The Return -- Ch 1-3 by Kirayoshi

Disclaimer; Joss owns them, and after "The Gift", we must trust that he knows what he’s doing. Oh, and the sharp-eyed among you may recognize characters owned by DC Comics, and created by Neil Gaiman.
Author’s note; This is my alternate take on how things go after the season five cliffhanger from Hell. Spoilers for "The Gift". Duh. Shout out to Mad-Hamlet for advice, inspiration, and one kick-ass epilogue.
Archives;
Want, take, have.
Feedback; Yes please. Jim_D_Means@prodigy.net
Rating; PG-13(for angst)
Summary; The Slayer’s final sacrifice was just the end of Act 1.

| Ch 1-3 | Ch. 4-6 | Ch. 7-End |

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Return
By Kirayoshi
Epilogue by Mad Hamlet

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Chapter One
The Devil’s Best Trick

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"The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist."

—Kevin Spacey, "The Usual Suspects"

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She remembered standing on the scaffold.

Her enemy was defeated, but the damage had been done. Her sister’s blood had been spilled. Her enemy had used that blood to unleash Hell. The portal her enemy had opened threatened all creation. There was only one way to stop it.

She looked at her sister one last time. She knew what was going to happen, what she had to do, and she prayed that Giles would be there to look after her. The realization that she would never see her again tore at her heart, but there was no other way.

Her death was her gift to her sister. To her friends. To the world.

She said a final goodbye to her sister. She thought of Willow. She took comfort that her beloved would survive.

She dived off the scaffold, and plummeted into the portal.

She held onto the power, and let it course through her, until her body couldn’t stand another jolt. And still she hung on. All the pain in the world wracked her frame, fried her synapses, stopped her heart, but still she held on. She held on for a few seconds, a few moments.

She held on for the rest of her life.

And she fell...

And she fell...

========

There is a world where we spend a third of our lives. It is the world where we live when we are asleep. It is the realm of the Dreaming. Dreams are born here, and dreamers venture on the shores of the Dreaming every night.

It was here where Dream, alias Morpheus, held his power. But even the lord of the Dreaming was on occasion disturbed from his sleep.

"Morpheus!" a slim, pale skinned young woman dressed in a white silk tank top and leather pants shouted as she barged into the palatial home of the lord of the Dreaming. "I need some help here!"

Dream strode down the stairs of his ever-changing main hallway, inhumanly thin and regal, his skin chalk white, his eyes like obsidian spheres. "What brings you here, my sister?" he greeted the interloper.

"I’m sorry, bro," the goth-chick answered hastily, fingering the large silver ankh pendant she constantly wore around her neck. "But I need some help here. Someone’s soul is out there, untethered from her body."

"What is it to me?" Morpheus brushed his sister’s statement aside. "The souls of the departed are your domain, not mine."

Death shook her head, trying to explain her plight. "She wasn’t meant to die at this time. She is a powerful force for good in the world, and her time hadn’t come yet."

Dream turned and regarded his sister with a jaded yet concerned eye. "You have never requested my help in restoring a lost soul, Death. This one must be important indeed. What do you want of me?"

"I can locate the soul, and anchor it to the world somehow," Death answered, "but her desire to live must be restored. All I need from you, brother, is a dream..."

========

"Wake up, Ice Princess," a hand jostled her from her sleep, and she opened her eyes reluctantly. "You’re already in the doghouse with Coach Stevens about being late for rehearsal." Buffy Anne Summers roused from her bed, stretched herself, and vaguely tried to recall that bizarre dream that had disturbed her. Something about a madwoman named Glory. And a Key.

She dressed, selecting the red satin unitard for her routine. She smiled at her roommate, saying, "Let’s do it, Tara."


"Right behind you," her colleague answered. Buffy hadn’t really made friends with the others in the skater’s tour, but that didn’t bother her. They respected each other, that’s all that mattered. That, and the show.

The dress rehearsal began, as the skaters prepared for their trial entrances. She assumed her pose, as the P. A. announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the heroines of the 1998 Winter Olympics at Nagano, Japan, Bronze medallist Michelle Kwan!" The Asian-American glided out onto the rink. "Silver medallist Tara Lipinski!" The sprightly blond teen took her place beside Michelle. "And Gold medal winner, Buffy Anne Summers!" Buffy skated out with speed, grace and confidence, finishing with a neat double axle before standing between her two teammates. "Show off," Michelle commented acidly.

The rehearsal went off without a hitch, until Buffy glanced at the almost-empty stands. She saw someone, a dowdy young woman in a gray sweater and faded jeans. The red of her hair caught her eye, stirring a strange memory. Something about that hair, those sad green eyes, a presence that haunted the Skater...

She lost her concentration and collided with the wall. Coach Stevens threw his hands up in defeat, as he cut the rehearsal short and called for Buffy to meet him.

Buffy glared hard at her coach, who wanted nothing more than to take her down a peg. "Summers," he said gruffly, "I want you off the program tonight. You’ve obviously got something else on your mind, I won’t have you endangering yourself in front of an audience. Get yourself killed on your own time."

"What are you talking about, Stevens?" Buffy said angrily. "I’m the top draw for tonight’s show, you know that. You can’t just take me off the line-up!"


"Can and did, Buffy," he answered. "Check your contract, you’ll find I can do that. Besides, your star’s been falling ever since that little snafu with your clothing line for Wal-Mart."

"How the hell was I supposed to know the company was using slave labor?" she shouted.

"You put your name on the product, Summers," he chuckled mirthlessly, "you should have found out something about the company. You’re not as loved as you seem to think you are. Not by the public, nor by your fellow stars. In fact, once this leg of the tour is over, I want you to clear out your things. You’re finished with this tour."

Buffy’s eyes bored into him, but he remained unmoving. She had been aware of her waning popularity on the skating circuit, but hadn’t thought it was that bad. She gave Stevens her middle finger, hissing, "Why wait for this leg to finish? I’ll clear out now! I quit, asshole!"

"I have no problem with that," Stevens answered tonelessly. He had taken his fill of that primadonna’s bellyaching. And from the complaints that her fellow skaters had filed against her, he wasn’t alone. Buffy wasn’t even the star draw anymore, as the more personable Michelle and Tara had taken the spotlight.

Buffy Summers’ star had faded. Her fifteen minutes were up. She would not be missed.

========

When Buffy emptied her locker and grabbed her things, she glanced around the stadium one last time, looking for the woman in the stands. The stands were now empty, save for janitors and stadium security. She glanced back at Michelle, who was rehearsing a new routine with Scott Hamilton. Her fellow skaters didn’t even have time to say goodbye. If they did, she realized, they wouldn’t make the effort.

The now unemployed skater couldn’t shake that image of a red haired woman in the stands out of her head. She felt that she should know her, that this woman was important to her in a primal way that she couldn’t understand. The redhead had stirred something deep in her, something that she didn’t understand.

But she didn’t have time to deal in abstracts. She had to call her agent. She pulled a cell-phone out of her purse and started to dial. As she walked with the phone in her hand, she didn’t pay attention, and neatly tripped over a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk.

