Touching the Fire by Ligeia

Rating: PG -13
Feedback: ligeia_angel@yahoo.com.au
Episode Tie-In: Prophecy Girl with references from Restless and Get It Done.
Summary: What did Buffy experience during those moments when she lay dead in the Master's cave that gave her the strength to fight on?
Disclaimer: Joss owns all.
Author's Note: Written for the B/A Lyric Wheel. Thanks to Dana Woods for the lyrics - they were difficult but inspired me to work on a fic I've had in mind for a long time. It's probably obvious that my other inspiration for this fic is the song Walk Through the Fire from the episode Once More With Feeling.


The Apocrypha: the Second Book of Esdras Chapter 16, Verse 73: Then shall they be known, who are my Chosen; and they shall be tried as the gold in the fire.

Prologue

Hundreds of candles burn deep underground. In blazing clusters spiked onto iron candelabra or nestled among the rocks in warm sticky pools of their own melting wax, they offer themselves up in fervent sacrifice, a brief incandescent resistance against the fall of a permanent night. The flames reflect on the scummy surface of the sinkhole at her feet, seeming to ignite the filthy water, combining the irreconcilable elements and transforming them until it becomes a pool of liquid fire.

'Pretty…' she thinks.

The odour of leather and dried blood forces her consciousness back to the now. A red-eyed, bat-faced demon stands behind her, whispering nonsense as he slides her jacket off her shoulders and lets it fall to the ground.

'Odd,' she thinks, 'I know I should be afraid…' But she feels calm and vaguely drowsy; sounds are muffled and thoughts are hard to grasp. 'Butterflies and dandelions…' she murmurs. Memories of a little girl laughing in a field of yellow wildflowers, trying to gather puffballs on stalks that burst at her touch into handfuls of fairy keys to be borne away on the breeze. She relaxes deeper into the delirium. Her mind is serene, almost still, and words become too much of an effort to form. But the dreamlike lassitude does not extend to the physical; her body instinctively responds to the danger with fear and horror. She is panting hard and a single tear tolls down her flushed cheek.

Then the creature is holding her so tightly that she can no longer draw breath. A moment of panic wells up as parchment-dry lips brush the hot flesh of her shoulder and something breaks the skin. Her mind, screaming now, commands her to run, run, but traitorous muscles refuse to obey and she falls to her knees, then tumbles face down into the murky water.

Finally released from the choking grip, her aching lungs rush to fill with fresh oxygen, forcing a desperate throbbing gasp.

Submerged in the mire, all she inhales is bitter, stinking water.


The Holy Bible: Numbers Chapter 3, Verse 4: …they offered strange fire before the Lord, in the wilderness…

Part One: Strange Fire

Buffy feels only a momentary loss of consciousness then the roughness of rock beneath her hands as she hits the floor of the cavern. She raises herself up onto bruised knees. The cave is darker now, and dry. The candles have converged into a solitary source of light - a small campfire.

Her first impression is of being hemmed in between the walls of a long, narrow canyon but when she looks behind her she sees a moonlit desert stretching out beyond a high, tapering fissure in the rocks framing an indigo sky. The light from the little campfire barely illuminates the circle of stones that enclose it; the cave walls and ceiling are only made manifest by the absence of stars. Somewhere in the distance - out in the desert or from within the cave, she cannot tell - comes a slow, ragged drumbeat that falters and eventually stops, abandoning her to a silence so complete that it seems to pour itself into her ears.

Then a humming from the back of the cave, followed by a shuffling that might have been bare feet on stone.

'Who's there?!' she calls, her own voice startling her, unexpectedly loud and close in the darkness.

No answer, but Buffy has the unnerving feeling that someone, or some thing, has settled itself in the blackness just beyond the fire and is staring back at her. Silhouetted against the night sky, she feels vulnerable and moves to rise.

'Sister!'

The voice is harsh and sibilant but, Buffy thinks, probably human. She stands before the campfire straining her eyes to see the new arrival but the tiny flames cast a glare that seems to obscure the speaker rather than revealing them.

'Sit.'

Reluctantly, Buffy eases herself back down onto the rust-coloured cave floor and sits cross-legged in her dirty prom dress in front of the fire.

