Chapter 1: A New World
Buffy walked slowly down main street, her mind a blur. Something was terribly, horribly wrong. Somehow, deep in her bones, she could feel it. Yet it remained just beyond her grasp.
Absentmindedly, she picked up a Jonathan Action Figure one of the two kids on the street had dropped and handed it back to him with a small smile. She watched the two boys play for a while, then shook her head. After all, what could possibly be wrong with two innocent children playing?
No, she knew what was wrong. Or more accurately who. Or, even more accurately, what was wrong about who being wrong about what. Buffy began to feel dizzy at all the interrogative pronouns floating around in her head.
Keep to straight, simple facts, she encouraged herself. Jonathan saw the symbol on that monster. He said it was harmless. Said monster then attacked Tara. Ergo, said monster is not harmless.
She began to feel confused again when she arrived at the same conclusion as she had before.
Jonathan is wrong, she tried out the idea in her head. Jonathan is never wrong. That one was easy, a plain fact of the universe. Jonathan is wrong, but Jonathan is never wrong… Therefore, there must be something wrong with the universe.
“Argh!” Buffy exclaimed aloud, clutching at her hair. This was not doing her any good. Maybe a movie would help. The Sun Cinema was playing ‘Being Jonathan Levenson’. And she had only seen that movie five times before…
Focus on problem. Problem bad. Problem must be fixed… Hey, maybe Jonathan can help… Buffy winced inwardly. No, Jonathan part of problem! Her brain still had difficulty getting around that concept. Bad mind! Bad!
She paused for a second. Why exactly did her brain have such difficulty getting around that concept? I mean, no one was perfect, right? That meant that Jonathan obviously wasn’t perfect as well. But he is perfect, her treacherous mind insisted.
Buffy shook the thought out of her head. It felt strange, alien, like something or someone was sticking those thoughts in her head. It felt almost like…
Buffy’s eyes widened. She felt the exact same sensation before. All too recently, unfortunately…
I love Spike. I want to marry Spike. I’m so happy we’re engaged…
That particular train of false thoughts had been running through her head almost nonstop that one time Willow had cast her Thy Will Be Done spell.
So what I’m feeling feels like a spell… Buffy’s thoughts felt unnecessarily bogged down, as if they were trying to move through thick molasses. So that means that…maybe I’m feeling a spell right now. And last time the strangely out-of-place thoughts defined the spell…so these ones probably do, too. Which means… Her mind made its own little dramatic pause here. Which means that the spell’s making me believe that Jonathan’s perfect!
She smiled at the fact that she’d finally come to a revelation, and then her expression fell when she realized exactly what that revelation meant.
“Jonathan’s not perfect,” she tried the words out in her mouth. They sounded strange and discordant. “Jonathan’s not perfect,” she repeated. It felt a little better this time. “Jonathan’s not perfect.” She looked around her, noticing the ‘Jonathan’ posters all around and – for the first time – thinking how odd it was that he was absolutely everywhere. “Jonathan’s not perfect,” she said once more with finality. “So why does everyone think he is?”
* * *
This was not going well. Anya had that bored, incredulous look on her face again. And Giles, Xander, Willow, and Riley will quickly developing their own versions of The Look.
“I’m just saying it doesn’t make sense,” Buffy persisted, feeling more than a little bit flustered. “He starred in ‘The Matrix’ but he never left town? And how exactly did he graduate from med school? He’s only eighteen years old!”
“Effective time management?” Xander quipped good-naturedly.
“I’m sorry, Buffy,” Giles sighed and cleaned his glasses. “I just don’t understand what you’re trying to say.”
Anya yawned. “Yeah. When is Jonathan gonna get here and start the meeting?”
“This is the meeting,” Buffy exclaimed, frustrated.
“This is the meeting?” Willow repeated in disbelief.
Riley flashed her a sweet, loving smile. “Buffy has something to say. Let’s hear what it is.” He gave her hand a little condescending pat “Go ahead.”
Buffy couldn’t decide whether to be irritated by his patronizing tone or grateful that at least one person was willing to let her babble on. “Well,” she looked around at the sea of confused faces, “I wanted to kind of…see if anyone else thinks Jonathan’s, kind of, too perfect.” She practically blurted out the last two words, still almost too embarrassed to say them aloud.
