The street was empty and silent, save for the echo of music and dancing from the Ritz, nearby, and a young, married couple walking down the pavement on the street outside, speaking to one another.
Until the sound of a violent explosion ripped through the street.
The married couple were thrown backwards against the wall, as a gale of hot-air roared out from nowhere, the ground shaking as if a bomb had just gone off, a scream that seemed to sear across eternity…
And then it all vanished.
The couple looked up. To find a young-looking girl, blond hair with a fringe, freckles dotting her nose, now lying on the street — burned and scraped up, her clothes scorched, her breath raspy.
She was clutching something, desperately, beneath the remains of her jacket.
The couple raced towards her, the man checking her over, the woman soothing her, telling her not to worry, her husband's a doctor — or the nearest thing to it, anyways. They'd help her.
The man hesitated. Looked up at his wife. "Amy?" He raised up the girl's wrist. "Her… her pulse…"
"What about it?" asked Amy.
"She doesn't have one."
The girl opened her eyes. Terrified.
"He's coming for me," the girl breathed. "Chasing me. I got trapped in the rift, and now he's trying to change things. Everything. I… I can't let him find…" She stopped. Looked down at herself, taking out a package wrapped in brown paper — which had, remarkably, survived the blast unscathed.
Amy leaned down. "Who's coming for you?" she asked. "What…?"
That was when Amy caught sight of the inscription on the package. And froze.
"Please," the girl said. Staring into Amy's eyes, thrusting the package at her. "Please. Take this to Jack. Torchwood. Promise… you won't… let anyone else…"
With an exhale and a shudder, she collapsed, eyes drifting closed. Her wrist fading out of reality, just a bit, and drifting through Amy's husband's fingers — like smoke.
He started, in surprise. Jumping back.
"Rory," Amy said, her eyes back on the girl, "did you notice she looks almost exactly like…?"
"I noticed," said Rory.
But the burst of people pouring out of the Ritz to see what happened soon overwhelmed the young couple, as the crowd mobbed the injured girl, trying to figure out what was going on, shouting to get help, shouting for a doctor or for someone to inform Mr. Manger!
The crowd pushed Amy away, Rory struggling to stay beside the girl who looked so similar to the Buffy Summers he and Amy had met in Sunnydale — shouting out to the crowd that he had medical training and everyone should get back!
Which was when someone knelt down beside the blond girl — an older man, with an angular face and beady black eyes, wearing a cravat. Mr. Manger.
Mr. Manger glanced at Rory. "It's all right," he assured him. "I know her. First met her long ago." Scooped her up in his arms, with a strength he shouldn't really have had, and then stood up and tried to make his way back to the Ritz. "I'll make sure she gets back where she belongs."
Amy jerked herself through the crowd. Trying to get to her husband, as Mr. Manger and the blond girl faded into the sea of people. "Rory!" Amy shouted. "Stop them!"
But Rory was already running.
He sprinted after Mr. Manger, pushing his way through the crowd and into the Ritz, his eyes fixed on the retreating form of the man carrying the girl. Thought he could hear the girl gasping, "You!" and the man replying, "You should have known I'd remember."
Then… the girl screamed!
Rory skittered around a corner. And froze. Staring, as he watched Mr. Manger stabbing the girl through the chest with a knife, repeatedly. Mr. Manger paused, glanced up at Rory, suddenly noticing he was no longer alone.
And, not even looking down, Mr. Manger snapped the blond girl's neck.
"You… you…" Rory stammered, edging away.
Mr. Manger said nothing. As the girl's blood vanished from his shirt. The girl, herself, disappearing into the air. "Forget you saw this, Rory Williams. It doesn't concern you."
In the blink of an eye, Mr. Manger was gone.
Then raced back to his wife.
"He killed her," said Rory, panting as he arrived outside. "Just… snapped her neck. Right in front of me."
Amy gaped at him. "What?"
"And then both him and the girl just… disappeared," Rory continued, "as if they'd never been there at all."
Amy turned back to the package in her hands. Her eyes fixed on the inscription on its surface. "There's something weird going on, here, Rory. Something bad. But we're not the ones who'll fix it."
Rory hesitated. "But who else could…?"
Amy shoved the package in front of Rory's face. And he stared, as he read the words written onto the brown paper.
For Jack, Torchwood:
Do not open. When Ianto discovers this in your office, you'll know it's time to send it.
— The Doctor.
"The Doctor!" Rory said.
He and Amy exchanged a look. Realizing why they'd been singled out. Neither one knew what had just happened between Mr. Manger and the girl, or what this package was, or who Jack or Ianto were, or where Jack was even supposed to send that package when the time eventually came, but…
Whatever was going on, the Doctor was taking care of it.
And they had to do their part.
"That girl gave up her life on a mission for the Doctor," Amy said. "To deliver this package." She planted a determined look on her face. "It's up to us to make sure she didn't die in vain."
Time to find Torchwood.
And a man named 'Jack'.
Lots of mystery in chapter one, huh? Well, hold onto your horses, because the answers to all your questions are coming. For now, let's look at contemporary-to-this-time Seo, and see what's going on!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The Time Vortex.
There was a difference, Dawn noted, between being a sulky human teenager — who didn't actually have any real power, and just shouted and screamed a lot — and a sulky part-hell-goddess has-her-own-time-machine teenager.
Because the second kind didn't have to shout.
"Look, maybe just… read… one chapter," said Dawn, trying to make it sound less like a plea. "Just so you don't make out with any more mass murderers."
Seo crossed her arms. Leaning against the central console. Refusing to touch the controls.
"Or so we don't wind up in the middle of anymore wars?" Dawn suggested. "I mean, you can see the logic in that."
"Those books are boring," said Seo, evenly. "I'm not reading them. And if you don't stop bugging me about it, I'll let us float in the vortex indefinitely."
Wasn't this supposed to be the other way around?
"It takes you, like, five minutes to read a book!" cried Dawn. "Wouldn't it be easier to just take the five minutes, do your homework, and actually know something about the time period we're landing in?"
Seo hummed to herself, tapping her foot against the ground, being stubborn.
Dawn sighed. "You're not going to back down until I say you don't have to do it, huh?"
Dawn felt like hitting her head against the wall. Maybe she should be the one reading history books and learning about this stuff, instead of Seo. But… then again…
Those books were seriously boring.
Dawn was sure as hell not reading them.
"Okay, fine!" Dawn decided. "Don't be all responsible and grown-up like. But if you make out with another psychopath, I promise I'll—"
The ship lurched, violently, throwing them both to the floor.
The console suddenly flickered with tons of lights, levers throwing themselves, dials spinning, readouts racing by faster than anyone could process them. The lighting around them began flickering, the colors of the vortex growing more and more vibrant, around them.
"What did you do?" shouted Dawn, over the racket.
"Nothing!" Seo insisted. She jumped back to her feet, grabbing onto the console, and trying in vain to regain control of the ship. "Oliver's doing it all by himself! He's on remote control or something!"
"But who could…?" Dawn trailed off. A suddenly delighted grin spreading across her face, as she worked it out. The only person out there with a more powerful time machine than Seo. And burst out laughing. "Oh! Your father found out you weren't doing your homework, huh?"
Seo frantically tried to slam on the breaks, but the power to the rest of the ship died, and the thing just kept hurtling, unable to be governed or controlled at all.
"Now this is a chew-out session I have to see," Dawn said.
Seo glared at her, as the ship echoed with an ever increasing mechanical whine, then jolted and bucked once more, and then…
The whole thing went silent.
The outside world looking white and featureless, around them.
"A nothing-dimension," Seo gritted through her teeth. "Brilliant. Put me on time out why don't you?"
Dawn got back to her feet. Gestured at the door. "Well," she said. "Guess we better get out there and hear what he has to say."
"I'm not going," said Seo, stubbornly.
Dawn buried her face in her hands. Gave a long, annoyed sigh.
"I'm serious!" Seo insisted. She leapt up onto the non-functioning central console, and sat cross-legged on the top, hands in her lap. "If he wants to yell at me, he can break in here, first. I'm not budging an inch."
"Well," said Dawn, opening the doors, "maybe I'll let him in, myself, then!" She stepped outside, faded into the white with only a few steps. Her voice still echoing back. "And if you've wired up the door to do something massively annoying to him the moment he enters, you'll be in…"
Dawn's voice stopped.
Then, a confused, "Wait, who are…?"
Then she screamed.
Seo sprung up from her spot on the central console. "Aunt Dawn?"
She raced forwards, bursting out of her ship, hearts racing. "Dawn!" she called. "What…?"
She stopped, as she saw the small, wooden doll of Dawn, frozen in place, wearing the same clothes and with the same expression as her aunt, but… in her eyes… there was terror. Complete and utter terror.
"Lovely, isn't she?" said a man who emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, grabbing up the Dawn doll and cradling it in his arms. "A beautiful little toy for my collection." He glanced at Seo. Then blinked. Stared, a little harder. "Oh. Now that's different."
Seo reached out to grab Dawn away, but the man snapped his fingers, and the doll was gone, in a flash.
"What are you?" the man asked.
"Someone you don't want to make angry," said Seo. Stalking towards him, her fists clenched. "So give me back my aunt."
"I was expecting a Time Lord," said the man. "Or a human. Something identifiable." He grinned, clapping his hands. "Oh, but this is marvelous! You'll be a lot more fun."
Seo reached through the dimensional folds of the universe, snatching him up and jerking him in just the way she needed to make him really struggle and gasp and writhe. Her eyes boring deep into his, her teeth gritted.
"Wanna know who I am?" Seo asked. Her voice lowered. "I'm Seo. I'm the god-killer. I'm the one person in the universe that makes your sort tremble with fear. So give me back Aunt Dawn. Or I'll kill you."
"Kill me, and she'll remain a doll forever!" the man gasped out. "My realm will collapse, and you'll be flung into deep space. You'll die, too."
Seo let him go. Stepped back, looking around herself, hesitantly.
Her ship, she realized, was gone.
No escape, even if she did get Dawn back.
"What do you want?" Seo asked, warily.
The landscape shifted, around her, suddenly transforming into a games room, strewn with different toys and board games and sports paraphernalia.
"My dear child," said the man, spreading his arms in greeting, his ornate robes glimmering in the non-light of his realm. "I am the Celestial Toymaker. I want nothing… but amusement."
"You're a higher dimensional entity," Seo sighed. "Bored out of your mind. Who's using the unique geometry of your realm to make sure you can see me." She shook her head. "How are you even still here? With dimensional separation, all you higher dimensional sorts should be stuck outside the universe."
The Celestial Toymaker's face grew that much darker. "I have… a history… with someone too clever for his own good," he growled. "Someone who dared to stick me in a nearly impenetrable trap. A trap I've only just managed to escape. At which point, I found myself stuck here — on the wrong side of the dimensional barrier."
Seo took in a sharp breath.
He'd dragged her ship here, hadn't he? And had been expecting a Time Lord…
"I'm not killing for you," Seo warned. "I'm not your weapon or revenge tool."
The Celestial Toymaker laughed. "Oh, dear girl! What kind of an entity do you take me for?" He spun around, indicating the games room. "I told you. I want distraction. Amusement. A second player for my many games." He turned back to her, eyes twinkling. "Best me at a game, and I'll give you back your aunt. Easy as that."
"No tricks!" said the Celestial Toymaker. "No strings attached. You win, and you get her back. Provided, of course, that you follow the rules of the game. I don't put up with cheaters."
"And what if I lose?" asked Seo.
"Then we play again!" the Toymaker replied. "And again. And again."
"Until I win?" Seo asked.
The Toymaker said nothing, grinning.
No. Clearly not.
"Until I stop amusing you," Seo corrected. "And you get bored with me and throw me away."
"But I'm guessing you'll be plenty amusing," the Celestial Toymaker said, clasping his hands behind his back. "Someone as… unique as you."
"And why shouldn't I just beat you into a bloody pulp until you do what I want?" Seo asked. It was sounding like a better and better option, every minute.
"Oh, come now!" said the Toymaker, with a little pout. "We're both civilized, rational people. Such savagery is beneath us. All I'm proposing is a little game between friends." He gestured towards her. "I'll even let you pick the game."
Seo looked around herself. At all the various different games and items, scattered around this Toymaker's realm.
"What do you choose?" said the Celestial Toymaker. "Backgammon? Checkers? Cribbage? Poker? Monopoly?"
"I've never played any of those," said Seo. Her hearts beating a little faster. "I've never played any of these games. I wouldn't even know how."
The Celestial Toymaker's expression fell.
