Soulworld VI, part 14 - I'll See You When We Get There Part 14 - I'll See You When We Get There

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Magitech Lunar Complex

Tranquility, Lunar Colony

February 6, 2101 AD

Parallel 1

Willow 12 and Jennifer had decided to let everyone return in their own time, seeing as the quantum computer's discovery was not really a solution of any kind and there was nothing to be done about it until more information became available. Willow 12 continued processing the gathered data at speeds that would have all conventional computers ever created in the dust and finally arrived at some form of conclusion when everyone except Anne had returned to the computer's chamber.

"How is she?" Buffy asked Tinya, who had been with Anne for most of the day.

"Not good, I fear," the younger Slayer said. "She ... when the world faded around us she tried to break through the force field. Angel, the other one, was right on the other side. They almost touched. She was screaming as if her soul was being torn away. I never saw anything like it."

Buffy nodded, fully able to sympathize. There had been times when she had thought that Angel was lost to her. When Grigori had kidnapped him to unlock the Necronomicon Nocturnum. When Akathler had opened a portal to Hell and only Angel's blood could close it. When their fight over the issues of immortality had nearly caused a permanent break-up.

She had felt lost then, completely set adrift in a world that did not make sense to her anymore, her anchor lost. All these times, though, Angel had returned to her. When they had joined their bond it erased her fears because now she knew that, even if death took one of them, the other would follow.

Anne, though, did not have a bond. All she had was the memory of watching her Angel die. Twice.

"I should go talk to her," Buffy resolved. "We're the same person, after all. Maybe I can ..."

Her voice drifted off when Anne walked into the room, her face completely neutral. She did not say a word to anyone, just looked at Willow 12 expectantly. For a moment Buffy considered trying to talk to her despite her 'stay away' posture, but then decided against it. There would be time for that later when they did not have a multiverse to save.

"Now that we're all here," Willow 12 began, "we can begin. First of all thank you to all of you. I know how hard it must have been to go on those journeys. Maybe it helps that we have all the information we need."

"You have found out why this is happening?" Buffy asked, a glimmer of hope in her voice.

"Not why, no," Willow 12 admitted. "Where, though. I have found the source of the destruction."

Everyone was hanging on her lips. A holographic image flickered into existence above them, showing a vast three-dimensional construct that none of them could make heads or tails of.

"This is a stylized presentation of the multiverse," Willow 12 explained. "Essentially it is a decision tree, every choice or event splintering the timeline to cover all possible outcomes. At present the number of alternate universes in existence exceeds the number of atoms in this universe."

She moved her hand to point at the bottom of the construct.

"At the very beginning, though, there was but one universe. Right here, a millisecond before the very first event. The Big Bang. This is the place we've been looking for."

For a long moment everyone was silent, only to then to launch into questions all at once.

"The Big Bang?"

"How is that a place? It's the past."

"There really was a Big Bang?"

"Have you gone completely bonkers now?"

"Please, give me a second to explain," Willow 12 assuaged the many voices. "To answer your questions. Yes, there was a Big Bang. Without going into too much detail it was the moment when time and space began, a big explosion that formed the universe as we know it today. And yes, it is a place. Crossing the parallels has, as you no doubt noticed, included shifts in time as well. Time is just another dimension to navigate, meaning that the Big Bang is happening as we speak, will happen tomorrow, and happened yesterday. All time exists in parallel."

"What are you saying, Willow?" Angel asked, looking at the hologram. "What- or whoever is doing this is orchestrating this destruction from the very beginning of time?"

"It appears so, yes. In a way it is logical, Angel. It is the only time and the only place in the multiverse where everything is absolute. Everything from that moment forward is possibilities, variants, different versions of history existing side by side. Only at this point can one hope to truly affect all that is."

Buffy threw a side glance at Anne and saw that her doppelganger was staring at the point Willow had indicated, the beginning of time, with pure determination in her eyes.

"That is where we will find our enemy?" she asked, the steel in her voice sending a shiver down Buffy's spine.

"If there is an enemy," Willow 12 said. "I am convinced that there is, though. There are other things I have not yet told you about that lead me to believe that this is in no way a natural phenomenon."

"What are you talking about?"

Willow 12 exchanged a look with Jennifer, then fixed her gaze directly on Angel.

"Including my own observations of destroyed parallels I now have data from seventeen different parallels, Angel. Though only the data gathered by the arrays on the three of those parallels has enabled me to reach a full understanding of what is happening I have observed one thing in all of them.

"Every single time the white-out some of you have observed, the nullification of the parallel, is preceded by a series of quantum disturbances. You can imagine it as target acquisition, if you will. Aiming the gun. In all seventeen instances I was able to observe this the metaphorical crosshairs have been aimed at one and the same individual.

"You, Angel."

There was stunned silence for a long time until Angel overcame his shock.

"You want to explain this to me?"

"I am not sure I can," Willow 12 admitted. "For some reason the destruction of each parallel was centered on you, or rather the version of you living on that parallel. In some you were like you are now, a vampire with a soul. In others you were a soulless demon, in yet others you were human, still living in 18th century Ireland. Always a version of you, though. I am sorry, but I do not have an explanation for this."

"Someone with a grudge against peaches?" Spike asked.

"Some grudge," Tinya muttered. "Wipe out entire universes to get even with one guy."

"It also beggars the question how someone with this level of power could be concerned with any single individual."

"Willow," Buffy interjected. "There must be parallels out there where Angel never came into existence. Where his parents never met or something like that. Can you tell whether any of them was destroyed?"

"Impossible to say," Willow 12 answered. "As I said I only have data on seventeen different parallels that were destroyed. There was a version of Angel in all of these, though I can not say if all that were destroyed held versions of him or not. Sorry."

There was silence again until Angel spoke up.

"I guess there is but one way to find out, isn't there? We have to go and ask."

His eyes found the spot that represented the very beginning of time and for some reason he could not grasp he felt terribly afraid. As if some part of him already knew the answer. He remembered a brief sensation during their trip to that other universe. Just when that world had died, the moment they had teleported back to the dubious safety of their own dimension, he had felt something. An air of rage and grief, a pain so profound that only death on a universal scale could possibly balance it.

Buffy looked at him, sensing his thoughts across their bond.

"Angel?" she asked softly.

He just gave her a nearly imperceptible shake of his head. He could not make sense of that feeling. Maybe there was nothing to it, nothing more than his own pain and rage at seeing an entire world destroyed and knowing that it was just one of many that shared the same fate. The fear that his own world might join these others at any moment and without warning.

Maybe it was more. As he had said, though, there was only one way to find out.

"Can you get us there?" he asked Willow 12.

"I believe so," she answered. "The principle is the same as when I shifted the arrays to other dimensions. I need to narrow down the time shift, but with the amount of data I have gathered that should not prove much of a problem."

"We should prepare then," Jennifer said. "Against a foe of this caliber we will need all the firepower we can get. Angel, we should talk to the United Nations Senate and ..."

"That will be impossible, I fear," Willow 12 interrupted her.

"Why?"

"Despite the ample amounts of energy at my disposal thanks to the solar funnel I estimate that I will not be able to shift anything even remotely resembling a large attack force this far down the multiversal construct. Even shifting the people present right now will strain my capabilities to the limit."

"Great," Spike huffed. "So you're saying we're supposed to take on some kind of creep with god-like power with fists and fangs?"

"If our enemy or enemies actually do possess this level of power than the entire United Nations Space Navy will be of no use against them, Spike."

"If?" Angel queried.

"My point is, Angel, that none of us know what we will be up against. Neither do we know how exactly this destruction of parallels is accomplished or why. It might be that anyone who manages to position himself at the right place and the right time could do what has been done to our worlds. We do not know how much power it truly takes.

"Anyway, the point is moot. As I said I can only bring a limited number of people back to the beginning of time. We have to do the best we can, whether we are facing a god-like enemy or not. There is no choice whatsoever."

Angel finally nodded.

"How many people?" he asked.

"Those present here today. Some others. I can not say yet how many it will be. Certainly no more than fifty."

"Want me to call Luke?" Spike looked at Angel. "He can scrounge up the remaining Tarakans for us. Should give us a fighting chance."

"That will not be necessary," Willow 12 said. "I have taken the liberty of contacting a few other people. They will stand ready. It will take me an estimated seven hours to prepare everything for our journey. You should all get some rest."

A part of Angel rebelled, unsure that trusting so many factors of the upcoming battle to this machine they still knew so little about. He finally resigned, though. They had come too far, seen too much, to go back now. For better or worse Willow 12 was their world's only hope for salvation and doubts would only slow them down now.

Seven hours, he mused. Somehow it seemed strange that time had to pass before they could go on a journey through time. To the very beginning of time. He still could not shake that nagging feeling that there was something about all this he should know.

--

part 15 - Do Androids Cry Electric Tears?

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Magitech Lunar Complex

Tranquility, Lunar Colony

February 6, 2101 AD

Parallel 1

Sleep eluded him.

Careful not to wake his wife Angel had slipped out of the room they occupied for the time being and silently made his way through the sprawling Magitech complex, looking for some place to be alone with his thoughts. It was the middle of the day, Earth time, and a lot of people were about. Most of them were busy working on the New Earth Construction Project, toiling to bring back humanity's homeworld.

Angel knew that only a handful of them were even aware that something much more important was taking place right under their noses. Something that might yet lay waste to all their toils and troubles.

"Lucky bastards," Angel murmured.

He finally retreated into one of the recreation areas, a large room with a picture window that should have shown the Earth rising over the curve of the moon. Angel had loved watching Earthrises. He could watch them with his own eyes, the reflected sunlight posing no harm to his demonic nature. Seeing that orb of blue and white rise into the sky had never failed to bring tears to his eyes.

As it was, though, the window showed nothing but the bleak landscape of Luna, draped in shadows. The sun was safely on the other side of the small planetoid and Angel looked out at nothing but distant stars.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" a voice suddenly intruded.

Angel swiveled around, not having noticed the newcomer before now. For a moment he thought that Buffy had followed him here, but quickly rectified that observation.

"Hello, Anne," he greeted her. "Couldn't sleep, either?"

"I don't sleep," she simply said, walking up until she stood next to him. "Haven't for the last forty years or so."

She was hugging herself, looking incredibly young and fragile. Angel could not help but feel for her, even though he knew that she was not his wife. She was Buffy. That was more than enough all by itself.

"You and Buffy ... your Buffy ... you are married?"

Angel nodded. "In more than one way."

"We were married as well," she said softly. "He gave me a Claddagh on my seventeenth birthday. I only found out later that it was an Irish wedding band. We made it official a few years later."

Not knowing what to say Angel simply put his hand on her shoulder. This woman had seen him die twice within the span of a few days and he could barely imagine the pain she must be feeling. Anne leaned into his touch.

"Tinya told me there is no Earth in this world."

Angel nodded. "It was destroyed five years ago. But we are working on bringing it back. Some day people will stand here and see the Earth rise once again."

