We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
The first thing that Buffy became aware of was the aching in her bones. Later, it would remind her of the terrible growing pains she used to get when she was younger, when it had felt as though her bones were growing so fast that they would split apart.
Buffy only thought that later. She didn't think anything at the time. After all, a corpse isn't really capable of thinking, even if it is being remade by magic.
The second thing Buffy became aware of was a sharper pain than the aching in her bones. Later, it would remind her of the muscle burn she would get from working hard at something with Giles. Later, she would realise that this was because her muscles, tendons, sinews and nerves, were being remade, reconstructed after they had rotted away during her death. But at the time, she didn't think anything at all.
The third thing that Buffy became aware of was of a burning sensation in her skin. Later, she would liken this pain to when she had accidentally touched a hot pan and seared her skin. Later, she would realise that this was her skin being remade in the fires of magic. At the time, she didn't think anything at all.
The fourth thing Buffy became aware of was a pain in her head. Later, she would describe it as though she was experiencing the worst headache she'd ever had combined with a brain freeze combined with being hit on the head by an angry Hell God. At the time, she knew only the pain, as her rotted brain was made whole.
Then the pain was gone, and Buffy didn't dwell on it. It had been there, and now it wasn't. That was all she needed to know.
Buffy's first thought was I'm in a box followed shortly by There's not much air. I should get out. So Buffy fought to get out, fought through the cloying earth outside the box, fought through to the open air.
It didn't occur to Buffy that she should be scared. To her, there was only the thought that staying where she was would lead to her death. She knew this was undesirable and therefore she would avoid it, and the injury to her hands from freeing herself didn't matter.
Then Buffy was free, and she took deep breaths. Not to calm herself, because she wasn't agitated. Merely to fill her oxygen deprived lungs. It was purely a functional operation.
Buffy looked around, trying to figure out where she was. Then she saw a gravestone. Her gravestone, which meant that she had died.
Buffy didn't worry about that. She was paid more attention to the people who stood around it. Possible people who stood around it.
Buffy didn't think of them as possible people because they were monsters. She wouldn't have cared if they were. She wouldn't have cared if they weren't, either. She thought of them that way because they were difficult to see.
Not because they were invisible. They were just... nondescript. Difficult to focus on, due to their extreme mundanity. Buffy couldn't tell how many there were, or even what gender they were. They were all alike in their brown mantles.
"Who are you?" Buffy asked. Not because she was curious, or even interested in the answer. But because they were clearly supernatural, and it was her job to kill supernatural evil things.
One of them spoke. Buffy couldn't tell which one. It was difficult to understand. Not because of its voice, although that was certainly strange (it reminded Buffy of wind blowing through dried grass). And not because it spoke quietly, although it spoke only in a whisper. But because it was curiously hard to pay attention to what they were saying.
One whispered "We are the hollow men."
Another, or perhaps the same one, whispered "We are the stuffed men."
One whispered "We have come to lead you back to Death's kingdom."
"No." said Buffy. Not because she was afraid of dying again. But because she was alive. Living people weren't part of Death's kingdom. "You won't take me back. I'm alive. I no longer fall in Death's domain."
"Your loved ones have mourned you." One whispered. As it did so, Buffy's head was filled with images. Dawn huddled in a ball on the floor, unable to believe her sister was dead, knowing that it was her fault. Willow and Tara, holding each other, trying to be strong for the others, trying to hold everyone together and not succeeding. Xander, being bright and loud and telling jokes, his smile not quite covering the deep sadness he hid behind his humour. Anya, like her boyfriend, trying to be as she always had been, because she didn't know how to make the others feel better. Giles, wishing he could comfort the others, but not even being able to console himself, not being able to believe that it wasn't his fault as Watcher. And Spike, crying, drinking himself to sleep, drunkenly awakening, hoping that Buffy was there but knowing she never would be, only not staking himself because of a promise he'd made to keep Dawn safe.
Buffy watched her friend's anguish unmoved. They had mourned, they had grieved. It was fact, and she felt nothing witnessing it.
"Your loved ones tried to raise you." One whispered. And Buffy saw it happen. She felt nothing at Willow suffering through the trials of the spell. There was no point. It was done.
"And they failed." One whispered.
"No." Buffy said. "I am alive."
"You breathe. You walk. You think. But you are not alive. You are hollow. You are like us." One whispered.
Buffy knew it was true. She knew the old Buffy, the Buffy who had died, wouldn't have been so cold, so unemotional. That Buffy had died, and hadn't risen again.
"So we have come to lead you back to Death's kingdom." One whispered.
"No. You will not take me back." Buffy said. Not because she didn't want to go. She didn't care either way. But her friends needed her. It was her job, her purpose, to keep them safe. So she would.
"That is not what we said." One whispered. "We will not take you by force. Soon, you will see that your existence here is nothing but a heap of broken images. When you do, you will ask us to bear you back to Death's kingdom. On that day, we will show you the way."
Then they were gone, and Buffy was alone.