THE SISTERS OF PARADOX
Forrest Gates was in no mood for this kind of trouble.
He was still seething over the way his unit had been routed so quickly by the hostiles the night before. He was in pain from the arthritis in his back that had only been a mild strain twenty-four hours earlier. He was annoyed by the military shrinks who kept trying to talk to him about his post-traumatic stress. And he hated looking in the mirror, seeing all the lines and wrinkles that had appeared on his face, wondering what his hair would look like if he stopped shaving his head and let it grow out again.
At least he didnít have to change Grahamís diapers. But that was hardly much of a comfort.
So when the two Englishwomen he had seen at the battle showed up at the Lowell House front door waving papers in his face, Forrest was not particularly inclined to treat them nicely.
"Look," he said, shoving the papers back at the older of the two women, "I donít care who this Brigadier Bambera is, the United Nations has no authority over a US military post."
"If you would just listen for two seconds," the older woman, Sarah, retorted, "youíd realize that UNIT isnít trying to exercise any authority. Weíre offering you resources that can help you against those demons youíre fighting. Iíd have thought youíd be jumping at the chance."
Forrest shook his head. "Unless I hear directly from the US military..."
"Forrest! Wait just a minute!"
Forrest turned at the sound of Rileyís voice, and saw him walking up to join them. Somehow, Riley had managed to avoid the effects of the hostilesí power. He was still his young and fit self, and Forrest resented him for it. Whatever he had to say, Forrest doubted it would be good.
"We have new orders, just in from Washington," Riley announced. He handed Forrest a sheet of paper. "Theyíre from General Kramerís office."
"How is Adrienne these days?" said the younger woman, Sam, with much too cheerful a smile.
"She sends her regards," Riley replied, smiling knowingly back at her. Forrest silently grumbled about all the freaks Riley had gotten involved with recently.
The message was simple and clear-cut, even if Forrest had to hold it at armís length to make it out. "By the order of Major General Adrienne Kramer, Commander of US operations for the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce," he read, "the Initiative shall immediately render any and all assistance to Ms. Sarah Jane Smith and Ms. Samantha Jones, as identified by their authorization papers from UNIT Brigadier Winifred Bambera."
"That would be these," said Sarah, handing her papers to Forrest again.
Forrest took the papers back, glowered at them for a few seconds, then stepped aside to usher the two women in.
"Thank you very much, Agent," said Sarah.
"Trust us, you wonít regret this," Sam added.
I already do, Forrest replied silently.
"Where do you want to start?" Riley asked Sarah.
"We need to get your best technicians into a room with a computer link," Sarah replied. "Weíre going to ring up London and have a conversation with my dog."
For a moment, Forrest wondered if his hearing was failing. Then he realized that the freaks were probably just speaking in some sort of code he didnít know about. Either way, the day ahead wasnít looking very good to him.
Reality had finally caught up to Willow, and it was making her miserable.
For a while after the demons had been freed, Willow was too scared to think much about reality. Then Xander sacrificed himself for her sake - or so she could tell herself - and she was caught up in trying to find a way to rescue him. But then the moment came for reality to return. Before she had even finished patting herself on the back for finding the mimesis demons in one of Gilesís books, Giles had snatched the book from her hands and given it to the other girl. The red-haired witch. The one who belonged in this world.
Even taking a break from the research session to catch a few hours of sleep hadnít helped. When the sun came up, it was still shining on a world that wasnít hers. Just two days ago, sheíd had a family, friends, and a future as a musician. Now it was all gone. And the biggest joke of all was that her attempt to get her world back had been the key to banishing it forever.
And so now she sat in front of Gilesís TV, supposedly watching for any news reports on the havoc the demons were wreaking, but actually just trying to block out any conscious thought at all. The Sunnydale Police Department was doing its usual job of hiding the truth from people, anyway. The demonsí rampage was being reinterpreted as a spill of some dangerous chemical with hallucinogenic side effects. They werenít going to learn anything from that story.
Willow had already lost track of how long sheíd been sulking when she realized she was no longer sulking alone. She looked away from the TV and found the blonde witch, Tara, staring at her with a look that was half expectant and half fearful.
"Hi," said Tara, smiling shyly and hanging her head down so that her hair briefly covered half of her face.
"Yeah?" Willow replied noncommittally. This conversation wasnít exactly getting off to a flying start, but Willow was in no mood to do anything about that.
"We, um, we think we found a way to separate the temporal demon from the mimesis demons," Tara said at last. "Itís a dissolution spell."
"Good for you," Willow said as flatly as possible. "Iím sure Buffy will be thrilled."
"Thereís, um, just one thing," Tara continued, even more hesitantly. "W-w-wwe canít do the spell by ourselves. It wonít w-w-wwork unless you do it with... um, with... us."
Now the witch had Willowís attention. "With Ďus?í" she repeated. "By Ďus,í you mean you and her, donít you?"
Tara pursed her lips and nodded. "The, uh, the temporal demon needs the energy of the paradox you create," she explained. "You know, uh, because you and Willow... uh, m-m-mmy Willow, I mean..." She trailed off, sensing Willowís resentment whenever the red-haired girl was associated with her name.
Willow gave an ironic laugh. "Well, isnít that great," she said acerbically. "This world tricks me into destroying my world, and now it needs me to save it. I suppose I should have expected that. This whole place has been nothing but a bad joke."
Tara was looking at Willow curiously, not quite understanding. Willow stared back and asked, "Last year, at the Senior Prom, who did she go with?"
Tara looked even more puzzled. "I... I donít know," she stammered. "Oz, I guess. I, uh, didnít know her then."
Willow laughed again, not as loudly but just as ironic. "Oz," she repeated. "It figures. Do you know who I went with? Jonathan. And that was before he did that augmentation spell and replaced me with those Swedish twins."
