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a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfiction
by Amy R.
What If | If Then | Then What
Chapter One: "What If"
"Sorry!" Willow let Buffy into her bedroom through the French doors. "I didn't hear you." The sun peeked over the tops of the houses on the east side of the street; Willow clicked the lock. "I mean, I did hear you, but I was asleep, and in my dream, you knocking was Ms. Calendar driving nails to hold this portrait of her and Giles from that party her uncle threw for their wedding."
"Not a prob." Buffy peeled off Angel's well-worn leather jacket. She draped it over the duffle bag she'd dropped off the evening before, and then sat sideways in Willow's desk chair. "Sorry to wake you. Do you want to go back to sleep?"
Willow checked her clock. "No, the alarm was going to go off in less than an hour anyway." She tugged at her comforter as if to make her bed, then looked down at her flannel pajamas, and across at Buffy's blouse and slacks. She laughed. "It's like a shift change. You take over sleeping, and I'll get ready for school."
"Isn't it blasphemous or something," Buffy yawned, "a student going to school on a teacher in-service day?"
"I think the word you want is 'heretical,' actually, and yes, that's why I have the special pass." Willow tossed her head and smiled, delighted with the semi-official Teaching Assistant status that had let her help with Ms. Calendar's big software presentation to the faculty that afternoon. "Oh, hey, munchies! Are you all hungry from patrol? Can I make you breakfast?"
"Minimal slayage." Buffy shook her head. Her blonde hair, longer now than Willow's red, made an emphatic swish with the gesture. "Two vamps all night hardly merits making with the Julia Child, but I wouldn't turn down some sugar-frosted honey flakey stuff."
"Unfortunately, the Rosenberg household has a long-standing policy against the kind of cereal that might come with a prize in the box." Willow sighed. "I do know where the actual honey and sugar are, though!"
"Nature's own partially hydrogenated corn syrup," Buffy nodded. "The paths of glory lead but to the kitchen."
"Oooh, you did the reading!" Willow's eyebrows rose enthusiastically as they stepped into the hallway. "I'm so impressed. You are totally getting an 'A' in English this semester!"
"That's me: study girl." Buffy's fists clenched. She unbent her fingers and looked at her claddagh ring. "It's amazing how much time there is to cram when your boyfriend has been in Timbuktu for a year."
"I thought Angel stayed in Mali for only-- oh, you meant metaphorically." Willow flipped on the light in the kitchen. As soon as her fingers touched the switch . . .
* * *
. . . she was in a dark room, lit only by a digital clock that was running about an hour fast. Willow froze and scanned for exits, weapons and threats, as three years of things going very seriously bump in the night had taught her to.
An alarm clock blared. A hand shot out from nowhere. The shrill bleeps became a radio broadcast. National Public Radio, Willow recognized, just like her parents listened to. The hand kept groping around, passing in front of the clock's glowing numbers.
"Jenny, do you recall where I set my glasses?" Giles's voice, sleepy. Willow jumped.
"Uh, couch." Ms. Calendar's voice, yawning. "You took them off on the couch, so they're probably--"
* * *
Willow was back in her own well-lit kitchen, her hand off the light switch. Buffy opened the utensil drawer, apparently not noticing anything. Willow shook her head and reached down the bowls. Maybe she wasn't entirely awake yet?
"I know Angel had to hide the Judge's arm where no one would ever find it," Buffy said. "It's not like I'm claiming that wasn't tres necessary. And I get it that he had to keep moving as long as he was being followed."
"Right," Willow agreed. What had they been talking about? Oh, yes: why her best friend's boyfriend had left on her birthday last year and not yet returned. "But when you took out that blind vampire Drusilla left in charge--"
Buffy winced, which made Willow wince. It wasn't because of the bespectacled vampire from whom Buffy had taken the Judge's arm in the first place, before his boss gouged out his eyes. No, it was the boss herself. Willow hadn't meant to mention Drusilla to Buffy for a whole smorgasbord of reasons. An appetizer of grief over Kendra's death, a side of fear for Angel's life, and, Willow suspected with concern, a main dish of guilty identification with the mind-shattered vampire herself. As good and loving and noble as Angel was to Buffy, that's how evil and hateful and vile Angelus had been to Drusilla. If Willow had ever wondered what a soul was worth, she measured it now in the abyss between Drusilla and Buffy.
Thank goodness for the Romani curse that made him into Buffy's Angel. Just imagining Drusilla's Angelus hurt Willow's stomach. Especially since that standoff at the factory last year after Angel had left, when Drusilla had cheerfully told them what to imagine. Willow had not needed to know any of that. Ever.
Neither had Buffy.
"Look," Willow tried again. "Angel is as devoted to you as-- as Giles is to Ms. Calendar! And I've seen some of those letters Angel writes you. That's probably more actual words than I get from Oz right here in Sunnydale."
"Nice try, Will." Buffy poured them two bowls of cereal. "But you know there's a big difference between your man of few words sliding his arm around your shoulders in the cafeteria, and mine mailing sketches from Tibet and Burma and Zambia and-- why don't we have a geography class this year? I would get such good grades now!"
"And yet, somehow, both Northwestern and UC-Sunnydale accepted you." Willow got out the honey, sugar, milk and some bananas, just in case the Slayer metabolism didn't run entirely on empty calories. All binaries for Buffy: here or there, sucrose or fructose, Northwestern or UC. Willow envied those fifty/fifty odds of making the right choice. She swallowed hard, and then asked, "So the long-distance relationship thing isn't working out?"
"No, I don't mean that." Buffy stirred her concoction. "I'm on the front lines facing the Mayor and Faith, but he's behind enemy lines with Drusilla and Spike on his heels. It would be wrong with a capital 'raw' for me to fall out of love with him just because we're growing apart a little while we're apart a lot . . . wouldn't it?"
"Well, do you think you'll grow back together when you're back together? You said the other day that he's on his way home now to help fight the Mayor's Ascension. He should get here in time for prom, right?"
"Yeah," Buffy nodded. "Thanks, Will." A few bites later, Buffy dropped her spoon. "Wait a minute! Was that really about you and Oz? Because you know Oz will follow you. Whatever university you pick, Dingoes Ate My Baby is going to find a four-year gig in suspicious proximity to campus."
"I wasn't thinking about that at all," Willow lied primly. She promptly deflated. "Oh, Buffy, I wouldn't have applied to so many schools if I'd known they would all accept me! What if I pick one where Oz didn't even apply, like Oxford? What if he throws away his whole future just to be with me? And who would take care of Xander? And what if you need--"
The alarm in Willow's room went off.
"Oops." Willow ran and pounced on the clock before she remembered that her parents were at a conference in Paris and couldn't be woken by it. Time to get up, anyway.
Buffy appeared in the door, bowl and spoon in hand.
"So you know where everything is." Willow looked around her room: computer, closet, fish-filled aquarium, Amy-the-rat's cage, and a plastic tub of thick acceptance packets from universities. Oxford, MIT and Stanford sat open on top. UC-Sunnydale's worn envelope stood up at the edge, pulled out and put back many times. "After I help Ms. Calendar present the new software today, you wanna go to the Bronze with Oz and Xander? And then I'll come patrolling with you and watch your back, so we'll actually be hanging more like your mom thinks we're doing this weekend." Willow pulled two small cloth bags from under her bed and set them on the comforter. "Are you ever going to tell her? About being a Slayer, I mean?"
Buffy ate another spoonful of cereal, then sighed and put the bowl on Willow's dresser. "Sometimes, it's right on the tip of my tongue to tell her -- especially when she's so disappointed about me staying local for college."
"If Faith hadn't --" murdered, lied, betrayed; Willow didn't say "-- would you have gone away?"
"We'll never know." Buffy crossed her arms and leaned on the doorframe. "After so many near-misses, it's pretty clear my mom just doesn't want to know what's hiding under the bed, Will. I don't blame her."
"But if you need her to know, to explain about college and stuff, that matters, too." Willow turned her pillows over, and began moving things from under them into the two cloth bags. "I know Giles says, oh, all, secret identity, but I think she can handle it, if you'll give her the chance."
"Even after the Hansel and Gretel family barbeque? No, sorry, don't answer that." Buffy looked apologetically at Amy-the-rat, and then at the bolts Willow had installed on the inside of her doors.
Willow's mom hadn't asked about the bolts, which either meant she really did remember attempting to burn the girls at the stake -- Sunnydale's amnesia epidemic aside -- or that she was back to noticing nothing outside academia. One strike in the 'con' column for elite higher education, there, Willow thought. Or maybe 'pro,' actually. As Xander had first pointed out all the way back in elementary school, when Mrs. Rosenberg had brought her child-development graduate students with her when she chaperoned a field trip, Willow's mom really did love her work. Like Giles and Ms. Calendar, Willow thought now, but not like Xander's parents, or even Oz's dad. She didn't know about Buffy's mom.