"Sorry," said Seo, who, as it happened, wasn't feeling sorry about it at all. "I grew up in a higher dimension of the universe. A prison. I had my own games." She crossed her arms. "I doubt you'd know them."
The Toymaker's cheer perked up, again.
And Seo had the horrible feeling… she'd just mucked this up. Big time.
"Your own games!" the Celestial Toymaker cried. "Games I've never even heard of, before! New games, with a new opponent, and new rules!" The landscape around her faded back into the white nothingness, once more, as the Toymaker advanced on her. "Oh, but that'll be marvelous. What fun!"
"I don't…" Seo began.
But the landscape around her was changing, again. Whirring through different scenes and scenarios, as if flipping through a book. Scenes and scenarios, Seo realized, with some alarm, that were being taken from her own mind.
"I'll just let my realm pick out the rules and game-play instructions from your mind," said the Celestial Toymaker. "Let this environment shape itself to whatever game you think of." He stepped forwards, again. His voice lowering, a hair. "It should be easy, shouldn't it? Beating me at a game you know better than I?"
With a boom sound, the landscape settled around her. Seo spun. A cemetery. At night. Creepy-looking, the headstones looming around her, stone mausoleums covered in cobwebs and grime.
A breeze rushed through her hair, and the sound of inhuman laughter trickled up, around her.
"Oh, good choice!" the Celestial Toymaker applauded her. "A game you used to play all the time, as a child. This will be quite amusing."
"But I didn't think of anything!" Seo insisted.
"Your subconscious did," the Toymaker replied. He tilted his head to the side. "Oh. And I think… you'll be needing this." A wooden stake appeared in his hand, as he gave it to her.
And Seo, stake in hand, suddenly realized what game she was playing.
"Good luck!" said the Toymaker, as he faded out of the environment, replaced by about five pursuing vampires, fangs bared, all hissing at her.
"Slayer…" the vampires said, pointing.
Seo's eyes went wide. As she stumbled backwards.
Then turned, and ran.
Raced through the cemetery, fast as her legs could carry her, chased on all sides by pursuing vampires, grabbing for her, fangs bared and growls issuing from their mouths.
Oh, this would be so much easier with Aunt Dawn around!
Seo just barely rolled out of the way, as one of them leapt at her, popping back up to her feet and staring up at the sky. "This isn't how the game's played!" she shouted. "I'm supposed to have a Scooby or two, helping me out! Like Buffy did!"
A vampire darted at her, and Seo ducked out of the way, grabbing it up by the arm and forcing its trajectory to go round in a circle, colliding with all the other vampires.
"Give me back Aunt Dawn," Seo shouted. "She's my Scooby!"
A rippling chuckle, from all around her, as the Celestial Toymaker mused the proposition over, in his mind. "You need a Scooby," he said. "I'll give you a Scooby. Don't say I refuse to play by the rules."
Alison Korjensky had the Nimopod alien cornered. He'd been armed with a vaporization gun, but Alison had somehow managed to strip him of that, and was now holding it, herself. Pointed directly at the alien.
He gargled at her, preparing to spit venom, and she took a shot — that turned into more of a warning shot.
These things were hard to aim!
The alien stopped.
"Right," said Alison. "So. I think it's time we talk over this invasion-of-Earth scheme you lot keep going on about. You up for that?"
But the alien's face had turned suddenly pale. The Nimopod screamed, pointing at something behind Alison.
Alison turned. Stared, as she backed away from the looming, living shadow behind her. "What the…?"
It sprung at her.
And she disappeared.
You can see why everyone at UNIT assumed she was dead. From their perspective, Alison went after a Nimopod alien armed with a vaporizer gun, a shot was heard, and when they arrived, Alison was gone.
Obvious conclusion to come to, really.
Bonus points to the person who knows how the Doctor worked out that Alison had survived!
The Realm of the Celestial Toymaker.
Next thing Alison knew, she was somewhere completely different. A graveyard. At night. Surrounded by fang-toothed vampire-looking monsters.
And there, beside her, staring open-mouthed… was…
"Seo?" Alison cried.
"Alison?" Seo cried, back.
"How did you…?" Alison began. Then noticed the vampire sneaking up on Seo, from behind. "Hold on." She aimed the vaporizer gun, and shot at the vampire.
Lucky shot, this time!
The vamp vanished into midair.
And the gun in Alison's hands promptly disappeared.
"No xenotech allowed!" taunted a voice booming around them. "Against the rules!"
Then the vampires sprung at them.
"Run!" Seo shouted, yanking Alison along with her, as they fled from the inhuman monsters. Raced out of the cemetery, down the streets, their feet thudding against the pavement faster than Alison could even register.
"Vampires," Alison muttered, "disembodied voices, and a graveyard." She shook her head. "You really know how to pull off a brilliant rescue plan."
"I was trying to get him to release Aunt Dawn!" Seo insisted, as they turned another corner. "I didn't think he'd snatch you up, too!" Her eyes rested on a house, half-way down the street. "There! That's it!"
"What's…?" asked Alison.
But they were already darting up the steps and throwing themselves through the front door before Alison could even finish her question, Seo slamming it shut and locking it behind her.
She slumped against it, trying to catch her breath. "Should be safe in here," Seo said. "Vampires need to be invited in."
Brilliant. And if there were vampires, that meant they weren't even in the right time period. "When and where…?" Alison began.
"Buffy?" came a voice from behind Alison.
Seo's eyes snapped open. Her breath catching in her throat, as she stared.
Alison turned. To discover a woman, standing there, someone with short, curly blond hair, kind hazel-brown eyes, wearing a gray sweater and looking as if she owned the place.
Except… she wasn't a woman. Not really.
"Are you girls okay?" asked the not-woman. She walked forwards, the visible joints in her arms and legs bending with every step. Her voice lowered to a whisper. "Or is this about one of those embarrassing Slayer things Moms aren't supposed to bring up?"
"You're a doll!" cried Alison, pointing at her. Shook her head. "What is this? Disneyland gone mad? Revenge of the animatronics?" She looked back at Seo. "Where…?"
Then stopped. As she noticed that Seo had gone very pale. Was almost shaking.
"Grandma," Seo breathed.
The woman blinked. A little surprised. "No, it's Mom, sweetie," said the woman. "Not 'Grandma'. Don't you remember, Buffy?"
Alison looked between Seo and the doll-looking woman. Buffy… Grandma…
Now it was all making sense to Alison. Everything — or nearly everything. The vampires. The people with American accents. The California weather…
"Someone's created an animatronic Sunnydale?" Alison guessed. "Some sort of… Disneyland of the future. Created by the Slayer Institute. Except the animatronics all think you're your mum. Which…" She stopped. Shook her head. "No. Wait. You don't show up on machines. If these were robots, they wouldn't see you."
"They're not robots," said Seo. "This is the realm of the Celestial Toymaker. A multi-dimensional entity. He turned my aunt into a doll, and will only turn her back if I win his game."
"Game," Alison repeated.
Seo gestured around herself. "This," she said. "This world. It's a real-life version of a game I used to play, as a kid. Dressing up as Buffy and staking cardboard vampires, defending a pretend Sunnydale from pretend monsters."
That made a lot more sense.
"You used to play that you were your mum?" Alison asked.
"I… she… she was a very interesting person!" Seo insisted.
Seo's grandmother turned to Alison, a warm smile on her lips. "Are you staying for dinner, Alison? I'd be happy to cook for one more."
Alison ignored her, laughing a little under her breath. "Well. I suppose that explains how you suddenly developed a fashion sense," she said. "And learned to put on makeup."
Seo looked down to discover she was now wearing… an elegant white tank-top, along with a designer-looking denim jacket, and a pair of black jeans.
Raised up her hand to her face, and realized… there was makeup on it. Just light splashes, but enough to make her look a lot more snazzy and stylish than usual.
"And this… is your grandma?" asked Alison, pointing at the woman. "Never met her, before. She still in California?"
"She… died," Seo said. "When I was a baby." Her eyes still fixed on her grandma. "I never even really met her."
"Of course I'm not dead, Buffy," said Seo's grandmother. "You know I'll always be here for you."
Alison ignored her. "Wait a tic," she said. "What are we doing hiding in here? I thought the only way to get your aunt back was to win the game."
"And if you're pretending to be Buffy the Vampire Slayer," said Alison, "wouldn't that mean… to win the game… we have to slay the vampires?"
Seo turned back to Alison. Eyes lighting up. "You're… you're right!" she said. Laughed. "Oh, that's brilliant! Of course we can win the game. We just have to slay those vampires!"
There was something about the way Seo said it that made Alison… a little… uneasy.
But she didn't have time for unease, as Seo grabbed her by the hand and dragged her through the house.
"Mom's room!" she said. "Let's find some weapons, then get out there and win the game!"
The vampires were scattered across the town of Sunnydale, now.
Alison held a crossbow, Seo armed with a stake, both sneaking around the town, looking out for the vampires that had cornered them in the cemetery.
"Not a lot of people in this town," Alison remarked.
"Probably just the people who need to be," Seo agreed. "Like…"
A scream, from not far off.
"…the damsel in distress," Seo said, as she and Alison sprinted towards it.
There, in an alleyway, they found a vampire grabbing up a teenage girl, fangs extended. Or… all right, the doll-equivalent thereof. The teenage girl was screaming, trying to push the vampire away, but the vampire was not deterred for long.
Seo froze, the moment she saw the teenage girl. Then backed away from the scene, her hands shaking. "Cordelia…"
"Buffy, help me, you stupid idiot!" shouted Cordelia.
But something about Cordelia seemed to make Seo even more frightened than the vampires. More frightened than Alison had ever seen her.
"Oi!" shouted Alison, advancing forwards. "Bella Lugosi wannabe! Hands off!"
And released the arrow.
But the recoil from the shot made the crossbow jolt in her hands, and the arrow flew down into the ground. Harmlessly.
The vampire dropped Cordelia, turning his full attention on Alison.
"Right," said Alison, dropping the crossbow. "Shows you how much you learn taking lessons at a Renaissance Fair." She backed up, wishing she'd gotten more combat training. Or was armed with a weapon she knew how to use!
The vampire advanced on her, and… nearby… all the other vampires appeared. Emerging out of thin air, glowing yellow eyes all hungrily fixed on Alison.
"Oh, that's just cheating," said Alison. She glanced back at Seo. "Does this Celestial Toymaker of yours believe in playing by the rules, or…?"
Seo had disappeared.
"Seo?" asked Alison. Suddenly feeling a little less self-confident than she'd been, a few minutes ago.
The vampire who'd been threatening Cordelia lunged at Alison, but never made it. Was picked up and thrown across the street, slamming into a brick wall.
"Snuck up from behind," said Seo, as all the vampires turned to swarm her. She winked at Alison. "You're right, you know. Turns out… they might not be androids. But they have a bit more trouble seeing me than they should."
The vampires charged, and Seo began to flip, fly, and kick her way through them. Ramming them in the chest, throwing them into one another, staking them through the heart — although it took her several tries to figure out where the heart actually was.
Alison, meantime, ran to help the Cordelia-doll. That was what Seo's mum used to do, right? In order to 'win' her little skirmishes? Kill the vampires, and save the humans?
Cordelia was chewing Alison out.
"…no way I'm going to be caught dead hanging out with a geek like you," said Cordelia. "I mean, seriously? Oxford? You're, like, Miss Tea and Crumpets or something. But more nerdy. And…" Her eyes widened, fixed on something over Alison's shoulder, and she screamed, pointing.
Alison turned. Saw the vampire rushing her. No time to get out of the way.
Hope this worked.
Waited as he raced towards her, closer… closer…
Then jabbed out, striking at just the right pressure point with two fingers, and jerking his arms around to squeeze at a second pressure point, along his back. The vampire froze, immobile, beneath her touch.
Then turned to dust, as Seo's stake impacted from the other side.
"Where'd you learn that?" asked Seo, staring at Alison. "It's brilliant!"
Alison sighed. "I've been trapped in the 70's for the last month," she said. Shrugged. "Amazing how much you can pick up when you're paying close attention."
"Trapped in the 70's?" said Seo. "How…?"
A vampire rushed her, from behind, and she ducked out of the way, flipping it over her back and then pinning it against the back wall, where she staked it in its chest.
"Left side, Seo," Alison reminded her.
Seo cringed. Tried again, and the vampire turned to dust, beneath her.
Seo glanced around herself. "That's all of them," she said. Then grabbed up Cordelia, slamming her against the wall. "Time to deal with you."
"What?" shouted Cordelia. "What the hell's gotten into you, Buffy?"
