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15 November 2011 @ 09:55 pm
Fic: Rewards (7/8)  
Summary, Notes, and Warnings are located in the Table of Contents.

Chapter 6: Choices
Gunn looked over at the blonde sagging against the seat.  “Liz?” he asked.  No answer.  “Buffy?” he tried again.
She could hear a voice calling her name, but was unable to find the words to respond.  She didn’t even know what her name was.  Conflicting memories, beliefs, and experiences were warring in her brain, effectively paralyzing her. 
She was breathing rapidly and underneath the bundle she held tightly to her chest, Gunn noticed a red stain.  Glancing quickly behind them and seeing no one, he slammed on the brakes and reached over to grab the bundle of cloth out of her arms, dropping it to the floor.  Looking at a rather large bloodstain on her shirt, he began to panic.
“What happened to you?  Talk to me, dammit!”
A little relief settled in to her brain.  She was able to focus on him, then look down at herself.  “Not mine,” she forced out.  Tears rolled down her face as she closed her eyes.  “I just want to go home,” she said quietly.  She didn’t know where home was, but she needed to be there.  It would be quiet there, calm and peaceful.
Not sure where she was referring to, Gunn simply nodded and headed toward the Hyperion, calling the others to alert them that he had found her.

Gunn supported Liz/Buffy through the front door of the hotel, the wrapped stone in his other arm.  Glancing around, he saw that everyone was back already, with the addition of an older gentleman in tweed talking to Wesley.  All eyes turned toward them as the door shut loudly behind them.
“We’re here, but it’s a safe bet that Wolfram & Hart’s goons are gonna be storming through that door any minute.  I picked her up outside one of their storage facilities.  Nobody followed us, but they pretty much don’t have to, really.”
“It’s okay, Gunn,” said Angel, coming over to help him escort her to a seat.  “Wesley and Giles have already prepped some defensive spells.  They’re going to cast them now.”  He looked back as he did to see Giles standing there with a stunned expression on his face. 
They had told him that she looked exactly like Buffy.  Fred had told him about the results of Lorne’s reading.  But still, standing here years after he had lost his Slayer and seeing her was astounding.  He wanted to go to her, but Wesley was practically pulling on his sleeve and he suddenly realized that yet again, duty superseded personal desire.  He set about casting the protective spells.
Slowly, the maelstrom in her head was quieting.  She was becoming more aware of her surroundings, starting with Angel’s strong shoulder underneath her cheek.  She nestled against him and felt his arm settle across her shoulders, pulling her tighter to him.  She became aware of him speaking to the others, although it was too much work to follow the words.  She was content, just for this moment, to let him handle everything.
Angel and the others were spit-balling increasingly bizarre ideas as to why this had happened to her and what they could do about it.  Finally, Giles and Wesley finished with their spells and joined them.  Giles could not tear his eyes away from her, remembering the last time he had seen her, her body broken from the fall.   
Feeling someone watching her, she looked around.  “Giles?” she asked, smiling, quickly distracted by Wesley, who was arguing with Cordelia about the feasibility of recreating Buffy’s last battle so that her spirit could attend to whatever it had left unfinished.
Before anyone else could say anything, the front door opened and a small, badly dressed figure stepped through.  Everyone was on their feet immediately, Angel pushing Liz/Buffy behind him.
“Whoa, whoa, what’s with the welcoming committee?”
She peered out from behind Angel, just to be sure, and said in unison with him, “Whistler?”

Lilah was glaring at Lindsay.  “This whole disaster was your idea,” she accused.  They sat outside their boss’s office, waiting for the fallout from escape of the pseudo-Slayer with the relic. 
“You were right there with me the whole time, Lilah.  You could have voiced your objections at any point.  If this had worked, we would have had the ability to choose any one we wanted to imbue with Slayer power.”
She huffed and rolled her eyes.  “Because we’ve had such great luck in dealing with the Slayer.  May I remind what Faith did to Lee before using us to find Angel so she find redemption.”  Lilah fluttered her eyes, sighed, and held her hand over heart as she uttered those repulsive words.  “What is it about that vampire that turns everyone around him so unutterably good?”
