She found herself by the river again. She had no recollection of how she had got there, but somehow she knew exactly where she was going. Gravel crunched under the wheels of her chair as she pushed herself forward, all the way to the ledge where only a metal railing separated her from the rush of the river below.
Flakes of rust clung to her fingers, staining them red, as she gripped railing and pulled. Her feet touched the ground and then she was upright, her entire weight now resting on her arms until her muscles shook from the exertion. The heavy black afgan on her lap slipped to the ground, exposing her atrophied legs, but she didn't care. She closed her eyes, savouring the warmth of the setting sun on her face and the caress of the wind in her hair, and then lifted her body up, over, and out.
For a moment her body was balanced on the railing but then gravity caught her, pulling her down. Laughter escaped her lips as she fell, the familiarity of it all catching her by surprise. She felt like she was flying, launching herself at some unseen enemy in the heat of the battle, until her body finally hit the water, the impact as gentle as a kiss, as painful as a fist (like all her lovers had been). There were hands all around her, stroking her, caressing her, pulling her deeper into the darkness (the light), soft lips pressing to her forehead, familiar voices whispering in her ear.
...home, sister, come home, sister, sister, come home...
Buffy woke up with a gasp, her hands instinctively reaching for her throat as she gulped for air. It took her a few seconds to remember where she was, her eyes slowly adjusting to the faint glow of the street lights filtering through the curtains of the tiny window of their apartment. She shivered, and pulled the black afgan tighter around her.
She had been dreaming of drowning again. She'd thought those dreams to have been long gone now, replaced by nightmares of much worse things, but ever since the battle those old dreams had for some reason returned. Except this time the dreams were different - more vivid, more fantasies than memories or nightmares, and even though the actual details of the dreams escaped from her when she was awake, their echoes remained with her long into the morning.
She waited until the worst disorientation passed and then placed her palms on the wheels of her chair and pushed herself forward until she could reach the extra long cord by the window and close the curtains.
But at least the dreams of drowning were better than the dreams of the last battle, dreams of the ground disappearing under her feet as the high school building collapsed like a house of cards around her, burying her alive. Better than the dreams where she watched all her friends die. Willow's eyes turning oily black as her magic consumed her. Giles and Andrew and Anya, their torn bodies littering the hallways. Dawn's rasping breath as Xander held her. Spike's soul burning him from the inside in a brilliant flame. The potentials, one by one, falling under the under the onslaught of ubervampires. Those were the dreams that left her screaming.
Strangely, it was only Faith whose face haunted her even when she was awake. The touch of her skin as they fled the high school hand in hand, that final look of surprised horror as the ground swallowed them both. Buffy could feel her absence, like a piece of her soul having been torn away, and she sometimes wondered if Faith had felt the same when she'd been dead.
There was light shining from under the door of Xander's room and she headed towards it, briefly hesitating at the doorway before entering. She found him asleep by his desk, his face mushed into the blueprints and estimates and material lists littering the workspace. There were few papers on the floor and she leaned down to pick them up, swearing quietly under her breath as she almost lost her balance. The names on an envelope caught her eye, and she studied it for a few seconds before returning the papers on Xander's desk. It still felt odd to see their names together like that - Alex and Anne Harris - a married couple, even if in name only. She knew that changing her name would not deter old or new enemies looking for find her, but she'd wanted to do it anyway, to make a fresh start and to maybe pretend that the past didn't exist. And though Xander's pay may not have been great, at least his health insurance covered some of the bigger bills.
She switched off the small lamp on Xander's desk, ignoring the faint smell of alcohol as she leaned close to him, and headed out.
She found herself by the river again. She carefully maneuvered her chair off the main walkway and down to the uneven gravel path, all the way to the rusted metal railing. When she reached the edge, she held out her hand and gripped the railing - still warm from the setting sun - and then closed her eyes. She could hear the roar of the river beneath her, the rushing water whispering like a thousand voices calling out for her.
Sister, sister, sister, sister...
"Need a hand?"
She felt it before she even opened her eyes, that slight tingling in base of her spine, a familiar ghost of her former self. Gravel crunched under the approaching feet, and she let go of the railing and slipped her hand under the hem of the afgan.
"No thanks, I'm fine."
She could hear the fangs in his voice, and the fleshy crunch of the vampire's game face setting as he stopped behind her and put his hands on the handles of her wheelchair. Cold and dry fingers touched the side of her neck, gently brushing her hair away.
The vampire leaned down and Buffy could smell his breath, rotting corpses and graveyard dirt, as it whispered in her ear. "How about I help you out. Do everyone a favour."
She wrapped her fingers around the stake hidden in her lap. "How about you take a breath mint?"