He went on to describe to her what it looked like to see his home from the moon, described all the beautiful colors. How cloud formations the size of continents lazily moved across the face of the Earth, how his keen eyesight had been able to make out the eyes of hurricanes and see the flashes of lightning high in the atmosphere. Anne listened to him, resting her hand on his own where it rested on her shoulder.

"You feel just like him", she murmured, "and yet I know almost immediately that you're not him. Why do you think that is?"

"I don't know. Different circumstances make different people."

"I wish I didn't know," she said in a bitter tone. "I wish I could look at you and believe that you are my Angel."

He drew her closer, pulling her against his side. Words deserted him once more, so he said nothing and simply held her, allowing the familiar warmth to thaw his cold skin.

"Angel?"

"Yes?"

"I ... I know you are not him. I don't think I could fool myself into thinking that even if I had Anne rearrange my entire brain. But ..."

Her voice trailed off, but Angel encouraged her to continue. She turned and looked into his eyes.

"He died right before my eyes, Angel," she said, tears gathering in her eyes. "From one moment to the next he was gone and I ... I don't know whether he knew ... knew how much I ..."

"I think he knew," Angel told her softly. "If he was anything like me, then he knew."

"Maybe. But ... Angel, would you mind if I ... it's stupid, but ..."

He understood what she wanted and nodded. Anne ... Buffy draped her arms around his neck and stood on her tiptoes until they were almost face to face, her lips but inches away from his.

"I love you, Angel," she whispered. "I always have. I always will. Even if the entire multiverse were to die tomorrow it wouldn't change a thing and every second I got to spend with you was a lifetime."

"I love you, Buffy," Angel answered, certain that his doppelganger would have said the same. How could he not if they were anything like the same person. "Forever."

He leaned down to kiss her, almost lost in the familiar sensation for a moment. In all things that mattered, he realized, this was the woman he loved, had always loved, would always love. If he could give her the briefest moment of comfort then he would do whatever it took.

The kiss ended all too soon, though, and Anne drew away, giving him a shaky smile.

"Thank you."

"Anytime."

She left after that and Angel decided to return to bed as well. When he reached their room he saw that Buffy was sitting awake in bed, looking at him with a content smile on her face.

"Thank you for doing that for her," she said, opening her arms to him as he slipped into bed.

"She needed it." Angel snuggled against her, having her in his arms giving him a feeling of safety he desperately needed right now. "In so many ways she is you, Buffy."

"I know." She rested her head against his chest. "What do you think she will do once this is over? Say we defeat this super-powerful mega-evil, what then? She has nowhere to go back to."

"Maybe not, but if she is anything like you then she won't give up. It's not in your nature, beloved."

They stopped speaking, the bond between them allowing them to share all the emotions and feelings that words would never properly express. They each felt the other's fear of loss, that someone this unimaginable power would tear them apart like it had Anne and her Angel. They felt the complete helplessness they had experienced during their travel to the other parallel, having to watch as a world was wiped away completely, seeing themselves die and fade.

Strongest, though, was their determination. In a few hours they would face something or someone with the power to wipe out entire universes. It did not matter, though. They would face it and make it pay. For Anne and her Angel, for the people they had seen die, for Willow 12's world, and all the others that had perished.

"I love you," Buffy whispered to Angel as sleep slowly took her once more. "I always will."

"Forever," he whispered back, finally allowing himself rest as well.

--

Part 16 - Ground Zero

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Magitech Lunar Complex

Tranquility, Lunar Colony

February 6, 2101 AD

Parallel 1

"We are ready," Willow 12 announced.

Everyone had gathered in one of Magitech's large construction facilities, where automated drones had worked ceaselessly throughout the day to adjust a Stepping Disk according to Willow 12's design. The entire room was humming with power drawn directly from the sun and the magical energy hanging in the air made the hairs on everyone's skin stand up straight.

The entire group was armed to the teeth, outfitted in the finest of magitechnological weaponry. Razorsuits, uni-rifles, personal force fields, everything the modern warrior could wish for and more.

Jennifer carried the twin swords Firefang she had inherited from her parents, the dragon-forged blades humming in anticipation of combat. Buffy strapped the sword of the fallen Archangel Raphael to her back, steel that would burn with heaven's own fire if needed resting coolly against her spine.

Anne was the only one who had taken no weapon from the impressive arsenal Jennifer had access to. When asked she told them that she herself was all the weapon she would ever need.

The big surprise for everyone, though, was Willow 12 herself. The quantum computer had decided to accompany them on their journey to the beginning of time and found the perfect means to do so.

Seeing the stares everyone was giving her Willow 12 put her body through a playful spin.

"What do you think?"

Jennifer was the first to find her voice again, looking at the figure standing before her. It looked almost like a young version of her mother, except for the fact that her mother's body had not been made from crimson steel.

"How ...?"

"I have Anne to thank for this new form," Willow 12 explained. "She lent me a sample of the mystical metal her own body was forged from. It enabled me to construct this replica. It's nowhere near as advanced or versatile as the original, I fear, but it will serve me well on this trip."

"Now that we've all gaped over your new outfit, pet," Spike interrupted, "you might want to tell us where the rest of Custer's last stand is. You said something about contacting some other people to come with us."

"There will be others," Willow 12 assured him, leading everyone to the center of the waiting Stepping Disk. "They will not be starting from here, though. We will meet them when we get there."

"And who are they?" Angel asked, finding himself walking between Buffy and Anne, each of them seeming unaware of their protective closeness.

"It's a bit difficult to explain," Willow 12 said with a sheepish smile. "I think it's best if I just show you. Activate!"

Before anyone could ask further questions the Stepping Disk they were standing on sprang to live, glowing with the unleashed energy of a star and potent magic. Most of the people present had traveled through disks like these more often than they could count. They were well familiar with the strange feelings it evoked, the brief moment of disorientation when the power of magic and technology warped space and bridged vast distances in an instant.

This was different, though. As the Stepping Disk slowly rose to swallow them the entire room seemed to waver and change. Space dissolved into colors and music, drowning them in sensations they had never felt before. Even riding Willow 12's towering arrays had not felt like this. Buffy thought she was screaming, but she heard nothing except the loud beating of her own heart and an unidentifiable noise that seemed to suffuse the very air around her.

Going through a Stepping Disk always made her feel as if a dozen roaming hands were touching her body, running across her skin like the most intimate of lovers. She knew that, for some reason no one had been able to figure out yet, it did not feel the same for men. Angel always complained about the cold shower feeling of stepping through the disk. Right now, though, it felt like none of that. Buffy could not find any words to describe it and then it was over.

Buffy opened her eyes, surprised to find them closed in the first place, and looked out across ... nothing. The world around her was completely empty, consisting of nothing but a perfect virgin white.

"Did we make it?" Jennifer asked, her voice ringing out strangely in this place. She looked around for anything that would give her some point of reference. Her feet told her that she was standing on something solid but her eyes refused to see it.

"This place is giving me the creeps," Buffy whispered, feeling dizzy from the complete emptiness surrounding her.

"It is not a place as such," Willow 12 said. "It is the absence of space. We are one timeless moment away from the creation of the universe as we know it."

"How long until the Big Bang then?" Spike was also busy looking around, his hands clutching the uni-rifle he had brought. "I figure we should not be around when a universe-sized explosion goes off."

"Don't worry about that. We are in the moment before time begins, meaning we have all the time in the world." Willow 12 gave a smile at Spike's confused look. "I could give you the quantum theory behind it if you want."

"No thanks," Spike was quick to say. "This white stuff is giving me enough of a headache as it is."

There was complete silence around them, the only sounds the breathing of those that needed to. There was no horizon, no feeling of distance at all. Buffy was reminded of the between place that separated the world of the living and the ethereal dimensions, but this place here was even more empty than the endless gray twilight set before the dead. There was nothing here, nothing at all.

"Where is our enemy?" Angel asked, even his superior senses unable to make out anything in the whiteness.

"Not to mention our reinforcements," Tinya added.

"Right! Where is the cavalry?"

As if in answer to their question the space (or non-space) around them was suddenly filled with the gleaming light of a dozen or more Stepping Disks, appearing out of nowhere and divulging human shapes into the white wasteland. Buffy was blinded for a moment, then her eyes focused and she recognized the people arriving.

Recognized them over and over again.

A dark-haired Buffy with an eyepatch leveled a strange-looking rifle at them for a moment, then relaxed as she saw what were obviously familiar faces to her as well. Beside her a leather-clad Spike, whose hair was grown out down to his shoulders, let his hands rest on the twin guns he carried on his hips, looking thoroughly disgusted with being here.

A demon-faced Angel with a huge broadsword in hand walked toward them, growling softly under his breath. He wore only a loincloth that seemed to be made from demon skin and a belt decorated with numerous vampire fangs. His hands were elongated into claws.

Buffy needed a moment to recognize the blonde woman in white next to him as Cordelia, a much younger version of her old friend, who seemed to glow with an inner light. A dazzling smile was on her face.

Another version of Buffy walked arm in arm with yet another Angel, the two of them wearing identical dark blue bodysuits and clutching katana blades in their hands. They were accompanied by Willow, the witch not looking a day over thirty, clad in a black robe with a book of shadows under her arm.

Two women who both looked like Faith gave them all measuring glances, then spotted each other and smiled identical smiles. One of them was all decked out in black and obviously dead, her elongated canines standing out as she grinned. The other was wearing clothing that would have been more at home in a western movie, complete with a sixgun riding low on her hip.

There were about three dozen of them altogether and each and every one of them carried a face that was at the same time familiar and completely strange to the gathered army.

"Peaches," Spike said to Angel (after making sure that it was the right Angel), "I think this is now officially the weirdest gig we've ever been on."

Angel could only nod.

--

Part 17 - We Have Seen the Enemy ...

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Ground Zero

Just Before the Big Bang

There was little time for introductions. Willow 12 gave a short explanation about deciding to gather the best warriors of all possible worlds instead of just taking the best of one, leading Spike to comment about them having the All-Star team assembled, only with no trace of the bad guys so far. Some scathing remarks from various incarnations of Faith and Spike followed, but most people did not pay attention to them.

Something happened to all of them, almost at the same time. Had someone asked her Willow 12 would have called it mental leap. The world around them was completely empty, devoid of space and time, and the human mind was incapable of working in such an environment. Instead it adjusted, imposing its own version of form and sequence onto this empty canvas.

Suddenly the world around them changed. It was as if they had been staring at one of those three dimensional pictures where, at first, one sees nothing but gray spots. Then the image suddenly appears and one can only wonder why one did not see it before. The same happened to all of them now. Their minds found a new equilibrium, a way to interpret the world around them, and they all saw it.

None of them would have been able to say how big it was, only that it was immense. This was not a result of its physical dimensions, as it seemed to be big as a mountain and small as a grain of sand all at the same time. It was more a feeling they all received from it, a feeling of terrible vastness that threatened to drive them insane. They were standing right at the edge of an endless abyss and stared at a mountain that filled the world from horizon to horizon.

