"Hey, Wills," Buffy’s voice called over the cell-phone she carried on her patrol. From the light tone, Willow imagined that it was her Buffy, the one with both the arms she was born with. "Buffy and Buffy reporting in as scheduled."
"Hey back, Buff," Willow answered on her own cell-phone. She had the prescience to carry hers with her, which became their primary link with the patrolling Slayers, since Mrs. Summers’ phone would be tied up with Willow’s websurfing. "Any signs of skanky evil?"
"Quiet as an audience at a Xander Harris standup routine," Buffy answered. From "We’ve been heading toward the old school grounds, and turned up nada. The closest we got was a pair of Goths at the corner of Swanson and Perry. They matched the vampire profile so we trailed them for a few blocks, only to see them duck into The Old Spaghetti Factory on Sutherland."
"So?" Willow asked. "Maybe they’re Italian vampires?"
"Will, remember when I treated you to dinner at the Spaghetti Factory for your birthday, and you said you liked the food, but it had a little too much--" she paused for a beat, waiting for Willow to supply the end of her sentence.
Willow complied, amazed that she had overlooked the obvious. "Garlic, of course. My bad."
"Don’t worry about it. How’s Research Girl?"
"Currently, more like Stuck-In-Download-Hell Girl. Your mom’s laptop doesn’t have quite the speed of my computer at the dorm. I’m trying to hack into Snyder’s personal records, trying to find some connection with this Belial whatever. So far, the encryption codes are pretty tough."
"If anyone can do it, it’s my favorite Wiccan-slash-hacker."
"And how many other Wiccan-slash-hackers do you know, Slaygirl?"
"Love you, Wills," Buffy smiled slightly at the teasing tone in her friend’s voice. "I’ll call back at the half-hour. Bye."
"Bye, Buff," Willow hung up her cell-phone and tried to concentrate on the screen. ‘Love you, Wills,’ she had said. If only...
"Hey, how’s the research?" Joyce’s greeting interrupted the young witch’s wandering thoughts. The voice, along with sweet baking smells, drew her attention.
"Slow and steady," Willow answered.
"Here," Joyce put a plate beside the computer. "I baked some chocolate chip cookies."
"Wow, that was fast," Willow commented as she reached for a cookie.
"Actually, it was store-bought cookie dough. I just thought that you could use a break from staring at the computer screen." Joyce glanced at the screen herself and asked, "What are you looking for in particular?"
"I’m waiting for a download from a high school in Spokane, Washington," Willow answered as she nibbled on her cookie. "Apparently Mr. Snyder’s last known position before transferring to Sunnydale. It may take a while. Don’t worry though, the web server’s a local call. No phone bills."
"Willow," Joyce sat beside Willow as she spoke in a comforting tone, "my daughter is out there putting her life on the line on a regular basis. If it will help her, I’m not going to fret over phone bills." Willow smiled at Joyce’s assurances. She remembered how hard Buffy’s mother had taken it when she learned about her daughter being a slayer. Her initial reaction had been to practically kick her out of the house. Since then, she had made her peace with Buffy’s life. Willow knew that Joyce would never be fully comfortable with Buffy’s calling, but she at least understood it a little better now.
"Willow," Joyce started, then stopped. She was afraid of the question she knew she had to ask. She munched on a cookie for courage, took a deep breath and started again. "Willow, there’s something I need to ask you. About Buffy."
"Fire away," Willow said absently, as she took a bite of her cookie.
"How long have you been in love with her?"
Instantly a shower of half-chewed cookie bits was expelled over the laptop screen by the force of Willow’s spit take. Willow immediately fretted, rubbing the sleeve of her sweater over the screen. "Ohmigod, Geez, Mrs. Summers, I’m sorry, I’ll just clean this up, get some gayper-PAPER towels, we’ll get this straightened out, just like me and Buffy. Straight. Yep, that’s us, straight as the Nile, except for that crooked bit where it branches off into the delta, oh God, help me, I’m trapped in a recursive babble loop."
