How Wide the Gate
Copyright April 2011This story is set post-series, but references “Nightmares” (Buffy, Season 1) and “Normal Again” (Buffy, Season 6).
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN. Other recognizable characters are likewise not mine, but used with affection and respect.-----------
“Wait, wait,” Buffy said. “I don’t get it.” Her voice, while steady, seemed a bit … blurred. Was that due to her wounds, or his? “First you lay out this system for me, then you say it doesn’t work. So which is it? And what does a snow globe have to do with anything?”
“That’s the whole point,” Xander explained. “That people are still arguing about it, that it’s a major theory but hasn’t ever really been settled.” In his case, it was a matter of deciding if the various tremors and jerks he could feel within himself were working their way into his voice, or remained strictly internal. “As for the snow globe, that’s where it started.”
Buffy braced back against the barrier, easily one-handing the semiautomatic grenade launcher and keeping an eye on the small mirror she had posted so that she could see over the makeshift wall without having to expose any part of herself. “Okay, I’m listening,” she told him. “But I’m warning you, this had better not have anything to do with Amy Yip.”
“Cross my heart,” Xander said. “Okay, there’s this show that was on in the Eighties, St Elsewhere
. Lots of actors we know now who were new faces then, I’m mainly thinking Mark Harmon and Denzel Washington. Anyway, the show runs for six or seven years, and then in its very last episode it turns out the whole thing was in this autistic kid’s imagination. He has this snow globe with a little hospital inside it — that’s what St Elsewhere was, a hospital — and everything we’ve been watching is supposed to be stuff he dreamed up.”
“Oh,” Buffy said. “Like when that kid Billy was in a coma, and making nightmares turn real. Except here, ‘real’ turns out to be the dream.” She shot him a raised eyebrow. “So?”
The awful wound in her belly had stopped oozing, which was only logical since the beam that had burned through her had largely cauterized the edges. Fortunately it had missed her spine, but he didn’t want to think what other damage might have been done. A Slayer’s enormous vitality meant she was in better operating condition right now than he was, with his broken leg … but then, he was far less likely to fall dead at any moment.
Think of something else. Snow globe. “So over the years, St Elsewhere
had crossed over with other shows. And some of those shows had crossed with others. The main examples that come to mind … Well, one time a couple of the doctors dropped in at the bar in Cheers,
spun off that show and characters from Frasier
passed through Wings
. And later on, another doctor was investigated on Homicide: Life on the Streets
, and Homicide
’s Detective Munch moved to Law & Order: SVU
—” He checked for an instant as he saw a spasm of pain cross her face; she had refused painkillers, lest it mess with her alertness and reflexes, but had treacherously let him
take a hit of morphine before voicing her decision. So now he got to feel guilty for not hurting as much as she did. “Anyway, you follow the links, and then their links to other links, and according to the theory, eventually you can prove that the whole world is imaginary. Us included.”
“Huh.” Buffy raised her launcher, sent two rounds over the barrier, waited for the explosions (and some screams, good deal) before continuing. “That would actually make more sense than a lot of my life so far. ’Course, I already did that whole scene, back when the venom from the whatsis demon had me thinking I was in a sanitarium and everything that had happened to me in Sunnydale — everything to do with me being a Slayer, actually — was a delusion.”
“Yeah,” Xander agreed. “This one would have you
being somebody else’s
delusion, but it’s the same basic idea.”
“But you say not everybody agrees.” He saw her eyes flick down to the launcher’s boxy magazine, and knew her thoughts: Only three grenades left.
She had filled the magazine with the last of the shells from her bandolier, so those three were all that remained to them. Xander still had one regular hand grenade hanging on his web gear (and Buffy could throw it as far and place it almost as accurately as the launcher), plus two full mags of .223 and half of another for the light infantry carbine he held, but after that they’d be bingo for ammo. “Anyway,” she went on, “you didn’t say which way you
leaned on the question.”
So, she was doing what he was doing, keeping the inane conversation going to distract them from the direness of the situation … and, maybe, to keep one or both of them from passing out from wounds already suffered. “Well, see, there are really two break-points in the argument,” he said to her. “The first one is, for it to hold up you have to accept that everything shown on St Elsewhere
actually was real. What if it wasn’t? I mean, it’s a frikkin’ television show.
Who wants to believe their whole life was decided by some Hollywood script writer? That
thought’ll give you nightmares no Hellmouth ever could.”
