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And The Answer Is –

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Summary: Buffy is convinced that someone has been systematically killing off the Scooby Gang, and is trying to track down the person responsible. Warning: Dark fic! Multiple character deaths described or mentioned.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Multiple Crossings > Buffy-CenteredGreywizardFR18513,36802310,71320 Dec 1021 May 12Yes

Chapter Five

Author's Note 1: Remember, each of these following chapters is a possible alternate universe wrapping up the story I started in the first chapter.

Author's Note 2: I am arbitrarily establishing the Sunnydale High School Senior Class Graduation date as Saturday, June 5, 1999, since no firm date was declared in canon. In fact, several sites state that the senior class graduated near the end of May 1999 – but since that involves ignoring the full moon seen in the previous episode, "The Prom", which would put that particular high school dance at May 30, 1999, and it also involves ignoring Faith saying to Angel that she was asleep for eight months during February of 2000, Graduation Pt. 2 must have been during early June, 1999.

Author's Note 3: I wish to acknowledge, right up front, that the initial inspiration for this particular chapter came from my beta, Theo (Starway_Man) and from Nodakskip, and not me, no matter how much I would like to claim the credit for it. So, thank them, people, and not me. I did follow up and write it, though. ;-)

***

Somewhere in Sunnydale, California
June, 1999


Blinking repeatedly to try and get rid of the annoying gook that had accumulated in the corners of her eyes as she'd slumbered, Buffy blearily looked around as she tried to focus her attention and figure out exactly where she was – wait, just what the Hellmouth was going on?

Glancing around with bewilderment, the blonde Chosen One frowned as she saw what looked to be the sleeping forms of her mother, Giles, and her oldest friends, Xander and Willow, all lined up on her left hand side – as well the similarly insensible bodies of her high school acquaintances Cordelia and Oz, and her would-be replacement Watcher, Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, stretched out on her right hand side.

All eight of them were all gathered together in what looked like some sort of underground chamber, since there weren't any windows visible anywhere, and they were all lying on your basic hospital gurney, with some sort of music-y headset kind of thingy affixed to each of their heads, and with the same kind of hospital-y tubes and fluid-filled bags and other yucky stuff that you saw in movies attached to them – although everyone present was dressed in their normal street clothing, oddly enough.

"Ohhh, man, did anyone see the license number of the truck that hit me?" Buffy heard Xander mumble, the confusion quite evident in his voice as he wiped a hand across his face and opened his eyes to glance around himself and evaluate his surroundings, in much the same way she was doing.

One by one, over the course of the next thirty seconds, the rest of the group woke up – with each of them reacting in a similar manner, until they were all finally more or less awake and fully conscious.

"What the hell is going on?" Buffy demanded, as the gang all took off their headsets and disconnected the tubes and wires, getting up and facing each other. The memories of everything that had happened up until 2009 abruptly came back, and the Summers woman almost freaked out – as everyone present here was supposed to be *dead*, apart from herself.

"Mom?!" the Slayer said softly in awe, staring at Joyce in disbelief.

"Buffy," Joyce replied, not sure what was going on; the last thing she remembered was sitting down on her couch to rest, during the February of 2001.

"Joyce?" Giles said, likewise stunned by the middle-aged woman's appearance.

"Giles!" Cordelia exclaimed to her former high school librarian.

"Cordelia?" the Watcher echoed in confusion. { Hang about, I thought she died years ago? }

"Buffy?" Cordelia scrunched her eyebrows in recognition.

"Cordy?" Buffy returned with a quizzical look on her face.

"Wesley," Giles nodded in confusion to his fellow ex-Watcher.

"Mr. Giles – Rupert," Wes nodded back, looking just as confused.

"And hey, this is me standing right here," Xander muttered, somewhat aggrieved by the fact that no one seemed to be paying any attention to him. { Oh well, business as usual, I guess... }

"XANDER!!" Willow shouted, as she rushed forward to give him a big hug. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry over what happened with Kennedy – please, just hear me out..."