The mountain was man-shaped. It probably would not have been so for entities that were not man-shaped themselves, but none of them thought of that right then and there. Their eyes were riveted to this giant figure they saw before them.

"My God," someone whispered, one of the Angels judging by the voice.

"You might be on to something there, mate," a Spike answered.

The resemblance to a man ended with the outline of the figure. It looked more like a mannequin than a living human being, a crude, featureless doll made from the same perfect whiteness as the world all around them, yet somehow apart from it. It was not lifeless, though. Each and every one of them knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was alive.

Some of them even thought they could feel it breathing.

"What is that?" Anne addressed Willow 12 without taking her eyes away. "It's ... it's ..."

"I am not sure," the quantum computer confessed. "I ... my sensors can't even tell whether it's really there or not."

"Please don't let that be our big bad," one of the Spikes whispered.

Buffy had no words to express the things she was feeling upon seeing this giant entity. Its face loomed before her, larger than the face of the Earth as she remembered seeing it from the orbital cities. Larger even than the steel city of Heaven or the endless expanses of Hell. At the same time, though, she felt that she would be able to cup its chin with one of her tiny hands if she dared.

It was a human face, there was no mistaking that despite its stylized features. No, maybe not a human face, but rather the template of a face. The smallest common denominator. Something that every single being in existence would recognize as a face, no matter where it came from. Buffy stared at the giant eyes and knew that they were closed, though she could not make out any lids. The giant entity's eyes were closed and Buffy knew that it was sleeping.

Sleeping and dreaming.

She was taken by surprise when one of her companions stepped forward, almost close enough to touch the giant entity. It was Cordelia, the only version of her old friend present here. For a moment Buffy could think of nothing but how much the fake blonde hair did not flatter her, but that thought was quickly banished when the white-dressed woman began to glow softly.

"What are you doing?" someone asked. Buffy did not see who, but the voice was Willow's.

"It is dreaming," Cordelia said, almost as if she was in a trance. "It dreams about us."

"Us?"

"All of us. It dreams and we are."

'Angel?' Buffy asked through the bond she shared with her husband, not wanting to bother with clarifying which Angel she meant to the six or so people sharing that name around here. 'What is she talking about?'

'I think I know,' he answered, his mind filled with disbelief and awe. 'There ... there are cultures who believe that life is but a dream. Native Australians believed that the gods dreamed the world into existence.'

"So many dreams," Cordelia murmured under her breath. "Its mind ... oh my God, it's so vast, I ... I can't ..."

Angel surged forward, hearing the growing edge of panic in her voice, and pulled her back from where she was almost touching the entity. The glow around her faded and Cordelia sacked into his arms, looking completely worn and exhausted.

"That hurt," she finally said, whining. "I thought the hurting part was over with and done with when I got demoned-up. I got screwed again."

"What did you see, Cordy?" Angel asked. For a moment he wondered whether this Cordelia even knew him and, if yes, if his doppelganger had called her by this nickname as well.

She gave him a dazzling smile in return, one that conveyed all too deep a feeling of intimacy for his taste. Was she snuggling into his embrace?

"It dreams of us, Angel," she said. "I saw It dream of me, of you, a hundred versions of us. It dreams of things I don't even want to think about. God, there was some ugly stuff in there. Beautiful, too, though. I ... I don't think I can even begin to describe most of it."

Willow 12 heard Cordelia's words and tried to process the information. Her capacity was limited here, a place where there were no alternate realities to access for processing power, but she was still one of the fastest computers around and put the facts together as best as she could.

During her short time of existence she had learned much about the nature of the multiverse. It had enabled her to find this place, to bring them all here to the moment before creation began. She had memories of the real Willow Rosenburg and they showed her a moment from many years ago when Buffy and Angel had invoked the knowledge locked into the Necronomicon Nocturnum. She remembered it showing them the beginnings of the universe, giant beings calling existence into being while reading from eleven books. Willow 12 had regarded it as a given that this was how the multiverse had begun.

It left the questions, of course, where these books had come from. Who were those beings that had read from them? She knew that the multiverse was created from decisions, possibilities. Maybe what the Necronomicon had shown them was but one possible version of things, the beginning of but one strand of the multiverse.

If Cordelia was right, if this titanic entity resting here at the moment before the big bang was really dreaming of worlds, maybe all the worlds in existence, ...

Without warning something changed. Not like before when their senses had adapted to their surroundings. This time there was an actual change, something they could feel right down to their bones. The whiteness around them seemed to shudder. The giant figure shifted in its sleep.

There was an echo, like a gunshot reverberating over and over again, and the invisible ground they all stood on vibrated with the noise. For a moment the floor seemed to fall out beneath them, leaving them in free fall, then everything was solid again. Or as solid as it ever was in this place that was not a place.

For some reason none of them needed to ask what had just happened. Even those who had not seen it happen before knew what it was. Buffy felt herself reminded of a movie she had seen more than a century ago, a line that had left her with a feeling of deep sadness even though she had been but a child at that time.

As if millions of voices cried out in terror ... and were suddenly silenced.

An entire universe had just died, one possible version of history wiped away like dust by some unseen giant hand. The sleeper in front of them grew still again, its movements ceased, and now they could all hear a new sound.

Someone was whispering.

The fifty or so people gathered together, only eight of them if one did not count multiple variations of the same person, did not need to exchange any words. They had come here to look for the source of the ongoing destruction of entire worlds and no one doubted that they had found it.

They moved quickly, or so it seemed to them, following the strange whispering they could now hear clear as day. None of them would have been able to tell how much distance they had to cover in what length of time, but finally they arrived. Someone was floating at the side of the giant figure, close to where one would expect its ears to be. Someone who was leaning in to whisper to it, a ceaseless murmur that seemed to seep directly into their brains without going past the ears.

The figure was dressed in a gray shroud, a hood covering its face. There was something familiar about it, though. Angel looked at it and felt that he should know it. There was power humming around it, a power that felt terribly familiar as well.

Suddenly the whispers stopped and the figure looked up at them. For a long moment there was shocked silence between them, fifty warriors hovering on the edge of recognizing the figure in front of them, while the figure itself seemed to be completely amazed at their presence.

"Angel?" it whispered softly.

It did not take more than that for most of them. Seven different versions of Angel were among the group of fifty and all but one of them knew this voice, had heard it pronounce his name in just that way, just that tone.

The figure reached up with human hands and slipped back the hood, a flock of silvery hair falling across its shoulders in the process. A face deeply marred by pain and worry was unveiled for them to see, a pair of hazel eyes flickered with shock.

Six different versions of Buffy Summers looked into the face of their enemy ... and saw themselves looking back.

--

Part 18 - ... And It Is Me?

--

Ground Zero

Just Before the Big Bang

"I don't fuckin' believe this," one of the Faiths said, but no one was really paying attention to her. All eyes were on the woman hovering close to the sleeping giant, the one who had whispered into its ear until they had disturbed her. But moments earlier they had all felt a world die, snuffed like a candle flame, and they knew that it was this woman's whispering who had caused this unspeakable crime.

This woman who looked like Buffy.

There was something very much like a moment of shock shared by everyone present as they all stood frozen in indecision, their minds trying to catch up with the events they were witnessing. They had all come here at the behest of the living quantum computer Willow 12, who had tracked the ongoing destruction of parallel worlds here to this place, the endless moment before the Big Bang.

They had all speculated, of course, about what they might find here. A suicide mission, many of them had said, how could this be anything else? Were they not going up against something that squashed entire universes as easily as a human might an ant? Their enemy, if so human a term could even suffice in a battle like this, would surely be beyond any power they could hope to muster. Someone or something so close to being a god or force of nature that the difference might as well be inconsequential.

Now they were seeing their enemy. And it was Buffy.

"This can't be," Angel whispered, certain that his doppelgangers were thinking along similar lines. This was the woman he loved, or at least one version of her. How could she possibly be the instigator of this celestial slaughter?

"Oh god," he heard her whisper as she looked at him, looked at the various versions of himself that were present here before the beginning of time.

This was not Buffy as he knew her, that much was apparent even at a casual glance. She was older for one thing, looking to be about fifty years or so. There were deep lines marring her face, lines of worry and sorrow, and her hair was a silvery white, not a single strand of blond remaining.

More than that, though, this Buffy looked old. Old and tired, bent not only by age but by a sadness that he saw reflected in her eyes. He remembered a sensation he had felt when he had witnessed an entire world fading all around him. For but the briefest moment he had felt something, had heard someone cry out in pain, a pain so deep and profound that not even a universe's worth of blood and suffering could ever hope to lessen it.

He saw all that pain reflected in this woman's eyes and it frightened him more than all the legions of Heaven and Hell combined ever could have.

"Have you returned to me?"

It took a moment before he registered her saying those words. She was looking at the army assembled against her, her eyes trailing across the various incarnations of himself, and there was the barest glimpse of hope in her eyes.

A hope that flickered and died a moment later, replaced by a rage that could have snuffed a star.

"You're not him," she growled. "None of you are! You are trying to trick me!"

"I think now would be a really good moment to attack," Spike mumbled, though he was still in shock himself. Of all the things they had expected to find here ...

"I won't allow you to stop me," the old Buffy screamed, madness evident in her voice even to those who barely knew her, and all hell started breaking loose.

The state of shock that had held them all captive seemed to shatter under her scream and the fifty warriors attacked almost as one. Weapons forged from both magic and technology lashed out, unleashing enough force to shatter a small moon. Magical spells older than civilization were uttered and cast, capable of ripping apart the very fabric of reality. Fifty of the most powerful warriors of any world attacked as one and nothing, not even someone with the power of the Slayer, should have been able to stand in their way.

The attack was a complete and utter failure.

Angel had about a second to see it all happen, too little time even for someone as fast as he was. The older Buffy reached into the folds of her cloak, even as her eyes began to glow. Something ripped free from her back, unfolding with a murmur of sweet music. For a moment Angel thought that she had wings like his own Buffy did, a gift of the fallen Archangel Raphael, but a moment later he realized that it was nothing of the sort.

The wings that exploded from this Buffy's back were made of light and flame, a brilliance that was causing the skin of the vampires present to smolder and singe. Fire erupted all around her, driving back her attackers. Angel had to dive for safety, though where to find it in a place devoid of any cover or shadow was anyone's guess.

When he looked up again he saw that their enemy had armed herself.

"Shit," someone said.

Her body, clothed by a weathered looking cloak only seconds ago, was now clad in midnight black armor. One armored fist held a gleaming blade, the fire of her wings casting an eerie glow upon the stainless steel. Her other hand was cradling a book to her side, a volume of black leather, adorned with indecipherable runes and glowing with a fire all its own.

"Isn't that ...," Spike began, unable to finish the sentence.

"Goddess preserve us," one of the Willows muttered.

"Angel?" Buffy, his Buffy, asked.

He just nodded. He recognized both the sword and the book, just like she had, and they had both hoped to see neither again in this existence.

The sword of the Harbinger.

The Necronomicon Nocturnum.