'Who are you?' she asks, calmly this time. 'What is this place?' Then more shakily, 'Am I dead?'

'Give me your hand!'

Reaching out to her across the little bonfire is a hand - female, black and swathed in dusty rags, attached to a very human-looking arm. Buffy makes no move to comply.

'If you would have your answers, you must trust me.'

Buffy hesitates for a moment, then stretches across the low circle of fire to place her hand in that of the other woman.

Instantly, with a roar like gas igniting, the flames leap upwards, the sudden rise in temperature flooding over Buffy in a scalding backwash of heat. She screams in fright and begins to scrabble backwards away from the source. But before she can snatch her hand from the fire the other woman reaches across and grasps Buffy's wrist, long sharp fingernails digging in and holding on tight, and thrusts both of their hands back into the flames. Buffy, screaming in earnest now from pain and fear, tries to pull back, scraping skin from her knees and the palm of her free hand, but the other is strong and Buffy cannot draw her hand back even an inch.

'Let me go! Let me go!' Hot tears run across her reddening cheeks as unbearable pain sears its way up from her hand and along her arm, every nerve shrieking for release. 'Why are you doing this to me!?'

'You must learn to touch the fire!'

Abruptly, the ghost of a face looms out of the darkness, still almost invisible but for smears of white pigment across high cheekbones, around dark eyes and mouth, a phosphorescent ochre that makes her look like a living skull.

'Let it burn!'

Sobbing, Buffy stares down into the scorching flames. The wrappings on the strange woman's hand have burned away and flesh of both their hands has fused. Buffy's paler skin, blackened to a papery crisp so thin that the tendons stand out like bowstrings, begins to crack and peel.

'Please…' She is moaning now. Exhausted by fear and dizzy with pain, she can feel herself about to pass out. Shutting her eyes, she prays it will be soon. 'I can't bear it!'

'Look.'

Her hand is released, the pain vanished. Flaking off like ash, the burned flesh falls away to show clean untouched skin beneath. As the flames die down, Buffy slowly slides her hand out of the other's grasp and sits back on her heels, rubbing the perfect new skin with her other hand. It is already cool.

Wiping away the tears, Buffy sits quietly for a moment, incredulous but trying to regain her composure. Unsuccessfully.

'So what the hell was that all about? Some kind of test? Are you that twisted?!' Disbelief and resentment boil over into anger. 'What's it supposed to prove? That I can stand the pain? That I'm worthy?' Standing now, she begins to yell. 'I think I've proved that already!' The other woman stands also. She is taller and much more muscular than Buffy, savage and feminine at once. Moving like a panther, she steps with primal grace around the now-quiescent fire to stand beside the younger girl. She smiles slightly and Buffy's outrage begins to subside. She adds quietly, 'I have had one really shitty day.'


The Holy Bible: Numbers Chapter 31, Verse 23: Every thing that may abide the fire, ye shall make it go through the fire, and it shall be clean.

Part Two: A Slayer's Heart

'Why didn't Giles tell me about any of this? He's supposed to prepare me for this sort of thing.'

'Your Watcher does not know all.' They are seated again on either side of the campfire, Buffy a little further away from it than the older woman. 'Some knowledge is for the Slayer alone.'

From a lizard-skin pouch around her neck the woman takes a pinch of powdered incense and throws it onto the fire. The scent of sandalwood and myrrh fills the cavern.

Buffy giggles. 'You know, I never would have become the Slayer if I'd known how much studying was involved.' Her smile fades as the woman scowls and selects a plug of white resin. It follows the incense into the flames where it sizzles and pops.

'You think you know what is to come? What you are? Little sister, you have not even begun.'

A third pinch of powder, this time a sparkling green like crushed mica, is scattered over the campfire. Greenish-yellow smoke billows up into the dark void above them and quickly disperses. Indicating the flames, which are now dancing wildly, the woman tells Buffy to watch her closely…

Leaning forward she again passes her hand through the flames, smiling a feral smile at Buffy as the tongues of fire rise up to meet her, licking across her mahogany brown skin but doing no damage.

'Wow', Buffy grins, 'that really is kinda neat …' adding quickly, '…when you know it's coming…'

'Now you.'

