Prologue: This Isn't a Heaven, It Isn't a Hell

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There are rights and wrongs and in betweens
No one waits while fortune intervenes.
-Baker's Wife, Into the Woods

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The hardest thing in this world is to live in it, but that was behind her now. She'd dived into a crackling lightning filled globe of energy and it had cracked shut right through her, ripping her free of the world - the lights and the sounds and the air against her skin - and throwing her tumbling into the featureless darkness.

But the portal was shut, the hellgod was dead, and Dawn was still alive, so it was worth it. That thought sustained her for... she wasn't sure how long.

She'd expected death to be a bit more eventful, maybe even a guy with a scythe to trade quips with. She'd been looking forward to that, had a few saved up, but that didn't really matter, as long as Dawn was still alive.

"So this is death," she said experimentally. "Just one long-"

A tidal wave engulfed her.

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The darkness remained absolute, the silence was out-of-this-world, even the water didn't touch her so much as it flowed through her, but she gradually realized that she had another sense that she'd never had before, and over a timeless span of time she learned to sense the water as it ebbed and flowed. There was a tide in the affairs of Buffy that taken at the flood got her really wet.

"I guess the next step is learning how to float. Anyone have any other ideas? Anyone?"

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"I'm going on a trip, and I'm bringing along the memory of an antique dagger, a big bowl of frosted flakes (they're greaaaaat!), a canoe, a dalmatian puppy with a cold nose, an effortless sneeze..."

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Without her noticing how it had gotten there, something was growing on her. Or maybe in her. Near her? At first she just ignored it, because she was dead, and if there was one thing she knew about being dead, it was that dead people didn't have to worry about petty sanitary problems. She was dead.

"Even if I was a vampire, you can't kill them with living wood, it has to be dead and pointy," she said whimsically, pleased with herself for remembering that little bit of trivia. "Pointy like a stake, not pointy like a thorn."

She remembered trees, green in the sunlight, reaching toward the sky with branches that waved gently in the breeze. Here there was no sunlight, no sky, no breeze, but even a spindly spiny thorn tree was something.

"I'll call you Rose," she said. "A girl can hope."

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Soon there were roots in her stomach and branches weaving tightly around her from head to foot like mummy's wrappings. Buffy channeled water through herself to feed the roots, and Rose grew taller and stronger and one day she flowered.

"I knew you could do it!" Buffy said, delighted.

The first bee was a delight as well, she felt like she'd never seen anything so perfect as the spiny striped flier, and the second bee was as cute as a hedgehog. By the hundredth bee they'd lost their charm. A whole nest of them settled in the space where her eyes ought to be, buzzing and droning and making it impossible for her to remember Skater's Waltz, much less the scent of jasmine. She couldn't even remember real bees, surely they weren't so spiny? More fuzzy? She couldn't remember exactly.

"All I have are my memories," she muttered darkly.

Time passed, and her anger against this disturbance grew. "I've had enough," she announced. "I'm dead, not a doormat. Just because I have curves doesn't make me a vase."

She ripped free of the entangling tree, shook off the bees, and swam away to find a better place to be dead. At least, that was the plan. Like most plans, it ran off the rails somewhere in the middle. She got as far as wiggling like a butterfly stuck to a glue trap, then wiggling like a butterfly with its wings cruelly pinned to a card, and then wiggling like a butterfly glued to a pin, and then she stopped. It wasn't just the roots and the bees that anchored her, she was filled with water and sediment had grown up around the roots of the tree, and she thought there was honey in the hexagonal combs of the bees.

"This is not how being dead is supposed to be!" Buffy shouted. "I call foul! I can deal with the lack of pearly gates and halos, but I demand an ending. I demand death. Death is a gift, all wrapped up in shiny foil paper with a ribbon and a bow and once you untie that bow, that's the last thing you're supposed to do. You're not supposed to have to escape from cannibal trees with roots in your stomach and bees who think you're a beehive."

She struggled, and her struggles knocked loose more sediment to weight her down. Thorns ripped into her as she tried to burst free of the tree that bound her, but she didn't care, it just made her more angry and more determined. "I am not going to spend eternity as a beehive. Do you hear me? Anyone?"

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Anyone showed up some time later, but she didn't recognize it at first. All her attention focused on the ongoing fight with the thorn tree. She'd isolated it from water to weaken it and then painstakingly freed her arms and forced the thorny wrappings down her torso and her legs, inch by excruciating inch. The thorns flayed the edges of her spirit, but she was winning. She was sure she was winning. If only she could do something about the roots, or expel the grit that still stuck to her once and for all.

