Navigation:     Home   About   News   Fiction   Links   Email  
Story Data

First part May 29, 2007;
Completed August 25, 2015

Also linked at:
    Archive of Our Own
    Twisting the Hellmouth

Fan Fiction: See For Yourself

Title: See For Yourself

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not. I claim nothing but the plot.

Rating: PG-13

Summary: SG-1, B:tVS. Daniel becomes aware of suspiciously cultlike goings on in California, and fears Goa'uld influence. Investigations ensue. 27,000 words.

Spoilers: B:tVS mid-7.15 "Get it Done", Stargate SG-1 mid-season 8 and slightly AU.

Notes: There's one significant AU bit at the start of this story, modified from "Fragile Balance" (7.3). Timeline-wise, I pretended the Stargate series really did start a year after the 1994 movie instead of three. And the Buffyverse diversion begins with an extra 24 hours added to "Get It Done", between the burial and the 'calling an emergency'.

See For Yourself, Art by Jedi Buttercup

Chapter Index:

  1. See For Yourself
  2. Advanced Reading Assignments
  3. Emergency Meetings
  4. Unwelcome Revelations
  5. Conflicting Priorities
  6. Making the Exchange
  7. Class Protector Award
  8. Just Gotta Live

1. See For Yourself

"So what's this all about?" Jack asked, leaning back in his new office chair. It wasn't as comfortable as his old one-- the one Hammond had appropriated and shipped off to Washington the last time he was on base, claiming to have missed it-- but it did tilt backward to a satisfying degree without threatening to tip over.

The two who'd entered his office exchanged glances with each other. Daniel nodded his current team leader, then stepped forward, offering a thick file folder stuffed with papers of varying sizes and colors. From what Jack could see from the edge, it looked like a mixture of printed documents and yellow ruled notepaper, obviously the result of some heavy-duty research on the archaeologist's part. "Care to summarize?" he asked, as he took the folder from Daniel's hand.

"You remember when the Tok'ra came to us five years ago," Daniel replied, earnestly. He paused a moment, waiting for Jack's confirming nod, then continued. "As you know, they were here looking for a System Lord who had been missing for some time, concerned that he might have been in hiding here ever since the gate in Egypt was buried. It turned out they were right, though it took a lot of research to track Setesh down. While I was at it, I kept detailed notes on the various methods and patterns he'd used to keep himself concealed, with an eye toward uncovering other Goa'uld refugees in the future. It seemed unlikely that he'd be the only one to have tried it."

Jack digested that with a frown. "You wouldn't be reminding me about it unless you'd found one," he said. "As if we didn't have enough problems already. Who've we got this time?"

"We're actually not sure," Carter spoke up, frowning back. "None of the legends and historical information we've uncovered this time match up very well with any of the known Goa'uld System Lords and their histories, though that doesn't necessarily mean anything."

"Then what makes you so sure there's a Goa'uld involved?" Jack asked, intrigued despite himself. He leaned forward again and flipped the folder open on his desk, glancing down to leaf through a few of the sheets of paper, but no handy sketches or photographs were immediately forthcoming.

"Most, if not all, Goa'uld seem to have an inbuilt need to be worshiped," Daniel said, authoritatively. "That's what made it possible to track Seth. Wherever he went, and whatever he claimed to be at the time, a group of worshipers would coalesce around him. Most of them ended up dead, often in a mass suicide, but these groups still had enough effect on the communities around them that they ended up in the historical record. Now, there are a lot of cults out there; obviously, not every one of them is going to turn out to be headed by a Goa'uld. But I've recently uncovered some information on one group in particular, called the Order of Aurelius, that exhibits a similar pattern of behavior over the last few centuries-- and which experienced a serious and ongoing upsurge in activity a little over six years ago."

Jack's eyebrows went up at that. Figure they'd killed Ra in 1994, got Daniel back a year later, fended off their first actual Goa'uld attack on the planet several months after that-- which had been maybe six and a half years ago? How long did it take a rumor to filter through the galaxy, anyway? "Now that's suspicious timing," he commented.

"Exactly," Daniel said. "Now, from what the Tok'ra have told us a symbiote can maintain a single host for up to four hundred years, barring violent death, before they're forced to seek a new one. Most of the records concerning the Order of Aurelius are in the hands of a private organization and unavailable for request, but I've been corresponding with a scholar in Los Angeles who used to be part of that group and has access to a lot of information on various relevant myths and legends. According to him the so-called Master of the Order of Aurelius was a man called Joseph Heinrich Nest, who'd been around since at least the early 1600's, when his name first showed up in records from Colonial America. Over the years, several more notorious individuals have become associated with the Order-- and none of them have ever seemed to visibly age, from the date they were first noticed until the last report of their presence."

"We think it's a whole group of them," Carter added, a worried expression on her face. "They've managed to keep their existence a secret from the general population, but any time one of them stayed in an area for very long, an unusual number of deaths were reported. According to Daniel's friend, there were also reports of unusual strength, glowing eyes, unnatural healing, and even hypnosis associated with the more infamous members of the Order."

Jack winced. "This just gets better and better," he said, disgustedly. "A whole network of them, with possible off-world support? We have enough trouble just taking these guys down one at a time."

Daniel grimaced. "I know. But it isn't as bad as it sounds. Most of the recent activity has been centered on a single small town in California, rather than spread around the globe as in previous years. We think one of them took over the mayor there about a hundred years ago; he wasn't officially associated with the Order, but after I found a reference to Nest visiting the place, I did some in-depth research on it and noticed that all three mayors-- all named Richard Wilkins-- looked exactly the same."

"Looked?" Jack noted. "As in past tense?"

"Yes," Daniel confirmed. "He was killed a few years ago-- in an explosion that leveled the local high school and killed a number of students and faculty. But at least six other individuals known to be associated with the Order have shown up there in recent years, and the death rate is disturbing. I tried to confirm some of this information through government channels, and that's when I got really concerned; they seemed convinced that I was overreacting, and that there were perfectly normal explanations for all the irregularities, despite the fact that none of it had been properly investigated."

Carter took a deep breath and took up where Daniel had left off. "We're concerned that we might be facing another situation like the one in Steveston, only with a smaller, longer-established group of symbiotes. They could be doing anything in Sunnydale; the number of explosions, deaths, mass hallucinations, and other unexplained phenomena have always been alarming, but they worsened significantly in early 1997, and in the last few months it's gotten to the point where people are moving out of the town in unprecedented numbers without even bothering to sell their houses or find new jobs before leaving."

"So what do you suggest we do about it?" Jack asked. "You want authorization to take SG-1 to investigate?"

"Actually... no." Daniel said, then hesitated for a moment, looking down. "There's more to it than just the Goa'uld. There's evidence that there are people in the town who are already fighting back-- a group of teenagers and young adults who've shown up regularly in the town's police reports for the last several years, as suspected murderers, terrorists, and so on. Some of those reports coincided with the so-far final disappearance of a known member of the Order. Since the local government seems to be mostly under the control of the Goa'uld..."

"They're probably the good guys." Jack shook his head in disbelief. What did they think they were, the Teen Titans? Corrupt government or not, they should have been able to get help from somewhere. If they truly couldn't-- well, then, it was even more important that the SGC intervene. "You want to set up a meeting, then?"

"Actually... no," Daniel said again, even more hesitantly than before. "Apparently, there was a branch of the NID in control of an army operation in the town a few years ago that went disastrously wrong. These kids have been taught not to trust any kind of authority; if we try to make contact with them, or if we show up in their town unannounced, they're much more likely to see us as part of the problem than try to help us find a solution."

"Then what do you want to do, Daniel?" Jack asked, irritably.

"Send in Jon and Nick," the archaeologist replied, quietly but firmly.

Jack sat bolt upright at that, staring at his friend and former teammate in disbelief. "You have got to be kidding me," he said. "They're sixteen years old, Daniel. They're still in high school! It'll be years before they can even officially rejoin the SGC-- I'm not sending them on a mission!"

"We won't be sending them anywhere," Daniel said patiently. "Just-- suggesting they transfer schools. They can get to know the younger members of the resistance group in a more natural setting, do some investigating, make sure the good guys are really the good guys and that there's really a threat worth calling us in for-- and then we can come in to do the clean up."

Jack shook his head in disgust and turned to Carter. "And you're supporting this? This is insane!"

Carter shrugged. "I think it might work," she said. "Jon has your skills, and Nick's got all of Daniel's knowledge; they're a lot more self-sufficient than most sixteen year olds. If we're right about what this research represents, we need a lot more information before we can try to take the Order down, and Nick and Jon will be much better positioned to get it than we would."

"You're serious," he said, staring at her. Then he turned to Daniel. "You're serious?"

Daniel nodded, solemnly. "Nick's been helping me with the research-- he's actually the one that suggested the idea in the first place. And you know Jon. They've had a year of sitting around and pretending not to be the cloned copies of highly skilled adults who work at a secret military base; if you give them something interesting to do now, it might keep them from acting out in less-- constructive-- circumstances."

Jack groaned and lowered his forehead to the desk, closing his eyes against pages filled with Daniel's scrawl. "You're serious," he groaned, and started trying to figure out how on earth he was supposed to explain the situation to Hammond.

The first few weeks Nick and Jon spent in Sunnydale were remarkably normal, for all their research had turned up about the place. They got an apartment near the high school without much trouble, and made sure to get all the same classes; the principal seemed a little concerned that a pair of emancipated minors had actually chosen to come to Sunnydale in the middle of a school year for no particular reason, but accepted their enrollment without any great hassle. Jon slipped out of class several times in the first few days, scoping out the school and its surrounding area, though he was careful not to do it too often in any one class; Nick, for his part, took notes for both of them and asked vague questions of the other students under the guise of being new to the town.

The kids seemed to fall into two distinct groups-- those oblivious, almost defiantly so, to the danger surrounding them, and those who walked around darting wary glances at every shadow from the corners of their eyes. The former group gossiped about the popular kids and invited him to the local dance club, the Bronze; the latter also shied away from any suggestion that something sinister was going on but invariably warned him not to go out alone after dark. Two of them, Kit Holburn and Carlos Trejo, were especially untalkative but told him he should make an appointment with the school counselor if he really wanted to know what Sunnydale was like-- and both of them glanced over at another student before even saying that much.

More careful inquiries turned up the fact that the unnamed student was Dawn Summers, and that the counselor was her sister Buffy, a prominent figure in the police reports he and his elder self had turned up in their earlier investigations. They'd found their "in"-- if only they could make use of it.

Unfortunately, most of the classrooms had assigned seating, and whether they were allowed to choose their own seat or were assigned alphabetically, being new and nowhere near "S" in the alphabet meant Jonathan O'Neill and Nicolas Jackson were invariably placed several seats away from Dawn. She skipped classes or cut out of them early about as often as Jon did, and even when she stayed the whole day she regularly disappeared the moment the bell rang. She ate with Kit and Carlos or a girl named Janice at lunch, when she actually managed to eat at the school, and was picked up most days by one of her sister's friends. It was several days before Nick found an opportunity to finagle an introduction, and even then barely got a "hello" out of her before she had to run off again.