Joyce placed her hand on Willow’s, offering her support, while at the same time, fighting the urge to giggle at her display. "It’s okay, Willow. Xander and Anya are in the next room, AND THEY HAD BETTER BE FULLY CLOTHED," she raised her voice and craned her neck toward the hallway, setting off a distant thud of someone falling off a couch, "and I promise that anything you say won’t leave this room."
Willow looked at her hands, the computer screen, a particularly interesting corner in the room, anything but Joyce’s face. She was surprised, not only that Joyce knew the depth of her feelings for Buffy, but also that she seemed cool with it. "Well, Mrs. Summers," she stammered meekly, "we met in our sophomore year in high school, which was three years ago, so I guess the answer would be," she finally looked Joyce in the eye, "pretty much all of my life. Just how did you figure it out?"
"Well, seeing my daughter’s counterpart kiss you when she came too was a big hint," Joyce admitted.
"Hey," Willow protested. "I didn’t start that kiss."
"You didn’t stop it either," Joyce teased. "Hey, I’m not mad at you about it, nor would I be mad at Buffy if she announced that she loved you. Or, judging by Alt-Buffy’s performance, I should say when she announces it. A mother knows these things, even one as seemingly oblivious as myself." She patted Willow’s knee. "It was some kiss, wasn’t it?"
"Yeah," Willow admitted. "Remember in ‘The Princess Bride’ when Buttercup pushed The Dread Pirate Roberts down the hill, and he shouts out ‘As you wish’, and she realizes that The Dread Pirate Roberts is really Wesley, and she follows after him, and they kiss each other?" She illustrated her babbling with rapidly waving hand gestures, then self-consciously stopped and put her hands in her lap. "Well, it was definitely in that category of kiss." She grinned at the illicit memory. "But Buffy--your Buffy, the two armed one, she hasn’t said anything to me, and I don’t think I can tell her. I don’t want to screw up our being best friends. Besides, I wouldn’t want you to kick her out of the house or anything like that."
"Willow," Joyce half-laughed, "I made that mistake when she dropped the Slayer bombshell on me. Not the highlight in my career as a mother. Don’t worry, I won’t judge you, and I won’t interfere, except to say this." Joyce turned Willow’s face to face her own. Her voice became soft, hushed, as she expressed her deepest mother’s heart to Willow. "From the day when Buffy first told me she was a vampire slayer, my greatest fear for her was that she would die young and alone. That no one would ever understand who and what she was and that no one would ever love her or want to make a life together with her. Obviously, there is such a person, who also happens to be a pretty wonderful young woman herself, and anyone would be lucky to have that woman love her. If you are the one who can make her happy, and if she wants you to be that one, I can’t think of a thing that could please me more." She stood up, smiled at Willow and finished, "And in the immortal words of Forrest Gump, ‘that’s all I have to say about that’."
"Thanks, Mrs. Summers," Willow wiped back a tear as she turned to the screen. "Uh, about those paper towels..."
"I’ll get them," Joyce answered, breaking the spell of bonding that had occurred between the two women. Willow turned back to the screen, just as the download was completed. She somehow felt less like a freak for being in love with her best friend. And Buffy’s mother was okay with it. Wow.
With those thoughts in her head, she unzipped the files and, once the screen was wiped of cookie crumbs, started to read.
It had become a running gag around the Scooby Gang that Rupert Giles was a notorious technophobe. Willow had on occasion called him a Neo-Luddite, and Buffy once exclaimed that he would have told Gutenberg not to rock the boat with that movable type press of his. While it was true that most of his experiences with computers were spectacular failures, Giles refused to give in to the continual jibes that he was accosted with by the Slayerettes. The fact was that he had rather preferred the printed page to the electronic age. As far as Giles was concerned, a simple, portable book was worth all the e-mail and web sites that the proposed paperless society promised.
Nevertheless, he was glad that Willow was so well versed in computer hacking; the information that she could discover had often spelled the difference between victory and defeat. At this time, she was looking for files on Mr. Snyder while he looked for anything concerning Belial. Once again, he was amazed at the amount of arcane lore and esoteric knowledge he had been able to dig up at the UC Sunnydale campus library. Presumably the result of Sunnydale being governed for most of its history by one immortal man obsessed with becoming all powerful, even over the corpses of those whom he governed. Any unholy information he could discover to further his own warped goals.
