The overly-cheerful tones of his cell phone pulled him out of a tangle of pain and nightmares that wasn't sleep but was deeper than a doze. John reached to the nightstand, triggering a cascade of agony down a back that was getting too old for this shit, and slapped wood veneer until he found the phone. "What?" he growled into it—then realized he hadn't pressed the right button and hit it again. "What?
"It's Missouri, John. Is Dean with you?"
He sat up, ignoring the pain. "No. Sent him on a ghost chase in Arizona. Why?"
"We've got trouble."
"Trouble?" he echoed. He'd triple-checked that job before sending Dean off on his own. It was a basic salt-and-burn, nothing more, nothing really
dangerous, hopefully just the thing to get the boy to focus on something other than missing his brother without him getting in over his head. The barfights were getting out of control. "What kind of—"
"It's Buffy Summers. The Slayer."
"I don't know any—" Abruptly, he realized that he did
. Not personally, but— In a heartbeat he was fully awake, and suddenly cold, despite the stuffy heat of the hotel, and there was a familiar knot in his gut, the one he got whenever one of the boys got hurt. "The
Buffy? Willow's Buffy?"
"That one. John—it— I just heard from a contact of mine, John. She's dead."
For a long moment all he remembered was Willow's desperate We need her alive
, and his first thought was that the trauma of rape followed by losing her children had been too much for her. "It didn't work?"
"It's not that. When she died— John, she never had any children."
He hung up on her and punched in Dean's number. Missouri would understand.
"Yeah," Dean answered groggily.
"Dad?" Dean was instantly alert.
"Is everything okay?"
"Yeah, fine, what's up?" He sounded better, at least. Not so sullen. He'd been channeling his inner—
Sammy. Sammy was closer to Sunnydale. If this was having a ripple effect— "Go check on your brother."
" Dean yelped.
"You heard me—"
"Dad, you told me not to even mention
"I changed my mind!" he roared. "Don't let him know you're there, just make sure he's okay!"
"All right, all right, but what about the—"
"Call Caleb and have him finish it. I need you to check on your brother now.
"Dad, is something—"
It took him a couple of days to make the trip—his bruised back couldn't handle sitting in the truck for more than a couple of hours at a time. He was calling Dean at every stop, and every time Dean answered the phone, there was more worry in his voice, a tone John much preferred to hear aimed at Sammy, so he finally lied and told Dean he'd wrenched his back again and was heading to Bobby's for first aid and a research-and-repair session. When Dean had skulked around Stanford long enough to be convinced that Sammy was okay, he'd head that way to check on his old man. It would only buy John a couple of extra days, though, and that was if
he got there first and if
Bobby felt like being used as an alibi.
He drove straight to Sunnydale without checking a map, without a single wrong turn, even though he hadn't been here since that day. The patch of forest where he'd once met a witch and been given his sons—Miller's Wood, if the map was right—was closer to town now.
He started at the public library, using their computers to search through obituaries— Good God
, the death rate in this town was something else, more than double normal. And more than half those deaths came with supernatural telltales. There was no way one girl
could handle this. That she could handle any
of it—and the stories of assorted weirdness indicated she did—was a miracle.
But there was nothing. No obituary for anyone named Buffy, although there were two Bambis and a double handful of Brandys (assorted spellings). The closest he could find was an obit for a Joyce
Summers, just this past winter. A daughter named Buffy was listed as a survivor. The same Buffy? Maybe. How many people could there be who would inflict that name on their kid?
Someone had known she died, or Missouri wouldn't have found out. At the same time, someone had tried to hide it, or Missouri would have known as soon as it happened. Could they be trying to hide it from the normals? To what end? Dead was dead.
Unless, maybe, they were trying to make people think she still protected the town? The death rate hadn't spiked back up the way it should have, as best he could tell. The town seemed to be in severe denial about what killed its citizens, blind to the fact that their life expectancy was about twenty years below the national average. Seven funeral homes and twenty-five public cemeteries serving a town this size? He wasn't sure Lawrence
had that many.
He jotted down the name of the cemetery where Joyce Summers was buried. If they were smart, they would have salted and burned the body—but witches, even white witches, didn't always think like hunters. They might have just buried her—and if they had, it was probably close to her mother. Then he looked up directions. If the town had that many public cemeteries, it had to be hip-deep in private ones, and he couldn't afford to waste time asking for directions.
Not as long as there was a chance that something could happen to his boys.