He'd been a teenager for more than a year, but he still had thirty-eight years of memories in his head from before that, and half the time he still thought of himself as a nearly middle-aged scholar, not a gangly high school geek. That half of him felt uncomfortable with the whole thing-- with all the time he spent paying attention to the girl's every move, he might as well have been a stalker, and she was young enough to have been his-- or, rather, the original Daniel's-- daughter. The other half, however, had far different things in mind.

She had brown hair-- long brown hair, which she regularly tucked back over her shoulders or behind an ear-- and her eyes were a particularly arresting shade of blue. She laughed at the same stupid conversational topics as all the other students, but when she thought no one else was paying attention she looked more serious and world-weary than any normal sixteen-year-old should. She daydreamed through half of her classes even when she was there, but her grades-- what he could see of them as teachers passed tests and assignments back to the students-- were routinely in the top ten percent for everything she actually completed. She was fascinating, and clearly troubled, and-- made him very aware that his body was only sixteen.

Jon teased him that he was developing a crush. Nick wasn't sure he was far wrong.

Two weeks dragged by at a snail's pace. Jon had borrowed a pair of night-vision goggles from the SGC and had caught glimpses of some baffling and very interesting movements of teenage girls out at night, almost none of whom he recognized from school and all of whom were traceable back to the Summers residence on Revello Drive. He thought they should try to "accidentally" run into one of the groups and strike up an introduction that way, but after all the warnings not to go out after dark Nick wasn't sure that was a good idea. He was still hoping to get more than a "Hi" or "Did you get the answer to that problem?" out of Dawn, but was having very little luck.

They'd even made appointments with the elder Summers sister in the counselor's office in hopes of a lead, but neither was productive. Jon came away loudly impressed that someone had managed to perfect a better dumb façade than his elder self, and Nick somehow ended up the recipient of vague threats involving shovels rather than getting any answers or advice out of her. It was puzzling, and frustrating, especially when every bit of additional research they managed to do in the town ended up somehow or other leading back to Buffy and her friends, and they were five years too young to socialize with that group directly without raising suspicion.

Nick was becoming less certain by the day that whatever they were facing had anything to do with the Goa'uld-- but whatever it was, it was at least as important as egotistical, galaxy-conquering aliens. He just couldn't quite lay his finger on what.

And then one day Dawn came to school with a sheaf of papers tucked into her book-- papers covered in scribbled Sumerian, which she was laboriously and hesitantly translating in the margins in the five minutes before the bell rang for their history class. Nick saw the writing as he passed by and stopped, transfixed, frowning down at the words. Even he had trouble translating Sumerian; it was a shock to see someone her age attempting it.

"You can't just watch, you have to see?" he murmured, reading the first line over her shoulder.

Dawn froze in her seat, then turned to look up at him, eyes wide in surprise and suspicion. He felt her gaze like a brand, searing into him; her attention was fully on him for once, and it made his breath come unexpectedly short. Stupid sixteen-year-old body. "Um, it's Sumerian, right?" he fumbled, awkwardly.

"You speak Sumerian?" she asked, eyebrows raised into two delicate arches over her blue, blue eyes.

"Um, some," Nick replied, all too aware of how damned awkward he was at that state of his development. His hair was still shaggy around his face, more blond than the brown it had become with age and too much time spent indoors, and despite the exercises Jon made him do he had only a fraction of the impressive musculature he'd worked so hard to develop over his time at the SGC. He was a certified geek-- but maybe that would come in handy now--

"My, um, uncle Daniel speaks about thirty different languages; he's an archaeologist, and I stayed with him a lot when I was younger. Some of it rubbed off on me, I guess." He shrugged and offered a sheepish grin.

She bit her lip, studying him a moment more, then lifted the sheet of paper she'd been working on and handed it to him. "How much of the rest of it can you read?" she asked, intently.

He scanned down the page. It was some kind of origin story, the story of a warrior-- a girl? "Men took the girl to fight the demon?" he murmured, frowning. The demon part could easily refer to a Goa'uld, but the rest of it... "Why a girl?" he wondered aloud.

Dawn's face lit up, and he cursed himself silently as his pulse kicked up a notch. "You can read it," she said. "That-- that's great! Do you think you can meet me at lunch and help me with the rest of it? There's something-- there's a project my sister's busy with, and I tried translating some of this for her last night, but I know I missed things the first time and she needs as much information as she can get."

He handed the paper back to her, grinning almost as widely as she was, half of him jumping up and down with glee at the chance to spend time with an intelligent, pretty girl, and the other half jumping up and down with glee at finally making headway with his assignment. "Sure," he said breathlessly. "I'd be happy to."

The bell rang, forcing him to his seat, but his mood was much brighter for the rest of the morning, enough that Jon raised his eyebrows and made snide remarks about cradle-robbing as they walked the halls between classes. Nick just grinned back, refusing to dignify them with a reply, and promised a full report after school.

They made significant headway on the rest of the translation at lunch; Nick sat next to Dawn, on the other side of her from a disgruntled Kit; she'd made notes in erasable ball point pen, and he filled in the gaps of what she knew with his mechanical pencil. Some of the characters were a little iffy, as she'd clearly copied it by hand out of a larger text, but they were able to make a fairly complete translation. There was a lot of ominous language in it-- "See for yourself, but only if you are willing to make the exchange"-- and it seemed to mean a lot more to Dawn than it did to Nick, but it was clearly important.

She gave him an earnest, assessing look as they finished. "I'm gonna have to see if my sister will let me invite you over. We have a lot of old books kicking around that I can't make heads or tails of, and Giles is gone so much lately he doesn't have time to translate them either. Would you mind? I-- I don't know if we could pay you, but maybe with dinner? And bring your friend, too?"

She seemed so sincere, and appealing, that Nick almost didn't care that the invite was exactly what they'd been angling for since the moment they'd set foot in the town. "Only if it's not too much trouble," he demurred, basking in her gratitude. "I mean, you haven't seen Jon eat."

She laughed, then did something totally unexpected-- she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you so much!" she said, throwing her arms around him, then let him go and stood up, grabbing her tray and her notes. "I'll ask her before I leave today, and let you know," she said, tossing her hair back over her shoulder before walking away to dispose of her tray.

And then she was gone.

"Did she just ask you for a date?" Jon murmured, teasingly, from behind him.

"Only if the definition of a date includes you and her sister," Nick snorted.

Jon grinned and clapped him on the back. "Good going, Danny Jr. Just wait 'til I tell Jack."

Nick groaned, imagining the ribbing he was going to get for the next eternity. "Do you have to?"

Jon just laughed and steered him toward their next class.

2. Advanced Reading Assignments

Buffy frowned at the boy seated next to Dawn on the front room couch. There'd been a lot of weirdness going on at the high school lately, but so far it had mostly been the usual spring-on-the-Hellmouth kind of weird, just a little ahead of schedule. This kid, Nick Jackson, though; he and his friend Jon O'Neill were another kind of weird altogether, and it worried her.

She'd seen the school's files on them when they'd scheduled their counseling appointments, and both were inhumanly clean and boring for a pair of intelligent, strong-willed sixteen year old boys. The only thing either of them had ever been officially reprimanded for was lax attendance, and even that had only happened within the last year or so. Whatever the reason for that, it didn't seem to have hurt their grades any; both boys had maintained an impressive GPA at their Colorado Springs high school, and their current teachers had rave reviews for them, especially Nick. They'd had enough money to rent an apartment and buy a used truck after coming to town, but didn't act like they belonged in the privileged crowd with the upper-middle-class kids, nor did they participate in any extracurricular activities.

In fact, they pretty much didn't act like typical teenagers at all aside from the occasional bickering match and the fact that Nick kept making calf-eyes at Dawn. Both boys were constantly on edge, keeping track of their surroundings like veteran Slayers or Watchers and ready to leap into action at the drop of a pencil. She'd swear the sarcastic one, Jon, had seen right through her dumb blonde act, and they both moved too carefully not to have had some kind of training in physical combat.

They were a puzzle, and Buffy didn't like people shaped puzzles. They had a way of coming back to bite her on the butt at the least convenient moment, and she couldn't afford any of those moments right now, not with so many Potential Slayers under her care-- one less after what had happened with Chloe-- and the First doing its best to come up with an apocalypse that would actually stick.

If she had to guess off the top of her head, she'd say Nick and Jon had been brought up by Watchers or similarly dedicated demon hunting families and had lost their parents to the fight; that would certainly explain their emancipated minor status. It would explain their skinny files and advanced academic abilities, too; if they'd both been home-schooled in the supernatural up until a little over a year ago, then had to suddenly rejoin the system, whatever organization their families had belonged to might have slapped some fake records together to make the transition easier.

There were just two problems with that theory. First, there was no way in heck they were British, and Giles hadn't recognized their names or descriptions at all, so the Watcher connection was looking less probable all the time. And second, neither of them seemed to have any idea just who it was they were talking to. Buffy had been the Slayer long enough that half the supernatural world seemed to know about her; there was no way these boys wouldn't if they were a legitimate part of the paranormal scene. Either the cluelessness was an act, or it wasn't, and either way, given all the other things that didn't add up about them, Buffy took it as a bad sign.

She hadn't warned her sister about her suspicions yet. Buffy hadn't wanted to rain on Dawn's parade if it wasn't absolutely necessary, especially since there was so little else for the younger girl to get excited about in recent months. Dawn had noticed the new guys from the moment they'd appeared in town, especially Nick, but had been too worried about all the Hellmouthy stuff going on to do anything about it; still, it hadn't stopped her from talking happily about the cute boy checking her out in class, and now that he'd turned out to actually have a brain as well, she was obviously over the moon about him. It was good to see her acting her age again.

Would it be too much to ask, Buffy wondered, for the cute boys with the mysterious pasts to turn out to be on the side of Good just this once? The situation with the First and "from beneath you, it devours" weighed heavily on her. Buffy could still hear the First Slayer saying it wasn't enough, and knew that there was every chance she wouldn't be walking away from the apocalypse party this time. Most of the Potential Slayers were probably doomed, too, along with any of the Scoobies she couldn't convince to leave town. Hopefully, she'd be able to get Dawn out of danger before the big day came, but she wasn't going to hold her breath about that; her sister was just as stubborn as she was when she wanted to be.

Speaking of which. "So when were you going to tell me about the book you found?" she asked, sternly, ignoring the boys for a moment to focus on Dawn.

"Later tonight, at the meeting," Dawn replied, earnestly. "I just thought-- you'd want to know what it said, and since it's written in Sumerian, I was going to need a little lead time to rough out a translation. I didn't have any luck with it last night, so I copied some of it down and took it in to work on at lunch."

"And you just so happened to trip across the only other student in the entire school who could read it?" she asked mildly, eyeing the shaggy-haired blond geek sitting next to her sister.

Dawn swallowed, and glanced at her new friend; from the surprise on her face, she hadn't even considered that Nick might have an ulterior motive. Before she could say anything, however, Nick set his jaw and spoke up himself.

"It was more like I tripped across her," he said. "She had it out on her desk, and-- well--" He paused to glance at Dawn, flushing, then glared back over the arm of the couch as his friend Jon started snickering. "I saw that she was trying to read something in Sumerian, and since my uncle taught me how to translate it, I volunteered to help."

