Buffy lay ten yards away from the two men, ignored as an inconsequence. As she listened to them, she knew that she was getting weaker. It was all that she could do to keep her eyes from shutting, to keep her ears attuned to the conversation between Quentin Travers and Roland Snyder. She feared that should she close her eyes, they would never open in this life again. Whatever Quentin pumped into her veins, it was far stronger than the stuff Giles gave her on her eighteenth birthday. The part of her brain that could function coherently was growing more and more quiet, and her respiration became more shallow with each breath.
She knew that she was dying, and despaired that there was nothing she could do to stave it off, or to stop these evil en from their mad design. The more she heard of their plan, the more she raged with desire to stop them. But her body would not respond to that desire. She was trapped in a prison of useless dying flesh.
The sounds of energy weapons and screaming vampires interrupted Quentin’s business with Snyder. "It seems we have company," Snyder commented.
"No one ever accused you of being an original conversationalist," Quentin replied. "Don’t worry, Snyder, our troops will take care of them. Now, shall we get on with business?"
"Of course," Snyder smiled, a feral display of teeth. "Our negotiations have reached their final stages, the...persons...I represent have agreed to abide by the stipulations of the contract. However, we require possession of the disputed territory within the next twenty-four hours."
"This doesn’t give the residents of the disputed area time to evacuate," Quentin argued. Snyder simply laughed at Quentin’s observation.
"Mr. Travers, evacuation was never an option. The residents are part of the disputed area, and must therefore be considered part of the trade. With the signing of this contract, the city of Sunnydale and all its population become property of the Hellmouth."
"I understand your position, Mr. Snyder," Quentin sighed, "but there are those among my organization who would find this clause in the contract unacceptable. There could be repercussions."
"Quentin, old bean," Snyder grinned like Satan’s spin doctor, "you do understand what we hope to accomplish, do you? We are on the verge of forging the first peace accord between humanity and demonkind. This treaty between Earth and the Hellmouth will forever assure the peace for your world. You can no longer rely on your highly vaunted Slayers, Miss Summers and Mr. Giles have guaranteed that. This measure is required for humanity to survive. If a few thousand souls must sacrifice themselves to save a few billion, then, well, you know what they say about making an omelet. You have to break a couple of eggs." Quentin lowered his shoulders, swayed by Snyder’s logic. "I suppose you’re right. As long as I have your assurances that the demons of Hellmouth, once they take over Sunnydale, won’t cross over the boundary lines to invade the rest of the world."
"You have my word," Snyder lied. The two men shook hands.
From her vantage point behind the bleachers, Alt-Buffy seethed, her disbelief at what she had witnessed; Quentin Travers just sold out the human race to Belial. She made a silent vow at that very instant, that before she completed her mission to undo what Quentin and Snyder were doing, she would kill Quentin with her bare hands. As far as she was concerned, he had proven himself more evil than any vampire, any demon, any monster she had faced before.
Master? Yeah, right.
At least those creatures didn’t have the burden of souls. Quentin Travers didn’t have that excuse. He had a soul and chose to sell it to the devil. He could go to hell as far as she was concerned.
And she would send him there herself.
"Team one, forward! Team two, ground support!" Riley shouted to his men, who responded with both professionalism and gusto. A khaki swarm poured into the football field, as the Initiative soldiers sought out and targeted their undead prey. A number of vampires broke through Initiative lines, only to be felled either by their energy weapons or by the stakes and crossbows wielded by Giles and the Slayerettes. They advanced toward the center of the field, toward where two older men were talking. Giles recognized them as Snyder and Travers.
"Look!" Willow shouted excitedly, pointing toward the two men. "Just past Snydeman!"
Giles, having dispatched a clumsy newbie vampire, craned his neck to see where Willow was pointing. Ten yards behind where Snyder and Travers were standing, a body slumped over on her side, seemingly unconscious. "Buffy," Giles whispered. "Willow, quickly, get to her and give her the anti-toxin. Xander, Anya, Spike, cover her!"
"On it, Fearless Leader!" Xander shouted, his customary fear of nasty situations forgotten by his concern for Buffy. Willow sprinted toward her fallen friend, only to have a pair of especially disreputable looking vampires cut her off.