"HEY!" the homeless man shouted at her. "Watch where you’re frickin’ goin’!" Buffy turned around to say something nasty to the stranger who shouted drunkenly at her. She was about to tell him off, to shout back at him, when she looked at him for the first time. Really looked at him.

The chocolate-brown eyes, the wavy black hair, the face that was meant to laugh, to smile.

A name came unbidden to her mind. Xander. Xander Harris.

And the red-haired woman she saw running from the arena. Willow Rosenberg.

She stumbled backward, trying not to faint, flailing desperately for something to hold her up. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t her world, it couldn’t be. She never met these people before, she didn’t live her, but she knew who these people were. She knew that the homeless man was a capable construction worker and a friend who would defend her with his last breath. And the timid young woman was a powerful witch with a strength that few could imagine.

But the redhead was a mousy woman, scared of her own shadow. And the young man a homeless wretch. This wasn’t right, a voice in her head screamed. This isn’t who you are, Buffy Summers!

Buffy ran. That’s all she could manage somehow. She had to get away from the homeless man, from the mousy woman. She ran. Unheeding of her surroundings she ran. She ran until her legs threatened to give out, until her lungs almost burst from the exertion. She ran until she literally couldn’t run any further. She then collapsed, her arms over cold marble, her breath in short gasps. Having the strength for nothing else, she wept.

"What the hell are you doing here?"

The voice shouting at her stirred her from her anguish. She looked around, surveying her surroundings. A cemetery. She glanced back to the marble she had been leaning against. A tombstone. She found herself reading the inscription on the stone, and blanched at the sight;

Joyce Summers
Beloved mother
1961 -- 2001

"Mom," she whispered, as she staggered to her feet. "My God, Mom!"


"I’m sure she’d be flattered that you remembered," the angry voice behind her spat out at her. Buffy spun on her heel to see her accuser. Dawn Summers stood there, a rose in her hand. Buffy wanted to hold her in her arms, to assure herself that she wasn’t going insane. But the cold glare from Dawn’s eyes made it clear that she would not allow Buffy to touch her, now or ever.

"Where the hell were you when they buried her?" Dawn asked as she bent down to place the rose on the grave. "Hell, where were you when she was dying? She cried out your name on her deathbed, but you weren’t there!"

"Dawn!" Buffy cried out, "I’m sorry, I had no idea!"

"Yeah, well too damn late!" Dawn shot back at her. "You wanted to be rid of her, of all of us! You weren’t there for any of us, not when Mom and Dad broke up, not when we moved her to Sunnyhell! The only thing that mattered to you was your damn Olympic skating! Yeah, well congratulations, Buffy! You got your damn medal, your ice shows, your name up in lights!"

"That’s not what I wanted, Dawn," Buffy wailed as she tried to take her sister’s arm. "I want what we had, what we were. I’m sorry, Dawn. For everything."

Dawn stood before Buffy for five seconds, the only sound heard being the rustling of poplar leaves around the cemetery. Dawn then glowered at Buffy, and her hand flew hard into Buffy’s face.

"All I want out of you, Buffy Summers," Dawn yelled, "is to know that you will never contact me as long as I live. You got out of my life, Buffy. Stay out!" Dawn ran away from Buffy, and all the former medallist could do was watch her leave forever.

Buffy stood alone in the cemetery, her desolation consuming her. Her mother was dead. Her sister despised her. Her career as a professional skater was, for what little it was, over. And she had not the slightest idea who she was.

"Well, well, well," a mellow voice intoned around her. "Isn’t this just lovely?" Buffy lifted her head, her cheek red from her sister’s slap, and beheld the figure standing before her. An attractive woman with chestnut hair, wearing a silken red dress. Her bearing and her manner spoke of a sense of superiority, and the gleam in her eyes spoke of a strange form of madness.

"Who are you?" Buffy asked the stranger.


The stranger laughed heartily at the sad young blond. "Who am I? Why don’t you start with figuring out who you are, then work your way up from there?"

"What are you doing here?"

"I’m just watching you fall apart, little skater," the woman smiled. "So this is how a celebrity falls. You strive hard, sacrificing family and friends, all that ever mattered to you in life, to achieve the highest honor you can aspire to, then bang, your fifteen minutes are up and you spend the rest of your life trying to recapture your former glory."

Glory. That one word stirred something in Buffy’s memory. She glared at her nemesis, for she knew that’s what this strange woman was, and smiled. "You’re Glory. You’re the one who tried to kill my sister! You used her blood to open a portal to Hell, to open the Hellmouth!"

Glory cast a puzzling look at Buffy. "Hellmouth? Oh, yes, that little delusion of yours. You think I’m real, you think I’m standing right in front of you. Got a secret to tell you, Buffy," she giggled. "It’s all in your mind, Buffy. I’m not here."

"But you are here," Buffy denied the woman feebly. "I can’t be imagining all this!"

"Oh but you are, my child," Glory scoffed the disturbed young woman. "I mean, how else do I know you so well? I’m just a part of your little delusion. That’s all this is, after all. Your little fantasy world where you no longer have to look at the miserable person you are. You’re not just a former athlete, a struggling talent on the professional circuit, but a great hero. The Chosen One, the Slayer. Trust me, dollface, no one would have chosen you for anything!"

"Look at yourself," Glory continued, taunting the fallen young woman, "a twenty-year-old woman who achieves success for a short period, but now struggles to relive that moment where you actually succeeded in life. A woman who gave up family and friends to make it to the Gold, only to find that they moved on without her, that she is no longer welcome in their lives. The day your mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor, you were giving a press conference discussing your joining the Stars On Ice tour. The day she went under the knife, you were making arrangements to sell clothes with your name on them at Wal-Mart. The day she died, you were in court, denying that you knew about the slave labor that was making your clothing. You’ve become nothing but a shallow, spiteful person, living on your former fame. And you hate that. You hate the loneliness, the solitude, the knowledge that no one would miss you if you died right now." Each hateful word cut into her heart, for she knew that they were the truth. She had accomplished nothing, and now she never would.

"You still have that knife in your purse, don’t you?" Glory asked soothingly. Buffy nodded blankly, taking the razor sharp knife out of her purse. "No one will care, you know. Just one quick swipe over the wrist, and it’ll be all over." Buffy dumbly took the knife’s handle in her right hand, and held the blade over her left wrist. She closed her eyes, and felt a strange peace steal over her. Soon, there would be nothing. No one would really mourn, no one would remember her. And Dawn would finally put her hatred behind her.

Dawn. Her sister.

A child who only existed because of magic.

Buffy slowly let go of the blade, letting it clatter to the ground. She looked at the dark form of Glory, taking a grim satisfaction at watching the triumphant smile fade from her face. A thousand memories flooded her mind, assailed her soul. Dark and light, joy and sorrow, all revealed themselves in Buffy’s mind. And all these memories, Buffy knew to be true, and with that knowledge came epiphany. There was only one reaction that Buffy could envision.

She laughed almost hysterically. "Oh, hohoho, nice try, Glory. You almost had me there. But this world, this is the lie. My world is the truth. And in my world, Glory," Buffy shouted out at her enemy, "you’re dead!"

