"What can you tell me, Rupert?" a desperate Joyce asked the former Watcher.
Giles looked up from his examination of the unconscious young woman on the couch. "I’m sorry, Joyce, but anything I have to say at this time would be strictly in the realm of speculation."
"A simple ‘not a clue’ would suffice," Buffy added.
Giles glared at the Slayer, then continued. "I can tell you this; this young woman is obviously not Buffy, or at least not your Buffy. Nor is she a vampire or demon; her skin’s too warm for a start, plus her pulse and respiration are strong. Vampires have neither. Also note; the scarring where her right arm was," he pointed to the shoulder, visible under a tattered tank top, "the scars are a few months old. And she looks physically older, and not just in years. No, this woman’s been through hell and back."
"Could she be from a parallel universe?" Willow asked nervously. "Like the one my evil vampire twin came from?"
Xander added, "Me, I’ve got five dollars that says that this involves time travel."
Anya looked at her boyfriend and asked, "You have five dollars?"
"Please," Giles interrupted, "this speculation is getting us nowhere. Right now, she seems healthy, for all the damage that has been done to her body. For now, all we can do is keep her comfortable, and--"
Giles suggestions were drowned out by Buffy’s double muttering loudly in the throes of a nightmare; "No, no, not Willow, not you, not my Wills! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" Suddenly, she bolted to an upright position, her eyes wide open, red-rimmed and big as baseballs, a sheen of sweat covering her body, her jaw locked open in fear. Her head darted from face to face, from one corner of the room to another, like a caged rat. She trained her eyes on Giles, and demanded, "Who are you?"
"My name is Rupert Giles," he answered. "Should I call you Buffy?"
The woman grabbed Giles’ arm roughly by the wrist, and placed her thumb firmly over the primary vein. Giles was surprised by this development; even with one arm, she still possessed a slayer’s strength.
The young woman held his wrist for a few seconds, her look of fear soon giving way to a look of astonishment, then one of great relief. "A pulse," she whispered, gasping. "You have a pulse." She noticed Giles panting. "You’re breathing! Quick, Giles. The time!"
"You seem to have the wrist with a watch, Buffy," Giles commented. Buffy quickly let go, and Giles looked at the watch face. "I have it at four-twenty-five. Just at sundown."
The older Buffy looked impatiently at Giles. "Date, month, year!" she shouted, waving her hand in a circular motion.
"Time travel," Xander asserted. "Told you."
"It’s the nineteenth of December, 1999," Giles answered. Buffy sat forward on the couch in wonder.
"It worked," she said simply. "The spell worked." She then leapt off of the couch, shouting, "I MADE IT!" She grabbed Giles in a one-armed hug, squeezing him like a vice. "God I missed you, Giles!" she cried, tears of joy spilling from her eyes. Giles found himself holding her as hard as he could, his normally stoic exterior crumbling under this genuine display of affection.
She let go of her mentor, spun around the room, her eyes lighting on Joyce. "Mom, you’re still alive! Oh God," she rushed headlong into Joyce’s arms, nearly knocking her to the floor with the ferocity of her embrace. "Oh God, I love you, Mom," she cried over and over.
"I love you too, sweetie," Joyce answered, at a loss for anything else to say. Holding her, however, had convinced her that this was no demon or vampire; this was as much her daughter as the young woman standing beside her.
Older Buffy disengaged from hugging Joyce, and turned to Xander and Anya. "X-Man!" she exalted, slapping him on the back with gusto. "Ya old knuckle-knob! How the hell are ya?" Xander stood dumbstruck at her assault, but had no time to respond as she turned her attentions to his girlfriend. "Anya, I’m even glad to see you! C’mere you old vengeance demon ya!" she wrapped her arm around Anya’s neck, shouting, "If I had both arms, I’d give you a noogie!"
"I’m grateful for small favors then," Anya said under her breath.
"Buffy?" Willow asked the human tornado which had been ripping through the Summers house.
Older Buffy stopped and spun toward Willow. "My God, Wills?" she asked in a little-girl voice. "It’s you, isn’t it? You’re not a vamp? You’re alive?" Willow nodded timidly, uncertain what this doppleganger would do next.
The older Buffy, tears streaming from her eyes, strode slowly toward Willow, and fell into her arms. She wailed loudly, bawling like a little baby, babbling incoherently. At times, Willow thought that she heard Buffy saying, "Oh, God, I’m sorry Will, I’m so sorry, so sorry" repeating her apologies for whatever unspoken crime she had committed. In some corner in the back of her head, it reminded Willow of Heather Donahue at the end of "The Blair Witch Project", holding her camera up to her face and making a last desperate confession. Willow would have laughed, if not for the surreal quality of this current situation.
Then the blond grabbed Willow’s neck and brought her face level with her own. "Don’t worry, Wills," she said solemnly. "I swear by the love I have for you that it won’t happen again." Before Willow could ask what she was talking about, the maimed Slayer pulled Willow’s face to her own, and kissed her hard on the mouth.