"Uh… Seo?" said Alison, putting a hand on Seo's shoulder. "I think she's supposed to be one of the humans. You know. The ones we don't hurt."
"That why she wants to kill me?" Seo snapped.
"The only thing I want to kill about you is any popularity you have at school!" Cordelia said. "God, Buffy. I can't believe I used to think you were cool!"
Seo examined Cordelia, carefully. Then, with a sigh, put her down.
"I'm watching you," Seo warned.
Cordelia scampered away.
"What was that about?" Alison demanded, hands on her hips. "No. Let me guess. This is Sunnydale in the past, so… you've met Cordelia as an adult, in her own future, and she winds up trying to kill you?"
"Something like that," Seo muttered. She looked at the area surrounding them, now completely vampire-free. Her face creased into a deep frown. "No more vampires."
"Suppose that means we've won," said Alison. She turned to the sky. "So where's our reward, then? Ready to let us out, Mr. Celestial Toymaker?!"
The landscape rippled around them. Alison's head suddenly spinning…
And, next thing she knew, she found herself sitting down at a table in the center of a circular library, facing a young-looking, doll version of Giles, pacing around in front of them.
"Unfortunately, it seems the hard part isn't over, yet," said Giles. "I've gotten news that the evil vampire, Sergeant Duckie, is still planning to continue the Festival of WeemyWobbly. Your patrol, last night, seems only to have made him more determined to let Hell consume this world. We must stop him."
Seo shrunk back, in her seat. "Oh, no…"
"Wait, I thought we'd won," said Alison. "What's going on, here?"
"What's going on, Alison, is that Sunnydale will shortly be overrun by an army of pure evil!" said Giles. He took off his glasses, pinched his nose. "And it's up to you and Buffy to work out a way to stop it."
"That isn't how to win the game," Seo said. She shuddered. "Defeating the vampires never stopped the game, back when I was a kid. And the Celestial Toymaker is taking the rules and game-play from my mind."
"What?" said Alison. She leaned over the table, towards Seo. "So how do we win?"
Seo said nothing.
Alison felt a chill run through her. "Seo…?"
"The game was open-ended," Seo admitted. She dropped her head. "It didn't ever end, Alison. I just kept adding in more twists and turns and scenarios, every time I played it. The only person who ever ended it was Dad… when he cut in and wrapped things up, so he could send me off to do responsibilities or lessons or that sort of thing."
"An outside voice of authority," Alison realized. Suddenly understanding the worry that had gripped Seo, when she'd first arrived. "Which… in this case… would be the Celestial Toymaker."
For a few moments, they said nothing. Both taking this in.
"I'm sorry," Seo said, very quietly. "I'm so sorry, Alison. We're trapped in this game forever."
"But… but… no! No, there has to be a way to win!" Alison insisted. "The Celestial Toymaker said if you won, you'd get your aunt back. Right? We just have to find the way to win!"
"How?" asked Seo. She shook her head. "I've been thinking it through since I got here. Trying to remember every last detail about this game. And I have no idea how to 'win' it. I don't even know how to stop it!"
Alison felt her heart sink.
"Don't you see?" said Seo. "We might still be able to move and think for ourselves, but we're just as much the Toymaker's dolls as everyone else, here. Just as trapped as Dawn."
"Yes, thank you, Buffy," Giles cut in, clearly not even remotely concerned with what she'd just said. He yanked a big, thick book out onto the table. "Now. The 'Festival of WeemyWobbly'." He flipped to the correct page. "I've been reading up on it. And it appears that, in order to make it happen, Sergeant Duckie will first have to get his hands on a special mythical gemstone."
"Will he, now?" Seo muttered, disinterested.
"Yes," said Giles. "It is called the Gem of Ipsahapsacreamsicle."
"Ipsahapsacreamsicle," Seo groaned. Burying her face in her hands. "Oh, I remember making that one up."
"A very rare, mythical stone of power, dating back to the 14th century," Giles said. "Rumored to be buried in one of the crypts in Sunnydale. Concealed by the Order of Shamalamadingdong, a group of warriors who protected—"
"He really is getting all of this from your mind, isn't he?" asked Alison. "These are things you thought up as a kid."
Seo gave a bitter laugh. "Sergeant Duckie," she muttered. "The meanest, toughest, most undefeatable stuffed toy duck in my entire toy chest." She gave a half shrug. "I put fangs on him and pretended he was a vampire. Spent years fighting pretend battles against him."
"But if this is from your mind, can't you change it?" said Alison. "Do something clever?"
"You think I haven't tried that?" Seo cried. She jumped to her feet. "It isn't working, Alison. I tried, while we were looking for those vampires. Tried every mental trick there is. Every physical trick there is. Even tried reaching across the dimensions, attempting to create some sort of localized shift to get us two out of here. It didn't work. The Celestial Toymaker knows everything I can do before I do it. Predicts my every move. There's nothing I can do to get out of this!"
"But that's impossible," said Alison. "I thought higher-beings couldn't read your mind."
"So did I," said Seo. "But I suppose… it's the Toymaker's realm, set up for him. He can probably read a lot more from me in here than if I were out in the real world. And for all the things he can't read from my mind… he can still read them from yours."
Alison felt cold.
"We're stuck," said Seo, "in a world constructed from the imagination of a lonely, overly aggressive, thoroughly confused little girl." She dropped her head. "I'm going to be Buffy forever."
"I thought you'd like that," said another voice, entering the doors of the library. A man with skin too pale, brown hair, and a rather adorable-looking face. "After all. Didn't want to crack open a book and read. No. You just wanted to launch yourself into action. Play the hero. Play the Slayer."
"Good point, Angel," Giles agreed. "Terribly good. After all. What's the use of being part Hell Goddess, if you can't tear a few people apart, from time to time?"
Seo froze. Staring at them.
Alison looked between Giles and Seo. "You've… figured out that she's not Buffy," she said. "I thought that wasn't how the game was supposed to work."
"They took the game from my subconscious," Seo whispered. "They must have picked up… other things, in there, too."
"It's sweet, isn't it, Alison?" said Angel, leaning against a wall, eyes flicking over to Alison. "Watching her trying to emulate her parents. Re-enacting all their most brutal victories over darkness. Killing and murdering and ripping apart and Slaying."
"Indeed," Giles agreed. He reflected. "Amazing how Buffy and the Doctor change the people around them. Someone like Seo, with so much potential for good, and her parents' influence has made her want nothing but death and darkness and evil."
Alison stared at them all. A little bewildered. "Right…" she said. "Seo's subconscious…" She shook her head. "You know, it seems a bit… well..."
Seo wasn't listening, anymore, though. She turned on Giles and Angel, her eyes blazing, her fists clenched, storming up to them.
"And you think that's why I want to be like my parents?" she shouted. "Is that all you can see from this game of mine, Mr. Celestial Toymaker? The blood and the death and the destruction?" She grabbed up Angel by the shirt, and slammed him against the wall. "I remember playing this game, when I was young. I remember pretending to be Buffy, on patrol, and then turning to Dad after I was done staking vampires, and saying…"
Her voice trailed off. Her eyes growing watery.
"Saying… that now I got to go home," said Seo, her voice shaking. "To kiss my mom. And tell her I loved her."
Angel looked blankly back at Seo.
"That's what it meant, to be Buffy, when I was a kid," said Seo. "Not just fighting monsters. Not just trying to kill Sergeant Duckie and his lot. It was about… defending the people I loved. About being able to pretend… I had someone I could call Mom. A family and parents I could love. Friends I could fight for."
"Buffy, what are you talking about?" asked Angel, now looking thoroughly perplexed. "Why are you shouting at me?"
Giles, from not far away, also seemed highly confused. Scratching his head, as if he had no idea what he'd just been saying. "Are you threatening Angel? What for? He's your very dear friend."
Alison came over. Put a hand on Seo's shoulder, in support.
Seo looked back at her. Then sighed. Dropped Angel to the ground.
The dolls were all back to playing their normal roles. They wouldn't remember a thing about what they'd said, before.
"Well, I suppose if you're through… doing whatever you're doing," said Giles, "I think we'd better get on with finding the Gem of Ipsahapsacreamsicle. After all, if Sergeant Duckie gets his hands on it… well, you know what that would mean, Buffy."
"Oh, shut it!" Alison sighed. "Can't you see she's through with battling back Sergeant Duckie and whatnot? Quit pushing her to be violent, and give her some space!"
Seo looked at everyone in the room. Her eyes darting around, as her mind raced through a million thoughts at once. "Pushing…" she muttered.
Then beamed. Turned on Alison, her eyes glowing.
"That's it!" Seo cried. "That's the way out. By pushing the limits. Making these dolls and characters try to remember who and what they actually are! That this isn't real!"
She swept past Alison, and walked right up to Giles. Bouncing on her toes, as she stopped, right in front of him. "You think I'm Buffy, right?"
"I'm sorry?" asked Giles. "What are you playing at, Buffy?"
Seo grabbed Giles up by the wrists, and placed his hands over her chest. "Feel that?" she said. "Two hearts. Not human. Not Buffy."
Giles pulled his hands away, a completely lost expression on his face. Trying to reconcile the idea of this with what he was certain had to be true. "But… but you have to be…"
"Buffy's human," said Alison. "Seo's not." She pointed at Seo. "That's Seo. Not Buffy."
Giles tried to work it out. Failed. Then decided to blunder on ahead, regardless. "Right. So. Buffy. You must locate the Gem of Ipsahapsacreamsicle, determine its function, and—"
"Just listen to yourself!" Seo cried. Threw up her hands in the air. "Ipsahapsacreamsicle? Sergeant Duckie? The Festival of WeemyWobbly? The Order of Shamalamadingdong? Do those names sound dignified or scary to you? Or do they sound more like something a child would think up, to amuse herself?"
Giles faltered. "But… but that's not…" He shook his head. "You must be Buffy! This is all real." He turned to Angel. "Isn't it?"
"Of course," said Angel, stepping forwards. "I've lived under the terror of Sergeant Duckie my whole life. I know what he's capable of. Buffy has to—"
Seo turned on Angel. "Your whole life?" she asked. "And where did that life begin? How did you become a vampire? How were you sired? How'd you get back your soul?"
"I got sired in Jabberwockland," said Angel. "In Europe. Some bad people bit me, and made me become a vampire." He gave Seo a stern, parental look. "Because biting people is very mean, and hurts them, and you should never do it."
"You played this game with your Dad, didn't you?" Alison asked Seo.
Seo cringed. "I… didn't bite that many people when I was young."
"I used to be evil," Angel continued, in his normal tone, "until Buffy — you — showed up. And you were so good and kind and amazing that you gave me back my soul — except sometimes you can take it away, again. I don't understand how. But that doesn't matter. Because I'm a vampire with a soul, fighting for the side of good, and…"
"But you're still a vampire, right?" Seo asked. She pointed down at the ground where Angel was standing. The ground illuminated by a beam of sunlight. "So… why haven't you burst into flames, yet?"
Angel stopped. Looked around himself. A little surprised. "But… but that's impossible."
"How…?" Giles muttered.
Seo shook her head. "Dad's stories all said Angel was a vampire with a soul," she said. "I knew that part. I just couldn't work out what it meant." She shrugged, shooting a sheepish grin back at Alison. "He was always in my cast of characters, when I played out my stories. But usually a bit… off. Inconsistently so."
"And this version of Angel's taken from your imagination," said Alison. "Which is why… he doesn't make any sense."
"But I am real," said Angel. "I have to be!" He looked down at himself. "I'm a vampire. I remember being sired! I remember…"
"Jabberwockland?" Alison challenged. She turned to Giles. "And where were you born? Ipswichylvania?"
"I… don't think I was ever born," Giles admitted. "I think I was always old and fatherly."
"See?" said Seo. "You're both phantoms thought up by a child. This entire reality — it's a fiction. From my imagination! I—"
The doors to the library burst open, and in strolled a short, stocky, balding man, his face a sneer and his stature self-assured. He looked, to Alison, like a pompous, self-righteous git.
"Headmaster?" Alison guessed.
"Principal Snyder," Seo corrected.
Giles checked his watch. "Oh, dear. I must have kept you here too long. You're both missing your classes." He shook his head. "He hates people who break the rules."
Seo went very still.
"What?" asked Alison. "He's just…"
"An authority figure," Seo said, "whom I didn't really incorporate into my games, as a child. And who specifically hunts down people who break rules… inside the school. And inside the game."
Maybe this 'pushing the characters into understanding who they really are' hadn't been the best idea, after all.
