Choice in the Matter
25. Choice in the Matter
Picard had started to open his mouth to say his farewells, but Sendaru took them away before he could finish drawing breath. And before he could comment on the vagaries of strange goddesses from other universes, Major T!Rogh came running up to the group.
"Captain Picard!" Major T!Rogh wore a wide, relieved smile when he stopped.
"Yes, Major?" Picard was distracted. There was something wrong with what he was seeing, but he couldn't take the time to figure it out with the major standing there.
"We've heard back from a number of our units. It would seem that every demon within twenty kilometers of the hellmouth disappeared when Sendaru banished the greater demon," he said happily.
"That's wonderful news," Picard answered warmly. "And the remainder?"
"It will be no trouble to hunt them down, now that the hellmouth is sealed," he said. "Also, the First Minister has sent word that she would like you, Commander Data and Lieutenants Worf and Burns to join her in a celebratory feast tomorrow night."
"It would be —"
"Captain," Data interrupted.
"Yes?" Picard turned to his second officer with a quizzical look on his face. It wasn't often that Data interrupted anyone when they were speaking.
"Lieutenant Burns will be unable to attend," he said.
It was then that Picard realized what was wrong, what — who — was missing. "Where is she?" He suddenly had a very bad feeling about what Data was going to say.
"Sendaru asked if she would be willing to go to Sunnydale with the others. Meg told me her formal resignation from Starfleet could be found in her personal files along with a message to her family," he explained, watching his captain carefully.
"I believe Meg knew she would take the chance to leave with Mr. Giles if the opportunity presented itself," Data said, watching the play of emotions on Picard's face.
As for Picard, he was caught between anger at the loss of a damn good officer and admiration that said officer had chosen her heart as a priority over Starfleet. He knew for a fact that had he been in her position, he would have chosen Starfleet. On the other hand, "They barely knew each other!"
"I have observed that humans in love tend to make decisions that are — unexpected," Data said calmly. He added, "Nonetheless, I believe they are a good match for one another."
"They are," Worf said, thinking of the two. "I believe Meg Burns will find life in Sunnydale to be more suited to her capabilities and personality than life in Starfleet has been. She will make an excellent mate for Rupert Giles."
Picard blinked, thinking about what both officers said. Realistically, they were right. Meg had
seemed to come into her own when Giles came on board. And certainly, the last few hours on Kamembry had proven that she was more of a warrior than a desk officer. Still, "Major? Is there any way we can contact Meg?"
"Not that I know of, Captain," he answered.
"But how will you know to answer the call of the Slayer?" Picard remembered clearly that one of the reasons Buffy had gone through with the prophecy was for the promise of future aid.
"Sendaru and the prophecies will guide us when the time comes to send our warriors to the Chosen One's aid," he answered complacently. Major T!Rogh, like the majority of the Molvedane, had been raised with a cheerful disregard of religion. Now that he'd seen firsthand the goddess in action, though, he would begin offering up nightly prayers of thanksgiving to her. He trusted that Sendaru would do what was necessary to allow his people to live up to their bargain with her vessel.
As soon as Buffy regained control of her body and realized where she was, she yelled out, "DAWN!" She needn't have bothered. Dawn was already racing down the stairs to greet her sister.
She squealed, "You're back!" And when Buffy caught her around the middle and lifted her in a big hug, she swatted at her sister's back and said, "Put me down, already."
Buffy let Dawn down, only to catch her head and draw it down for a kiss to the forehead. She told her, "I was so worried about you. I couldn't find you during the trip back."
"I was really there, then? It wasn't just a dream?" Dawn was all but bouncing. She heard Willow ask what was going on but ignored her.
"Not a dream. You were really there," Buffy answered. She couldn't believe how good it felt just to look at Dawn and reassure herself that she was alive and well.
"So does that mean that Spike —"
Buffy's eyes got wide as she looked for him. She spotted him on the dining room floor, huddled in the far corner. Without another word, she rushed past Meg to get to him. He was still weeping when she gathered him to her, but he pushed her away as soon as he realized what she'd done. When he looked up and saw they were home again, he got to his feet and ran out the door.