Buffy sat on Willow's bed and nodded at the bags. "So what are you resting your head on these days?"
"From this pillow, a key, a horseshoe, and daisy roots." Willow pointed. "And this is a bone blade, peach leaves and the shell of a double nut. They have to be separate, because the metal in the key and the horseshoe would de-magic the bone."
"What's it all for?"
"They, um, invite dreams." Willow pulled the drawstrings on the bags. "Of your future. I mean, my future. I figure if I can see where I'll go to college, then I won't have to choose, and I can make absolutely sure I don't make the wrong choice."
"Your logic pretzels my brain." Buffy's eyebrows went to her hairline. "Is this something you worked up with Ms. Calendar?"
"No." Willow tucked the bags back under her bed, and went to get her clothes. "But don't worry. After what happened with Amy and Anya, I'm being very careful. I mean, there's a totally easy spell to actively see into the future by just eating an eel's heart, but am I doing it? No. I'm passively inviting a foretelling dream. Because I'm careful!"
"Also: eww! Eel heart!"
"Oh, yeah, totally. And besides, it's on the same list as Xander's Canadian bacon pizza."
"Someone bothered to forbid eel heart?"
"No, the whole eel. Because: no scales. But still, talk about unnecessary, right?"
"Ewww!" the girls agreed in unison, and then broke into giggles.
When Willow returned from the shower, Buffy had changed into pajama bottoms and a white tank top, wrapped up in a blanket and huddled solemnly in the middle of the bed like the little round Buddha Giles kept next to the six-armed Kali on his desk. Willow felt Buffy's eyes on her as she brushed her hair and put on earrings and a necklace. "Do I look all right?"
"A definite 'do'," Buffy nodded at the yellow sweater set and blue skirt. "Professional, but not more professional than the teachers. They'll be wowed by your obvious expertise."
"Hey, thanks!" Willow reveled in the compliment and reached for her happy-face backpack.
Buffy smiled back, but then rubbed her temples, hands wrapped up in the blanket. "Do you have a few minutes before you have to go?"
"Sure. I'm just going this early for set-up; we're actually on after lunch. Oh, hey, do you want to see the new application we're demonstrating?" Willow flipped on her computer and waited for it to boot up. "The predictive algorithm is so cool! Ms. Calendar's idea for the school calendaring system -- heh, Ms. Calendar's calendar--"
"Actually, Will, I . . ." Buffy looked at her lap. "Foretelling dreams aren't all they're cracked up to be."
"Oh." Willow sat down at her desk. "Well, yeah, I know it won't be like your Slayer dreams, Buffy, if it even works. And I know better than even to want your Slayer dreams, honest." Willow looked down at her hands. She didn't desire Buffy's apocalypse-now, death-and-destruction, soul-slicing insight, true, but she did envy the perfect certainty those visions seemed to bring. Buffy had never seen herself striding in the grip of her purpose after one of those dreams. Assurance incarnate. No questions, no choices, no mistakes. Willow sighed. "What have I gotten so far, anyway? Just flashes of Ms. Calendar hanging a portrait, and you kissing Spike. Sounds like regular--"
"Me and Spike? Your subconscious is a sick, sick place."
"Well, exactly! Regular, ordinary, silly dreams that don't make any sense and aren't even about me. Notice the not-eating eel heart!" Feeling both guilty and misunderstood, Willow slapped the disk into the computer, sure that this was one thing, at least, where she was definitely more skilled than Buffy, and even all Sunnydale High's teachers except Ms. Calendar. As soon as Willow typed the 'run' command . . .
* * *
. . . she was in Giles's and Ms. Calendar's apartment. Willow swayed, put out her hand to catch herself, and fell through the desk chair Giles was sitting in. He turned a page of the book he was reading.
Willow shrieked. Giles turned another page.
"Oh, great." Willow rolled her eyes and got to her feet without benefit of being able to touch the furniture. "Ghosted again, and this time somebody pressed 'mute.' Giles? Are you sure you can't hear me? Giles?"
The librarian leaned back in his chair and pulled off his glasses. His eyes were wet.
"No, Giles, don't worry! I'm not dead! Buffy probably thinks I am, though," Willow fretted. "I was just typing at the computer, and then-- poof! How can we de-ghost me if you can't hear me?"
Ms. Calendar, with her black hair cut since Willow had seen her in class yesterday, but wearing the same blue-striped cardigan, strode through the front door and slapped a stack of forms down on top of the book on Giles's desk. "We're taking the girls."
"What?" Giles put his glasses back on and stood up to embrace his wife.
Crossing her arms and pacing right through Willow, the computer-science teacher didn't let him. Something metal in her purse clinked as it bounced against her hip. "Hank Summers is scum."
"Ah. Quite." Giles sat down again. "We wondered where you went."
"He offered money, Rupert! Money! Joyce is dead, and his response is that of course he'll keep paying child-support for Dawn. As if his girls care about his money! He couldn't even be bothered to take a day off work to come see her and Buffy."
Willow sat down on the floor, shaking. She grasped that Ms. Calendar thought Buffy's mom was dead, and Buffy's dad was letting her down again, but who was Dawn?
Slowly, Giles said, "In all these years watching the Slayer, I've never once met her father."
"You're not missing anything." Ms. Calendar took a deep breath. She unfolded her arms, dropped her purse by the desk, and found a way onto Giles's lap. "He's so ordinary, Rupert. No fangs or slime or horns to clue you in. He means well, by his lights, but he's washed his hands of his family. I don't think I've ever been so disgusted in my life."
Giles cradled her for a moment, then kissed her forehead and shifted them to their feet. "This really requires a larger chair now."
"Are you saying I'm gaining weight?" Ms. Calendar's eyebrows rose.
The grief and tension drained out of Giles's face. He smiled. "There is a certain -- glow."
"Cool." She tucked her head against his shoulder. "And you're okay with giving him two big sisters? Of course Buffy's too old to need a legal--"
* * *
"Will? Look, I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings."
Willow came to herself sitting at her own desk in her own room. "Buffy?"
"I'd be happy to look at your and Ms. Calendar's new datebook planner forecast thingamabob, honest."
Willow barely stopped herself from launching into a hug. "Buffy!"
"That's my name; don't run up the mileage." The Slayer looked at her suspiciously. "Are you all right?"
Buffy could hear her. The chair was solid. "Does the name 'Dawn' mean anything to you?"
"I just had the weirdest experience! Well, not the gold medal for weirdness, but definitely in the weird rankings, with aspirations." Willow let the story tumble out. She hoped she wasn't going too fast for Buffy, but she couldn't make sense of it herself if she let her tongue fall behind her thoughts. Finally Willow took a breath, and found herself fumbling to avoid mentioning that the other reality's Mrs. Summers had died. "And then Ms. Calendar said-- well, never mind what she said. Does your dad have any other kids?"
Buffy dropped the blanket, leaned forward and felt Willow's forehead. "No fever. You don't do drugs. I'm the one all sugared up for the hyper. This therefore suggests Hellmouthy badness, and I've gotta say I'm thinking of those things under your pillows, Will."
"Oh, those are harmless." Willow turned back to her computer. "It must be something else. I had just started up the program when it happened. Here's the presentation sample I made with Ms. Calendar and Giles's honeymoon trip to England this summer, you know, assuming we defeat the Mayor." Willow clicked on the icon . . .
* * *
. . . and she was in the Magic Box. From the angle of sunlight pouring through the front windows, Willow judged it was lunchtime. The shop owner -- a gentleman with a real Brooklyn accent and fake Romanian accent, who had gently talked Willow out of her really bad idea to cast an anti-love spell on herself and Xander -- wasn't there. Instead, a woman stood behind the cash register and polished crystals for the display in the glass counter.
"Excuse me, miss?" Willow wasn't too disappointed at the lack of response. She tried to pick up one of the crystals, and confirmed that she couldn't. At the sound of Ms. Calendar's voice, Willow walked right through the shelves of charms and ingredients until she came out in an aisle next to her computer science teacher.
"Call me Jenny," Ms. Calendar had extended her hand to a young woman in a denim jacket.
"Tara," the girl replied, her smile both hesitant and warm as she took the offered hand. Her linen blonde hair was pulled straight back from her forehead, but somehow still fell across her face from the sides when she ducked her head. "It's really nice meet you in an-- an ordinary way like this."
