Giles told her once that if a person dreamed she was falling, it indicated there were circumstances in her life that were causing her to feel insecure - the psychic manifestation of having literally nothing to hold on to. Dreams like these underscored the dreamer’s sense of helplessness to the whims of outside forces and were a symptom of feeling a loss of control in her waking hours. In the world of a Slayer, all Buffy could say to that was “No to the duh.”
That’s why this couldn’t have been a dream.
Instead, she felt more confident and assured than she ever had in her twenty years that this was what she’d been called to do and that her mission had finally, blessedly ended. The waves of energy that rocked her body after the dive into the portal had not so much broken her as transformed her. Inasmuch as a caterpillar is broken into a butterfly, so she sensed her former self had been remade into something new - something both lighter and stronger.
In dream diving, someone only died if they hit the ground, and Buffy could feel herself soaring over and through all the pain, the grief, the loss, the sacrifice of the past five years. No inevitable impact, no rejoining blow - only floating. Which had to mean…
“I’m not dead.”
She opened her eyes into an empty room of glowing white, on her feet and wearing the last thing she had on when she kissed Dawn goodbye, though her clothes and her whole body had been wiped clean of blemish and injury as though she’d been reset.
“What, I haven’t successfully completed this level? Ready again player one?” she demanded the room.
“How’d you guess?” A familiar voice spoke behind her.
“Oh, God.” Buffy rolled her eyes. “Not you. Please not you.”
She turned and her heart sank. Whistler.
“Sorry, kid.” He shrugged.
“That was a sweet swan dive you made down there,” he noted, making a low sound in accordance with his name. “It worked, too. Portal’s closed and adios apocalypse.”
“Down there? Which means I’m up here, which means…” She spun around looking for signs. “Heaven?”
“This isn’t heaven.” Whistler scowled. “Why you humans think heaven’s gotta be up somewhere, huh? Heaven’s everywhere. It isn’t so much a place as a feeling.”
“Great. More riddles. Exactly how I wanted to spend my afterlife. So what feeling am I missing here?”
“No, I’m pretty sure you got it. Like before you opened your eyes?”
Buffy paced along the space that felt not quite solid but not really unsteady, either.
“Sounds weird, but I’d never felt more alive,” she whispered. “I was warm ... and I was loved ... and I was finished. Complete.”
“But you didn’t land.”
Buffy looked at him. “No.”
“Then sorry, Slayer. You’re not done.”
“Right,” she said bitterly, throwing her hands up in frustration. “Of course I’m not.”
“Look, you can rest here as long as you want. Me, if I was you? I’d want a rest, sure. But…” He hesitated. “There’s a lot more out there for you.”
Ready again player one.
Buffy stalked over to him. “You know what? There really isn’t. I saved the world. A lot. That has to count for something. That has to mean that when I sacrifice my life, I can be finished.”
Whistler stared at her. “Why? Because you say so?”
“Well...” She thought for a moment. “Yeah!”
He chuckled. “Man, what you don’t get about the universe is a lot. There’s no such thing as fair, Slayer. There’s no list of people you need to save or number of apocalypses you call off and you’re done. It doesn’t work that way.”
“Then how does it work? What lessons am I missing, huh? I buried my mom”—her voice quavered—“I-I almost lost my sister. I’ve given up guys I’ve loved - all the while fighting for some greater good that isn’t even guaranteed.”
“Yeah.” He smiled. “You’ve been one great Slayer. Maybe even the best ever.”
“Which gets me what? Some hell of a purgatory?”
Whistler looked confused. “I didn’t know you were Catholic, Slayer.”
“I-I’m not,” she stammered, feeling rattled. “I just don’t know what else to call this. It’s the place between being alive and going to heaven and what, you’re telling me I’ve got tests to take? Or maybe I’ve got to flip through magazines in the Promised Land’s Waiting Room, listening to The Girl from Ipanema on Muzak for a millennia. Then I get to move on?”
“Nah.” He shook his head. “That’s not what this is. You can go to heaven - if you want.”
“Thank God,” Buffy breathed. “Or whoever,” she amended, holding up a hand. “Not about to tick off any other deities here. So I wait out this whatever and I go to heaven or…what’s behind door #2?”
“You go home.”
“Home?” she repeated, knowing she looked as shocked as she felt. “Like back to Sunnydale home? Like jump back on the chain gang of slayage and carnage and moody little sisters and bad health insurance and bills and impending hellmouth doom? That home?”
“Yeah, but it was gonna sound a lot better the way I was gonna say it.” Whistler frowned.
“Oh, sorry, my complete bad,” Buffy replied sarcastically. “You don’t actually live my life so I thought I’d do you a solid and give you the Cliff’s Notes on what ‘going back home’ means for me.”
“Man, you really were done,” Whistler said sympathetically.
“Are you kidding me?” Her chin quivered. “I couldn’t have jumped if I wasn’t.”
He clapped his hands together and looked at her pleadingly. “Can I at least try to sell you on this deal?”
She rolled her eyes. “Since I’m apparently stuck with no choice here, have at it.”
“You go back for the next good vs. evil battle. Which you can win.” He put his hands up as though to dodge a blow. “You get to do it with everything you’ve learned from what you’ve done here. I’m not sayin’ it’s gonna be easy. What I’m sayin’ is, you’re gonna be prepared - in a way that being only the Slayer ain’t ever gonna cut.”
“Who needs what from me and for how long?” she asked and folded her arms.
He grinned. “See, I knew you were gonna say something like that! You help a lot of people. But there’s one person you never really get to help.” He paused. “Buffy Summers.”
Buffy glared at him. “Where were you during my whole sacrifice speech? What are you saying needs to happen - time travel? You rewind me back and I have to make better choices?”