"Well, ain’t that sweet," the female vamp, her tattered leather clothes barely concealing her decaying body.
"Looks like fresh meat," her male counterpart added.
"Geez," Willow teased, her right arm raised, to release the herbal spell. "What are you, the vampiric answer to Team Rocket?"
Xander knew a cue when he heard one. "If that’s the case," he quipped, "I choose you, Crossbow!" He promptly fired two bolts in rapid succession. They hit their targets with deadly accuracy. Two more piles of dust were kicked aside by Willow’s feet as she ran toward Buffy. Xander simply stood back with his crossbow in hand, saying to Anya, "Gotta slay ‘em all!" Willow silently gave Xander a raised eyebrow and a withering stare, recognized by all the Scooby Gang as meaning, Man, Xander, are you ever dumb!, then headed back to where she had seen Buffy.
After quietly felling a demon who had snuck up on Xander and Anya, Spike stood beside them, his sword resting casually in his hand, strangely evoking the image of William Wallace, or at least Mel Gibson in that role in ‘Braveheart’. "Nice slayage, Deadboy," Xander quipped, and the former William Blood smirked at the left-handed compliment.
He managed to peg two other vampires that had threatened himself and the others. With each blow against his former brethren, he came closer to the realization that he could never go back to being the man whom he was, even if he could ever shake the effects of the microchip that kept him from harming humans.
He had little choice in the matter, but when push came to shove, he chose which side he would be on in the eternal battle. It wasn’t a matter of humanity, for he still had no soul. More a matter of enlightened self-interest; having turned against his own kind, he knew that they would declare him enemy. So it was only fitting that he declare himself their enemy in deed as well as by perception. And if that meant that I would be forced to join Buffy’s merry marching society, he thought at that time, then, Scooby-bloody-Doobie-Doo! He turned his mind away from thoughts of the future, instead thinking only of the present, and the fight at hand.
As it turned out, Willow didn’t need the cover fire from Xander and the Initiative, since her herbal spell was still protecting her. She didn’t even notice three vampires who had tried to block her way to Buffy. They jerked back from her as though she had erected an invisible force field around her, just like Susan Richards of the Fantastic Four. At least I can use this spell to protect Buffy. Oh Goddess, grant that I’m not too late!
After running for what seemed to her like an eternity, she finally made it to the fallen Slayer’s side. Thankfully, neither Quentin, Snyder, nor any of their hench-monsters seemed to notice her slipping through their defenses, as she concentrated on Buffy’s condition. Buffy’s eyes were closed, her lips parted, her skin pale and ashen. Willow fought down her panic reflex as she placed her finger on her friend’s carotid artery. The pulse was weak, thready, but still there. After breathing a sigh of relief and offering a silent prayer of thanks to the Goddess for saving the one she loved, Willow immediately got to work.
She opened the packet of herbs at one corner, and sprinkled them out in a circle, around herself and Buffy. She muttered the invocation, modified for her purpose; "Henbane and holly to guard our backs, Garlic and rue to repel all attacks." The utterance would activate the defense spell, and allow her to work undisturbed. She opened the wooden case, and primed the syringe, pointing it upwards and pressing against the plunger to squirt out any air bubbles. She then gingerly pressed the needle into the lower basalic vein in Buffy’s right arm. As the needle first made contact with the skin, Buffy’s eyes fluttered open. "N-no, no," she murmured, "no..more...ne-needles..."
"Shh," Willow soothed her friend in a delicate. "Don’t try to move. I’m not hurting you, Buffy, I’m giving you an antitoxin. Giles gave me this, it’ll burn out the bad stuff that Quentin gave you." Buffy tried to squirm, but could only put up token resistance. Willow carefully found the vein, pressed the needle into her arm, and injected its contents. "There now, Buffy," Willow soothed, placing the Slayer’s head on her lap. "That wasn’t so bad now, was it?"
"C-can I...have..a...a..lo-lollypop?" Buffy asked, her voice barely audible.
Willow just smiled at her beloved, and stroked her blonde hair. "Now you just lie back for a few minutes, let the antitoxin work. Don’t worry, your Willow is here for you." She placed her hand in Buffy’s, who squeezed her hand lightly, but with growing firmness. Willow smiled, relieved that the antitoxin was working.