"Well, well, well," said Principal Snyder, approaching them. "How did I know that if there was someone out there, flagrantly breaking the rules despite every warning, it'd be you — Miss Summers?"
"I'm not breaking the rules," Seo insisted. "I'm just trying to rescue my aunt."
"Oh, yeah? And then what?" said Principal Snyder. "Key some cars? Egg some houses? Graffiti some walls?" He scowled. "There's only one place you belong, Summers. And that's locked away in a prison cell for the rest of your life."
Seo charged at him. "A prison like this, you mean?" she snapped. "Forced to live inside a stupid game I thought up as a child, while listening to my subconscious call me a monster?"
"Seo," said Alison, tentatively. "Are you sure he's from your subconscious?"
"Well the Snyder character from my games with Dad never acted like this!" Seo replied.
"Are you calling this a conspiracy, Miss Summers?" said Principal Snyder. "Because I'm no stranger to conspiracy. I saw JFK." He leaned into her. "I've got pieces of a puzzle. So I'm going to look at all those pieces carefully and rationally. And I'm going to keep looking until I figure out exactly how this is all your fault."
Seo sighed. "That's definitely my subconscious," she said. Ran a hand through her hair. "Fine. So you've trapped me forever in my own childhood delusions because I'm a dangerous super-weapon who shouldn't be unleashed on the universe." She pointed at Alison. "But what about her? What about Dawn? They're just normal humans. They don't deserve any of this."
Principal Snyder looked between Alison and Seo. "You alter everything you touch, Miss Summers. Everyone you touch." His eyes fell on Alison. "I can see it on her. Your influence."
"Right, I've had enough of this," said Alison. She pointed her finger in Snyder's face. "You. Headmaster. Shove off, now."
Snyder's eyes blazed, as he looked at Alison. Then grabbed them both up by the wrist, and dragged them off. "That's it!" he said. "I'm calling your parents, Miss Korjensky. And as for you, Miss Summers… I think a certain guardian's going to find out just how you've been bending the rules."
Seo tore her wrist away from Snyder, raced in front of him, trying to block his path. "No, wait!" she cried. "I'll… I'll be good. Follow all the rules. Promise."
"Sorry," said Snyder, grabbing Seo's wrist again. "Not gonna fly, kid. Not with this principal."
The entire scene around them shifted, as they suddenly jump-cutted into Snyder's office, Alison and Seo both sitting across the desk from Snyder, his hand already dialing the phone.
A speaker phone.
"Please!" Seo said. "Think about what you're doing. Dawn's innocent. Stuck in a living death, because of me. If you make this call, if you tell the Toymaker, you'll be condemning her forever."
"Is she?" said Snyder, as the phone rang. "Let's just see what your guardian has to say about that. About all of this."
The phone picked up.
"Hello?" said a confused man's voice, on the other end.
Not the voice that either Alison or Seo had expected. Not the Celestial Toymaker. Not at all.
Seo and Alison looked at one another. Too shocked to speak.
"Mr. Harkness," said Principal Snyder. "This is Principal Snyder from Sunnydale High. I'm calling because—"
"You're a high school principal?!" asked Jack Harkness, a little incredulous. "How did you get this number? This is an emergency line at a top-secret agency. There's no way you could…" He paused. Registering what was being said. "Wait, did you say… Sunnydale?"
"I caught Miss Summers," said Principal Snyder, "cutting class. Again. And I don't care how important you think you are, Mr. Harkness. You're this young lady's legal guardian. If you don't want her to end up in prison for the rest of her life, you'd better—"
"Seo," Jack cut in, with a sigh. "Are you invading your mom's past?"
"No!" Seo shouted, into the speaker phone. "This isn't really Sunnydale. Jack — Alison and I got scooped up and trapped by some dimensional entity calling himself the Celestial Toymaker, who's making us play out a fantasized version of—"
"Alison?" Jack cut in. A hint of desperation in his voice. "He picked up Alison? From where? When?"
"1971," said Alison. She leaned in, closer to the speaker. "And please tell me that Nimopod didn't get away after I vanished. I had that bastard cornered, when—"
"If you could all stop chatting!" Snyder shouted, over the others. "Mr. Harkness, as Miss Summers' legal guardian, you must accept a certain amount of responsibility over what happens to…"
"I think that's enough of that, Principal Snyder," came another voice, as someone melted into existence, right beside Snyder.
Except… this person, unlike all the others… wasn't a doll. Oh, no.
Attired in ornate robes, his face looking smug and arrogant, his eyes completely confident. His voice just as authoritative as it had been when it was booming across the landscape around them, earlier.
Seo and Alison both froze.
"Superintendent!" said Principal Snyder, getting to his feet, awkwardly. "I didn't expect…!"
The man who must be the Celestial Toymaker bent down and picked up the receiver, flipping it off speaker phone. "Mr. Harkness?" he asked. "Yes, I do hope you enjoyed your little chat. But I'm afraid I have to cut it short. You see… Seo and Alison are mine. Forever. My little playthings. You'll never be seeing either of them again."
Then hung up.
For a few seconds, just lingered there. His hand on the phone. Eyes staring off into the distance. "Clever," he muttered, his face dark. "Very clever. Suppose you arranged all this with your mind. On purpose."
Seo's eyes went wide. "I didn't—"
"I warned you," the Toymaker said, turning on Seo, "that I didn't countenance cheaters. And calling the outside world for help…"
"I didn't call anyone!" Seo insisted. She pointed at the toy Principal Snyder. "Your automaton called Jack. I was begging him not to."
"That's right," said Alison. "She was. He wouldn't listen to her." She crossed her arms. "And why didn't you notice that we were calling Jack until just now?"
"Good point," said Seo. Quirked an eyebrow. "Something out there dragging you away from your fun and games?"
The Celestial Toymaker stopped. Mused this over, in his mind. "Just this once, I'll overlook the offense," he decided. "Since it's relatively minor. And if you're expecting help from your friends on Earth… think again. They're powerless to help you." He turned to Alison. "Even yours."
Alison frowned. Confused. "What? You mean the…?"
"You know exactly what I mean, Alison Korjensky," said the Celestial Toymaker. "After all. You didn't think I brought you here at random. Did you?"
Seo looked between the Celestial Toymaker and Alison. Her brow bent in concentration, as she thought this all through.
The Celestial Toymaker waved his hand. "I'm bored with this, anyways," he decided. As the landscape rippled around them, and they found themselves in a graveyard, at night. "Time for some action. Monster fighting!"
Then he disappeared.
A group of monsters, both demons and vampires, emerging, all at once. Growling as they advanced on Seo and Alison.
No weapons on either of them.
"They call me Buffy," said Seo. "Called him the superintendent. Everyone brought here from outside is subbing for someone actually in Sunnydale. Except you." Seo glanced at Alison. "You're still just 'Alison'."
"What?" said Alison. "Look, Seo, we have to—"
Seo turned to Alison, grabbing her up by the arms. "Where were you, in the seventies?"
"You said you got trapped!" Seo insisted. "Where?"
"Seo, there are vampires and monsters about to eat us, here!" Alison snapped back. "Is this really the time to be—"
"Where?!" Seo demanded.
"UNIT," said Alison.
"With my father?"
"Yes!" Alison's eyes fixed on the monsters encircling them. "Is this really the best time to be talking about this?"
"Of course it is!" said Seo. "Don't you see, Alison? This is a trap! When the Toymaker took my ship, he thought he was getting a Time Lord. It's only when he found out I wasn't one that he transported you here! If you've just disappeared, first thing my father's going to do is leap into his TARDIS and head off to look for—"
"The Doctor isn't going looking for me!" Alison insisted. "He can't show up here, Seo. He's stranded on Earth with a broken-down TARDIS!"
Seo blinked. An even more worried frown settling across her face. "But why else would the Toymaker…?"
"Can we talk about this after we escape, please?" Alison demanded.
Seo looked around herself, registering her surroundings. "Yes," she said. "I think… that might be a very good idea."
"Searched through the whole Torchwood archive," said Owen, racing up to Jack, a little out of breath. "Nothing on any 'Celestial Toymaker'. Whatever or whoever it is, we don't know about it."
Jack gritted his teeth.
A month of thinking Alison had died in the 1970's, and a month of Buffy furious at all of them because of it — and now, just when they discovered Alison was still alive, that she'd been snatched away and kidnapped with Seo… they had no information. Nothing that could help.
"Tosh traced that call to somewhere extra-dimensional, right?" said Gwen. "We're right next to a rift. Maybe there's some way to use that to get to wherever they are."
Jack raced over to the computer area. "Is there?"
Tosh shook her head. "I've worked out a model to use the equipment at our disposal to create a wormhole there," she said, "but I can't make the breach into that dimension big enough for a person. Moment the wormhole gets beyond a certain size, its mass makes it collapse in on itself."
"So we can't get in to rescue them," said Owen, "or create a way to get them out. Bloody fantastic, Tosh."
"We can still send something else through, though," Gwen suggested. "Something small, that we have here, in the Hub. Something that can help them escape!"
"Like what?" said Jack.
Gwen hadn't actually thought that far ahead.
"If they're in a prison dimension," Tosh proposed, "we could send through a wave signal that would cancel out the walls of their prison. Make the whole thing unstable."
Jack shook his head. "Collapse the dimension with them still inside it, and they'll die."
"Can we send an object?" asked Ianto, emerging from Jack's office. He raised up a small package, wrapped in brown paper, with writing on the outside. "Like this?"
Jack turned. Staring at the package, as a whole string of events suddenly made sense, in his mind.
"What's that?" said Gwen.
"I don't know," Ianto admitted, walking over to them. "But it says that when I find it in Jack's office, we should send it." He placed it down beside Tosh.
Tosh picked it up. Weighing it in her hands.
"Yes," she decided. "We can send it. Only just. But the moment we do, the mass of the wormhole will grow too great, and we'll be cut off from that dimension forever."
Jack absorbed this.
The Realm of the Celestial Toymaker, a good deal later.
The entire graveyard had gone quiet. Nothing and no one moving. Not even a fake owl hooting or a stray dog barking.
"It's happening again, isn't it?" asked Alison. "Same way it has the last three times."
Seo nodded. "Exactly the same way. First the dolls all harp on me. Suddenly seem to know who I really am and all my deepest fears. And then…"
"The Toymaker seems to just forget about us," said Alison. She shook her head, dropping the stake to the ground. "You still think that's all taken from your subconscious, Seo? Something about it… just feels… off."
But Seo wasn't listening to her, anymore. She had raced forwards, to the edge of the cemetery, hands outstretched as if feeling for something. "You notice that there are certain places in this pretend Sunnydale no one ever goes?" she called back. "Not even the monsters!"
Alison rushed after her friend. "What?"
"Over here," said Seo, stepping forwards, a little more tentatively, feeling around. "No one ever goes round here. We're always herded away… least, when the Toymaker is watching us. Almost… like…"
Seo yelped, snatching her hand away and jumping back, shaking it out with pain on her face.
"Found something?" asked Alison.
"Unstable dimensional interface," Seo agreed. She winced. "Stings like mad, just touching the surface."
"And would probably kill us, if we stepped through it?" Alison guessed.
"Almost certainly," Seo agreed. She stepped back, looking at the invisible barrier before her. "There are two different stable dimensional interfaces, see. One a subset of the other. A bit like… well, a bit like how I made my ship."
"Dimensional transcendentalism," Alison provided.
She'd been around the Doctor long enough to hear all sorts of explanations about how that worked. Not that she'd understood any of it. Or how her iPhone was, apparently, essential to making the dimensions continue to keep doing it.
"Yep! Bit like that," said Seo. "Only a little different. Any rate. This is where the two fields meet — except there's no stabilizer field to create congruity between them, which traps us here."
Which was when, just behind them, the air suddenly ripped open for a brief second, just long enough for a small package wrapped in brown paper to shoot through and smack Alison on the back of the head.
She spun around. Rubbed her head, as she picked up the package. "Ow! What…?"
Then Alison stared. As she read what was written.
For Jack, Torchwood:
Do not open. When Ianto discovers this in your office, you'll know it's time to send it.
— The Doctor.
Alison's heart raced, as she tore open the paper. Almost positive she knew what was inside. And… yes! She was right! The one thing the Doctor could send them that would get them out of a jam like this — with Seo standing right by, to do the technical bits.
"It's an iPhone!" said Alison, showing Seo the unopened box. "Seo, the Doctor sent us another iPhone! To replace the one he stole and dismantled from me! He sent us exactly what we needed!"
