The universe stopped dead in its tracks around me. Spike, the .357 caliber bullet, everything had come to a complete halt. The slug just hung there, midway between the gun and my chest, the instrument of my demise suspended in time, frozen for an eternal moment on the cusp of life and death.
I moved out of its path. Its one thing to wax poetic and philosophical, but its quite another to look a gift miracle in the mouth. No telling when the universe might decide to kick back in again.
From somewhere above in the dark night, a massive three-dimensional shadow descended. It was hard to say exactly what it looked like, as difficult as trying to figure out the shape of a leaf from its shadow as the leaf is tossed around in a stiff wind.
The thing came to rest several yards away from me, and for a fleeting moment it seemed to take on a nightmarish solidity of form. Then the sensation was gone, and in place of the murky, shifting manifestation there stood a man.
Correction. The illusion of a man.
Rather a single minded fellow, isnt he? he said, nodding in the direction of Spike.
I leveled my handgun at him, for whatever good that would do. The man who came beneath my sights looked to be in his mid-fifties. He was dressed in a well tailored black suit, and had a distinguished bearing. But there was also an air of street toughness in both the face and gunmetal gray eyes.
And you are? I asked.
He smiled. I guess the adjective would be sardonically.
You know, I hadnt actually given that a thought. Lets see. Always been rather partial to those old Errol Flynn swashbucklers. Why dont you call me Mr. Flynn?
I nodded toward Spike and the frozen bullet. So, you the guy responsible for putting the deep freeze on the universe?
Only locally. And I havent actually stopped time. I cant do that. But I can slow it down asymptotically. Its as slow as itll ever get without stopping entirely.
Interesting. A localized Lorentz time dilation independent of mass or acceleration. A neat trick. Non-Relativistic, but neat, I said.
Ah, yes. Id almost forgotten your recent academic interest in temporal, quantum, and interdimensional physics. And if I recall, one of the extant Dark Hunter host engrams was a mathematician of no mean talent. That would explain why you didnt find this as strange and surprising as most.
Mister, Ive fought mantis women, had sex with a vampire, been to hell and back, gone mano a mano with the Elemental Abstract, and walked through a dimensional portal into a parallel universe. Strange begins to lose its novelty and shock value after awhile.
Yes, so it does.
You an Elder Power or something? I asked.
Or something. More like an elder Elder Power. Its a bit complicated.
I holstered my gun. I mean, I was dealing with a guy who could stop time, so I had to figure the hand cannon wasnt going to make much of an impression on him.
Okay, Im guessing you have a point to all this, I said.
Why, thank you Mr. Flynn ever so much for rescuing little ol me from that dastardly man, said Flynn in an exaggerated southern-belle drawl. He dropped the dialect and continued. With manners like yours, Im not surprised you dont have any friends.
Way I see it, you rescued little ol me because you want something. Ive never once run across one of you supernatural types who didnt have some agenda.
Flynn shook his head. Its hard to fool you these days. Youve gotten far too cynical.
Ive been a cynic since I was sixteen.
Yes, and while its charming in small doses, it does wear thin after awhile.
Can we move on to the next plot point now, or are we just going to do a film noir take on My Dinner with Andre for the rest of the night? I asked.
Im here to discuss your destiny with you. I hadnt intended it right at this moment, but Mr. Spike here rather forced the issue.
Im getting real tired of the destiny crap, Flynn. I went that route, played the good little daughter of prophecy back in my world, and all it got me was a lot of grief.
Plenty of people would sacrifice much more for what you have.
For what, immortality? Yeah, I admit it has its charms, but Id rather have lived out a mortal life with my husband and daughter, thank you very much.
I wasnt referring to immortality, although that does work to my advantage, said Flynn. What I meant was, there are plenty of people who would love to be able to make the kind of difference in the world that you can.
Is this where the soft focus and violin music comes in? I asked. Im over the whole save-the-world thing. You get it beaten out of you eventually.
It wont hurt to listen to the sales pitch, said Flynn. After all, it looks like you have all the time in the world.
My problem has always been curiosity. Guys like Flynn play on that, and they sucker me every time.
Lets hear it. I could always use a good laugh, I said.