'Me?' Buffy is uncertain but the other woman only nods. 'Trust, right?'

'Yes. And courage too.'

Taking a deep breath, Buffy cautiously extends her arm towards the fire. The fire seems sluggish, or else her senses are speeding up. Moving in slow motion the flames look like water pouring upwards and splashing sparks. Fascinated, Buffy almost doesn't realise that the other woman has begun to speak again.

'You must be able to walk through the fire, little one; take it inside you. You must become the fire.'

Buffy moves her palm across and around the flames, the fire lazily following the arc of her hand until the flames begin to caress and run across her skin like liquid, pooling like red mercury as she cups her hand. It wants to be drawn into her skin but she is not yet ready and the fire seems to know it too. She flips her hand and shakes it off like water, thousands of sparks flying up to create brief constellations against the high dark ceiling of the cave. Buffy laughs and feels that something of huge import is about to be revealed, presaged by the movements of this transitory zodiac - the sort of sensation that haunts the very edge of sleep - but the impression fades as the sparks die away. Strangely at a loss, she turns to the other.

'Who are you?' she asks. 'Some kind of shaman? My spirit guide, or what?' The woman does not respond; instead she closes her eyes and begins to chant quietly. 'Do you have a name? Something I can call you?'

The woman's eyes remain shut, but the chanting stops. 'You ask things that are of no consequence.'

'Then, can you at least tell me why I'm here?' Buffy is not sure that she wants to hear the answer to her next question. 'Will I be able to go home again?'

'In time.' The dark woman seems irritated.

'But I don't have time!' Buffy, exasperated, jumps to her feet and begins to pace the few yards of red soil that separate the cave walls. She realises that for some minutes now, she has been able to see her companion quite clearly. Beyond the cave, the tiny segment of horizon visible through the fissure has lightened to a lemony-white. 'I can't sit around practicing parlour tricks! I have to stop the Master!'

Impassively, the woman replies, 'You have already fought the evil one… and failed.'

'Then send me back! Let me fight him again…' But the thought chills her. Is this really what she wants? To face the vampire-king underground? Or simply to live again?

'The outcome would be unchanged. You are not strong enough.'

'Is that why I'm here? Is this my punishment?'

'You understand so little, my daughter.' She speaks gently to Buffy now. 'You are here to learn.'

'Then show me what I have to do! Tell me what I need to know!'

'I can teach you nothing.'

'Then why am I here!' Frustrated, Buffy sweeps a hand through her straggling tresses, mussing away the last vestige of her original hairstyle. 'I don't know if I can do this.'

'If not you, then who, child?'

Before Buffy can frame an answer, the woman snatches a piece of wood from the fire and throws it high into the air. As the burning branch curves upwards the flames throw flickering shadows against the walls; slithering sounds are all around as if the shadows are rubbing against themselves.

From within the writhing nebulosity wells up a clamorous noise - the roar of a desperate army surging forward to meet a greater enemy in combat, clash of metal on metal and metal on flesh, screaming men and screaming horses. The rock walls seem to pulse and bulge and thrust forward to fill the silhouettes with penumbral life; out of the moving mass of rock and shade ephemeral figures surge up and sink back into a sea of profounder dark. Beneath a fluttering banner a single figure towers above the rest - a young girl in armour wields a sword from horseback and cries 'Je vous donnerai tout mon cœur et toute mon âme et toute ma force pour moi étais mort et je suis vivant encore.' [I will give all my heart to you and all my soul and all my strength - for I was dead and am alive again.]

Buffy, in awe and amazement, turns to the primitive woman seated close by. She is chanting again, almost whispering, as the burning brand continues its protracted descent. The tenor of the voices from the rocks changes; another phantom crowd gathers, this time in triumph and jubilation. A flourish of trumpets as a girl steps forward from between huge columns onto a balcony above the cheering throng, the twin crown upon her braided wig bears the vulture and cobra of Upper and Lower Egypt. A new queen greets her people.

As the shadows finally begin to subside, a new set of voices echoes within the cave; this time the cadence is deep and reverent. A young woman folds back a corner of her robe to reveal a boy-child to shepherds and kings.