Glory snarled at Buffy, shouting back at her, "Well, so are you! Remember, you died to shut the portal I created!"

"I can live with that," Buffy stated simply.

Glory screamed with rage, her final effort to destroy the Slayer’s soul ending in failure. She raised her arms over her head, her hands balled into fists, and the ground shook. The distance seemed to shimmer, to crumble away, as Glory’s created reality crashed down around them. "Too late, Slayer!" Glory screamed. "I may be going down, but I’ll take you with me!" The ground beneath them split in two, leaving an enormous crevasse between Buffy and Glory. The mad goddess laughed, as Buffy struggled to regain her footing under the shaky ground beneath her.

Buffy looked into the abyss that formed near her feet, the endless descent into blackness, into-- she didn’t know what. She raised her head, regarding the defeated Glory with a serene smile. "It’s a leap of faith," she said simply.

And she stepped forward into the abyss.

And she fell...

And she fell...

========

"Good dream, bro," Death nodded, smiling happily. "Her soul has been refreshed, now her life will continue."

"May I ask how, sister dear?" Morpheus asked, lifting his eyes from his dream window.

"It’ll be tricky, that’s all I can tell you," Death shrugged her shoulders. "As of now, it’s out of my hands. All I know is that she’ll survive. And hopefully she’ll be better prepared for living the second part of her life." Death and Dream sat silently, contemplating Buffy’s future. There was no guarantee that her life would be easy, or that she would survive the ordeal of her second birth. But knowing her spirit, and knowing that she would fight against the darkness every step of the way, the two Endless would be more than willing to place their bets on Buffy Summers.

"Your death was your gift, Buffy," Death stated solemnly. "Now it’s my turn to give you a gift. A gift I almost never give anyone else. A second chance."

 

Chapter 2

Wonderful

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I close my eyes when I get too sad,
I think thoughts that I know are bad,

Close my eyes and I count to ten,

Hope it’s over when I open them.

I want the things that I had before,

Like a Star Wars poster on my bedroom door;

I wish I could count to ten,

Make everything be wonderful again.

Promises mean everything when you’re little,

And the world’s so big.

I just don’t understand how

You can smile with all those tears in your eyes,

Tell me everything is wonderful now.

—Everclear

"Wonderful"

Dawn sat in the waiting room of the law office, thumbing through the four-month old People magazine for the sixteenth time. She kept gravitating to the movie review section, where their critic gave a positive review to the movie "Spy Kids". She threw the magazine away in disgust; when the commercials for "Spy Kids" first aired on television, Dawn had wanted more than anything to see it. Her mom had promised to take her to see it when it premiered. Two weeks before it opened, she and Buffy buried their mother.

Two weeks later, Buffy had promised to take her to see "Spy Kids", once the situation with Glory had been resolved. Now Buffy was dead as well.

And she was waiting outside a law office where her father was trying to claim custody of her, away from Rupert Giles, the man who had taken care of her for the last month, after Buffy died. Considering that her so-called ‘father’ had all but abandoned his family five years ago, she had no desire to go anywhere with him. Then there was the issue that Hank Summers had never actually met her, considering that the monks who ‘created’ her and everyone’s memories of her only a year ago, long after he abdicated his position as father.

Now, three months after he ignored her mom’s death, one month after Buffy’s funeral had passed without so much as a condolence card from him, Hank Summers was in town, planning to take her to Los Angeles, away from Giles. He offered to take her to see "Spy Kids", but she turned the offer down.

Dawn never wanted to see "Spy Kids" as long as she lived. And she sure as hell never wanted to see it with Hank.

========

"Thank you for meeting me here, Mr. Giles," Hank Summers greeted Giles with a warm handshake, which was returned stiffly. "Perhaps we can come to an arrangement without bringing the lawyers into it.

"I don’t want to make this difficult, Mr. Giles," Hank said as he sat down at the conference table. Giles sat opposite him, a baleful look coloring his normally stoic features. "May I call you Rupert? I mean, we can all be friends here."

"Mr. Summers," Giles regarded his opponent in this matter with a glower that would intimidate a Jachyra demon, "few people call me Rupert. My friends call me simply Giles. And if I may dispel your misunderstanding of this situation, you are not now, nor shall you ever be, anything that could ever be mistaken for my friend."

Hank sat back, hiding his startlement; when he first met Rupert Giles, he seemed to have the word ‘pushover’ written across his brow. He thought he had appraised his adversary in this matter; a studious, calm Brit with no steel in his spine. Now he was no longer certain. He decided to go for the throat.

"Very well, Mr. Giles," Hank answered, "then let’s not b.s. each other anymore. My reason for coming here is simple. Dawn is my daughter. She is the only family I have left. I feel that it would be beneficial for both of us if I were to take custody of her as soon as possible."

Giles leaned forward in his seat. "Funny, I believe it would be in Dawn’s best interest if you were to crawl back under the rock that spawned you and stayed the hell out of her life!"

"Mr. Giles," Hank struggled mightily to keep a veneer of control over his emotions, "I don’t understand this hostility you seem to have toward me."

"You don’t understand, Mr. Summers?" Giles asked. "Let me enlighten you. In the last three years, you have had minimal contact with either Dawn or Buffy." Not exactly the truth, Giles admitted to himself, considering that Dawn only existed for the last year. But considering that the monks that created her had seeded the minds of all those were necessary to maintain that fiction with memories of her, it made perfect sense that Hank would remember her as well. And the fact that no one’s memories of Dawn included any evidence that Hank was a part of her life since the Summers women first moved to Sunnydale, well, that sadly made perfect sense, and was true to Hank’s character.

"Look, buddy," Hank replied, his anger fueling his resolve to get Dawn for himself, "you can blame Joyce for that. She practically threatened to hand me my balls if I ever came near them again!"

"I was unaware you had any, Mr. Summers," Giles was still the master at calm expression, even though his insides were seething with a desire to see how high this fat fool would bounce off the table. "Joyce and I have maintained a close friendship over the last few years of her life, given my status as one of Buffy’s teachers, and an informal mentor to her. In that time, Joyce has often complained that you chose to sever all ties between yourself and your girls. She had given you every opportunity to have a relationship with Buffy and Dawn, but you chose to neglect them. It was you, Mr. Summers, not Joyce who was responsible for that gulf. And to blame her now, after her death, is reprehensible. Especially since you didn’t even choose to contact Buffy and Dawn after their mother’s death. And, now that I think of it, where were you when your eldest daughter was buried?"

"Buffy made it clear that she didn’t want me in her life, Mr. Giles," Hank glowered from across the table, "and I had no choice to respect her decision. She was a grown woman, wasn’t she?"

"Only for the last two years, Mr. Summers," Giles glowered back, fire flashing in his eyes, "and she wasn’t the one who severed the relationship. You abandoned her and Dawn, and I won’t give you the opportunity to abandon Dawn again."

"Look, buddy," Hank snarled at his adversary, "you don’t have any say in the matter. I’m taking Dawn away from here, and making sure that Buffy’s freak friends don’t come near her. Get it? I only wish that I could have gotten here sooner before Buffy had that two months with her. I may be able to undo the damage that Buffy’s already done, but I’ll be damned if I let that loser Xander or those two dykes near her again!"