A likely story, Buffy thought. "This uncle. Who is he?" she prompted.

All the teenage awkwardness seemed to drain back out of Nick at the question; he squared his shoulders again before answering, and the jaw went back up. "Dr. Daniel Jackson. He has PhD's in Archaeology, Anthropology and Philology; you can check his credentials if you want."

It was as though all the submissiveness had been removed from the teenager's makeup; he wasn't so much rebelling against authority, as refusing to recognize that she had any authority over him in the first place. More than that: it was like it didn't even occur to him that she might expect him to. What kind of background could this kid possibly come from?

"And you don't live with him because?"

That, he didn't answer; Jon O'Neill reached over the couch to grip his shoulder, then gave her a concentrated frown that made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. Whatever it was about Nick that made him so non-teenagery, Jon definitely shared it. "Look, we're not on trial here. Nick just wanted to help you guys out. But if you'd rather he didn't, that's all right; we can take a hint."

"Buffy!" Dawn hissed. "Seriously, cut it out. I translated half of it myself; he just filled in the gaps. He's been at school with me, in the daytime, so you can totally lay off with the Spanish Inquisition."

Buffy didn't miss the look the boys gave each other at that; she crossed her arms and stared at them a moment longer, then finally nodded. She'd check with Giles later, have him look this Dr. Daniel Jackson up; maybe it would be the clue they needed to find out where the boys came from. But in the meantime, pushing Dawn any further would be counterproductive.

"Okay, then," she said, throwing her hands up. "Book me. Tell me what it says."

Dawn took a deep breath, then glanced apprehensively over at Nick.

"It's an origin myth," she said. "The story of the very first Slayer."

Nick watched Dawn's sister's face carefully as Dawn began explaining what the text had to say. As origin myths went, it was short on details, but long on tragedy and supernatural consequences; not one he remembered hearing before, but not especially unique, either, in his experience. Clearly, however, there was something he was missing-- something quite possibly related to the covert goings-on in town.

Most fairy tales and legends were, at their roots, much darker than the primary-colored versions watered down, set to music, and spoon-fed to modern children. They were an important part of cultural development, carrying meaning forward through the generations, intended rather to educate than to entertain. This particular myth was not even the first to center around the empowerment-- and enslavement-- of a young woman. The way both girls reacted to it, though, it might as well have been a Biblical text rather than an artifact of darker historical times; Dawn read it out in tentative, solemn tones, and Buffy grew progressively more thin-lipped and pale as the story progressed.

"And then it says, 'They chained her to the Earth'," Dawn finished hesitantly, "'and infused her with the darkness.' That's-- that's pretty much it, for the history part. After that, there's a lot more stuff about how you have to see it for yourself, if-- if you're willing to make the exchange." She fidgeted with the papers in her hands, then extended them, cautiously, toward her sister.

Buffy stared back at her for several wordless moments, eyes as green and lifeless as a stagnant pond, then swallowed visibly and took the papers. "He always did say I belonged in the darkness with him," she said quietly, looking down at the translation Nick and Dawn had spent so much effort on as though her worst fears were hiding in amongst the words. Then she chuckled mirthlessly. "He's never going to let me live this down, is he?"

Alarmed, Nick glanced over his shoulder at Jon, who returned it with a cautious, alert wariness in his posture. They'd known something strange was going on in this town, uniting a mixed group of teenagers and young adults in battle against a coalition of long-lived, inhumanly gifted enemies; the original assumption had been that said enemies were actually Goa'uld in disguise, and that the resistance operating under the apparent leadership of Buffy Summers was composed of the few residents of the town both aware enough, and courageous enough, to fight back. Nick wasn't so sure either theory had been correct, anymore.

He certainly hadn't been expecting the forces of "good" to turn out to be, not conscientious citizens, but some kind of strange warrior-goddess cult. Offworld, maybe that would have seemed more or less ordinary; but not here on Earth.

Dawn cleared her throat nervously at her sister's words. "Anyway," she said, a little louder than usual, raising her eyebrows at the older woman, "most of the rest of the pages were blank, but that should be enough to help with your project, right?"

"Project?" Buffy said, blankly. Then she blinked, an expression of dismay washing over her face, and glanced between Nick and Jon again, gaze as sharp as a razor. "Right, the project," she said, hastily. "Yes, that'll be very helpful, Dawn, thank you. And thank you," she turned to Nick, "for helping her. I understand she promised you food?"

As evasions went, that was far from the most subtle one Nick had ever heard, but he didn't want to threaten the tentative foothold he and Jon had finally established. "If it's not too much trouble," he murmured diffidently. "Jon and I usually just stop at the Doublemeat Palace on the way home."

"Oh, for ew," Dawn wrinkled up her nose at that. "I got so sick of their stuff when Buffy worked there last year. Did you know they don't even serve real meat? Their secret ingredient is vegetables."

"Dawn!" Buffy glared half-heartedly at her sister. "I was sworn to secrecy!"

"It's what?" A sudden jolt and thunking sound shook the couch, and Nick glanced over to see Jon sprawled on the floor where he'd fallen off the armrest, staring up at Dawn in horror. "No way."

"Yes way," Dawn said, giggling. "The burgers are completely fake. Buffy thought for awhile they were making people burgers or something, they were so secretive about it; she even had our friend Willow do scientific tests on the patties, but they came back full of cellulose."

Nick shook his head, bemused, as Jon mimed sticking a finger down his throat. "I can't believe you tricked me into eating veggie burgers," he moaned. "I'm telling Jack on you."

"I'll see your Jack and raise you a Daniel," Nick snickered, recalling years' worth of team arguments about food. Offworld cuisine was one thing, but Jack held beef sacred. Daniel would be totally proud of Nick for pulling one over on any version of their friend, even accidentally.

"Seriously, even if it's true, it's not like it's doing you any harm," he added. "Which-- why are they keeping it a secret?" he asked, turning back to Dawn. "You'd think they'd sell more of them to the health-conscious crowd if people knew they were vegetarian, especially since you can't even tell the difference from actual meat in a taste-test."

"That's a good question," Dawn said, turning to raise her eyebrows inquisitively at her sister.

Buffy shrugged. "I don't pretend to understand the retail business," she said. "Teenage drama is one thing, corporate marketing? Might as well be speaking Fyarl."

...And just when they were starting to sound like normal young women again, something else strange intruded. Nick mentally filed the word 'Fyarl' as another clue to whatever was really going on, and resigned himself to several evenings spent soothing Dawn's sister's prickly nerves. They'd finally made positive contact; now it was time to build a relationship, the same as SG-1 would with any wary tribe they might encounter through the 'gate.

Not that the socializing itself would be all the much of a hardship...

"Ahem," Dawn's sister cleared her throat, and Nick abruptly realized he'd been staring.

He blushed, tearing his eyes away from Dawn's profile, and retraced the conversation in his mind. "So, food?" he said brightly.

"I'm pretty sure Andrew's cooking, so whatever it is will at least be edible," she replied, then grimaced, glancing at a clock hanging on the wall. "You're welcome to get some to take with you, but we do have a meeting scheduled with Principal Wood this evening, so I'm afraid you and Jon will have to hang out with Dawn some other time."

"I don't think we've met Andrew," Jon interjected, picking himself up from the floor.

"I'd be surprised if you had," Buffy said, "he's a houseguest of ours, not a high school student." Her eyes narrowed a little as she studied the downsized colonel, and Nick wondered, not for the first time, just what she saw when she looked at them. Something sure had her on her guard. It could be anything-- he and Jon hadn't been actual teenagers in decades, and there were bound to be mannerisms they weren't getting right. Just their luck they'd have to deal with someone whose actual job was deciphering and redirecting teenage motivation.

Booted feet sounded on the front porch as he weighed the pros and cons of actually waiting around for food before they left; he'd about decided not to press their luck that evening-- he knew a dismissal when he heard one-- when the front door opened, and a man in a leather coat with bleached hair rushed in, tucking a lightly smoking blanket under one arm.

Every hair on Nick's arms stood on end as he stared at the sharp, all too familiar profile. "Just curious," he said aloud on Jon's behalf, nudging him sharply with his foot. "But we don't want to intrude, so--"

"You're not intruding," Dawn objected with a scowl for her sister. "Spike, tell Buffy to knock it off," she said, appealing to the new player. "This is my house too, I can have friends over for dinner if I want."

"Not when we have that emergency meeting to get ready for tonight," Buffy replied, blandly.

"I'm not getting in the middle of this one," 'Spike' added in a British accent, shaking his head as he continued through the room, disappearing into the kitchen beyond.

Several emotions warred in Dawn's expression, then she sighed, reaching out to lay a hand on Nick's arm. "Maybe Thursday?" she asked, smiling hopefully at him.

"Sure," he shrugged, summoning up a stiff grin in reply. "It's not like Jon and I ever really have plans, so--"

"Great, she'll let you know," Buffy chirped, striding over to the front door and opening it for them.

Quickly, casually, Nick squeezed Dawn's hand in his as he stood. "See you tomorrow," he said, then let go and picked up his backpack, Jon right behind him as he walked leisurely out the door.

"Was that who I think it was?" Jon hissed at Nick as they reached the sidewalk.

"I think so," Nick replied, pausing to stare warily up at the house on Revello Drive.

Of all the potential Goa'uld they'd been tracking in the deadly 'Order of Aurelius', 'William the Bloody' had been the most recently active-- and he was here, welcomed without qualm in the house of those they'd thought to represent the opposition.

"We have to call Jack," Jon said. "Things just got a lot more complicated."

3. Emergency Meetings

Spike sauntered slowly out of the kitchen, mug of blood in hand, as the door closed behind Dawn's little friends.

"Something's up with those two," he mused, staring after the pair of them as he took a sip.

Buffy frowned over at him from her post at the door, worry drawing lines around her eyes. "I know," she said. "They're way too mature for their age; it's kind of creepy."

"Like you weren't too mature for your age when you were sixteen," Dawn objected, stormclouds building on her brow. "They don't have parents or guardians here, so of course they're used to taking care of themselves." It was obvious she had a sizeable crush on one of the boys; probably the earnest blond one she'd stood closest to. That seemed to be the way the Summers girls' luck ran these days.

"Not what I meant," he said, making eye contact with each of them to emphasize how serious he was. "Floppy-haired one knew me; he went on alert the second I came through the door, and his friend picked up his cue. Not fear, exactly, but not your clueless civilian reaction, either."

Buffy made a frustrated noise. "But that makes no sense!" she said. "I thought they might be hunters' kids at first or something, but they didn't recognize me at all, and they treated the Slayer story like just another myth. How could they know about you and not me?"

"Wait, wait!" Dawn said, irritation shading into genuine anger in her stance and tone. "You've been checking them out? Like, you thought they might be enemies, and you didn't tell me?"

"Not now, Niblet," Spike said absently, raising a hand to shush them as his vampiric hearing picked up voices from the front walk. Boys hadn't gone far, and what they were saying--

"They definitely recognized me," he said. "They're talking about calling someone named Jack, and that unspecified 'things' have just got a lot more complicated."

"They probably mean Jon's uncle," Buffy replied, lips thinned with frustration. "There's a General Jack O'Neill listed in both his and Nick's files as emergency contact."