“Okay,” Buffy said. “And the second point?”
“Not done with the first one yet,” Xander admonished her. “Don’t go cutting in line. No, even if the show was true, how do we know that last scene in the episode was true? Think about it: did the kid imagine six, seven years of dozens of people going through hundreds of love affairs and medical emergencies and personal pratfalls … or, in the last few minutes of the last episode, did he imagine that he’d imagined it all?”
He’d been talking to keep talking, but Buffy looked to him with sudden attention. “That’s … that’s … wow.” She shook her head. “Back in the sanitarium, back when I decided I’d rather risk staying in a delusion than risk all of you dying because I thought
it was a delusion …” She shivered slightly. “I came back, and I beat the demon, and I apologized for knocking you guys out and chaining you up in the basement … but a few minutes later, just for maybe ten seconds, I was in the sanitarium again, and the psychiatrist was saying, ‘There’s no reaction. I think we’ve lost her.’ ” Her expression was distant, haunted. “There was nothing more after that, but a few times since then I’ve wondered … was that the last gasp of hallucination from trips-demon’s venom, or could it have been the last glimpse of reality before my mind shut down completely?”
The momentary unease was a threat far smaller than that posed by their immediate situation, but Xander found himself moving all the same to meet it. “If you’re here, you’re here,” he said with a shrug. “If you’re not, well, how exactly does Imaginary Xander argue against his own existence?” He grinned at her. “If your life’s been a dream, Buf, it’s a really good dream, and whoever is dreaming can be proud. Personally, though, I can’t even imagine anybody who could invent you.”
Rather than respond, she heaved herself upright, and Xander was doing the same, automatically barking, “Save your grenades, or use for max effect!” It took him longer to get upright but desperation was jet fuel, he had the stock of the carbine slotted into his shoulder and was squeezing off shots, aimed fire, you didn’t spray and pray when you were down to less than eighty rounds and had to make it last. Buffy, trusting him, held herself to a single shot, the grenade bursting in the center of a group of attackers, ten or a dozen, while Xander picked off individuals.
It was the third charge since they had picked this spot to make a stand, and it faltered and fell back as the first two had done. The attackers wore body armor, of a type, and hoplite-styled helmets, but those seemed more ornamental than truly functional, no real protection against bullets or fragmentation grenades, while their own weapons seared through flesh and light clothing but couldn’t penetrate the pair of damaged pillars that Buffy had toppled for the two of them to use as cover. (It had been a close, focused beam that pierced Buffy, but even at a distance the things could do horrible damage, so it was a good thing their aim was for crap.) Most importantly, all their opposition’s actions so far seemed consistent with an orientation primarily toward individual combat, so that even when they acted as a group, it wasn’t with any visible concept of fire and maneuver. Which was good; even a couple of men, laying out careful covering fire to keep his and the Buffster’s heads down while the rest advanced, would have left the two of them screwed, blued, and tattoed in short order.
Satisfied that their assailants had withdrawn for the moment, Xander let himself slump back down to resting position (and with time to notice, his leg really
hurt, even over the morphine). Looking to Buffy, he observed, “You know, this whole business reminds me of a huge, important question that’s never really been satisfied. It wouldn’t stop blaster fire, lightsabers, or even stone-tipped arrows … so what exactly was
an Imperial storm trooper’s armor supposed to be good for?”
“Now who’s trying to change the subject?” Buffy asked. She had moved quickly enough during the charge, and there was no obvious sign of strain in the crouching stance that kept her poised for another instant response, but did her lips look blue? Hard to tell in this light … “Okay,” she went on. “Maybe Rain Boy imagined that he’d imagined everything. But you said there were two reasons to question the theory, and you said that last bit was still part of the first reason. So what’s the second?”
“Well …” Xander rubbed his chin. “See, this part I came up with myself. I mean, somebody else may have done it, but I’ve never seen it anywhere else, so we’re about to enter the undiscovered country of my imagination.”
“I’ve been to a hell dimension AND been yanked out of heaven,” Buffy pointed out. “I don’t scare so easy.”
“I’ll remind you that you said that.” Okay, the leg was really throbbing now. Xander thought yearningly of a second morphine syrette … but Buffy was right, he didn’t need to dull his reflexes any further. “So, the second reason has to do with the nature of alternative realities.”
“Yeah?” Buffy asked. “How?”