Giles fought hard to restrain the Ripper within in him, to rein in his growing desire to bounce this fat fool off of every wall in the office. "I won’t even bother to defend Buffy’s friends against you, since you are patently beneath them. However, I will confess that one of her friends, Willow to be exact, had on occasion performed slightly illegal acts. Computer hacking, for a start." He produced a folder, displaying some forms and documents. "She’s the red-haired ‘dyke’, in case you were wondering. And she found some interesting facts about you, Mr. Summers. For example, it seems that you have some debts incurred from gambling, let’s see," he searched his papers for the proper figures, "Ah yes, a recent horse race. You took out a loan to place a sizable bet on a ‘sure thing’. Your ‘sure thing’ pulled up lame in the first lap." He regarded Hank’s face, enjoying the sheen of sweat that was forming on his brow. "What did you have in mind, Hank? Planned on getting your hands on Dawn’s trust fund?"

Hank sputtered at the accusation. "If you think that I would even consider touching that $15,000, you don’t know me at all!"

"And how did you know how much was in the trust fund?" Giles accused. "You hadn’t spoken once to Joyce, Buffy or Dawn in the last year, and Joyce only set up the trust fund two months prior to her death, after the initial tumor scare!"

Hank stared silently at Giles, who only looked back at him with cold contempt in his eyes. He sagged his shoulders as the gaunt Englishman glared at him. "Look, Mr. Giles, I’ve had some financial reversals, sure, but hey, who hasn’t? I’ll get back on my feet, no problem. Just give me a chance—"

Hank suddenly found his face flattened against wood paneling, as Giles threw him hard against the wall. He had heard more than enough from this idiot. "You disgust me, Hank Summers! I am amazed that such a loathsome individual as yourself could ever be the father of a fine woman like Buffy Summers!" He grabbed Hank’s arm, wrenching it painfully behind his back, twisting hard enough to nearly break bones. "What was the plan, Summers? Loot Dawn’s trust fund and then abandon her? I won’t give you the chance to do that, Summers! Do you hear me?" When Hank didn’t reply fast enough, Giles twisted his arm harder. "DO YOU HEAR ME?"

Two months ago, Rupert Giles had strangled an innocent man named Ben, a man whose only crime was that he had been used as a host form for the goddess Glory. And this was someone he had grown to respect. Hank, he didn’t even have respect to back him up. And now, as Giles knee was grinding hard into his back, Hank Summers was forced to realize that he had sorely misjudged Rupert Giles.

"Here’s how we will resolve this matter, Mr. Summers," Giles hissed, spitting out the man’s name like it was the most vile of epitaphs. "You will leave this office, return to your hotel, pack your things and board the next available plane out of Sunnydale. You will not seek to contact Dawn Summers, ever, under any circumstances. You gave up any rights you ever had to call her your daughter. As far as she is concerned you are dead. And if I find out that you have gone against my orders in this matter, well, even if the authorities ever find your remains, they won’t be able to identify them. Do I make myself clear?"

Giles loosened his grip enough for Hank to look at his face. Hank looked into Giles’ eyes, for any sign that he was bluffing. He found none, and lowered his head in defeat. "As crystal, Mr. Giles," he murmured. "As crystal."

Giles threw Hank against the wall one last time, for good measure. "Get out of my sight," Giles muttered harshly, without any show of emotion. He straightened the lapels of his tweed jacket, and left the office, and the shattered man behind him.

He took Dawn silently by the hand and the two of them left for Giles’s car. Giles turned quietly toward Dawn, saying, "I am sorry that you had to bear any witness to what had happened. I am aware that he is your father, but..."

"Funny, I’m not," Dawn snorted angrily at Giles. "He made his choice. I don’t really matter to him. I’m just sorry that I didn’t get a lick in at him." It saddened Giles a little to hear Dawn speak of her father with such contempt, but he sagely recalled that the man had brought this upon himself.

"So, Dawn," Giles asked, "where to now?"

"How about England?" Dawn suggested softly. Giles was taken aback at her suggestion. Dawn looked up at the former librarian’s face, and asked, "Weren’t you offered a position on the Watcher’s Council? I heard you talking to Willow and Tara about it the other day."

Giles regarded the young woman cautiously. So much like her older sister, always listening when she wasn’t supposed to. "I was offered a position on the Watcher’s Council, yes," Giles admitted. "But I didn’t want to risk losing custody of you. And I certainly have no intention of uprooting you so abruptly from your life here in Sunnydale."

"My life?" Dawn harrumphed. "No one lives in Sunnydale, Giles. They just die here. Mom died here. Buffy died here. I don’t want to die here." She looked Giles straight in the eyes, and Giles could see the tears that marred her cheeks. "Xander’s talking about opening a construction company in Seattle and moving there with Anya. Willow and Tara’ll probably move away soon. There’s nothing here for us. I can’t live here, Giles." She cried openly now, pleading with the Watcher. "Wherever we live, whatever happens next, let’s do it as far from this hell as possible."

Giles wrapped his arms around her fiercely, driven by a paternal need to protect her from all horrors, from without as well as from within. "Yes, Dawn," he promised, "we will leave this town." He let her cry on his shoulder a while longer, before offering to take her out for some ice cream. Not that ice cream would cure all their ills, but there was something in a simple pleasure, what Buffy frequently referred to as ‘comfort food’, that helped to put things into perspective.

He knew that simply leaving the place where Dawn lost her family wouldn’t solve all her anxieties, wouldn’t calm all her fears. But perhaps, it would provide them both with a fresh start.

========

He scanned the surroundings, his eyes level and unreadable, as he sought the familiar cave opening. After locating it, he headed for the cave slowly, methodically. This was madness, he knew that, but he had reconciled himself to this course of action. It was the only way to make right what had gone wrong.

He knew now the flaw in the original experiments. Using body parts from Hostiles, trying to create a perfect soldier from spare parts, hot-wired together with computer components. Sheer folly. Only a single body, one of great strength would survive the rigors of the restoration process. But it had to be human, not demon. You can’t expect human reactions or human responses from something that was never human to begin with.

But the new test body was fully human. Broken, damaged, but still human. It would work with her.

He located the entrance, hidden to resemble the rock wall of the cave. Voice code and password were required. He gave his name, and then the password; "A Modern Prometheus."

The door opened slowly, and he entered the familiar passageway. He thought he would never enter this room again. And he certainly never thought that the facility would be active as it was now. Scientists scurried to and fro, under the baleful electronic eye of a security camera. The senior scientist for the organization turned and saw the young man who entered the lab. "Ah, you’ve arrived," he said, as he offered the young man a handshake.

"I wish that the reunion was under kinder circumstances," the young soldier replied. "But if I can aid in the success of your mission, consider me at your disposal."

"Be assured, my son, you’re hardly disposable in this venture," the scientist assured him. "Welcome back to the Initiative, Lieutenant Riley Finn."

========

He stood alone, a solitary figure in a desert. Level sands stretching far from horizon to horizon. He felt that he should be sweltering in his tweed jacket, but somehow felt a chill in his very soul. Not knowing where he was, uncertain of direction in the blinding sun, he decided to walk in one direction, hoping to find a clue to his whereabouts.