Willow paused for a moment, glancing over at the red-haired girl, who was studying a magic book. "Just look at her," she said, more distantly. "Sheís so much prettier than I am. She could have dated any boy she wanted. Even Xander, Iíll bet. And what happens instead? She turns out to be a..."
She trailed off, noticing the look of alarm that was growing on Taraís face. Probably best not to go down that road any farther. "Look," she said instead, "itís obvious that this world doesnít want the kind of person I am. Give me one good reason why I should turn around and help it."
Willow didnít even wait for Tara to reply, turning her attention back to the TV instead. She didnít really expect the blonde witch to have an answer. Certainly not the answer that came to her ears a moment later.
"Because youíre Willow."
Willow looked back and found Taraís gaze cutting through her. Where had that come from? "What do you mean?" she asked.
"Youíre Willow," Tara repeated. "I mean, youíre not m-m-mmy Willow, but youíre still Willow. A friend of the Slayer. A part of the S-s-sscoobies. Youíre some kind of cool monster fighter. You help people."
Now it was Willowís turn to be without an answer. She didnít want to admit it, though, and so she turned back to the TV, hoping she could sulk again.
"You may not realize it," Tara continued, "but my Willow is afraid of you, too. She doesnít know what to think about you. But when you fell, out there when the demons were chasing us, she went back to help you anyway. Because sheís Willow, too. Thatís the kind of thing Willow does."
Oh, great, thought Willow. Now Tara wasnít playing fair. Things were only going to get worse from here unless she cooperated.
Giving the blonde witch a sardonic look, she asked, "Does she realize how lucky she is to have you?"
Tara blushed and looked away quickly. Willow smiled to herself. If she was going to get sucked into this crazy scheme, at least she got to have the last word.
Colonel George Haviland didnít like what he saw. When he walked into the nerve center of an important facility like the Initiative, he expected order. Especially when the facility was under his command.
He definitely did not expect to find that the place had been taken over by a pair of foreign civilian women, who were commanding the full attention of his primary technical group.
"I didnít get that part about the cyclic burst ratio," said one of the technicians as he scribbled on a notepad. "Can he repeat it again?"
The younger of the two women spoke into one of the console microphones. "K9?" she said. "Why donít you just download the entire subroutine? You can walk them through it from there."
"Very good, Mistress Samantha," a tinny electronic voice came from the speakers.
This had gone far enough. Haviland looked around the room to see if there were any of his men who hadnít lost their sanity. Agents Finn and Gates were standing at the rear of the group. Finn had been acting questionably of late, but Gates was still reliable, despite the effects of the previous nightís action. Haviland went to the Agent and called him aside.
"I donít like it either, Colonel," said Gates as Haviland approached. "I tried to stop them at the front door, but they have orders from General Kramer in Washington."
"Kramer?" Haviland repeated. "How does she even know about this place? I thought her command was entirely..."
"Colonel!" cried one of the junior technicians as he hurried over to join them. "This is amazing! If the information weíre receiving is correct, we should be able to protect our squads from the effects of the hostiles within a couple of hours!"
Haviland raised an eyebrow. "Are you certain?" he asked.
The technician hesitated, but only for an instant. "Well, this is pretty high-tech stuff," he admitted, "but I understand the basic ideas. In all honesty, sir, it has a better chance than anything we can come up with as quickly."
Haviland weighed his options. He didnít like having his base commandeered by an officer who reported to the UN, but he didnít like what the hostiles were doing to anyone he threw at them, either. Besides, if the idea worked, he could take the credit and make up for his blunder of a few weeks earlier, when he inexplicably thought a completely unremarkable civilian was some kind of master military consultant. On the other hand, if the idea failed, he could pin the blame on Kramer. Colonel McNamara was on the way to relieve him anyway, so he didnít even have to worry about cleaning up the mess.
"Very well," Haviland said with his most authoritative look. "You may carry on. Letís see just how good this protection is."
Suburban Sunnydale looked like one of those old paintings of Hell. Several of the houses near where Buffy was standing had rotted away to dust, while others had been overrun by a jungle that had suddenly appeared. A futuristic air car was crashed in a bubbling tar pit that covered half of the street. Several small prehistoric creatures scuttled around through it all.
And still the demonsí rampage went on. Buffy had seen enough evil beings to know that this bunch was enjoying itself thoroughly. Off in the distance, the mimesis demons competed with each other for the attention of the temporal demon, pointing out the havoc they wanted to cause in every direction.
Buffy felt a tug at her pants and looked down to see one of the Initiative technicians making a final adjustment to the new device that was strapped to her. Behind them, the Initiative soldiers - what was left of them, anyway - were being fitted with similar devices. She and they were all carrying blasters with new targeting scopes. Supposedly these were the tools they needed. If they werenít enough to beat the demons, then at least they were enough to survive for longer than a few seconds.
The technician finished what he was doing, gave Buffy a thumbs-up sign, then went to help the rest of his team. Buffy turned and went to find Willow.
Her best friend was at the rear of the group, with Tara, of course, and the brown-haired Willow from the other timeline. Things didnít look like they were going well.
"No, not like that!" Willow was shouting at her counterpart. "The Ďií sounds like an Ďi,í not an Ďe.í You canít go around pronouncing any language you donít know like it was Latin."
"Well, thatís they way it works when youíre singing," the other Willow shot back.
"Fine," said Willow, "except weíre not singing. Weíre going face to face with a creature who can do all that." She pointed at the ruined surroundings emphatically. "I would think youíd be able to tell the difference."
"W-w-wwillow, I think that might be good enough," said Tara, trying to defuse the situation as best she could.
"Is there a problem, ladies?" Buffy asked, giving both Willows her best "knock it off or else" expression.
"We just have a few things to w-w-wwork out," Tara replied.
Buffy glanced back toward the rampaging demons. "We so donít have time," she said.