Once he had navigated through the computerized card file(a far less painful process than he had anticipated) he located the corresponding texts. Several books that hadn’t been opened in years, some, Giles would have wagered, not opened during his lifetime, were strewn over the table where Giles was reading. The first two books yielded nothing that Giles hadn’t known; Beliel, like the classic Satan or Lucifer, was a powerful demon, but one of subtlety and finesse. Preferring to do his mischief through underlings and unwitting dupes, Belial would tempt certain people, particularly those who desired control above all else, and promise them control. In the end, however, it was Belial who would control his victims, who gladly signed away their souls, only to lose all that they desired. They became no more than puppets for the demon master Belial.
The book he was reading now, the title translated into "The Codex of Taliesin the Lesser", was a particularly rare book, and had seldom left its space on the shelves; the spine protested with creaks and groans as Giles opened it, indicating that it hadn’t been opened for nearly a century. The book written by a medieval mage, circa the first half of the 14th century, who fancied himself the incarnation of Taliesin, alias Merlin, the mentor of England’s legendary King Arthur. Giles scoffed at the author’s assertions, which seemed to color the content of the book, but his knowledge of Belial’s ways had proven more enlightening than anything he had read before this. He came upon one page, covered with ornate Celtic knotwork designs and entangled animal and human forms, framing a text. The text was written in one of the more archaic uncial forms of the Celtic language, one with which Giles had to struggle mightily to completely translate. Once he did, the finished paragraph chilled his bones to the marrow;
"These be the words of Taliesin the lesser The words you needs must read and ponder in your heart, Unwise be he who would dice with Belial on such a night as this; In the final days before the closing of the Thousand Years, Will Belial come to one who seeks to govern all. A deal will be made, one which shall seal the doom of all men, Unless the Chosen One and those who follow her Do battle with Belial-- Two Chosen shall face Belial and Shall one only remain."
The implications practically jumped off the page and shouted at Giles. "The closing of the Thousand Years" clearly meant the end of the millennium, which was indeed near. Although the millennium didn’t actually end until December 31, 2000, the prophesy made sense, it clearly alluded to the present day. Likewise, "the Chosen One" was obvious to Giles; the Chosen One, the Slayer, Buffy. "And those who would follow her"; the Scooby Gang.
Finally, "two chosen". Two slayers. Buffy and her counterpart from the future. "Shall one only remain". He didn’t pretend to understand time travel, but he had enjoyed the adventures of "Doctor Who" as a child in his native London. It made sense that the displaced slayer, once she had changed her timeline, would cease to exist. But what if he was wrong?
He wrote down the translations of the pertinent texts, and left the library for the Summers residence. Armed with this new information, he hoped that he could shed some light on Belial’s plan, before it was too late for Buffy. Either Buffy.
He was already worried about Alt-Buffy. It was clear from her initial display, hugging her friends and family fiercely, so that even with one arm she could squeeze the wind out of his lungs with her embrace. And her desperate apologies to Willow. Why Willow? Giles had been keenly aware of the depth of friendship between the Slayer and the Hacker, and while it bothered him that Buffy’s calling had exposed Willow, along with the other Slayerettes, to a great many dangers, he came to realize that she owed her continued existence and her success as this generation’s Slayer to those bonds. Where the Watcher’s Council believed that such bonds were a fatal weakness, Buffy had made them her strength.
But this older Buffy, she had lost those bonds, as her loved ones were turned. She clearly blamed herself for her world’s demise, just as the Buffy he knew blamed herself for taking Angel’s soul with her act of love, leaving behind the vile Angelus. All the pain and misery Angelus caused, from murdering Jenny Calendar and Kendra to the summoning of Acaltha and the near death of Willow herself, Buffy had hoisted upon her shoulders like Atlas carrying the heavens. No wonder she ran away to LA after Angelus’ death. Her counterpart, however, felt an even greater guilt, and Giles was worried that she would do whatever it takes to stop it. Up to and including sacrificing her own life.