The kiss lasted for several seconds, long enough for Xander to whistle softly, commenting, "Whoa, subtext much?"
Buffy--the one with two arms--looked at this bizarre scene, and commented, "Okay, I’m officially freaked out now."
The older Buffy stopped the kiss at these words, and finally acknowledged her counterpart. She let go of Willow, and turned to her younger self. "My God, seeing you like this," she stammered. "I almost forgot what it was like. To be hopeful, to have friends like this--Don’t worry, Buffy, it won’t happen to you like it did for me. We can change it. We have to." These last words were spoken as a vow.
"Hoo-boy," Xander commented. "Okay, Alt-Buffy. Maybe you should start at the beginning and work your way up to ‘it won’t happen to you like it did for me’." As Xander spoke, a tea kettle started to whistle in the kitchen. "I thought that you might like some tea or hot cocoa," Joyce said absently. She quietly headed for the kitchen while Giles and the Scoobs looked anxiously at the stranger in their midst, waiting for the bomb to drop.
Alt-Buffy looked at the faces that surrounded her. They were her friends, yet in a way not. She was an outsider to them, yet she was the same young woman who they called daughter, friend, beloved. She found her way back to the couch, and collapsed with a thud. "I’ll tell you what I can, guys, but I don’t know all the facts myself. Xander was right, however. I am from the future, just over a year from now, I’m not sure, I stopped counting dates after a while. They stopped being important." As she spoke, she accepted a cup of hot chocolate with miniature marshmallows that Joyce had made for her. Joyce passed hot chocolate around for the rest of her guests, along with tea for Giles, and they drank their cups silently as Alt-Buffy told her story;
"You see, tonight, December 19, something terrible happens. I’m not sure what. All I know is that I was patrolling around Whetherly Park, trolling for vampires, when suddenly, dark clouds covered the sky, fire erupted from near where Sunnydale High School used to be, then the next thing I know, the Hellmouth is open for business. I mean wide open. I have no idea what caused it, I just knew that we were in major trouble. Worse then the Master and Angelus combined, then squared.
"The next two months, we tried to figure out what happened, Willow holed up in the college library behind her computers, Giles buried himself in the stacks, I tried to fight everything that poured out of the Hellmouth. It was too much for me, even for an army of slayers. The Initiative tried to fight alongside me, but they were severely outclassed. One or two of them were turned, and they turned everyone else in their bunker. Then," she caught her breath, then continued, "the vampires turned everyone else. Mom, Giles, Xander, Willow, Oz, everyone.
"All of Sunnydale became vampires. Then all of California, then all of the continent, then all the world. It spread like the common cold, like that plague from "The Stand", until only a handful of normal people were left. They were captured by the vamps, lobotomized, branded as cattle and kept only to produce blood for the vamps. I guess they kept me alive for revenge. They knew I was the Slayer, and I stopped the demons of the Hellmouth from destroying the world before, so they kept me alive to see their final victory. I became Charlton Freaking Heston in "The Omega Man"!"
She narrated her tale in a dull monotone, her fear responses deadened a long time ago. She had lived through this horror, but for her audience, it was as fresh as each tomorrow. Joyce absently chewed her knuckle, Xander held Anya a little tighter, and Willow wanted nothing more than to hold this woman’s hand, and drive out whatever foul visions she had witnessed. She wanted nothing more than to be a friend, and hopefully a lover, for this damaged woman.
"It was six months ago, when I saw Angel being killed on live TV, when I decided there was only one thing for me to do. It was about that time when I became a southpaw," she added, indicating her right shoulder. "Oz held me down, while Riley hacked it off with an ax. Anyway, I realized that had to find my friends and family who had been turned, and slay them. Destroy their vampire bodies, so that their souls could find rest. Once that was over, I would take the nearest sword and drive it into my heart. Better to die by my own hand, than risk being turned, right? I was going to Hell anyway, why not on my own terms?"
"But something else happened, or else you wouldn’t be here," Giles hazarded a guess.
"Yeah," Alt-Buffy answered over a sip of chocolaty goodness. "I ran into Cordy, after taking out Vamp-Willow in LA. Turns out that she had been hiding out in an old church, and avoided being vamped. She hooked up with some outfit called the Powers That Be, and they gave her something--Mom, where’s my duffel bag?"
"Right here, honey," Joyce fetched the ratty old bag and handed it to the injured slayer. Buffy rummaged through the bag, and withdrew the scepter. Giles looked at the device, a brass rod entwined by two copper snakes, and nearly dropped his tea onto his lap. "My God," he whispered reverently. "The Scepter of Hermes!"
"Who-mes?" asked the younger Buffy.
"Hermes," Xander snapped his fingers. "Wasn’t he the Greek god of speed? Yeah, he was in charge of travelers and roads, too, wasn’t he?"
"Very good, Xander," Giles commented, genuinely impressed. He then thought for a second, and asked him sternly, "Did you get that from an episode of ‘Xena, Warrior Princess’?"
Xander smiled innocently, "Educational television. Gotta love it!"