Okay, here goes nothing. Ive had my eye on you. Ive seen you in ten thousand universes, Buffy. Ive seen you kill Angel a thousand times, seen him destroy you as many. Ive been witness to your love bringing him back in a hundred different ways in a hundred alternate histories, and in all that, in all those myriad coexisting universes, I have watched the lines of chance and fate converge upon a single distant point. It is the point in the history of reality, of all realities, when everything that you are, in every universe, becomes one and you fulfill your destiny.
Youve had your eye on me, huh? So just what the hell are you? And dont give me the elder Elder Power line again, I said.
I am the Witness of Worlds, the One Who Sees.
Cute. And what, exactly, do you see?
In your reality, you won a battle against the Elemental Abstract. In all the parallel histories in all the many universes that are mine to watch, did you know that you are the only one to have ever done that? Throughout all the parallel universes, only Buffy Summers ever manages that particular victory. Not Faith or Kendra or Elisa or any of the others you couldnt know about. Just you. Do you know the odds of that?
What, are we talking Power Ball numbers here?
You would win the lottery a dozen times in a row before you approached those odds.
Okay, so Im feeling special. Whats the vig on special these days? Im betting its a pretty expensive one, given my history with luck.
He smiled. It all comes down to one thing. All the enemies youve fought, the evils youve vanquished, the good youve done it was all just the practice scrimmage, Buffy. Call me a talent scout of sorts, but Ive been watching you practice in all your myriad incarnations. Congratulations. You made the team. Hell, Summers, you are the team.
Okay, great. I lettered. Mind telling me what sport I just got drafted into? I asked.
You fought the Abstract and you won a minor victory against one infinitesimally small piece of it. Sometimes youve failed against it. Other times you succeeded in different ways. Sometimes that victory came earlier when this Darkness, this First darkness, tried to twist Angel back into something evil and you saved him from his own fears and grief
Another Buffy, another universe, another time. It doesnt matter. All those Buffies converge at the end anyway. What matters is that you are the only one who can stand at the end of time and win the final battle.
I thought that was supposed to be a God thing, I said.
He smiled. I just watch. Im a cosmic voyeur. They dont tell me all the secrets, just a few.
So, Im supposed to believe that Im this Chosen One who will stand alone at the end of time and defeat ultimate evil. Again. Is that basically the line youre trying so cryptically to feed me?
No. You will not be alone. Angel has already been chosen to stand with you. Others, too, some of whom you have met, others of whom you will come to know in the decades ahead. And still others will be strangers, or fellow travelers from different versions of you. Weve even got some surprise guests lined up that ought to liven up the party considerably. But all of them will be there because of you, because your particular thread is the one around which the entire tapestry is woven.
What is with you supernatural types and the damn baroque explanations?
You try explaining particle physics to a chimpanzee, Buffy, then you ask me that question.
No need to be insulting.
Says the high-priestess of the cutting quip.
Hey, dont piss off the Chosen One, pal, I said.
Dont get cocky. I just said youre going to be there for the final round. In the meantime, its entirely possible for you to get yourself dead, so just play it smart. That would be most unfortunate. Youre one of the best of you, and there are some tasks were rather keen to see you undertake, in this universe and others. Itll do no one any good if you go out and get killed out of arrogance. The problem is, our side is losing at the moment. We need you to tip the scales in certain crucial situations in certain universes, to give us the edge we will need at the last battle.
Im not a pawn.
No. But you are a piece on a very large board. A very important piece at that. In large part, your actions, the actions of all the Buffies in all the universes, will determine if at the end of time everything is lost or everything is won.
Oh, great. Dial up the pressure a little bit, why dont you. Look, first it was the Hell Mouth. So I took care of your damn Hell Mouth. Then it was Lillith Prophet and company. But even that wasnt enough for you cosmic pains in the ass. No, next you had me fighting the Elemental Abstract for the fate of the whole universe. So I save the frigging universe, and thats still doesnt do it for you people. Nope, now I get the honor of saving other peoples universes. And when Im done with that, do I get to retire to Tahiti? No. I get to stand at the end of time the end of time, for crying out loud! and face off against ultimate evil once more for the fate of Everything with a capital E. Is that the picture?
He nodded. Sounds about right.
I could feel the beginnings of tears of frustration sting my eyes, and I fought against them. Damn you. Where the hell do you get off? I was happy. For the first time in my life I was happy. Id done more than anyone had a right to ask of me, and all I wanted in return was a life with my husband and daughter and friends. How dare you take that away from me after I fought so hard for it!