"General?" That set the alarm bells ringing. "Of the Initiative sort?" Spike well remembered Maggie Walsh's troupe of soldier boys; if someone outside of Finn's hunting group had picked up their old files things could turn nasty right quick. Lord only knew what information they still had on him.

Buffy shook her head. "Pretty sure not; he's Air Force, not Army, and he lives in Colorado. Still, we can't rule out a connection. It would make total sense for the military fixate on you and not us if their files were sanitized for magic or something; they might think you're a human terrorist."

"The Railroad Spike Killer, no doubt." He wrinkled his nose at the thought. "Well, that's just perfect."

Dawn threw up her hands. "No, it's not! Maybe they're just calling his Uncle Jack for advice! Maybe it weirds Jon out that Spike looks like a rocker refugee from the eighties! Maybe Nick's rethinking the idea of being friends with me because you practically threw him out of the house when I invited him over for dinner! How would they even know if his uncle does think Spike is a terrorist? You don't tell me everything that's going on, and you're not military. Which, thank God. So why would this Air Force guy spill classified secrets to his nephew?"

"I don't know, Bit." Spike shook his head. "But they knew me when they saw me; I'd swear to it. Maybe the uncle brought the files home and they saw them on accident. Or maybe they're not what they seem. But whatever they know about me, one way or the other-- it isn't something your average teenager should know. I'd be the last person in the world to cry 'Evil', 'specially after that sickeningly cute little exchange there at the end, but I'll thank you to keep an eye out anyway-- and don't go anywhere alone with either one."

"But--" Dawn objected, lower lip wobbling a bit in distress.

"Dawn," Buffy replied, mild and sober as milk. And this time, the quiet, cautious tone got through where the earlier hand-wringing had not.

"Fine!" The younger Summers shook her head and stormed toward the stairs. "I'll just be in my room until this all important emergency meeting, counting on one hand the few friends I have left."

Buffy sighed and watched her go, face drawn with fatigue. "Why is this my life?" she whined.

Spike bit back a flip response; he tried not to insult the other kiddies-- at least not when it might remind Buffy of the hundred forty-seven days it hadn't been her life-- more than strictly necessary. "Really want me to answer that, pet?" He raised his eyebrows at her, and deliberately changed the subject. "'Specially after the speech you gave us all last night. Don't think I've forgot what you said, that I'm your go to guy 'to get weepy and whaled on'. That really all I'm worth to you now?"

She threw him a dirty look, but he could do the exchange of glares all day; and after a minute, she softened around the edges. "I'm just so tired of all this. Things going wrong at every turn. Not being able to fully rely on my team, 'cause two of my best weapons now come with 'caution, guilt ahead' signs. And now this thing with Dawn's friends--"

"Buffy--" he objected, affronted. He'd brushed the insults off the night before as evidence of stress, but if she really felt that way about the soul, after everything….

She closed her eyes and leaned back against the wall, weariness in every line of her posture. "I know. I know I'm not being fair to you," Buffy said. "Or Willow. Or anyone, really. But we're so outmatched this time, I don't know what to do. We need every extra edge we can get without becoming what we're fighting, and the longer this goes on the more I wonder where that line really is. We can't even stop to grieve our losses, because the minute we let our guard down something else will get through, and I can't protect everyone."

Her voice sounded ravaged, and she looked closer to collapse than he'd seen her in a long while. Spike stepped forward, rubbing his palms against her upper arms, and was suddenly very glad he'd decided to return a bit before the meeting for a look at the 'cute boys' Dawn had babbled at him about. The Slayer didn't often let anyone see past the brittle shell anymore, and if things went on the way they were much longer either she'd break-- or her friends would.

"Hush, now," he said. "Try and look on the bright side; maybe those two will turn out to be a help."

"How?" she asked.

He snorted. "If nothing else, you could have them take Dawn out of the line of fire. Have Red check the uncles out first, of course; but I think she'd go with them a sight easier than she'd take you sending her out of town with Xander or Andrew. Don't think she hasn't already guessed that plan, and thought up a counter. And in that event, might be better if they think I'm a criminal influence-- it would give you a good excuse to beg them to take her to safety."

"I think you're getting a little ahead of yourself there," she said, but her expression had lightened a bit at that line of thought.

Spike wished he could comfort her proper-like; she sorely needed it. But their relationship wasn't about that any more-- if it ever had been. And wasn't like to be any time in the near future, if her outbursts the last few days were any sample of her current state of mind. He took a quiet, unnecessary breath to ward off the dissatisfaction simmering under his skin, then gently released her arms and stepped back, putting distance between them again.

"Perhaps," he said. "Got this meeting to get through first. Any idea what's in that emergency kit of Wood's? I missed the bit where Dawn and Scholar Boy read you the translation."

Buffy flinched as though she'd been struck, then sighed and turned away, walking into the kitchen to fill a glass at the tap. "You always did know just where to push to make it hurt."

Spike blinked after her, caught entirely off guard by her reaction, then followed her across the tile to set his emptied mug down on the counter. "And what bloody button of yours did I put my finger on this time? I'm trying to be helpful, here."

She huffed an almost-laugh, then took a long drink of water. "I know. That just makes it worse. Because I already know what you're going to say about what Dawn told me-- it's not like you haven't said it before-- and it's the absolute last thing I want to hear right now. But hey!" She smiled at him, all hollow-eyed false cheer. "You won't mean to hurt me by saying it, so I'll just have to grin and bear that, too."

He stopped short at that, as repelled as though she'd just thrust a cross in his face. "Do I even get to know what you're accusing me of now?" he objected, jutting his chin out belligerently. "Or should I just leave you and whatever imaginary version of me has been keeping you company in peace?"

She winced, the smile slipping from her face, then set the glass down on the counter with a click. "I'm doing it again, aren't I?" she said mournfully, then crossed her arms, hugging herself close in her denim jacket. "It's just--" She laughed again, humorlessly. "The first Slayer. The text says, literally-- they chained her to the Earth, and then they infused her with 'the Darkness'."

Buffy's voice faltered at the end of that sentence, and Spike suddenly had a vivid sense memory of his own voice echoing in his ears, the year before, 'You always end up in the dark', he'd told her, that surreal night up on the balcony in the Bronze. 'You belong in the shadows, with me.'

He swallowed, anger draining out of him as though a plug had suddenly been pulled. She was right, damn it; he had meant to help her, rather than hurt, when he'd first said it. But that had been before. Before the soul. Before he'd understood that she thought she was broken, rather than finding her feet in the element he knew she'd been born to; and that every supportive word he spoke only wounded her more. He liked to think he knew better now than to crow and rub Dawn's discovery in her face.

Which was not to say he could let it pass without comment. "You're saying, then, that the First Slayer...." he began, carefully.

"Was part demon," she said bluntly, biting off the words as though she was spitting bullets. "And from the rest of it-- it sounds like the emergency kit is supposed to deliver some kind of upgrade. Like...." She put on the false smile again and adopted an offensively cheery tone: "And that's not all! For the low, low price of all your illusions about your humanity, an extra added Slayer skills package will be included!"

"And are you going to take it?" he asked, keeping his tone neutral and even so as not to set off any other conversational landmines.

"I--" She sighed, then bit her lip and nodded. "If it had been sprung on me all of the sudden, I might have drawn the line and said 'hell, no'-- but the more I think about it, the more I'm sure that I can't afford to turn down any extra power, no matter how I feel about what they did to me." She winced again. "I mean, to her. She didn't even have a choice."

"But you do." Spike tilted his head in acknowledgement, both of her decision and the telling sentiment she'd inadvertently exposed. "You don't have to do this, luv. But...." He sucked at his teeth. "If you choose this-- I don't think you'll have to worry. The Watchers would never pass on a weapon that would make their Slayers harm humans, never mind Wood holding it hostage all this time. But if you want me to make sure you don't do anything to hurt your friends, after...."

And of all the things he'd said that evening, of course the offer of violence was the one that opened her expression up like a flower. "Do you mean that?" she said softly, all grateful-like.

"Wouldn't say it, otherwise," Spike shrugged.

She drew in a deep breath, closing her eyes as she visibly let go the stress that had been building up in her since before he'd arrived. Then she let it out again-- just in time for a knock to sound at the front door.

"Wood's here," he said, unnecessarily.

Buffy nodded, eyes clear and calmer than they'd been in days. "All right, then. Let's do this."

Jack had provisionally approved the mobilization of SG-1 as back-up, but just Nick and Jon's luck, their counterparts' team was off world at the moment. And since the senior O'Neill had refused to have 'the kids' officially associated with the SGC and therefore on the NID's radar before they came of age again, he wasn't all that excited about sending any other team in to liaise with them.

"Reynolds won't take it seriously enough, and Dixon's the only other team leader I can shake loose for a vaguely defined mission like this until next week. You telling me you'd rather have Dixon?" Jack had taunted them over the phone. "Besides, if this snake's been involved long enough to casually wander in and out of opposition central, it's probably not an urgent situation any more. No point making waves. Keep an eye on them; but keep yourselves out of the line of fire, you hear me?"

'Out of the line of fire' left a lot of wiggle room as an order, though, and Jon had taken all the leeway Nick would let him. The new plan involved them out after dark, something they'd previously kept to a minimum after the warnings they'd received; but he had at least found a perch well off the ground, out of unassisted sight or hearing range of the house on Revello Drive. Jon propped himself up on his elbows on the roof with a pair of binoculars and what seemed like every black piece of clothing he owned, while Nick set his laptop to receive the signals from the bug Jon had stuck to the sofa when he'd done his 'woe, accidental vegetarian is me' act.

The visual signals didn't show much more than a floor-level view of several pairs of shoes, unfortunately, but the audio came through loud and clear, and that was more than they'd had before. They soon discovered that Buffy hadn't been lying about the meeting, at least; they'd missed whatever might have been said while they were still calling Colorado and setting up for reception, but about the time they got into position the high school principal arrived at Buffy's front door.

"Shh," Nick cautioned as Principal Wood set a heavy bag of some kind on the coffee table, and turned the volume up gradually on the software.

"We thought you'd want to be here," Buffy's voice carried to them over their earphones.

"Yeah, you thought right," the principal replied; and if they hadn't already known something odd was going on in that house, the tone and phrasing he used would have been enough to cue them in.

Dawn's voice chimed in, then, and Nick fiddled with the earphone cord as he listened. "That emergency bag's got some neat stuff in it. Weapons, charms, advanced reading assignments."

'Weapons?' Jon glanced over at Nick, mouthing the word at him.

'Emergency?' Nick mouthed back with a shrug.

"Yeah, cool stuff, but we've seen it all before," one of Dawn's repeat chauffeurs noted, followed by a woman they had tentatively identified as romantically connected to him: "Well, not this we haven't. What's inside it?"

"Mm, I don't know. It hasn't been opened since--" The sound of something breaking interrupted Principal Wood's answer. "Well, since now."

The conversation continued a few minutes more, full of cryptic references to what sounded like some kind of show-and-tell apparatus related to the origin myth Nick had helped Dawn translate; the rest of the meeting's attendees kept interrupting with strange and self-referential light-hearted remarks, but in general they all seemed to be taking the whole thing extremely seriously. The anthropological scholar in Nick wanted to rip the binoculars out of Jon's hands and see if he could get a closer look at exactly what they were talking about-- but the experienced observer and downsized disturber of several Goa'uld regimes felt his skin crawl at the level of belief the group seemed to have in the fantastical subjects they were discussing.