Giles let out an audible exasperated sigh, and continued in full Professor Mode; "According to legend, Hermes was gifted by Hephaestus, the god of the forge, with a staff and winged shoes, that allowed him to fly, and travel at any speed imaginable. With the staff, the myths say, no place on Earth, in Heaven or in Hell was too distant to him. If these so-called Powers That Be are associated with the godlike beings that recruited Angel, then this must be that very staff! Amazing!"
"Great, so we stick it in a crate next to the Ark of the Covenant, Indy?" Buffy asked. "What does this have to do with whatever’s going down tonight at Sunnydale High?"
"That staff is what brought me here, Buffy," Alt-Buffy answered. "I guess if no place in the universe is to distant for it, that must mean time-travel as well. I don’t know how it works, really, I just got impressions from it, including a spell to recite when activating it; ‘Tempus Fugit, Tempus Fragnat’."
"Oh, oh," Willow barked excitedly, grasping at something that she could understand in this strange conversation. "That means ‘Time Passes, Time Breaks’, or something like that, right?"
"Something like that, yes, Willow," Giles agreed. "Uh, Alt-Buffy, I guess," he turned toward the older slayer. "You say you received images from the scepter. What kind of images?"
"Mostly faces and things from my past," Alt-Buffy answered. "Lots of stuff from Sunnydale High, especially the old football field. I also got some images of Mr. Snyder for some weird reason."
"Oh God, Snyder?" Xander groaned at the thought of the late unlamented principal of Sunnydale High. "Give me the Master, give me Angelus, give me another Ascension. Give me the Master and Angelus with front row seats for the Ascension, but please dear God, not Snyder!"
"I wouldn’t worry about Snidely Whiplash," Buffy commented, "seeing as how he got gobbled up by His Honor during our graduation. Much dead now."
"No he isn’t."
Six pairs of eyes fixed themselves on the speaker. Anya, who had kept her own counsel during this exchange, finally saw fit to speak up.
"I hate to contradict, Anya," Willow said, "but he got eaten up real good by a Snyder-eating dragon-sized demonic mayor Wilkins. It was the highpoint of the commencement exercises."
"A human named Snyder was eaten," Anya insisted, "but the animus remains. Belial."
"Belial, Belial," Xander searched his memory, "nope, I don’t recall a Belial on ‘Xena’. Unless he’s related to Dahak."
"I know of Belial," Giles muttered. "One of the higher ranking demons in the hierarchy of Hell."
"An arch-duke of Hell," Anya intoned with dread in her voice. "Lord of the Pit, Author of all Lies, these are his titles."
"Y’know, Anya," Buffy said in an edged voice, "I can’t help but wish that you had brought this up sooner."
"I wasn’t a part of your merry group until after graduation," Anya explained innocently. Or as innocently as an ex-vengeance demon can get. "By the time I got back together with Xander and joined the Slayerettes, Belial had departed the mortal plane, so I figured that he lost interest in your world. But if you’re having flashbacks of him, I would guess that he’s coming back."
"But how did you know about him?" Giles asked.
"No demon can hide its true essence from another demon," Anya said simply. "In fact, once I learned that Belial had set himself up as the principal of your high school I said to myself, ‘Self, this looks like home sweet home!’. You see, Belial wants above all else control. Over life, over souls, over all creation."
"And Snyder being such a control freak," Giles added, "he would have been an ideal host for Belial. I always suspected that he knew about Mayor Wilkins, and about Buffy."
"Oh God, this almost makes sense," Joyce breathed. "That miserable troll set out from day one to make Buffy miserable. Unfair punishments, intimidation, expulsion, he did everything he could against my little girl."
"Mom, please," Buffy and Alt-Buffy said in unison, then looked at each other, embarrassed that they spoke that way. Xander looked at the two and quipped, "You knew that was going to happen."
"Joyce has a point," Giles conceded. "That evolutionary throw-back always seemed to have a vendetta against Buffy. Anyway, what matters is, if Belial is behind all this, we may be facing a grave crisis. Buffy," he spoke to the younger Slayer, "you were planning a patrol, right?"
"I was going to stake out Whetherly Park," Buffy answered, then amended her reply; "No pun intended. Perhaps I should go by where the high school was instead?"
"That’s where the visions seem to be leading us," Giles answered. "Besides, the Hellmouth is at its weakest over the old school grounds, and that’s where you," he pointed to Alt-Buffy, "saw the fire display."
"I’d better go with Buffy," Alt-Buffy suddenly volunteered.
Giles thought about it, then said, "Perhaps you’re right. The two of you can guard each other’s backs. Willow and I will do the research. Xander, Anya, stay with Willow, do what she asks. I’ll be at the campus library."
"You have a computer, Mrs. Summers?" Willow asked.
"I have a good laptop, with a reasonably fast modem," Joyce went to her study to locate the computer.
Soon, the Scoobs set out on their separate errands. The two Buffies on patrol, Willow as Research Girl and Giles in the library stacks." Xander, Anya and Joyce stood by pensively, assured of only one thing; if Belial was their enemy, then they were in for the fight of their lives.