Both Willows looked at Buffy with equally concerned faces, then reached out simultaneously, each taking one of Buffyís hands. They looked at each other, and for a moment Buffy couldnít tell if they were going to start arguing again or start laughing.
Finally Willow - her Willow - simply smiled and said, "Weíll make it work, Buffy."
"We have to," added the other Willow, "so we will."
Buffy smiled back at both girls, but at the same time couldnít help the pit that was forming in her stomach. She always hated these moments right before a battle, when she wasnít sure she would still be able to see her friends after it was over. In the case of the other Willow, Buffy found herself wondering if she would ever know the girl as well as she felt she should.
The moment didnít last. They never did. Too quickly, Buffy heard Riley calling her from up in front of the Initiative troops. They were ready to attack - or at least as ready as they were going to be.
"Is everything okay back there?" Riley asked as Buffy joined him.
"Sure, no problem," Buffy lied. He had enough to worry about at this point.
"Okay, good," Riley replied. "Hereís what I was thinking. Weíve got to make up for the fact that we donít have a lot of firepower, so while the demons are busy causing trouble, we can circle around them and set up an ambush. Weíll dig in and make them come to us."
"You mean like a ĎDonít fire until you see the whites of their eyesí kind of thing?" Buffy asked.
"Something like that," said Riley, looking pleased with himself.
Buffy frowned. No matter how she felt about Riley, she could still be annoyed when he started thinking like Mr. Initiative. Waiting for the demons to bring their trash-Sunnydale party to a convenient spot simply wasnít her style.
"Thereís just one problem," she told him. "Have you ever noticed that most demons donít have whites in their eyes?"
Now it was Rileyís turn to frown. Buffy took the opportunity to hit the "on" switches for her blaster and the new protective device on her belt. They both hummed to life.
"No time to think about it," she said. "Come on!"
And with that, the Slayer was off and running. Behind her, she could hear Riley call after her, then change his mind and order the troops to follow. There was no backing out now. The fight for Sunnydale was about to begin.
Tara needed to catch her breath. She was no Initiative soldier, let alone a Slayer, and she couldnít keep up with the pace they were setting. The battle would have to start without her.
Both Willow and the other Willow slowed down with her. The other Willow looked particularly grateful. Up ahead, Tara could see that Buffy had almost reached the demons, with the soldiers closing fast.
"Weíll have to wait and see what happens," said Willow. "Buffy needs some time to keep the mimesis demons busy, anyway."
"Assuming those stabilizer things they made work," said the other Willow.
"Theyíll work," Willow insisted. "They have to work."
"I think we should start the spell," said Tara. "So weíll be ready when they are."
She offered her hand to the other Willow, who looked at it hesitantly for a moment before taking it. Unlike the way things were with her own Willow, Tara felt no surge of power flowing through the connection as she summoned the magicks. When Willow took her other hand a moment later, though, Tara suddenly felt a surge of energy burst from the other Willow and flow straight through her. It was as if she had become a magical lighting rod, channeling the force of the paradox.
Tara needed a moment to balance the energies that were joining through her body. If the spell was to work, she had to be the guiding force that would direct the power where they needed it. Once she had everything stabilized within herself, she turned her head and gave Willow a quick smile. It was time.
Hand in hand, the three young women started slowly toward the battle, intoning the ancient spell that would save them all - if it worked.
The mimesis demons were waiting expectantly when Buffy reached them, almost daring her to attack. They didnít know what was about to hit them.
For that matter, Buffy didnít know either. There really hadnít been a chance to test the devices the Initiative built from Sarahís instructions. But this wasnít the first time she had charged into combat without being certain a plan would work, and it would hardly be the last. She had planned and prepared as best she could. Now it was time for action.
She stopped at point blank range from the leader of the mimesis demons and brought her blaster around. The demon smiled tauntingly at her. At least, thatís what it was doing until the energy bolt Buffy fired knocked it back five feet.
The other mimesis demons gathered around their leader, staring at Buffy in stunned unison. Now it was Buffyís turn to smile at them. Behind her, she could hear Riley and the soldiers arriving. It didnít take much longer for the demons to realize they had a fight on their hands.
The lead mimesis demon was on its feet again, quickly turning its attention to the temporal demon. The larger beast roared and stood up, readying its wings for another gust of the time winds. Buffy braced herself, reflexively holding her breath and closing her eyes as the winds hit her, first as a slight breeze, but quickly building to a terrifying roar.
And then it was over. Buffy opened her eyes and looked down at her body, then over to Riley and their surroundings. The small shrubs on the curb behind them had suddenly grown into a wild tangle that spilled into the street, but she and the soldiers were unaffected. The stabilizer devices had worked.
Riley looked over his stunned but unharmed troops, then raised his blaster and aimed it at the demons. "FIRE!!" he ordered.
Bolts of lightning blazed from every blaster in unison, slamming into the demons and knocking all of them to the ground. It wasnít enough, though. The creatures were stunned, but otherwise unharmed. Within seconds, they were scrambling back to their feet and getting ready to flee.
"Riley!" Buffy shouted. "Those arenít going to work!" She threw her blaster to the ground and brought out the long knife she had brought with her. At least now the fight was turning into something she was more familiar with.
She charged at the leader of the mimesis demons, drawing her free hand back to throw a punch. As she did, the demonís shape began to shimmer, as it tried to flick itself out of the way, just as it did before in the chamber. This time, however, as Buffy watched the demon suddenly stopped shimmering and instead the world around them began to blur. The stabilizer device was adjusting to the demonís shift through time, keeping her in sync with it.
Buffy stopped, momentarily dizzy from the time shift. That was all the opportunity the demon needed to turn and throw a punch of its own, connecting with Buffyís jaw. She staggered for a second, but the blow actually helped bring her senses back into focus. She planted her foot and spun, delivering a roundhouse kick to the demonís midsection. It tumbled backwards, then jerked suddenly as the copper strip attached to its wrist went taut. The lifeline that connected it to the temporal demon had suddenly become a major weakness.