She'd started off so pure and empty; she hadn't realized how good she had it. Water wouldn't clean away the mud and muck that'd accumulated inside of her, but she'd find a way. She always found a way.

At least the bees had left on their own when the tree quit blooming. She'd accomplished that much, she thought grimly, and went to work once again, forcing the grit inside her up against the edges of her spirit. One grain at a time, she pushed it out through the holes the thorns had left behind.

Some of the grains stuck to her on the outside, and she attuned herself with the water inside of her to locate the ebb and flow of the larger body of water. The tide had almost reached her.

"Almost time for a bath for Buffy," she said, just to remind herself that she was still Buffy, no matter how much death might try to steal from her. "Not a bubble bath, but that's being dead for you." She gritted her teeth. "At least Dawn's alive," she reminded herself. "I can do this." She shook herself so hard she could almost hear the tree branches rattling against each other.

A moment later, she noticed the thing between her and the water and was so startled she said "What's that?" and really meant it, not just as a memory of talking, but as a request for information. Too bad she was the only one around who might be able to answer herself.

There was water and grit and something that sparkled and something that didn't, in a complex pattern that made her want to close her eyes except that she wasn't seeing it, she was using that other sense that came with being dead. "Hello?" she said.

"Hello?" she repeated, louder. "Are you...a dead person like me? I'm Buffy." It was more blobby than human shaped, but maybe it was a blobby dead demon. She'd settle for a blobby demon, she'd settle for anyone.

It turned, sleek and steady. "Who taught you to move like that?" Buffy asked, sharp and envious. "Why didn't anyone teach me to move like that? Who are you, and what makes you so special?"

Its steady rotation presented a more pointed side of itself to Buffy; there was something threatening about it that she couldn't identify and she gathered herself for a fight as the pattern resolved itself into a pointy beak. Before she could lash out, the blob moved, darting forward, the beak opened and closed and the thing swallowed down half of Buffy's thorny tree.

Buffy laughed, a little shakily. "I like you, let's be friends," she said, even though she was pretty sure that she was still talking to herself. "You can teach me a way to move that doesn't feel like I'm stuck in molasses, and I'll..."

The beak opened again, and before Buffy could do anything, it snapped closed over the other half of the thorn tree - and Buffy's legs.

Buffy screamed defiance and kicked with all her might, which wasn't much. The blob backed up faster than a politician confronting an angry crowd. But in the second of contact, Buffy had felt something, a a spirit, even bigger than the blob, and more complex. Something intelligent.

"Hello?" The contact was gone, and the blob was hovering out of reach. She tried to channel communication out of herself through the holes in her spirit. Hello?

The blob hovered, then drifted closer, as effortlessly as Buffy had once walked a step or two. It reached out and touched her, spirit and everything within - the whole pattern of grit and water and sparkles. It felt like...something natural. Something right. Her spirit yearned...

She didn't know exactly what it felt, but it drew back like it'd been burned. It hovered for another few seconds, then skimmed away as effortlessly as a sailboat riding the wind.

Buffy flopped like an overturned sailboat, getting nowhere.

"Hey, come back!" Come back! Please... "I'll let you eat my tree!"

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The difference between dead Buffy and a big blob is that a blob can go where it wants and have adventures. Buffy'd thought she was doing so well, moving at all. Now she knew what good looked like here.

"Maybe it's the Slayer Blob of Hell Dimension 504," she muttered. "Maybe everyone here looks at Ms. Blobby and feels envy eating away at them." She wrinkled her nose and nibbled at a branch of the thorn tree - following the blob's example, she'd been trying to eat it. It didn't taste of anything, it didn't digest at all, but she nibbled stubbornly.

"But how ofter has Ms. Blobby saved the world?" she asked rhetorically. "I've got nothing to be ashamed of, I did everything I needed to do, I made all the hard choices..."

But sometimes she wondered if she'd done something wrong, to end up here. It wasn't exactly a burning forever kind of hell, but still. She just wondered.

She ate more tree and then moved on to trying to replicate the pattern of movement of grit and water she'd seen in the blob. She had a theory that if she could get the stuff inside of her moving, she'd be able to move. It never quite panned out; she'd never been good at theory. She needed Willow or Giles to make sense of things.

Sometimes she wondered how everyone back home was doing without her. Most of the time, she tried not to wonder.

When another blob approached, she sensed it right away.

Hello? she said. "Hello?"