He only hoped that she wouldn’t end up sacrificing all she loved in the process.
The two Buffies strode quietly through the clear Sunnydale night, their almost supernatural senses attuned to any undid or demonic traces around them. So far, their patrol had been quiet. This disturbed them both; if the vampires weren’t out and about, then it was likely that they were gathering their strength and their numbers.
Buffy looked at her older counterpart, and tried to read her expression. She seemed wary, always looking around like a cat at night. Simple Slayer behavior on patrol, she thought, but there was something else. Some form of energy, a coiled spring waiting to be released. The older Buffy looked at her sibling and asked, "Something you want to share?"
"No, not really," Buffy answered. "Just trying to figure you out. You’re so much like me, yet not. I guess I find it kinda freaky."
"Hey," Alt-Buffy answered, hiking up her tote bag to keep if from throwing her weight off balance. "I’m the one from out of town, this isn’t exactly Normalsville for me either."
"How does it feel?" Buffy asked.
The older Buffy shook her head, trying to explain what she could barely grasp. "I feel that this is what my entire life as a slayer was building up to. Like win or lose, it’s my last battle. In fact, I know it’s my last battle; from my contact with the Scepter of Hermes," she patted the side of her bag with her hand, indicating that she still carried the scepter with her, "once we whup Belial’s ass, I have to cast a final spell. Otherwise, all my changing history will be for nothing. Kinda like when I wrote that ten page essay on King Lear..."
"...and forgot to hit ‘save’ and the whole thing was erased before I could print it for class," Buffy finished for her. "God that was a bitch." The slayers laughed together at the shared memory. The younger Buffy then fixed her gaze on her twin, as she asked, "But doesn’t it bother you knowing that one way or another, this is it? I mean, you change everything, you stop being--man, trying to think like this is making my hair hurt! You’ll simply stop existing?"
"But I’m not," Alt-Buffy tried to explain to the other Slayer. "I’m simply erasing a part of my life that never should have happened. I’ll still go on, because you’re me. You’re alive, so I’ll be alive. And the others will be alive. Mom, Giles, Willow, the gang, they’ll be alive!"
"Uh, that sorta kinda brings me to my next issue," Buffy said. "What’s with you and Willow? I mean, that was some serious smoochies back there."
Alt-Buffy looked at her with a slight smile playing on her battle-scarred face. "I love her. Always have. As you know."
Buffy stepped back from her partner as though she were thrown off by an electrical field. "Whoa, time out, instant replay, be kind, rewind! Love? As in, Angel was right about Vamp-Willow? She is kinda gay?"
Alt-Buffy rolled her eyes at her younger self’s outburst. "The hammer lands on the knee and the foot rises into the air. Buffy, look at me. This is not just someone who knows what it is to be you, this is you. And you know in your heart that what I’m saying is true. You saw the shy looks she’s been giving you since she lost Oz, the way she got over-protective when you first started noticing Riley. She loves you. And you love her."
She turned her face away for a second, then screwed her courage to face Buffy again. A glistening tear tracked its way down her cheek. "I know you do, because I am you. And I love Willow. She was my center, my source of strength. It destroyed me when I had to stake her, because she was as much the reason why I kept fighting the good fight as any. She’s why I’m here now, trying to change what was in my world. It was always her, not Angel, not Riley. It took me too long to realize that. Please, Buffy, don’t let your chance slip away. She loves you so much.
"She’s your salvation, Buffy. She’s the light in your life. Don’t let that light go out. You won’t be able to survive the darkness that would follow."
Buffy tried to speak, to rebut her twin’s charges, but the words wouldn’t leave her throat. Somehow, slowly, Alt-Buffy’s words sunk in, and with them the realization that her life, whether they won or lost tonight, would never be the same. Buffy looked back at those same hazel eyes that greeted her in the mirror, only older and wiser, and realized that she was telling the truth. Her entire world, her heart, her soul, her strength, her whole purpose in life became distilled into three simple words; Willow loved her.
