Buffy raised her head with a sharp breath. The air was clear; it had been dank for so long. Then fear crawled vigorously through her, like a jarful of escaping spiders.
"It's gone," she croaked. She cleared her throat. "Angel,"
"Angel," her voice shook, "Oh, God-"
Buffy gasped. The dark had been complete forever, pure as ink, but she squinted anyway.
"Joy," that was Angel, "Baby, you've got to get out of here-"
Joy laughed. "I'm not here. Not really,"
Then she bloomed, grinning. Buffy blinked. Buffy could see Angel now; he was just a step away. She had thought he was miles away down here, and all along he had been right beside her. He was bathed in Joy's wash of sun, like a spotlight. He was ragged, bruised and caked in blood, and beautiful. He smiled at her.
"She's going to be different," said Joy, somberly. Then she smiled again, a breathtaking, simple smile.
"She'll be OK, Mommy," said Joy, "But different. It's time,"
"Yes, we're fine. Ann got fired again, though,"
Buffy shook her head, trying to clear it. "Joy. Where is Erinne right now?"
"What-" Buffy sighed, "Joy-"
"I can't tell you about any of it because it's for her to tell you and anyway you wouldn't get it because it's not about you or Daddy or anybody else but her, Mommy. It's Erinne's deal. But she's just going to be really different and I want you to not overreact or anything,"
"Ann got fired? Again?" said Angel, "Is she making sure you eat?"
"Aunt Willow's sleeping in Erinne's room," Joy yawned, "This is really hard and I'm getting tired but you guys need to not freak or anything, OK? The way she's going to be is the way she really is. The way she was meant to be,"
"The First is hunting her-" said Buffy.
Joy laughed. "Not really, Mommy. She's hunting IT," Joy began to fade. "I'm tired," she said, "I love you, Mommy. Don't get weird. I love you, Daddy,"
"I love you, baby. Eat!" said Angel, as she grew dimmer.
"Joy!" Buffy needed to ask and tell her a thousand things, "I love you,"
The darkness closed slowly around the glimmer that Joy had left, like a bright pollen stain. They gazed at each other as the light faded.
"How do I get 'weird'?"
"I want to go home," said Buffy suddenly, "I want to lie in the hammock with you and watch fireflies,"
"We don't have fireflies,"
"I know but I want them. Can we order them or something? You can order ladybugs by the box,"
Angel didn't answer her.
"I can't do this...I can't do this,"
Angel was silent.
"You've done it before," he said.
"This is not the same thing,"
"What am I supposed to-I'm supposed to just hang here and wait, right? While Hellbreath goes after my baby?"
"When was our last visit with the First Evil? It was the day Erinne was born, Buffy. Which was almost twenty years ago. It wanted her. This is her fight,"
"You can just stay here and let it happen?"
"I have to. So do you,"
"You're good at impossible,"
"You came and got me, " said Buffy, "When no one else could. Why can't we-"
"Buffy. She's doing that, now. She's coming to get US,"
"I didn't know you would come for me, that time," Buffy winced, remembering the inertia, her mind searching for sensation, any sensation that would connect her to a body, the despair...
Where am I?
Within the Division.
You have fallen into the Dimensional Division.
I can't see anything.
There is nothing to see.
You cannot. You have no vehicle.
Vehicle? I don't need-where am I?
You are within the Dimensional Division.
You fell into-
All right. All right. Got it. How do I get out?
You have no-
Vehicle. What do you mean, vehicle?
She was mashed, pressed flat, her thoughts draining, her self draining. Just as she had ebbed almost to blackness, relief.
I am through, for now.
What did you do to me?
You support me. You feed me. Although you do not make it easy.
Who are you?
I am the Dimensional Division. I sustain the barriers between the worlds. You feed me, and I grow stronger.
"Buffy!" Angel had raised his voice, "Buffy..."
"Don't think about it," he said, "There's no need to think about that,"
"I don't want her dealing with anything like that. I'll die first-"
"She'll be fine. I know she will. Can't you know that?"
"How did you know I wanted to come back? After I jumped? How did you know?"
"I..." he paused, "I can't explain that,"
"How do you know it wasn't what YOU wanted?"
"You would rather have stayed dead?"
"Willow told me she fought you on it,"
"Not for long,"
"Tell me what happened," he said.
"She..." Willow swallowed, "She jumped. To spill her blood, because it's the same as Dawn's, and the ritual had started. Dimensions were breaking down. All of them. It was the end of the world, and Dawn was supposed to die, but her blood was the same as Buffy's..." Willow trailed off, staring at him.
"So Buffy took the fall,"
Willow's eyes were hollow. "I'm sorry, Angel,"
"Oh, my God," he heard Cordy's whisper, distantly.
He walked away and stood looking away from them, silent for a long time. "Where did she jump from?"
"Uh...like, a construction tower-"
"Were portals opening when she jumped?"
"Well, yeah, I guess. The sky was breaking open. The ground was breaking open,"
"Where..." his throat dried. He cleared it. "Where is her body?"
"In Sunnydale Funeral Home. The service is tomorrow. I thought you should-"
"Hey!" that was Cordy, somewhere in the fuzzy perimeter of his vision, "What can I do, Angel?"