“Well, here’s an example. Yea while back, before I was born, even, DC Comics did a special giant-sized issue, Superman and Muhammad Ali, with the two of them slugging it out in a boxing ring on a red-sun planet — you know, where Supes would only have normal strength — to settle who’d be Earth’s champion in an intergalactic match to decide the fate of the world. It was a really big event at the time, the comic I mean, and it’s a major collector’s item now.”
“I hear what you’re saying,” Buffy observed, “but I can’t figure out where it’s going. How does the comic thing matter?”
“Well, it was Superman,
and Muhammad Ali.” At her perplexed expression, Xander grinned again. “In our reality, Ali is a real person, and Superman is a fictional character. So either the match-up between them didn’t happen, or it happened in another reality where they’re both
“I’m with you so far,” Buffy said, her tone conveying that such a state of things might not continue much longer.
“My point is, you can’t just say, okay, Ali met Superman, and Ali is real, so Superman must be real, too. Now we’ve already got two realities, one where Ali is real but Supes isn’t — ours — and one where they both exist. How do we know there isn’t another where Superman is real but Ali is just a character on a TV show? Once you bring in the notion of alternate realities, you can never be sure where they start and where they stop.”
Buffy frowned. “I don’t know if I’m still barely hanging onto this idea, or if you lost me one curve back. More
“You have to take the possibility into account,” Xander insisted. “Here’s another example: the old Dallas
TV show — you know, JR Ewing, South Fork, ‘Who shot JR?’, the whole schmear — well, Dallas
had a spin-off called Knots Landing
. Okay, on Dallas
, JR’s brother Bobby got killed at the end of, I don’t know, their Season 6 or 7. On Knots Landing
, Gary Ewing — another brother — came back to the Landing after Bobby’s funeral. So, fine, right? But then the plot lines started souring on Dallas
, and at the end of the next season the show revealed that Bobby’s death, that the whole season,
was just a dream.”
“Retcon,” Buffy said. “That’s a fan-geek term I actually know.”
“But the thing is,” Xander forged on, “they didn’t retcon Knots Landing
to match it. They let it follow out its regular plotline —”
“Coming at us in a pincer movement,” Buffy broke in, and again Xander launched himself upright. As she had warned, the still nameless aggressors were making this charge in two groups, on different sides of the wide corridor, testing their enemy’s firepower or perhaps hoping that by providing separate targets they might be able to drive closer. In this dead-end cul-de-sac of the vast interior of the temple complex, there was no other way for them to approach Buffy’s and Xander’s position, which was about the only
break the two of them had got so far. Xander had made four shots, and seen three fall, before he realized Buffy was conserving her ammunition. He switched sides, putting three rounds into the second group before switching back, alternating three and three, three and three. He saw Buffy raise her weapon as their assailants drew within some perimeter she had automatically assigned, but that was when the charge broke again and the enemy withdrew.
Maybe he should have picked off some of the men fleeing; every one down would make one less coming at them later. Still, however much he had changed over the last few years, he hadn’t reached the point where shooting a man in the back, however practical, was yet possible.
The last pull of the trigger had clicked dry. He dropped the empty magazine, inserted a new one, and thumbed the bolt release. Mag and a half left. “Anyway,” he said, as if there had been no interruption, “they didn’t change Knots Landing
to match the Dallas
retcon. So, either everything on Knots Landing
was the Dallas
dream still spinning out, or the Knots Landing
that still had Bobby dead was a different timeline, another reality.”
Buffy sagged. He saw it. It was only for an instant, but he saw it. Lips, he still couldn’t tell, but her fingernails were definitely showing blue. The Slayer was fading, and not a thing he could do about it.
“All right,” she said, steady again, eyes revealing that she knew he had seen. “Two shows, not matching. So why is that important?”
“Because it breaks what’s supposed to be a chain,” Xander explained. “The whole world-in-a-snowglobe thing depends on the links being reliable, and maybe they’re not. Maybe St Elsewhere
are part of the same universe, or maybe St Elsewhere
’s world has a bar called Cheers
, with the same people, but in that world Frasier Crane didn’t move to Seattle and none of them ever met the people from Wings.
Maybe the reality where John Munch went to New York isn’t the same as the one where the Baltimore cops were dealing with the St Elsewhere doctor. See? That would mean that what looks like a link, actually is, but doesn’t really lead where the linker thinks it does.”
Buffy regarded Xander for a minute, and then her lips bent in a faint smile. “Your mind,” she said, “is a strange and wonderful place.”