Buffy gave herself a moment to grab a quick look around. The Initiative soldiers had all dropped their blasters and were fighting hand-to-hand against the other mimesis demons. The air blurred and shimmered as the various time fields overlapped and flowed against each other, giving the entire scene a dreamlike appearance.
Behind it all, Buffy saw Tara and the two Willows approaching, hands interlocked. They were starting to cast the spell. If Willow was right, they would only need a few moments to know whether or not it would work.
By now the lead mimesis demon was on its feet again, attacking Buffy with teeth and claws. She fended off its slashing blows and struck back, looking for an opening to thrust her knife into the creature. The demon was smaller than she was, but it was strong and quick. She would have to stay focused in order to beat it.
Just as she thought that, the temporal demon shrieked loudly enough to break the focus of anyone within a hundred yards. Both Buffy and the mimesis demon turned in time to see the temporal demon stretching to its full height, with its wings and both sets of its arms outstretched. Willow, Tara and the other Willow had walked through a gap between the various battles and were standing directly in front of the large creature.
As everyone else watched, the two Willows held out their free hands and pointed them at the temporal demonís collar. A blaze of mystical energy shot between the two hands and to the collar, forming a brightly burning triangle in midair. Suddenly, the collar and the copper strips leading to each of the mimesis demons were glowing as well. The mimesis demons snarled and howled in pain.
And then, as quickly as it started, it was over. a bright flash blinded Buffy for an instant. When her vision cleared, the temporal demon was gone. The copper strips dangled uselessly from the mimesis demonsí arms.
Unfortunately, Willow, Tara and the other Willow had vanished as well. Wherever the temporal demon went, it had taken the three girls with it.
Struggling to contain her shock and anger, Buffy turned back to the leader of the mimesis demons and glared at it with a lethal fury. "You guys are so dead," she snarled.
Tara was nowhere. Or perhaps it was more accurate to say she was nowhen.
A brilliant vortex spun around her, its vibrant colors swirling in every direction. She wasnít standing on any solid surface, but she didnít feel like she was floating, either. She was simply there, motionless despite the flurry of motion around her. Something inside her head told her she had gone beyond the time and space she understood, to another plane of existence.
Both Willow and the other Willow were there with her, each still clutching one of her hands. She held on to them just as tightly, as if they would somehow be set adrift in the vortex if they let go of each other.
From nowhere, and at the same time from everywhere, there came a voice. It echoed through Taraís mind and filled her senses.
"Free! Free! FREE!!!"
She looked up - at least she felt like it was up - and saw the temporal demon. It was soaring through the vortex, cavorting among the colors with unmistakable joy. Tara couldnít help smiling at the sight of it.
At last, the temporal demon slowed its frolicking and flew back to the three girls. It hovered in the vortex in front of them, flapping its wings lazily.
Tara looked into the demonís eyes. "Can you understand m-m-mme?" she asked it.
"Of course," the demon replied. Again, the voice sounded inside Taraís head instead of in the air around them.
"What happened?" Willow asked. "The spell we were casting was only supposed to separate you from the other demons. How did we all get here?"
"You are here because I brought you here," said the demon. "I have waited so long for your arrival. I wanted to express my gratitude for giving me back my freedom."
"Some flowers would have worked better," the other Willow mumbled. Tara dug her nails slightly into the other girlís hand as a subtle warning.
"You were waiting for us?" said Willow. "You knew we would come?"
"Of course," the demon replied. "I was the one who contacted those you call Faction Paradox and told them about me. Or rather, I will contact them now that I am free."
"You contacted them yourself?" the other Willow repeated. "Or you will? How does that work?"
The demon paused for a moment before answering, and its face took on a look of both amusement and frustration, as if it was trying to explain something complicated to a bunch of kindergarteners. "Your words are so limited," it said at last. "It is difficult to explain myself in such linear terms."
The demon drew back and stretched its wings wide. "Simply look around you," it said. "There is no past here. No future. All of existence is before us. From here, we can watch the ebb and flow of what you call history, the shapes of your existence as they change with your choices."
Tara tried staring into the vortex, hoping to grasp even a little of what the demon was saying. It was huge, and magnificent. She looked over at Willow and saw an awed expression that she was sure mirrored her own.
On the other side of her, she felt a tightening of the grip the other Willow had on her hand. "If you can see all of time from here," the brown-haired girl said, "does that mean you can see the timeline I came from? Can you send me home?"
The demonís expression turned sad. "I am sorry, little one," it said, "but your existence no longer has the shape of the world you knew. What was done cannot be undone. But do not despair. There is still a place for you within the shape your world has now. You will see."
Tara saw the other Willowís face fall, and felt the girlís hand go limp. She hung on, suddenly afraid that the brown-haired girl might try to let go and fall into the vortex.
"What about our world?" Willow asked. "Can you still change that? Can you undo all the things the mimesis demons made you do after you woke up?"
The demonís face twisted into something Tara assumed was a smile. "Yes, that is within my power," it replied. "I brought you here to ask how I can repay you for freeing me. Would that be your request?"
Willow nodded vigorously, as Tara did likewise. Tara looked over at the other Willow, and saw that she was nodding as well.
"As you wish," said the demon. "When you return, the things I did at the demonsí behest shall be no more."
A sudden thought struck Tara. "Wait," she said. "Does that mean the Cousins from Faction Paradox will be restored, too?"
The colors of the vortex were already beginning to spin around them, obscuring the demon from view. "Time plays no favorites, little one," the demonís voice sounded in Taraís head. Then the vortex overwhelmed her and the demon was gone.
Xander suddenly became aware of three very startling facts. First, it was daylight, when the last he remembered it had been night. Second, he was up in a tall tree that looked out over the UC Sunnydale campus. And third, he was completely naked.