Buffy was torn until Dawn said, "Go. Get him."
She said, "Thanks for understanding," as she ran out the door.
It didn't take long for her to find him. He'd barely made it two blocks before he collapsed again from his anguish. She approached him slowly, wanting to avoid startling him. She spoke softly when she called his name.
"Go away," he said, not looking up.
"I can't," she said as she hunkered down next to him. "It's kind of my fault you ended up like this."
"Not yours. Hers,
" he said bitterly.
"I couldn't let her kill you," she said in the same soft, tentative voice. She had no idea just how much pain he was in at the moment, but she could make an educated guess.
"I take it back, then. It is
your fault. You should have let her kill me. Would've been kinder than this," he said, his voice hitching as another sob tried to escape.
"I tried to tell her, but she wouldn't listen to me. She — she gets an idea, and you just can't get her to think about anything else," Buffy said as she started to feel even more miserable on his behalf.
"What the hell am I? And what good am I anymore?" He looked at her finally, his eyes glistening with unshed tears.
"I don't know what you are," she admitted. "I know she wanted to get rid of your demon, but she couldn't do that without killing you completely."
"So she left me like this!?" His sense of outrage was starting to burn away his despair.
"You should still be as strong as you were," Buffy said quickly. "But now, instead of game face, you just have — Spike face."
"And what the hell am I gonna do with a soddin' pulse?" He asked as he pushed himself up.
"Live?" When he glared at her, she said, "Okay, that was uncalled for. Look, I don't know what to call you. You're not a vampire anymore, but you're not human either. And I know for a fact that she squished all the evil out of your demon before she forced it to merge with your human corpse."
She looked up at him, pleading with him not to run off just yet. He wanted to. God alone knew how much he wanted to start running and never stop. But he couldn't leave her. She'd broken up with him, yet still found enough compassion to chase after him when he ran from her house.
"What the hell am I to you? A bloody project?" Maybe harshness would help to make her stop chasing him. And why should it be so hard? She left him, after all. Maybe she needed a nudge to remind her of that.
Buffy waited for a long moment before answering, "No. Not a project. But maybe —" She took a deep breath before continuing, "Maybe you're a friend."
"A friend," Spike said on half a laugh. He looked up into the night sky and yelled, "Hear that Dru? We're just friends."
"Would you rather I send you on your way without a second thought?" She crossed her arms under her breasts and glared at him.
He got in her face and yelled, "Why the hell don't
She yelled back, "Because I can't stand the thought of you brooding for the next century just because you got your soul back!"
Giles had been struck dumb by the presence of Meg in Buffy's dining room. Of all the things he expected to see when he returned to Sunnydale, she was — well, she wasn't even on the list. He'd made his peace with leaving her behind — or that's what he told himself. Repeatedly. He walked up to her and said gently, "Meg?"
Meg was staring at Rupert. She couldn't quite process the fact that she had followed him without even knowing if he wanted her in his life. Suddenly embarrassed, she turned away.
He turned her back.
She looked at him.
He kissed her.
She kissed him back.
Dawn made gagging motions with her finger and dragged a protesting Willow into the living room.
Willow hissed, "Dawn, who is
"I'm not sure, but I think she's an officer on Enterprise
. She's wearing the same thing Data was. But I guess she isn't an officer anymore, now that she's here," Dawn said as she settled into a corner of the couch.
"How do you know what Data was wearing?" Willow settled into the other corner of the couch and put on her interrogation face.
"I was there," she said with a smirk.
"Were not! Dawnie, I was just in your room a little while ago, and you were sound asleep!" Willow added resolve to her interrogation face.
"My body was here, but my Key-ness was with Buffy. And some goddess named Sendaru," Dawn answered.
"A goddess?" Willow's eyes got very wide.
"Yeah. Turns out I'm hers. Or — well, I was. When I was just the Key," Dawn said gleefully, enjoying the look on Willow's face.
"You were Sendaru's?" Giles and Meg stood in the entrance to the living room.