The cemetery looked peaceful enough to the untrained eye, but a hunter's eyes saw the signs that Sunnydale was anything but peaceful: disturbed earth on gravesites; broken stones without evidence of "normal" teenage vandalism; older graves circled by dead zones; seven funeral tents in this cemetery alone, awaiting mourners; stones whose math did not bear close examination, since hardly any of them marked someone who made it past sixty. The cemetery itself was a silent witness. It was fairly new, none of the trees more than twenty years old, the wrought-iron fence of a style that screamed "eighties," and yet the only empty area was a section near the back.
He started at the borders of that empty section and walked through the markers, tracing them back towards the entrance, back in time. The rows weren't full, of course; here and there were plots that hadn't been filled yet, pairs bought by couples or groupings bought by families, and there were the usual gaps where the only markers were the tiny plastic ones left by the funeral home when the family couldn't afford a proper stone. Kind of an old-fashioned cemetery, given its age; most cemeteries since the sixties were all about those boring little plaques that could be easily mowed over.
Joyce was on the third row from the working edge, towards the southern wall. The stone was small and flat, a single woman's stone, and there wasn't another stone that said "Summers" anywhere around. John pulled the printed obit out of his pocket. No local family; that explained the solitary nature. And no husband listed, just two daughters. Maybe they hadn't been able to afford more.
Despite what Willow had told him, Buffy had never been real to him—just some shadow of things to come, some woman in a distant future whose life was as bad as his. He'd never thought of her as someone's little girl. As still being
a little girl. And now he stood at Joyce Summers' grave and realized that Buffy was her daughter, that this dead woman was his boys' real grandmother. Ties of blood that the boys didn't know about, ties waiting to reach out and strangle them—
Shit. He should have focused less on Sammy going away
and more on Sammy being in California
. Told Sammy he could go to college, but only on the East Coast. If he'd gotten accepted by Stanford, he could have gotten accepted by any of the big schools back east. He'd gotten so lost in his panic....
He turned slowly around, looking for the grave that had to be there. The way he estimated the fill rate, there should have been a plot available somewhere nearby—
He was right. You could see the headstone from here. It was tucked out of the way, half hidden in the shade of the trees against the wall, but she was in sight of her mother. He walked over.Buffy Anne Summers, 1981-2001, beloved sister, devoted friend
. Followed by an incongruous She saved the world, a lot.
Not quite a hero's monument. The "a lot" rather deflated the whole thing. More than most hunters got, though.
The dates, though.... Only two years older than Sammy. Two years younger
Sons she never knew. Sons she apparently never had
God, this was giving him a headache.
There was grass on the grave. She'd been dead a few months, then. That meant that if anything was going to happen, it would have already
happened. If Missouri had told him that—
He probably would still have panicked. Thanks to a ton of bad movies and TV shows, everybody knew that messing with time, even in little ways, could fuck up everything
. Step on a butterfly and all that. And even now, standing here, he didn't understand. How could his boys still be here, perfectly fine, if their mother died before she could give birth to them?
Unless it was just a seriously delayed reaction. Was there anything he could do to prevent that kind of ripple from making Dean and Sammy wink out of existence? If they did, would he even remember them? What about the last twenty years? They'd both saved people—unwillingly, in Sammy's case, but even so, he was directly responsible for a handful of lives out there, and he'd researched ways for John and Dean to save a lot more. What would happen to those people if his boys suddenly were never there?
He wished there was someone he could take this to, someone to help him figure it out. Bobby Singer was the only person he could think of who had the brains for it, but Bobby didn't know that the boys weren't really his, he'd met Bobby the summer after. And while John knew he could explain things without going into the demon bits, he also knew that when Bobby started picking apart a puzzle, he damn well didn't stop until he had the whole picture.
Bobby loved those boys as much as John did, even if the cranky old fart would never admit it, but if he found out their real
father was a demon... John wasn't sure what
Bobby would do. Even considering the circumstances, even considering that the boys had passed every test he'd ever tossed at them—They're not going to see your sons. They're going to see demons. And hunters kill demons.
Missouri had been right on that, at least.
Most of the hunters who might remember him from the two years before he got the boys were dead, and he'd cut off contact with the rest to an extreme that had cost him a lot of contacts later. The few who were still around—well, John was notorious now for taking the boys on the road with him instead of finding a relative. Nobody
out there—nobody who wasn't one of that handful of hunters, anyway—would believe that the boys weren't really his. Not with the stories that circulated about the Winchester family. It was so much a part of the Winchester reputation that even if those old contacts had argued, the rest of the world would just laugh at them.
Even so, he couldn't risk it. There were too many crazies out there. And if Dean and Sammy found out— He didn't know what that would do to them, if it would warp the magic and break their brains or worse. Especially not with Buffy dead.
"Who are you?"
He whirled around, startled and a little surprised that anybody had managed to sneak up on him.