Preferably before dehydration became an issue.

Bathically, he recalled the song, "Horse with No Name" by the sixties band America, and the comment by a stand-up comic; "You’re in the desert, there’s nothing else to do, name the darn horse!"

He kept his head looking forward, neither looking to his right nor his left. He walked with purpose, somehow intuiting that this was the proper direction for him to travel. So he was surprised when, after a few minutes of walking, he no longer stood in the desert, but in a cemetery. Glancing to the left, he saw an all-too familiar stone, and fought back a wave of sorrow and anger as he read the inscription;

Buffy Anne Summers
Born 1981 Died 2001
She Saved the World.

A Lot

"Too young," he whispered, as grief threatened to consume him. "Too damn young." Not for the first time, he cursed himself for his role in her life. If he had left her alone, perhaps she would have lived a normal life, free of the responsibilities, the heritage, the premature death, which came with being the slayer. He cursed himself promptly for entertaining these thoughts; in the end, she took the responsibility willingly, doing what she had to do for the greater good.

He paused long enough to pay his respects to the tomb, but then his ears perked at a sudden sound. He turned around, bracing himself for any manner of attack, be it mugger or vampire. "Show yourself," he intoned darkly.

Something jumped in front of him, as shadowed as the road in front of her. Something that seemed to be part of the darkness around her. Giles had seen this figure once before in a dream. The Primal Slayer.

She crouched before him, her posture challenging and threatening, yet at the same time reverent toward Giles. She straightened up and approached the Watcher, her every movement graceful and catlike, powerful and predatory. She stared hard at him, and for a second, Giles thought he could see Buffy’s charcoal-blue eyes peering at him out of the Slayers’ face. She sniffed him, and growled lowly. "You must keep this," she grunted. "When the time comes, you will know." She placed a gnarled hand on his head, and Giles felt a power, an energy, surge from her hand into him. The energy fused with him, consuming him from the inside out. Wracked with terrible pain, he screamed...

========

He woke suddenly, his heart pounding wildly in his chest. He glanced furtively at his surroundings, taking relief in the familiar trappings of his bedroom. He forced his breathing to slow, his heart to calm. He relaxed and forced himself to recall the dream. The Primal Slayer had appeared to him before, as well as Xander, Willow and Buffy. They took it as a sign of their future. A portent of events to come. Was the Primal Slayer trying to warn him about something again? What gift did she give him? And why did she meet him at Buffy’s grave?

He slowly rose from his bed and left for the kitchen. There was no way he could sleep now, so he decided to pour himself a cup of tea. Nothing stimulated Giles’ mind like a cup of Earl Grey. Even if Xander tended to crack Star Trek jokes over his choice of beverage.

It was a sign, he thought as he sipped his tea. He had no other explanation for his dreaming about the Primal Slayer, and Buffy’s gravestone. He wondered if the others were experiencing similar dreams. He would have to ask them about it later.

Somewhere outside of time, the shadowy figure of Morpheus smiled, and continued to craft his dreams. One down, two to go.

 

(Author’s Note; the following chapter contains characters and situations created and owned by Don Belisario.)

Chapter Three

Finding Your Way to Superman

You gotta be tough to make it today
You do it your way and not how they say
You gotta be tough to make it today
And never be scared of finding your way
to Superman

—Alanis Morrisette

"Superman"

Superman never made any money
Saving the world from Solomon Grundy
And sometimes I despair the world will never see
Another man like him

—Crash Test Dummies

"Superman’s Song"

One week ago;

Willow stared across the table at the two strangers who called themselves her parents. Ira was talking about some new investment, while Sheila offered her some overcooked potatoes to go with her pot roast. Willow ate the potatoes without tasting them. Truth be told, she probably wouldn’t have noticed if she had bitten into a raw harbeñero pepper. For nearly two months, she had been unable to feel anything. The person who brought her to her true family was gone.

And now she was having dinner with strangers.

"Willow," Ira glanced at the young redhead, "you didn’t tell us what happened to you last quarter. Any new friends, any interesting classes?"

Willow had lost count of the number of times she told Ira about her friends, about her classes, only to have him forget what she said almost as she said it. She just grunted an affirmative, saying, "Nothing different, Dad," she muttered. "Still taking my drama classes, some computer stuff."

"Figures," he said resignedly. "Still wasting your scholarship on that acting nonsense. Nothing worthwhile, nothing useful."

Useful? she thought angrily, despairing that she would ever win this man’s approval, wondering if she really wanted it. You mean like spellcasting, demon hunting, saving the world, that sort of thing? No, nothing useful in that!

"Please, Ira," Sheila chided her husband, "show some sympathy. After all, Willow’s friend died last month. You remember, Bunny?"

"Buffy," Willow quietly corrected her mother, only to be ignored completely. So what else is new?

"You mean that troublemaker she used to room with?" Ira glared hard at his daughter. "You’re better off without her, Willow." Willow seethed at each word, her anger burning white-hot in her gut.

"Dear, be nice," Sheila corrected Ira in a sickly sweet tone of voice that just added to Willow’s anger. "No matter what kind of bad seed she was, Bunny was Willow’s friend."

"Some friend," Ira bellowed. "Always getting her into trouble in high school, you know she blew the school up during her graduation. I’m glad she’s out of our daughter’s life! She was no good from the start!"

"She was ten times better than either one of you."

Ira and Sheila stopped cold in their tracks, unable to believe that Willow would say what she said. Ira turned slowly to Willow and asked, in a voice that reminded Willow of the ten seconds before a terrible thunderstorm; "Would you care to repeat yourself, Willow Rosenberg?"

Willow locked eyes with her father, and saw nothing but the contempt of a small man for something he didn’t understand. In a brief epiphany, Willow cursed herself for ever wanting this man’s favor. "You heard me, Ira Rosenberg. She was ten -- no, a hundred -- times better than the both of you!" Turning toward Sheila, she raged, "And her name, for the very last time, was BUFFY, not Bunny!"

A horrified couple stared at their defiant daughter for five long seconds, before Ira growled in barely contained rage; "I accept that you’re still in mourning for your friend, Willow, so I will excuse this outburst. This time. But perhaps it would be better for all of us if you were to leave for the evening, and return when you’re in a more civil state of mind."

Willow stood up from the table, her anger becoming action. "You’re right, Ira. I should leave. And by ‘leave’, I mean leave this family. Not that we ever were a family, more like three people who barely tolerated each other for twenty years! Tell me, was there ever a time when I was more than an afterthought in your lives? No, don’t bother, I know the answer." She picked up her purse and her windbreaker, and headed for the door. Before she opened the door, she turned back to her scandalized parents. "Starting as soon as I walk out this door, Mr. and Mrs. Rosenberg, I plan to forget I ever knew you. And I’m sure you’ll have no trouble forgetting that you ever knew me. Because you never made the effort to know me, really." Ira and Sheila didn’t speak at all, didn’t move at all, made no gesture to stop their daughter from severing all ties with them. Willow took this as the final sign that she had no family here anymore. Oddly, she didn’t feel any sorrow at the prospect. She didn’t feel much of anything, except the need to give them one last shock.