She flung her head backwards, wincing in pain as her skull hit the vampire's jaw. He staggered back with a wounded howl at the impact, jerking the wheelchair with him. Buffy barely kept her balance, lashing backwards with the stake to make the vampire release her. She managed to pull herself away from the vampire's grip and turned around to face it, difficult with her right hand still clutching the stake.
She could see that the vampire had only recently risen from its grave. Dirt and withered flowers still clung to his wrinkled suit, and there was a hungry look in his eyes of a demon that had never yet fed. He lunged forward, his movements still clumsy and uncoordinated.
"Now, ain't that a pretty sight."
Buffy was distracted by the familiar voice and the stake she had aimed at the vampire's hart missed, embedding into his shoulder instead. The demon collided with her, his weight capsizing the wheelchair. She tried to crawl away from the vampire but he caught her easily, his fingers wrapping around her throat. She tried to scream but she couldn't suck in enough air to even whimper.
A pair of legs appeared in her line of vision and then Caleb crouched down next to her. The vampire was just as confused as she was, and for a second his grip faltered. Buffy took advantage of the confusion and struck, putting the entire strength of her upper body behind the blow. The vampire fell backwards, but quickly clambered back to his feet.
He looked at Caleb and frowned. "What the fuck?"
Buffy pulled herself into a sitting position, trying to keep an eye on both the vampire and Caleb. She rubbed her throat and rasped: "What you said."
Caleb laughed, his features twisting and bending until it was Kennedy who was looking at her.
"I guess the old guys were wrong about you," she said, and then turned to the vampire. "Go ahead, don't mind me. I wanna see how this goes."
As the vampire began warily circling the two of them, Buffy quickly scanned her surroundings, trying to locate her stake. It was lying on the ground only a few yards away from her, but too far to easily reach. Putting her weight on her hands, she began to slowly inch towards it.
"What guys?" She asked.
The First morphed again, this time into one of the potentials, a small reedy girl whose name Buffy couldn't even remember. "The watchers, the Council, whatever you call them." Her lips twisted into a mocking smile. "Do you honestly think they'd let you live?"
Buffy froze, her fingers just inches away from the stake. The girl laughed, and now it was Buffy herself who was looking at her. Of course she had known, had suspected what they'd do (what they'd done to all those girls put to the cruciamentum) if they'd hear what had happened to her. But it still chilled her to the bone to hear it out loud, from The First of all things.
"Gone?" Her mirror image tilted her head, and for a second it was Faith who was looking at her. "Nah. Bad penny and all that." Then it was Buffy herself again, wearing the same clothes she had worn on the night of the battle. She was holding the ghost of the scythe, twirling it in her hands as she cirled Buffy.
"It's the natural order of things. One slayer defending the world from evil." She looked down at the overturned chair and smiled. "How's that working out for you?"
The vampire lunged again and grabbed Buffy, easily lifting her and tossing her against a tree. She shook her head, still lightheaded from the impact, but the vampire got to her before she could recover and pressed her against the tree. She barely managed to get her hands between their bodies to keep the vampire's teeth away from her neck.
The First appeared in her line of vision again, now in the body of her mother, smiling gently as she reached forwards to mimic caressing Buffy's hair. "Just let it go, sweetie. You've done your part."
"Get the hell off my face," Buffy spat and pushed forward with all her strength, managing to throw the vampire off her.
Without the other body supporting her, she fell face forwards to the ground. She could hear the vampire approaching again as she crawled towards the stake. Caleb's legs appeared in front of her, blocking her way.
"He won't be the last. They'll come after you. Everyone will come after you."
Reaching through Caleb, Buffy wrapped her fingers around the stake and then rolled to her back.
"Let them come."
For a second she felt the weight of the vampire above her, but then it disappeared into a rain of dust.
"Hey, you need help, miss?"
She couldn't help the laughter escaping her lips with the last bursts of adrenaline even as she coughed to get the vampire's ashes from her lungs. When she looked up, she saw a worried looking man standing above her. He held out a hand and she accepted it, allowed him to help her sit against the railing. He gave her a nervous smile and then went to get her wheelchair from where it was lying a few feet away. When Buffy looked at it, she could see that one of the handles had come off and the left wheel was slightly twisted, but it wasn't badly damaged. She could get Xander to fix it.
The man offered to help her to the chair but she shook her head and just gripped the railing. With almost every pound of her weight held by her hands, her feet found the ground and she lifted herself to the chair while he held it in place.
"Should I call someone to pick you up?"
She closed her eyes, and listened to the sound of the river, like a thousand voices whispering to her.
welcome back, sister, welcome back
She smiled. "No thanks, I'm good."
five by five