Seo seemed lost. "He did?"
Alison opened the packaging around the iPhone. "Well, yes! You said this was just like dimensional transcendentalism. Like what your ship and the TARDIS do." She waggled the new iPhone at her friend. "And in the seventies, I pulled out that dimensional stabilizer interface bit you were talking about, from the Doctor's TARDIS. To repair it, he dissected and reconfigured my iPhone."
Seo didn't take the iPhone. Had bent down to analyze the brown paper that Alison had just thrown on the ground. Staring at it in confusion.
"Don't you see?" said Alison. "You were right! The Doctor was trying to find me, after I disappeared! He must have traced me here and, unable to use his TARDIS, sent this little device to us, instead."
"It's not from the Doctor," said Seo, her voice a little startled. "This isn't his handwriting."
Alison blinked. "How do you know?"
"Because it's mine," said Seo. "This package is from me." She spun on Alison, grabbing up the iPhone from her. Yanking the casing off of it, analyzing the insides.
"But… but… why would you send something to yourself, and pretend the Doctor did it?" asked Alison.
"To send myself a message," said Seo. She squinted at the interior wiring of the iPhone. "Ah, I see…" she muttered. "Just tweak this bit, here, and add in an alien gadget there, and wire it up a bit different…" She shook her head, digging into her pocket and grabbing something out of it. "iPhone as a dimensional stabilizer. It's actually a bit brilliant. I wish I'd thought it up myself."
"Seo!" shouted Alison.
Seo didn't acknowledge Alison, just began to adjust and readjust and tweak, Alison watching over her shoulder.
They were cut off by a growl. Looked to the side. And discovered that the monsters and vampires had re-emerged. Were now making their way towards the two friends, ready to grab and bite and kill.
Seo thrust the device into her pocket. "Respite's over," she said.
"Toymaker's back to paying attention," Alison muttered. She turned to Seo. "Run?"
"Over the river and through the woods!" Seo agreed, turning on her heels and darting towards the exit of the cemetery. "Retreat to Grandma's!"
Joyce Summers, as usual, was happy to see them. Welcomed them with a warm smile and a hug, even offered to make Alison a cup of tea.
But it didn't last.
As always, when they weren't in the middle of the action, Alison and Seo got jump-cutted into the next day, in the library, at Sunnydale High. Facing Giles, who had long since gone back to thinking he was real and that Seo was Buffy.
"…can't believe you just let them go!" shouted Giles. "Of all the irresponsible things to do… letting those vampires go, without even trying to stop them!"
Alison leaned across the table. "So how do we use…?"
Seo shot her friend a look that said, Shut up and play along. Then turned back to Giles, planting precisely the same innocent-seeming expression onto her face that she usually did when facing down her mum.
"I just got scared, was all," Seo apologized.
"It's not her fault!" Alison pitched in. "The vampires started yelling at her. Taunting her."
"And that's a reason to let a group of bloodsucking monsters loose on the streets of Sunnydale?" Giles snapped. His face red with anger. "Don't you have any sense of right and wrong, Buffy? Don't you realize what you've…?"
Seo stood up. "You're right," she said. "And tonight, Alison and I will go out to the cemetery and take an extra long patrol, just to make up for our failure last night."
Giles stiffened. Suddenly studying Seo, carefully, a little unnerved. "What are you doing?" he asked, in a low voice.
"Winning the game," said Seo, with a wink.
Then raced with Alison out of the library, running off into the next jump-cut, through the doors and straight into…
That night. The cemetery.
Seo already in the middle of beating up a vampire, seemingly without her actually having begun it, in the first place.
The vampire lunged for Seo, who ducked, letting him launch himself over her head, then grabbing him up by the ankles and tossing him into the second vampire, creeping up on her from behind.
Grabbed up Alison by the hand, yanking the iPhone out of her pocket as the two raced towards the dimensional barrier, full force. Seo slammed the iPhone along the outside of the dimensional wall, as it opened up in front of her, revealing a black shimmering void.
And a little doll, sitting on a little chair, staring in at them.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," Seo said, running over to the doll and grabbing it up in her arms. "I should have worked it out sooner. Alison said it couldn't be my subconscious guilt he was playing off of."
Alison looked back over her shoulder, to discover a gigantic snow globe of Sunnydale. Then turned to Seo and the doll. A doll just a little bigger than Seo's arms, made of wood, of a youngish looking man with floppy brown hair, green eyes, and a bow tie.
Alison stepped forwards. Confused. "Who…?"
Seo looked up. "Don't you know?" She held the doll out to Alison. "This is my father. The Doctor."
"Give him back."
Seo and Alison snapped their heads over, at the command. Seo hugging the doll of her father a little tighter to her chest, as the Celestial Toymaker appeared before them.
"Give him back so you can make him watch as your puppets harp on me about my father's so-called 'crimes'?" Seo asked. "Then turn the dimensional wall opaque for a bit so you can gloat at him, afterwards? Ride his guilt?" She shook her head. "Sorry. Not happening."
The Celestial Toymaker's voice and expression filled with deadly threat. "You broke the rules. Cheated. You don't want to see what I do to cheaters." He held out his hand. "Give him back, and maybe I'll overlook it."
"And what'll you do to us, if we don't?" said Alison. "Kill us both? Turn us into dolls? I don't think so. You brought us here to keep you amused. And we're not so amusing if we're dead."
"On the contrary," said the Celestial Toymaker. "I brought you here because I'm playing with my brand new Doctor doll. And it's terribly nice to watch him helpless while his friends are in peril."
"You can hear him, in there, can't you?" said Seo. "Read his mind. That's how you knew all about me."
"Naturally," said the Celestial Toymaker. "Not that he makes much sense, at the moment. Wood does so rot the brain. But the anger… the frustration… the hurt and loss and heartache… that's priceless."
"I don't…" Alison started.
"It's how we wound up calling Jack," said Seo. "My father must have done something clever. Telepathically. Twisted around the Principal Snyder doll, so he could trick the system."
"Using a back-door I've since closed," the Toymaker replied. "That won't happen again. From now on, it's just listening to him scream helplessly inside his own wooden little mind." He analyzed Alison, more closely. "He thought he lost you, once before, you know. And then… here you were! Transported to my realm. The relief and happiness he felt, when you arrived!" He shook his head. "Imagine what it'd do to him, watching me break you into a thousand tiny pieces."
Alison stepped back, a little. Less confident than she'd been, a moment ago.
The Celestial Toymaker advanced on Alison. "Oh, but you're more than just the Doctor's lost companion, aren't you?" he asked. Pointed at Seo. "You're her stability. You're the level-headed human friend, who is somehow able to inspire sanity in this terribly clever, psychopathically aggressive child manufactured for nothing but death and destruction. How would she ever cope without you?"
"I cope fine," said Seo, stepping in between the Celestial Toymaker and Alison. Her eyes leveled at him, dark and biting. "But you're right — Alison's my best friend. And if you touch her…" with a click of her fingers, "I'll never tell you where I've just hidden my father."
The Celestial Toymaker stared at Seo. Realizing that… with the click of her fingers… the Doctor doll had vanished.
"That's impossible," he said.
Seo quirked an eyebrow at him. "You're not the only one around here with multi-dimensional aspects," she said. "I can make things disappear, same as you. Disappear somewhere you'll never find them."
"I still have your aunt," the Toymaker reminded her. He stepped forwards. "Give me back the Doctor, and I'll return her to you. Just the way she was. Then grant you, her, and Alison your freedom to depart my realm, untouched."
Seo quirked an eyebrow at him.
"It's a generous offer," the Toymaker said. "One I don't make to many."
"And one that shows how desperate you are to always have the Doctor in your sight," Alison muttered.
The Celestial Toymaker ignored her. His eyes fixed firmly on Seo. "Return the Doctor. And I'll let you go."
Seo gave a smug grin, and shook her head.
"Oh, don't look so self-confident!" the Celestial Toymaker snapped. The realm growing stormy around him, as power gathered round his fingertips. "He is still trapped as a toy, even if you're the one hiding him instead of me. And still suffering just as much because of it." His voice lowered. "And I could torture you in a thousand ways to make you give him back."
Seo's self-confidence slipped a hair.
"I could kill your aunt, completely," the Toymaker growled. "Let you take her place amongst my collection, listen to your mind scream and go mad as I murder Alison in front of you. What do you think about that?"
Alison burst out laughing. "Well, it's your funeral, mate."
But Seo had gone very still.
She opened and closed her mouth a few times, her eyes wide, as she struggled to find something to say. Something to do. Her self-confidence fading fast.
The Toymaker crossed his arms, a small grin on his face, as he noted Seo's terror. "It's an interesting thing, being turned into a doll," he mused. "Most human minds can't really deal with it. Sort of blank out. But the Doctor's mind — and yours, of course — are complex enough to take in everything that's happening. Unable to think your way out of it, but still able to see, feel, be aware. A living hell, for all eternity." His eyes gleamed. "How would you like that?"
"I… I…" Seo stammered. Clutching Alison's hand, a little desperately. "I have to get out of here."
Alison clutched her hand back. "But what about…?"
"We have to get out of here, Alison!" Seo said, turning on her. "We have to get away! All of us! We have to run and run and never look back! He's going to kill us! Torture us both! We can't…!"
"Then give me back the Doctor!" the Toymaker demanded.
Seo froze, again. Her eyes falling on the Toymaker.
"I said," the Celestial Toymaker repeated, his voice growing colder, "give him back."
Seo swallowed, hard. Hands trembling.
And shook her head.
"Come, now," the Toymaker coaxed her. "A young lady like you, with your whole life ahead of you — are you really going to throw it all away for the stodgy old father you barely know?"
Seo's breath came rapidly, in frantic pants.
"Always," she squeaked.
Alison looked between Seo, clearly freaking out, and the Celestial Toymaker, trying to dig into her terrors and fears. That was bad. The only way they'd get out of this, Alison knew, was if Seo were to think up a plan. And she couldn't do that while she was this terrified and panicked.
Someone around here had to play the self-confident hero.
So Alison stuffed all her fears and trepidation deep down inside of her, and stepped forwards. "Listen to me, Mr. Celestial Toymaker!" she snapped, jabbing a finger in his face. "Because I've been playing this game of yours for days, now. Hearing you put words into your dolls' mouths, making them all harp on the Doctor's guilt and harp on Seo's guilt and… and… you know what?" Her eyes flashed. "I say it's all rubbish!"
Brilliant. Alison could see, out of the corner of her eye, that Seo was calming down, already. Had already bent her face into a pensive frown, thinking up a plan.
Better keep the Toymaker distracted.
"Buffy and the Doctor are two of the most caring, responsible, brilliant people out there," said Alison. "They're not murderers. Not sadistic homicidal maniacs, randomly reigning down bouts of genocide on an unsuspecting universe! Or any of the other bits your little dolls kept saying. They love and care about people. And if Seo takes after them, at all, then… then… that makes her brilliant, too!"
The Celestial Toymaker gave a weary sigh. Brushing Alison off, as if she weren't even worth his time. And instead turning back to Seo. "So? What's it to be?"
But Seo had just worked out a plan. Alison could see it, in the spark that had lit up her eyes. She snapped her head up to meet the Celestial Toymaker's gaze.
"You're never going to release my father from your realm, are you?" she asked. "You'd rather make me a toy and never find out where I've hidden him, than risk him getting free, again."
"I have the bane of my existence finally trapped and helpless," said the Celestial Toymaker. "The Doctor. The one person in the universe who has managed to consistently trick me, trap me, isolate me, and impair me for millennia at a time!" He shook his head. "No. No, I'm never letting the Doctor go, little girl. Not for anyone or anything."
"But I'm still the only one who knows where he's hidden," said Seo. "And you'd rather keep him in your sight." She stepped forwards, her chin raised, her eyes proud. "So I'll play you for him."
The Celestial Toymaker hesitated.
"Not for his freedom, of course," said Seo. "I know you'll never give that up. I just want you to de-toy-ify him. Make him able to do all the racing-around-and-incessantly-chatting bits. He loves those."
"And that's all you want, if you win?" said the Celestial Toymaker. "Not your own liberty? Nothing for your friends? Just the restoration of the Doctor?"
"I…" Seo hesitated, for just a second, her fear shining through. Then stuffed it deep down inside herself. "I'm not leaving here without my father — alive and undollified. I can't… leave him to suffer here, alone."
"That sounds less like a threat, and more like an opportunity," mused the Toymaker.
"If you're never going to release him," Seo continued, "I suppose…" she sucked in a deep breath, "my friends and I will have to stay. Give him a bit of company."