As she walked out the door of her childhood home for the very last time, Willow turned back to look at her former parents. Smiling sweetly, she announced, "Oh, and one more thing, before I walk out of your lives forever. In case I didn’t mention it before now, I’m a lesbian. ‘Bye!" She slammed the door behind her, and marched back to the apartment she shared with Tara McClay, not once looking behind her.

She had burned a bridge and there was no going back.

========

One week later;

Three newly risen vamps emerged from the graves directly in front of her. She had seen this sort of thing all too often in the last five years of her life. And she was certain she would see it many times again in the future. The price of living in Sunnydale, of knowing what lay beneath the suburban facade.

"Okay, help me out here, I keep forgetting," she smiled as the vamp trio stalked toward her. "Which one of you’s Larry and which one’s Moe? I got that the bald one’s Curly--" The bald vamp lunged artlessly at her, telegraphing his attack enough for her to dodge easily. She was amazed that neither of Curly’s compatriots had the foresight to take advantage of the attack and follow after her. Counting her blessings, she concentrated briefly, summoning her powers.

"Lumen Solaris!" she shouted, and suddenly night became day for a brief instant. A ball of pure light appeared in her hands, it’s flash resembling the sun, both in brightness and in the effect it had on the three vampires. The light-spell was designed to emit not only visible light but ultra-violet radiation, in a sufficient quantity to render all vampires within a ten-foot radius of the light to ash. Within seconds, only a lone woman stood at the cemetery, the three attackers were destroyed.

She pointed her finger up in front of her lips and blew across the fingertip, in imitation of a gunslinger blowing the smoke off a recently-fired pistol. Willow finished up her patrol, and returned to her apartment, hoping not to awaken her roommate.

Her efforts to enter quietly were to no avail; Tara had been awake and waiting for Willow to return. "Hard day at the office, sweetie?" Tara asked as she embraced her beloved. Willow luxuriated in her lover’s arms, grateful for this brief respite in her life. She leaned into Tara’s embrace almost automatically, enjoyed the sensation of her lips brushing lightly against Tara’s, but she sensed a tenseness in her arms.

And not for the first time. Since she started going out at night, patrolling the local cemeteries, Tara seemed somewhat withdrawn from her. Like she was keeping her feelings to herself regarding Willow’s decision to follow in Buffy’s footsteps as Sunnydale’s local defender. She had assured Willow that she was cool with her decision, but Willow still wondered.

She sought to assure her beloved that she was fine. "Not too terrible. Three newbies risen, three newbies dusted," Willow reported. "All in all, a quiet patrol. I think they’re laying low after Glory’s fall."

"Let’s hope so," Tara said quietly. "After all, there isn’t a new Slayer being called."

Willow nodded sadly at Tara’s words; two days ago, Giles reported that there was no new slayer called after Buffy’s death. Evidently, Faith was now the Slayer, and with her being in jail, Sunnydale was without a protector.

Not as long as I’m around, Willow silently swore.

"Oh," Tara announced as she left Willow’s embrace, "I just got off the phone with Mr. Giles. He was able to win custody of Dawn away from Mr. Summers. Evidently they settled out of court." She left the sentence hanging with a crook of her eyebrow, which made Willow wonder.

"Oh?" she asked Tara. "What happened, did he go all Ripper on him?" Tara suddenly seemed intently interested in a corner of the ceiling, which Willow took as a sign that she was not at liberty to answer her question. "Right," she said, "I’ll shut up now."

"Don’t worry, Willow," Tara assured her, "Mr. Giles told me it was all civil. Mr. Summers is on a bus back to L. A., and Giles is talking about taking Dawn with him to England."

This surprised Willow, she never expected that Dawn would be leaving them so soon after Buffy’s death. "What do you mean, Tara? Why’s Giles going back to England?"

Tara lowered her head slightly, a serious cast over her face. "He told me that he was offered a position on the Watcher’s Council. I don’t know all the details, but he said that Dawn was happy to hear about it. She wants a change of scene, I guess. After all that happened to us, to her especially, I guess I can’t blame her."

Willow lowered her head in sorrow. "Poor Dawnie," she whispered hoarsely. Buffy may have been her dearest friend, but she was Dawn’s sister. The only real family Dawn had left. She could only imagine how hard the younger Summers girl was feeling. And perhaps it was right for Dawn to start afresh in some other place. But Willow knew that she wasn’t looking forward to seeing Dawn leave. Dawn was Willow’s last link to Buffy. That and the fight.

"It’ll be good for them, really," Tara assured Willow. "After all that’s happened to them, I can’t blame them for wanting to leave." Turning toward her dresser, Tara continued, "Maybe that’s what we all need. I mean, Xander was talking about that new Seattle job he was offered, Giles and Dawnie are heading to England, maybe we all need a new start."

Willow regarded Tara warily, unsure of this thread of conversation. "What do you mean, Tara?"

Tara turned to Willow, and handed her a brochure. "I want you to look at this, honey." Willow took the brochure in her hand and looked at it; "University of California Berkeley 2001-2002".

Willow looked intently at her lover as they sat on the edge of their bed together, seeking Tara’s eyes for understanding. "I spoke with some people on the Wicca World chat room who attend Berkeley. There’s a strong alternative religious base there, many prominent wiccan groups and covens. And they have an excellent dramatic arts program there. You could continue your major, we could keep up with our wiccan studies, we can be together."

Willow gazed sadly at Tara, then wrapped an arm around her shoulder protectively. "We are together now. I don’t see that changing in the near future. But I don’t know if I want to uproot so suddenly. I mean, I was born here, I lived here all my life. Sunnydale’s my home."

"What kind of home is this place anyway?" Tara’s outburst caught Willow by surprise. "Just last week you severed all your ties to your folks. Buffy’s gone, Xander, Giles and Dawn are leaving, what’s keeping you here? What’s keeping us here?"

Willow lowered her head, unsure of how she would phrase this, unsure of how Tara would respond. "I gotta stay here. I feel --- I, I feel that something’s not finished. Like the Goddess has some mission for me here, and I gotta stay here, to see it through. To do what the Goddess has planned for me."

"Is that why you’ve been going on graveyard patrols ever since you left your folks?"

Willow wasn’t prepared for the accusatory tone of the question, but she didn’t challenge Tara. "Maybe, I dunno. But I do know that I have abilities that I can use to make a difference. And I gotta try. It’s like my mandate from the Goddess, like a message from Her to do good in the world."

Tara regarded Willow’s face, seeing the underlying seriousness, the firm determined set in her jawline, the steel gaze of her jade eyes. Willow wasn’t lying to her, Tara knew that. The last thing Willow would knowingly do is lie to her. But she still wasn’t satisfied with the answer. "I think I got my message from the Goddess loud and clear a couple of months ago. From a goddess, at any rate." She flopped back on the bed, sighing almost inaudibly. "From Glory."