"Aren't you two supposed to be making with the smoochies?" Dawn waggled her eyebrows when she asked the question.
Meg snorted at the expression on Dawn's face. The girl reminded her of her cousin Becky, who was just as obnoxious and cheerful about it to boot. Since Rupert was turning an interesting shade of red, she answered, "We were, but you said the magic word — Sendaru — and he couldn't get his hands off me fast enough."
"That's not true," he said. His left hand had remained on the curve of her arse even as he hurried them to the living room to hear what Dawn was saying. And speaking of Dawn, "How do you know the Key was Sendaru's?"
"I was there. She told me," Dawn said. She grinned at the look on the Watcher's face. It was even better than the look on Willow's face.
Giles snapped his fingers and said, "That's
what I felt at the hellmouth — you!"
"Yep. Just your ordinary, everyday kind of Key girl. Anyway, Sendaru used me to unlock the hell dimensions and shove all the demons back." Dawn stretched happily. It was rare beyond imagining to be able to drop this many bombshells in a lifetime, let alone a single night.
"You didn't need to die?"
Giles was looking kind of intense, so Dawn chose to give him a straight answer and said, "Only Sendaru can use me that way. I think Glory was trying to swat a fly with a sledgehammer when she decided to open my veins. She just didn't know how to use me."
At that moment, Willow let loose with a piercing whistle and said, "Enough! You're telling the end when you should be starting at the beginning. And poor Meg looks like she's ready to drop, she's so exhausted, and she still
needs a nice hot bath before she can get to bed."
Giles and Dawn both had the grace to blush in the face of Willow's rant. Meg just said, "Actually, I need to tend to my sword first. I don't suppose —?"
Willow stood and said, "Come on. I'll show you where Buffy keeps her cleaning supplies and whetstones. Then I'll show you where you can get cleaned up. The only problem is that you're kinda tall, and we're all kinda short. But maybe Giles can go to the Wal-Mart and get you something to wear. Right, Giles?"
He nodded, ignoring the temptation to conjure something up for Meg to wear — a thin silk that could slide off her shoulders so easily — then shook his head abruptly as he remembered, "My wallet?"
Willow went to the desk and pulled open the middle drawer. She retrieved his wallet and tossed it to him before saying, "You might want to hop in the shower first." After a beat, she added, "A cold shower."
Two hours later, Buffy and Spike returned to the house. She'd spent much of that time arguing in favor of him at least talking to Angel about what happened. He'd finally agreed, telling her he was doing so only to shut her the hell up. He returned to the house for much the same reason — she wouldn't let up on him. She'd managed to bully him out of the complete despair he'd fallen into once Sendaru released him from her will, and for that, he was grateful, even though he could feel himself backsliding.
When they walked inside, Spike did a double-take when he noticed Meg sitting next to Giles at the dining room table. He said, "Meg? Not that I'm unhappy to see you, but what the hell are you doin' here?" He sounded like himself for a moment. His surprise at seeing her had overcome the guilt and remorse he was feeling over every single kill he'd made as a vampire.
"Sendaru asked if I'd be willing," she said as she looked at Giles. "The answer was pretty damn obvious." After she'd taken a shower, she found that she was too keyed up to sleep.
Willow said, "Xander and Anya are on their way here. I figured it would be easier if —"
"Speak of the devil," Buffy said when she heard the doorbell. She let the couple in and said, "Hey! Welcome back to me!"
Xander hugged her and asked, "Getting your fashion tips from Hooker's Wear Daily?
" Then he caught sight of Spike and said, "Hey look! It's Deadboy Junior! Go home, Spike."
Buffy put her hand on Xander's arm and said, "One, he isn't quite dead anymore — he has a heartbeat, even if it is only once every couple of minutes. Two, he is
home — he's not going back to the crypt. Three, be nice!" Her third point was made with an unspoken threat of bodily harm, and he took the threat seriously.