"We're in big trouble," Buffy muttered, blindly reaching for Angel's hand and clasping it tightly.

Then the battle was joined once more.

--

Willow 12 held back, her computerized mind doing its best to keep up with this rapid turn of events.

They were facing Buffy, an alternate version of the woman who had been the real Willow Rosenburg's best friend. A warrior who, in just about any reality she existed in, had always done her best to protect the world and her friends.

A living computer was not prone to self-delusion, which was probably the only thing that enabled her to accept the notion that this Buffy was the enemy they had been looking for, the one who was wiping out entire universes at a rapid pace. Was doing so even now if the stirrings of the giant figure behind her were any indication.

The warriors Willow 12 had gathered for this battle were attacking her as she looked on, but she had already calculated their chances of winning. Considering that this version of Buffy was armed with what appeared to be two of the most powerful magical artifacts ever to exist in any world, not to mention those flaming wings on whose origin she could only speculate at this point, she came up with a pretty bleak conclusion.

Her warriors' chances of defeating this foe were nonexistent.

Despair was not something she was incapable of, but neither did Willow 12 allow it to overwhelm her. They had come here knowing that they would be facing something they would probably be unable to beat. Most of these warriors had never known defeat, at least not in the final sense, yet Willow 12 knew that most of them did not believe they could achieve anything here. This was too big, the forces at play too strong. They were facing something that killed entire universes. Despite everything each of them had accomplished they were still but human, even those among them who had lost claim to this title centuries ago.

They had not come here because they thought they could win. They had come because the alternative was unthinkable.

And so, despite her every probability calculation coming up with a near zero chance of winning this battle, Willow 12 tried to figure out a way to do just that. Cut off as she was from the near limitless processing power of the multiverse her capabilities were limited, but there were some abilities she retained.

Each parallel that made up the multiverse was unique in the way that all matter comprising it vibrated at a different frequency on the quantum level. This vibratory frequency was like a fingerprint. Everything hailing from that specific parallel would vibrate at the same frequency and could thereby be traced by to its universe of origin.

Even as the sword of the Harbinger found its first victim among the lines of her warriors, sending one version of Spike screaming into oblivion, Willow 12 managed to determine their enemy's vibratory frequency. Using the tiny quantum window she had opened as a link back to their own time she accessed this Buffy's universe of origin.

This caused her to miss the next five casualties.

--

Part 19 - All Her Tomorrows ... Shattered

--

Ground Zero

Just Before the Big Bang

The parallel of their enemy's origin still existed. That was the first thing Willow 12 noted when she accessed those components of her being she had left behind in the far future. There was a small quantum disturbance, a few molecules wide, that still connected her with the time and place they had started from. Their thread of bread crumbs, so to speak, for finding their way back. While it was too narrow a connection to allow Willow 12 access to the vast processing power of the multiverse it did allow her to access this other Buffy's universe and take a look at it.

The first thing she found was utter desolation. In her short time of awareness she had observed hundreds of worlds, but never one like this. Everything was ... broken, it was the only word she could come up to describe it. There was a planet Earth in this universe, but it was a burnt-out cinder. Space itself was rent apart, dimensional barriers torn and splintered, what few stars she could see where flickering, dying.

There was not even the barest remnant of life to be found anywhere.

Cursing the slowness of the data feed she managed to calculate the time frame she was looking at. Somewhere around the late 21st century. Whatever had happened in this universe was already part of the past. She had to look further back.

Zeroing in on a specific place and time in a different parallel was not an easy task and took a lot of time, endless seconds ticking by while her friends fought and died. Willow 12 managed to shift her focus back in time, zipping across decades too fast for even her awareness to register anything. For a moment she nearly lost the connection as the structure of the multiverse shifted, another world eradicated, but then she found what she had been looking for.

The easiest method of understanding a divergent parallel, or so she had come to think, was finding the point where it deviated from the world she herself had come from and going on from there. This point could, of course, be so far in the past that it might as well be a completely alien world, but she was in luck, if that term was applicable here.

She found the divergence in the year 2038 AD. December 22, to be more precise. The date did hold quite a significance for Willow 12, especially seeing one of the weapons their enemy was using against them.

It was the day Golgotha had walked the Earth.

Willow 12 expanded her awareness as much as she could, trying to take in all the events taking place in New York at that date. She saw scenes that were familiar to her from the data she had seen in her own world. Thousands of shadow demons were filling the sky, the giant bulk of Golgotha blotted out the heavens. Military forces and Vampirium troops were fighting side by side to repel them, trying to fend off a creature that had already destroyed thousands of worlds on its journey through the dimensions.

Her focus shifted to the ruins of Bryant Tower, the place where Buffy, Angel, Tara, and the real Willow Rosenburg had found the Ring, the mystical doorway that allowed the greater demon access to their dimension. In the world she knew they had found a way to reactivate the gate, creating a second dimensional interface on top of the existing one. The overlapping rends in time and space had ripped the greater demon to pieces, putting an end to its carnage.

Things did not go quite that way here.

Events unfolded before Willow 12 like a fast-forwarded movie. She saw Buffy and Angel defeat the Harbinger entity, gaining control of its sword in the process, the final ingredient necessary to open the Ring. She saw Tara and Willow attempt to activate it, but finding its power source, the giant pentagram the Harbinger had carved into the city, already too depleted. Buffy then came up with the idea of using the power of the shadow wraiths, whom they could now control because of the sword, to power up the pentagram again.

Willow 12 was unable to tell what exactly went wrong, what moment's hesitation or slight deviation caused things to turn out differently than they had in her world. She could only watch helplessly as Golgotha struck at its enemies, brushing aside the waning power of the Ring, raining fire down on the quartet of desperate warriors.

Willow and Tara died instantly, scorched into ashes by the greater demon's fury. Their desperate hold on the magics of the Ring failed and the last of its power faded, leaving Golgotha unopposed. Buffy and Angel, whose supernatural reflexes had allowed them to find cover at the last split second, saw all their hopes collapsing in front of them, could do nothing as their friends died.

From there on it all happened very quickly.

Golgotha fought free of the dimensional vortex, fully manifesting on the Earth plane. His corrupting influence sent all of humanity into a frenzy and seven billion people went about slaughtering each other even as the demon's fire razed their world into ashes. Willow 12 could hear every scream, every cry of pain, and watched as the world's remaining defenders fought in vain, all dying one by one, the last of them by their own hands.

It was all over in a matter of hours. Golgotha's darkness spread across the entire world, the demon greedily drinking up the unleashed pain and suffering as an entire planet died screaming. Then it turned away from Earth, making its way into the darkness of space in search of other worlds it could consume. Its hunger was still not sated, would never be sated, but there were plenty of other life-bearing worlds out there.

On the dead world it left behind, though, there was one living being left.

For a moment Willow 12 thought she was mistaken, but she was not. There was one survivor of Golgotha's cataclysm, one lone soul who had weathered the firestorm that had consumed this version of Earth in so short a time.

Buffy was still alive.

It took her a moment to assimilate all the facts. Angel was dead, his ashes mixing with the sooth raining down from the sky. How could this Buffy be alive if Angel was dead? They, too, had been bound by the vampire blood bond, their life forces tied together for better or worse. Moments later she had her answer as she observed the final moments of the vampire's existence.

It was a desperate gamble, she could see that in his face. Angel knew they had failed, knew that the entire world was doomed, but being who he was he was incapable of giving up. So he made one last attempt to save the life of the woman he loved above all else.

The sword of the Harbinger, still clutched in his hand, was capable of cleaving the very fabric of time and space in two. The fading magic of the Ring still filled the air around them. Willow 12 found herself incapable of figuring out all the factors that went into Angel's final act of desperation, certain that it was a series of circumstances that could never be repeated, but in this one instance it all came together and went as Angel had intended.

With one mighty blow of the Harbinger's sword he severed the bond between him and his Buffy, the magical blade cutting the connection that bound their life forces together as easily as if it was a simple length of string. Buffy screamed as her other half was violently torn from her, a magic that had never been meant to break splintering apart in an instant.

Mere moments before Golgotha's firestorm reduced him to ash Angel forced the Harbinger's sword into Buffy's hand, his final words to her drowned out by the death scream of an entire world. Willow 12 could not say whether it was the sword, the residual magic in the air, the broken fragments of the Ring, or any combination of the above that allowed Buffy to survive the cataclysm, but survive she did.

Buffy survived to kneel in the ashes of everything she had fought to protect and Willow 12 saw her sanity shatter like glass.

Willow 12 spent a moment considering the circumstances of this violent deviation from the history she was familiar with. Why had Angel broken their bond? The sword of the Harbinger might have protected them both. Maybe he had known something she did not, maybe he had seen it as the only way. However it had happened, though, the outcome was the same.

This Buffy was left alone on a dead Earth, half her soul torn from her chest, and her mind descended into madness.

Willow 12 observed her as this wreck of a person wandered the scorched planet for years, decades, more than once close to taking her own life, but somehow still holding on. Maybe she did not want to waste Angel's final sacrifice, maybe it was the Slayer in her nature that would not let her give up. Buffy survived, though she was now aging once more. In time she, too, would have joined all her people in death.

Then, though, came the year 2057 and, just like it had happened in Willow 12's own world, the long-term consequences of the Restoration of Souls struck. The Ethereal Threshold, the barrier between the living and the dead, began to break apart. Millions of the dead returned to Earth, not caring about the fact that it was every bit as dead as they themselves now. They were fleeing from the places known as Heaven and Hell and the lords of these realms did not like that.

With no one alive to stop them the war began quickly, angels and demons clashing as the dimensions collapsed all around them, the very fabric of reality falling apart. Without human interference this battle should have destroyed everything, brought about the final end of this parallel, but it did not.

Willow 12 did not have to observe long to find the reason.

A few years earlier Buffy's way had led her to Siberia, her shattered mind following a stray thought that promised some hope. For weeks she had dug in the permafrost ground, her own fingers her only tools, until she had found what she thought, the one thing that might bring back the second half of her soul.

Buffy had found the Necronomicon Nocturnum.

Her ravaged mind needed years, though, to gain enough control over this volatile book of magic to actually make use of it. By that time the war between Heaven and Hell had arrived, the souls of the dead had returned to Earth, and Buffy saw her chance. Somewhere among these souls, hidden in this maelstrom of life and power, was her Angel. With the power of the Necronomicon she would get him back. The book had wrenched souls from the afterlife before, had it not?

Things went horribly wrong, though. Both Heaven and Hell were using souls as an energy source, fueling their weapons of war with the essence of the people whose faith had given them existence in the first place. The fact that they were destroying these souls in the process never concerned them even in the slightest. Nor did any of them pay attention to the single mortal still alive on Earth. She was inconsequential.

The energies they were using were those of the dead, though. The Necronomicon Nocturnum held power over everything that belonged in the dark and in the shadows. That included the dead. Once before it had ripped thousands of souls from the afterlife and brought them back to Earth.

This time it did something different.