Willow nodded without speaking. Ever since that last terrible month, Tara has had that same recurring nightmare. Glory, the insane deity, her hands clamping down on Tara’s head. Tara screaming as her mind, her essence, her very self was being sucked out of her to feed the mad goddess, until Tara was locked up inside of her own head, unable to contact the ones she cared for, unable to communicate lucidly on any level. Trapped in a wilderness of mirrors, while her body was babbling incoherently, like a madwoman. Even after Willow helped restore her sanity, the memory of that time of sheer helplessness was eating away at her.

"Tara," Willow soothed her dearest love, her voice as gentle and loving as she could manage, "it’s all right. I’ll always be there when you awaken, you’ll beat those nightmares. We’ll beat them, together."

Tara looked back at Willow, and the tears in Tara’s eyes caused the redhead to ache for her. "You were my lifeline, Wills. You pulled me out of my madness. And I don’t want to wait until it’s too late to pull you out of this madness." She sat up, her version of "Resolve Face" in place. "Let’s transfer to Berkeley. It’ll be good for both of us. Just to get away from here. From this Helltown."

Willow shook her head, fearing what her decision would do to Tara. "I can’t, honey," she murmured. "Sunnydale’s my home. And it was Buffy’s home. If nothing else, I owe it to her to try and help." As Tara looked away from Willow, the redhead tried to assure her. "Don’t worry, honey. Sunnydale’s still a good college. We can still take those classes we were talking about, I’ll still get my B.A. in Drama, maybe go for a Masters--"

"I already started the paperwork for my transfer."

The words left Tara’s mouth as a whisper, so soft that almost anyone else wouldn’t have heard them. Only someone who was familiar with Tara’s ways, with her voice, with her heart would have comprehended what Tara had just said.

Someone like Willow Rosenberg.

The silence hung over them like a blade, tethered to the ceiling by a piece of string. Willow feared that every word, every syllable, spoken between them would fray that string, until the blade fell, cutting off their heads. Or separating them forever.

Even under the most ironclad levels of control she could muster, a tinge of anger entered Willow’s voice; "And you were going to bring this up when?"

"I-I’m s-sorry," Tara stammered, "I w-was going to tell you, but you’ve b-been gone all these nights." Tara sat there, looking more and more miserable. Even as angry as she was, Willow couldn’t help but feel sympathy. "Out all nights, stalking vamps and demons, trying to take over as the Slayer. News flash, Willow, you’re not the Slayer! The Slayer’s dead!"

"I know she’s dead!" Willow snarled at Tara, and immediately regretted it. Calming herself, she tried to offer an arm around Tara’s shoulder, but the blond wiccan shrugged it off. "I’m not trying to be the Slayer, I just want to make a difference. Why can’t you support me in this? Why are you leaving me?"

"I’m not leaving you, Willow, I’m leaving this place. Sunnydale is damned, we both know this. Let it rot, I say, the rest of the world will survive without it."

Willow chuckled ruefully, mirthlessly. "If only it worked that way, hon. Look, as long as the Hellmouth’s here, it’s a threat to the world. Buffy knew this. That’s why she couldn’t leave. And that’s why I couldn’t leave here either, I guess. She was my friend, I couldn’t let her fight this evil alone. And I can’t just let it go now, even after she died. I owe it to her. I’m sorry, Tara, I wish I could explain it better..." She simply stopped the sentence there. She simply couldn’t say any more.

She didn’t need to, her word was clear. Tara lowered her head, saddened by what was happening to her and Willow, feeling torn apart by a hundred conflicting emotions. Tentatively, she reached out to touch the outline of Willow’s cheek, and Willow leaned into her love’s hand. "You’re so much like her, Willow," Tara whispered. "And I wish with all my heart I could be more like you. But I’m not. I’m not a hero, I think we proved that with Glory. I just want to live. I want us to be alive, together. And I can’t spend the rest of my life living in her shadow." She shook her head, wishing the tears could stop flowing. "She gave up her life to save Dawn, to save us, to save the world. How the hell can I compete with that?"

"It’s not a competition," Willow gently placed her thumb under Tara’s eye, wiping away her tears. "Yes, she saved the world. You’re part of that world, part of my world. Don’t say goodbye to that, not now."

"Come with me to Berkeley, Willow."

"Stay with me, Tara."

The two women sat silently, eyes locked. Whether in passion or in confrontation, neither could say. Finally, Willow bent her head, and whispered, "I understand, Tara. You gotta do what’s right for you. I just don’t want to lose you."

"You haven’t lost me, Willow," Tara assured Willow, taking her into her embrace. "I promise you that. I mean it’s not like I’m moving to another hemisphere. Berkeley’s just a short drive from here, y’know."

"Yeah," Willow acknowledged sadly, but managed to smile at Tara. "We can visit each other on weekends, that sort of thing."

"And we still have a couple of months before I have to leave for Berkeley."

Willow regarded Tara with a lustful gaze. "Then we’d better not waste a second." She held Tara tightly, their lips met in a languorous kiss, and the two of them enjoyed the close contact, first for comfort, then in passion.

Ever since Tara found out that Willow had shared the responsibilities of Buffy’s heritage as the Slayer, she was in awe of this woman. She felt kind of like Lois Lane, falling in love with a superhero, and finding that Superman (or Superwoman in this case) returned her affections. But now she had seen the darker side of being Superman. She wasn’t as brave as Willow, she still held fear for the local evils, and she still felt the scars from her bout of insanity following her confrontation with Glory. As much as she loved Willow, those fears would always be with her. She was no hero; she was just Tara.

For now, in the promise of passion within Willow’s arms, she let go of her fears, if only for a little while. The two of them were facing an uncertain future, but for now, facing it together.

========

JAG headquarters, Arlington, Virginia;

"Lieutenant Graham," Colonel Sarah MacKenzie entered the office, and the lieutenant stood sharply at attention at her entrance. The colonel cocked her eyebrow amusedly. "At ease, soldier, before you sprain something."

"Yes, ma’am." The lieutenant answered as he shifted to the more relaxed posture of ‘at ease’.

"Lieutenant," Mackenzie greeted Graham crisply. "Admiral Chegwidden will see you now. If you’ll follow me," she led the way to the Admiral’s office, the lieutenant following behind. He felt a slight sense of dread; his being summoned to Arlington merely confirmed in his mind the fear he had regarding his friend and fellow soldier.

They entered the Admiral’s office, and the admiral greeted them formally. Abner Jethro Chegwidden was a former Navy Seal, and despite his years, he was still in prime condition, both in mind and body. He was well in his fifties, but he could still conceivably kick the sixes of most every person currently stationed at the Judge Advocate General’s Headquarters. Meeting him that first time, Lieutenant Graham had no doubt that the admiral could kick his six without breaking a sweat.

The other man in the room looked less formidable, but Graham still kept a wary eye on him. "Lieutenant," Admiral Chegwidden introduced the other gentleman, "this is Clayton Webb, CIA. Mr. Webb has some questions to ask you concerning your fellow officer, Lieutenant Riley Finn."

"Yes sir, Admiral," Graham answered. Webb, looking not too comfortable in his suit, looked at the young man, and informed him, "According to our intell, Mr. Finn was on leave for six days. That was two weeks ago. He is now officially listed as AWOL."