For the first time, I saw a trace of compassion cross his face.
I didnt take anything from you. Unfortunately for you, Buffy, youre a woman of committed principle and fundamental decency. That is your curse, because a commitment to principles is never an easy thing to uphold. Far easier to make no judgments, hold no one to account, commit to nothing beyond the expedient and live a life on the path of least resistance. But youve never been able to do that. If you could, you never would have gone back into the field to fight the M-7s. You brought yourself here, to this time and this place, not I or those I serve.
Im sorry, Buffy, but you are who you are. I am grateful for that in ways you will never know, but sadly it does mean that you may never find lasting peace in your life. Theres always one more evil to defeat, and youll never be able to walk away from those fights. You wouldnt be Buffy Summers the person not Buffy the Slayer, but Buffy the person if you could.
I felt anger flash through frustration and despair.
Suppose I decide right here, right now, that Ive finished with fighting? What if I just put my gun to my head and pull the trigger? What if I just let Spike kill me?
He sighed. Youve done it to me before. Not every Buffy Summers is as strong as you are. I wont stop you if you decide to take that way out, but I hope you wont. We need you to stay strong, to be the last, best hope for everything that has gone before and everything that is yet to be. And truth be told, after watching you live and love and fight and die so many times on so many Earths, Ive found Ive become rather fond of you. Lately, it grieves me when any of you passes from her world. But of them all, I think your death would be the most keenly felt. There are a few of you who have risen above all the others in character and heart, who have suffered most yet always persevered. To lose any one of that handful is to lose something incomparably rare and irreplaceable.
I shook my head. It was all getting away from me. A universe I thought I at least partially understood was spinning into confusion and darkness once again.
Just one question, I said. Why me? Of all the billions of people in the world, and of all the multiple incarnations of Buffy Summers, why me? I never wanted any of this.
I dont have an answer to that, he said. None that would satisfy you, anyway. Its not like theres some committee that decides these things. Why is the speed of light what it is? Why does gravity adhere to one set of mathematical laws and not another? I dont know. All I know is that like gravity or electromagnetism or the strong and weak forces, you are somehow an intrinsic part of the fabric of reality.
Im not gravity. Im a human being, and Im tired of being pushed, manipulated, categorized, used, abused, and filed under Slayer. My will is my own, I snapped. Even I didnt believe it, but it was on of those nice rebellious sentiments we hard-bitten types are supposed to express from time to time. The truth is, Ive often wondered just how free any of us really are.
Of course your will is your own. No one forces you to keep fighting but yourself, Buffy. Ive seen weaker versions of you quit time and time again. But you wont. You dont know how.
When I didnt say anything, he added, Just think it over, Buffy. In the meantime, youve got some things to work out with Spike here. Hes not so bad, you know. Hes just a frightened child who doesnt know any other way. When it comes down to it, were all just frightened children, arent we? Even creatures like me.
And then he was gone, and time resumed its cruel and inexorable course.
* * *
What the bloody ? Spike asked rhetorically as, from his perspective, I moved instantaneously out of the path of his bullet. Too bad I wasnt closer to him. I could have ended this before it even started.
As it was, his inhuman reactions beat his conscious mind to the punch and I barely avoided the follow-up to the first shot.
The old Slayer instincts took over and instead of running away, I did something I hoped he wouldnt expect. I lowered my shoulder and bulled toward him like a linebacker. For once, being short proved an asset as I managed to drive my shoulder hard into his gut just beneath the sternum.
That would have brought a human down with the wind knocked out of him, but in this case it merely drove him backward into the wall of the little cupola surrounding the top of the stairs. It probably wouldnt have gotten me on the Giants starting squad, but it was a solid hit, and I could actually hear his skull thud against the brick.
I tried to press my momentary advantage, going for the old-fashioned stake I always carry under my coat, but as I brought it up for a killing stroke, Spike kneed me full force in the stomach. Vamps may not need to breathe, but I sure as hell do.
I stumbled backwards, my lungs already beginning to burn. My heel hit the low lip that ran around the top of the building, and suddenly I found myself out of roof and out of options.
That bloody hurt, said Spike.
Yeah. Tell me about it.
He shook his head clear and raised his gun again.
Night, ducks, he said as he aimed and fired for a third time.
This time there was nowhere for me to go and no deus ex machina to pull my ass out of the fire. This time I got hit.
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