"No, thanks. There's nothing to talk about," Xander said, his face going cold and his body stiffening as all his memories came back with a vengeance. He shoved the hurt-looking redhead he had once considered the closest thing he had to a sister away, before he said, "You made your choice back then, Will. Live with it."

"What's going on?" Oz said, actually looking confused as he automatically drifted over to Willow's side. In his mind, he'd been living in Tibet with his son and the mother of his child, when – *this* had happened.

"That's what *I'd* like to know!" Cordelia snapped, likewise automatically drifting over to Xander's side. Up until a few moments ago, she'd been living in Paradise, after Ascending to be with the Powers That Be – or so the young woman thought, anyway.

Annoyed over how nobody could give her any definite answers explaining what had happened, Cordelia got started on one of her rants, in which she began vilifying pretty much everyone else present (with the exception of Joyce Summers, of course – because even Cordelia wasn't foolish enough to bad-mouth Buffy's mom directly to the Slayer's face).

But then the group's attention was distracted from the former May Queen's growing tirade by a loud chiming sound, which was accompanied by the abrupt illumination of a large movie-type screen everyone finally noticed was hanging on the opposite wall.

"Good morning, all," the smiling face of Mayor Richard Wilkins III beamed down at them from the screen, even if no one present was fooled at all by the seemingly genial expression being directed their way.

"Now, ideally, I'd have liked to be here in person to greet you upon your awakening," the extremely long-lived, and even more morally corrupt, politician cordially informed the Scooby Gang. "But given the fact that my presence among you while you were all still conscious and aware of your surroundings would have almost certainly led to numerous attempts on your part to kill me, I chose to forgo that option."

"Damn right I'd have tried to kill you," Xander muttered under his breath as he scowled up at Richard's smiling image with a murderous expression. "I dunno what exactly is going on here, at least not yet – but that was a pretty smart move on your part, you lousy bastard!"

"First off," the genially exultant face looking down at them from the screen said, "I should tell you that, despite whatever you may happen to believe, today is actually June 8, 1999 – and everything you believe you've lived through over the past few years was actually just a dream, and none of it actually happened to any of you."

"WHAT?!" Everyone cried out some variation of that exclamation in shock and disbelief, before staring at each other in numb incredulity.

"Further," Wilkins' beaming face informed them, "my Ascension – which you have been so industriously planning on disrupting for the past several weeks – went off without a hitch, since you've all been in what are essentially magically induced comas for the past five days, living out what you thought were the next several years of your lives. Although, of course, some of you didn't experience quite as much life as others did.

"In fact, according to the virtual reality system's programming, Miss Summers – you were the only one who would actually experience the full ten years of that virtual life which I planned out for you all," the evidently former Mayor noted with the same cheerful voice he'd most likely used when speaking with his innumerable victims over the past century. "And just in case it isn't clear, the reason I set all this up was because I wanted your attention focused completely on what you *thought* was happening, so you wouldn't have even the slightest chance to interfere with my plans here in the real world.

"I also wanted to make sure you experienced the pain of losing everyone and everything that ever mattered to you in the slightest, Miss Summers – your mother, the little sister for whom you sacrificed yourself, your boyfriends, all of your friends, even your home – before waking up and learning that you failed dismally in your efforts to defeat me," Wilkins said as his image now shifted to display the evil malevolence which lurked at the sorcerer's core while he gave Buffy a vicious, triumphant smile. “And my, my, my, don’t you have such a dark psyche, according to the psychiatrists I hired to write out the general plotline you all followed.”

"Oh, and just so you know, Miss Summers," Wilkins informed the group, the cheerful, pseudo-benevolent expression now back on his face, "right after I had all of you captured and put into that virtual world you've been living in for the past five days, I had your undead boyfriend drained of all of his blood before my minions dusted him, so that I could use it in a ceremony to wake up and heal my dear Faith.

"That's the reason why Angel's not there with you all," Wilkins' image informed the group pleasantly, "apart from the fact that you most likely would have dusted him straightaway, thinking that he was Angelus. The virtual reality program was designed to end after you and that soulless vampire had your final confrontation, after all.