"If you say so, sir," Graham answered noncommittally.

"Relax, son, you’re not being accused of anything. We just need some information from you. Now then, do you happen to remember whether he had received some distressing news prior to his leave?"

"Yes sir," Graham said. "We had just returned from a mission in Belize, and he had received a letter from someone he knew from Sunnydale, California. Mr. Rupert Giles, I think."

"Do you happen to know what the letter was about?"

"Mr. Giles wrote to inform Riley that his ex-girlfriend, Buffy, was dead."

Clayton Webb stopped short of asking if this ‘Buffy’ person’s last name happened to be ‘Summers’; he knew about Miss Summers, from a few dossiers from the Initiative. "How did Finn take the news about Buffy’s death?"

"It hit him pretty hard, sir. Our C.O. gave him a week’s leave to go to Sunnydale, to mourn her, I guess. That was two weeks ago."

Webb looked at the lieutenant for a second without expression. "During the last month or so, have you received any messages from the Initiative, or any of its senior officers?"

"No sir."

"The Initiative, Webb?" Colonel Mackenzie asked. "May I ask what this is about?"

"You may, Mac," Webb answered casually. Graham had correctly guessed that the colonel and Mr. Webb knew each other, and the Marine was no fan of the CIA official. "But since it’s strictly need-to-know, it wouldn’t do much good."

"I never did like this spook stuff," Chegwidden glowered at Webb, but let him continue.

"Under the circumstances, A.J," Webb smiled at the admiral, imaging that he could hear the old man’s teeth grinding, "I can tell you that the Initiative was involved in some clandestine experiments, unfortunately most proved not only unsuccessful but entirely unethical. The Initiative was disbanded, their base was torn down and the land was salted. However, I fear that some of the higher-ranking members of the Initiative have regrouped, deserting their posts in the process. Judging from what I dug up on them, and the reports of Lieutenant Finn’s desertion, I fear that Finn is part of the conspiracy." Turning to Colonel Mackenzie, he finished, "We need someone associated with the Initiative to find out whether their projects have indeed been restarted, and if so, we need to pull the plug. If you and Harm are available, Mac, I’d like you and the Lieutenant to report to Sunnydale to investigate."

MacKenzie’s eyebrows furrowed at the mention of her partner and friend. "Commander Rabb is unavailable, Webb. He’s still on sick leave, recovering from having to bail from his fighter into a heavy storm over the Atlantic. However, I’m ready to go on the next flight to Sunnydale."

"Permission to speak freely, Admiral," Graham requested suddenly. Chegwidden nodded silently, and Graham continued; "I was with the Initiative originally, and I know what it was about. And trust me, sirs, it wasn’t pretty. There’s a lot of stuff going on in Sunnydale that doesn’t get recorded. I think it would be better if I went in alone. If Finn’s there, I’ll find out."

"I don’t feel comfortable leaving you there alone, Lieutenant," Chegwidden answered.

"I have connections there that may help me," Graham answered. ‘Yeah, assuming that Buffy’s friends won’t stake me on sight. After what the Initiative nearly did to them, I wouldn’t blame them.’ "And the Colonel could remain in Los Angeles or San Francisco, close enough for me to contact easily."

"He may have a plan, Admiral," MacKenzie added. "He knows his way around Sunnydale better than I do."

Admiral Chegwidden looked thoughtfully at MacKenzie and Graham. "Agreed, people. Mac, Graham, the two of you are on the next plane to Los Angeles, where Graham will transfer to Sunnydale. Stay in contact, and don’t take any unnecessary risks, Graham. I want this Initiative situation under control, and Finn’s sorry six in the brig by the end of the week. Dismissed." Webb, MacKenzie and Graham left the Admiral’s office, heading for their new assignments.

Graham prayed that what he was thinking wasn’t true, but he feared that it was. And if it was, Finn’s desertion was the least of their problems.

========

Willow lay on her stomach, naked, her breasts feeling the smooth sheen of silk. She felt the cool wetness of the ink and the gentle sweep of the bristles as Tara applied her brush to her back. Tara dipped the brushtip in the inkwell, and continued to write arcane and esoteric signs on Willow’s back, commenting favorably on her lover’s curves. Occasionally, Tara would stop to caress Willow’s shoulder, or lean forward to nibble her earlobe.

Willow was lost in a sea of erotic sensation, luxuriating in the sheer decadence of having Tara write on her naked back, enjoying the smooth satiny sensation of the lounge pillows beneath her. She nodded slowly, barely hearing her love’s voice as she spoke. She didn’t care, she just allowed herself to feel sexy, to feel loved.

A sudden jolt brought her to her senses, like a skipped groove on an old record and she bolted upright. She grabbed a sheet to cover her breasts, but feared destroying Tara’s handiwork. She suddenly remembered Tara, but a glance around her revealed that her lover wasn’t in the room. "Tara?" she asked. "Where are you?"

A grunt behind her yanked her around, and she saw a dark figure. She knew her from another dream, the Primal Slayer. The Slayer looked at Willow through matted hair, her wild eyes and grubby face growling silently in the dim candlelight. For some reason that Willow couldn’t fathom, however, the Slayer was wearing a white t-shirt with a bright red-and-yellow Superman ‘S’ shield, and denim cutoffs. Willow was both scared of the Slayer’s presence, and amused by her fashion sense, but those emotions took a back seat to the shock of recognition. Something within those eyes carried an unmistakable spark, one that spoke to Willow’s deepest heart. Buffy. She was in there somewhere.

Willow sat transfixed as the Slayer as she took Willow’s hand and placed it gently on the S on her shirt. "Keep this," she grunted. "I’ll be back for it." A surge of energy passed from the Slayer through Willow’s hand. The sheer shock of the energy yanked Willow out of the world where she had been...

========

...and into the room she shared with Tara. She woke up suddenly, gasping for air. She looked around her, seeing that she was wearing her cow pajamas, while Tara slept soundly in the bed next to her. Willow sighed with relief, and silently rose from the bed, careful not to wake her sleeping lover.

She padded her way to the bathroom, turned on the tap and threw some cold water on her face. "Goddess, what’s happening to me?" she asked herself. The details of her dream were still fresh and vibrant in her mind. Most dreams she had she forgot the details shortly upon waking, but this dream, no, she remembered every second, every brushstroke on her back, the surge of energy she felt when she touched the Slayer.

It was a message, that much was certain. But of what? What did the Slayer do to her? What was she to keep for her? She decided that she couldn’t figure this out tonight, not alone anyway. She would speak with Tara tomorrow, and hope that her insight would help shed some light on this dream.

Before she returned to the bed and to Tara’s side, she spoke quietly, in a whisper; "Goddess, I pray to you, tell me what would you have me do? What is my mission for the Light, the task you have set for me?" She looked at herself in the mirror, desperate to find any trace of the gawky, long-haired computer hacker she was before she met the Slayer. No, she realized, that person was another life. The daughter of Ira and Sheila Rosenberg was dead. She was Willow now. Daughter of the Goddess. That’s all that mattered to her now.

And far beyond all human knowing, Morpheus continued to craft his dreams...

 

 Continue to Ch. 4-6

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