"Hold down the fort with Gunn. Fred, Wes, I need you. Bring the books,"
"But...the funeral," said Cordy, delicately, "I went to school with her. She saved my life, a few times. I mean-"
"You won't miss the funeral, Cordy. There's not going be one,"
Willow turned to fix him with a cold stare. Angel was out the door. She ran after him.
"What can you be thinking?" she shouted.
"Get in the car, Willow,"
Willow slid into the passenger seat and folded her arms. Angel turned the key, nothing. Again, and nothing. He turned his head to look at her.
"You've grown, Willow,"
"Don't mess with me," she said, very quietly, and for the first time he began to see how much she really had grown. She had a new bearing; it was something like authority, but scarier.
He made a sound like a sigh.
"What the Hell are you thinking?" she asked again in that quiet, hard voice.
"She's not done," he said. "I don't know how I know that, but she's not done, Will,"
"You can't know that. It's none of your business. She did what she had to do,"
"She always does what she has to do. That's not the point,"
"She made a decision,"
"I don't care about her decision,"
"Yeah. Maybe that's the problem!"
"Did you ever care what she wanted?"
"You're angry," he said, "This is not about the past. It's not about the demon inside me and the damage he did. It's not about the fact that I can't be around her without wanting her. It's not about my leaving. It's not about any of that, Willow! She's NOT DONE!"
"Maybe you should let her be!"
"I won't mess with this," Willow's hands were shaking, "I won't pervert her body, I won't do some bad magic that brings her back as something else, something that's not her. I won't have her be something else just because I can't live without her!" Willow dissolved, weeping like a despairing child. Angel pulled her to him and they held each other until Willow sniffed, pulling away.
"Once, she gave herself up to the Master," he said, "I couldn't save her. I had to let Xander do it,"
"So it's an old score?"
"NO. It's Buffy. She's not done, Willow. I can feel it. I know it. Don't you?"
Wesley and Fred stood hesitantly behind the car, swaying slightly under the weight of books.
Willow's mouth was set, but she said, "Let's go,"
"What if Erinne loses? What if It makes her a prisoner-"
"It won't happen, Buffy. Have faith in her,"
"It was the worst thing. It was the worst thing I ever had to do, worse than Mom's funeral. Worse than killing you. Coming back. I'm still ashamed of that,"
"You can't be,"
"I was so worried about ME-"
"That wasn't the worst thing. The worst thing was that you had let go. You thought you had to. You thought that your own death was your final gift, and you had let go,"
How do I feed you? Make you stronger? Buffy asked in the blankness.
Your source is deep and powerful. You have no vehicle. You fell into me and I keep you here.
Not for much longer.
For the rest of time. You cannot move without a-
Vehicle, yeah. So what fed you before me?
Many things. Beings and non-beings that fell between, fell into me. But this is much easier.
I get it. If you've got catering, why even drive for takeout?
These are world-specific terms. They do not apply to me.
Oh, yeah, they do. You just don't get the joke.
That is a world-specific term.
You keep the worlds separate.
Have you ever fed on any one thing for so long? Like me?
No. You do not dissipate. You consistently re-emerge. You are fed from a deep source. You will feed me now, forever.
Yes. This term I understand. It is understood in all dimensions.
Yes. I dream the worlds separate, apart and whole.
It's a very important thing you do.
And you've always done it.
How have you stayed so strong before me?
Many beings and non-beings fall between the worlds. Some will manifest; they have vehicles, and they traverse me. Some are weaker and do not.
You feed on the weaker ones?
What will happen now to the weaker ones that you don't...I guess...absorb...or... eat?
Some will transmute. Some will remain suspended.
Are you sure you never taught physics at Sunnydale High?
These are world-specific-"
Yeah, yeah. But won't all those weaker beings floating around clutter up the Dimensional Division? Won't you get bloated? And what about the ones that aren't really ever supposed to get across, but will, now that you aren't grazing?
It is easier to feed from you. And if I do not, then you will swell in strength. You will alter my viability.
Meaning, you can't keep me here unless you siphon me, like a giant tick. But this can't be healthy, even for you. I mean, you're not flossing, you're not cleaning up like you used to. Cavities are bound to start.
You know what I mean.
You have no means to leave here. You have no vehicle. I cannot push you into a world without a vehicle.
Because I died. Because I died when the dimensions were open.
You fell into me.
So, neither one of us has a choice here, really.
No. Although, I have the advantage.
Because you're feeding on me.
There was an endless silence. She was crushed again, soaked, emptied. Then abruptly she was released.
You are strong, you feed me well, even though you fight. But I know now. This is not proper.
Great. Now I'm suspended forever in a Lifetime movie-of-the-week.
DON'T say it.
You have nowhere to go.
Buffy thought about them, about everyone. She thought in her weightlessness, blind and outside of time, not needing to blink or drink water or shift in a chair. She thought for eons. She saw her life, and the ending of it, and it seemed good and complete.
I won't fight you anymore, she said.
"She won't, Buffy. She knows how to keep fighting,"
"I haven't allowed it. Oh, God, Angel, I haven't even let her fight. I let Ann and I didn't let her,"
"She covers for Ann. Ann's got natural ability, but she's not as smart as Erinne,"
"I know," moaned Buffy, "I know. I've been so wrong-"
"It was all about this, don't you see? The day she was born, the First Evil showed up. It scared you. You've always protected her too much,"
"Yeah" sighed Buffy, "Why didn't you stop me?"