Outside of the protective circle, the battle raged. The Initiative’s soldiers clashed with the vampires, and both sides drew heavy causalities. Buffy, hearing the din of battle, tried to stand up, to join the fray, but her center of gravity suddenly seemed to shift to somewhere above her neck, and she collapsed quickly. "No," Willow tried to take her arms, to get her to sit for a few more minutes. Buffy despaired as she tried to move with limited success. "I have to get in there," she lamented. "I need to find Giles, to tell him..."
"Hush, Buff," Willow consoled her. "Giles is out there, he knows what Quentin and Snydely are up to. You’ll be up to full strength in a few minutes, and we’ll be safe inside the protective circle." She took Buffy’s hand in her own again and whispered, "I’m not about to lose you again, do you hear me Buffy? You’re too important to the world. To me." She closed her eyes, knowing that with her next sentence, nothing was going to be the same. "I love you, Buffy Summers. More than anything or anyone else in this world. Always have. Always will."
Her declaration, her vow, was greeted with silence. For five seconds, each one dragging on for what seemed like an eternity, Willow was convinced that she had gone too far, that she had crossed a line from which she could never go back, that she had jeopardized her friendship with Buffy forever. She kept her eyes closed, afraid to face Buffy. Then, she heard Buffy speak, an edge of laughter in her voice; "Damn. I wanted to be the first to say it."
Willow’s eyes snapped open, revealing to her the face of her beloved, her Buffy, smiling at her. She tried to think of something to say, to make sure that Buffy meant what she said, and then felt a hand gently but firmly grasp the back of her neck and draw her closer, and a pair of warm clinging lips press against her own.
Buffy’s lips were sweeter and softer than she had imagined, and the thrill of kissing her sent electric jolts throughout her nervous system. It took her a second to recover from the shock, and start kissing her back. For a timeless instant, Buffy Summers and Willow Rosenburg were the only two people in existence. No Sunnydale, no Hellmouth, no vampires, no demons, no Quentin, no Initiative, no...
"Mhi-mhey!" Buffy mumbled against Willow’s mouth.
"What?" Willow broke off the kiss reluctantly.
"Riley," Buffy repeated herself. Willow turned around, to find Riley Finn staring directly at them. Oh God, Willow thought, I feel a babble attack coming on...
"Buffy?" he asked. "Are you all right?"
"Right as rain," she answered quickly. Willow just waved at the hapless Lieutenant, clamping down hard on her mouth to keep the babble dam from bursting.
"Good," he answered simply, although both women could clearly see the disappointment in his eyes.
"I’m sorry, Riley," was all that Buffy could say.
"Hey, it’s okay." He gave her a half-smile, and said to Willow, "You take good care of her, or I’ll beat you to death with a shovel." Riley tipped his right hand toward the two in a casual salute, and turned around, barking orders to his men; "All right, men, let’s finish what we started!"
Willow looked back at Buffy, saying, "Hey, I’m sorry about..."
"Don’t be, Wills," Buffy soothed her friend, as she struggled to get to her feet, and became relieved to find that her legs would support the weight. "This is what I want. I’m the one who initiated the kiss, remember?" She suddenly regarded Willow with a tooth-bearing grin. "And once this is all over, I plan on kissing you again. Repeatedly. And probably a lot more than that."
"Talk about incentive for world savage!" Willow answered back with what could only be described as a shit-eating grin.
Buffy returned that grin with one of her own, sighing, "I do love you, Willow Rosenburg." She then stopped, the smile vanishing from her face. "We gotta find Giles. It’s worse than he knows. Quentin’s signing a deal with Sny- uh, Belial! He’s going to hand Sunnydale over to the Hellmouth!"
"And you, Slayer," the quietly evil voice of Quentin Travers replied from out of nowhere, "will not interfere with these proceedings. Buffy and Willow turned around to face Quentin, who held a small handgun aimed directly at Buffy’s heart. "I had hoped to let you die in peace, without pain or bloodshed, but since you insist on being difficult..." Without another word, he pulled the trigger.