"Okay," he said to himself, "either something very Hellmouthy has been going on, or that fight we were in was just part of a very elaborate dream. One that involved naked sleepwalking."
Unfortunately, he didnít have time to process his thoughts much further, because at that moment, the branch he was clinging to began to give way. Xander barely had time to hear a few sharp cracks and snaps, and suddenly he was falling. He grabbed and clutched at the branches that passed him as he fell. Finally, about halfway down, he managed to grasp a limb that didnít give way under his weight. He hung there for a few seconds, catching his breath, then managed to work his way over to the tree trunk and gain a secure footing.
"Are you all right up there?" came a voice.
Xander gasped and looked down. Through the leaves, he could see a pair of UC Sunnydale coeds trying to spot him in the tree.
"Um, yeah... Iím fine!" Xander called, trying to scramble around to the other side of the tree trunk. "I... uh... was just... um..."
Before Xander could think of any way to explain himself, he heard the terrifying sound of the coeds giggling. "Hey!" the one who had first seen him called. "Youíre not one of the Phi Delt pledges, are you? Is this some kind of initiation game theyíre playing?"
Xander forced the best laugh he could. "Yeah... you guessed it," he replied. "You should see what some of the other pledges are doing."
"Boys!" the other coed snorted derisively.
"Hey, I donít suppose you could help me out?" Xander called. "You know, so I donít have to stay up here like this until they come get me?"
"If you want to be in that fraternity so much, you can get yourself out of there," said the first coed. "Have fun!"
And with that, the two girls turned and continued on their way, leaving Xander to wonder how many hours were left until nightfall.
Spike had lost track of how long he had been in the whirlwind of paradox that enveloped him. Time had lost all meaning. There was only the eternal torment of being trapped in a circular existence.
And then, suddenly, everything grew quiet. Spike found himself standing on solid ground again. Back in Sunnydale. Back in the present.
Unfortunately, in the present it happened to be daytime.
Spike hadnít survived as long as he had, living the unlifestyle he lived, without developing lightning-quick reflexes whenever the sun was concerned. Before even the hairs on his head could do more than singe, he had thrown his black duster up over himself and was running for shade.
He didnít have far to run. A large tree stood on the edge of a wooded area, offering plenty of protection. His hands had started to smoke and blister by the time he got there, but he was still his old non-combusted self. The tree would offer him plenty of time to recover and plan where to go next before the sun moved into a dangerous position again.
Spike was just leaning up against the tree trunk for a brief rest, when he heard a rustle above him.
"Oh, God!" exclaimed a very familiar voice.
Spike looked up, and if he had been breathing, he would have gasped at what he saw. "Xander!" he shouted. "When did you decide to go all Nature Boy on us?"
"Spike, Iíd advise you to shut up right now," Xander shouted back. "There are plenty of branches up here that would make perfectly good stakes, and I wouldnít mind bringing them down there with me."
"Oh, come on, Xander," Spike goaded. "I donít see why youíd be so upset. I do see a reason or two why Anya should be upset, but letís not go there..."
"Spike! Iím warning you!"
Spike leaned back against the tree, grinning to himself. He knew he would have to help the boy eventually if he didnít want a brassed off Slayer or ex-vengeance demon coming after him later. But that didnít mean he couldnít enjoy himself for at least a few minutes.
Buffy wiped her bloody knife in the grass next to the dead mimesis demon. It was her fourth kill of the fight, a much easier one than the first three. By the time she had gotten to it, the Initiative soldiers had its attention occupied well enough that she had killed it with a single blow from behind.
The noise of the battle was dying down, and Buffy looked up to see what was happening. Only one demon was still standing, and Riley and two of his troops wouldnít need much longer to take it down. The other soldiers were already attending to their injured comrades. Everything seemed strangely peaceful.
Too peaceful, in fact. Something was wrong. It took Buffy a moment to realize that what was wrong was that nothing was wrong. The havoc caused by the temporal demon has vanished. Apart from the mimesis demon bodies littering the street, the area once again looked like ordinary suburban Sunnydale.
If the temporal demonís damage had been undone, then maybe that meant...
At almost the same moment that Riley finished off the last demon, Buffy heard a strange rushing noise and felt a sudden gust of air. A bright light flashed in the middle of the street. When it faded, Willow, Tara and the other Willow were standing there, still holding hands.
"Did we make it?" Willow asked.
"Willow!" Buffy shouted, then dropped her knife and ran over to greet her friend. She embraced Willow first, then Tara and the other Willow, relieved to see all of them again.
"Looks like youíve been busy," said the other Willow, looking around at the dead demon bodies.
"Well, I think Buffy got a little upset when you disappeared," said Riley as he came over to join the group.
"Where did you guys go?" Buffy asked.
"We had a little talk with the temporal demon," Willow replied. "We convinced it to clean up the mess that it made."
Buffy was impressed. "Way to go, guys," she said.
Taraís eyes suddenly widened. "Thereís just one problem," she said. "Faction Paradox. Theyíre back now, too."
"And thereís still the Anointed One to deal with," Riley added.
Buffy walked back over to the grass and picked up her knife. "I guess some days a Slayerís work is never done," she said. "Letís go."
"Iíll tell you," said Buffy, "for a group so devoted to causing chaos, you guys sure are predictable."
They had found the two Faction Paradox Cousins exactly where Buffy had expected, back at the ruins of Sunnydale High. Once again, they were standing behind their altar in the shrine made of skulls, with the Anointed One standing beside them.
"I think they just donít want to look stupid by having a demon stick them together again," said the brown-haired Willow, standing by Buffyís side.
"Yeah," Willow added from her place next to Tara. "After all, they went to all that trouble to manipulate us, and it turned out that the demons were manipulating them. Iíd be scared to take chances again after looking that dumb."
"You are all mistaken," said Cousin Lawrence. At least Buffy thought it was Cousin Lawrence. "We simply went to the place you were most likely to look for us."