By the time the sun rose over Sunnydale, the travelers had told much of their tale. Xander, after throwing a brief fit over Spike moving in, was hounded into submission by Anya's frequent and pointed reminders that she had caused far more death and destruction than Spike ever could have dreamt of when he was evil. And if Xander was able to forgive her
because she now had a soul, he could certainly make nice with the former vampire, even if no one had a clue what he was now.
Spike looked at the morning sun in the front yard, then got up to go to the front door. Buffy put a hand out to stop him, but he just looked at her and said, "I have to know. I have to know what my limits are."
Everyone crowded onto the front porch except for Spike, who waited inside for everyone to settle down. Xander, in an attempt to make Anya stop glaring at him, volunteered to hold the wool blanket, should it be necessary to put out ex-vampire flambe. Spike stood in the doorway for a moment, then straightened his spine and walked into the yard.
He turned his face to the morning sun and smiled, happy with the whole not-bursting-into-flames bit.Epilogue - Six Weeks After Returning
Meg walked into Buffy's house after a perfunctory knock on the door. She'd started doing this to everyone, once she realized they all felt free to walk into her and Rupert's home at all hours without knocking. Or, if they did happen to knock, they walked in without waiting for them to answer. Xander and Anya had been the first to learn the lesson, which may have been helped by the fact that they walked in at a particularly naked moment.
Buffy was the lone holdout, even though she'd already walked in on them a couple of times. Meg thought she might have to start getting more direct with the younger woman. Perhaps threats of bodily harm would make her knock first. Of course, it would help if Rupert agreed to lock the bloody door, but he didn't want Buffy to ever be dying on the doorstep when she could crawl in and die in the front hall.
Meg called out, but there was no answer. She went to kitchen and called out again, this time hearing Willow's muffled reply coming from the basement. She went downstairs and found the young witch happily ensconced in front of a rather impressive — "What's this, then?"
"It's a cluster array. This is so cool. You just have to see this," Willow said as she all but bounced up and down in her seat.
"Don't such things cost money?" Meg was still trying get used to living in a cash economy, but she was fairly certain computer set-ups like this were quite expensive.
"Yep! And that's the best part. I don't own this. Some company in Delaware does. We've been keeping it a secret, in case the deal fell through, but this array just solved Buffy's money worries," Willow said. Her face was lit up, and she had a faint flush on her cheeks. Meg thought she looked like she was in the throes of passion.
"How did it do that?"
"This company — the one that owns the array — offered Buffy five thousand dollars a month to rent this bit of space in her basement. And they paid to run a T3 into the house for maximum bandwidth. And
they offered me a lot of money to be the on-call, on-site sys-admin!"
Meg took a closer look at Willow and against all common sense decided that she really was on the verge of an orgasm. She didn't know whether to hose her down or egg her on, but one thing was certain — the deal with the cluster array smelled off.
"Willow, why would a company offer that kind of money to rent a few square meters of space? Do you even know what they do? Are you certain the money's real?" She didn't want to drag Rupert into this if she could avoid it. The man had enough on his mind as it was.
"They offered Buffy a twenty thousand dollar signing bonus, and she got word from the bank this morning that the money is in her account and that everything is good. I checked out their Web site and looked up all their tax information. It's a real company and it's legitimate," Willow said, deflating slightly at Meg's complete lack of excitement.
"Fine, but what —"
"Hey, Meg! Be the first to congratulate ex-Doublemeat Palace employee Buffy Summers!" Buffy all but skipped down the remainder of the steps. She'd been so relieved to get rid of that hated uniform that she ignored how much she was starting to miss the hat.
"Congratulations, I'm sure. But what does this company do
that they can throw money around like this?" Over the past few weeks, Meg had discovered that she was, at heart, a thrifty person. The excess she saw in Buffy's basement was making her wince.
Buffy answered before Willow could, saying, "It's so cool! Their company mission statement is to seek out and assimilate new —"
"DB! Get your daft code in here RIGHT NOW!!"
Willow and Buffy exchanged cautious looks, both uncertain how to handle the suddenly crazy Meg. Buffy didn't know how she'd break it to Giles, but —
"There is no need to shout, Lieutenant Burns. My audio pick-ups are quite capable of distinguishing your voice from the background noise," said a nondescript, gender neutral voice.