The bullet ricocheted off of the protective field in front of the two young women, and back toward Quentin, lodging in his arm. Buffy looked at Willow and said, "That is one user-friendly spell you got there."
"I don’t know my own strength!" Willow breathed, awed by the power of her own spell. "That one’s definitely a keeper."
"I’ll just relieve you of that, if you don’t mind!" Giles, suddenly standing in front of Quentin, grabbed his neck in a hammerlock, and wrested the gun from his hand. Buffy had never seen Giles this angry before, not at her when she had lied about Angel being alive, not at Angelus when he killed Jenny Calendar, not even at Snyder for any number of reasons. There was a flash of white fire in his eyes, and she swore she could see sparks flaring out of his mouth as he ground his teeth. "And now, traitor," Giles snarled, throwing Quentin to the ground, "I would have words with you!"
"You are persona non gratia among the Council, Giles," Quentin puffed himself like a penguin, as though being bodily assaulted had done nothing to his composure. "You have no authority in these proceedings."
"What authority do you have," Giles shouted indignantly, "to make such a deal with Roland Snyder? You are talking about sacrificing tens of thousands of people to the Hellmouth!"
"Why, Giles," Snyder suddenly stepped forward from his observation perch, oozing mock civility. "What an unexpected surprise. You and Miss Summers, and her little witch friend," he grinned evilly at Buffy, who held Willow a little tighter, a little more protectively. "I suppose that Xander Harris is here as well? How delightful, I get to see the four who caused me so much grief over the years die at the hands of my associates."
"This is not about revenge, Mr. Snyder," Quentin glared at the former principal. Apparently, he hated the man as much as Giles and Buffy did. "Giles, what I am doing here is safeguarding the lives of over five billion humans. I have met with Mr. Snyder, who has represented the denizens of what you euphemistically call ‘the Hellmouth’, and together, we have forged the first treaty between humanity and demonkind. Sunnydale will be sacrificed to the Hellmouth, and yes that is a tragedy, but that is the price that we were forced to pay because of you, Buffy Summers."
"Oh, no, no, no," Buffy flared, her rage slowly matching that she saw in Giles. "You try to pin this one on me, I’ll filet you!"
"Indeed, Miss Summers, it is that attitude," Quentin continued, "that has forced the Watcher’s Council to accept this non-aggression pact with the Hellmouth. You and your fellow slayer Faith have proven unreliable, therefore we require a peaceful solution."
"Peaceful solution?" Giles sputtered. "You honestly think that you can deal with that--that--creature?"
"Sticks and stones, Giles," Snyder tut-tutted.
"You’re a greater fool than Neville Chamberlain," Giles continued his tirade, ignoring the demon in barely-human form, "when he signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany! He called it ‘Peace in our time’, then shortly after began the Blitz! You think you’ll fare better dealing with demons?"
"If you had kept a tighter rein on your charges, none of this would have happened." Quentin then turned to Buffy, damning her with his eyes. "Your rebellious nature has made you a liability, I’m afraid. You have constantly defied our orders, flaunted your association with your so-called ‘Slayerettes’--"
"We prefer ‘Scooby Gang’," Xander chimed in. The horde of vampires had thinned out considerably, and the Initiative was eliminating the last few of them, so Xander and Anya had joined the debate at the center of the football field.
"Besides, we wanted in," Willow defended the gang. "Buffy’s our friend, we watch her back."
"My point exactly," Quentin growled. "The Slayer is a solitary person, she must go alone through her life--"
"Blah, blabity blah, I’m so stuffy, get me a scone!" Giles interrupted, shouting a line Buffy had used on him when he delivered a similar speech years ago. Buffy, remembering that incident, had to laugh out loud as she heard those words coming from Giles lips. In his own way, Giles was saying that Buffy was right all along. And he had heard enough of this fool Quentin, he was going to give him a piece of his mind. The Ripper is back, Giles thought, taking names.