And then it got even weirder. They actually started setting up the shadow-caster thing they'd been talking about; the room got dark, a candle was lit, and spooky sound effects began to play in the background as Dawn read from the book. Nick could see shadows moving on the walls as the shadow-caster turned, and shivered a little; the effect was more ominous than he'd been expecting, considering he already knew the story being told. Then, without warning, a miniature blue sun incandesced in the Summers' living room-- and the bug died with a deafening squeal.

Jon jerked his eyes away from the binoculars with a curse, and Nick fished his earphones out, rubbing his index finger inside his ear canal in an effort to dissipate the ringing sensation. "What the hell was that?" he blurted.

"You're asking me?" Jon hissed back, blinking and then removing his own earphones.

"No, I'm asking the camera," Nick replied dryly, tapping out a quick series of commands to the surveillance software. The blank view was quickly replaced by another grainy, low pixel video, but this one was dominated by a view of bushes and siding rather than a forest of feet.

"Sound's down, obviously; and so's the picture from the internal bug. I've switched over to the other bug you left on the mailbox--but there's nothing interesting yet; it's all gone dark in there again."

"Were they just doing magic, or am I going crazy?" Jon groused, in a disbelieving tone.

"Couldn't it be both?" Nick rolled his eyes. "You know what they say about sufficiently advanced technology; we've seen enough of that kind of thing over the years."

"I dunno. I'm starting to think we've stumbled into something a lot stranger than a bunch of Goa'uld," Jon said, then settled back down with the binoculars, training them on the Summers' front yard.

Now that, he could definitely agree with. "Ya think? Wait-- Jon!" His eyes widened as the tiny camera suddenly picked up a blur of motion. "Something's breaking out of the house."

"Breaking out?" Jon blinked again, refocusing the binoculars as the closed French doors burst outward. "What the hell is that? Does it look like an Unas to you?"

"Not really, no," Nick replied, frowning at a screen capture of the thing that had shattered its way out through the wood and glass as though the doors were made of paper. Its skin was dark and strangely textured, as far as he could tell in the dim lighting; it also seemed to have either some kind of tusks or bone ornaments protruding from its face, and several patches of decorative light-colored paint on the exposed portions of its body. He had no idea what it was; he'd never seen anything like it, either on Earth or off-world.

"Yeah, didn't think so. And even if it was-- what's it doing here?" Jon replied in tones of disbelief as the being ran out into the street.

"Perhaps a better question might be-- what are you doing here?" a third voice interrupted-- a woman's voice, unexpected and painfully out-of-place.

Slowly, Nick turned away from the laptop to look up into the face of a friend long-missed. Beside him, Jon swallowed and lowered the binoculars again, the line of his back stiffening in shock.

"Janet," Nick said in disbelief, eyes drinking in the sight of Dr. Frasier wearing an all too familiar expression of disapproval. None of the other doctors at the SGC had ever quite mastered the combination of personal caring and professional irritation she'd favored SG-1 with as they'd passed through the infirmary with injury after ailment after strange alien influence no one else on Earth had ever seen. He'd known her as Daniel for more than five years, and had expected to go on knowing her as Nick for many more-- at least as soon as Jack managed to get over his paranoia and let Nick and Jon start hanging out with Cassie again.

Those plans had crashed and burned a few months after their little vacation courtesy of Loki had begun, though. The day the team had shown up with the news-- and a disc with both Daniel's video from the fatal mission and her memorial service-- had been one of the worst of Nick's rebooted life. They still hadn't seen Cassie since; though they were planning a visit when the school year was over.

"Don't Janet me," the red-haired apparition said, eyebrows arched in echo of all too many past lectures. "You know it isn't safe out here, and you were asked specifically to keep out of trouble."

"Don't listen to her, Nick," Jon said, tersely, still not turning to look at her. "You know this isn't Janet. She didn't do the swirly light thing, and there's no sarcophagus left on Earth. This can't be her."

"You can't know that for sure," Nick argued automatically, though he didn't disagree.

There were stranger things in heaven, et cetera; but realistically, what would bring any version of Janet-- cloned or Ascended or hologrammatic or otherwise-- right to their side at exactly that moment? He knew what he'd suspect, if it really were a Goa'uld they were tracking. And even if it wasn't--

"Call it a ninety-eight percent probability, then," Jon said stiffly, then turned with a sudden jerk to toss his binoculars straight at their resurrected visitor.

She looked down at the projectile just in time for it to pass through her body, then gave them both a smug smile. "Well, it was worth a try," she said. Then her form began to waver and shift: first to the guise of a small boy that made Jon suck in his breath in a hiss, followed by a tall woman with dark eyes, curly hair, and native Abydonian dress whose smile hit Nick like a punch in the gut, and finally another person whose face they both knew well. Charlie Kawalsky, veteran of the very first Gate mission, who'd been lost to a Goa'uld within a year of Daniel's return to Earth.

"'Til next time, guys," he said with a chuckle, then vanished, leaving Nick and Jon alone on the roof.

"Fuck," Jon said, feelingly.

Nick swiped a hand over his face, and echoed the sentiment with a pungent phrase in Arabic.

Jon snorted, then stiffened again and shot to his feet, scrambling to retrieve the binoculars. "Damn it, that was a distraction!"

Distraction-- or capitalizing on an opportunity? Either way, Jon was right-- the ghost had drawn their attention away from their observations. Nick turned his attention back to the laptop and hastily rewound the last few minutes of footage. On screen, the intruder burst from the side of the house again and pelted toward the road-- but this time, he caught a glimpse of a bleached blond head of hair following closely after it.

"Are we supposed to be cheering for the ugly thing, or the Goa'uld wanna-be?" Jon asked disgustedly as he looked over Nick's shoulder.

"Your guess is as good as mine," Nick replied, fast-forwarding the video again to catch it up with the present after the chase passed off the edge of the screen. Nothing else had changed; the lights had come back on in the living room, but that was about it.

"I think we can do better than guess," Jon snorted, then bent to pull what looked like a zat'nik'atel from his backpack.

"Jack's going to kill us," Nick noted, resignedly, eyeing the alien weapon that was not supposed to have left the confines of the SGC.

"Jack can kiss my ass," Jon said. "He knows better." Then he stowed his binoculars and headed for the ladder down off the side of the building. "You coming, or what?"

"What do you think?" Nick huffed-- and pulled his own secretly purloined weapon from the laptop bag as he shut down the computer and started stowing his own gear.

Jon chuckled, waiting for him at the edge of the roof with an anticipatory grin.

4. Unwelcome Revelations

"Chained her to the earth. Great," Buffy muttered to herself, blinking against the strangely flat light as consciousness returned. And as if that confirmation hadn't been enough, she wobbled to her feet only to be greeted by the Three Wise Dudes chanting in their ancient language again.

They'd moved her to a cave or something; stone walls curved around her, and there were heavy metal brackets around her wrists, thick enough that a quick test of Slayer strength didn't budge them at all. A shaft of sunlight speared down from somewhere above, streaking across the floor to illuminate a shape drawn on the stone. It had been smeared in place in a black and ochre spiraling pattern-- a recognition of detail that proved she'd spent far too much time around Willow in witchy mode over the years. The stone directly beneath Buffy's heeled boots had been altered as well, carved deep into a smaller circular shape as though to contain the prisoner standing with in it.

To contain Her. Buffy knew exactly where she was, now.

"We are at the beginning," the shamans intoned, talking down to her as earnestly as Travers ever had. Yeah, these guys were proto-Watchers all right. "The source of your strength. The well of the Slayer's power."

It still bothered her that she could understand them. But it bothered her worse that they hadn't even asked her if she would be willing to do this.

She'd jumped into the portal knowing what she was going to face, thanks to Dawnie and her ambiguously affiliated boyfriend, but waking up with shackles around her wrists still gave her a powerful urge to reject whatever they offered. Blah blah cultural paradigms blah-- it wasn't right. She could feel the approach of the box in their hands vibrating along every nerve and cramping in her gut; it didn't soothe her at all to know that they'd probably chosen a girl to do this to the first time because that way they wouldn't lose a person if it all went wrong.

She didn't even want to know how they saw her, given that their first response to her totally reasonable request for an explanation was to say that the First Slayer hadn't talked so much. Ugh.

She swallowed, bracing herself as long tentacles of inky black smoke streamed up out of the box and snaked through the air as though sniffing her out. The drumbeats in the background weren't helping with her resolve; they were actually making her apprehension worse. How could letting this-- this thing, this so-called spirit and heart of a demon, 'become one' with her make things better?

Only two things kept Buffy from screaming with rage and denial-- well, three. First, her dream a couple of nights before; the First Slayer had told her that what she was already doing wasn't enough. How could she go back with no more answers than she had already? Especially since Sineya was the source of Buffy's prophetic visions... the ancient warrior had to've known Buffy would face the same violation she'd experienced, and had still told her she needed it. She had only to remember Chloe's swollen face as she'd buried her-- and the sickening rush of guilt and rage as the First had parroted her words about the Potentials' likelihood of survival back in her face-- to know that much was true.

Second, Spike was right; why would the Watchers-- obsessed as they were with keeping their Slayers on the straight and narrow-- keep passing tools to every Chosen One that could make them turn evil? Surely they knew what was in it, if they'd been passing it Watcher to Watcher for so long. Who knew, if Principal Wood hadn't been bogarting the thing since his mom died, she might even have thought to use it against the Mayor... and maybe all her classmates who'd died that day would have lived instead.

She swallowed down the sudden distracting surge of anger-- as if she had any room to talk about making questionable decisions based on personal attachments-- and took a deep breath, tilting her head back as tendrils of darkness streamed up her nose. Third... if she had to face this anyway? She was going to reclaim as much choice as she could and stare it down like the Slayer she was. She glared at the smug robe-clad guys as her sinuses flared with fiery pain, the back of her throat began to tickle, and she had to cough to keep from choking on her own breath.

This wasn't about her. This wasn't about her desire to be normal, her long-held wish that she could reject the responsibility that had been marked down for her before her birth. Her mom had told her once that wanting to lead was no measure of talent; she was a leader, and it was up to her to either make the most of it or let her power go to waste. What she chose here didn't just affect her, it affected all the other girls who might have been her if not for an accident of timing-- and the friends who still had faith in her, despite everything.

My name is Buffy Summers, she chanted in the privacy of her thoughts as tears seeped from the corners of her eyes and adrenaline thundered through her veins. Dizziness threatened; she sagged against the chains again, eyes still fixed on her captors. You can put the darkness in me, but it won't make me dark. You're just men, and I will take this curse you're giving me and use it to make sure all those girls have more choices than I did. My name is Buffy Summers....

The last of the smoke streamed into her, and everything went white-hot for half a breath. She couldn't hear; she couldn't see; she couldn't feel anything beyond the all-consuming agony kindled in every cell. Then, as swiftly as the pain had flared, it faded-- leaving a minty-fresh kind of all-over tingle and crystal clarity behind it.