Looks of horror all around. Those were never good.
“No, he’s not!” Xander blurted out. “He’s just perfect enough. He crushed the bones of the Master, he blew up a big snake made out of Mayor, and he coached the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team to a stunning World Cup victory. We saw him doing those things!” He looked to Anya for reassurance, and she gave his hand a little squeeze.
“But see, I’m not sure we can trust our memories,” she persisted to her rapidly vanishing audience. “Anya, tell them about the alternate universes!” she pleaded.
The ex-demon shrugged. “Oh. Okay, well, say you really liked shrimp a lot,” she began to ramble. “Or, we could say that you didn’t like shrimp at all. ‘Blah, I wish there weren’t any shrimp,’ you say to yourself—”
“No, no,” Buffy clutched at her head in exasperation. “She’s not saying it right. I just think he did something so he’s manipulating the world, and we’re all, you know, like pawns.”
“Or prawns,” Anya added, amusing herself.
“Stop with the shrimp!” Buffy screamed in frustration. “I’m trying to do something serious here!”
“Yes, of course,” Giles stepped in hurriedly, “I just…I think you’re a little out of your depth.”
“But, I’m not—” Buffy protested weakly.
“It sounds like nonsense,” Riley commented off-handedly.
Buffy flashed him a murderous look.
“But if it’s really bothering you, I suppose we could – I don’t know – do some research or something.” He gave her a goofy, saccharine smile. “If it’ll make you feel better.” He gave her hand another squeeze.
Buffy debated kicking his teeth in then and there.
“Is this a private conversation,” a voice suddenly broke the awkward tension in the room, “or can Mister July sit in?”
“Oh, thank god, it’s Jonathan!” Anya breathed a sigh of relief. “Now the insanity can go away.”
“Insanity?” Jonathan gave Buffy a curious look.
She wilted under that authoritative and commanding presence.
“I-I just…” she began, stuttering.
“The Buffster’s just got this goofy idea in her head that there’s something off about this world,” Riley said, his arm slipping around her shoulders. “It’s silly, but she thinks you were wrong about that monster.”
To say Buffy’s look was venomous would be an understatement.
“Wrong?” Jonathan asked Buffy intently.
“I-It hurt Tara,” Buffy stuttered, embarrassed. “You said it was harmless, and then it attacked Tara.”
Jonathan gave her a reassuring smile. “I can’t predict every monster’s exact moves,” he pointed out. “Sometimes unpredictable things happen.”
“So you still stay…”
“It’s generally pretty harmless,” Jonathan reaffirmed his earlier sentiments. “This was an aberration.”
“B-But if it’s acting oddly…” Buffy looked around nervously for support and found none. “Shouldn’t we go after it, just in case?” she asked meekly.
“Sure,” Jonathan shrugged. “If it would make you feel better.”
“See?” Riley rested his hand on Buffy’s shoulder. “You were all worked up over nothing.”
“Yeah,” Jonathan agreed. “Let’s go look for it now. C’mon.”
Buffy’s brow furrowed as her world seemingly fell back into place. Jonathan was reasonable, and he really couldn’t be expected the read the minds of every monster than came into town… Maybe she had just been overreacting before.
“OK,” she agreed, following Jonathan out the door…
* * *
“Big,” Jonathan said. “Long claws and teeth. This symbol on its forehead.” He held up the picture for Willy to look at.
“Haven’t seen it,” the bartender shrugged, cleaning out a mug as he squinted at the paper.
“It’s been attacking people around town,” Buffy nervously added. “We need to find it.”
He sighed. “Look, it hasn’t been in. You can ask the locals, but I doubt they’re seen anything, either.”
“You’re sure?” Jonathan’s tone was deadly.
Willy held up his hands in front of himself defensively. “Honest this time,” he insisted.
“Let’s go then,” Jonathan said wearily. “It looks like it’s left town.”
“I guess, but…” Buffy trailed off and her brow furrowed.
“Hey, um, Jonathan?” Willy’s voice caused them both to spin back around.
“Yeah?” If Buffy didn’t know better, she would have sworn there was a hint of nervousness in Jonathan’s tone.