"Has it ever occurred to you, Quentin," Giles continued, "that Buffy is the most successful Slayer in the long recorded history of the Watcher’s Council? That she is so successful, not in spite of her defying our ancient, archaic traditions, but because she defies them? And that is why you wish to eliminate her? Because she’s her own person? Nice plan you have here, eliminate Buffy, and Faith while you’re at it, she’ll be killed while she’s in a coma, and destroy an entire town to cover up the evidence? And then two new slayers will emerge to replace Buffy and Faith, and hopefully be more pliant to the Council’s wishes? I will never believe that the Council would ever approve such a monstrosity!"
"None the less, Giles," Quentin said quietly, "the pact is struck. It only awaits my signature, and..." A sledgehammer blow interrupted his declaration, sending him reeling to the ground. Buffy and Willow shuddered when they saw the figure who delivered the blow, and was now punching, kicking, clawing and kneeing the hapless Quentin.
Alt-Buffy had remained hidden from sight, listening to Quentin’s mad plan until she could hear no more. "Don’t pass out on me now, ass-wipe!" she shouted, a year’s worth of rage boiling over in her gut. "I want you to look at me, to know who it is who kills you!"
"Buffy, don’t do it!" Giles shouted at the time-traveler. "He’s not worth it!"
"Oh, this is worth it, Giles!" Alt-Buffy screamed, a desperate cry of righteous rage. She grabbed Quentin by the collar of his shirt, and shook him with her one good hand. "Do you know who I am, Quentin? DO YOU?"
Quentin, dazed by the onslaught, turned a bruised eye toward his captor, and gasped. "Bu-Bu- Buffy?"
"Yes, dickweed, Buffy! I came from the future, from the world that you created. You signed a deal with that thing that calls himself Snyder. But do you know who he really is? He’s Belial, a major demon! He used your blasted contract to invade this world, to lead an army of vampires, to destroy every living thing on this planet!"
She threw him onto the bleachers, hard enough to break his arm. "My world is dead!" As he struggled to right himself, she rammed her palm up his jaw, breaking seven of his teeth. "Humanity is extinct!" She tried to kick him in the side, but Xander finally managed to grab her by the arm, restraining her, just barely. "And you killed them all!" She struggled in Xander’s grip, but was unable, with only one arm, to get enough leverage to break free.
"Congratulations, Quentin," Giles intoned, his disgust at his former superior officer putting steel in his voice. "You just surpassed Judas Iscariot as the greatest traitor who ever lived."
Quentin, his body one vast area of pain, looked around at the two Buffies, and the others who had gathered around them. "My-my God," he stammered, his speech slurred by extensive injuries to his jaw. "Is this true?" Giles nodded. Alt-Buffy finally stopped struggling and just glared at Quentin. Perhaps no human face before had ever displayed such contempt, such raw, unfettered hatred.
"Come now, Quentin," Snyder smiled. "You’re not going to let these delinquents sway you from the great work you’re about to complete, are you? For the first time in millennia, there will be peace between the two worlds. You can’t bail out now."
"Get thee behind me, Satan!" Quentin whispered. "You misrepresented yourself, demon. You lied to me about your intentions. You make me ashamed of my part in this blasphemy. No more! I refuse to sign your contract, monster! Our pact is null and void! Be gone to your realm and never come back!" For a full ten seconds, not a sound could be heard. The injured Quentin and the supplicant Snyder just stood, staring at each other, each daring the other to make the next move.
Snyder stepped forward until he was just inches away from Quentin. He sagged his shoulders, saying, "I’m sorry you feel this way, friend." He then lunged his right hand forward, bursting through Quentin’s ribcage, and pulling out his still-beating heart. He stepped over the newly-killed corpse, taking the parchment on which the contract was written. He smeared the heart over the parchment, chanting;
"Words of a traitor, penned in black; Blood of a traitor, to seal the pact. So long as this contract is in my hand, This world is no more the dominion of man!"
His laughter echoed across the field, and beyond, disturbing the dreams of all sleeping people around the world, and chilling the souls of the waking. Snyder turned toward the younger Buffy, the grin on his face reminiscent of Batman’s eternal nemesis, the Joker. He seemed taller, more muscular, no longer the weakling authoritarian he appeared to be at Sunnydale High, but a true force of evil. "Remind me, Buffy, what was the name of that song you and your classmates liked?" he chortled. "By REM, I believe? Ah, yes; ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It, And I Feel Fine’!"