"And become my playthings," said the Toymaker.
"If that's what it takes to make you turn him into a person, again," said Seo, "then yes. We will."
The Celestial Toymaker thought it over. "Yes," he decided. "Yes, I like it." He gestured at Seo. "Well… except that only your friends will be able to keep the Doctor company. After all. You'll be turned into a doll at the end of our next game, no matter what the outcome."
Seo's eyes went wide. "What?"
"Well, you have proved yourself a cheater," said the Celestial Toymaker. "And I can't abide a cheater."
Seo said nothing. Her hands shaking, a little, as she realized the full extent of what she was committing herself to.
"Which means, if you win our next game," said the Celestial Toymaker, "I'll change the Doctor back. Trap him here, with Alison. You'll wind up a toy forever. And the lovely Miss Dawn will be left to her fate."
"Seo!" Alison hissed.
"And if you lose," the Celestial Toymaker continued, "then you'll give back the Doctor from wherever you've hidden him. He'll remain wooden. As will you. Alison will be mine to dispose of however I wish, and…" He paused, musing it over. "I think I'll snatch up someone else you know. This… 'Captain Jack'. He interests me."
Seo tensed. "Jack..."
"Oh, yes — it'll be interesting playing with someone who can't die," the Celestial Toymaker decided. "He'll make a much better toy than a god-killer." He yawned. "Honestly… your novelty's nearly worn off."
Seo hesitated. For a long moment. Then… nodded. "I agree to the terms of the game."
Alison spun Seo around, hands on her shoulders, eyes thunderous. "What's gotten into you?" she hissed. "This isn't a plan! You've just doomed yourself to a perpetual living hell!"
"Oh, I daresay she believes the Doctor will get her out of it," said the Celestial Toymaker. He shook his head. "More fool her."
"Alison," said Seo, very softly. "Trust me. I know what I'm doing."
"No, you don't!" said Alison. "I know you! You're just making it up as you go along!"
"Well, yes," Seo admitted. "But I also know what I'm doing."
"Do you, now?" Alison challenged. "You really think the Toymaker's going to transform the Doctor back from wood? The Toymaker's just using this as a ploy to get you to reveal where the Doctor is! Moment you reveal that, all the rest of us are going to die."
Seo's eyes drifted back to the Celestial Toymaker. A small smile on her face. "She's right, of course. I am the only one who knows where the Doctor is. And the only way I'll be able to give him up… is by playing that next game."
She grabbed Alison by the wrist, then darted back to the snow globe.
"Which only happens," shouted Seo, "after I've finished this one!"
And they both jumped back into the fake Sunnydale. Seo yanking the iPhone off the dimensional wall and smashing it underfoot.
She then turned to her friend. An excited beam on her face.
"Guess what?" Seo told Alison. "I think our game has an ending, now!"
"So we can actually win?" said Alison, chasing after Seo, as they raced through the halls of Sunnydale High. "Get your aunt back?"
"He said he'd leave her to her fate," said Seo. "Never clarified if that fate was as a doll or a real person."
"And how do we win the game?" Alison asked. "What do we do?"
"Easy!" said Seo, bursting through the library. "We find and get rid of Sergeant Duckie."
Giles looked up from his research book. Cleaned his glasses, blinking at Seo in alarm. "You… wish to seek out Sergeant Duckie? Only the two of you, while he's still this well-defended, and has an army at his side?"
"Yep!" said Seo, beaming.
Giles' jaw dropped open. "But… you'll be killed," he insisted. "Torn apart!"
"Nah," said Seo, clasping her hands behind her back and bouncing on her toes. She glanced up at the ceiling. "Pretty sure someone up there isn't about to let that happen." She winked at Alison. "Might have a vested interest in keeping me alive to play the next game."
"And the moment you play that game, he's going to kill you!" Alison hissed.
"I'm working on that bit!" Seo hissed back. "It's a whole game away. I've got time."
Giles got up from his chair. Turning to face Seo and Alison. "And just how do you propose to find Sergeant Duckie?" he asked. "The most cunning, most dangerous vampire alive? With not one — but two hearts through which you must stake him?"
"Two hearts?" Alison whispered to Seo.
"I was a very lonely kid," Seo explained.
"None of the books in this library even has a picture of Sergeant Duckie!" said Giles, picking up a book and waggling it in Seo's face. "No one who's seen him remains alive long enough to tell of it. How would you even recognize him?"
Seo sighed. "He's a giant stuffed duck with vampire fangs," she said. "I think I'll work it out."
The missing bits of information as to Sergeant Duckie's whereabouts came, quite conveniently, from Angel. Who'd just sprung up into their lives, suddenly loaded down with details.
"And we have to go tonight," Angel said. "He'll be weakest tonight. Our best time to take him out."
"Sounds like the Toymaker's feeling a bit impatient," muttered Alison.
Seo grabbed up Angel by the arm. "In that case, you're coming with us!"
"What?" said Alison. "Why? He's not even real!"
"I told you, my childhood imagination couldn't work Angel out!" Seo called back, tugging Angel out the door. "He's got all sorts of superpowers he shouldn't have, as a result."
The next jump-cut flashed them into the evening, in the middle of exploring a cave in the hills outside Sunnydale. Angel in front, his skin glowing, and illuminating the walls.
"Radioactive?" Alison guessed.
Seo gave a small laugh. "That's 'soul-light' he's emitting," she said. Shrugged. "Child's imagination. It doesn't have to make sense."
They arrived, in a huge opening of the cave, to discover a cavern filled with Sergeant Duckie's vampire army. All lying on the ground, groaning, their skin broken out in gigantic boils.
"Vampire plague," Angel whispered. "Struck them all down." He glanced back at Seo and Alison. "Someone up there must really like you, Buffy."
Alison scoffed. "Wouldn't use the word 'like'."
"Why aren't you affected?" Seo asked Angel.
Angel stared at her, surprised she'd even have to ask. "Your Slayer powers are protecting me, of course," he said. "Didn't you know that?"
Seo looked down at the ground. "Right. Forgot about that one."
"Slayer powers include immunizing people from diseases?" Alison asked.
"Of course," Angel said. "Why wouldn't they?"
Alison raised her eyebrows.
"I was shot with a poisoned arrow, once," Angel explained. "But Buffy cured me, using the power of her mind. Because I am Buffy's dearest friend who's a boy, and I love her. And she loves me."
Alison looked back at Seo, who was staring at the ground, her cheeks going red.
Clearly, little-kid Seo hadn't quite worked out what Angel being Buffy's 'boyfriend' actually meant.
"Buffy does anything for her friends and family," Angel continued. "She does everything for them. Because that's the kind of person she is. Someone who loves the people around her so much, she'll do anything to make them happy and safe."
"Because that's what you have to do, when you have superpowers that can wipe out entire worlds," said Seo, very quietly. "You have to love everyone around you. Save them from the monsters. Or they'll all go away, and you'll wind up with nothing. Alone."
Angel nodded. "And Buffy never did that," he said. "Because she was brave. She was heroic. She was clever and confident and never afraid to do what was right. She had a lot of strength, just like you, and I'm sure she was tempted to bite and hurt and kick when she didn't get what she wanted, but she knew it'd hurt the people and the world she loved, so she never did. And because of that, people remember her and love her a long time into the future. Across all of time and space." Angel leaned down, staring right into Seo's eyes. "And maybe, someday, Buffy will walk down the street, and see a little girl…"
"…named Seo…" Seo whispered.
"…and she'll pick that little girl up, and hug her, and tell her she's brilliant," Angel said, "and love that little girl more than anything. Because that little Seo is going to be a hero, someday…"
"…just like Buffy," Seo concluded.
Alison looked between the two of them. Noted the hints of tears in Seo's eyes.
"Your dad?" Alison asked, very softly.
Seo nodded. "Said things like that a lot." She hugged her arms. "Said… someday… I'd get out. Into the real world. And be a hero."
And here she was. All grown up.
Setting out into the universe, to become the hero she'd dreamed of being as a little girl.
"I always wanted to be like Buffy," said Seo. Her voice shaking, a little. "Even before I knew she was my mom. She… was just… perfect. Couldn't make a mistake. Couldn't do any wrong. So full of love and brilliance." She shrugged. "Maybe inside… I'm still just that same lonely little girl who'd do anything to make Mom proud of me."
"But she is," Alison assured her.
"Is she?" asked Seo. She shook her head, a little. "Look what I just did, here. Being stubborn and refusing to do my homework — and getting my aunt turned into a wooden doll, because of it. Facing down the Celestial Toymaker and being terrified because I'm frantically trying to think up a plan to trick him before he turns me into a doll, and I don't have one. Being faced with the chance to save my father, and wanting to run away because I'm scared."
"And still staying anyways," Alison pointed out. "Despite that."
"But I can't think like that!" Seo cried. "Does my father freak out when the universe is about to end and he doesn't know what to do? Did Mom ever have her whole brain go blank, while hunting down all those Big Bads in Sunnydale, just because she thought she could lose everyone she cared about forever, and couldn't deal with the pressure?"
Alison laughed. "Seo, I've seen both of them do those things more times than I can count," she said. "And you don't need to threaten the universe to make the Doctor flip out. Just tell him he has a message from the Time Lord High Council."
Seo's brow creased.
"He thought I was sent to the 70's by the Time Lords," Alison explained. "Massive break-down on his part. Kept going on at me about how I was an ignorant little child who couldn't do anything." Crossed her arms. "So I told him exactly where he could shove his hysteria, and we became fast friends."
Laughter leaked through Seo's lips. Then she turned, and threw her arms around Alison, hugging her tightly. "I missed you."
"Same," Alison muttered back.
Seo pulled out of the hug. Then turned, and raced off. "Come on! We have to defeat Sergeant Duckie."
Sergeant Duckie, as it turned out, was a Beanie Baby.
In fact, Alison was pretty sure she'd had that exact Beanie Baby when she was small. A little duckling, yellow and adorable-looking, his tag labeling him as Quackers. Except that Sergeant Duckie had an army-helmet on his head, and paper vampire fangs glued onto his beak.
And he looked a lot paler, at the moment, than he really should.
"Slayer," said Sergeant Duckie. Raising a wing at her. "You have caught me during the Eve of Wooshine Flooshine, when I'm too weak to defend myself."
Seo buried her face in her hands. "Eve of Wooshine Flooshine," she muttered. "Brilliant." She looked back up at him. "That's supposed to be in February, you know. Middle of winter?"
"It is February!" snapped Sergeant Duckie. "This is California, remember? February isn't cold in California."
"Or you just pulled the Wooshine Flooshine bit out of my mind because you were a bit too eager to end the game," Seo suggested. "And then pretended it had always been February." She quirked an eyebrow. "After all. Little-kid-me wouldn't know about California seasons."
Sergeant Duckie shot them an angry glare. "Look, stop being a smart aleck. Just kill me and end the game, already. The Toymaker's angry enough at you two as it is."
Angel grabbed up a sword and charged towards Sergeant Duckie, ready to deliver the killing blow, but Seo threw him back against the far wall.
"That wasn't nice!" said Alison.
"His son was a sentient dimension who wound up inside my head, trying to convince me to kill myself for 98 years," said Seo. "I think I've got the right to rough him up, a little." She marched up to Sergeant Duckie, Angel's sword in her hand. Stood beside him, looking down at him. "So. You're defenseless. Vulnerable. Unable to fight back."
"Yes," said Sergeant Duckie. "And perfectly set up for you to kill me."
Seo laughed. Thrust her sword into the ground. "Nice try. But I don't think so."
Sergeant Duckie seethed. "What?!"
"Oh, you didn't think I'd fall for that, did you?" Seo asked. She gestured around herself. "This is my childhood game. The one Dad played with me to teach me moral values."
"Moral values like… not killing someone who's defenseless?" Alison guessed.
"Exactly what I was thinking," Seo agreed. She grinned at Sergeant Duckie. "Kill you, and I lose the game."
"Let me live, and I'll hunt down your friends and murder them all, one by one," Sergeant Duckie quacked at her.
Seo paced around Sergeant Duckie, slowly. Giving a small sigh. "Oh, Sergeant Duckie," she said. "I used to talk to you while I created bombs and things to try to break out of the Axis. Used to bring you along as my sidekick every time I did something that went against Dad's rules." She looked on at him, a little nostalgically. "You were my villain. And I loved you."
Sergeant Duckie quacked in annoyance.