"Sometimes it's hard to believe that what happens around Buffy is real, isn't it?" The corners of Ms. Calendar's eyes crinkled with amusement. "You were a tremendous help against the forces of darkness the other night."
"Thank you." Tara blushed and looked at her feet. "Um, if you don't mind me asking, Buffy said, you, we-- we're looking for a new advisor for UC-Sunnydale's Wicca circle. I should explain that most of them are not, um, serious?"
"But you are. Buffy told me." Ms. Calendar cocked her head. "Her best friend is getting to be pretty serious, herself."
"I heard." Tara nodded. "B-Buffy said you taught her."
"Magic? Eh, she exaggerates." Ms. Calendar grinned. "I teach computers. When it comes to magic, I'm a user, but Willow's a born hacker." She turned toward the shelf. "They're gouging for these single-spell packets of valerian, but they get away with it because 'all-heal' stinks like a tomcat's alley. The last time I bought in bulk, my husband--"
* * *
"So what does it do?" Buffy asked.
"What?" Willow blinked hard.
"The thing you clicked. Nothing happened."
"Oh, something happened, all right." Willow backed away from her computer. "This time I was in the Magic Box. Do you know a Tara?"
"No." Buffy leapt up and faced the computer with her arms in martial arts defensive positions, as if the CPU might lunge at her. "Can I yank the cord?"
Willow cringed. All the things that can go wrong when you don't properly shut down leapt to her lips. But she nodded anyway.
Like a striking cobra, the Slayer unplugged the Mac. The monitor popped and the fan whined into silence.
Chapter 2: "If Then"
It took Buffy longer to get dressed again than it did for them to reach Sunnydale High. Willow's hard-drive rode in the trunk of her parents' car. So did her two bags of dream inviters, at Buffy's insistence.
"You didn't have to come," Willow said again as she held the door to the school so Buffy could carry in the CPU. "You were up all night."
"You think I'd be able to sleep while you're popping in and out of reality?" Buffy yawned. "No way. Here is where I should be."
"Here is where you lack permission to be, Summers." Principal Snyder appeared in the middle of the hallway, his crossed arms pulling his navy suit tight across his shoulders. "A teacher in-service day is meant -- whatever its other tortures -- to be blissfully free of students. Rosenberg aside," he admitted grudgingly. "But you, Summers: out!"
"I'm just an extra pair of hands." Buffy gestured with the computer.
"If you can carry it, Rosenberg can carry it. Or Mrs. Giles, as she's so keen to have her around." He sniffed. "I still can't believe there's not a regulation against both members of a married couple staying on staff."
Buffy sighed. "Principal Snyder, if you send me out the front door, I'm just going to walk around the building and come in the back. You know it; I know it. So can't we--"
Principal Snyder stepped up and took the CPU out of Buffy's hands. "You're a lost cause, Summers. But somehow, you've hoodwinked enough teachers that you're going to graduate next month, and I'll be rid of you at last. So I don't care how you pour your life down the drain today, as long as you do it off my campus."
"All right! All right." Buffy and Willow exchanged a look. Buffy backed out the front door.
"So, um, to Ms. Calendar's classroom?" Willow prompted the man holding her computer.
"This thing is heavier than it looks."
"It has a few more memory cards than the manufacturer planned." Willow started down the hallway. "It's really nice of you to carry it."
Willow heard the silence before the steps, as Principal Snyder stood still for a moment before following her down the hall. He said, "Just as long as this software is as useful as Mrs. Giles claims. It's not every day that Sunnydale High gets a technology grant. If we ever want another one, we have to prove the return on investment to the board."
"Oh, yes, it'll save loads of time. Lesson planning, and meetings, and -- bagels?" Just on the other side of Ms. Calendar's classroom door was an AV cart piled with bags of pastries, jugs of orange juice, and disposable tableware.
"Those are supposed to be in the cafeteria." Principal Snyder scowled.
"Louise needed to borrow the cart. She'll be back for it in a sec." Ms. Calendar stepped out into the hallway and took a sip from her oversized coffee mug. She wore a long flowered skirt with an olive sweater. "Hey, Willow. Is there a floppy disk shortage I should know about?"
"No, the disks are in my-- oh, you mean this?" Willow took the CPU from Principal Snyder and carried it the last few steps to Ms. Calendar's desk. "Heh!" she laughed nervously. "Yes, I need to tell you about this! This, uh, last-minute glitch! Is Giles here?"
"Glitch? There will be no glitches," Principal Snyder ordered. "Let me remind you that school board members are coming to this little demonstration."
"Gosh," Ms. Calendar took another sip of coffee. "I'll just have to stay here in the computer lab debugging the glitch. I could miss all the team-building exercises this morning. Darn."
"You're not getting off that easy, Mrs. Giles. I expect this to be fixed in time, and I expect you to be active in your group's discussions of collaborative learning and differentiated instruction." His voice dropped menacingly. "With colored dots. And acronyms. And sharing out."
Ms. Calendar rolled her eyes once Principal Snyder stalked down the hall. She came around her desk opposite Willow. "So what's up? Demon on your hard drive?"
"It could be." Willow slung off her backpack and unloaded the sample disks she had made for the demonstration, converting Ms. Calendar's own old static planner for the new dynamic application. "That was almost the first thing I thought of, after what happened with Malcolm-- I mean, Moloch."
"Ouch. I was kidding." Ms. Calendar drank some more coffee, then set it down next to the vase of flowers on her desk. "So this is the 'we live on a major mystical convergence, and it leaks' kind of glitch."
Willow nodded. "When I tried to show Buffy the program, every time I activated a function, it pitched me to another dimension. No one there could see me or hear me, and I couldn't touch anything, but it was real. I know it was."
Ms. Calendar investigated the outside of the CPU case and got a tiny screwdriver from her desk drawer. "Just you, not Buffy?"
"Right. Whenever I typed a command or clicked an icon. Oh, and maybe once when I turned on the light in the kitchen right after I woke up?"
"As happy as Snyder would be to discover the problem is with you instead of his new trophy tech, let's avoid reasoning in advance of our data." Ms. Calendar unscrewed the casing and exposed the circuit boards. "How are you, Willow? Dizzy, disoriented, déjà vu? Dimension travel doesn't have a good reputation."
Willow shook her head and leaned on the teacher's desk. "A little wigged, but otherwise fine. I'm solid, and you can see and hear me."
"Wigged how?" Ms. Calendar popped out the floppy disk manually and replaced the plastic casing.
"Well, you know, other dimensions. Not that this was the skanky-leather-vampire-me dimension! Nope, didn't see me at all! Heh!" Willow crossed her arms. Should she mention the death? Or the pregnancy? While Ms. Calendar's alternate self wasn't a demon like Willow's, other selves were just disturbing, period. Choices, choices. "This was a lot like our reality, but I didn't belong, and I didn't ask to visit. Do the names Dawn and Tara mean any-- hey, you aren't plugging it in, are you?"
"We have to test it." Ms. Calendar connected her own monitor to Willow's CPU and turned on the power. "I won't network it, so whatever it is won't be able to spread."
Willow walked around the desk to stand next to Ms. Calendar, and waited anxiously for the machine to boot up.
Ms. Calendar activated a few system tools, typed 'The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog' into the word processor, and played a lightning round of Minesweeper. "Baseline looks normal. What did you do next?"
"Well," Willow picked up the original demonstration disk, matching words to actions. "I put this in the drive--"
* * *
. . . and she was in Giles and Ms. Calendar's bedroom again, with the radio still tuned to a familiar voice on NPR. This time, afternoon light flooded the room. The couple curled in each other's arms on top of the quilt on their neatly-made bed, shoeless and without Giles's suit jacket or glasses, but otherwise fully dressed. Giles stroked his wife's hair as she lay with her head on his chest. A dried tear track traced a dazed stillness that Willow had never seen on Ms. Calendar before.
Willow cleared her throat. They didn't respond. She tried to pat Ms. Calendar on the foot to get her attention; her hand went right through. Mortified to be intruding, Willow turned, intending to wait in the living room.
Behind her, she found a crib. Tall and wooden, with a mobile of puffy animals over the center, it was occupied by a tiny human sucking his thumb. "Oh, hello!" Willow exclaimed, but the baby didn't look her way. So much for the vaunted mystical perceptiveness of children. "Well, it's nice to meet you anyway." So was this a different dimension than the last one, Willow wondered? Before, it had sounded like that Ms. Calendar and Giles were expecting their first child, but--
The radio newscaster's words finally registered on Willow. ". . . plane that struck the Pentagon left Dulles at 8:10 this morning, Eastern Time. At least four floors of the Pentagon have collapsed. Casualties, and whether personnel had been placed on alert after the New York attacks, are not known. Troops patrol the streets . . ."