“So I’m told,” he answered. “And yet, no part of it ever seems ready to turn me into the next David Nabbit.”
“Nabbit’s got the big bucks,” Buffy acknowledged, “but I can’t see him ever matching you for sheer sexual charism–…” And then she was on her feet again, firing the last three grenade rounds in a sustained promiscuous burst and then snatching up the Chinese long-sword she had propped against the fallen pillars. A moment later, Xander was firing also, the bastards weren’t probing now but were coming at them all at once, and the words continued to tumble from his lips as he aimed and fired, aimed and fired, aimed and fired.
“Worlds and worlds, that’s important. There could be a universe out there where I never met you —” (where he hadn’t been there to pull her back from death, still and drowned in the Master’s lair, but where she likewise hadn’t been around to bring him to life in the first place) “— or a world where the Initiative demon-fighters are the main heroes ’cause there is
no Slayer —” Pick targets, pick targets, can’t afford to waste a single bullet! “— or a place where the actor who plays Spike on Legends of Sunnyhell
winds up in detox and they bring in some dreamy-eyed Italian vampire to replace him and all the heaped-up crazy fan adulation creates an entirely new timeline —”
The mass of attackers was on them, the second mag clicked dry and there was no time to replace it, he swung the carbine like a club and Buffy leaped the barrier, laying waste with the sword in an explosion of awful violence. Close quarters worked against the inadequately armored men, she was too fast and lashing out with all the ruthlessness of desperate fury, she had to have killed a dozen in the time it took to draw and release a breath, and over their curses and screams there rose a sound Xander had heard only twice before in the past ten years, a cry from something that tore free of all humanity and stood primitive and pure and terrible: the shriek of the primal Slayer.
They ran. Who could blame them? Who wouldn’t
She staggered, actually staggered, and she was close enough that Xander could grab her and pull her back across the barrier. All her speed hadn’t been enough to completely protect her; one of the beams must have barely touched her, she had lost an ear and quite a bit of the skin on that side of her face, her eyes showed shock but there wouldn’t be any pain yet with the nerve endings wiped away. Xander fought the urge to vomit, helped her down into shelter again while they awaited what would inevitably be the final charge.
“Maybe a world where we get together every now and then to party with the X-Men,” he croaked, throat dry with tension and exertion and dread. He loaded his carbine with the remaining half-packed magazine, then pulled the grenade from his vest and folded Buffy’s hands around it; she could employ it better than he could, and she needed some
distance weapon to use before the besiegers reached their refuge for the last time. “Or one where Hermione Granger swaps class notes with Willow. Or how about a world where JJ has a sister —?”
(What name would they use for that? Jessica Joy covered two of their dearest departed, but there didn’t seem to be any way to combine ‘Anya’ and ‘Tara’ into anything that sounded good. A boy, now … Jon Wesley would work …)
Fresh clamor from the other side jerked him up again, ready to expend the rest of his bullets and then fight with gun-butt and hands and teeth. A cluster of movement, there, he swung the carbine to bring up the sights —
A girl was flying through the air toward them.
There was more than that, a lot more, Important Things were happening in that broad corridor, but Xander couldn’t make himself look away. Young and blonde and pretty, a blue-gray field uniform like the ones he and Buffy wore, she arced in their direction in a parabola that clearly would carry her over the barrier. Then the beams struck her, at least three of them, her hair vanished in smoke and flesh boiled away, one eye popping, and Xander heard bones snap as she landed on the concrete floor next to them.
He couldn’t help himself. “Claire, goddammit!” he burst out. “You know
I hate it when you do that!”
“Bite me, Harris,” the seared girl bubbled through knitting lips. She pushed up onto one elbow, cartilage grating as it reset itself, and the gaping eye filled in as he watched. “Grab my kit,” she commanded brusquely, new hair sprouting on the regenerating scalp. “Looks like your better half needs it bad.”
Xander was already ripping open the Velcro flap on her tactical vest, and he pulled out a hypodermic syringe and a sealed smaller packet that contained the needle tip. He tore the latter open with his teeth and installed the needle onto the syringe; by then, the girl’s hands were good enough for her to take it from him. “Grab another for yourself, dumb-ass,” she told him as she inserted the needle into the crook of her elbow, and with the deftness of long practice she used one thumb to draw out the plunger, filling the hypodermic’s reservoir with her own blood.