With nothing but Buffy's shattered mind to guide it the Necronomicon dipped into the unleashed energy of the war between Heaven and Hell, the energy of souls, and drank it all up in its search for one particular soul. Proud warriors of heaven and demon spawn alike suddenly found themselves devoid of power as their omnipotence was drained away in an instant. Hell's Tower of the Damned and Heaven's Repository of Souls both shattered, all the souls imprisoned inside them helplessly swept away as the Necronomicon's power found them all wanting.

Buffy, completely focused on finding the soul of her beloved, never even noticed what she did until it was too late. The Necronomicon channeled the combined power of Heaven and Hell into her body, extinguished billions of souls for the simple unforgivable crime of not belonging to the one that it sought.

Willow 12 concluded that Angel had not been in Heaven or in Hell. His soul had gone to some other place. A place that now, with all the dimensions collapsing into one another, was either destroyed or forever unreachable.

Whatever remained of Buffy Summer's sanity beheld what she had unwittingly wrought ... and died.

Leaving behind a near omnipotent being that was completely and utterly mad.

--

Part 20 - When Gods Destroy They First Go Mad

--

Ground Zero

Just Before the Big Bang

Cordelia's snow-white clothing was sprinkled with red as her body sank to the ground, a surprised expression frozen on her face. The glow that had surrounded her form but moments earlier was fading, leaving behind nothing but a dead human body with a gaping wound where its heart should have been.

Faith, dressed in cowboy clothing, had emptied her six guns into their target, while a dark-haired Buffy with an eye patch had done the same with the huge rifle she carried. Neither weapon had had any effect, though, and moments later they both died where they stood, one wing of flame swatting them like so many flies, reducing them to ash in moments.

Spike, who had already seen two men carrying his face die today, knew that his own death was not far off. He no longer cared, though. Just a few days ago, subjectively speaking, he had wondered whether he had anything left to live for. Did a world where planets died because of stupid miscalculations and living computers bridged parallel universes have a place for a failed poet turned vicious demon turned forgotten hero?

Probably not, he mused, but there was still a fight to be fought and that was one thing he still did better than most other people in any given world. So he threw himself into the fire without hesitation, striking with all his might. More than two centuries ago, when they had both gotten their souls back, he had told Angel that they had to make it right. They had been doing just that, had they not? Had done it all their lives. And he would keep doing it for as long as life remained in his dead body.

With two dozen people attacking at once the black-armored Buffy could not fend off all of them and Spike's fist struck true, hitting her face and drawing blood from a shattered nose. A cry of pain escaped from her mouth.

Spike was still smirking at that when the Harbinger's sword lashed out faster than even his eyes could follow and sheared clean through his neck.

--

Buffy could only look on in horror as Spike, the Spike from her world, one of her oldest and dearest friends, died right before her eyes. Fury took hold of her, pumping through her veins like molten quicksilver, and the blade of the fallen Archangel Raphael flared to life in her hand. Putting every last bit of strength behind it she struck at the woman that looked like her, the heaven-forged blade meeting the Harbinger's obsidian weapon in a shower of sparks.

For a moment Buffy and her doppelganger looked into each other's eyes across their crossed swords, each of them straining against the other with a strength that went far beyond mortal flesh. Despite her own rage-clouded eyes Buffy could clearly see that her opposite was far beyond reason, a mind driven way beyond the breaking point by whatever horrors she had been forced to endure. Then she was forced back, swatted away by a strength that made her own appear insignificant.

"You can not stop me," the black-armored Buffy screamed as she fended off her attackers with an ease that defied description. "I have waited too long for this. I won't be stopped!"

Buffy struggled back to her feet, spending a moment to search for the presence of Angel in her mind, reassuring himself that he was not among those that had already died here today. He could not have, of course, she knew that, yet somehow she needed the reassurance. Her fingers then curled tighter around the hilt of her sword, ready to jump into the fray once more, when a hand on her shoulder held her back.

"What?" she asked, looking up to see Willow 12.

"We can't defeat her this way," the living computer told her, at the same time sending out a signal to all the others to fall back.

They retreated, battered and injured, almost half their number dead. Angel was in shock upon discovering that Spike, his childe Spike, was among those who had fallen before this mad Buffy. How could this be possible? He had stood by his side for two centuries, they had quite literally walked through Hell together. How could he be gone just like that?

The black-armored Buffy was watching them from where she hovered next to the sleeping giant, but made no move to pursue. And why should she? There was nowhere to run here in this frozen moment before creation, nowhere for them to hide. They could return to the future, yes, but they would not be any safer there than they were here, not with this woman annihilating universes one by one.

So instead of following them to finish the job she had begun she instead began to whisper once more and they knew that yet another world's days were numbered.

"So that's it?" someone asked, another version of Buffy. "We just let this bitch that carries my face destroy all of creation while we look on?"

"No," Willow 12 assured her. "Physical combat is not the answer, though. That much should be evident by our poor performance here."

Buffy could only nod numbly at that. By God, this was a disaster. She had trouble thinking of these doppelgangers as real, seeing them as more than mirror images that would fade away when and if they departed from here and returned to their own world. They were not, though. These people, Spike, Angel, Cordelia, even herself, were real and they had died. Died in a battle they had to win or all of creation could be doomed.

How could they be dying? They were not supposed to die, where they?

"I managed to find out some things about our enemy," Willow 12 announced, then quickly shared everything she had seen with the others. To some of them it meant very little. They had never heard of Golgotha, had never experienced the war between Heaven and Hell, but those that had quickly came to realize how lucky they had been. How easily their worlds could have ended up like the one this Buffy came from.

How easily they themselves could have become like her.

"So what is she doing here?" Tinya asked, the young Slayer on the edge of shock after everything she had seen here today. "If her entire universe is dead, everyone she ever knew gone, why is she ...?"

"She's trying to make things right," Buffy mumbled, realizing what was going through her doppelganger's shattered mind.

"What?"

"She destroyed her own world," Buffy tried to explain. "She tried to repair things after Golgotha slaughtered all her people, but only ended up making it worse. Now she is trying to make it right."

"But how?" Jennifer asked, still trying to wrap her minds around the events that had produced this mad, broken version of her godmother. Buffy was a good person, a hero. There was no way she would ever be able to do these things, was there?

"Cordelia said that this ... this thing," Buffy motioned at the sleeping giant, "is dreaming about us. All of us. All possible worlds. If Angel's theory is right and these dreams are actually ... real, if this thing is dreaming all our worlds into existence, then ..."

"Then by changing those dreams one might presumably change history and reverse what was done," Willow 12 finished the thought.

"But changing the past is impossible," Jennifer argued. "I mean ... all possible versions of history already exist, don't they? The multiverse. How can one change things when all possibilities are already there?"

"Not for her," Willow 12 answered. "I doubt this Buffy's broken mind can even conceive of the notion that there might be other worlds out there, places where Golgotha did not slaughter the entire population of Earth. Even if she is able to see these worlds through the dreams of this ... entity, she will probably discard them as fantasies, mere shades of what really happened."

"Is that why she is destroying them?" someone asked.

"I don't think she is aware of that, either. Whatever remains of her mind is probably fully focused on her own parallel, the universe she comes from. And I think that here, in this moment before the multiverse is born, there might actually be a chance for her to reshape the history of her world. At this moment all possible worlds are nothing more than dreams floating around in this entity's sleeping mind. If she manages to change the history of her world from the very beginning onward then it could actually work."

"Or she could kill us all by making this thing wake up," Buffy added, looking at the sleeping giant.

"Yes, of course," Willow 12 realized. "That is what must be happening. That is why all these worlds have been destroyed. Because of her trying to manipulate its dreams the giant is slowly starting to wake up."

"And if he does all the dreams will come to an end," Angel said grimly. "All possible worlds will cease to exist."

The surviving warriors needed a minute to wrap their minds around this. It was not just about the destruction of one or more parallel worlds anymore. They were talking about the annihilation of the entire multiverse, every possible version of history eradicated.

"We have to stop her," one Buffy said.

"No kidding, Sherlock," another Buffy answered. "Any ideas how?"

Anne, who had yet to say a single word but had listened to everything, stepped in front of the others.

"I think I have an idea."

--

Part 21 - A Sharing of Pain

--

Ground Zero

Just Before the Big Bang

"Hey!"

Buffy looked up, expecting another attack from those doppelgangers she had fended off just a few minutes ago. She did not know where they came from or what they hoped to gain from so crudely imitating herself and the people she loved, but they were no match for her. Not with the power she had at her disposal. They would not be able to keep her from doing what was right.

Only one of them was coming towards her right now, though, the others staying well back. It was one of those that mimicked her own appearance, though she looked a lot younger. For a moment Buffy was almost overwhelmed by memories, the days when she had looked that young, when everything had still been right in the world.

It would be again, she reminded herself. Soon it would all be made right once more.

"Can we talk?" her doppelganger asked.

Buffy felt her anger flaring again, the fiery wings on her back burning brighter in response. The Necronomicon pulsed where it rested against her side, the near limitless power locked into its mundane-looking pages responding to her every whim. She had already destroyed dozens of these pretenders. One more would not pose a problem.

"I know you can kill me easily," the other said, still walking closer. "And I doubt there is any way I can really hurt you. Not with all that power you have. So what is the harm in talking to me for a moment?"

Buffy glared at her, the power burning in her veins almost too much to take. She had to unleash it, had to do something with all that energy or it would burn her from the inside out. Yet for some reason she could not bring herself to lash out at this doppelganger.

"You are not real," she spat.

"Is that right?" the other asked. "Then what am I? Tell me! If I am not real, what am I doing here?"

"You are ... I don't know ... someone is trying to stop me from doing what's right. But I won't be stopped. Not by you, not by anyone."

The expression of sadness on that other Buffy's face made her pause for a moment.

"I know what you are trying to do, Buffy. I know what happened to your world. I know that everything you ever loved was taken from you."

For a moment the blade of the Harbinger shook in her hand, but Buffy quickly regained her composure. She would not be swayed by these false words of sympathy.

"I will make it right," she whispered. "I will make it all right."

"At what price, Buffy?"

"Price?"

"You don't even know what the consequences of your actions are, do you? You have no idea what you have been doing."

"I don't care about consequences," Buffy growled at her. "Everyone and everything is already dead. They are all gone. There is no way I can possibly make it worse anymore."

Her doppelganger closed her eyes for a moment, sadly shaking her head.

"Have you seen the other worlds it is dreaming of?" she asked, motioning at the sleeping giant.

"Other worlds?" Buffy was confused. It had taken her a long time, a lot of power, to see and manipulate the dreams of the Sleeper. She had seen her world, her charred and dead world inside its head. She knew that she could change things, make them right, if only she could convince him to dream it differently.

There had been other dreams, yes, but how could they possibly be of importance?

"Those other dreams are real, Buffy," the other said. "They are all real. One of them was my world. The world where I was Buffy Summers."

"No," Buffy shook her head. "You are lying. There ... there are no other worlds. Those are just ... fantasies, nothing else."