She understood now. Oh, she understood; Sineya had been right to warn her.

"... and I am the Slayer," she finished aloud, breaking her chains as easily as if they were made of paper.

The ancient Watcher types broke off their drumming then, staring uneasily at each other.

The harsh scent of long-smoldering rage filled Buffy's thoughts, and she smiled.

Nick was breathing hard by the time he and Jon finally found the fleeing thing and the blond-haired man who'd chased after it. They heard the ongoing fight before they saw it, and put on the brakes in time to peer around a corner and down an alleyway at the action without being discovered.

It was disquieting to watch; the pair were both apparently a lot faster and stronger than ordinary human beings. Given the stranger one's oversized build and its obvious warrior culture accouterments, it was possible it had even been bred for battle-- and Goa'uld or not, it was pretty clear Spike was cut from similar cloth. His eyes had gone golden, which fit with the team's initial suspicions, but the whole shape of his facial bones had shifted, which didn't; and his teeth had changed, too. Nick wasn't sure what to make of it, yet; all his assumptions had fallen apart over the last twenty-four hours.

"Now what," Jon whispered, zat armed and half-raised toward the brawling figures.

"We're not supposed to draw attention to ourselves," Nick murmured back, "but after whatever that was on the rooftop? We're already involved."

"No shit, Sherlock," Jon snorted, "but which one do we shoot? Or do we just take them both?"

Nick winced as the horned being threw Spike bodily into a brick wall. The human-looking whatever he was slid down to the ground, the blue button-up shirt he wore over his black tee bunching up under his arms. Then he shook his head and popped back up to his feet, throwing himself against his opponent.

"Oh, come on now, Nancy. Call yourself a demon?" Spike taunted as he tackled it, sending it staggering with an enthusiastically delivered head butt. "I thought you were up for a proper fight!"

His triumph only lasted for a second, though; it charged in Spike's direction again as soon as it had regained its balance, throwing a series of punches that connected with punishing force. Spike fought back, throwing punches of his own, but was steadily driven back against the wall; then he kicked out at it, pushing it back across the alley, and the fight went on.

Nick didn't kid himself that anything human could take as much damage as either of them was dishing out, and the longer he and Jon stood there, the likelier it was that they'd find that out first hand. There was no telling how long the fight was going to take; Spike and the thing he'd called 'demon' seemed fairly evenly matched, and neither one had taken the opportunity to give the typical gloating villain speech. That meant letting it all play out was unlikely to give them any more clues about which side to back-- provided there was a 'right side' to the conflict.

On the one hand, he remembered the research he and Daniel had done on the vicious and impulse-driven killer known as 'William the Bloody'... and the fact that the being Spike was fighting looked brutal didn't necessarily preclude its innocence. On the other hand-- it would be pretty irresponsible of him to let his experiences with Chaka affect the situation, especially since the creature had yet to speak a word to give evidence of its intelligence, and even if Spike was lying about his identity to the Summers household shouldn't that just make it more unlikely for him to have risked his cover so baldly?

"Both," he whispered back to Jon, aiming his zat at the nearer one: the bloody-knuckled blond.

"Right," Jon agreed, aiming at the craggy alien. "One shot first; two only if they're still moving."

"Duh." Zat'nik'atels had been created to control Goa'uld slaves, which meant they were optimized to affect human neurology; there was no telling what it would do to whatever these guys were. Three shots in close succession would disrupt molecular bonds and dematerialize anything, but the effects of a first and second shot often varied on sufficiently different physiology. They'd try for the stun shot first, but if that didn't work as expected, they'd have to risk the kill.

He waited as Jon counted down the seconds with upraised fingers, tracking Spike's movements with his zat. Three, two, one: two fingers shifted on the triggers of the phallically shaped Goa'uld weapons, releasing two streams of crackling energy to envelop the opponents. Jon had carefully timed the shots to strike when the fighters weren't in physical contact with each other, and the effects were immediate.

Spike slumped immediately, twitching, a strangled cry escaping him as he slid down with his back against a dumpster. His features shifted suddenly back to a human-smooth mask, the gold leaching out of his eyes as his forehead lost the rumpled, ridge-like look. He wasn't totally out, but he wasn't going to be moving for awhile, either; the spasms in his stiffened muscles were clearly visible.

The 'demon', on the other hand....

Jon swore under his breath as the tusked creature roared, shaking off the energy blast as though it were only a bee sting. It took a second for a zat to ready itself for a second shot, and that second was more than enough time for it to turn its charge in the boys' direction. Nick shifted his aim instinctively to cover the threat, but knew even as he moved that he wouldn't be fast enough.

Of course, he didn't need to be fast enough; Jon did. And Jon didn't let him down. The creature lit up again with the energy of a second blast, then crumpled at their feet about an arm's length away from them, collapsing first to its knees and then face first onto the paved ground.

"You want to check that thing for a pulse? 'Cause I sure don't," Jon groused, kicking at it with his toe.

"I think I'll pass, thanks," Nick said dryly as his heart rate slowed. "So, now what? Cuff them and call Jack again? We're not exactly equipped for prisoners, here."

"Thanks, but no thanks, mate," a strained voice ground out, and they turned to see the blond shakily levering himself back to his feet. "We're going to have to have a talk about just what you boys are equipped for here... but now's not the time."

Jon's zat shifted to cover him, and he thrust his chin out. "I don't think that's your decision to make."

"When Buffy's life is in danger, it sure as hell is," Spike replied, belligerently. "You going to use that thing? Go ahead and do it; at least if I'm dust I won't have to see the look on the Bit's face when you tell her her sister's never coming back."

Dust? ...'the Bit'? Did he mean Dawn? Nick laid a hand on Jon's arm, more convinced than ever that there was more going on than they had a frame of reference for. "What do you mean, Buffy's life is in danger?" he asked, slowly. "She didn't leave the house before you did; and if this being hurt her, how could chasing it help? Shouldn't she already be at the hospital?"

Spike sneered. "Watching us, were you? Might've known. You really have no idea what you've stepped in here, have you? Pity; could've used another couple of pairs of eyes keeping a look out for Dawn." He shook his head, then proceeded to ignore Jon and Nick entirely as he strode forward and bent down to shove the fallen creature's body over onto its back.

It was clearly dead, eyes open and glazed. Spike grunted with satisfaction, then got a good grip around its bare upper torso as though trying to lift it; he was still a little shaky from the zat blast, though, his enhanced strength apparently in abeyance for the moment. He frowned, then shifted his facial structure again-- forehead crinkling up, eyes going golden and teeth acquiring points-- before heaving the deadweight upward and over his shoulder.

Nick gasped as the myriad puzzle pieces finally fit themselves together in his mind. "Oh, my god," he said. "You're...."

No wonder the fighters in this town were so secretive about what they were up to; no wonder they never fought to clear their records or seek out extra help in their struggle. No wonder that even the government agencies that should have made every effort to investigate the causes of Sunnydale's alarmingly morbid statistics had nothing of substance to say about the matter. Whatever Spike was, his kind had to be the source of the world's vampire legends. The secret obviously wasn't as well kept as that of the alien genesis of many of Earth's cultures, but that was hardly a surprise with the instigators still living on the planet and hunting among her peoples. And yet-- those who believed in the supernatural were just as ostracized as Daniel Jackson had been, even before the word 'alien' had been officially associated with his research into the strange origins of the pyramids.

"I'm what?" Spike asked him irritably, standing slowly with the corpse of the creature-- which might really be a demon after all, or at least a member of a species whose existence had led to such folklore-- slung over his shoulder.

"Nick?" Jon prompted him worriedly, glancing back and forth between him and Spike with the zat still held protectively in front of him.

Nick cleared his throat, carefully addressing the mythic being staring him down. "If you are what I think you are, why should we believe you have any human being's interests at heart, much less Dawn or her sister's?"

Spike narrowed golden eyes at him. "So you think you've figured it out, then. You might have, at that; thought you might have half a brain. But as I said, there's no time to explain-- keep those zap guns pointed at me for all I care, just stay out of my way until we reach the house. Your questions can wait until after Buffy's back; she'll have a few of her own, I'm sure."

"You keep saying-- when she's back. Where the hell did she go?" Jon asked.

"How the hell should I know?" Spike replied in frustrated tones, then deliberately turned his back on them, trudging back toward the Summers house with his grisly burden. "There was a portal; all I know is, we 'made the exchange', and this sod appeared where she'd been. Stands to reason we aren't going to get her back 'til we throw him back through. You'd better hope it doesn't matter if he's dead; I won't be answerable if we end up with a dead Slayer on our hands."

"A portal?" Jon echoed incredulously.

Nick stumbled a little, following them, as his thoughts spun dizzily. Of course; if things like Spike and the 'demon' weren't native to Earth, they'd have to have arrived somehow-- and he recognized Spike's quote from Dawn's translation. The Ancients had used portals, after all, as had every race in the galaxy who'd followed them-- portals bounded by technology, known as Stargates or 'Doorways to Heaven'.

...Doorways to Heaven. And now he'd met 'demons'. Was it possible that the initial translation hadn't been as idiomatic as Daniel had assumed? What if they'd been named in such a way that it could take either meaning, partly in opposition to pre-existing 'Doorways to Hell' that operated via a considerably different method. Perhaps one sufficiently advanced to be referred to as 'magic'-- such as the chanting they'd heard in the Summers living room, and the flare of blue light that had followed it? There was always a kernel of truth at the root of most legends and myths, Nick knew; why not this, too?

Still, the entire concept was making his head hurt.

"You'll see, soon enough," came the vampire's snarled response. "Whether you'll believe it afterward... now that is another question entirely."

"What is that supposed to mean?" Jon objected, more aggressive than Nick in his confusion.

"Jon," Nick hissed, laying a hand on his friend's arm. "If he's not lying... I think we need to see this. If that thing on the rooftop was trying to keep us from following him? This could be as big as the first Abydos mission all over again."

Jon gave him a sharp look at that, then shook his head slowly. "All right, but I reserve the right to say 'I told you so' when we both get snaked-- or you know, not, since we won't be able to say anything."

Nick rolled his eyes at him. "Not going to happen-- whatever's going on here, I'm pretty convinced it has nothing to do with the Goa'uld. In fact, I'd be pretty interested to hear what Selmac might have to say about all this-- if Jack decides it's safe enough to tell him. Trust me; I'll explain later." Vampires, demons, possibly malevolent ghosts counting the thing that had pretended to be Janet... yeah, he was going to wait for a much calmer moment to open that can of worms.

"Whatever," Jon rolled his eyes back, but lowered the zat a little, still wary but less on edge with Nick's certainty to bolster him.

Nick had never been gladder that Loki had chosen to clone both Jack O'Neill and Daniel Jackson at the same time, interested in the traits that set both men apart from the rest of their species-- Jack's advanced Ancient gene and the traces left behind by Daniel's Ascension. Either one alone would have been miserable; and he certainly wouldn't have been here, on the brink of yet another impossible discovery.

If Nick was right about this, he and Jon had just tripped across something just as important as the SGC, a separate path they could blaze apart from their originators while still protecting their people.

He played rear guard all the way back to the house, the half of his brain not watching his surroundings sifting through all the relevant 'fairy tales' he could remember.