It floated right up to her and bit down. It wasn't an accident and it wasn't painless, but she barely noticed the pain. She was too excited. There was so much she could sense through the contact and she didn't want to waste a moment.

Hello I'm Buffy can you hear me please say you can hear me you have a very pretty pattern of grit and sparkles I wish I knew how to do that hello

She had a sense of being examined. She tried to hide her ragged edges and murky depths.

Where I come from, I'm the Slayer, she told the blob. That means-

You are aware.

Yep, that's me, Buffy the Aware That She's Dead Person. Do you have a name?

What is dead?

Umm... Thoughts of vampires (walking talking technically dead) - her mother (a cooling body with nothing inside animating it) - demons she'd slayed (oh so very dead) - herself (she was dead, wasn't she?) passed through her mind in a few seconds. Never mind, dead's not important. You're important, why don't you tell me about yourself. She sensed deliberation, the blob was holding back. She pressed on. What brings you to this neck of the woods? Because I've got to tell you, not that crowded around here.

I've come for you, little spirit.

How sweet. But something about the unequivocal way the blob spoke cooled her excitement just a little, enough that she noticed again just how much communication like this, spirit to spirit, hurt. She wriggled, trying to numb the pain for a second.

The blob bit down harder. There are many like you, stuck out here in the void where the elements are rare. We don't care why you're here, what you've done. You are a spirit in need of a body. I come from a great spirit, rich in matter of all four types, who desires a new servant. In return for your service, you will be provided with a body crafted by one of the finest craftspeople.

Will I be able to move?

Of course! Don't be nervous, I come from the Great Propopopopipiorsavipopopoppi pyrasasopopop, by this you may know that I offer you a fair trade.

I'm not nervous! Nervous wasn't the word for the itchy resentful dread that filled her, it was much bigger than nervous, a roiling cloud of hard to identify emotions. She could tell that the blob couldn't imagine being turned down, she could sense that it thought it was doing her a favor, and maybe it was, but...

She'd been so sure she was done. She'd tied herself in knots and a pretty bow and given everything she had to give, somehow managed to save Dawn and the world, two birds with one Buffy, and now she was dead and it still wasn't over yet. Death wasn't restful, it wasn't even tormenting, it was just bewildering. She'd thought when she died, she'd finally found the get-out-of-tough-choices-free card... but if no choices meant mouldering in the boonies of some weird purgatory, lonelier than that cloud she'd heard about in that poetry class she took in college, then no choices wasn't what she wanted.

But the servant deal didn't sound like a step up. More like a step off the edge of a cliff, hoping to learn to fly before reaching the bottom. There was so much she didn't know, about the blobs, about herself and how she fit into this place. And her mind, honed to a suspicious edge by years of Slayer-related incidents, couldn't help but wondering, if this blob was out looking for new servants, what had happened to the old servants?

Death should be easier than this. Easier, better, she was the Slayer, one of the good guys, and she'd never been much for religion, but-

IT'S NOT FAIR!

The blob fell backward like it'd been blown away by the force of her savage thoughts.

Wait! She swam-wobbled-galumphed after the blob. Don't go! Because suddenly this was familiar territory. She didn't know how many times she'd thought exactly the same thing with exactly the same passionate exasperation after she'd been called as the Slayer, and it clarified everything. Not fair? Suck it up and deal.

I accept your offer!

Don't like the choices you've been given? Force the world to give you better choices. But to do that, you had to engage. She'd had enough wallflowering for one death. It was time to join the dance.

She wriggled so hard she ripped free of the anchors that had grown up around her, the tree and the grit and the water that held her down, and for a second she was falling, no control at all, tumbling through space until she brushed against the blob.

I accept!

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Not long before the Great Qqceqkekekekekesakekekekekek ekqsaseckek arrived in state to perform the Ritual of Persuasion, the ritual dancer who was called Buffysum (only three syllables, but she'd started off as a lowly nameless servant and earned each syllable) was presented with a new body. It was fluffy like a kitten and lithe like a snake and twice the length of her spirit from head to tail.

I can't use that, she grumbled. What do you think I am, a Great One? Even if I stretch...

Her mentor, Kallilyliaclavi, embodied in a feathered dolphin-like form, swung her strong tail at Buffysum. Buffysum's body was a delicate creation, patterns of earth and water and air and sparkling fire put into motion by the best craftspeople in the empire; it was the size of a goldfish to Kallilyliaclavi's dolphin, but Buffysum held onto it tightly. Her spirit held the body together and kept it from shattering under the blow.