The fiery stump tumbles back into the midst of the campfire, scattering embers all around. Buffy is stunned; surely these visions are not intended to suggest that she could emulate these women; they were heroes, leaders of nations… they changed the world. She is just one girl.

'But I'm not… I can't…' she stammers, 'you can't mean that I…' Buffy takes a deep breath, her mental footing uncertain. 'They were not Slayers.'

'No, but all had the will and desire to seek out their destinies. All were the Chosen of their time and place.'

Buffy continues to shake her head. 'I've already given my life once; I don't know what more you want from me.' She is unsure if she speaks to the other or to herself. 'I have nothing else to give.'

'You still have your soul.'

Buffy looks up sharply. To her amazement, the woman before her flashes a huge grin. 'Never fear child, you are not required to give, but to receive.' The smile fades. 'But you must be made ready to accept the gift.' She blows into the flames and they rise up again. From within the ragged cloth wrappings, the older woman produces a small dagger. She lays the bone handle on the stone edge of the campfire; the tip of the leaf-shaped blade rests on the white-hot coals and starts to melt. 'To transform and make stronger is ever the purpose of the fire.'

Staring into the red heart of the fire, Buffy sees it change once again, seeming to flow back into itself like water down a drain. Mixing with the metal of the little knife, the flame changes colour down through the spectrum to black. The fire and metal merge.

'Forged in the passion of a Slayer's heart, tempered in blood and sacrifice. You must become the blade.'

With one swift and deadly movement, the dark woman snatches the dagger from the cold ashes and plunges it deep into Buffy's heart.
She is a tall, lean black girl, naked but for a possum skin belt at her waist. Her long hair, hanging in dreadlocks to the middle of her back, is caked in white clay like her skin. She stands inside a cavern with walls that spark and flash like diamonds, grasping the forearm bone of a huge carnivorous kangaroo honed to a sharp point as she awaits the fall of night…
A small, sturdy huntress shifts the deer strapped and slung over her shoulder to a more comfortable position, its mottled skin still warm against her own. She lifts a water-filled skin to her lips under a blazing sun. Squinting up into the blue-white sky, she tracks the flight of an eagle screaming overhead. She lets the waterbag drop and her hand moves to a crudely fashioned talisman of mammoth ivory slung around her neck on a thong of greasy leather - her name-animal - and prays to her totem for speed and courage in the fight to come…
As a young priestess she prostrates herself before the life-sized image of the Opener of the Ways, the sandstone floor rough against her sun-warmed skin. She raises kohl-black eyes reverently to gaze upon the obsidian statue of her lord. The impression of Anubis' face being a mask is shattered when the jaws of the jackal-headed giant stretch and gape in an enormous yawn and the god-made-flesh steps down from the dais to raise his servant to her feet…
Fish lay gasping feebly in the cracked mud of a dried out riverbed, crocodiles and vultures feeding on the dead and dying. A girl dressed in feathers and gold and brightly dyed fabrics watches for a while then picks up a bundle of capirona-wood stakes, turns and walks back into the rainforest…
In Thracian armour she stands before the cheering populous circling the arena. Bare-breasted in loincloth and metal shoulder piece, leather wrist bands and griffon-crested helm she wields the gladius for the amusement of a corrupt Emperor, the vampire Caligula, in gladiatorial combat with Gallic werewolves in the torch-lit colosseum...
The images flash by faster now. A teenage Slayer burns at the stake as a witch, welcoming the fire… gargoyles on the ledges of Notre Dame smirk as they overlook a battle between Slayer and vampire ending in a shower of grave-dust … Victorian London - cold fog, colder fangs - another Slayer falls... facing a punk vampire in a graffiti-covered subway train... the elation of thousands of victories, the pain of a thousand deaths - Buffy feels it all as she falls, falls, falls…


The Holy Bible: Kings Chapter 17, Verse 17: And they caused their… daughters to pass through the fire…

Part Three: Daughters of the Fire

…and lands hard on the marble floor of a brightly lit hall that stretches away into the distance.

'I'm starting to feel like Alice!' she grumbles as she lies winded on the grey-veined tiles. 'Only the white rabbit's a homicidal maniac!' She rubs the spot where the knife entered her chest, but there is no pain, no wound. Even her clothes seem spotless again.