He ignored the second order; the moment she pulled the hypodermic from her arm, he grabbed it and hopped one-legged over to the stricken Slayer, leaving Claire to grouse resignedly behind him. “Hang on, Buf,” he called. “Got your pick-me-up right here, I told you nothing could keep down the Wonder Twins!”
He didn’t have to worry about gentleness, with her current wounds she wasn’t likely even to feel the needle. He jabbed into her thigh and depressed the plunger, then sagged back in a relief so huge that it left him almost paralyzed in reaction. Seconds later he felt Claire jam another needle into his buttock (through the cloth of the uniform, just as he had done with Buffy), but he couldn’t spare the time to pay any attention.
The regenerative qualities of Claire Bennet’s blood had faded slightly as she passed the peak of burgeoning adolescence; as a cure, it was still miraculous, but no longer near-instantaneous. Not on most people, at least: couple it with Slayer healing, and the results were almost as spectacular as with Claire herself. A deep ache grew in his leg, where filaments of new bone anchored themselves and began layering into place; within days, the leg would be sound and strong again. No such obscene delay for Buffy, the damage to her face and the deep scorched wound in her abdomen self-repaired as if in some manic time-lapse photography.
Unlike him, she would be drained for hours by the demand on her metabolism; unlike her, he could now walk if he was really
careful. Awareness of a new presence made him swivel in sudden alarm, only to relax again. “Right,” he said. “I might have known they’d call in both of you. So, what’s the next step?”
Michael Newman’s smile was mild and amiable as always; his uniform was torn and blood-splotched, but the skin exposed showed no damage. His nanite-charged system allowed healing almost as fast as Claire’s, albeit utterly incompatible with that of anyone actually human. He lifted his arm and spoke into a band on his wrist: “Goose and Gander located and treated,” he said conversationally. “Lock these coordinates and set exfil route.”
This wasn’t the first time he had saved their lives. Xander just wished he could like the guy. He had no doubt that Newman was a swell fella … but the knowledge that the perfect Adonis physique hid innards every bit as Frankensteinian as Adam’s, well, it frankly gave him the creeps. (Plus, it didn’t help that Newman’s facial structure bore just the faintest resemblance to Angel’s.) He probably hadn’t bothered to use the slung FN P90; even barehanded he would have swept like a threshing machine through the remnant besieging them, not quite as fast as Buffy but just as inexorable and deadly … and, of course, he would be the one who had thrown Claire into their refuge, like the classic Colossus-Wolverine fastball special.
A voice came back through the wrist-band, audible to Xander but not quite intelligible. Newman raised an eyebrow toward him. “Cait says she’s ready,” he informed them. “We might want to take cover on the other side of your little shelter about now.”
He helped the now fully-healed Claire to move them to the new position, then murmured, “Set,” into the band. Moments later, a section of the corridor collapsed under the pounding of rocket blasts and surgical sculpting by 30mm cannon, and Newman led/ carried them outside, where on a flat expanse of composition roof a matte-black insectile craft sat awaiting them, rotors idling but ready to spring to surging life.
“I can’t believe that bucket of bolts is still flying,” Claire yelled over the engine sounds as they made their way across the roof. “I mean, God! it has to be as old as my mom!”
“It was state of the art in the Eighties,” Newman called back cheerfully, “and some of today’s art still hasn’t caught up yet. Don’t you worry, it’ll get us to where we want to go.”
Xander paid no attention to the characteristic bickering, all his focus was on Buffy, half-conscious in his arms. Last stands sucked
… but they had made it through another one, and in minutes they’d be leaving this hellhole planet. Let somebody else scout it, he’d had all the fun here that he could stand.
With no thought for anything except his beloved, he was carried along with her to the place where Lieutenant Colonel Caitlin O’Shannessy waited, in Airwolf, to fly them out to rejoin the rest of SG-1.
Acknowledgment: Claire Bennet (“Heroes”, 2006-10) belongs to Tim Kring, Tailwind Productions, and Universal Media Studios; Michael Newman (“Now and Again”, 1999-2000) belongs to Glenn Gordon Caron and CBS Productions; Caitlin O’Shannessey and Airwolf (“Airwolf”, 1984-87) belong to Donald P. Bellisario, Belisarius Productions, and Universal TV; SG-1 (“Stargate SG-1”) belongs to Brad Wright, Jonathan Glassner, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Questions? Comments? Any feedback is welcome!