Buffysum, listen to me, Kallilyliaclavi said. You've had time to heal from the damage done in the void, before you knew how to care for your spirit properly. You understand how to inhabit matter, and not let it inhabit you. Now it's time you learned cooperation. Don't worry, I'll be with you.

I know what this is about, Buffysum grumbled. You heard the same rumors I heard, the ones about the dancers that are coming with the Great Kekek-of-the-thousand-unpronouncable-syllables-

Kallilyliaclavi batted Buffysum again. And if that is the case? Would you have us shamed in front of our great guest? Would you let us look small? Now is the time for you to earn that fourth syllable that you told me about. You're ready; I've never been so sure about a dancer in all my time.

You're just saying that because you're short on dancers, Buffysum said, but it was good-humored grumbling. She waited a short time to see if Kallilyliaclavi would relent. No relentage could be detected. Okay, let's do this, Buffysum said.

Kallilyliaclavi swung her tail at Buffysum again, and this time Buffysum let the body go. As her body shattered into tiny pieces, her spirit floated free, and Kallilyliaclavi deftly released her hold on the dolphin body, wrapped Buffysum in her spirit, and slid both of them into the large snake body.

Spacious, Buffysum said appreciatively. Room to - eek! Kallilyliaclavi had expanded her spirit, crowding Buffysum into a corner. Spoke too soon. When did you get so fat?

Buffysum, I will never understand you and your alien concepts. Fat? What is fat?

If only she'd had eyes to roll, Buffysum would have rolled her eyes. Never mind. What next?

Kallilyliaclavi let Buffysum take the head, and before they learned to dance in the new flesh, they began to learn a dance of the spirit that should have been more intimate than sex and sexy as hell - back on Earth. But there was no sex here, no reproduction any more than there was life or death, and the interweaving of the spirit, two inside one body, was clinical, innocent, warm and cold at the same time. It confused her.

You're thinking about something alien again, Kallilyliaclavi noted.

About as alien as you can get. Are you sure this isn't hell? Buffysum said, only partially joking. She didn't miss Riley so much any more, but she missed that kind of possibility, that chance of a someday.

Kallilyliaclavi shrugged, and Buffysum felt it with her whole being, but even that didn't wake any fire.

I'll make it hell for you if you don't pay attention, Kallilyliaclavi said carefully. Did I say that correctly?

Buffysum let her memories fade into the background radiated approval to Kally. Even if she didn't have life here, not life as she knew it, she still had friends. Got it on the-

Something walked on her grave, that was the only explanation for the shiver that coursed through her spirit. Did you feel that?

Feel what? Oh-

Ripping and tugging, the curved hooks of a powerful magic snagged Buffysum's spirit and pulled her away from Kallilyliaclavi, dragging her out of the furry snake-hide. Buffysum screamed, barely aware of Kallilyliaclavi screaming as well. The curved hooks whirled faster, snagging ragged strands of spirit-stuff and pulling it tight between a glowing portal - where had that come from? - and the anchor of Kallilyliaclavi and the snake body.

Kallilyliaclavi... Let go! It wants me.

Never! I don't know what this is, but we will fight it together...

You caaaaan't fight thiiiiiiiis-

The snake body, the only anchor for two spirits, dissolved into dust and sparkles. Unopposed, the red energy grew into a whirlwind that snatched up all the ragged threads of Buffysum's spirit and funneled her toward the portal. Kallilyliaclavi clung stubbornly to Buffysum, and was pulled along.

They crashed into a new body. Like a pair of knitting needles, magic gathered the strands of Buffysum's spirit and began knitting them, not back together, but into the very flesh of the body. It felt familiar and so very wrong, all at the same time. Buffysum whimpered.

You're hurting her! Briefly, the energy paused as Kallilyliaclavi flung herself against the weakest point in the weave, unraveling it. That's no way to treat a spirit, how will she ever leave this body?

Buffysum mumbled confusedly, I remember, I'll never want to-

The energy reknit the connection and moved on, Buffysum - Buffy - Buffy Summers - could feel her eyelashes. She could feel her lips, the breath moving across her lips, the tips of her ears, the beat of her heart, and-

The red energy disappeared.

Buffysum? Kallilyliaclavi said uncertainly, but Buffy didn't hear her.

Weight dragged Buffy down, she couldn't move, she was tied to a lump of flesh, encased in flesh, stuck inside a mound of flesh. She didn't inhabit this body, she was this body, breathing hard, heart pounding in her ears, eyes staring into complete darkness. There was nothing in her mind but panic.

She couldn't move.

I'll ... Buffysum? This is terrible! I'll go and ... look for help?