Buffy turned away from her sister and ran. Ran as fast as she could into the swirl of light and heat and energy that would consume her at last.
She didn't think about what she was leaving behind. She thought about what she was running from.
The sight of Dawn, tearful and bleeding, and hearing Giles' words about her sister's death ring in her ears again --
Her mother's body, awkwardly sprawled on the couch, and the feeling of pain and sickness and confusion that had snaked its way through her like ice --
The knife she'd plunged into Faith, Faith the hated and hunted and lost, and the way Faith had looked at her with eyes that were not as cold and unfeeling as Buffy had hoped --
The look on Angel's face as he'd closed his eyes in complete ignorance of what he'd done, in complete trust of whatever she was going to do --
No more, she thought. No more. They need me to save the world again. I'm going to save the world again. But I can't go through this any more. I can't lose anyone again. I can't. I won't.
Death is my gift. It will save me from ever losing anyone ever again. I'll never have to do it again. Never have to do anything again --
Buffy jumped, and she fell, and she hit the portal. And then the world was on fire.
Her skin burned with pain like the tearing of hot claws. Her whole body shook, shook so hard she could hear her jaw snapping, her vertebrae breaking. The light was brighter than the sun, bright unto blindness; it was not darkness that overtook her, but the total absence of sight. Her internal organs cramped up with terror or shock or injury until it felt like she was filled with broken glass. She would have screamed without ceasing if she could have drawn a breath.
The only thing she could think was make it stop, make it stop, make it stop, make it stop --
And then everything was quiet for a very long time.
The light hit Buffy like a blow, stunning her whole body, sending sensation prickling across her skin, into her gut. "What the --"
"Relax," a voice said. A woman's voice. "Relax. You're all right now."
Buffy blinked her eyes, trying to make out images in the sea of light blinding her. The walls were white -- oh, God, she'd lived.
The thought did not make her happy or relieved. The words clattered in her tired mind: I lived.
How the hell did that happen?
She shook her head; her jaw felt fine. So did her neck. She squinted as she looked at the white room she lay in. They must've had to take her to the hospital. Dawn would be freaking out --
"Let me up," she said, trying to push herself up from the table on which she lay.
But a hand pressed down on her shoulder; Buffy was still weak enough that this could hold her in place. "In just a moment. You need to get your bearings," the voice said. Buffy realized that the woman was speaking with a British accent.
"What are my bearings?" Buffy said, squinting at the woman. She was wearing loose white clothing, maybe scrubs, and had her frizzy black hair pulled back into a bun. She was smiling at Buffy -- sort of nervously, come to think of it. Then Buffy glanced down. "And why am I naked?"
"Oh. We can see to that," the woman said, quickly turning to get a sheet.
"Where is this?" another voice said. Another woman's voice -- more like a girl's -- this one accented in a far more exotic way. Buffy glanced over and saw who had spoken; she was a girl a bit younger than Buffy, as naked as Buffy was, with long, dark hair and coppery skin. She was looking around her in every direction, a bit wildly. "The vampire --"
"Is taken care of," said the white-garbed man at her side.
Buffy got her first good look at the room. It didn't look like a hospital. It looked -- strange, like a cross between a warehouse and a temple. The ceilings and walls were plain, the architecture very ordinary. But the candles along the perimeter, the hangings with various runes and symbols embroidered on them -- not from a warehouse. And not from a hospital.
She took in the other tables -- three of them -- with other young women waking up from whatever sleep had claimed them all. "What is this place?" Buffy said slowly.
"I suppose this is a bit disconcerting," the frizzy-haired woman said, as she draped the sheet over Buffy. "Can you tell me your name?"
"Buffy Anne Summers," Buffy said. "Didn't my friends say --"
"Yes, Miss Summers," the frizzy-haired woman said. "Called as Slayer in 1996. Very good. Yes, I've got the right one --"
"You know I'm the Slayer," Buffy said. "What's going on?"
"I realize this is all rather shocking,' the woman said. "But, you see, we've brought you back."
"Back?" Buffy said, hearing her own voice crack on the words. "Back from where?"
"You -- you really don't know, do you? You perceived nothing in that time?" The woman made a helpless gesture as she stood there for a moment, searching for words. Finally she said, "You've been gone a very long while."
Buffy felt her hands tighten on the sheet. "What do you mean? Was I -- in a coma, or something?"
"Buffy, you died."
"I -- I thought I would, but --" Buffy shook her head.. "You mean, I died, but they revived me. Like, with CPR, or, or, those paddle things --"
"No," the woman said, and for the first time her voice was soft, a little sad. "Buffy, you must understand. I'm afraid you died a very long time ago."
Buffy stared up at her, shocked almost beyond comprehension, as the woman continued, "You have been dead for 350 years."