“Could I, uh…” Willy stuttered, “have your autograph?” he finally spit out sheepishly. “It’s for my niece, you see. She’s a real big fan of yours, and—”
“Here,” Jonathan pulled one of his trusty 8×10 glossies for his pocket and quickly signed it.
“Thanks, man,” Willy said with obvious delight. “I owe you one.”
“I think we should call it a night,” Jonathan commented as they exited the bar.
“Isn’t there anywhere else it could have gone?” Buffy found herself asking, despite her earlier conviction that she wasn’t going to embarrass herself in front of him anymore. “I mean, we’ve only asked here.”
“All right,” he nodded affably enough, “we can ask around a bit more if you feel it’s necessary.”
Her face turned bright red. “Not that I know what’s necessary,” she hastily backtracked. “In fact, you know what: you’re right. It’s probably gone. We should just go home and—”
“No,” he said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s keep searching just a bit longer. Maybe it just doesn’t like the smell in Willy’s.”
Buffy couldn’t help but smile. What on earth had she possibly been thinking, questioning Jonathan’s trustworthiness? He was obviously doing everything in his power to stop the beast. Entirely reassured, she followed him downtown…
* * *
Buffy’s feet hurt by the time they made their final stop in Sunnydale Cemetery. It was nearly midnight by now, and she was cold and tired. They were just approaching Spike’s crypt when the bleached vamp suddenly materialized out of the shadows to cut them off.
“Oh, look,” he drawled in that confident tone that set every one of her nerves on edge, “Jonathan. Taking the little sidekick out for a walk, are we?”
He looked her up and down seductively, and to her horror she found herself blushing under his appraisal.
“Shut up, Spike,” she spit out, mentally slapping herself repeatedly for not being able to come up with any better comeback.
“Ooh,” Spike held his hands up in mock fear, “Semi-harsh language from Betty. You’re feisty when the big guy’s standing beside you.”
He was in her personal space now, their faces less than a foot apart. For some reason his presence made her shiver involuntarily. He raised one hand to her face, and she felt her heart begin to pound fiercely in her chest…and not in fear, either.
Ever so slowly, he ran one finger down the side of her face, tracing the curve of her cheek down to her throat in a forbidden caress. She felt time slow to a crawl while she stared deep into those mesmerizing cerulean eyes and her body subconsciously leaned into his touch.
She barely managed to suppress a gasp when he stroked the tender flesh over her jugular oh so gently. He must have felt the reaction in her, though, because his pupils dilated for a second, ebony overtaking lapis before fading away again.
“Someday, Sweet Slayer,” he whispered in a husky voice, “I’d love to take you on. See you face the evil alone for once…” His brow furrowed for a second as if he were trying to recall some long forgotten memory. He never had a chance to find it, though.
Buffy was shocked back into reality when Jonathan slapped Spike’s hand away from her roughly. She had completely forgotten for a minute there that they weren’t alone; the world had just seemed to close in around the two of them…
She came out of her daze to discover that Jonathan now had Spike pressed up against the crypt wall. The peroxide vampire was attempting to twist from his captor’s grasp, but he was helpless against Jonathan’s strength.
“That’s enough creepy small talk,” Jonathan growled. “We’re looking for a monster.”
“Why would I know about that?” Spike protested, still squirming uselessly in Jonathan’s grasp.
“Every demon in this town is gunning for you right now,” Jonathan explained patiently. “So I figure you’re probably keeping pretty good track of them. Big arms. Mark on its head. Have you seen it?” he demanded once more.
“No,” Spike shrugged and flashed Buffy a wry grin. “But then again, I’m probably lying,” he added, his tongue curling up beneath in teeth.
Jonathan gave him one final shove before letting him go. “We’re not getting anything out of him,” he commented wearily. “Let’s go.”
Buffy looked back and forth between her companion and the vampire who was rubbing his head in the background and slowly nodded her head.
Jonathan stomped out of the cemetery, and Buffy moved to follow.
“Oh, Biddy,” that irritating British accent stopped her in her tracks.
She turned to face him, eyes blazing.