Her hair was red and shorter, her eyes lighter, and her expression anything but serene, but he recognized her immediately. Willow Rosenberg. The witch.
She was younger, of course, just another little girl. The Willow who had brought him his boys hadn't been much older, but she'd been hardened by much more suffering than this one had seen. The beginnings were there—undoubtedly at least partially because of these two graves—but there was more, far more, to come. She might be a witch, but she was not yet a warrior.And if I tell her, if I try to warn her, she may never bring me the boys.
"I just wanted to pay my respects," he said.
She studied him a moment, eyes raking up and down him. "You're a hunter."
She already knew about hunters, then. How long had she been working with Buffy? She was barely twenty. How young did these Slayers get started? As young as he'd started his boys?
"You've never worked with us here," she went on. "Was it in L.A.?"
Something about the way she was looking at him made him wary of following that conversational lead, even into a lie. "No, I never worked with her," he replied. Simple lies were the best. "I knew her family, a long time ago." He tried to remember the dates on Joyce's headstone. He thought she'd been about the same age as Mary. "I went to school with Joyce."
"College?" Willow's voice was frosty. "So you knew Hank? Buffy's dad?"
He swallowed the surge of anger. He didn't like thinking about that bastard, and not just because he hated to be reminded that the boys weren't really his. What little Willow had told him about how the boys were conceived... Sure, the bastard might just
have been possessed, but there were other, more sinister possibilities. There were plenty of monsters walking the world in human shells. "Not college. School." He forced himself to smile. "Like I said, a long
time ago. We lost touch when Buffy was little." Not so much of a lie, really; she couldn't have been more than four or so when Willow brought him the boys.
He knew the gamble was successful when her expression softened, became a little confused. "Oh. Sorry. Joyce didn't— I mean, I don't know a lot about Joyce before they came here, except what Buffy told me. Did you just find out?"
"About a week ago. I thought— I mean, I couldn't believe they were both gone." He hesitated. "There wasn't a lot of time between them—was it related?"
"No," she said. Her voice was rough. The grief was still fresh. "Joyce had a stroke after brain surgery. Buffy— It was a fight."
He knew that tone of voice, too. Just because the death was for a good cause didn't make it any easier on the survivors. If Vietnam hadn't taught him that, trying to deal with Ellen Harvelle after Bill's death had. "I'm sorry," he said, those stupid words that people always said in these circumstances. "From what I've seen, Sunnydale must have been a lot safer with her here."
"She's not gone," Willow snapped. Her voice reminded him a bit of Sammy's when the kid dug his heels in and refused to be sensible. "She's just not here."
John was painfully familiar with denial. He'd been in denial over Mary for the better part of six months, in either set of memories. But that didn't sound like just
denial. "She's not going to come back." It came out harsher than he intended. He'd tangled with a couple of crazies who'd tried to pull off resurrections. It never
ended well. Zombies were the fun
end of that spectrum.
"Don't bet on it. We need her."
The same words she'd used—would
use—to make him accept the boys. "You can't," he said. "It's not going to—"
He just stared at her, wanting to deny it—but this was a witch who was powerful enough to bring two small children through time and erase their memories. She had taken a set of twins and made Dean four years
older than Sammy. If anybody could succeed at a resurrection, even this long after the fact.... What if the boys haven't been born
yet, and that's why they're still here? Because Willow resurrects her and Buffy has them some time that's still in the future?
God, this wasn't helping his headache at all
. And being here, seeing Willow—having Willow see him and talk to him—
He automatically glanced at the ground to make sure he wasn't about to step on a butterfly. He was beginning to wish he'd never read that story. "I didn't mean to disturb you," he said finally. "I'll leave you to your—" Thoughts? Grief? Tears? There was just no polite way to phrase that. "Time for me to hit the road, anyway."
She gave him a smile that was probably intended to be brave, but to his jaded eyes just looked wobbly. "It was good of you to come," she said. "If you get the chance, in a couple of months—"
"It's a bad idea, Willow."
"I know. But we've got to try. We need her."
He glanced at the stone again. We both do.
"It's a bad idea," he repeated, because every bit of experience told him that. And yet.... "If you insist on trying—"
"I have to."
He should warn her away from it, give her a reason not to try—but all he could think of was the Willow he'd met (would meet?) that day in Lawrence, and those two little boys lying asleep on a blanket in the woods, and what might happen if she didn't
. "Good luck," he said finally, and turned to leave.
He'd made it almost two rows away when she shouted, "Hey!" He glanced back. "I didn't tell you my name."
He didn't panic. He was very proud of that. He'd learned a lot since that day. "No," he said finally, giving her a small smile. "You didn't."So much for butterflies,
he thought, walking away, leaving her standing there staring after him.the end