Willow edged past the crib, away from the radio. "Not my dimension," she reminded herself, but that didn't make it all right. The news kept coming, and it could hardly make sense in any dimension. Continuing to retreat, Willow brushed past a bureau and knocked an etched copper jewelry box to the floor. It burst open, spilling a clattering handful of antique, gold coins with holes drilled in them. Giles and Ms. Calendar sat up.
"Am I solid again?" Willow froze. "Can you see me?"
Ms. Calendar laughed. It was a short, stumbling laugh, but nevertheless a laugh. "Very funny, Aunt Jeta."
Willow sighed. She tried to pick up one of the coins, but her fingers went right through. Frustrated, she kicked at the copper box. It slid across the wooden floor, under the crib, until it bumped into the braided throw rug at the side of the bed.
"Is it customary," Giles began--
* * *
In the classroom, Willow snatched her fingers back from the computer. "It happened again!"
"Okay, let's back off here a bit." Ms. Calendar put her hand on Willow's shoulder and guided her over to one of the orange student desk chairs. The teacher knelt in front of Willow. "The disk made a grinding sound, and the screen flashed, like someone punched up the brightness to the maximum before dialing back. How do you feel?"
"I don't like this!"
"We have a solid majority on that. What did you see?"
"You and Giles, in your bedroom, on a -- very bad day." Willow took a deep breath. "Do you own a copper box full of coins with holes in them?"
Ms. Calendar blinked. "How do you know about those?"
"I knocked it over, by accident. I still couldn't touch anything else, but this time I could touch the copper box. Why? What is it?"
Ms. Calendar rose and walked over to the window. "My grandfather made the box. The coins are -- replacements. I collect them when I can, to give to my daughters or daughters-in-law someday."
"Replacements for what?"
Ms. Calendar crossed her arms. When she turned back toward Willow, her eyes were bright but calm. She shot a look at the open door, as if confirming no one was there, and spoke softly. "Remember what I told you and Buffy and Xander, about how to behave at the pliashka, that engagement party that my Uncle Enyos threw?"
"When we sort of stood in for Giles's family?" Their legendary functions had won the Slayer and her Watcher some leeway, even as outsiders. The Slayerettes had been under stricter supervision.
Ms. Calendar nodded. "In the old days -- and still today in some places that aren't California -- a Kalderash woman would weave her family's wealth into her hair. Those coins showed that the family was independent and free, and that the woman was valued and valuable." She paused and looked at the door again. "My grandmother escaped Belzec, or so my uncle says." Willow felt her eyes widen; only two people, both Jewish men, had survived Belzec, the first of the Nazi death camps, out of more than five hundred thousand. No one knew just how many more, because the Nazis there had counted their murders of Jews, but not the smaller numbers of Roma and Poles. Willow had written a report on it in her freshman year. Ms. Calendar shook her head with a tiny smile. "My puri daj never talked about it, and stories can become truer than fact. She endured somewhere, anyway. They tattooed a 'Z' on her left arm and cut off her gold with her hair. Her hair grew back."
"Z" for Zigeuner, Willow knew. Gypsy. They had all learned that Ms. Calendar was Roma when she married Giles a month or so ago. Ms. Calendar had never volunteered it before, and they had never thought to ask. Distracted by the wedding -- and the Mayor and Faith, and Oz, not to mention picking a university to determine her whole future -- Willow had not thought about all the things it might mean to Ms. Calendar.
Grown-ups: it was so easy to forget that they were people, too.
"I don't know why you were able to touch the box," Ms. Calendar continued. "It's not magical. My grandfather made it from a broken copper still. But that's another story."
"What's a still?" Buffy appeared in the doorway.
Giles stepped up behind her, the stack of books in his arms almost entirely covering his red sweater-vest. "A still is a mechanism used to distill liquids by boiling and cooling, historically most closely associated with the production of ethyl alcohol."
"Moonshine," Willow supplied helpfully.
"Yes, well, among other things." Giles set the books on an empty chair, finding no room on Ms. Calendar's desk. Of course all the student desks were crowded by CPUs, monitors, keyboards and mousepads. "Buffy informed me of your baffling adventure this morning, Willow. I believe our answer resides in one of these volumes. Have you determined whether any incorrectly written software is involved after all?"
"Ooh, listen to him talk computers!" Buffy teased. "What marriage won't do for a man."
Ms. Calendar shot Buffy a quelling look. "Actually, Willow had another cross-dimensional incident. We haven't been able to run a control yet."
"Another incident, really?" Giles adjusted his glasses as he peered at Willow. "Can you tell us anything about this other dimension?"
"It's not the vampire one!"
"He didn't say it was, Will."
"Oh, right." Willow turned sideways in the chair so she could use the back as an armrest. "Well, Giles has been there all but once, and Ms. Calendar has been there every time. It's different seasons--"
"Attention," Principal Snyder's voice came over the intercom. "The faculty 'welcome and good news' meeting begins in three minutes in the cafeteria. Anyone not attending on time will be considered to have volunteered to direct next year's talent show."
"You girls will excuse us, I hope?" Giles bolted, throwing a brief "do be careful" plea over his shoulder on his way through the door.
"Don't touch anything while we're gone," Ms. Calendar warned as she picked up her coffee and raced after her husband.
After Willow and Buffy had laughed and filled each other in, they settled down with the books Giles had brought. At first, Willow thought she was just picking the wrong ones, but with her third tome on divination dreams, she checked the spines of the entire stack.
"None of these are even on supernatural electronics or mechanics, never mind computers."
"Giles's books are pretty pre-space-age," Buffy admitted. They both knew that Giles's resources had been severely limited since he and Buffy had revolted against the Council, after its barbaric ritual on her eighteenth birthday. "But here's one about paranormal disturbances on aircraft in World War II." She held up a page to show a cute, cartoon gremlin mischievously rewiring systems. "Step up on the usual woodcuts, for sure. It says the pilots used to set out empty beer bottles as traps."
"That doesn't get us closer to diagnosing our problem, though, does it?" Willow stood and walked toward Ms. Calendar's desk. "We have to resolve this before the board members get here for the demonstration this afternoon."
"Uh, shouldn't I be the one jumping into danger, and you be the one pointing out that Ms. Calendar clearly said not to touch anything?"
"Oh, I'm not going to touch anything. Touching today has gone very badly. No more touching." Willow pulled a hair from her own head and a petal from one of the roses in the vase on Ms. Calendar's desk. "A simple containment ward doesn't require touching, though." She wrapped the hair around the petal clockwise, and recited a spell she had found on the shelf Giles thought she couldn't reach. When she snapped the hair to activate the ward . . .
* * *
. . . she was in a home she had never seen before, with the curtains drawn and lamps lit against the night. The plentiful bookshelves had hand-stenciled borders of colorful flowers. The upholstered furniture came in bright greens.
The most hideous sawing and screeching sounds clawed their way through her head and down her spine.
Willow clapped her hands to her ears. It was worse than when the Dingoes amplifier blew out. She came to a closed door, confirmed she was still intangible, and stepped through. It was a den, or tiny library, where the sound was a little more bearable, and the computer monitor on the desk was as slim and sleek as something out of the latest Star Trek. A gray-haired Giles sat at one end of a small sofa, reading aloud to Ms. Calendar, who had her head on a fluffy pillow in his lap.
Much, much more tired than she had realized before she tried to set the ward charm, Willow sank to the floor and listened. It was a novel she had not read. Coming in the middle, she didn't know what to think, but it was nice to just rest for a bit. How long had her day been already, adding in all the time in this dimension?
Giles came to the end of a chapter and put in a bookmark. "He's really quite awful, isn't he?"
"Oh, yes," Ms. Calendar agreed. "But he's getting better."
"He'll become tolerable just in time to give up the violin for the electric guitar, I expect."
"Like father, like son." She laughed up at him. "Do you remember when you first loaned me a book?"
"You almost stopped my heart, talking about dog-earing pages."
"You were so easy, English." She pulled him down for a kiss, and Willow looked away, wondering if she should walk through the closed door again. Ms. Calendar sighed happily, and Willow bolted to investigate the bookshelves, blushing. "Happy tenth anniversary."
"Happy anniversary, Jenny." A pause, as Willow continued to look anywhere but at the sofa. To her surprise, she spotted the copper box again on a shelf above her. She couldn't quite reach it from the front. Then, "There's a congratulatory card from Xander on the desk, believe it or not. Dawn posted a rather touching tribute on her web log. Buffy emailed that she wants to take us to dinner this weekend, if she finds that Millien demon nest."