“Nice…talkin’ to you,” he said sensuously, his hand sliding down the front of his shirt before hooking into his belt. The motion practically forced her eyes to continue downwards, and she cursed herself when she heard his chuckle. “Hurry up now,” he teased. “Wouldn’t want to get caught out at night all by your lonesome, now would you?”
Spinning around to hide the crimson flush in her cheeks, she dashed after Jonathan, the sound of the laughter behind her grating in her ears all the way…
* * *
“So, it’s a false alarm. Surprise, surprise,” Anya said, rolling her eyes.
“It seems clear that the monster’s left town,” Jonathan agreed.
“See?” Riley said, smiling at Buffy. “You were all worked up over nothing.”
“Uh, yeah…heh-heh,” she tried desperately to sound friendly and happy that his arm was around her waist once more.
“Well, then,” Giles said, picking up the tea tray and carrying it over to the kitchen area, “are we done for the night?”
Jonathan nodded. “I think so. Buffy and I managed to take out a few fledglings while we were asking around, so patrol’s taken care of as well.”
“Very cool,” Riley smiled. He turned to Buffy. “I know it’s late, but it’s not that late. Want to come hang out at my place?” he asked enthusiastically.
A feeling of deep dread settled through her bones. “Sorry,” she said, smiling sweetly and then yawning for emphasis. “All that walking really tired me out. I just want to go home and sleep. Maybe another time?”
“Sure,” he said, unable to hide the disappointment in his voice.
“Will, you coming?” she asked the redheaded Witch.
“Maybe later,” Willow smiled sheepishly. “I kinda want to go see how Tara’s doing first.”
“All right then. I’ll see you later. Bye, guys!” She waved quickly and then practically fled from Giles’ apartment.
She didn’t quite know why she ran all the way back to her dorm. Something about the last meeting had just felt…stifling, as if she were being forced into a mold that didn’t fit. Like, say, the mold of Riley’s arms, a nasty part of her mind provided. She winced inwardly at the thought. Jonathan had told her to give Riley a second chance, so she should… Wait a minute! her mind cut in. Jonathan problem, remember? Can’t necessarily trust everything he says.
But he was right all along, that oddly out of place part of her mind stepped in. It was just a fluke. You can trust Jonathan because he’s a good guy, and if he says you belong with Riley, then it must be so.
Buffy shook her head in frustration and slowed to a halt when she reached the entranceway to Stevenson Hall.
“Out for a jog,” she explained, giggling nervously to the two students that gave her odd looks when she approached.
She quickly made her way upstairs without any further human contact and plopped down on her bed, exhausted. Need sleep, her mind provided. When I wake up, everything will be normal again.
She decided to do just that before making a brief stop in the bathroom. As she combed her hair, she slowly shook all the worries from her head. The reason Jonathan was everywhere was because he was a hero and a pop star, not to mention a genius. When looked at in that light, it made perfect sense that her mind had idolized him and thus had difficulty dealing with the fact that he’d made one little mistake.
Much relieved, Buffy turned to go back to her room…and stopped dead in her tracks when she saw the Jonathan swimsuit calendar that one of the girls on their floor had tacked up on the wall. She felt her throat constricting uncomfortably as she stared at the mark on Jonathan’s bare shoulder.
That was it.
The mark of the beast.
And once again her world came crashing down around her.
* * *
Spike looked up from the television, startled, when the door to his crypt was suddenly and violently kicked in.
“Look, Johnny,” he turned to the door, irritated, “I told you already that…” He trailed off abruptly when he saw who was there. “Blinky?” he asked in disbelief.
“You hate Jonathan, right, Spike?” Buffy demanded, shutting the door behind her.
He fumbled to turn off the re-run of Jonathan’s guest spot on ‘Passions’. “Sure, yeah,” he tried to sound composed.
“Good,” she frowned slightly at his hesitation but plunged ahead. “You want to get him, right? Get back at him for always foiling your plans?”
“Old news, Slayer,” Spike said disinterestedly, lighting up a cigarette.
She gave him a sly smile. “Then today’s your lucky day, Spikey,” she informed him.
He gave her an incredulous lilt of the eyebrow.
“I need your help to defeat the new Big Bad,” she explained. “And I’m pretty sure it’s Jonathan…”