“Whatever, Lilah.”
The door opened and the grim face of Linwood Murrow looked out at them.  They rose and silently entered the office to face the music.

While she and Angel relaxed into an attitude of mild annoyance and interest, the rest of the team maintained their suspicious postures until Angel told them to stand down.  As Whistler proceeded to saunter nearer, Wesley said, “I will relax when I find out how he got through our barriers.  If there is a weakness, we need to know before Wolfram & Hart can take advantage of it.”
“Nah,” Whistler replied.  “Just consider it a special Messenger from The Powers exemption.”
Cordy looked at him.  “Messenger from The Powers?” she repeated, looking him and down.
He nodded.  “Messenger, errand runner, all-around generally unappreciated dog,” he sighed.  “But we’re not here to talk about me.  We’re here to talk about you two.”  He looked at Angel and the blonde still tucked against his side.  “You two kids.” He shook his head.  “The Powers lay out their plans and the two of you get together and just blow ‘em all up!”
“You know what’s going on here?” Angel asked in an accusing voice.
“I’ve been given certain insights.  Actually, I’ve been sent to repair the damage you two have done.  But we’ll get to that.”
She detached herself from Angel’s side and started toward Whistler, feeling the urge to ‘encourage’ him to move his story along.  She hadn’t taken two steps when the fury of thoughts in her brain set back in.  Dizziness drove her to her knees.
“Uh, Angel, you might want to keep a hand on her for the time being.  Or any body part you find appropriate.”  Angel had already hastened to her side and was helping her to her feet.  As she leaned into him, she felt the calm reappear.
“Why, Whistler?  What the hell is going on?”
“Well, at the end of this, our young lady is going to have to make a choice.  And it would be easier to make that choice if she can concentrate when I’m explaining the details.”
“And my touching her helps her concentrate how?” he asked, aware that touching her was driving him out of his mind at her closeness.
“It does, Angel,” she said quietly.  “When we’re touching, it’s calmer inside and then when I walked away, it all came crashing back in.” 
“Okay, no problem.  Just stay with me.”  He led her back to the chairs and they both sat down.  “And as for you, spill.”
Whistler hopped up to take a seat on the counter.  “Okay, kids, here’s the deal.  Buffy Summers, quite possibly the greatest Slayer that ever lived, had a short and angst-ridden life.  She died a heroic and noble death protecting her sister and the world.”  At the reminder, Giles began cleaning his glasses and Angel shifted uncomfortably.  She just kept a tight grip on Angel’s hand waiting for something she didn’t already know.
“So, The Powers decided that she deserved a, well, a reward.”
“A reward,” Angel repeated dryly.  “Because they’ve always been so generous.”
Whistler shrugged.  “Hey, what do I know?  They decided to grant her wish to be a normal girl.”
She scoffed. “This is normal?”
“Well, it was normal.  What they did was to create a whole new life for you, kind of like those monks did with the Key.  Thus, Liz Snow was born.  They created memories for you, your parents, your family and friends.  And it was all good.  You were going to live out the rest of your normal life as Liz.”
“I was going to?” she prompted.
Whistler sighed.  “How Wolfram & Hart found out about you is still a mystery.  The Senior Partners have some power but no one expected this.  But they did find you and they got a lead on the stone and decided to take advantage of the situation.  The closer you got to the Slayer Stone, the thinner the walls between your current life and your previous life became. 
“Then you had to go and find Angel.  Of all the people, or whatever, in the city, you found him.  Sometimes makes me think there’s another force at work where you two are concerned.  Anyway, once you and Angel were standing right next to each other, all bets were off.  The walls between your realities crumbled and Liz’s reality started to try to rewrite itself to compensate.”
“Compensate how, exactly?” asked Giles. 
“For instance, before Angel met Liz, she had never spent any time in a psychiatric facility.  That piece of her history was added to make sense of the memories leaking over from Buffy’s experiences.”
