The bleached white hallway blunts and echoes sound: the rattle and hum of flourescent lights, my shoes on the bare tiles. Conversation creeps and mutters around the corner down the empty hall, individual words indistinguishable from the soft wave of noise.
"Buffy? Tara?" I call. "Giles?" I flinch at the sound of my voice as it reverberates back, laced with fear and too loud in the empty space. I don't know what the mumbling voices will do if they find me. The air is warm, but my skin rises into goosebumps and my whole body is jumpy. But the voices go on talking, uninterrupted.
As I walk down the white tiles, a woman's sobs grow louder. I follow to the sound to a room with no door, just a space with two white beds, each with papery sheets and a white curtain. There are no windows, and the bad light bleaches out every remaining colour. When I look down at my hands, the whiteness makes them look dead.
In both beds, the curtain is open. In one, a woman with short hair and pale eyes lies rigid on her side beneath the covers. She stares straight at me, but her haunted eyes don't seem to take me in. She stares right through, her face frozen and terrified. I look behind me to see what she's looking at, but there's only the white unbroken wall.
In the other bed, the crying woman curls in on herself and shakes with noise. She hugs her knees like she's trying to become as small as possible, trying to shrink out of existence. Her hair is a thin, grey-white cloud, and it's hard to see an older person so... unprotected. She's as vulnerable as a child, her pain exposed and unalloyed. Her cheekbones press into her skin, sharp with hunger, and even in the fluorescent lights her skin is red with exhaustion. Tears shine over her face and darken the bedsheets.
"Hey," I say, kneeling down beside her. "What's wrong?"
She keeps crying. Like I cried at home after Jesse died, when one of my first friends had been ripped out of the world and Xander and I couldn't even tell anyone about the thing that murdered him. The crying that only stopped because we believed in Buffy. And then, like we all cried when we'd lost her, too.
This is how people cry when the world is in pieces. This is how we fall apart.
I touch her arm, curled against her chest like she's pressing down to keep her heart inside her body. Her skin is soft and dry, and she doesn't respond at all. "Hello?" I say, but she doesn't even look up.
I rise to my feet, and my breath catches – what if I am dead? My hand shakes as I reach out to touch the wall, but I don't pass through. I'm solid. I'm here.
What does here mean?
I tell myself I'm being silly – of course I'm not a ghost. I touched the woman's hand and I felt her, and yeah, she didn't feel me back, but I didn't slip through her or anything. And my shoes click on the linoleum, and I'm breathing! The smell of disinfectant burns my nose, and the fumey dizziness becomes reassuring.
But what if this is a hell dimension?
When Buffy was gone, I had nightmares about fire, demons, darkness. The factory Buffy told me about once, where people laboured for demons until they wore themselves to death. The century of violence and pain that changed Angel into someone we couldn't even recognize.
This is worse. In the dreams, when my heart shook inside me like this, I woke up. And the world was lonely and empty of Buffy, but Tara would hold me and talk to me and when she told me we could make things better, I believed her.
We were alone in the center of night, but we were alone together, and we had hope – we believed in each other more than any magic, and we believed in Buffy. If anyone could break out of hell, it was her, and even if... even if I never saw her again, I somehow knew she'd be okay.
I... I don't think I realized that until now. Or maybe I just couldn't admit it, that I wasn't half as afraid for her as I was for us. Maybe I was selfish, and arrogant, and... all those things Giles said. Maybe in the end, I really did just miss my friend, and that was enough. That was enough to make the world fall apart.
Buffy is stronger than me, in a way that has nothing to do with being the slayer. She introduced me to this world, and I never thought about living in it without her.
"No! You've got to – listen to me!" My head snaps up at the sound of the voice, and though it's strangled with desperation, the sound of her unlocks a rush of excitement in my blood. Outside, something metallic clatters to the floor. "They're in here!" she shouts. I run out, forgetting to be afraid.
She's in a blue robe, her hair wild around her face as she struggles. Two women and one man in white coats surround her, holding back her arms as she twists to get out.
"Buffy, they're not real," one of the women – a nurse, I realize – is saying. "Nothing is going to hurt –"
"It's not just me!" Buffy chokes out. Her voice is raw and reminds me of Dawn. Dawn before she's going to cry or slam her door. Even when I first met Buffy, she seemed more grown-up than Dawn. I've never heard this frantic fear in her before never heard her sound so young, and my throat closes once again up with the feeling that everything is wrong.
"Ask Alissa, she saw them too! Ask anyone!"
"Buffy," says the male nurse, more sharply. "This is a safe place. No one dangerous can get in, and there are lots of us around to keep you safe. If you come with us, and just try to breathe, we'll find some medicine to help clear your head. Everything will be okay."
She pulls out of his grasp and runs. She could have fought them off, easily, I realize. But she wanted them to listen to her.
"Buffy!" The male nurse shouts, and the three run to follow her.
I start to move too, but my limbs catch and the air thickens. The world constricts, the edges of my vision swarming into blackness. Visutally, it's like I'm losing consciousness, but physically I feel like I'm turning into stone. The scene narrows and narrows into sandy black, until there's nothing but the dream-remnants of colour, shaking on the dark.
And then a gunshot. The noise folds through the blackness and light emerges, grainy and eye-stinging. The room is t.v. bright and split open with screams.
I look forward and see myself, blood on my clothes and my face distorted into same the expression the crying woman in the hospital wore, a naked O of horror.
My eyes lower and I scream.
"Willow!" Tara steadies me as I break the surface of the dream, sitting up in bed with my lungs empty as my throat spills fear that feels like it will shatter my insides and slice open my skin.
"It's okay," she says, catching me in her arms as I slump forward. Her voice is like oxygen, and my lungs are crushed with drowning. "You're okay. Willow. You're okay. I love you. It's okay."
I look up at her. My vision traces the shape of her eyes and mouth and face, unable to trust myself that it's really her, here, fine. I reach out and press my hand to her cheek. Her skin is smooth and warm.
I hold on to her. With my ear pressed to her chest and filled with the sound of her heartbeat, I cry.