"Willow called, too," Ms. Calendar said, just as Willow reached up through the lower shelves as if they weren't there, and tapped the solid copper box. "She--"
* * *
Instead of back in the classroom, Willow found herself slumped, exhausted, in a first-class airplane seat across from Giles, who had the window seat facing forward, and whose hair was brown again. Ms. Calendar had the aisle seat and a book on her lap.
The switch between dimensions had been even less smooth this time. Willow was grateful to be sitting down, and briefly considered going to sleep. "I don't suppose you guys can see me? Or hear me?" No response. She sighed and tried to buckle her seat belt, but couldn't touch it. "I guess I'll be not questioning why I'm not falling through the floor of this plane."
A few other passengers sat in the underbooked first-class compartment, mostly asleep or with headphones on. Giles was looking out the window, and Willow turned her head to do the same. Water. Endless water, unbroken to the horizon, sparkling under equally endless sun. She got why Angel didn't trust flying.
"I had not expected to be unemployed when bringing my bride home to my mother." Giles's voice was very quiet.
"There will be classes next year, somewhere. Too many students survived, thank heavens, to ship them all up the freeway to Central High for long." Ms. Calendar took his hand. "And you are the Slayer's only Watcher, whether the idiot Council pays you or not. If you want to look for a job closer to where she'll be going to college, we can do that."
"I won't claim it hasn't crossed my mind."
"But for right now, we're on vacation, all right? Between them, Willow and Wesley can handle any research Buffy needs for a few weeks, and Angel promised not to implement any rash decisions about leaving until we get back."
"The news that the curse that restored his soul is potentially breakable has shaken him deeply. I'm afraid he's taking it much more seriously than Buffy is."
"Well, it is his soul."
"But it's her heart."
They shared a look that was none of Willow's business. She dropped her eyes to her hands and played idly with not being able to touch the controls on the armrest. She knew there were copper wires in there, so it couldn't be the copper alone that made the coin box tangible to her.
"So tell me again that your mother won't be upset that we didn't postpone the wedding until she could be there."
"She understands completely, Jenny. She's the daughter of a soldier and the widow of a Watcher. In the face of an imminent demonic ascension, carpe diem is hardly an unfamiliar concept."
"Not unfamiliar, sure, but what about unwelcome?" Jenny closed her book and crossed her legs. "You've given her a daughter-in-law she's never seen and hardly spoken to. What if I'm not what she had in mind?"
"What else could she possibly want?" Giles asked in bafflement, which Willow silently seconded. Ms. Calendar was smart, cool and beautiful. She loved Giles and made him happy. And despite her 'I don't have that kind of power' protests, she knew loads about magic, and Willow knew darn well that knowledge was power in any field. Giles's mom would have to be crazy to ask for more.
"Well," Ms. Calendar swallowed. "What about someone English?"
Giles squeezed her hand and looked out the window for a moment. When he looked back, the corners of his mouth had quirked up. "At the party, your Uncle Enyos took me aside and ever so politely explained that being the Slayer's Watcher did not excuse me for being gadjo, but that they were striving to make allowances, as I'd saved Janna from the humiliating doom of spinsterhood at the decrepit age of not-yet-thirty."
Ms. Calendar swatted his shoulder. "Point made. But--"
"I believe you were less anxious about that tentacled thing in the band room than you are about meeting my mum."
"My mum-in-law," Ms. Calendar corrected. "I strung my coins on a necklace to wear when we first see her, which is ridiculous, I know. It would be more to the point to hand her photocopies of my resume, bank statement and transcripts."
"It's not ridiculous." Giles soothed. "That is, the necklace. The photocopies would, in fact, be ridiculous." He paused. "I'm sure she got that information months ago."
Ms. Calendar pulled a leather backpack out from under her seat, and fished the little copper box from among books, a laptop, and snacks. Willow leaned forward and grabbed--
* * *
Again, it was not the classroom. Willow tried to stand up, but vertigo forced her back to the ground. It was indeed ground this time, outdoors. She felt pavement under her hands, but couldn't see much until her eyes adjusted from the bright plane to the dark night.
She heard Buffy and Ms. Calendar arguing, louder and faster with every word until it all ran together. She heard the names Glory, Dawn, and Ben. Someone screamed.
Willow passed out.
* * *
Willow woke to the sun beating down on her face and ashy dirt hot under her back. She sat up, and scrambled away from the crumbling edge of a canyon that went on for miles, until the mountains in the distance.
She bumped into a sign. "Welcome to Sunnydale," it announced.
"What happened?" she asked the vast empty expanse, thinking of the horrible newscast in Giles and Ms. Calendar's room in that earlier dimension-slip. "War?"
"In a way," a familiar voice answered. "This is what it looks like when we've finally won, I hope."
Willow turned around, and came face to face with herself. She jumped, but the sun reassured her that this could not be the vampire her. This new Willow wore a gold top and tan jeans, had grown her hair past her shoulders again, and carried Ms. Calendar's copper box in one hand. She was smiling, but her weary, wary eyes reminded Willow of Angel's.
It was the eyes that did it. "This isn't another dimension is it? None of these have been. This is the future."
"Let's call it a potential future, for you." The older Willow coughed from the dust in the air. "You blaze the trail, and I'll happen or not, as you choose."
"Depending on my choices, you might never exist. Aren't you worried about that?"
"Really not." The older Willow shrugged. "Here: you need this to get back." She handed over the box.
Willow opened it. It was empty.
Before she could ask, the older Willow said, "No, I won't tell you. But if your Jenny asks, none were lost, and none were stolen."
"You won't tell me," Willow repeated. "Nothing? Not how I got here, or how to stop this fun-house ride? Not even which college to pick?"
"Especially not that. Look, tell Giles what Buffy didn't, and let Buffy tell Jenny what you didn't." The older Willow suddenly looked very tired. "So much has happened lately, never mind since I was you. I'm surprised I remembered to ask for the box when-- well, that would be telling. I thought I could resist the urge to play Polonius, but I guess not. Love hard, Willow. Forgive much. Make the most of everything." The older Willow kissed Willow's cheek. It wasn't creepy, as it would have been from the vampire Willow, but she didn't know how to respond.
The older Willow said, "I hope you do better than I did, but if you don't, well, they love us anyway."
"Who's 'they'?" Willow asked.
The older Willow laughed. "Hold on to the box."
Chapter Three: "Then What"
Willow woke, woozy, in the school nurse's office. She'd never seen it from this angle before -- lying on the cot by the wall -- but she recognized it from many times raiding its supplies after fending off the creatures of the night over the past three years. Also, from before Buffy came to Sunnydale, the times Xander had needed more assistance than Willow could manage from her own medicine cabinet. They had told people that the bruises were from skateboarding. Sometimes they were.
If she went off to college somewhere far away, would that help convince Xander to move far away, too? Would that be disloyal to Buffy, left behind? Would not uprooting him be disloyal to Xander? He always used to talk about leaving after graduation, but he hadn't in a long time.
"Hey, there, sleepyhead. Did you go somewhere without me again?"
A worried-looking Buffy was holding her hand, Willow realized. Tightly. "Ow?"
"Oh!" The Slayer let her go. "Sorry. You've been out minutes and minutes."
Nurse Kenner appeared behind Buffy and checked Willow's pulse and eyes. She wore jeans and a blouse, and not the usual white lab coat that identified her to the students. Ms. Calendar, Giles and a few more teachers hovered beyond her.
Principal Synder broke his way through the little crowd. "Is she awake? Knows her name, her GPA, how to run the demonstration this afternoon?"
"Willow Rosenberg, 4.0 not counting AP courses--"
"Good enough. Miss Kenner, thank you for patching her up. Mrs. Giles, make sure there are no more hitches. Summers -- never mind. Everybody else, back to work." He began to shepherd the onlookers out the infirmary door. "There will be a unified, school-wide definition of higher order thinking skills before there will be lunch. That includes you, Mr. Giles."
"I think not." The librarian went to the head of Willow's cot.
"You're allergic to technology, Mr. Giles, as you made clear during the scanning project. You're not a medical expert. Those professional development exercises are calling your name."
"He can carry Willow!" Buffy volunteered. "If she faints again."
"You carried her here, Summers."
"Adrenalin! Who knows whether I could do it again?"
"I would remind those of you who will be returning next year that the talent show still needs a director, the boys' swim team needs a coach, and there's a recent vacancy on the cafeteria staff." Principal Snyder strode out.
"Back to things that matter," Nurse Kenner helped Willow into a sitting position, "did you eat breakfast? Sleep last night?" Willow nodded. Nurse Kenner continued, "Buffy, did you see anything odd when she fainted?"
