"Where are we?" Xander said, looking curiously up at the blue sky.
"An excellent question," Giles responded, glancing around. "Somehow I would venture to say we are not in Sunnydale anymore. Or Kansas, for that matter."
"I've been here before," Buffy said softly, a strange expression on her face. "I know this place."
"Here? Buffy, when have you -" Giles started, and then comprehension dawned on his face like clear sunrise. "Ah. Then we...we seem to be -"
"Dead," Xander said finally, flatly, "Dead."
"Oh, bugger that," Spike spoke up then. "If the Big Man thinks he's goin' to have me pluckin' harp strings with you knobs for all eternity, he's got another think coming."
"Hey, you better count yourself lucky your were in the same room with us, pal," Xander said indignantly. "Otherwise you'd be doing your time south of the border, if you know what I mean."
"Yeah, you're the paragon of virtue, alright," Spike smirked. "So what's up with this Heaven gig, Slayer? Thought they'd be a little more select with the members list up here."
"You're just guests," came a lilting voice behind them. "You won't be here long."
They all turned to see Willow walking across the plain towards them, dressed in a flowing green gown that matched the rolling grass surrounding them. She smiled calmly as she looked at them, though there was a melancholy tint to the expression.
"Will, oh God," Buffy whispered, and ran to her, pulling her into a hug. "You're alright. I was so worried."
"I'm safe, Buffy," she responded evenly. "I have you to thank for it. You saved me from myself."
Giles was giving her a look heavy with grief. "And now...you can't leave."
Willow glanced at him, and then back at Buffy. Her eyes were shining.
"No, Will," Buffy said, her voice choked with emotion. "We're here to get you. You've got to come back with us."
"I can't, Buffy," Willow responded with a sigh. "I asked my question. I have my answers. I deserve my rest, just as you deserved yours a year ago."
"You pulled me out of
mine," Buffy replied shortly.
"Yes. I was wrong," Willow said simply, without sadness or anger. "I'm sorry."
"It's not your time," Xander said stubbornly from the side. "You can't die, not like this."
"That decision isn't yours or mine to make," she said. "I'm here because I was out of control on Earth. I was going to throw the world out of balance. There was something evil in me that could not be overcome. I was split in two. Part of me writhes in agony now."
"What?" Giles said, aghast. "You mean...you're in a hell dimension?"
"Part of me is. The part that wanted to spread itself around the globe, to suck the power out of every living creature until it was surrounded by ashes. It grew in me like a parasite."
"Then just leave it where it is, Willow," Buffy started. "You, the good you, the real you, can come..."
She trailed off as Will shook her head.
"That part of me, as dark as it was, was necessary. Without it I'm only half a person. If I go back now...I'll lose control again, and we'll be back in the same situation." She paused, struggled with the words. "I...can't make you all go through that again."
"Willow, we can fight it," Xander said then, holding her shoulders. "We can make it better. It doesn't have to end like this."
She stared at him, unblinking. He pleaded with her silently.
"I..." she started, and swallowed. "I don't even know...how to start looking for the rest of me. It might be dangerous."
"I'm not leaving unless you are," Buffy said firmly.
"Me neither," Xander said.
"Of course we aren't," Giles added.
They all turned to Spike.
"What?" he said. "Oh, you all can go fit for your flowing white gowns and what not, but I'm on the first flight Earthward."
Buffy gave him a look, and he scowled.
"Oh, fine. Willow, please, please come home with us. Christmas morning just won't be the same without you. And so on."
Willow beamed at them. "This is...too cool."
Giles looked around them at the plain. "So...anybody see how to get out of here? Road sign bathed in ethereal light, perhaps?"
"Something like, 'Hell, 45 miles'?" Xander said. "Nada."
Buffy bit her lip. "Maybe if we concentrate hard enough -"
"Click our heels together three times?" Spike said. "That'll do the trick."
"Spike, you've been resident evil around here before," Xander said testily. "This is your ticket outta here, too. Anything insightful to add to the conversation?"
"Wrong side of the river, mate," Spike responded acidly.
Buffy walked a few feet away, gazing around. Before her stretched field after field of grass, waving lazily, unchanging and unblinking.
"We'll make it better!" she shouted suddenly to the wind. "It doesn't have to be like it was. You brought us here for a reason! You could have just taken Willow and ended it, but you took all of us."
She smiled faintly. "I know why. Because you know we can change it."
Silence. After a moment, the smile faded from Buffy's face, and she shook her head, turning back to the others.
"I...I don't know what else to try," she started. "They must have -"
With a jolt the five of them were in darkness.
As her eyes adjusted, Buffy saw that they were on a cliff. Below them some few hundreds of feet stretched a rocky surface, dotted here and there with other, smaller hills and valleys. In the valleys spanned enormous rivers of fire, of lava, that moved lazily here or there seemingly at will. And populating the plain from the bottom of the cliff to the horizon were countless beasts, hideous demons, distorted by a thousand lifetimes of anguish and torment.