"They are not. They are real, all of them. And you are killing them, Buffy. Every time you try to change its dreams, every time you whisper to it, one of the dreams fades and an entire world dies. As my world died."

"That's a lie," Buffy screamed, the wings on her back flaring brighter than ever before. "I don't ... I would never ..."

"You are causing suffering on a scale none of us can even imagine," the other Buffy countered. "Dozens of worlds have already perished because of what you are doing. Isn't that enough? Haven't enough innocents paid for your pain?"

Her words hit Buffy like physical blows. This could not be true, could it? It just could not be. This was all just some kind of evil plot to prevent her from making things right. Someone ... some evil force was probably laughing gleefully as it watched her destroy her own world in a misguided attempt to get Angel back and now wanted to prevent her from undoing her own crimes.

That had to be it. The alternative was unthinkable.

"I ... I just want to get my world back," she whispered. "My friends ... my family ... they should not have died. All those people ... I ... I should have protected them. It was my duty to protect them and I failed. I just ... they can live again. Everyone can live again. Is that so much to ask?"

That was the moment when her doppelganger suddenly moved. Buffy had not even realized how close the other had gotten, too distracted by her words, those words that could not possibly be true. The other Buffy's appearance rippled and changed, human skin suddenly transforming into crimson steel. Her hand reformed, fingers elongating into long tendrils that shot toward her with a speed that left her unable to react.

Before she could do anything the crimson tendrils touched her skin and Buffy screamed in pain, screamed as a mind not her own suddenly invaded her thoughts. Her body convulsed as the connection between her and the other Buffy closed; she could feel the force of not just one but two whole minds pressing in on her own shattered one.

Memories not her own flooded into her consciousness, images of a life she had never lived, a life that never could have been. She saw herself in a town called Sunnydale, a place she had never heard of before. Saw herself fighting against vampires together with friends that were familiar and yet not. She saw Angel, her Angel, saw herself loving him, fighting him, then loving him again before he left her.

There was pain, so much pain, as her body was consumed by fire and agony. Then the realization that she was no longer who she had been, that her human body was dead and gone, replaced by a thing of steel and magic, a military experiment gone horribly, wonderfully wrong. There was Anne, the artificial intelligence now living in her body. Angel returning to her side, helping her deal with the changes in her life. The two of them staying together as neither of them was touched by time anymore. Staying together even as their friends aged and died.

Then the end. Anne's discovery of some kind of quantum disturbance that was causing violent changes in their world. Creatures from the past invading the present. Multiple version of the same people appearing and disappearing in a heartbeat. Then the final annihilation as the entire world began to fade around her. Anne's desperate screams for her to take Angel's hand, her own reactions too slow to do so in time.

Buffy screamed again as the agony of the other filled every fiber of her being. The pain of seeing the man she loved fade away right before her eyes, of surviving while he died. Finding herself in a strange world where these strange doppelgangers of her friends and family surrounded her. Seeing Angel once more, only to have her world crashing down all over again upon realizing that it was not him, not her Angel.

She could not help but feel the other's pain, a pain so very familiar to herself. The pain of losing half of her soul, of seeing the world she had been born to protect die and fade right before her eyes while she was cursed in the worst of all possible ways. Cursed to survive. Cursed to live while everyone and everything else died.

They were real, she realized, they were all real. There was no way a pain like this could be anything but real. A pain that went far beyond the physical, far beyond anything that a person should be able to survive, yet sweet oblivion refused to take her. She felt it, all of it, and then the final realization hit her.

She was the source of that pain. She had done this, had doomed this other Buffy to this agony. Her world had perished because of her, because of her trying to make things right.

The sword of the Harbinger slipped from her hand, the black armor it clad its bearer in fading at the same time. The flaming wings died and retreated into her back. The Necronomicon, appalled by the confusion of the one holding it, denied her its power and shut,

Buffy fell to her knees and there was nothing she could do but scream.

--

The others carefully approached, seeing Anne standing over the fallen form of their enemy. Mad Buffy was curled into a fetal position, screaming with all her breath, tears running down her cheeks in a ceaseless stream.

Buffy quickly kicked the Harbinger's sword away, sending it spinning off into the distance. Angel did the same with the Necronomicon. No sense in taking chances.

"What happened?" another Buffy asked.

"She knows now," Anne said sadly. "She knows we are real. She knows what pain she has caused."

A single tear was falling from her eye. "I am sorry for causing you yet more pain, my sister. There was no other choice."

Everyone stood silent for a long minute, watching what had been an undefeatable enemy but moments ago curled up on the floor, screaming and crying.

"So ...," Tinya began, "that's it? We won?"

"Well," Willow 12 shrugged, "I would not exactly call it a victory, but without Buffy ... this Buffy ... trying to further influence the sleeper's dreams, everything should be back to ..."

Her words cut off when the infinite whiteness around them seemed to shake and shift once more, ten times as violent as before. There was no floor for any of them to stand on, yet still they had to fight for balance as vertigo assaulted their minds. Something was happening, something so big that they had trouble grasping it.

Willow 12, whose awareness had been created to encompass an entire multiverse, was the first to realize what was happening. Even she was struck speechless, though.

The giant form of the sleeper was stirring.

--

Part 22 - Waking the Devil Would Have Been Preferable

--

Ground Zero

Just Before the Big Bang

"Don't tell me," Tinya said, looking around as reality seemed to flicker around them. "This isn't good, right?"

The survivors of the short but furious battle against a mad version of Buffy, which now lay whimpering and broken at their feet, looked around as virgin whiteness enclosing them from all sides seemed to grow darker. The air seemed charged with electricity and huge storm clouds that none of them could see cast shadows on them.

The giant form of the sleeper was stirring.

"It mustn't wake," Willow 12 whispered. "If it does then everything is gone."

The sleeper moved and shuddered, every small motion sending rippling shock waves out in all directions. Gunshots seemed to echo in the air around them as they felt dreams fade like soap bubbles, popping into nothingness as the mind that dreamed the multiverse into being slowly came awake. None of them could tell whether the screaming they heard was just their imagination or if they could actually perceive the billions upon billions of people whose very existence was wiped away in an instant.

"The battle," Angel mumbled under his breath, looking around. "The battle, her screams, everything ... it must have woken it."

"Then we must put it back to sleep," Buffy said.

"And how exactly do you plan on doing that, sis?" another Buffy asked. "Sing some lullabies?"

"Got any better ideas?"

"I suspect," Willow 12 began, "that the only one among us who has a prayer of putting it back to sleep is the one who woke it up at the first place." She looked down at the Buffy lying on the floor.

"Oh, you gotta be kiddin' me!" the sole remaining Faith yelled.

"You're outta your bloody mind, that's for sure," Spike added. Not their Spike, Buffy thought sadly. Their Spike was gone. "You want to send a power-mad psycho into the mind of ... whatever this thing is and hope that she can convince it to go back to sleep? Can you please try and remember that she invaded its dreams in the first place to change a few worlds around, wiping out a few of ours in the process?"

"I fear he is correct," Angel said. "Even if we could somehow get her out of this state of shock she is in right now," he looked at the whimpering, crying woman on the ground, "I fear her mind is much too damaged to undertake any kind of coordinated effort to save us. Even if she wanted to."

"She is the only one with the power to do so," Willow 12 reminded him. "She absorbed the combined energies of her dimension's versions of Heaven and Hell. I rather doubt we can find anyone else with that kind of power in the short time remaining to us."

The whiteness around them was now fading into a dark gray as reality screamed, flickering and fading as its very foundation was torn out from beneath it.

"Time's running out," Jennifer told no one in particular. "This would be a good moment for last-ditch efforts, don't you all think?"

"Anyone got any better ideas?" Willow 12 looked at each of the survivors in turn. "No? Then I suggest we get her up and running again."

"Sure! Any idea how we're gonna do that, red Red?"

Willow 12 spent a moment glaring at Faith, then shrugged helplessly. "I'm ... not exactly an expert on the human mind, I fear."

"I'd never have guessed."

"The bond," Buffy whispered under her breath.

"What?"

She looked up, staring at Willow 12. "You told us she first went insane when Angel ... her Angel ... used the Harbinger's sword to sever the blood bond between them, right?"

The living computer nodded. "Having one half of her being cut away must have shattered her mind almost instantly."

"Then maybe we can put the pieces back together." Buffy turned to look at Angel. "We have a perfectly good vampire blood bond right here, don't we?"

"What's a blood bond?" one of the other Buffy's asked, but found herself soundly ignored by everyone who did know what it was.

"Buffy, I don't think this is a good idea," Jennifer said. "I mean, the way you always explained it to me, this bond thing ... do you really want to have a madwoman inside your head?"

"She does have a point," Anne said. "Even for the short time I was interfaced with her I could feel the insanity raging inside her. I don't think ..."

"We really don't have time to talk this out, do we?" Buffy interrupted them. "Reality is falling apart around us."

The sleeper was slowly raising his head and the giant lids seemed to flutter. The whiteness had almost completely given way to black now and they all felt cold, incredibly cold. As if no warmth had ever existed anywhere.

"Let's do this," Angel finally said. "I doubt there is another way. Anne, can you tie us together with her?"

"I can try, but I never even heard of this blood bond before today. I don't know how ..."

"Leave that to us, just get us into her head!"

Anne finally nodded and the three of them, Angel, Buffy, and Anne, sat down in a circle around the shaking form of the woman who had caused all this. Anne closed her eyes, her hands once more losing their human appearance and reforming into the crimson steel that that was their true shape. Her fingers lengthened, shaping themselves into a web that reached out for the other three people.

"Here goes nothing," Buffy muttered as the crimson strands began to touch her. Her hand found that of Angel and their fingers interlaced.

Moments later the connection between them closed with an audible snap and all four of them started screaming.

--

For a long moment Buffy was convinced that she was going mad. That the madness holding sway over her doppelganger had crept into her own mind and was happily dismantling her sanity as she could do nothing but scream. The world around her was a maelstrom of images and sounds, memories of a life she had never lived, yet were still familiar somehow, threatened to smother her.

She saw herself kneeling in the ashes of New York City, realizing that she had seen this very scene in one of her dreams but a few nights ago. There she was, the ruins of Bryant Tower reaching into the blackened skies like a skeletal hand, desperately trying to scoop up the ashes of the man she loved. Cursing him with the same breath that mourned him, accusing him of breaking a promise made so many decades ago, leaving her behind as he went into the darkness alone.

Buffy felt the forces that had caused this woman's sanity to snap, to shatter into pieces. Everything around her had died, been swept away in an inferno of fire and hatred. Golgotha had scorched the world clean, drank up the life of every single human being. Except her. Some days she wondered whether the greater demon had intentionally left her alive. Had known her for the protector she should have been and decided in a perverse bout of sadistic irony that she should be the only one to survive her race's extinction.

Only then, when the other woman's loneliness and pain seemed about to tear her to pieces, she felt the presence of Angel by her side once more. The bond between them pulsed with the combined energies of both their blood, the magic binding them fending off the madness threatening to tear them apart.