“Nah.” Whistler dismissed that idea with a wave. “Time travel’s too messy.”
“Didn’t you ever think that there could be other Buffys out there who could really use a taste of what you got?”
Buffy wracked her brain trying to think what that could mean. “Other Buffys?”
“You know, alternate realities, parallel universes, that whole spiel.”
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer in a world without shrimp?” she wondered aloud. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer in a world with nothing but shrimp?”
“Hey! Stop it. That’s exactly what I’m talkin’ about,” Whistler exclaimed, pointing at her. “I never said ‘other Buffys’ meant other Vampire Slayer Buffys. Since you were a kid, you’ve never been able to think of yourself as anything but the Slayer.”
“Which the Powers that Be or whoever you’re the rep for ought to be pretty damn giddy about, since it’s meant me saving a shit ton of lives,” she snapped.
He put his hands up again in surrender. “Yeah, yeah, we’re grateful, okay? But like I said, doesn’t mean it’s fair. Doesn’t mean the scales are balanced.”
“So you’re saying I need to jump into these other Buffys’ skins and what, dust their vampires and close their portals?”
“No, man.” Whistler shook his head. “That’s the last thing they need you to do. The strength you got ain’t just for those big moments. What they need is what you’ve got that helps get you through every day.” He paused. “That’s what’s even more important in the end, if you can wrap your head around that.”
Other Buffys. If there had been a chair in the empty room, Buffy would’ve long sunk into it.
“Who are we talking about here? Dragon Buffy? Zombie Buffy? Ant colony Buffy?”
“There’s plenty of regular human dimensions, you know. Most of ‘em with a Buffy Summers who’s wrecked in some way. Each one can teach you something about life, about the livin’ that happens past the age of twenty. If you choose to go to heaven, that’ll be something you’re never gonna get the chance to have, right?”
Buffy thought for a moment. When it came to fighting the creatures and forces of darkness, she’d lived it up. When it came to living like a regular person, though, not so much.
“Yeah.” She nodded.
“If you choose to go back home and fight again, I guarantee what you learn will be something you can use.”
“Just not in a ‘wow, I never thought a crossbow could be used like that’ way, I take it,” she said drily.
He gave her a rueful grin and shook his head. “It may not sound like it, but this is a sweet gig. No one gets to go back and help their other selves except the heroes.”
“Multiple reincarnations really weren’t high on my list for things to have multiples of,” she mumbled.
“Slayer, you still got it wrong,” Whistler complained. “Straight up reincarnation takes lifetimes and you don’t get to keep your memories or your original self. You gotta start over every time. With you? You’re jumpin’ in right at a pivotal point where you can make a difference. When you figure out the Buffy’s damage and get her to fly right, you move on to the next.”
“Lather, rinse, and repeat until insane,” Buffy sighed.
“No, like I said. There ain’t no list you gotta check off. No one’s keepin’ score. You know you’re done when you’re back here. Then you can choose.”
Buffy squinted through the brightness toward where Whistler was now pointing and saw two white doors with gold handles gradually come into focus.
“Aww, did you pop those out just for me?” Buffy asked, batting her eyelashes. “That’s sweet. You even put the numbers on them.”
“What can I say, Slayer?” He grinned. “You’re worth it. Look.” He turned serious. “You think this is a punishment - don’t. Get all you can out of where you are and who you’re with. It’s only gonna help you.”
“Help me fight or help me rest in peace?”
“You’re a smart kid,” Whistler grunted. “Both. So whadaya say? You in? Or you hangin’ out here for eternity?”
Buffy began to pace again, feeling her heart race.
“If I do this…” She shook her head. “I don’t know how to do this. These Buffys and their lives. How will I know where they live, how they talk, what they eat, where they work…”
“Trust ‘em. They’re you!” He laughed and slapped her a little too jovially on the shoulder.
She glared first at his hand and then at him. “Have we just met? Because you should clue in to the idea that this Buffy and any version of me, I’m betting, would kick the first intruder into her consciousness into next Tuesday.”
Whistler barely shrugged. “You say that like it’s never happened.”
An icy shiver of dread went down her back. “What?”
“Slayer, there’s all kinds of consciousnesses. There’s that little voice inside your head that tells you ‘don’t go down that street, looks sketchy.’ Or in the case of you, ‘hell yeah, go down that street, kick ass!’ You’ve got a gajillion years of Slayers stacked up inside of you, all telling you what to do, where to go, what to kill.”
“It’s called instinct.”
“I’m sayin’ you can put the Slayer voices to work for another Buffy. You can live like a regular girl and they can have the strength of a Slayer without ever having to be Called to it.”
“So you’re saying I’m going to be the little voice in Buffy’s head that’s telling her what to do.”
“Nice change, don’t you think? You callin’ the shots instead of the Slayer callin’ ‘em for you?”
She chewed on her lip. “‘Nice’ might be pushing it, but I see your point. You really don’t think these Buffys are gonna wig?”
Solemnly, he made an “x” over his heart with his index finger.
“Look, if you’re really trippin’, yell for me. I can guide you three times. Then, no matter what, you gotta muddle through on your own. So use me wisely.” He held out his hands to her. “Truth time, Slayer, what’s it gonna be?”
Buffy took another look around. She could stay in the bare white room in her clean white sweater and… sit. Forever. Buffy could see that getting old after a nap or five. The place didn’t even have cable.
Door #1 had a padlock on it. Her happily ever after - whenever she finished whatever the next round of Slay the Slayer looked like.
Which left only one real option.
“Gee, Monty. I guess I gotta go with whatever’s behind door #2,” she sighed and looked up warily. “Heaven help me.”
“Don’t worry, Slayer.” Whistler winked. “We will.”