"You wanted us to find you?" said the brown-haired Willow. "What for?"
"Our task here in Sunnydale has come to an end," said Cousin Miles. "The Spirits are calling us home."
"But we did not want to leave without thanking you," Cousin Lawrence added.
"Thanking us?" said Willow. "If you think we meant to save you from what the temporal demon did, Iíve got news for you."
"And in case you didnít notice," Riley added, "everything else the temporal demon did was reversed. You guys failed."
"Not everything was reversed," Cousin Miles countered. "The Sisters of Paradox are still here."
"The presence of the original Miss Rosenberg in your timeline creates a magnificent riddle that the Universe will find difficult to resolve," Cousin Lawrence added. "The Spirits are quite pleased."
Buffy looked back at the two Willows. Both were stung by the Cousinsí remarks.
"Okay, so weíre thanked," said Buffy as she faced the Cousins again. "Do we get fabulous parting gifts, too?"
Cousin Miles smiled condescendingly. "Indeed you do, Miss Summers."
Cousin Lawrence picked up one of the strange devices sitting on the altar. It looked like a box carved out of a single bone, with lights and pieces of metal attached to it. "This," the Cousin said, "is the time engine that maintains Colinís mutable temporal stasis field."
The Anointed One looked alarmed and began to back away as Cousin Miles took the box and handed it to Buffy. "As we have no more use for an Agent here," he said, "we leave his fate in your hands."
Buffy took the box, but still glared menacingly at the Cousins. "You expect this to make up for what youíve done?" she hissed. "Especially since I was going to kill him anyway?"
"What we have done, we have done," said Cousin Lawrence.
"Your opinions on the matter are of no concern to the Spirits," added Cousin Miles.
With that, the two Cousins stepped back from the altar. "Until the Spirits bid us to return," they said, "farewell."
And with that, they vanished as they had before, taking their temple with them. Buffy and her friends once again found themselves standing in the ruins of the school.
This time, however, the Anointed One was still with them. He looked at Buffy with all the childlike innocence his undead face still possessed.
Buffy looked at the still-blinking box in her hand. "You know," she said, "those guys really know how to deal with someone whoís mad at them, which only makes me more mad at them."
"What are you going to do?" Willow asked.
"Well, while weíre on the subject of thanking people," Buffy replied, turning to face the Anointed One, "I never got to thank you for introducing me to the Master."
The brown-haired Willow grinned. "No time like the present," she said.
"My thought exactly," Buffy agreed. With that, she threw the box to the ground with a Slayer-sized heave, then followed up with a Slayer-sized stomp of her foot. The box shattered, spewing pieces among the rubble that was already on the floor.
The faint orange glow surrounding the Anointed One promptly grew to a brilliant flare, as the energy of his burning body, held in check by the stasis field all this time, finally consumed him. Within seconds, the little vampireís remains were indistinguishable from the other debris in the school.
"So much for time-traveling voodoo cults," said Riley.
"This time," said Buffy. "Letís just hope those Spirits of theirs have enough sense not to send them back."
Willow looked out the window of Samís hotel room at the Sunnydale landscape below. It looked so familiar, and yet it was as alien as another planet. She was so close to home, and yet so far away. And she would never be close again.
She had helped save the town, and perhaps the world, just like she had done at Buffyís side so many times. But this time the old feelings of joy and relief, of bonding with the Slayer and her fellow Slayerettes... of family... They were missing. She felt no more a part of the core team than those Initiative soldiers whose names they would never know.
The red-haired girl was down there. She was feeling those things that Willow missed. Willow no longer knew how to feel about her. This was her world, after all, and she was simply taking her place in it. But still...
"Any way I can break in on the soliloquy?" said a voice. Willow turned and saw Sam coming out of the bathroom, bringing some of her things over to a suitcase that sat on the bed.
Willow smiled. "I was just doing some thinking," she replied. "No big deal, really."
"Oh," said Sam. "Thatís a relief, because I thought you might be looking out there wondering where you fit in this world and trying to understand how you felt about the other Willow."
Willowís smile broadened. "Okay, you caught me," she said. "I donít suppose you have any words of wisdom on those subjects."
Sam sat down in the chair next to Willowís, her expression suddenly serious. "Actually," she said, "I do."
That was hardly the answer Willow expected. "What do you mean?" she asked.
"Well, as Iíve said, Iíve crossed paths with Faction Paradox before," Sam replied. "What I havenít told any of you is how that happened." She looked out the window, staring at the town for a moment. "Iím like the other Willow. A... Ďrevised edition,í you might say. Iím not the original Samantha Jones."
Willowís eyes widened. "You mean Faction Paradox...?"
"They were there when it happened," Sam replied, "but they didnít do it. The circumstances were different from what happened to you." Her voice and expression grew more distant. "I never met the original me face-to-face. She... she ceased to exist. But I can remember what she felt. Itís inside me. Sheís inside me. Before I even knew who she was, it was like I could feel her watching me."
"And what did she think?" Willow asked, intensely curious.
"She hated me," said Sam. "When she found out that I would replace her, she tried to kill me, before I even existed. Thatís where Faction Paradox came in. They tried to manipulate her, through her fear of me. But in the end, she let the change happen. She let her world go and went willingly, ending her existence and creating mine. Not for my sake, of course. There were other things happening... other people involved... and she did it for them. Because that was who she was."
Willow nodded, remembering what Tara had said to her. "She was Sam," she said. "Just like youíre Sam."
"And just like youíre still Willow," Sam replied. "Even in a world where thereís another Willow."
Willow sighed. "In some ways," she confessed, "I wish I could cease to exist, like that original Sam. What is there for me in this world? Sunnydale doesnít know me any more than it knows you and Sarah."
Sam smiled. "Weíve done some thinking about that," she said. "I might have an answer for you."
That definitely got Willowís attention. "Iím listening," she replied.