"Odd, as such?" Buffy's eyes darted to Giles and then Ms. Calendar. "As such, odd?"
Nurse Kenner sighed. "One of those, huh?"
"Hmmm?" Ms. Calendar made a mild, interrogative sound, while Willow, Buffy and Giles stared.
"I grew up in Sunnydale, Jenny. My graduating class had the highest mortality rate in the history of this school." Nurse Kenner stood. "Willow, you seem fine. I'm going to put down that you were anxious about your presentation this afternoon, and for the sake of Principal Snyder's cardiac health, I'm going to let you go set up now. But you have to check in with me again afterward, all right? And Buffy, Willow needs to speak with me by herself. Rules."
Both girls nodded. Giles offered his arm to support Willow down the hall, and she took it. She told herself she didn't really need it, but she didn't find herself convincing. That dimension spiral had pounded her flat.
"So Buffy claims you two didn't touch anything," Ms. Calendar said. "But other people were around then. Did you touch the equipment, Willow?"
"She cast a ward," Buffy said.
"Which doesn't involve touching," Willow defended herself. "I just wanted to contain whatever it is inside the one floppy disk until the demonstration is over. I think I got contained instead. I was trapped, shifting from event to event, and I got more and more tired until I passed out. Then I -- I mean, another Willow -- sent me home."
"Buffy tells us that you have been sliding into another dimension all morning, but this is the first time you have experienced physical ill effects. Is that right?"
"Yes. No. I mean, yes, nothing hurt, and I always came right back, until I cast the ward. But no, it's not another dimension. I know that now. It's the future."
Giles stopped. Willow stumbled, and looked up to find Giles staring at her.
"A possible future," Willow clarified.
"Let's get into the classroom and close the door, huh?" Ms. Calendar suggested.
Buffy ran ahead to hold the door, and they all settled themselves in the corner of the classroom farthest from where Willow's CPU sat in the middle of Ms. Calendar's desk. Willow saw Giles scowl at the computer as he picked up the stacks of books the girls had left scattered.
"You haven't tried eel's heart, have you, Willow?" Giles asked. He sounded terribly disappointed in her.
"Eel's heart?" Ms. Calendar repeated. "How did we get to eel's heart? That's for--"
"No, I haven't tried eel's heart. And I'm-- yes, I'm a little offended that you think I would!" Willow sat up straighter in the orange chair. Just because Giles had raised a demon when he was a kid . . . "Okay, so clearly Buffy told you I wanted to see the future. That's true. But I was careful! I did the research. I picked mild, passive, traditional dream invitations." Willow began to stand to go get her backpack, but Buffy guessed what she was after and brought it to her. Willow pulled out the cloth bags and handed one to each teacher. "Could these have caused what's going on, Giles? Ms. Calendar?"
They exchanged the bags after looking inside. Then Ms. Calendar set the contents out on two desks, keeping the metal key and horseshoe away from the bone blade without being asked.
Giles said, "I apologize, Willow. I leaped to an unwarranted conclusion."
"I think we need to start from the beginning." Willow looked at the clock on the wall. "The demonstration's at 1:30, right?"
Willow told the other three as much as she could remember about the potential future she had seen. She tried to be delicate with some details, but didn't hold back on purpose; however, the visions were fading faster than real memories, and she knew there were things she had lost already. When Willow was done, Buffy related watching Willow faint in the classroom. And then Willow and Ms. Calendar explained the predictive planner software, which could revolutionize scheduling at Sunnydale High.
"The application is on every computer in this room. The floppies have different data sets that Willow assembled to put the application through its paces for the audience today. The ones we rehearsed are all from my planner; did you make any others?"
"Well, there's one with my class schedule, and also one where I tried to work out a patrol agenda for Buffy. Just to see: I wouldn't show it in the demonstration! It didn't work, anyway. The application isn't up to predicting something as open-ended as patrolling for vampires -- at least, not without a lot more data than fits on a floppy. I should have forecasted the Dingoes tour schedule instead."
Ms. Calendar looked at Giles, and then at Buffy. "We need someone other than Willow to run a control. It's the only way to find out whether this is tied to her or to the equipment."
Buffy stood up. "What do I do?"
"Wait a moment," Giles said. "Jenny, perhaps it should be me. I am the only one of us not in the scenarios Willow loaded onto those diskettes."
"Whereas I'm the only one who is a Slayer, and you're the only one who has never taken a computer class."
"Rupert's computing skills are up to this, Buffy," Ms. Calendar smiled. "But I think one thing Willow's visions established is that his future and mine run parallel." She looked at her husband. "Sorry. The overlap is pervasive."
"Just so." He walked behind her seat and put his hands on her shoulders. "What should Buffy do?"
"Just what Willow did before. We'll see how far we get."
Willow held her breath. Buffy went to the computer; Giles stood behind her. Ms. Calendar stayed with Willow, in case it recoiled on her again. Buffy got the application to accept the data without incident, but when she tried to enter a change -- ping! the monitor screen blazed up and switched off.
Buffy staggered back a step. "Okay, that was weird."
"Where did you go?" Willow asked, leaning forward in her seat.
"Nowhere," Buffy shook her head. "It wasn't like what you experienced, Will. I could see it on the screen, like a TV show, but I was here the whole time. Could you guys not see it over my shoulder?"
"No," said Giles. "The screen showed the application, until it flashed and died."
"Oh. Well, it was the three of you at an airport's baggage claim, and Giles was explaining British local government. Apparently a UK 'county town' is almost, but not quite, the same thing as a US 'county seat.' Not a gripping glimpse of the future -- which is okay by me, honest!"
Ms. Calendar was looking around her desk. "Didn't I leave my small screwdriver right here? I'm sure I did. Willow?"
Ms. Calendar put her hands on her hips. "Missing tools and malfunctioning hardware say 'gremlin' to me. But software is beyond a gremlin's skill, never mind visiting the future."
"Oooh, gremlins! Go me!" Buffy skipped over to the book stack and retrieved the volume with the cartoon she had been looking at earlier. "What? I get bouncy when I haven't had any sleep." She opened the book. "I noticed this because it was much more Marvin the Martian than 'don't feed them after midnight.'"
"'After midnight'?" Giles repeated.
"Pop-culture reference," Ms. Calendar explained. "Although Buffy should really have been too young for that movie."
"Saw it on video with Xander," Buffy said. "But yeah, the book disagrees with the movie on everything except that gremlins like machines. In World War II, pilots set out empty beer bottles, and the gremlins would crawl inside and fall asleep instead of bothering the planes. Why beer bottles?"
"Gremlins evolved in tandem with human technology." Giles took the book. "They're believed to have emerged as a distinct species in the Neolithic period, when agriculture -- and intentional fermentation -- began, but they don't enter history until the eighth century of the common era, with the Persian discovery of efficient distillation techniques. Gremlins plagued the alchemists of that time like a, well, plague."
Buffy blinked. "Beer bottles, again?"
"Much as cheese for mice, milk for cats, and carrots for rabbits, it is the traditional association." Giles shrugged. "Gremlins are natural magical creatures, not demons. They thrive in the interstices between science and magic, and are particularly attracted to machinery perceived as magical in utilization. Somehow, an empty alcoholic beverage container must feel like such a node to a gremlin."
"Why is software beyond a gremlin?" Willow asked. Everyone turned to look at her. "I mean, just pretend for a second that it's not, that all the computer stuff could be done by a gremlin. What would be the explanation for the rest?"
"The wide, misty borderlands between science and magic," Ms. Calendar mused.
A knock, and the classroom door opened. Nurse Kenner stepped through, holding a cafeteria tray with wrapped sandwiches and bagged chips. "Have you solved your glitch? I thought I'd bring you some of the lunch, since it didn't look like you were coming out."
The girls dove for sandwiches. Then they looked at what was in their hands, looked at each other, and swapped.
"Thank you." Ms Calendar stood. "We don't have it fixed yet -- and that's not just an excuse to hide out from the team-building exercises, honest."
"I would understand if it were." Nurse Kenner laughed and set down the tray. "But as it is, I guess I'll see you in an hour for the demonstration -- or for the drama, if Snyder has to explain to the board that it doesn't work after all."
Willow's eyes snapped to the clock on the wall. It was 12:30. They were running out of time.
"Wait!" Buffy called out to Nurse Kenner before she could leave. "Um, could we ask you to test something? Just really quickly?" Buffy looked from Giles, to Ms. Calendar, to Willow. "She isn't in any of the demo scenarios, right, so she's like a member of the school board or Principal Snyder. And she kind of knows."
Ms. Calendar nodded almost immediately. The seconds stretched until Giles nodded, too. Willow shrugged when Buffy looked at her; if Ms. Calendar and Giles were okay involving Nurse Kenner, so was Willow.