"Now this..." Spike said with something very much like horror in his voice. "This feels more like home."
Up from below them drifted the sounds of the plain, the same sounds that Willow had managed to drag up from the Hellmouth during the opening ritual. Here, however, the screams came undistorted to the ear. If she paid attention she could associate the sounds with their origins. She stopped paying attention.
"These lucky chaps here," Spike continued grimly, "get to mine this rock 'till it's gone. And then they get a brand spankin' new one to break up. For all eternity."
Overhead more asteroids flew through the roiling red sky, hundreds of them, each one visibly teeming with working hordes.
"There," Willow said solemnly.
Buffy turned in the direction Willow was pointing. Behind them stretched another field of demons, each more ugly than the one beside it. The beasts heaved gigantic, gnarled pickaxes, listlessly tearing the rock beneath them to shreds. Some staggered back and forth, loading and unloading sacks of rocks into an infinitely deep chasm a few hundred yards away. None of the demons gave the little group any notice.
"How do you know?" Buffy whispered. "I c-can't tell one from the other." "I can," Willow replied simply.
As if on cue, one of the beasts ceased its work for a moment to look over at them. Willow motioned to it, and it shambled out of line, coming towards the group.
They stood face to face, the two Willows. The demon Willow towered higher than any of them. Massive black horns jutted from its forehead over two large eyes the color of obsidian. The barrel chest tapered at the waist to two thin, stringy legs. Its huge hands and feet ended in ragged claws that were three inches long. A mane of red hair cascaded down its back like flame. In every way this beast, this monster, was the hellish opposite of the Willow standing beside it. And yet...
It gazed at all of them in turn before returning to the other Willow with something like awe on its demonic features.
Finally it opened its wide mouth.
The other Willow, no less amazed, nodded, almost smiled.
Without warning, the beast Willow reached down to grab Willow by the neck. It picked her up and held her several feet above the ground.
"Take me back, now," it growled at Buffy. "Take me back or I crush her throat and leave all of you stranded here."
"If she dies, you're stuck here, too," Buffy replied stonily.
The beast Willow considered this for long moment.
"If I go, she must stay in my place forever. Let her suffer as I -"
"It doesn't work that way, either, dammit!" Buffy railed in frustration. "Let her go now, and you get your chance to leave."
The beast gazed into Willow's eyes, and finally set her down. It walked over to stand in front of Buffy as Willow started to recover, rubbing her neck.
"Why didn't you leave me here?" it said in its deep, rasping voice.
"Because we need you both to -"
"No," it interrupted. "Why didn't you leave us both here? You thought we were going to destroy the world before. What makes you think we won't do the same thing when we go back?"
"We're going to help...you both," Buffy replied. "Willow...the real Willow...isn't evil. She knows what she was doing wasn't helping or avenging anyone."
"But we did it anyway."
"Yes," Buffy agreed. "You were in a lot of pain. People do stupid things when they're in a lot of pain."
It looked at the other Willow.
"I am a part of her," it growled savagely, grinning. "I will always be there, waiting for my chance to escape."
"We know that now," Buffy nodded. "But we'll always be there to remind her who she really is."
Dawn was left alone in the hallway, alone except for Spike's last words echoing in her head.
And then the light flashed again, and they were all standing there, in the same positions they had been standing in when the bubble had hit them. They gaped at each other for a breathless few seconds, and turned as one to Willow, staring at her expectantly. Dawn braced for another fight.
But Willow collapsed to the floor, sobbing helplessly.
Buffy gaped for a moment, then knelt down to gather the girl into her arms.
"Hey, I hate to interrupt this cuddly-cue moment," Spike said. "But if I remember correctly we've still got quite the nasty little side effect to deal with from Red's ritual."
They all looked around carefully.
"Anybody see any ferocious pit demons around?" Xander said. "'Cause I'm drawing a -"
The demon rolled out of the debris next to Dawn and squealed at them furiously. Dawn stood up and swung the axe down, nearly cleaving the thing in two. It flopped for a few seconds, mewling, then stopped moving.
"Well, alright," Spike said, nonplused.
Willow was shivering, a tiny ball of a person in Buffy's arms. Xander and Giles knelt beside them, clustering protectively.
"Buffy," Giles said carefully, one hand placed gently on Willow's arm. "Buffy, I think it would be prudent if we moved outside. What's left of the school might not hold up much longer."
She nodded. Together the three of them helped Willow to her feet, despite the fact that they were all in varying states of injury. They half-supported her, gingerly walking towards the door.
"C'mon, bit," Spike said, waving Dawn ahead of him.
"What happened?" Dawn said, looking worriedly at Willow's shaking form. "Where'd you guys go?"
"Heaven and hell and back again, niblet," Spike said, smirking. "Quite a little story."