Colonel Haviland could not believe his luck. First, all the men who had been affected in the first encounter with the hostiles had suddenly recovered. True, there had been some dicey moments with the ones who had been turned into small children, but no one had been injured too badly. Then Agent Finn and his forces had returned from the battle, reporting that their protective gear had worked flawlessly and that the hostiles had been eliminated.
In short, rather than leave his command with nothing but a fruitless search for the rogue creation Adam on his record, Haviland could move on to his next assignment with a victory under his belt and some amazing new technology in his pocket. It was almost too good to be true.
Or perhaps it was exactly too good to be true.
"Colonel Haviland!" called one of the technicians. "We have a problem, sir!"
Haviland went over to see what was wrong. The technician was standing there with Agent Finn, and they were looking over the new targeting enhancements on Agent Finnís blaster. Haviland had been especially interested in the deviceís ability to track an object through shifting time fields, wondering if it could be reverse-engineered into a new kind of stealth technology.
"Whatís the problem here?" Haviland asked as he reached the men.
"The targeting enhancements have shut down, sir," Agent Finn reported. "So have the temporal stabilizers. They havenít worked since we cleared the battle site."
Haviland looked over at the technician. "Is it just a power supply problem?" he asked.
The technician shook his head. "No, sir," he replied. "The circuits have all burned themselves out. Itís like there was a self-destruct mechanism embedded in them... but sir, I swear we never put anything like that in!"
Haviland glowered. Had those UN advisors done something to the devices? Did they think their willingness to share technology could be limited to the battle alone?
The Colonel wasnít willing to admit defeat that easily. "Itís not important," he declared. "We still have the plans in our computer files. We can make as many copies as we want, and learn how to take the self-destruct mechanism out."
"Colonel!" called another technician, who was sitting at one of the computer terminals. "I think you should see this."
Haviland went to the manís post, with Agent Finn close behind him. The technicianís computer screen showed nothing but a blizzard of gibberish.
"Whatís that?" Haviland asked.
"It was the file we downloaded from London, describing the temporal stabilizers," the technician replied. "The one for the targeting enhancement is the same way."
Haviland shoved the man out of the way and began typing commands into the computer himself. "Thatís impossible!" he snarled.
As he was typing, something new began to happen on the screen. An animation appeared, a cartoon of some strange robot dog with "K9" written on its side in an unusual font. It moved to the center of the screen, then wiggled its antenna-like ears at the Colonel.
Agent Finn tried to suppress a laugh, with only partial success. Haviland turned and glared at him. There was nothing else he could do.
"Agent Finn," said Haviland, "remind me again why our national policy considers the United Nations to be a good thing."
"I still feel kind of weird," said Willow. "Everything still looks the same, but it feels different. I feel different."
"How so?" Tara asked as she walked down the street next to Willow.
"I guess itís because Iím not worried about going poof any more," Willow replied. "I mean, being afraid you suddenly wonít exist has a way pushing other thoughts out of the way, you know?"
Tara nodded. "I can imagine," she said.
Willow looked up at the trees and buildings along the street. She had walked this way to Gilesís apartment more times than she could count, yet things along the route seemed new and fresh, as if she was seeing them for the first time.
"I guess itís just knowing what Faction Paradox did that makes me feel weird," Willow continued. "I mean, I donít think everyone has a time-traveling voodoo cult change the entire world just so they could exist. Itís strange to think that the entire world is different just because Iím in it."
A thought crossed Taraís face, and for a moment she hung her head, letting her hair drop down and block Willowís view of her eyes. After a moment, though, she looked back up, smiling shyly. "It... itís not such a strange thought to me," she said.
Willow smiled back. She was about to reply when a honking car horn interrupted her train of thought. She looked and saw Sam Jones and... and the brown-haired girl in front of Gilesís apartment building, getting out of Sarahís rental car.
"Oi!" cried Sam. "Youíre just in time! Sarahís wrapping things up with Mister Giles, and then the three of us will be on our way back to England."
"The three of you?" said Willow.
"Thatís right," said the brown-haired girl. "Iím going with them. Sarah and Sam are giving me the chance to start a singing career."
"Thatís wonderful!" said Tara.
"I know," the brown-haired girl replied. "I figure Iíve got to have a better shot in London than I would here in Sunnydale." Looking straight at Willow, she added, "Besides, youíre the one who belongs here now. This is your home, and your family. You deserve a chance to live here without me getting in your way."
The other girlís gaze went straight through Willow, and her words left a pit in her stomach. Now that she didnít feel threatened any more, Willow felt sorry about the other girlís plight, and happy that it seemed to be working out. She gave the girl a smile and said, "Actually, knowing Mom, I think you could show up at home claiming to be me and she wouldnít notice the difference."
The other girl laughed. "That sounds like the Mom I know," she agreed.
Willow reached out and took the girlís hands in her own. "Good luck, Willow," she said.
The other girl - the other Willow - smiled back. "Good luck to you, too, Willow," she replied.
The sound of approaching voices caught Willowís ear, and she turned to see Giles and Sarah approaching. She let go of the red-haired girlís - the red-haired Willowís - hands and went to meet her old friend and her new hostess.
"Iím glad weíve been able to reach an understanding, Ms. Smith," said Giles. "I must admit that I hadnít thought it possible."
"Well, once UNIT got involved, I couldnít very well go endangering my contacts there," Sarah replied.
"What kind of understanding are you talking about?" Willow asked as Giles and Sarah arrived at the car.
"Sarahís not going to publish her story," said Sam.
"Oh, I still will," Sarah countered. "But Iíll be writing it as a work of fiction under my pseudonym. You know the routine all too well, Sam."
"Oh, yes," Sam replied. "I think Ms. Sarah Bland is going to end up being a bigger name than you are."
Sarah turned back to Giles. "You will still think about what I asked, wonít you?"