5. Conflicting Priorities

Sometimes, Dawn wondered if there was something important about the Key that those crusty old monks hadn't bothered to tell her. Something that might explain why her life had been such a rollercoaster of suck since they'd made her into a person.

Okay, so she was over-dramatizing. It was pretty obvious the real reason she mostly remembered an easy childhood was that the Order had been trying to attach her to Buffy's life without making too many ripples. Hence constant memories of fray adjaceny rather than any serious troubles of her own. So of course real life had suffered by comparison. But logic didn't make it less awful. Especially when it seemed like everyone she'd bothered to care about in the last couple of years had either left her, one way or another, or found more important things to pay attention to.

Including cute, smart boys who tripped over their own feet to correct her Sumerian. Dawn probably should have been more surprised to see Nick and his friend show up like a pair of disgruntled puppies tagging after Spike's heels, but after everything else, she figured it was pretty much par for the course.

One of her surrogate moms chanting in Latin in the middle of a circle of green sand? Check. Dawn herself sprawled awkwardly on the floor from the backlash of Willow's first attempt at the magics? Check. Cute boy in obvious spy chic staring at the big ugly draped over Spike's shoulder rather than her own heaving bosom? Check. All she needed was another lecture from Buffy when she got back-- when she got back, and Dawn's thoughts carefully skipped over the horrible reason the other lecture had happened in the first place-- to really make her day complete.

Or... hey, Principal Wood walking back into the house, following the others, with a thunderous expression on his face. It had been weird enough finding out that he was the son of a Slayer; that had been freaky, but kind of cool, and also hopeful for Buffy, that it might be possible for her to have babies of her own. Niece and nephew-type critters for Dawn to spoil; more anchors for Buffy to keep that terrible longing look off her face. But this-- Dawn didn't know how she was going to look Wood in the face at school after everything that had happened since he'd handed over his mother's emergency kit.

He was saying something to Nick as they entered, something that made both boys flinch and look down at the sci-fi looking guns in their hands. Both of them had been wearing that mission-intent expression when they walked in, the one Xander got when he was actually fighting rather than playing bait, but whatever Principal Wood had said made them act like awkward teenagers again. Like someone her age, not compressed adults-- and of course, that was what it took to finally bring Dawn's plight to Nick's attention.

"Dawn! Are you all right?" Nick asked, hurriedly shrinking his weapon somehow and stuffing it in his waistband. He dropped to his knees, then shifted one arm under her shoulders and grabbed her other hand. He had such pretty eyes; it was a pity Buffy was probably right about the likelihood of him being evil, because it felt really good to have all his hottie bookworm attention focused totally on her.

"I think so," she groaned, pressing a hand to her temple. Dawn had been way not comfortable with magic applied to her person since the Dark Willow episode the year before, and this was a pretty good example of why. She still felt kind of dizzy, not to mention bruised. "It's just...."

She never finished the sentence, though, because Willow seized exactly that moment to lose her patience. "Screw it! Mighty forces, I suck at Latin, okay?" she said, raising her voice several decibels as she switched languages.

Dawn felt more than saw Nick's attention abruptly shift away from her, and scowled; typical. To her right, Kennedy was already back on her feet and standing behind Willow, flanked by Anya; to her left, Xander had turned to deal with Spike, Jon, and the principal, his expression shifting from relief to alarm.

"Ah, as you can see, the rehearsal's well under way," he fumbled for her friends' benefit. "Macbeth, you know, for the college production--"

As an attempt at distraction, it wasn't one of Xander's finer moments-- especially since Willow's voice kept rising, talking right over him. "But that's not the issue!" she yelled, lifting the fine hairs on Dawn's arms with the audible force of her conviction. "I'm the one in charge, and I'm telling you, open up, portal! NOW!"

Dawn held her breath, unconsciously clenching a hand in the fabric of Nick's shirt despite her irritation.

"Wilow, uh, in case you haven't noticed, we've got..." Xander tried to interrupt again.

It was Kennedy who broke in over him this time, giving the other guys a dismissive look as she crossed the wrecked living room to stand between Xander and Willow. "Give her time! She's getting it," she said, firmly. "Dawn's little friends can wait."

"Excuse me?" Jon chose that moment to object. "And who are you, exactly?"

"You have no idea what's going on here, so just back off, soldier boy," Kennedy turned on him, glancing dismissively at the strange gun tucked through his belt.

Dawn swallowed nervously and glanced at Nick-- but he wasn't paying attention to Kennedy any more than he was watching her. He was still staring at Willow, at the edge of her angry profile and the darkness shrouding her visible eye, with an unmistakably alarmed expression. "It looks like something's getting her," he murmured worriedly, then abruptly pulled Dawn to her feet and took a couple of steps back to brace them both against the nearest wall.

They moved not a moment too soon. Dawn gasped as Willow suddenly thrust both hands backward, shouting wordlessly in frustration. A faint blue glow lashed out from each of her hands to envelop two of the observers, making them shake like rag dolls-- Kennedy, which kind of made sense to Dawn, but also Jon, which really didn't. How had Nick known that was about to happen?

No point in asking; he swore abruptly, then dropped Dawn's arm to hurry to his friend's side. Jon and Kennedy both collapsed to their knees as the glow finally left them-- just as the portal reappeared with a rush of hot air, fierce and rectangular and glowing just like the one that had swallowed Buffy.

"Doorway to Hell," Nick whispered, the glaring light reflecting from his glasses. She couldn't even guess what he was thinking, and she was extra mad at him for making her worry about that when she should have been more concerned about her sister.

"You can say that again. Wait, how did you know to say that?" Xander said nervously, darting across the line of green sand to pull Willow out of the way. "Nevermind. Spike!"

"Got it," Spike said, shrugging the demon off his shoulder and giving it a shove. Big, dark and ugly slumped against the glowing rectangle in the air, then disappeared in a blinding flash of white light.

Briefly, the image of Sirius Black and the Death Veil fluttered through Dawn's thoughts, and she hoped her sister wasn't having an identical experience on the other side. Then she held her breath, bracing herself against the wall as the magics faded, leaving behind an annoying afterblotch.

"Buffy?" several voices asked at once.

"Present," a cheerful voice chirped in reply.

Dawn gulped. Her sister was there, all right, just where the portal had been. But it wasn't the Buffy who'd left them. Oh, she was still wearing her jean jacket over a white turtleneck sweater and black kerchief skirt, her idea of responsible daywear. She wasn't bruised, bloody, slimed, or even mildly disheveled. But in one hand, she held a long wooden staff with several charms tied around the knobby end-- and her eyes were as black as Willow's had been just a moment before.

"Darn," Buffy continued brightly, wearing a slightly crooked smile. "I was hoping to spend a little more quality time with those guys."

"Need a spot of violence, there, luv?" Spike asked, pre-empting the rest of them as he stepped toward her.

She cocked her head at the vampire, then smirked, still all merrily evil-eyed. "Nah. Peachy with a side of keen," she said. "At least-- if there's such a thing as demonic peaches. I was right, though; the fine print on this one's a real doozy."

"I dunno; it's worked out fairly well for some of us," Spike replied. "Nevermind that, though. Bring back anything useful?"

Buffy frowned dubiously at the staff in her hand, then tossed it casually toward Willow, whose eyes widened as her fingers closed around the finely carved length of wood. "Sort of," she said. "They showed me a lot of things; I'm pretty sure I know what I have to do now."

"You mean, what we have to do now," Principal Wood corrected her.

Buffy shook her head at him. "No," she said. "I mean yes, there'll be stuff for everyone to do-- but it's my fault The First got free. Okay, a little bit Xander's-- but mostly mine. I'm the resurrected Slayer; I gave it an opening the first time I came back, and it's my responsibility to close it."

"Not the way you did last time, though, right?" Dawn interrupted, alarmed. The Death Veil imagery was still with her, and her sister's new look really wasn't helping.

Buffy blinked at her then, expression sobering, and the black finally faded out of her eyes, leaving behind the familiar hazel-green. "No, Dawnie," she said. "The door's already open; it's been open awhile, hence ubervamp army, and Summers blood can't close this one. I have something else in mind."

"Good," she replied, firmly. Buffy didn't seem crazy-- not like last year with that demony poison, or right after she'd got out of the mental hospital that one time in L.A. She didn't seem all detached, either, like she had when the Scoobies had dragged her out of Heaven, or right after she'd found Chloe's body. That didn't necessarily mean anything; there was the black eye issue, and what ubervamp army, again? But overall Dawn thought it was a good sign.

Buffy gave her a crooked grin in response. Then she finally seemed to notice Nick and Jon and arched both her eyebrows. "Before I go into the details, though-- what are they doing here again?"

Nick shared an uneasy glance with Jon, who was still a little pale and shaky from whatever the redhead had done to him. It had to have been a power transfer of some kind, though he couldn't even guess at the method; he just knew that he'd felt an instinctive urge to get away from her right before it had happened, and with Jon's Ancient heritage his friend probably had a pretty big well of potential energy. Whatever 'magic' Willow might be able to channel would still have to obey the laws of physics like everything else-- and Nick knew how much electricity the Stargate drew from the Colorado grid.

No power, no portal. Frankly, he was surprised she hadn't life-sucked all of them.

Understanding what had happened didn't make him any happier about it, though, or give him any pertinent clues about how to answer Dawn's sister. They were supposed to have taken a lot more time to get to know each other, gradually establishing trust, before they even thought about pulling back the curtains. But then again, when had that ever worked for him before? In any incarnation?

"Something came to us," he replied, deliberately meeting her eyes.

He felt a lot less apprehensive now that the tar-eyed look had faded, though he knew damn well from experience with the Goa'uld that whether or not the symptoms were visible had nothing to do with who was running the show inside. She still sounded the same, though, and her friends seemed wary rather than surprised, so whatever had affected her and her friend Willow couldn't be anything new. None of the other common signs of a host were in evidence, either.

As a matter of fact... he hadn't seen any of the usual trappings of a Goa'uld cult since he and Jon had moved to town, despite the suggestiveness of their preliminary research. He was really starting to wonder about the motivations of the consulting scholar who'd given Daniel much of the information about the Order of Aurelius; he and Jon were going to have to look him up the next time they had a free moment. There was no way Wyndam-Pryce could have known so much without knowing about the fangs and forehead ridges, too, and that part had been all too conveniently left out of the story. Had Wyndam-Pryce just assumed they already knew, or was something more sinister going on?

That could wait for later, though. For now, they'd just have to be wary and trust in Jack's oversight. Being electronically tagged like a pair of wayward Chihuahua did have the occasional upside.

"It looked like a dead friend of ours-- several dead friends of ours, actually." He let his voice waver a little as he remembered the apparition of Janet. "And it told us to keep our noses out of your business."

"Yeah, and we're not so good at following those kinds of orders," Jon put in dryly, putting less of his weight on Nick's arm as he regained his balance. "So we followed Spike, here, instead."

"No wonder you get along with Dawn," Buffy said, dryly. Then she shared a glance with Spike over their heads. "The First?" she asked, incomprehensibly.

"They didn't say. Just barged right into my fight without so much as a by-your-leave," Spike shrugged. "Thought your lot might have a few questions, so I let them follow while I got on with it."