"Oh, and I should mention that after my Ascension was completed, my sweet little girl was planning to head over to England and have a little chat with your former colleagues, Mr. Giles and Mr. Wyndham-Pryce," Wilkins added cheerfully.

"And from the expression on Faith's face when she was leaving town, I doubt it's a meeting any members of the Watchers Council will survive," he added with that same jovial expression. "Even I have certain standards of behavior I adhere to, and I think your little group is entirely too self-righteous and pompous to permit to continue, given the total lack of support they provide to the poor girls unfortunate enough to be Called.

"Maybe my little spitfire will utilize that amusing little concept Miss Summers had to deal with in the virtual reality world, what that Caleb fellow pulled off towards the end of 2002; but then that's entirely up to her. A father needs to know when to let his daughter spread her wings in order to fly, and all that.

"On the up side for you good guys and gals, though," he added, somewhat sanctimoniously, "I'd like to point out that my Ascension will have drained all the power that normally radiated from the Hellmouth entirely, so you don’t have to worry about any pesky demonic invasions anymore.

"Well, I guess that's it. To the victor goes the spoils and, unfortunately for all of you, in this particular contest, I won and you lost.

"Have a nice day, people," Wilkins smiled facetiously, an instant before the screen went blank.

~/~/~

Silence enveloped the room for an indeterminate period as the handful of people present simply stared at each other in a mixture of shocked disbelief and horror, before Buffy finally managed to shake herself free of the stunned paralysis holding her motionless and half-yelled, "No! NO! He's lying! He has to be! He lied about everything!"

"Did he?" Xander challenged her in what sounded like an emotionless voice. "'Cause if the Mayor was telling the truth, that'd certainly explain a lot. Like how it is that all the people here who should be dead..." he briefly glanced in Joyce's and Cordelia's directions, "...are still alive. Which includes me, remember, Buff? Not that I personally remember it, but given what the Mayor said to us just now...well, do you remember Dead Boy killing me at some point?

"Just like he killed Ms. Calendar?"

Ignoring Xander's unpleasant words and spying a door off in one corner which had an 'Exit' sign mounted above it, Buffy broke into a fast run, her actions spurring all the others to follow her.

All of them apart from young Mr. Harris, that is.

He just stood there, staring at the screen on the opposite side of the room as a number of thoughts went through his head. And none of them were particularly pleasant thoughts, either.

{ It was all just a trick. A dream, } Harris thought to himself slowly, as the anger started to churn within him. { Dawn, Tara, Kennedy, Andrew, Rona, Vi, even that asshole Warren – they were all just make-believe. And Spike – he's still his evil soulless self somewhere out there right now, if Wilkins really isn't lying to us. Since he was never chipped – because Riley and his people never existed, either. }

{ Wilkins, you really were an evil, vicious old bastard. Killing off Joyce and programming our lives to make Buffy fall in love with Spike that way, after making Slay-gal think that Dead Boy had left her...and then, having Buffy think that Angelus had shown up again to kill all her friends and family...well, I gotta give you credit for reading "The Art of War". You definitely used that ‘A good warrior learns how to never have to fight the battle at all' tactic perfectly, } Xander reflected to himself angrily.

Xander then touched his left eye – his *intact* left eye – gently and reverently. { So, did I dream up Caleb gouging my eye out because of some sort of subconscious masochistic tendencies? Or was that something that Mayor programmed into the VR world? Could have been either one, I guess... }

Xander tried not to think about everything else that he had experienced in that virtual reality, after Sunnydale had ended up nothing but a huge crater – like the fact that he'd been ostracized and kicked out of the new Council, amongst other things – when there was another loud chiming sound, and the movie screen reactivated itself.

"Hello, Mr. Harris. As I suspected would happen, you alone chose to remain behind after everyone else departed; that's why I included this personal little farewell message for you. I felt it was the least I could do, since you were the one responsible for bringing Miss Summers back from the dead two years ago – and causing me quite a bit of unnecessary trouble," Wilkins stated with another genial smile.

"Glad to have been able to fuck up your plans even that much, *Dick*," Xander snarked at Richard's smiling image, wishing that the Mayor could actually hear him.