As Buffy hoists herself up from the floor a pair of small brown feet appear before her; dressed in flat golden sandals, they peep out from under a finely-pleated gown of pristine white. She looks up and is greeted by the wide smile of a girl about her own age. Buffy refuses the hand that is offered to assist her; she has had enough help from strangers already this night. Or is it day? The broad corridor seems flooded with sunlight.

'So, which one are you?' she asks sourly. 'The Cheshire Cat or the Mad Hatter?'

The girl's grin widens, although a small frown creases her brow. 'I am Amunet', she says, bowing slightly. 'Welcome to the Hall of Slayers.'

Amunet wears an ankle-length linen shift; the gauzy ripples hug her slim figure. A bejewelled neckpiece in the shape of a vulture splays out across her shoulders and blue faience beads glisten like drops of frozen water woven into the plaits of her jet-black hair.

'I saw you!' Buffy exclaims. 'With a huge statue that came to life!'

The Egyptian girl bows again. 'When I lived in your world I was a priestess of the Great God Anubis.'

'You were a Slayer too.' Buffy steadfastly ignores the 'when I lived' part of the clarification.

'Even so.'

Amunet explains that she was a Slayer during the last years of the Great Pharaoh Ahkenaton, being Called in the fifteenth year of his reign. Buffy knows the name from history class, but has never heard it pronounced quite the way Amunet does.

'Is this the place where dead Slayers go?' But the girl has turned and is walking down the long hallway. Buffy runs after her, feeling faintly ridiculous in her expensive white prom dress and cheap white shoes. 'Isn't anyone going to tell me what this is all about!' She plucks at the sleeve of the Egyptian girl's shift as she catches up with her. 'Am I dead!'

The little priestess wheels around, laughing, to face Buffy. 'And they say my people were obsessed with death!' But seeing Buffy's expression of genuine concern and puzzlement and Amunet adds more seriously, 'Truly, sister, I do not know. I came to the Hall to make my daily offering to the spirits of those who have gone before. I saw you lying before the veil which covers the portal to the Sanctuary of the First. That is all I know.'

'The First what?'

'The First Slayer, of course.'

*****


'The Slayer does not walk in this world,' Amunet explains as they wander along the lighted hall. Archways and doors lead off along each side, some into other rooms, others out to the open air. Chambers and passageways of all sizes seem to exist side by side with gardens and vast expanses of forest, coastlines and grassy plains. One doorway opens directly onto the top of a high mesa overlooking a red desert that stretches to the horizon. Buffy gazes into each area as they pass by, glimpsing young women alone or in small groups engaged in various activities, training with weapons, practising hand to hand or listening attentively to one of the older girls.

'Are all these girls Slayers from the past?'

'Some, but not all. Some are potential Slayers who were never called; others are Slayers yet-to-be.'

In the centre of the Hall of Slayers Amunet leads Buffy towards the statues of nine women. Flowers are piled ankle-high on the floor at their feet and tiny pots of incense trail wisps of scented smoke. Each likeness is cast in bronze and seems to have the same wildness of spirit and severe beauty of the woman from the cave. The nine look like sisters.

Buffy asks, 'Are they goddesses?'

'Goddesses?' Amunet replies, sounding amused. 'No, not exactly; more like grandmothers!' Good humour creases the lapis lazuli paste that covers her eyelids, but her visitor is obviously perplexed and she continues. 'They are the Daughters of the First Slayer.' Amunet stares up at the ancient faces, her hand moving across her heart an archaic gesture of reverence. 'Before the first oxen were harnessed to the plough, long before the hand of Man planted the first field of grain or worked the first piece of metal or fired the first pottery, the descendants of these nine women followed the great migrations of the tribes across the earth, settling across six continents, each one establishing a line of Slayers from which all Slayers spring.'

'You mean,' Buffy breathes, 'one of these women is my ancestor?' Amunet merely nods and smiles.