And she returned that love.
"This reminds me of a Dylan Thomas poem I was reading the other week in my Lit class," Buffy recalled. She started to recite the first lines; "‘Do not go gentle into that good night...’,"
"‘Old age should burn and rave at close of day;’," her twin concluded, and the two of them finished the stanza together; "‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’."
This revelation about her and Willow hit like a body blow, and she had to back up to recollect her scattered thoughts. "Whoa," she whispered. "Look, I just gotta get used to having this running around my head. I mean, I never considered myself gay or anything, but now..."
"You’re not gay," her older self consoled her, "you’re just in love with Willow. It’s not about what tickles you below the beltway, it’s about who is your other half."
Just hearing her other self say these words, Buffy realized that she was hearing nothing that she didn’t already know intuitively. "Yeah, I guess that helps when you put it that way, Buffy. I’m going to have to talk to her once this party’s over. Thanks."
"Hey, what are alternate future counterparts for, if not...shh!" She dug her hand into her duffel bag, fishing out Mr. Pointy. "Undead skanky evil at eleven and three o’clock."
The warning was unnecessary. Both Buffies stood back to back, their stakes in hand, their bodies as tightly wound steel springs ready to be unleashed. "It’s a dead man’s party," Alt-Buffy commented.
"Who could ask for more?" her younger self finished the thought. Low howls could be heard behind the bushes and trees around them. The two Slayers stood poised, ready for any attack.
As one, a small army of vampires lunged out of the darkness, fingers bent into claws, fangs bared, ready for the kill. Buffy high-kicked her first attacker, and lunged her stake into its heart in half a second, then worked her way through the growing mass of undead. A simple methodical pattern governed her movements; kick, stake, repeat. "Yo," Buffy called to her partner. "How you doing?"
"Good enough," Alt-Buffy answered. "Mostly newbies, foot soldiers."
"Yeah," Buffy added, "but who’s their general?"
Before she could continue that thought, a vampire got close enough to slam his fist against the back of her neck. Suddenly they were all over her. She struggled against the horde, but their sheer numbers overwhelmed her. "Buffy!" she screamed, "get out of here! Don’t let them take us both! Call Giles and the Scoobs, have them--" Another sledgehammer fist ended that sentence as Buffy was knocked unconscious. Alt-Buffy broke away from the crowd of vampires, staking as many as she could, before diving behind a bush, preparing her escape.
Before the vampires could pursue her, a car pulled out in front of them. From her vantage point, Alt-Buffy was able to see only a little of what was going on. She saw someone step out of the car, and address the vampires. "Don’t kill her," he demanded. "I want her alive. To witness what her rebellion against the Watcher’s Council has brought her. And throw that bag aside. We don’t want her to have access to her weapons."
Alt-Buffy was stunned as she heard that voice. The voice of the one human she hated as blackly as any vampire. The man who forced her mentor Giles to betray her, for the sake of some Slayer’s test that nearly killed her and her mother. The man who expelled Giles from the Watcher’s Council for the unforgivable crime of caring about his Slayer.
Quentin ordered the vampires to drag Buffy into the trunk of his car, and then said, "Well done. Now, meet me at the remains of Sunnydale High School. And no midnight snacks along the way. When this is over, there will be plenty of blood for all of you, and no slayer to get in the way. Now go!" He spoke with authority, and the vampires followed. Clearly he was their general.
After the car pulled away, Alt-Buffy gingerly stepped out from behind the bush, disbelieving what she saw. Quentin Travers, head of the Watcher’s Council, working with vampires? He had betrayed the council, and now was planning to punish Buffy for her desertion of the Council. He had to be behind the destruction that she had witnessed first-hand. He was making a bargain with Belial and mankind’s future would be forfeit.
Not on my watch! she thought grimly.
She ran to the discarded duffel bag, and checked its contents. She found the cellular, still whole despite the impact with the street. Buffy placed the phone on the ground, and started to dial with her one good hand. She prayed that she could reach Giles and the Scooby Gang in time.