“But I remember it,” she said.  First she had two lives, now one of them was rewriting itself at will.
“Eh, reality is mutable.  It’s all about perceptions.”
Cordelia shook her head.  “It figures.  Even when the Powers try to do something nice, it’s a problem!”
Whistler nodded, then glanced upward guiltily.  He cleared his throat.  “Anyway, the more time you spent with Angel, the more you were able to recognize both lifetimes, until we have this.”  He indicated Liz/Buffy.  “Right now, Angel is grounding you, attracting the bits of Buffy to the surface, which I imagine quiets the chaos in your mind.”  She nodded.
“Okay,” Wesley said.  “We know what is going on and why.  But how do we fix this?  She can’t continue to live like this.”  They all looked at her.  She gave them a weak smile in return and waved, while staying very close to Angel.
“Yes indeed.  Now to the official part of my message.  The Powers would like me to convey to you that to return to normal, all you have to do is break the stone.  That is Liz breaks the stone.”
“Normal,” she asks.  “You mean my life as Liz?”
Angel worked very hard to keep his face impassive.  He had known all along that it was unlikely that Buffy had been returned to him.  The Powers and their rewards only went so far.  Giles was less successful at hiding his disappointment.  As she looked around, she saw how much older he looked than when she had last seen him, when he had fought by her side against Glory. 
Whistler remained silent.  “That’s what they would like you to know.”
She exchanged a puzzled look with Angel.  “What is it that they don’t want me to know?” she asked, the irritation in her voice reminding several of them of the old Buffy.
Whistler smiled and looked around.  “You have a choice,” he whispered, as if that would stop the Powers from overhearing his revelation.  She looked at him blankly.  “The life that you are holding in your thoughts at the moment the stone breaks will be the life you return to.”
“Well, that’s not much of a choice.  Buffy’s dead,” Cordy bluntly interjected.  “Who’d want to go back to being dead?”
“No, she’s not.  As you can see, she’s standing right in front of you.  It’s just a matter of which lifetime she wants to recognize.”
“I can choose?”  She thought for a moment.  “So if I choose Liz’s life, what happens?  It just all resets to normal?”
“Yeah, pretty much.  The Powers would erase all memories that were created by this little glitch and Liz would go on, none the wiser.”
“So, I wouldn’t remember any of this?”  She looked up at Angel, wondering what it would be like to never see him again.  She remembered being on top of the scaffolding in Sunnydale, as she ran to jump, thinking the same thing.
“No, you wouldn’t remember.  You would just go back to your normal life.  Everyone else would remember however, including Wolfram & Hart.”
She looked frightened.  “Then what’s the point?” she cried.  “If they still know about me, even if the stone is destroyed, they’ll keep trying to find a way to use me.  I’ll never be safe.”
“Yes, you will,” Angel said firmly, turning so that he could look into her eyes.  “If that is your choice, I swear that I will do everything in my power to keep you safe, from Wolfram & Hart or anything else that might come your way.”  It would break his heart, watching her live her life, knowing that she didn’t know who he was, but he would do it.  She deserved this chance, if that is what she wanted. 
“As long as you don’t get too near her, Angel, my boy,” Whistler replied.  “That’s what triggered this whole thing you know.”
Gunn stood up.  “It won’t be just Angel.  We’ll all take care of her.”
“Okay,” she said slowly.  “Now, what if I choose Buffy?  Would I remember any of this?  Would I still be the Slayer?”
“Don’t know.  Like I said, the Powers didn’t really want you to know about that choice, so they didn’t exactly brief me on the specifics.”
“What happens to Liz’s life?  She just dies or ceases to exist?  What about my, her, Liz’s mom?  Friends?  Professor Moore?”
“Well, if you return to being Buffy, all the manipulations of reality causing the memories and acceptance of Liz would be reversed.  Liz’s mother wouldn’t even remember that she had had a daughter.  The good professor’s death will, sadly, not be reversed.”