There was more than that, though, they both felt it. The bond between them was like a living thing. A living, breathing force that connected them even when they were millions of miles apart. Even when Angel stood on the surface of the moon and Buffy was flying through empty space where the Earth should have been they were still connected, could still feel each other, could all but talk with each other.

Now that bond reached out into the maddened frenzy that surged around them on all sides ... and found something very much like itself.

Buffy could almost see it. Nothing here was real, she knew, just images conjured forth by her mind to give shape to things that did not have one. Still, it all seemed real and, in a way that had nothing to do with the physical, it was all too real. A gasp of horror escaped her lips when she saw what was left of the bond that this woman had once shared with another man called Angel.

It was a ragged, open wound, the edges thick with gangrene and infection. Naked nerve endings pulsed in never-ending pain as darkened blood seeped forth, bleeding the body dry. Buffy could almost feel the pain it caused this woman who was her, could feel the ceaseless agony of having one half of her soul ripped away so cruelly.

She felt Angel by her side and sensed his horror as well. The knowledge that he, or at least another version of him, had done this to the woman he loved was sickening. The fact that he had done it only with the intention of saving her life did not make it any better.

As reality crumbled all around them Buffy and Angel reached out for the bleeding wound.

--

Part 23 - Dream a Little World For Me

--

Ground Zero

Just Before the Big Bang

For so long there had been nothing but pain.

It had gotten so that she did not even remember what it was like not to be in pain. Did not remember what it felt like not to walk around with one half of her being nothing but an open, festering wound. On the day he had tried to save her life Angel had doomed her instead, doomed her to an existence that was nothing but pain and madness.

The bond, that wonderful living force that had connected them for so many decades, had exploded into so many sharp-edged splinters, rending her flesh, drawing blood in so many places the mirror would never show her, but were real nonetheless. She was bleeding herself dry, she knew that, every day she lost a little more of what she was, who she was, as the woman she had once been slowly withered and died.

She had tried to fill the emptiness with power. Power enough to restore to her what had been lost, to make right everything that had gone wrong. It should not have happened the way it did. They should have stopped Golgotha. They were the good guys, they should have won. At the very least they should all have gone down fighting. She should not have survived when everyone else died. So she tried to make it right.

The power inside her helped her do it, yet at the same time made everything so much harder. It flowed through her veins like molten quicksilver and filled her head with screams, so many screams, a billion and more souls crying out in terror as their very existence was snuffed and reduced to mere fuel, first for Heaven and Hell's siege engines, now for her mission of righteousness. How was she supposed to concentrate when there were so many screams?

Were some of her friends among those whose very essence she had destroyed? She knew Angel was not, she had searched so long and hard for him, but what of the others? The ones she had not thought about until it was all over? Had she destroyed them, too? It did not matter. She was here to make everything right, was she not? She had the power to do it.

Only it was all wrong. Everything had gone wrong again. That woman, that other Buffy, she had shown her. So much pain. So much suffering and pain. Her fault. All her fault. She had done that. Destroyed that other Buffy's life. Done the same to her that Golgotha had done, taken her world, her family, her loved ones.

How could everything have gone so wrong?

"Buffy?"

A voice was calling out to her. A voice that distracted her from the ever-tightening circle of pain and self-loathing she found herself trapped in. Something was strange, something had changed. Where was all the pain? It was still there, she could feel it, but it was not so sharp anymore. The edges had dulled, the screams had dimmed. What was going on here? How could she hear a voice here, so deep inside herself?

The only one whose voice was allowed here was dead. Dead and gone.

Suddenly the black clouds that surrounded her seemed to part and a ray of moonlight touched her face, a soft caress she had not felt in so long, so very long. This could not be true. He was gone, gone forever, and everything she had done to get him back had only made things worse, caused yet more pain and suffering. It was over. She was finished. She would die here and never see her Angel again.

"I am here, Buffy." Cool, silken hands reached out to touch her, brushing across her aged skin with infinite tenderness. She knew this could not be true, knew it with every fiber of her being, but God, she wanted it to be. Maybe she could just imagine it to be true. Just for a moment.

Angel's presence spread through her mind like black velvet, smoothing out all the ragged edges and dulling the pain. She felt fresh tears well forth in her eyes. He was here. He was really here. After all these years without feeling his presence in her mind, by her side, he was back.

"You've come back to me," she whispered, reaching out to him in turn.

"Buffy," his voice brushed over her like a thousand little shivers, "we don't have much time."

Time had no meaning here, she wanted to tell him. There were outside time, were they not? The moment before time began. The moment where nothing mattered, not what she had done, not even all the pain she had caused. He was here again, filling the agonizing emptiness with his touch of silk and moonlight. That was all she cared about.

"Please, love," he continued. "We need you."

There was such urgency in his voice. She remembered that tone. The one that said 'We have to save the world again'. Had they not done that often enough, the two of them? Did they not deserve a little rest?

The bond flared alive between them, the ragged wound repaired, knitted back together by his cool, silken hands. She felt his emotions. Felt him as he shared her pain and sorrow, felt his desperate need to bring her back, because only she could save them now. Only her. Buffy, the Slayer. The one girl in all the world. Or worlds?

Suddenly there was someone else there. Buffy felt along the repaired bond, invisible hands roaming over the restored presence of Angel, and found something else. Someone else. The bond that should have been just between the two of them went on, continued on, bound another presence.

One that felt almost exactly like her?

Realization washed through her like a shower of cold water. She had known it could not be true. He was not Angel, not her Angel. He was someone else's Angel. This other Buffy, another her, and it was their bond. Not her bond, not the one her Angel had severed in his misguided attempt to save her from Golgotha. For a moment the fleeting sanity that had somehow found hold in her mind again threatened to break all over again. This was all a lie. His soothing presence was a lie, nothing but smoke and mirrors. He was not hers. Her Angel was gone forever.

"We need you," he whispered again, pushing all his emotions through the bond at her. She felt his love, the love he felt for the woman with her face, the woman who was her in every way that mattered. For a brief moment she saw his memories. Saw a world so very much like hers, but one in which they had succeeded. They had driven off Golgotha, had saved their friends and family. She saw pain and suffering there, too, but they had survived it all and went on. They had lost their world, but were working to bring it back.

Buffy reached along the bond that she was a stranger in and came face to face with herself. The woman she might have been if only things had gone different. For a long moment the two just looked at each other, looked at everything that made them what they were, all the memories, all the heartbreak, all those fleeting moments of happiness that made it all worthwhile.

A small smile graced Buffy's lips.

--

Everyone flinched back as the prone form at their feet suddenly rose again, flaming wings unfolding from her back in a spectacle of light. The surviving warriors immediately prepared for combat, but a voice cut them off before they could attack.

"Wait," Buffy yelled, watching as her aging doppelganger rose, her every fiber brimming with the power she had stolen from a billion and more souls. There was a smile on her face, almost a look of happiness, that Buffy found herself returning. In those brief moment they had looked at each other she had seen everything that this other her had gone through and understood what she had done and why.

Understood that her fallen doppelganger had finally found a way to make things right.

Light exploded forth from the winged woman's fingertips, reaching out to touch the stirring sleeper. Her eyes closed as she repeated what she had done so many times already. The power of Heaven and Hell was transcendent, touching much more than the physical. The energies of all the souls she had destroyed enabled her to reach into the sleeping mind of this entity and her lips whispered the words that would make things right. This time they would.

For a moment she was almost overwhelmed. The sleeper's mind was a vast and scary place even in sleep, filled with sights and sounds she had no hope of ever understanding. Its dreams were great and powerful things, vast constructs of shape and color.

Now he was coming awake, though, and his mind was an inferno of sensations that threatened to burn her eyes right out of their sockets, blow out her ear drums, reduce her barely-restored sanity to pieces all over again. She was staring directly into the sun rising over the horizon after a long and cold night and its lethal beauty made her weep.

The sun could not be allowed to rise, though. The sleeper must not wake, that she knew. If he did then all the dreams would end, including that of her own world, charred and dead as it might be. She had done enough damage through her meddling here. Nothing and no one should ever have touched this beautiful dreamer. It should have been left alone here at the beginning of all things, left alone to dream so much beauty into existence.

"Sleep," she whispered to him, pouring every erg of power she had in her body into those words. "Sleep and dream!"

Without conscious effort on her part her words become a song, a lullaby of sorrow and near infinite power, looking to sing a god back to sleep. Spreading her flaming wings she embraced the nearly awake mind of the sleeper and cuddled it like a mother would a child, softly rocking it as she sang her song.

For a moment it seemed to be too little, too late. She knew that, should the sleeper come fully awake, she would die instantly. The mind she was trying to ensnare would rip her to pieces by the simple act of coming to full consciousness. Even now she could barely grasp it in its entire. There was so much of it, so incredibly much.

A soft sight seemed to reverberate through the vast landscape of the sleeper's mind. The entire world around her seemed to shift, like a sleeping man turning to cuddle deeper into the warm sheets and pillows. The terrible beauty of the sun dipped slowly below the horizon, soothing darkness spreading over the universe of dreams once more.

Buffy sighed in relief as she realized that she had succeeded. She had made things right. Now she was tired. So very tired. The flaming wings retreated into her back, all her power spent. Her eye lids dropped, heavy as lead. Maybe she could sleep a little now. Just for a little while.

Maybe she could dream a little.

Twenty-seven weary warriors looked on in astonishment as the giant sleeper grew still again, continuing in its endless dream. Looked on to see the woman who had first doomed and then saved them all laid down on the floor once more, her eyes closing.

Moments later she was sound asleep.

--

Part 24 - Going Back Into the Unknown

--

Ground Zero

Just Before the Big Bang

"I know I asked this before and it didn't turn out so good," Tinya said, looking at the others, "but are we done? Did we win?"

Buffy, barely recovered from her and Angel's trip into her doppelganger's shattered mind, shakily got back to her feet.

"I ... I am not sure, Tinya. I hope so."

The world around them was slowly growing lighter again, the virgin whiteness returning as the dark clouds vanished into nothingness once more. Everything was as still and serene as when they had first come here, a vast emptiness that nothing could possibly disturb.

Willow 12 closed her eyes and connected to those components of her being still tucked away in the far future. With but a tiny quantum disturbance as a connection it took her endless seconds to activate the scanning cycles she needed, even longer until they broadcast their findings back into her mind.

When they did, though, she found that it had been worth the wait and effort.

"It seems the quantum disturbances are dying down," she told the others. "There is still some overlap between parallel worlds, but it seems the structure of the multiverse is stabilizing once more."

Her crimson lips spread in a slight smile. "It seems we did indeed win."

No one cheered. No one even looked particularly happy about hearing her pronouncement. Not that she had really expected them to. Too much had happened. Too much had been lost. Too many people had died, not least those whom she had brought here to fight against an enemy she had known nothing about. An enemy who had turned out to be so much more personal than they could ever have imagined.

Still, they had won. Under the circumstances she guessed they were living in the best of all possible worlds, did they not?