"But I'm a hundred years old, now," Seo said, very quietly. "Lived through things you couldn't believe. Met people — real people — a thousand times more wonderful than my imagination. And villains a thousand times scarier." Shoved her hands into her pockets. "And Mom didn't hug me the moment she met me. She locked me in a room, told me I was evil, and held a knife to my throat."
"Just finish the game already!" Sergeant Duckie shouted at her.
"My point is… I don't think I'm ever going to be the hero I wanted to be, when I was a kid," said Seo. "But then, I suppose a lot of things aren't exactly the way I thought they'd be, as a kid. Like Angel." She paused by the wall where she'd flung him, and raised him up. Turning back to Sergeant Duckie. "See, thing is, I knew there was something odd about Angel, temporally speaking. But I never actually knew what. So… I made it up."
Then she shook Angel, gently. He groaned, and came to. Staring at her. "Buffy?"
"Angel," said Seo. She nodded back at Sergeant Duckie. "Think you can seal him in a temporal dead-end timeline for me?"
"Of course," said Angel, getting to his feet. "That's one of my obviously defined abilities, as a temporally odd vampire. Who has a soul. And is healed by the power of Buffy."
And with a blast of power from Angel's hands, Sergeant Duckie screamed, and was sent away into a temporally sealed location.
As the entire landscape faded, around them. Sunnydale disappeared back into the nothingness it had come from.
And the game ended.
Seo watched it go. A sad, pensive expression on her face. "Goodbye, childhood dreams and idealisms," she whispered. As she watched them all vanish into the stark reality that lay behind. "I'll miss you."
A throat cleared, behind her.
Seo closed her eyes, sucking in a sharp breath. Then turned. Willing herself to be brave, as she faced down the Celestial Toymaker. Reminding herself…
That here was a real father, a real aunt, and a real best friend — all of whom were in mortal peril.
"Play-time's over," Seo whispered. Gathering up her courage. "Time to defend the people I love."
The Celestial Toymaker had appeared, his robes ornate and his lips pressed into a wide grin. A wooden doll in his hands.
"Congratulations," said the Toymaker. "You won the game. And so… I've brought Dawn along. As we agreed."
Alison stared. "Wait, that's your Aunt Dawn?" she cried. "Really?" She gave a sharp laugh. "Well. Suppose that explains one extremely odd event from my childhood."
"Of course," the Toymaker continued, ignoring Alison's outburst, and instead conjuring fire into one of his hands, "you stole one of my dolls, already. Which means… I think it's my right to do whatever I wish to this doll, instead."
Seo's eyes went wide, and she rushed him. "Don't!"
The Toymaker vanished, reappearing behind her. The flame from his hand scorching the bottom of the wooden Dawn's foot. "Give me the Doctor," he said. "Or I destroy her. Now."
Utter sadness crossed Seo's face. As she hung her head, reached through the dimensions, and plucked the Doctor out of the nice little safe-spot she'd hid him. Cradling him in her arms, gently, as she advanced forwards.
For a few seconds, she just stood before the Celestial Toymaker, clutching the Doctor in a desperate hug, like a little child unwilling to part with her favorite toy.
Then, with a last whispered, "I'm sorry" to the Doctor, she handed him over.
The Celestial Toymaker grabbed up the Doctor doll, the doll of Dawn clattering to the ground in a tangle of limbs and hair. Then… before Seo and Alison's eyes… the doll of Dawn began to grow. The wood becoming flesh. The eyes growing lively and changing.
Dawn gasped, as she sat up. Then grabbed her foot.
"Ow!" she shouted. "What did you do to me while I was dollified, you bastard? And why the hell are you doing, just dollifying people…?"
Dawn stopped, as her brain went back to normal, and she was able to fully process what had happened, while she'd been wooden. Noticed what the Celestial Toymaker was holding in his arms. Noticed how Seo and Alison both looked.
Her jaw dropped open.
Dawn turned to Seo. "Oh, God. You didn't."
Seo didn't say anything. Just hung her head.
Dawn jumped to her feet, wincing as she hit the scorched one. "Okay. Fun's over. Give us back the Doctor." Her eyes narrowed. "Or I'll mess you up, good."
"I think, perhaps," said the Celestial Toymaker, "you should be more concerned with the fate of your rather charming niece."
Dawn paused. Alarmed. "What?!"
"Oh, yes," the Celestial Toymaker said. "After all. By securing your freedom, she has just sealed her own doom."
"But only after the next game," Seo challenged, not looking up. "We agreed on that."
"Yes, but I've already gotten what I wanted," said the Celestial Toymaker. "There's nothing left for you to play for."
The Toymaker held up his hand, brandishing it as if it were a magic wand.
Alison and Dawn both surged forwards, protectively, around Seo. Alison grabbing Seo up around her shoulders, refusing to let her go. Dawn just taking Seo by the hand and daring the Toymaker to make his move.
"There's Jack," Seo offered, still not looking up.
The Toymaker hesitated. Then lowered his hand.
Seo glanced up at the Celestial Toymaker. Big brown eyes leveled at him. "I'm right, aren't I?" she asked, very softly. "It's a lot harder for you to scoop people up out of their lives unless it's the direct consequence of one of your games. Otherwise… you'd be scooping up everyone. And we'd hear about it."
"So you're playing for your Captain Jack's freedom," said the Celestial Toymaker. He crossed his arms. "Very well. And if you lose, I scoop up Jack Harkness out of time and space. And both your other friends die in front of your wooden form. Slowly. And painfully."
"Yes," said Seo. Her eyes glimmered. "But I pick the game."
A sheet of parchment suddenly appeared beside the Toymaker, a quill scribbling down the rules and regulations. The Toymaker used his free hand to snatch up the paper, reading the name of the game with disgust. "Good Deeds?!"
"Good Deeds," Seo confirmed. "A big-kid game. Bit more advanced than pretending to be Buffy. A game that requires a normal person… and a multi-dimensional, godlike entity."
The Celestial Toymaker's face grew more and more irritated, as he read the details of the game.
"It's quite simple," said Seo, pulling herself away from Dawn and Alison. "You and I take turns. One of us pledges to do a good deed. And then the next one has to pledge to do a better deed — which trumps the first. First person who fails to trump loses." She grinned. "The all-powerful entity has to help make it all happen, of course. And winds up being judge of exactly what's considered 'good' and what just seems good, in the short term, but actually winds up being harmful over a longer period of time."
"You and your dad actually played this?" Alison asked her.
"All the time!" said Seo, beaming. "I think he was trying to teach me… timeline congruity? Not really sure. I was brilliant at it, though." She winked at Dawn. "He pledged to save this group of long-lived female aliens, calling themselves 'the guardians'. And I trumped him, by creating a universe-saving super-Scythe. Won the game hands-down with that one."
Dawn shook her head. "Show off."
"Only when I'm brilliant," Seo countered. She turned back to the Celestial Toymaker. "So? What'll it be?"
"I'm the judge?" asked the Celestial Toymaker. "Able to say whether you win or lose?"
"Yep." Seo shrugged. "Course, you can't judge winning or losing until your turn's up and the round's over. Just to be fair. Have to actually use your powers to make the pledges reality, first — just so we can see how the timelines turn out. Otherwise, it wouldn't be educational."
"And if you accidentally wind up killing lots of people?" asked Alison.
"That's what the quarantined timeline system is for," Seo replied. She straightened, a little. "And, any rate. This time… I won't. All grown up, now."
The Celestial Toymaker thought it over, carefully. Then, with an evil smile, waved his hand. "So be it! We begin."
The entire landscape around them seemed to shudder, as the air shifted, tension flooded through every person there.
And the game began.
"Brilliant!" said Seo. "Me first." She gave a large grin. "I pledge to spread hope, to save worlds afresh. By turning the Doctor from wood back to flesh!"
The Celestial Toymaker's eyes burned. "That's cheating."
"What do you mean, cheating?" said Seo, gesturing at the game-play rules. "I did the rhyming couplets and everything. Gave you both a justification and a means of doing it. All completely in accordance with the rules!" Her grin widened, a little. "Didn't even need a diagram to do it. It's been a while since I played this game without having to draw a diagram or hash out complex multi-temporal equations."
"Then… then… I object!" spat the Celestial Toymaker. "Releasing the Doctor wouldn't be a 'good deed'. The Silence claims he will end the universe."
Dawn rolled her eyes. "Yeah, because I'd totally trust the word of a bunch of memory-altering nutcases."
Seo stood her ground. "Well, if he's going to destroy the universe," she said, "then it shouldn't be too hard for you to trump my good deed, should it?" Her voice lowered. "Or would you like to forfeit the game?"
The Celestial Toymaker snarled. Then threw the doll to the ground and, with the wave of his hand, the Doctor began to grow to normal size, the wood turning to skin, his chest beginning to rise again with sudden breath.
As he sprung up, a manic grin on his face.
"…exactly what I would have done!" the Doctor cried. "Absolutely ingenious, Seo! Keep it up, and someday you'll be just as clever as…" Then stumbled, unsure of his footing, hair flopping into his face. He grunted, then doubled up, coughing. "Sawdust in the throat. Not pleasant."
Alison started, a little, at this. "This… regeneration thing you mentioned," she said to Seo, "changes a person… completely, then? Even their personality?"
The Doctor looked up. Beamed, as he raced towards them, arms extended. "And three of my favorite people in the universe!" he cried, swooping them all into a group hug. "Seo, Dawn Summers, and Alison Korjensky!" He pulled away, surveying Alison, fondly. "Oh, you have no idea how long I spent looking for you. Knew you'd survived — after all, you couldn't have been vaporized by the Nimopod, or we'd have found the vaporizing gun as well — and that was missing. So! I reconfigured that iPhone of yours into a sort of tracker device, nearly managed to locate you — until it got stolen. In Cardiff. By a rather nasty sort of bloke. Don't want to run into him again." He whirled around. Facing the Celestial Toymaker. "Which is something I could also say of you. Celestial Toymaker." He advanced towards him, eyes dark, voice lowering. "Rather a nasty piece of work."
"If you don't shut up, Doctor," the Celestial Toymaker warned, "I'll turn your tongue back to wood."
The Doctor gritted his teeth. "Very nasty piece of work," he growled.
"Doctor," Dawn cut in, before this could go much further. "Was there anyone else with you when you got all toy-ified? A companion, or…?"
"What?" said the Doctor, turning around. "Ah. No, actually, was just on my way to pick her up — from the 21st century — even though she's also a governess in the 19th and a Dalek in the distant future and none of this is making the first bit of sense to any of you, is it?"
Everyone in the group shook their heads.
"Right!" said the Doctor. Adjusting his bow tie. "That makes four of us, then."
The Celestial Toymaker stepped forwards, brushing past the Doctor. "My turn," he told Seo. "I pledge to eliminate what was released for war, defeat the prophecy of Trenzalore. By releasing another toy, of course." With the wave of his hand, another wooden doll appeared on the floor. A domed figure, with an eyestalk sticking out of the top, glowing more and more blue as the creature grew and turned from wood back to metal. "One, Doctor, that's a friend of yours."
The Doctor's eyes went wide. As Dawn and Alison, behind him, both sucked in sudden terrified breaths, backing away.
Seo just looked on, a little curiously. "Is that a Dalek?" she asked, leaning down to stare into its eyestalk. "I thought you lot were supposed to be scary."
"EXTERMIN—!" The Dalek shouted, as the Doctor grabbed Seo up by the hand and yanked her out of the way of the extermination beam.
"Run!" he shouted at everyone, as they raced off into the white nothingness of the Toymaker's realm.
The Toymaker just stood there, laughing, as the Dalek regained full movement and capability. And then went off, in search of life-forms to destroy.
"How can you not have met Daleks?" Alison cried to Seo. "They were all over London, back when the ghost shifts turned into that invading robot army. Don't you remember that?"
"I was a bit busy being hunted across the universe by super-powers!" Seo insisted. She frowned. "Are those Daleks really as scary as all that? I thought that one looked rather cute."
"Uh, Seo?" said Dawn. "Trust me. They're scary as hell. And that's coming from someone who's actually seen Hell."
The Doctor glanced back at Seo. "They've been part of more inter-galactic wars than I care to name. Murdered billions of sentient life forms. Obliterated countless civilizations. Haven't you done your reading?"
"Don't you start," Seo grumbled.
Another shot from the Dalek, this one just barely missing them.
"I guess that's why you were so terrified back in the Dalek Asylum," Seo muttered.
The Doctor looked askance at her. "You know about the Dalek Asylum?" He seemed rather intrigued. "Oh, course you do. Must have been one of those timelines-featuring-me that you watched, back when you were growing up in the Axis."