A deep sorrow pervaded her at this, along with another wave of anger at the Powers.  The casual disregard with which they manipulated people’s lives was nearly incomprehensible.  She looked up to see everyone staring at her.  Cordelia, bane of her high school existence, who seemed to have become an actual feeling person.  Gunn and Fred, who didn’t know her from Adam, but had worked so hard to help and protect her over the last few days.  Wesley, who was actually a lot smarter than she had given him credit for in the old days.  Giles, who was more of a father to her than her biological father ever was, looking careworn.  And Angel, with whom she shared a love so deep that it even broke down mystical walls created by the PTB.  To be reunited with him, with all of them, would be amazing.  Not to mention being able to be a part of Dawn’s life, Willow’s and Xander’s again. 
But then she thought about Liz’s life.   A mother, friends, a career.  No worrying about demons and darkness.  She had complete confidence in Angel and his friends that they would keep her safe, without her ever knowing.  It was everything she thought she had wanted, ever since she was Called. 
Suddenly, she was overwhelmed with an urge to just be alone.  “Whistler, how long do I have to make my decision?”
“Well, we don’t want to take too long.  Those lawyers will be trying to figure out how to get you and the stone already.  The sooner you make a choice, the sooner we break the stone, and you’ll be that much safer, whichever choice you make.”
She stood up, still loosely holding Angel’s hand.  “I’d like to be alone for a while.”  When Angel started as if to protest, she shook her head.  “I know, my head will be crazy, but I can’t make this decision with you right next to me.  Is it safe for you to walk me outside?”
Angel checked with Wesley and Giles, who nodded.  “The protection extends to the gates.  She should be fine in the courtyard.”
Angel stood alongside her and they walked to the door, hand in hand.  Walking her out into the courtyard flooded with afternoon sun, she suddenly turned to him.  “Why aren’t you on fire?”
He laughed.  It had been so long that he didn’t even think of it any more.  He explained, “About a year after you...  after your fight with Glory, we defeated yet another apocalyptic demon.  The Powers decided that I deserved a reward too, although they were a little more upfront with me about it.  So I can go out in the sun.  Not that I do a whole lot.  But it comes in handy.  They, um, they also removed the curse on my soul.”
“No curse?” she repeated softly. 
“No curse,” he confirmed. 
All of a sudden, her heart was thudding against her ribs and she felt a dizziness that had nothing to do with dual memories.  She disentangled one hand from his and ran her fingers down his cheek.  He leaned down toward her, his eyes on hers. 
Suddenly, she stepped back.  “No, Angel.”  She winced when she saw the disappointment in his eyes, especially as it mirrored her own.  “I have to make this decision and if I kiss you, we both know what I’m going to decide.”
He nodded, tamping down the desire to just grab her and make the decision for her. 
“You sure you are going to be okay out here by yourself?” he asked, looking for any reason to linger.
She smiled, suspecting his motives.  “Yes, Angel, I’m sure.  Just come check on me in half an hour or so, okay?”
This time it was his palm against her cheek.  She rested her head against the solid support of his hand for a few seconds, then straightened up and nodded.
He stepped away, watching her as the dual memories came crashing over her again.  She closed her eyes and, after a minute, a type of serenity settled over her features as she stopped fighting against the inconsistencies.  He turned around and went back inside, leaving her alone.
She rode the waves of memories, jumping from Buffy to Liz to Buffy again.  She saw the good and the bad, felt the anger and the rage, the joy and the love.  The beauty of each life was laid out for her to see.  Liz had so much to offer, so much yet to experience.  It was a quiet, normal life; a good life.  But what would life be like as Buffy again?  Would she return to Sunnydale?  Would she fight alongside Angel here in LA?  She knew that whether she was the Slayer or not, life as Buffy Summers would never be quiet or simple.  Faces from each life flew around her mind as she continued to think. 
Then she opened her eyes.  She had found a strange equilibrium between the memories.  Standing up, she walked into the lobby of the hotel.  Everyone looked up at her, shocked.
“I’ve made my decision.”