"Great." Buffy switched on the monitor that had turned itself off, then put her hands in her pockets so she couldn't accidentally touch anything. With only one prompt from Ms. Calendar, Buffy walked Nurse Kenner through the application. Everything seemed to be fine, until she opened the 'edit' menu, when-- pop! the screen blazed up and turned itself off. Buffy asked, "What did you see?"
"The little movie of Rupert walking a bride up the aisle to her groom. Is it from a play? It's very impressive, just like TV on a computer, but I don't understand what it has to do with the scheduling program."
"It doesn’t have anything to do with the program." Ms. Calendar looked at Giles. Then she turned to Nurse Kenner. "That's the glitch. Thanks for testing it."
"You're welcome. I guess I'll leave you to it. Good luck!"
As soon as the door closed behind Nurse Kenner, Buffy said, between sandwich bites, "So everyone is affected, but no one as much as Willow. The program was trying to forecast the future, and Willow's dream thingies were inviting previews of the future. Sounds like an overlap between science and magic to me."
"How do you test for the presence of a gremlin?" Willow asked.
Ms. Calendar took a sandwich. "I grew up recognizing gremlin spoor in cars and trucks, but I've never tracked one on a computer." She took a bite, chewed, then set her sandwich down at one of the student computers. She started typing and mousing. "A friend of mine does a webpage on how to tell natural magical creatures from demons." Ms. Calendar ate more of her sandwich while she waited for the site to load. "If gremlins have begun to adapt to software, she'll have the scoop."
"In the meantime," Giles picked up the fourth sandwich, "we should consider that if it is a gremlin, we must lure it out of the machines and ensnare it."
"Empty beer bottles all around the computer lab?" Buffy proposed.
Willow choked on her sandwich. "With one hour until the school board arrives?"
"No, of course not. Willow is quite right. We require something innocuous for the school environment, but effective in securing the gremlin."
"Got it!" Ms. Calendar exclaimed. "Oh, sorry. No, not a trap. I'm downloading a little freeware utility for detecting gremlin activity. You were right, Willow. I assumed gremlins were too big to tinker with software, because they were when I was your age. But gremlins evolve as fast as human technology, and apparently they're getting to be as much a problem today as they were for Rupert's Persian alchemists. I'm going to have to come back later and read about the link between the Blue Screen of Death and gremlin colonies." She popped a disk out of the student computer, took it to her desk, turned the monitor back on, and ran the disk in Willow's CPU.
Willow followed Ms. Calendar to the front of the room in time to see a friendly little pop-up declare that her computer had recent traces of one or more gremlins. She felt her eyes widen. "Or more?"
"Probably just one." Ms. Calendar frowned. "Darn. There isn't time to rewrite this program to be more specific."
Willow returned to her chair in the corner, sitting sideways to look at the others, instead of at the big, blank monitor on the desk. She felt glum. She had worked so hard on the demonstration scenarios. If she had just not taken them home to polish, maybe they would not have gotten crossed with her dreams project and made a space for the gremlin. But if the gremlin played in her computer, did it live in her talisman bags, or the other way around? Certainly there were no alcohol containers in her bedroom!
"I know what we can use to contain the gremlin," Willow realized. She met Ms. Calendar's eyes. "You said that your grandpa made your coin box out of a broken copper still. It was the only thing I could touch in all the visions of the future, and it's what finally broke me out when my ward charm trapped me in that spiral of visions. I think that means it's still a still to the gremlin, and could hold it."
Ms. Calendar closed her eyes. Slowly, she nodded. "Rupert, can you please run home and fetch my box?"
"Certainly." Giles took one of the bags of chips -- he would say crisps -- on his way out.
"Good thinking, Will," Buffy said quietly.
"Yes, thank you, Willow." Ms. Calendar opened her eyes and picked up the rest of her sandwich. "I wouldn't have thought of that. I'm used to thinking of the box as my box."
"You said that was another story, how your grandpa made the box?" Willow asked. Buffy came over by Willow from across the room.
Ms. Calendar smiled. "Well, the story goes that when my grandparents got married at the end of the war, neither of them had anything to start their life together, and this bothered my grandfather deeply. Now, he was a coppersmith -- that was the family's traditional profession -- and there wasn't a lot of metal anywhere that hadn't been turned into weapons. He made a bargain for a still that had blown out and wasn't worth repairing." Ms. Calendar ate the last bite of her sandwich.
"Why wasn't it worth repairing?" Buffy asked.
"All copper stills wear out from the sulfur compounds after about eight years of use." Ms. Calendar shrugged. "Think of that if anyone ever tempts you to binge drink: raw spirits erode copper, never mind your liver. Anyway, worn out like that, the metal couldn't be used as a still again, nor in machines or pots, so he made art pieces from it. Every scrap became something unique, delicate and beautiful, like the box. They didn't sell well -- there wasn't much market for luxuries -- but he had proved to himself, to my puri daj, and--" Ms. Calendar looked at Buffy, and Willow could see her rephrase mid-sentence "--and to anyone else who cared to look that he had the skills to provide for them."
"He sounds like quite a guy."
"He was. Set my standards high." Ms. Calendar grinned. She picked up the sandwich and chips wrappers around the room and threw them away, then returned to where the girls sat in the corner. "Can I ask for a story in turn?"
Both girls nodded.
Ms. Calendar tapped the key from Willow's dream invitations, which were still sitting out. "Were you trying to see your final grades?" The key was for unlocking wisdom, and therefore academic pursuits. Ms. Calendar moved her fingers to the double nut. "Or who's taking you to prom?" The double nut was for opening romance, and who you would marry.
"Oh, not prom!" Willow blushed. She leapt to her feet and began gathering her dream invitations back into their bags, and the bags into her backpack. "Oz and I are good, now, really. He forgave me for-- you know." Some feelings about kissing Xander still confused Willow sometimes, but that it had been wrong wrong wrong could not be more clear to her. It had hurt Oz. It had hurt Cordelia. It had hurt all around. "If the mayor's ascension doesn't happen to be on prom night, we'll be double-dating with Buffy and Angel. We'll all triple date with Xander, if he finds a date, but . . . I don't think he's trying very hard." Privately, Willow suspected Xander was hoping Angel wouldn't make it in time, leaving Buffy in need of a back-up date.
"Angel will be back for prom?"
"Yeah, finally," Buffy said. "It's been over a year since he went to hide the judge's arm."
"It's been only a month since I found out why he really had to."
Both girls stared at Ms. Calendar.
She waved it away with her hand. "This isn't the time or the place, but Buffy, you and I have to talk before Angel gets back. Okay? Consider it the Gypsy curse version of that talk with your mother you squirm just remembering."
"Oh, well, that's enticing."
"Don't worry about it, but do promise me that you and I can talk before you welcome Angel home. All right?"
"Yeah, sure," Buffy promised, looking puzzled.
Ms. Calendar glanced at the clock, and began turning on all the computers and monitors. "What about the key, Willow?"
"Oh, the key. Yes. Well, not finals! University." Willow started working her way around the room, putting the demonstration disks at the desks. "I thought that if I could see where I would go to college, then I wouldn't have to decide where to go to college. Pretty stupid, huh?"
"Pretty shrewd, I think. It doesn't happen to work that way -- all futures are just possible futures -- but you identified your problem and constructed a solution. How do you feel about the more ordinary solution of picking a course of study, and going to the best place you can for that type of study?"
"Well, that's the problem." Willow set down the last sample disk, sat in Ms. Calendar's chair, and pulled up her knees to her chin. "I don't know what I want to study. I mean, I want to learn everything. What if I pick wrong?"
"Where did you go to college, Ms. Calendar?" Buffy asked.
"Eastern Washington University. Big Sky Conference. Go Eagles!" Ms. Calendar adjusted the window shades to avoid glare on the monitors. "I didn't have Willow's problem. I applied to schools close to where my family lived at the time, and I went to the one that gave me a full ride of scholarships and financial aid. It's an outstanding school, don't get me wrong. But I know why neither of you asked for recommendations to there. You have different horizons than I did."
"Does it matter, at this end of things, where you went?" Willow asked.
"It doesn't matter to ordinary employers, no. One degree is as good as another." Ms. Calendar paused. "But it matters in who I grew up to be. I can't let you off the hook, Willow. Sorry. It's almost as big a decision as you think it is."
The door burst open. Principal Snyder propped it with the doorstop. "Glitch fixed?"