Seo nodded, but further conversation was cut off by another shot. This one close enough to singe the sleeve of Alison's shirt. Seo gritted her teeth, coordinating her and Dawn's energies to manipulate the dimensions around them and switch them into a different subsection of the Toymaker's realm.
"Well, good news is, I think the Toymaker just lost the game!" shouted the Doctor, glancing over his shoulder. "After all. No way releasing a Dalek could be construed as a good deed, no matter what the Silence says about…"
"Actually, Seo made the Celestial Toymaker judge of what's 'good' and what's 'bad'," Dawn said. "So we can't win. Ever."
"What?" cried the Doctor. Flicking his eyes over to Seo. "Why'd you do something like that?"
"To get you free!" shouted Seo. "It was all I could think of, at the time."
"And you've got a clever plan to get out of it?" Alison hoped.
"I'm… probably… going to come up with one in the near future!" Seo said.
They could hear the grating of the Dalek's voice shouting, "Seek, locate, exterminate! Seek, locate, exterminate!"
"The Toymaker must be helping it flit through the dimensions," the Doctor said, glancing over his shoulder. "Even with Dalek tracking systems, it shouldn't be this quick to pick us up. Specially not while Seo keeps flipping us across dimensional layers like this."
Seo concentrated, hard, flipping them down another layer.
"I'm surprised the Dalek can even see Seo," Dawn put in. "Isn't it mechanical?"
"Well, the Daleks were able to see her perfectly last time, on the Daleks' Main Experiment Ship, when…" the Doctor stopped. "Ah. You two haven't done that bit, yet, have you?"
Seo and Dawn shook their heads.
"Forget I said anything, then," said the Doctor. He frowned, thinking fast. "Hang about. Seo. You and Dawn, together, can access any layer of this dimensional prison, right? Even layers the Toymaker keeps locked?"
"On a good day," said Seo, struggling to juggle all the dimensional layers at once, as she flipped them down another layer, so they could outrun the Dalek.
"My TARDIS is around here, somewhere," the Doctor said. "The Toymaker hid it, locked it out of sight. But I'm betting you'll be able to find it."
Seo gritted her teeth. Trying to focus her energies so she could continue to run, continue to protect the others and lose the Dalek, and could also begin to unlock and sort through the different dimensional layers and locked dimensional barriers. Struggling to do everything at once without mucking it up and killing Dawn completely. Or mucking it up and causing the complete collapse of the multiverse.
But all she managed to get a hold of, before she had to surface, gasping for air and dimensional coherence, was…
"My Nimopodian vaporization gun!" Alison cried, snatching it up from Seo. "Brilliant!" She swung around, began to race the other way. "I've been dying to do this since the 70's!"
The Doctor muttered something that sounded like, "Torchwood," beneath his breath, as he raced after her, trying to make sure she didn't get herself killed.
Skittered to a stop, as he found himself coming face-to-face with the Dalek.
"Ah," said the Doctor. Giving a sheepish smile and a wave. "Hello."
"EXTERMIN—!" the Dalek shrieked.
But was promptly blasted into a thousand tiny pieces, each of those pieces vaporizing in the nothingness of the dimension surrounding them.
Revealing Alison standing just behind. Vaporization gun in hand, all the power finally used up.
Alison grinned at the Doctor.
"Don't know how you survived without me," she said.
The Doctor chuckled. "No, neither do I," he agreed.
The Toymaker's realm shifted around them, and the group found themselves, once more, in the Toymaker's workshop. With the Toymaker standing there, proud and majestic in his flowing robes, a smug smile on his face.
"After the end of that round, I judge that a point in my favor," said the Toymaker. "Releasing a Dalek was far more 'good' than releasing the Doctor. In my opinion." His eyes narrowed on Seo. "Your move."
Knowing that in a world where restoring a Dalek was better than restoring the Doctor… anything she said next… the Toymaker would immediately object to.
This next round was her last.
"Can I play?" the Doctor asked, stepping forward.
The Celestial Toymaker and Seo both turned. Staring at him.
"You wish to participate?" said the Toymaker. "Would risk being turned back into a doll, once more, if you lose?"
The Doctor clasped his hands behind his back. "Well, yes, actually," he said. "Because I am extremely clever and really rather marvelous, and I think I can beat you."
Alison raised her eyebrows. "Looks like your ego hasn't changed much since the 70's."
"Then I accept," said the Toymaker. He gestured at the Doctor. "Your move, Doctor."
The Doctor cleared his throat. "Right. A good deed. That gives us a way out. Rhymes. And is something," glancing at Seo, "she can trump." His eyes glittered. "Yes, I think I can do it."
The Toymaker glared at him.
As the Doctor straightened his bow tie. "I pledge the mysteries to solve!" the Doctor cried. "To defeat numerous foes with much resolve! I pledge that you return my TARDIS — with no strife! So I can wander around the universe helping others for the rest of this life."
"It didn't scan correctly," the Toymaker gritted through his teeth. "The second line had too many syllables. It doesn't count."
"According to the rules it does," the Doctor said, glancing over at them.
"And I can trump it!" Seo cried, stepping forwards. Beaming. "The good deeds of one might help quite a lot, but the good deeds of three make a triple shot!" She grabbed up Alison and Dawn. "We'll all go back and do our bit. So the universe…" She faltered.
"Doesn't go to Hell in a pit?" Dawn offered.
"…doesn't go to Hell in a pit!" Seo agreed.
The Celestial Toymaker glared at them all. "You want me to let you go?" he shouted. "To just let you out into the universe, easy as that? Well… I refuse! You can't…!"
"Are you forfeiting the game?" asked Alison. "Saying we've won?"
"What? No, I don't…!" The Toymaker shook with barely concealed fury.
But both Oliver and the TARDIS shimmered into sight, nearby. Ready and waiting to be piloted away from the Toymaker's realm.
"Well, brilliant catching up with you all, again!" the Doctor said to Alison, Seo, and Dawn, waving at them, as he walked over to his TARDIS. Slotted the key into the lock, glancing back at the Celestial Toymaker. "Oh, and as for you… I'm sure we'll all be back for your judgment when we're done taking our turns. Hope that's all right."
He winked at Seo.
Then disappeared into his ship.
"Seo," said Dawn. "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth." Grabbed Seo and Alison up, sprinting back to Oliver. "Get us out of here!"
"Yeah, it's pretty cool," said Alison, reflecting on Seo's ship, standing by the central console. "I mean, it doesn't have the majesty of bigger-on-the-insideness as the…" She stopped, her eyes flicking back to Seo. Hesitated. "I mean… course it's better than the Doctor's TARDIS! Oh, absolutely. Hands down."
Seo beamed, turned back to the central console.
Alison caught Dawn's eyes. Then shook her head, mouthing, "No, it's not!"
"I was just thinking… I mean, because I wanted you to come along, anyways," said Seo, "and you're already here, and we've been pledged to help the universe… maybe you could…?"
Alison sighed. "Seo, I've been stuck in the seventies for the last month," she said. "Honestly? I'd really just like to see my family, again."
Seo looked up at Alison. Looking almost hurt.
Then nodded. Turned back to the central console, programming things in. A few minutes later, they landed in London, 2008. To drop Alison off at her home.
Chapter 12: Epilogue
Sorry, I've had a hard day today. My great uncle (also my boss) just received news that his long-time friend and business partner died yesterday. I knew him and it's kind of hard on all of us. I'm feeling a bit shaken.
Forgive me if I'm not sounding myself, therefore.
After this story comes "Curse of the Buffy."
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
A week later, Seo found herself running for her life from some gigantic, sentient, flesh-eating platform shoes on the planet Itrit, with Oliver too far to get back to, and Dawn being sacrificed to the High Heel Giantess, may holy tidings be upon her name!
And Seo was just thinking that — actually, if this was what shoe shopping was always like, Aunt Dawn was right, it was brilliant! — when the entire platform shoe army stopped. Turned around, took one look at the person behind them.
And fled for their lives.
Seo turned around. And sighed.
"I'm perfectly fine defeating my own monsters and rescuing my own companions!" Seo snapped, advancing on him. "I don't need you showing up just to make sure…"
"That you do your reading?" the Doctor asked. Waggling his sonic in his hands. "You know. Like the bit that told you never, ever to go shoe shopping on the Planet Itrit in the late 23rd century?"
Seo buried her face in her hands. "Is everyone's biological father this embarrassing?" she muttered. "Or is it just you?"
"And, anyways, I didn't save Dawn!" chirruped the Doctor, ignoring her. He gestured back behind him, some ways off, where Dawn was chatting with a young London-sounding girl with brown hair. "New companion. Clara! Clara Oswin Oswald which is actually just Clara Oswald except when she's Oswin which only seems to happen when I run into her at random points in history and she doesn't remember me, and… and…" He planted an indignant look on his face, "…and stop giving me that look! I am not embarrassing! I am cool!"
Seo just kept giving him that I-am-so-hideously-embarrassed-I'm-going-to-hide-in -a-cave-for-the-next-400-years look.
The Doctor spun around. "Clara!" he called. "Aren't I cool?"
Clara glanced up at him. Shrugged. "Whatever you say, chin-boy."
"There! See! I am…" The Doctor rubbed at his chin. "Chin-boy?" Flicked his eyes over to Clara, suspiciously. Then added, in a whisper, "She keeps saying that sort of thing, too. And I still haven't worked out where the soufflés come in."
"Look, is there something you wanted?" Seo demanded. "Or did you actually just show up here to chew me out for not doing my homework?"
The Doctor leaned down, swinging an arm around Seo's shoulders and leaning in to whisper to her, confidentially. "Clara," he said. Snatching a quick glance at his new companion. "She… isn't… familiar to you, at all?"
Seo peered at Clara, a little more carefully. "Is she supposed to be?"
"Well, I just thought… what with you being raised in the Axis, which was filled with different timelines all starring me," said the Doctor, "and your knowing all sorts of completely random things about my life that really no one should ever know… that you might have seen or heard her once or twice. Be able to identify some pattern about all the different… times… she… turns up… and you have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about, do you?"
"I've never seen or heard her before," said Seo. "Ever. Sorry."
The Doctor stared off at his companion, his brow furrowed even deeper. Then spun back around to Seo, his voice even quieter, hands on her shoulders. "But… you said you'd seen a timeline, in the Axis, featuring me in the Dalek Asylum! She was there, remember? Soufflé Girl? Thought she was human but actually got turned into a Dalek?"
Seo stared at him, unsure what to say. "I don't know who you're talking about."
"Soufflé girl!" said the Doctor. "With the milk and the Carmen and the ability to hack the Dalek's data net! You have to remember that!"
"There wasn't anyone like that in the Dalek Asylum," Seo replied.
All the Doctor's cheer fell. "But… then… how did I escape the Daleks, if Soufflé Girl wasn't around?"
"You didn't," said Seo. "You died."
The Doctor withdrew. His eyes drifting back to Clara. A sad, lost expression on his face.
Seo felt a little guilty, now. She hadn't actually meant to hurt his feelings or dwell on his own mortality.
"Sorry, but that's what the Axis is," said Seo. "A bunch of alternate timelines for your life in which everything goes wrong, the bad guys win, and you die. All I know of your real life are the stories Dad told me. And that's not a whole lot."
The Doctor's face fell that much further.
And Seo realized she'd just made things worse.
"I know!" Seo chirruped. "If you're really confused about this Clara thing, you should go ask Alison!"
The Doctor snapped his head around. "Alison? Alison Korjensky?" He shook his head. "Why?!"
Seo looked a little sheepish. "Well… she's the person I always talk to when I can't work something out."
The Doctor never went to see Alison.
But… perhaps… he shouldn't have taken Seo's advice so lightly. Perhaps he shouldn't have brushed off everything Seo had told him so calmly.
For if the Doctor had gone to see Alison — if he had raced up to her home and rung the bell and endured the various eccentricities of her mum and dad and younger brother — he would have discovered a completely astonished Alison. Staring at Clara as if she'd seen a ghost.
"You!" Alison would have shouted. "You died back in the 70's! I remember!"
But, of course, the Doctor never did visit Alison Korjensky. And so he never learned how, even as far back as his third incarnation, a certain "Miss Clara Oswin" had died saving his life.
I was going to write this story, with Clara and Alison. Honest! I have several failed drafts to show for it. But it just never seemed to pan out. I still liked the epilogue, and so kept it the same, but the story of how Clara saves the third Doctor's life isn't coming.
If this really bothers you, feel free to write fan-fan-fiction about it!
I'm just going to move on, to be completely honest.