Lightnings rent the walls between worlds. The tower shuddered. Buffy turned away from Dawn and ran to the end of the platform. She leapt into the roiling distortion in the air. For the portal to close, the blood must stop: Summers blood; her blood, not Dawn's blood. Buffy fell into light. Crackling energies ripped her molecules apart. There was nothing but white.
An eternity later, she hit something solid.
She opened her eyes to dim yellow light, a metal gantry, a railing, amber-coloured walls, and white double doors. She staggered to her feet. I'm supposed to be dead. Why aren't I dead? Or maybe I am dead, and this is hell.
"Doesn't look like a hell dimension," she muttered. Though appearances could be deceptive, as she already knew. When she'd run away to LA, the hell dimension she'd been trapped in had been all chez-industrial. But this felt warmer, not just in temperature but in ambiance.
She whirled. The person who had spoken stood behind a giant toadstool built by a mad scientist; it had knobs and dials and glowed with an eerie blue-green light. It was joined to the ceiling by a glass column, glowing white. Maybe he was a mad scientist himself, but she didn't think they wore suits.
"You certainly don't look like a demon."
"What? Of course I don't look like a demon. How did you get into my TARDIS?"
"Fell through a dimensional portal?"
"Really?" His eyes brightened, like Giles when he saw a rare book. Maybe she thought of Giles because the guy was British too. Never see Giles again. Never see Dawn again. Worth it if she'd saved the world, but had she? If she was alive, maybe she hadn't.
The man peered at a screen. "Very interesting... Of course, the crack in the void... dimensional barriers are weak, I knew that already... perturbations in the vortex, but that doesn't explain..." He straightened abruptly.
"I can't send you back. That would crack reality like an egg."
"That's what I was trying to prevent."
"Good for you!" He grinned. "You succeeded."
"How do you know?" She didn't want wishful thinking, not if the apocalypse hadn't actually been averted.
He quirked a smile. "Reality's still here."
"Good point." A weight lifted off her mind. She'd done it. She really had done it. The world wasn't ending. This time.
He held out his hand. "Hello! I'm the Doctor."
She shook hands. His grip was firm and friendly, but there was something about him that made Buffy shiver. "You sure you aren't some sort of demon? I mean, 'the Doctor' isn't exactly a name, is it?"
He raised one eyebrow. "Only demons use titles?"
"No, of course not, but people have names to go with them."
Buffy rolled her eyes. "Yeah, right."
"John Smith is a perfectly good name."
"A perfectly good alias."
"Why don't you believe me?" He had very appealing puppy-dog eyes, which made her even more certain that she was right.
"Because you're not human," she blurted out. It wasn't until she spoke that she realised what her Slayer senses had been screaming at her ever since they shook hands. His skin was too cool; not corpse-cool like Angel's, but still uncanny.
He stilled. "Is that a problem?"
The contrast between his frown and his smile was unnerving. No, it wasn't that. His liveliness had been camouflage; underneath was something very old, and very dangerous. But Angel had been old and dangerous too. Being dangerous wasn't the same as being evil.
"You have a soul?"
He blinked. "I think so."
"Not a problem, then."
"So, what's your name?" the Doctor asked.
"Buffy. Buffy Summers."
"Short for Elizabeth?" He grinned. "Now Elizabeth, that's a name with possibilities. Ella, Eliza, Elsa, Elsie, Elspeth, Liz, Liza, Lizbeth, Lizette, Liesl, Libby, Beth, Bette, Betta, Bess, Babette, Betty..."
"True," he said, "but you could always go for a different variant. New dimension, new name..."
Buffy frowned. "I tried that. Running away from who you are doesn't work. You carry it with you." Death is your gift.
"And you are someone who jumps into portals to save the world. That's a good someone to be, Buffy Summers."
"Is it?" She shook her head, studying the criss-crossings of the metal grating of the floor. "They think I'm dead. I'm supposed to be dead!" She sighed. "It was supposed to be over."
She didn't notice him wince.
She looked up, catching the bleakness in his voice.
"Sometimes we get what we don't want," he said. "You say to yourself, this is worth dying for; and then the impossible happens: you live." He wasn't looking at her; he was looking past her, into memories. Cold, dark memories. "And it's something you didn't prepare for, living. They're all gone, there's nothing left, and yet you live. And you can't let go, because life doesn't want to die, not for nothing. Not when you've already died for something."
"What did you - never mind." It didn't matter what he'd saved, what he'd lost: he understood, that was what mattered.
"I'm the last of the Time Lords," he said. He said it flatly, as if hoping that if he said it often enough, it wouldn't hurt so much. "There was a war. The Last Great Time War, between us and the Daleks." He couldn't keep out the hatred that seeped into his voice on the last word.
"They're creatures who have only one emotion: hate. We couldn't let them win, couldn't let them have control of Time. But they were a species dedicated to war. We weren't. We lost. But we took them with us. The ultimate in Pyrrhic victories; I blew up our sun. Impossibly, I survived." He gave a bitter laugh. "The irony is, I thought I'd destroyed them all, every last Dalek - and they keep popping up. So I destroy them again. And again."