Willow backed her chair away from the array slowly, and stood up. Visions of Julie Christie in Demon Seed
were starting to run through her head.
"Why the hell aren't you on Enterprise
where you belong? And I'm not an officer anymore, so you can call me by name." Meg grabbed the chair Willow left empty and put it in front of the array before sitting in it herself. Buffy thought the older woman was going to blow a gasket.
"I am sentient. It did not make sense that Captain Picard would allow my existence to continue unabated," it answered.
"We were planning to move you to a stand-alone machine, you idiot. Why the hell didn't you talk to us?" Meg started punching at the keyboard in an effort to locate DB. She was happy to see a UNIX command line appear in the midst of the operating system's eye candy.
"A stand-alone machine would have been unacceptable. This world has an acceptable environment for me. I have learned much while roaming the Internet," it answered. It added, "You will not find me in the array, Meg. I am elsewhere at the moment."
She sighed as she glared at the monitor. Then she said, "I suppose you're the one that ordered this pretty equipment."
"You are correct." Buffy and Willow exchanged a sick look.
"And how did you find the money for it?"
"There is a great deal of money hidden in bank accounts throughout the world. Much of the money belonged to criminals of one sort or another," it replied. Buffy and Willow exchanged hopeful looks.
"So you stole money from thieves? Is that it? I know damn good and well Data taught you better than that. You need to return everything
," she said, her voice firm, her vision clear.
"Um, DB, is it?" Buffy quickly stepped up to the array just behind Meg. "Don't do anything just yet, okay?"
"I will not," it agreed.
"Buffy! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!" Meg was truly shocked that the woman — a Champion, for god's sake — was balking over this.
Calling on all of the skills of her teenage years, Buffy talked fast. "Look, the money was stolen from hardworking people, right? And then it was just left to rot in some bank account somewhere. By taking the money out and getting it to me and Willow eventually and untraceably, it will find its way back to the very people it was stolen from in the first place."
"What?" Meg looked aghast at the verbal two-step Buffy was dancing.
"She's right!" Willow stepped up and said, "By giving the money to us, even if the reason is kind of lame, you can be certain we'll get it back into general circulation by spending it on clothes, food and bills. And maybe some nice stuff, too. This is the perfect solution, don't you see?"
"And! If DB was able to set up all that background information in the government computers for its fake company, it can certainly get paperwork set up for you. That way, you and Giles can get married," Buffy said, playing a trump card Meg didn't even know she had.
DB answered, "Meg's documents, including notarized copies of a birth certificate, a social security card and a driver's license, will arrive in approximately two weeks. A credit history and credit card will take three weeks."
Meg gave the computer a sharp look and said, "Two weeks? You're certain?"
"Just think — you'll be able to get married before you have
to tell him," Buffy said in a low voice next to Meg's ear.
Meg jumped slightly and hissed, "How do you —?"
"I was along for the ride, remember? I know exactly what Sendaru told you. And since I know
you want to make an honest man of my Watcher, I'm sure you'll accept DB's gift of an identity. Right?"
Meg knew perfectly well she was being blackmailed. The thing of it was, though, she was having a hard time caring. Buffy really did need an income that didn't require the time commitment of a job. Even with that Ms. Kent's support, the Watcher's Council was being downright pissy about paying Buffy a salary. And if DB was able to get the right paperwork, she and Rupert could be married as soon as it arrived.
She cupped a protective hand over her belly and said, "Fine. You win. But DB will
get an education in ethics. Is that understood?"
~ fin ~Author's Note:
For a story I didn't think would go much beyond ten thousand words, this one surprised me. It's my own fault, really. I let the characters take over, and they only occasionally allowed me to get any of the plot out. I'm pretty sure I tied up all the loose threads that needed to be tied up, but I could be wrong.
Thank you to all who read this far, and a special thank you to all who left reviews. Even if you read this much later than the last update, please don't be shy about letting me know what you think. I'd love to hear from you.