"I want to go home," Buffy just said, burrowing into the arms of her husband. "I want to go home and forget this ever happened."

Having seen herself, a woman she could easily have become, commit such indescribable atrocities with nothing but the best of intentions, had shaken her to the core. Angel, in turn, was still trying to wrap his mind around the fact that he, or someone very much like him, had hurt the woman he loved so badly in a misguided attempt to save her.

Jennifer stood next to the sleeping body of their enemy turned savior.

"What are we going to do about her?"

Anne knelt down next to her, carefully touching the sleeping face that looked so much like her own. There was a content smile on those lips. She looked like she was having a wonderful dream.

"We should kill that bitch," the sole remaining Faith said. "She was the one who caused all this."

"I don't think we have to worry about her anymore," Anne answered, rising to her feet again. "She's ... happy."

"Happy?" Buffy asked.

"Dreaming," Anne told her. "A happy dream."

Willow 12 looked at the sleeping woman, the superior senses she had even in this limited form easily picking up the energy still churning through that deceptively petit body.

"I think Anne is right," she finally said. "I ... I don't think she will wake anytime soon, actually."

"We can't just leave her here," another version of Willow said. "Can we?"

"Damn right we can't! If she wakes she could do it all over again."

"We can't exactly take her with us, either," Jennifer reminded everyone. "What prison could possibly hold her?"

"I still vote for the killing," Faith repeated. "Safe all around."

Buffy shook her head. "There's been enough killing, don't you think?"

"I think we can safely leave her here," Willow 12 concluded. "The energies surrounding her are what remains of her power and I doubt we could move her if we wanted to. I'm not a hundred percent sure what else they are doing to her but ... well, if she is dreaming ... and considering what dreaming in this place seems to cause ..."

She left the sentence open, leaving everyone to draw their own conclusions. This was the place where one dreaming mind dreamt all the worlds into being. Who was to say that it was only the giant sleeper beside them who was able to do that?

"We should keep an eye on her, though," Willow 12 added to assuage the more aggressive-minded among their number. "I will keep the quantum disturbance to this place open. This way I will be aware should she ever wake again."

One after another they all nodded, too tired to put up much of an argument. They all just wanted to go home now, even those who had played but a very brief part in this drama.

"Send us home, Willow," Buffy said tiredly. "Just send us all home."

"A word of warning before you go," the living computer said. "I ... I am not sure that the places you will return to will be exactly those you left."

Everyone looked at her, alarmed. "What do you mean?"

"The sleeper almost awoke," she reminded them. "No once can say for certain what Buffy here," she motioned at the sleeping woman, "had to do in order to make it sleep once more. Or how much her earlier whispering might have changed the dreams already in place."

She sighed. "I'm just saying, don't be surprised if things are not exactly as you remember them, okay?"

No one was particularly happy with that final warning of Willow 12, but there was nothing more to say. One by one the tired warriors disappeared, the living computer shifting them back to the parallels she had taken them from. Buffy, Angel, Tinya, and Jennifer, the largest group of them all, now one short, was the last to disappear.

Leaving but two people behind.

"I don't have a home to return to," Anne said neutrally. "Poses a bit of a problem, doesn't it?"

"I ... I can send you wherever you want to go, Anne. I mean ... there are worlds almost identical to yours ..."

"All of which already have a Buffy in place, right?" She smiled wistfully. "Don't worry about me, Wills. I'll be okay. You should just go."

"I can't just leave you here."

"You won't. When I gave you a piece of my form to make a body for you I picked up a few tricks from you as well. I can shift myself across the parallels."

Willow 12 just nodded, spending a moment to think how strange this entire situation was. In quite a few parallels this woman, Buffy Summers, was best friends with Willow Rosenburg, the woman on whose mind Willow 12 was based. Yet here they were no more than strangers and all her vast databases did not give her a clue what to say to her now.

"I'll find myself a place, Will," Anne said, giving the living computer an awkward hug. "Somewhere. Somewhen."

"Good luck, Buffy."

With that Willow 12 vanished.

Anne, who figured she could safely call herself Buffy again now that most of the doppelgangers had returned to their own homes, spent a final moment looking at her sleeping duplicate. She wanted to hate her. God, how she wanted to hate this woman who had taken everything from her. Yet somehow she could not. Not with knowing what she did, having seen a glimpse of what this version of herself had gone through.

As it was she could do nothing but grieve for the people she had lost and hope that, somehow, somewhere, they were safe and happy. As happy as her doppelganger seemed to be now.

"Sweet dreams, my sister," she whispered, bending down to press a soft kiss on the sleeping Buffy's brow. "Be happy, okay?"

Moments later she was gone, leaving behind only two sleepers, both of whom dreamed wonderful dreams. For the sleeping woman called Buffy it was a dream of sunshine and happiness, a world with no demons and vampires. One in which her friends and family had not been killed by a giant demon, one in which the world was whole and safe.

One in which the man she loved more than anything else was alive and well, coming to meet her among the green hills of Galway beneath the azure-blue sky, a smile on his face.

--

Epilogue - Living Our Dreams

--

New Earth Construction Project

Central Station, former Earth Orbit

May 22, 2101 AD

Parallel 1

Buffy and Angel, along with Tinya and Jennifer, stood in front of the large picture window and looked out into the star-sprinkled emptiness where a world should be. If they squinted their eyes they were able to make out the sleek bow of the Stepping Disk hovering in the midst of that emptiness, but neither of them bothered. They knew that, in just a few minutes, they would have absolutely no problem seeing something happen out there.

At the moment their thoughts were still preoccupied with other things.

Willow 12 was gone. The magical quantum computer had not returned with them from the beginning of time and there was no trace of the giant machinery it had put together for itself in one of Magitech's lunar complexes. The only thing left behind was a holographic note, showing a teenage picture of Willow.

"I'll be around," the perky redhead had said, waving at them. "Be seeing you!"

Jennifer had been particularly miffed at that quick departure; the scientist in her would have liked nothing better than to crawl into Willow 12's innards and sniff out all her magitechnological secrets. As this was not to be, though, and with the New Earth Construction Project soaking up all of Magitech's resources for the foreseeable future, Jennifer had been forced to put all thoughts of building a quantum computer of her own on ice. At least for the time being.

They had held a funeral for Spike a week after their return. There was no body to bury, of course, and his ashes had been scattered somewhere at the beginning of time. Angel liked to image that this way a small piece of his old friend and favorite childe had gone into all the worlds born from that moment onward. It could not keep the tears at bay, though.

"Two minutes," a computer voice announced.

"You think Anne is okay?" Buffy asked her husband. "She never did come back."

"I'm sure she is fine, Buffy. Probably just looking for a place where she can maybe belong again."

"She could have come home with us."

"This is not her world, Buffy. I doubt it ever could be."

She sighed, nodding. "I just hope she finds some place where she can be happy."

"One minute."

"You guys know something funny?" Tinya asked. "Remember how Willow 12 warned us that things might be a little different when we get back?"

"Sure, but we've been back for three months and ..."

"I went into the restaurant yesterday and asked for a Coke."

"So?"

"The waiter looked at me real strangely and then asked me what a Coke is."

Buffy, Angel, and Jennifer stared at her.

"Yeah, that was pretty much my reaction, too."

"Ten seconds to activation."

All four of them turned towards the picture window again. The computer counted down the final seconds and then the nearly invisible bow of the Stepping Disk suddenly exploded into brilliance. Before the backdrop of the stars a giant golden disk slowly took shape, growing larger and larger as dozens of fusion spheres and hundreds of witches and sorcerers poured their energy into it.

Then, slowly, agonizingly slowly, the sphere of a planet began to appear within the golden light. Afterwards all of those watching were surprised to learn that the actual transit time had been almost half an hour. For them, though, it seemed to go by incredibly fast.

And when the golden light finally faded the formerly empty spot where Earth should have been was filled once more.

"Welcome to New Earth," Jennifer said softly. "Welcome home."

--

"Pretty good show, people," Spike mumbled to himself, watching the proceedings with something very much like a tear in his eye. "Pretty good show."

"Spike?" a voice called out behind him. "We have to go now."

He nodded, smiling.

"I'm coming, Dru."

Arm in arm Drusilla and Spike walked away from their living friends, heading towards whatever afterlife would be crazy enough to take them in.

--

Glory's Tower

Sunnydale, California

May 22, 2001 AD

Parallel 5

"Buffy," Willow cried out, seeing the fallen body of her friend slowly rising again. She had been sure that this was it. Buffy had jumped headfirst into that eerie light, somehow figuring that her blood would close it just as well as Dawn's. But she was alive. Thank God, she was alive.

"Easy, Will," Buffy returned the hug of her best friend. "Hurting here, you know?"

The redhead let her go just in time for someone else to jump up and hug her. Dawn had made her way down the tower in record time, fearing that the only thing she would find was her sister's broken body. Instead she was here, alive.

"Buffy," she yelled, hugging her sister with all her strength. "You're alive! You're alive! You're alive!"

"I'm here, Dawn," Buffy told her sister. "I'm all right."

You have a sister? Anne asked inside her mind. How come I never knew about this before?

Don't ask me, Buffy answered. This sure is some strange world we ended up in.

Well, as long as they let you go anytime soon so you can pay a visit to a certain someone living in Los Angeles ...

For a moment Buffy felt incredibly guilty. This was not her world, was it? These people were not her friends, not her family. If not for that split-second conversation she had had with her doppelganger from this world, the one who was so incredibly tired and wanted nothing but oblivion, she would never have considered coming here, inserting herself into this life.

She had, though. Whether or not it was a wise decision ...? Well, she would probably find out soon enough. For now, though, the only things she cared about were the arms of her friends around her and the knowledge that, just two hours by car away from here, a lonely vampire with a soul was waiting. Maybe not her vampire with a soul, not exactly, but maybe ... just maybe ...

I think I'll get around to that sooner rather than later.

--

The Infinite Library

The Librarian took stock of his books once more and sighed in satisfaction. Thank God this story was finally over and his books were all back in place. Well, most of them anyway. It had been tough and go there for a while. For a moment he had actually seen them all disappear, all those stories lost forever, nothing but blank pages remaining. Only for a moment, though, then they had been back.

Not everything was as it had been before, he knew. Some books had stayed gone, but others had taken their place. Some stories had changed a bit, others had come to an end, new ones had begun.

With a satisfied smile on his lips the Librarian moved through the stacks of the library and pondered which book to read next.

--

Ground Zero

Just Before the Big Bang

For a moment he had thought that this was all but a dream. That everything he saw, all those worlds moving and changing inside his head were nothing more than his imagination. Something else had drawn his attention and he had, for the span of a heartbeat, considered that he might be sleeping and that, upon waking up, he would find something else, something new.

What a foolish notion, though. If he were sleeping and dreaming then he could not possibly notice, could he? Did they not say that, the moment you realized you were dreaming you inevitably woke up? Well, since he had not woken up this could not possibly be a dream then, right?

And hell, even if it was, this was one dream he would not mind never waking up from. It was just too neat to ever end.

THE END