Further along the corridor is a museum of sorts which immediately captures Buffy's attention. The walls are adorned with circles and hemispheres of spears, arrows and swords fanned out against the white plaster while all manner of shields and helmets dot the spaces in between. A longbow as tall as Buffy leans against one wall as though just abandoned by its owner, its worn leather and brass-studded quiver filled with yew-wood arrows fletched with owl feathers for silent flight. In low cabinets of glass and dark wood rest Slayer weapons from throughout the ages. Buffy looks at Amunet hopefully and the other girl reached past her to open the nearest section.

Stakes of human and animal bone, ivory, and rare woods are scattered among less familiar weapons. A mediaeval gauntlet with a stake attached over the wrist-guard. A long-handled flail with a silver spiked ball on a length of chain. An elegant Japanese katana with leaping carp carved into the handle sits on a thin cushion of red silk. A Celtic falcata-style sword is displayed beside a short Bhutanese sabre with a wooden scabbard. A North African jambiya with walrus ivory grip, the dark patina of age revealing a subtle damask pattern along its deadly curved blade. The final section holds crossbows of all kinds, from an ancient oriental pellet crossbow to German armbrusts and a heavy Medieval European arbalest along with silver, horn, bamboo and hardwood bolts, some carved with bizarre runes and symbols. Buffy hefts an 18th century Chinese cho-ku-no repeating crossbow that hums with power when she picks it up.

'Did these weapons all belong to Slayers?' she asks.

'Each of these weapons was in the hand of a Slayer when she died.'

Buffy feels slightly embarrassed and replaces the crossbow - she has brought nothing; even the crude home-made stake had fallen from her hand when she was in the Master's thrall. Then she notices a weird futuristic-looking zipgun pistol with a magazine full of metal-jacketed slivers of wood.

'Way cool!' She takes it from the cabinet, surprised by the light weight of the plasmetal casing and delighted by the weapon's sleek design. 'I never heard of a Slayer using anything like this!'

'It's from the future.'

Buffy takes a moment to absorb the significance of Amunet's statement. 'Then… you must have a way to… I dunno… access the future?' Her companion says nothing. 'Do you know what's going to happen to me and my friends? To Sunnydale?' Amunet only shakes her head. 'What about the Hellmouth? You must know!'

Amunet takes the gun from Buffy's hand and replaces it onto its bracket inside the glass case. 'I didn't say it was from your future!'

The two girls continue on to the end of the hall in silence; Buffy no longer takes in any of the wonders around her. She walks on alone for several paces before realising that Amunet has stopped a few steps behind. Although she could swear that the Hall had neither curved nor deviated, Buffy once again finds herself standing before the deep blue silk veils that are the portal to the Sanctuary of the First, the place they started from.

*****


Amunet watches as the blonde Slayer parts the veils and steps into the deeper darkness of the sanctum, then stamps a tiny foot in frustration.

'By Great Mother Isis!' she hisses, 'I forgot to ask her name!' She shrugs. 'Oh well, never mind.' Amunet turns and starts back down the Hall to tend the offerings. 'She'll be back.'


The Holy Bible: Leviticus Chapter 6, Verse 13: The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar; it shall never go out.

Part Four: Destiny Girl

'So are you really her? The First Slayer, I mean?' Buffy and the other woman are walking along a sandy track that leads down to the yellow desert she glimpsed from the cave. It's midday now and the sky is an almost heart-breakingly clear blue. Joshua trees stand baking in the heat while fan palms cluster beside a small, stony creek. The two women stop by a jumble of rounded boulders, and press themselves into the narrow strip of shadow.

'No, I am not she,' the dark ones answers, 'I am merely her shade, her likeness. I take this form because it has power… resonance. As for myself, I have no speech and no name. I live in the action of death, the blood cry, the penetrating wound. I am destruction, absolute... and alone. I sleep on a bed of bones. In me lives the spirit not only of the First Slayer but of all who came after her. Of all who are yet to come.'

'So, is there a little of me in you too?'

The image of the First Slayer smiles. 'And of me inside you.' After a moment she adds, 'Are you ready to return home now?'

'You're still going to send me back?' Not long ago she was begging, demanding to be sent home, but now Buffy wonders fearfully what might remain of Sunnydale, what destruction must have been wrought in the hours that have passed since her defeat in the Master's lair. Family, friends, the school, perhaps all gone by now. Was there any point at all in returning, if only to endure more pain, the wages of her failure? 'But… but the Master must be free by now. The Hellmouth will already be open. It's too late…'

'It is never too late for good to stand against evil.'