"To be honest, I was tempted to kill you much like I did the vampire – after all, you *did* enter into sexual relations with my dear Faith without so much as putting an engagement ring on her finger, and I have to say – the way you muttered "Oh, Cordelia!" during the ultimate moment of passion that night? Bad form, young man. You actually *hurt* my little girl's feelings," Wilkins said chidingly.

"Too bad, so sad," Xander replied to the image's comments bitterly. His feelings toward Faith were rather conflicted, but if all that he'd heard was true, and she hadn't gone to prison after the coma and hadn't actively tried to redeem herself, then Harris was definitely leaning toward the ‘hate' part of the spectrum right now. After all, he hadn't ever forgotten what Faith had been like during her evil days.

"Still, having said that, I couldn't help noticing how you're attracted to powerful women, Mr. Harris; that's why I thought Anyanka would be the most suitable choice of woman for you in the virtual reality world, for you to try to 'redeem' her. Even if, in reality, a thousand-year-old man-hating demoness like her would almost certainly have either killed you or left you within the first six months!" Wilkins chuckled, causing Xander to start screaming obscenities at his hated enemy.

Anya and her heroic death was something Xander had been trying his best not to think about, since awakening from the VR world – although, on second thoughts, since she hadn't actually died during 2003...?

"Oh, and just in case you were thinking of tracking Miss Jenkins down, now that you've finally woken up?" the image continued with a small chuckle, as though the one-time sorcerer had somehow been able to scry his thoughts, "I suppose I should mention that I called in a favor, and arranged for D'Hoffryn to give Anyanka her old job back.

"Doubtless, the former Miss Jenkins is out there somewhere right now, killing and mutilating unfaithful men with a song in her heart. It's too bad, in a sense; that particular demoness would have made a wonderful short-term Deputy Mayor, after Allan was killed!" Wilkins laughed heartily.

"You fucking prick. I'll get you for this, somehow," Xander swore viciously, staring up at Richard as the politician finally stopped laughing.

"Well, never you mind, Lad. In this sort of game – for every winner, there has to be a loser. Which in this case was you. Ah well, toodles!" Richard Wilkins sent Xander a friendly wave, before the screen once again went blank.

Xander stood there for a while, seething and cursing, before finally getting himself under control, and heading for the exit door.

On the way upstairs, the young man bumped into his former girlfriend, who was sitting on the stairs, all by herself, and apparently freaking out from the knowledge that the last ten years had all been smoke and mirrors, so to speak. The former cheerleader had never really Ascended to join the Powers That Be, and Gunn, Fred, Doyle, Skip, Wolfram & Hart, along with all of the people she'd met in LA, and even Jasmine – none of them had ever actually existed.

Cordelia was also trying to come to grips with the fact that she had fallen for *Angel* of all people in the virtual reality. Someone who, in the real world, had never gotten over Buffy – before the Big Bad they had been facing off against had oh-so-casually killed him.

Harris once again cursed Wilkins for his *warped* sense of humor before lifting Cordelia up, putting an arm around his ex-girlfriend's shoulders, and slowly escorting her up the stairs towards the outside world.

~/~/~

Roughly ninety seconds earlier


Crashing through the doorway at the top of the stairs, Buffy slammed open the basement door and then she rushed out of the building which the Scooby Gang had been held captive in, plunging headlong into the world outside, her friends and family at her heels –

Only for all of them to stumble to a shocked and horrified halt, as the sight of the devastated landscape surrounding them hit the pitifully few survivors of the Ascension with the force of an emotional tractor trailer.

Rubble and half-collapsed buildings stretched out around them, as far as the eye could see. The only sign of visible movement was the intermittent swaying of partially-broken tree branches, thanks to the whistling gusts of wind blowing through the otherwise lifeless town.

As one curious seagull glided above the once-thriving community, the only sounds or movement it could detect were the anguished sobs of the handful of humans dropping to their knees as they screamed their futile and meaningless protests to the uncaring sky.

~/~/~

The End

You have reached the end of "And The Answer Is –". This story is complete.

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