"It all depends on the Council," said Giles. "I still donít like the idea of breaking my oath... although I must admit, I do like the idea of having someone I can contact about the Council if it ever does become a problem."
"Thatís all I ask," said Sarah.
"And so now all three of you are off?" Giles asked. "I think itís splendid that youíre taking... uh..." He paused uncomfortably.
"Willow," the red-haired Willow prompted.
Giles turned and gave the other girl a relieved smile. "Yes, quite," he said. "Iím glad youíve offered to help Willow get a fresh start in this world."
"I think sheís going to do quite well," Sarah replied. "I have plenty of contacts around London. I think weíll start with Sir David Willcocks. Heís owed me a favor ever since I helped rescue him from a bunch of Dal..." Now it was Sarahís turn to pause uncomfortably. "...matians. Yes, thatís it. Dalmatians. They, uh... they were rabid."
Willow looked at Sarah curiously. Obviously there was more to the story than the woman was letting on. She would have to ask about it later.
"Weíve got a long flight ahead of us," said Sam. "Plenty of time to make plans." Turning to Willow, she added, "And plenty of time to teach you the little things about living at Sarahís place. For example, you should just shut the door and stay in your room whenever Sarahís husband comes home and says..."
"I donít think we need to go into that right now," Sarah interjected quickly. Willow looked over and saw that the journalist was blushing. "As you said, Sam, weíve got a long flight ahead of us."
Their goodbyes were all too brief. Willow wished Buffy and the others were there, but at the same time she was glad that they werenít. This wasnít a time to be thinking about a past that was no longer hers. This was a time to be looking ahead.
"Do not despair," the temporal demon had said. "There is still a place for you within the shape your world has now. You will see." As she climbed into the back seat of the car, Willow was starting to believe the creature might have been right.
She allowed herself one final look back as the car pulled away. Giles, Tara and the other Willow were still there, waving goodbye. Willow smiled to herself, then turned around and kept her eyes focused only on the journey that lay ahead.
Authorís comments, or, "If youíd like to know more..."
Whew! Wasnít that fun? This story was riding around in my head for many months before I started to write it, and then the writing took about 3-1/2 more months. Iím very happy with how it turned out, so all that time was worth it. I hope you agree.
As many have probably guessed by now, the alternate-universe Willow (or "Brownie," as Spike calls her) really is the original Willow Rosenberg. That is to say, sheís Willow as portrayed by Riff Regan in the original Buffy pilot. The events described in Part Six, where Buffy and Xander remember Willow being attacked by a vampire on the stage of the auditorium, are from that pilot. All the other things about "the Brownie-verse" - Xander falling in love with Amy, Angel not coming back from hell, Buffy and Faith slaying Cordelia before fighting the Mayor together - are my creation. Feel free to play around with that timeline if youíre so inspired.
Now, about the guest characters - I hesitate to use the word "crossover," because I worry that it will focus peopleís attention on the gimmick instead of on the story. However, now that the storyís done, Iíll play fair and come clean.
As many have probably guessed, Sarah Jane Smith, Samantha Jones, the various UN groups they know about, Sarahís robot dog K9 and Faction Paradox all come from the series Doctor Who, which ran on the BBC from 1963 to 1989. In 1991, Virgin Publishing continued the series in novel form, picking up where the show had left off, with Sylvester McCoyís seventh incarnation of the Doctor (the character was an alien who can "regenerate" when mortally wounded, thus allowing the series to continue even after the star wanted out). After a 1996 FOX TV movie introduced Paul McGann as the Doctorís eighth incarnation, BBC Books took over the series, and has continued it to this day.
Sarah Jane Smith gets the award for "character I most wanted to include in Night of 100 Stars but couldnít find room," so I was very glad I figured out how to write a part for her here. Played by Elisabeth Sladen, Sarah was introduced to Doctor Who in 1973 as a plucky young feminist reporter who became the companion/sidekick of the third Doctor. She stayed with the series through the Doctorís regeneration into his fourth self, eventually leaving the series in 1976. A few years later, she was brought back for an attempt to spin off the Doctorís popular robot dog, K9, but K9 and Company never made it past the pilot episode.
For a long time, "Sisters of Paradox" rode around in my head being called, "The Sam Jones Story," because my first inspiration for it was the parallel between the two Willows and the two Sams (as Sam tells brown-haired Willow about in Part Eighteen). Samantha Jones was introduced in the very first BBC Books novel, The Eight Doctors by Terrance Dicks, and she continued as the Eighth Doctorís companion/sidekick through another 25 books until the two-volume novel Interference by Lawrence Miles. Interference also brought back the Sarah Jane Smith character, now about 20 years older and a successful veteran journalist. At the end of the story (from Samís point of view, anyway), Sam chose to stay with Sarah and live in Sarahís guest room, since at that point in time it was still a full year before the younger Sam would meet the Doctor and begin her adventures. "The Sisters of Paradox" picks up 4 years after the events of Interference.
If you want to read more, I recommend these BBC Doctor Who novels:
Vampire Science by Jonathan Blum and Kate Orman - The Doctor and Sam battle vampires in San Francisco. (Sam refers to this adventure in Part Four of "Sisters.")
Alien Bodies by Lawrence Miles - The Doctor and Sam meet Faction Paradox for the first time. Itís also the first mention of Samís "original" self.
Unnatural History by Jonathan Blum and Kate Orman - A time-space phenomenon erases Sam from existence and restores the "original" Sam. The Doctor and another companion/sidekick named Fitz try to sort things out. Faction Paradox is involved as well. (This is the story Sam tells brown-haired Willow about in Part Eighteen of "Sisters.")
Interference I and Interference II, both by Lawrence Miles - The Doctor, Sam and Fitz land in 1996 London and find a Faction Paradox offshoot selling advanced weaponry to third world secret police forces. They run into Sarah Jane Smith, who is also investigating the case. Much wackiness ensues.