'But I'm not ready… I don't feel any different…'

'If you believe that, you will never find the strength to face your destiny.' The Spirit-Slayer turns to face Buffy, raises her right hand and places the palm flat over Buffy's heart, covering the spot where the dagger's blade entered. 'What have you killed for, daughter? Who were you prepared to die for? Surely you have not forgotten so soon…'
Joyce is seated on the sofa, leafing through a cheap photograph album full of pictures from her own prom, the gallery's receipts scattered, forgotten on the coffee table.
Giles, with his collar open and tie askew, leans on his elbows over his desk in the library, the Codex in one hand and a cup of milky tea in the other. 'Giles was prepared to die for me,' Buffy remembers. 'He was going to face the Master alone.'
Xander at the door of Angel's apartment, cross in hand. 'I don't like you,' he says. 'At the end of the day, I pretty much think you're a vampire.' 'You're in love with her,' Angel says, making it sound like an accusation, and Xander replies, 'Aren't you?'
Willow and Jenny Calendar outside the school, surrounded by the undead; outnumbered but ready to make a stand as the vampires advance.
At the Bronze, schoolmates and friends laugh and flirt and dance at the Spring Fling, still believing that their lives are ahead of them.
The Master stands before the border of the Hellmouth, hand pressed against event horizon. It flexes and bows, then, with a burst of light and energy, he is through…
Buffy shakes off the visions to find the First Slayer's hand on her forehead; she is covering the younger Slayer's face in mud like her own. A few yards away, between two great boulders, a curtain of flame crackles and roars. The wind from the conflagration, hot and dry, ruffles Buffy's hair. She does not need to ask what is required of her.

'If I survive, will it be easier after this?'

'No.'

'Well, thanks for being honest at least,' Buffy replies grimly. 'Will I remember all of this when I wake up?'

The First Slayer, smoothing a stray lock of Buffy's gold hair, replies, 'If not in your head, my sister, then in your heart.' As Buffy turns away, the Spirit-Slayer vanishes, melting into the shadows between the rocks, becoming part of the substance of the place once more. 'I will always be there to remind you when you need it.'

Readying herself against the searing holocaust, Buffy takes one final deep breath, holding it as she walks into the sheet of fire. Flames pour over her like a waterfall and, with a gasp of shock, she realises the fire is not burning, but freezing. Numb with cold, she breathes the fire in great shuddering gulps, but it fills her lungs and is not consumed. She begins to drown.

Epilogue

Buffy coughs up gouts of water, groans and tries to rise. Xander and Angel bend over her, looking concerned and relieved at the same time. Xander puts his hand on Buffy's forehead and strokes it gently. She looks up at him, then at Angel, surprised to see to two of them together. Xander wipes the mud from her face.

'Buffy…'

'Xander?'

'Welcome back.'

*****


Out in the street with Angel and Xander at her side, Buffy feels more alive than she has ever been; her body is filled with power, her strength renewed, her purpose reborn. As they stride towards the Hellmouth's earthly portal she struggles for a moment to recall the fugitive images and sensations that crowded into her consciousness as she awoke in the Master's cave. But the memories - dreams or phantasms of an oxygen-starved brain, whatever they were - evaporated with each new breath.

All that she can remember is the echoed words, 'Breathe on, little sister, breathe on…'


The Holy Bible: Song of Solomon Chapter 43, Verse 2: When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee … when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned…

It's a Fire by Portishead

It's a fire
These dreams they pass me by
This salvation I desire
Keeps getting me down
'Cos we need to
Recognise mistakes
For time and again
So let it be known for what we believe in
I can see no reason for it to fail…
Cos this life is a farce
I can't breathe through this mask
Like a fool
So breathe on, sister breathe on

From this oneself
Testify or tell
Its fooling us now
So let it be known for what we believe in
I can see no reason for it to fail…
Cos this life is a farce
I can't breathe through this mask
Like a fool
So breathe on, little sister, breathe on
Ohh so breathe on, little sister, like a fool