"Yes," Ms. Calendar lied brightly as other faculty members began to file into the room. "May I ask everyone to please not touch the computers until we begin the demonstration? It'll be just a few minutes." She motioned to Willow and Buffy, who followed her into the hall. She whispered rapidly, "Okay, when my cousins and I used to hunt gremlins out of used cars when I was a kid, the thing to do was to have one person holding the empty beer bottle -- today, the copper box -- right at the air vent, but casually, oh, so casually. Be nonthreatening and convenient, and it will come right in when the other person turns the key -- in this case, runs the disk."
"What if it doesn't come right in?" Buffy whispered back.
"If it feels threatened, it will skip you and head for the nearest similar machine. In this case, it could jump from computer to computer all day. You have to seduce it into that box."
"Got it," Buffy nodded.
"No, I've got it." Willow raised her head. "It's my gremlin. It's been living in my house. I can make that box more homey than anybody."
"I heard that last part." Giles ran up and handed Ms. Calendar her copper box. "Are we wholly prepared?"
Ms. Calendar kissed Giles quickly. She opened the box, picked out her coins and put them in her pocket. Then she presented the still-open box to Willow.
"Let's do it." Buffy led the way. She took up a position at the corner of Ms. Calendar's desk nearest the door. Giles matched her on the opposite side of the desk, smiling what Willow knew was supposed to be reassurance at his coworkers and the board members, who had overflowed the computer desks and leaned against the walls to watch over the shoulders of those who had snagged equipment.
Willow and Ms. Calendar stepped behind the desk. "Thank you for coming, everyone," Ms. Calendar said, giving Willow time to get the open box into position where the fan vented and begin projecting casual, nonthreatening convenience to the gremlin. "As most of you know, my name is Jenny Calendar, and I teach computer science here at Sunnydale High. This is Willow Rosenberg, one of our three National Merit Scholars this year, who helped enter the sample data you'll be seeing in this demonstration."
Willow thought of her room, and how much she liked it, even though it now had deadbolts on both doors . . . No, not nonthreatening enough. She thought of Oz, and how nice it was when he kissed her, even though sometimes she wished . . . No, not casual enough. She thought of her favorite place in the world, Giles's library, and all the books, old paper and leather, and all the times spent there with Xander, Buffy, Giles, Ms. Calendar, Oz and even Cordelia. All the answers were in there, somewhere . . .
When Ms. Calendar popped the disk into the CPU, Willow felt a jolt inside the copper box push her backward. She snapped the lid shut. The box shuddered for a second, and then purred. Willow looked up, startled and hoping no one else had heard the sound. From her grin, though, Ms. Calendar had. Willow nodded to her, and Ms. Calendar nodded back.
"Excellent. If you will all please pick up the dark blue floppy disk next to your mouse and slide it into your computer, we'll get started."
* * *
Buffy drooled on Xander's shoulder. Even with all the noise of the Bronze on a Friday night pounding at her, the Slayer was dead to this world. From the kitty-corner couch, with Oz's arm around her shoulders, Willow amused herself watching Xander weigh the hotness of Buffy leaning on him against the grossness of her sleep dribble. Not as icky as monsters or demons or ABC gum, but still less than attractive, even on Buffy.
"So where's the gremlin now?" Xander asked, finally pushing Buffy gently back against the cushion.
"With Ms. Calendar. She's going to release it into the wild," Willow answered.
"Is that cruel?" Oz wondered. "Your gremlin is a technogeek. Can it survive far from the information superhighway?"
"Oh, no. Yes," Willow shook her head. "Ms. Calendar is going to a conference in San Jose next weekend, and she'll open the box there. The gremlin will be happy in Silicon Valley, and there isn't enough raw magic up there for this to happen again. Apparently, some people make their living catching gremlins for use in quality control. Who'd have thought?"
"Well, that's the thing," Oz said, "all that doesn't exist for us, only because we haven't thought it yet. And then we think it, and the universe grows."
Willow smiled happily and leaned on his shoulder. Oz always got it.
"What I don't get," Xander frowned, "is why you got the full, 3-D, surround sound, director's cut, Future Experience, and everyone else got the 11:00 news clip."
"One of Ms. Calendar's online friends got back to her about this. Apparently, the same thing happened to a woman in Italy last year. When I cast a spell around the gremlin, even an itty bitty one like the dream invitations or a containment ward, the gremlin latched onto my magic as a balance for the technology -- sort of like a squirrel padding its nest. The problem is that those spells aren't the dispersing kind. They're linked to me. So the gremlin got inside my magic the same way it got inside my computer."
Oz asked, "What happened to the woman in Italy?"
"She's in a coma. The gremlin used up all her magic, and started on her life force. That might have happened to me," Willow admitted, "if the future me hadn't known how to break me out."
"So not a cute squirrel image this time," Xander said. "I'm thinking an ugly, twenty, thirty-foot tapeworm?"
"You don't have to be gross."
"I think maybe I do, Will. This magic thing is getting serious, isn't it?"
Willow stood up. "Beverages! Anyone want a beverage? I'm thinking caffeine for me, and quadruple caffeine for Buffy."
"I estimate ten ounces remain in your sixteen-ounce diet cola." Oz let his arm fall in his lap.
Willow interpreted this as Oz-ian for 'you should answer Xander's question.' He was right. She sat down again, but pushed up alone in the corner of the couch. She pulled her knees up to her chin, adjusted her skirt, and wrapped her arms around herself. "Where do you guys think I should go to college?"
"You should go to the best school in the world," Xander said immediately. "I don't know what that is, but that's the one for you."
"But what if that's far, far away, so far you can't even come visit? So far that I can't be here when you need me?"
Xander looked at Oz, as if negotiating who would speak first. Oz took it. "Same answer."
Xander nodded. "Except for you going to summer camp, and the odd week you weren't speaking to me because I was an idiot, I haven't had to do without you two blocks over since, what, second grade? But you did good raising me, Will. I'd survive. Also, there's this newfangled telephone contraption you may have heard tell of, what with there being one right by your bed and another plugged into your modem."
Willow rested her chin on her knees. "What if I said I wanted to be a Watcher?"
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but would that be the imperialistic, patriarchal, corrupt, sadistic-- I don't remember all the words. Help me out, here, Oz, man."
"After what they did on Buffy's eighteenth birthday, the Watcher's Council forfeited all trust or respect."
"I know! But Kendra trained with her Watcher for years before the Slayer power came to her. There are Watchers all over the world, looking for potential Slayers, and taking them and having them lead Kendra's lonely kind of life -- or maybe worse -- on the chance they might be the next Chosen One. It isn't right. It's all those words Xander doesn't really know the meaning of, and more. They've got all that precious knowledge locked up there and the people with the keys don't deserve to be the gatekeepers. Giles was right to reject them, but maybe the only way to change them is from the inside."
"Then you do it, Will." Buffy was awake. She stood. Her words were slow and firm. "You go to Oxford, and you take their Watcher's Council night classes, and you rip them open to the daylight so it can burn them clean."
Willow unbent her knees and discovered her eyes were wet.
"We'll be there for you." Buffy stepped around Xander and kissed Willow's forehead. "Personally, my goal is to become the oldest Slayer in history. Wesley tells me I have ten years to go, and I plan to smash that record by living happily ever after." Buffy grinned and stole Willow's diet cola. "Anyone feel like patrolling?"
Disclaimers. The Buffyverse was created by Mr. Whedon, and is the property of Mutant Enemy and friends. No infringement intended. Buy what they sell, yeah?
Inspiration. Thank you to Havoc for this prompt in the "We Love Female Characters" ficathon! (She requested: "An alternate timeline look at the series that gives Jenny and Giles their happily-ever-after.") Thanks also to Jo for planting the idea that there was always something wrong with Willow choosing UC-Sunnydale over Oxford, and to Shelley for pointing out that I wouldn't have to rescue Jenny if Angel never lost his soul in the first place.
Major Works Consulted. All hail public libraries!
Fonseca, Isabel. Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey. New York: Knopf, 1995.
Pickering, David. Dictionary of Superstitions. London: Cassell, 1995.
Yates, Dora, ed. Gypsy Folk Tales. 1948. New York: Barnes & Nobel Books, 1995.
Beta-Readers. Amilyn and Jo told me about teacher in-service days, and Valerie clued me in that the Kalderash are a real Roma group (not a fictional BtVS creation), which helped start me out. Amilyn delivered a record-settingly speedy reply to the first draft, with reassuring enthusiasm and questions. Shelley helped talk the alternate reality into shape from the day I first received the prompt, and scrubbed the draft's syntax and digressions. Valerie caught a tech slip, tidied sentences and boosted my confidence. Jo generously reviewed canon and let me depend on her wide-ranging expertise to catch overt blunders. All mistakes are of course my own.
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