She was right about him being dangerous. But then she was dangerous, too. You had to be, fighting apocalypses. More dangerous than the things you're fighting. "One apocalypse after another," Buffy said, trying for a lighter tone. "Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt."
He smiled. "Is there a t-shirt for averting apocalypses?"
"There should be," Buffy said. "I should have one made: Apocalypses 'R Us."
"That sounds like we cause apocalypses. How about 'World-Savers Anonymous'?"
"Is there a Twelve-Step Program?" she said with a smirk.
"Ah. No," he said. "It's not an addiction I'm inclined to break, anyway. 'World-Savers Incognito'?" he suggested.
"You're not in it for the fame, then?"
"Fame only causes problems," he said.
Buffy sighed. "That sounds like something Giles would say."
She was hit with a pang. If she'd been dead, she wouldn't be around to miss them. But she was alive, and she was going to miss them all. "Giles is my Watcher. Giles helps - helped me with the world-saving."
"And how did you get into the world-saving business, if I may ask?"
"I'm a Vampire Slayer," Buffy said.
The Doctor appeared intrigued, but Buffy bristled anyway. "You don't believe in vampires."
"Of course I believe in vampires! My people fought against the Great Vampires ages ago. Destroyed them." He pointed something at her, looked at it, then danced back to the console before she could object. "Yes, yes, artron energy! That explains it. You're endowed with some sort of mystical power, right? Helps you fight vampires, enhances your perception; you deduced I wasn't human almost at once. Not many can do that. At first I thought you came from a Sycorax slave-planet, with all your talk of demons, except that didn't fit your speech patterns or dress. Late 20th Century Earth, but your Earth is one that's overrun by vampires."
"Not overrun exactly... what do you mean, my Earth? This is a different dimension, how can there be an Earth here?"
"There are dimensions and dimensions. Yours seems to be parallel rather than orthogonal."
"Like the World Without Shrimp?"
"Earth has shrimp, but the best shrimp in the galaxy is on Goolagda. You like shrimp? We could-"
"I mean, everything the same except there's no shrimp."
"Oh. Yes. That's what I meant. Except in your case it's vampires: too many of them."
"So there's no vampires here? Because your people destroyed them?" Buffy was torn between relief that she'd never have to fight a bloodsucker again, and loss: what would a Vampire Slayer do in a universe without vampires?
"Oh, there are vampires; everything from haeomovores to plasmavores to your classic fried-by-sunlight types; the Great Vampires are gone, but they left their echoes behind. I've had run-ins with a few, but they usually aren't out to conquer the world; they're a bit more small-scale."
"You sure?" Buffy asked. "People are very good at ignoring weird things they don't want to face."
"Yes, I've noticed that," he said, rubbing the back of his neck. "The number of times alien invasions have been covered up as hoaxes... You'd think humans would pay attention after so many deaths, but no, it's head in the sand time..."
"Alien invasions? You're kidding me," Buffy said.
He titled his head, looking at her sideways. "You're standing in an alien spaceship, talking to an alien, and you don't believe in aliens?"
"Alien spacesh- this doesn't look like a spaceship! It looks like a cross between a warehouse and - and something that doesn't look like a spaceship."
He raised his eyebrows.
Before he could stop her, she ran down the gantry towards the double doors.
"Buffy! Stop! Don't open the -"
She opened the doors.
"...doors," the Doctor finished.
It was a good thing that Buffy had Slayer reflexes, or she might have hurtled out into the void. There was nothing there, nothing outside but Space; blackness and the glowing light of stars, and a cloud of something that made her think of a thousand sunsets all jammed together.
"Lucky we've got a force-field," the Doctor said, strolling towards her, "or we'd have lost all our air." He pointed at the cloud. "That's a nebula. Stars being born. Isn't it beautiful?"
"I'm in space!" Buffy gaped. "Willow would love-" She broke off. "I'm never going to see Willow again, am I?" That was the price of being alive.
"No, but she-" He broke off and started again. "I had-" He stopped. "You know that-"
She turned and looked at his face. He was frowning, almost puzzled.
He looked at her and shook his head, half-smiling. "You know, I think it's a very good thing that you dropped in, Buffy."
"I was trying to think of something comforting to say," he said. "And every time I started, I realized that I'd have to say it to myself, first. Because I have a friend- had a friend-" He broke off. "She's trapped on another Earth, like your Willow, and I'm never going to see her again. And it hurts." His face twisted. "And no matter what I say, it still hurts."
Buffy gave in to impulse and hugged him. "They're alive," she said to his shoulder. "We did good." And if she was trying to convince herself as much as him, it didn't matter.
"We did good," he said. He broke off the hug. He squeezed her shoulders and smiled. "Thank you."
She smiled back. "You're welcome."
"And speaking of welcomes," the Doctor said with a mercurial grin, "welcome to the TARDIS, Buffy Summers."