and part of that trust was that she wasn’t going to take a walk outside some nice sunny day.
Okay, so… he trusts me, Buffy thought, and closed her eyes against the bland ceiling. This, too, was a well-traveled track in her mind. Or he did, anyway. And he cares about me… But just before the end, he kissed Dru, not me. So… when he said he loved me, did he mean it like a friend? Did he only say it because he knew I was going to die? She pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes. God! I wish I knew!
But what if…
“No,” she said aloud. “No, he meant it. He loved me. He loves me.”
Even as she said it, though, the doubts continued to niggle at what confidence she had left.
A flash of light and suddenly, bang! she was solid again. It wasn’t the best moment of her life – that slot having already been filled – but it was the best moment since she’d gotten sucked back out of the amulet, and really, that was the most she expected.
Though it was a bit embarrassing when she tried to walk through the door into Dru’s office, only to bounce off and fall on her butt.
Then, once she realized she was corporeal again, Buffy started to think about all the things she’d missed out on while ghostified. Drinking, driving, having sex… I haven’t had sex in more than a year, she thought somewhat plaintively, and Riley was eyeing her like she was a bucket of candy, just like he’d always done.
Of course, about halfway through her shucking Riley’s pants off, he went crazy. She laid him out and tied him up for good measure. And while part of her screamed at the sex-us interruptus, there was an even bigger part of her that was glad she hadn’t had a chance to go through with it.
Because Will was still out there, maybe loving her.
For an hour or more after she cold-cocked Riley, Buffy wandered the building, just getting used to being real again. And as she walked, she kept coming back to one thing.
I’m solid through. And because of that, I’m probably not tied to that stupid gaudy amulet anymore, and that’s gotta be the reason I kept boomeranging back here whenever I tried to leave. I’m free.
So why am I still here?
She couldn’t come up with an answer for that one.
When she finally crossed Dru’s path, her grandsire dragged her along to listen to one of the multitude of lawyers that she had under her thumb, but she was still preoccupied with her thoughts.
Getting re-bodified didn’t hardly hurt at all, she thought, half-listening to one of the lawyer spout off about that prophecy that Dru was supposedly all over. Or was it a shoe--shine? Whichever.
Coming back out of the amulet as a ghost hurt about a billion times worse than this. I wonder why? And why did that hurt more than getting dusted in the first place?
Then the lawyer said something about a vampire becoming human again, but only a vampire with a soul, and that’s when she really sat up and started to take notice.
And as soon as she heard that the Cup of Whatever was supposed to determine which vampire with a soul was the vampire of prophecy, she plotted out in her mind the quickest route to the garage where Dru kept her cars.
The hotwired Viper was roaring down the road and she was nearly in Nevada when it occurred to her to wonder why she was doing this. Unconsciously, she lifted her foot off the accelerator a little. I always took pride in being what I am, she thought, watching the yellow stripe in the middle of the road morph into a dashed line. I was finally strong. I could take what I wanted. Then I could watch Will’s back, because I didn’t need to be protected like the others. Am I really so willing to throw that all away? Just to be human, when I’m not even sure that Will…
Maybe… if I’m human again, slate wiped clean and all… maybe Will really will love me. That must be why Dru wants it so bad.
She floored it again, and the night sped past her in a blur. Well, she can’t have it. She wants it, she’ll have to take it over my dead… right. Over my dust, then.
There were lots of sharp splinters of wood all about in the derelict opera house; it was a dangerous place for vampires to duel. And as they fought back and forth, up and down, Buffy realized, despite all those years of hatred that lay between them, she didn’t really want to kill her grandsire any more.
It was almost enough to beat her. Almost.
Except that the cup was a fake. It was filled with something that might have been ambrosia, but turned out to be flat Mountain Dew, and she was still just as much a vampire as she was when she started. Still as guilt-ridden, still as blood-thirsty, still as dead.
She glanced down at the empty cup in her hand, and wondered why Will felt even further away than ever.