Giles had returned to Joyce Summers’ house with the information he had gathered from the library. He was now comparing notes with what Willow had discovered while hacking. "Here we are, guys," Willow announced as Joyce, Giles, Xander and Anya peered over her shoulder at the laptop monitor. "I think I’ve found the connection between Snyder and Belial."
"They’re both scuzzbags?" Xander guessed. Anya slapped him on the arm, indicating that it was time to serious up.
"According to this file," Willow continued, "Roland Snyder was the principal of Shadle Park High School in Spokane Washington for three years, before his resignation. That was his last recorded position before his tenure as principal of Sunnydale, otherwise known as the Reign of Terror. He was honored by the local school district for his compassionate leadership, and his willingness to work long and hard with the students and teachers to excel."
"Well," Xander piped in, "you obviously have the wrong file." Giles nodded his head, adding, "I have to agree with Xander. The Snyder I remember didn’t care whether his students lived or died."
"I thought I took a wrong turn too," Willow admitted, "but look at this picture." She pulled down a jpeg picture of a man posing with the football team, proudly wearing the green and gold of the Shadle Park Highlanders. "Yep, that’s Snyder," Joyce announced, "I’d know that ferret face anywhere."
"But it’s not Belial," said Anya. "Even from a photo, I’d be able to sense Belial’s presence in a human host."
"Well, according to this file," Willow continued, "just before he left Shadle Park, he was mugged and severely beaten by three members of the football squad that he was forced to expel for repeated steroid abuse. Just after their expulsion they ganged up on him, and beat the dog snot out of him. He left Shadle two days later, and their vice-principal had to take over. He fell off the map for three years after that, until he showed up at Sunnydale."
"Yes," Anya admitted, "that would be when Belial took over. When Snyder was mugged, he must have felt as though he had lost control. That’s when Belial strikes. He offered him control, but ended up in control."
"And that’s just what Mayor Wilkins wanted from his principal," Giles added. "That’s why he was hired after Rob Flutie died. And so from a caring compassionate administrator... "
"He became that smirking, locker searching, test fixing, Buffy expelling creepozoidus rex we all know and wish we didn’t." Xander finished Giles’ sentence.
"But why did the mayor eat him at graduation when he became a demon dragon?" Joyce asked.
"Maybe because he became aware of Belial’s plans," Anya answered. "Belial’s a subtle one. He was probably waiting for Wilkins to finish his Ascension, then wrest the power he would wield away from him. One thing a demon hates is competition from another demon."
"So Bill Gates is a demon?" Willow asked innocently. Giles started to refute her observation, but found himself thinking about it.
Then the phone rang. Giles grabbed the cell-phone and answered. "Summers residence."
"Giles! It’s Buffy--the other Buffy."
"What is it, Buffy?" Giles could hear the tension in her voice.
"Vampires got her. A whole army of them. Quentin’s giving the orders, they--"
"Hold it. Quentin? Quentin Travers?"
"No, Quentin Tanentino!" she shouted. "Of course Quentin Travers! He said something about punishing her for turning her back on the Watchers’ Council! They’re holding her at the site of Sunnydale High. Round up the posse, I’m heading that way, I’ll meet you there." Giles heard a click, and the line was disconnected.
Giles was suddenly a flurry of activity. "Buffy’s been taken. Quentin Travers is behind it. And if the prophesy of Taliesin the Lesser is correct, he’ll be making a deal with Belial, that will lead to what the older Buffy lived through."
"So we meet Buffy of Future Past at the school and kick vampire ass! Let’s go!" Xander headed out the door, followed by Giles and Anya.
Willow turned toward Joyce and said, "Don’t worry, Mrs. Summers, we’ll bring her back, and stop all this." She gave Joyce a brief, comforting hug, although Joyce knew that the young woman needed comforting as well. Then Willow followed the Scoobs to Giles’ car.
As she sat shotgun alongside Giles, she made a silent prayer to whatever God or Goddess was listening; Please, let me be strong enough and fast enough to save the one I love.