Buffy raised an eyebrow, then fixed her attention on Jon again, pursing her lips. "With guns? Those things have hurt more people in this house than they've helped."

Jon looked down at the zat that had fallen out of his belt during his brief convulsions, then stooped to pick it up, moving slowly under Buffy's hawk-like gaze. "Your people might be tougher than the average bear, but the rest of us generally need some kind of force multiplier," he said, frowning at her. "Besides, it's more like an overpowered taser than a gun."

"Uh-huh." Clearly skeptical, she looked him up and down again, then eyed the other zat at Nick's waist.

"Now, now, don't be modest," Spike commented, raising an eyebrow at them. "I've been hit with tasers before. One zap from that thing and I dropped in my tracks. Didn't stop the other demon, though; they shot him again, rang his curtain right down."

Nick winced at Buffy's alarmed expression. He knew what it sounded like-- but there was no point in denying the obvious, it would just make her more suspicious. The odds of having to fight their way out seemed to be increasing, but hadn't yet reached a critical point. "The effect is a lot like a taser," he explained, "in that it sends an electrical charge through the target. Unfortunately, delivering two shots within seconds of each other can increase the neural disturbance to fatal levels."

Buffy didn't seem very mollified by the explanation. "Ray guns," she concluded, forbiddingly.

"And exactly what was it that your friend just did to Jon?" Nick parried, glancing at the 'witch' where she stood supported by the dark-haired guy and the unfamiliar girl who'd argued with him.

"Not to mention working with this guy," Jon pointed to Spike.

Buffy blinked, then narrowed her eyes. "You're not even a little bit scared of us, are you?"

"What difference does it make?" Jon objected, angrily. "There's something rotten in Sunnydale, something you're all involved in up to the eyeballs. I'd been kind of hoping we wouldn't have to go through you to stop it, but you know what they say about assumptions."

For a moment, Nick thought he'd escalated the conversation too far. Then Dawn spoke up. "You really mean that," she said, her eyes on Nick rather than Jon.

"Yes," he said, quietly. "We do." The fact that he was willing to be her sister's enemy didn't mean he wanted to be, but that seemed to be the direction things were headed.

"Have you seen the statistics on this town?" Jon added, scornfully.

"We've lived the statistics in this town," Buffy replied just as scornfully, but something in her manner had relaxed, like ruffled feathers on a predatory bird gradually smoothing down. She eyed them thoughtfully, then her friends, before turning to her sister. "Dawn? Kitchen. This conversation usually goes better with comfy chairs, but we've kind of destroyed the living room, so."

Nick blinked, a little dizzy from the abrupt mood swing. Maybe he would be better off treating them as an offworld warrior cult; Jon certainly seemed to be navigating their reactions better than he was.

"Anya? Would you mind letting the Potentials know there'll be no patrol tonight?" Buffy continued, presumably referring to the gangs of girls they'd seen traipsing through the cemeteries a few nights a week. Nick had figured out when the influx had started from Sunnydale's utility records, but not the why; though he could guess now it had something to do with vampires.

"Sure, make me the messenger," the wavy blond-haired woman said sourly, then turned and headed out of the room. "Not like I have anything else to contribute these days, apparently."

Buffy rolled her eyes, then gestured at Dawn again. "Go on, we'll be right behind you. And boys? Leave the ray guns in here." She pointed imperiously at an end table that had survived the evening's chaos somehow. "You can have them back when you leave."

Jon exchanged a glance with Nick, then shook his head. "Sorry, I don't think so."

Buffy's irises darkened at that-- not quite the solid black of before, but enough to make Nick's nerves prickle with alarm. Fortunately, Principal Wood stepped in, pinching the bridge of his nose.

"Look, it's been a long day," he said. "You don't trust them, for obvious reasons-- but they have no reason to trust us either, and I doubt that demanding they give up their weapons at this point is going to get us anywhere."

"Fine," Buffy gritted out. "Then you go with them, and if either of them points one of those things anywhere near my sister I'm going to make them wish they had never been born."

Wood frowned, and gave Spike a very dark look, but nodded. "I trust you'll fill me in later," he said, then gestured expectantly toward Nick and Jon.

Nick sighed. It was pretty obvious Buffy wanted to say something to the other 'adults' without the strangers or her sister present, but there wasn't much they could do to counteract that that wouldn't further shatter their cover.

"It's, um. This way," Dawn said, heading out into the hall. She led them to a fairly ordinary looking kitchen, where they all eyed each other as they took up positions against various counters and cabinets; Principal Wood brought up the rear, bracing himself near the doorway to prevent any eavesdropping.

"So," he said, disapprovingly. "You did have an ulterior motive for transferring to Sunnydale in the middle of the school year."

Nick shot an apologetic look at Dawn, then nodded. "Like Jon said, we'd seen the statistics on this town. And our uncles..."

Wood scoffed at that. "Please, give me some credit. Dr. Jackson never had any siblings, and none of General O'Neill's have children your age. I did some research after your meetings with Buffy. I may not have hired her for her counseling skills, but I do trust her judgment when it comes to matters supernatural. Who are you, really?"

"You speak Sumerian, you have Star Trek guns, and you don't have parents," Dawn added slowly, biting her lip as she eyed Nick back. "But you didn't have any clue who my sister was when you were helping me with my translation. Are you... aliens, or something?"

Principal Wood gave her a sharp look, and she shrugged at him. "What? It's not like they'd be the first. There was this Queller thing a couple years ago that came down in a meteor; it ate crazy people."

"Sorry to burst your bubble, but we don't eat any people, crazy or otherwise," Jon said, dryly.

"It's classified," Nick hedged. They hadn't really planned for background investigations deep enough to go beyond Sam's carefully created electronic paper trail-- but they couldn't exactly spill the truth, either. Or could they? Dawn's people believed in magic, for apparently good reasons, and a few vague and not at all Stargate or Asgard related hints might give them enough to construct a roughly analogous explanation on their own.

Jon shot him a dark look. "And it's not just a question of national security. I know you guys understand that, if you've been fighting freaking vampires in palm tree suburbia for years and I've never even heard of you."

Wood frowned at that. "And why would you have? You're only sixteen."

Jon rolled his eyes. "So's Dawn. What point are you trying to make, exactly?"

Wood opened his mouth, then shut it again, looking frustrated.

Dawn made an aggravated noise. "Look, this isn't helping. Are you good guys, or aren't you?" she demanded.

"I think that depends on whether your sister's the chained girl from the myth, and how you define 'demons'," Nick said, slowly. "Considering who exactly she seems to be working with, in there."

"And if I said she was? And that by 'demons', we mean 'things that hurt people'?" Dawn replied, crossing her arms over her chest.

"Then I'd ask you if you'd ever heard of a little town called Steveston," he said, choosing his words carefully. "Or a cult leader named Seth Fargough up north of Seattle a few years back."

"Steveston, no. But Fargough..." Wood trailed off. "I heard rumors. There was a lot of speculation in the community that he might have supernatural abilities."

"Let's just say that there are similarities between the records in those cases and what we thought might be happening here," Nick nodded. Finally; an opening. "And we're teenagers. Would you have helped our 'uncles' if they'd shown up instead?"

"So that's the real reason you helped me," Dawn scowled. "Inside access."

"That's... part of the reason," Nick admitted, wincing at her hurt expression.

"Oh, please," Jon groaned. "Nick, Dawn likes you; Dawn, Nick likes you back. Do you mind shelving the teenage drama for the rest of the night? I don't care what Ms. Summers said, if either of you makes puppy-dog eyes one more time I'm going to zat the both of you."

"And on that note," Buffy said wryly, finally joining them. She held a broadsword in one hand, unsheathed but point aimed down toward the floor, and the others followed behind her, each holding a weapon of their own.

"I think it's time for a little show and tell, don't you?"

6. Making the Exchange

The problem with the First Evil, Buffy had realized back in the shadowcaster's realm, was that it actually... wasn't. The first. It just liked to pretend it was, to make people feel more helpless and afraid, then savored that fear like a particularly fine merlot. Over the years, a lot of scared people had told ever scarier stories to ramp up the mythology, until pretty soon, it was older than creation, tempted Eve into original sin, and would instantly subjugate all of humanity... if only it had a physical form to do it with.

Really, it was the physical form thing that was the kicker. Yeah, sure, it was ancient and enormous and good at manipulating people ... but it was still formless, and really fixated on a mysterious seal that none of the Scoobies had seen or heard of before that year. Look, ma, no hands! was only really impressive when you were a kid on a unicycle; for the most part, they had to let it have power over them to hurt them directly. Otherwise, it could only act through its minions.

No, it wasn't the first; what it was, was the last. The last of the true demons. It was the only thing that made sense out of all the bits and pieces of origin stories she'd heard.

The Sunnydale Hellmouth was the biggest and best known because it was where Sineya, the First of the Ones, had got her Slay on. She'd killed the First's corporeal form, that ginormous, horned glowy-eyed shape Buffy had seen, years ago. But some of Giles' books talked about its heyday as a time when the line between things that were physically there and things that were only real inside your head was a lot blurrier; when it had fallen, the non-physical part of it had remained to keep working its smoky fingers into every soul it could. The Shadow Men had installed the Seal as an anchor to keep its strongest sphere of activity tied to the place of its mortal end, kind of like Wendy Darling taking a sewing needle to Pan's shadow.

Those same Shadow Men had tried to only show her what was waiting beyond it-- the army of Ubervamps the First had recruited. But they'd just given Buffy the heart, soul, and spirit of a lesser shadow demon in addition to the powers she'd inherited from her First. They hadn't been able to stop her from prying deeper. She hadn't just Seen the source of the Seal... but what she'd have to do to fully close it.

That Joe Boxer's Eye thing had told Giles and Anya that Buffy's resurrection had been the glitch that gave the First a chance to work its way free. The only way that made any sense was if the Seal was tied to Sineya's very essence; to the unbroken chain of the Slayer line. Buffy had kinked that line by returning and reclaiming Sineya's power, not once but twice. If she'd stayed dead after taking out Glory, that would have closed the loophole; but she hadn't, and there was only one way to snip off the loose end she represented now without shredding the line into so many pieces the First couldn't get a grip on it at all. It had amassed enough power that just her death wouldn't do it this time.

Finding Dawnie's new friends in the house when she returned from the shadow realm all demony fresh with that vital info burning a hole in her pocket had not been part of her new plan. But she could roll with it; their strange zap guns would be good backup for Spike in keeping the Bringers from interfering with what she and Willow would have to do, not to mention an added layer of protection for Dawn, and they could hash out the whys and whos of everything when they had the First Evil muzzled again.

"You guys got all that?" she asked, looking around the living room at the core of her team: Xander and Willow, who'd been in it with her from the beginning; Kennedy, the best trained of the also-rans, who had a vested interest in keeping Willow safe; and Spike, who... had a vested interest in her. Even with the unresolved issue of the trigger, he was the second strongest fighter on their side, and Buffy didn't think the First would risk him breaking out of the programming again by turning him against her directly.

"You're that sure this is the right thing to do?" Spike said skeptically, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Sure that we're all going to walk out of there alive? Or sure that this is the quickest, best option we have to shut this thing down before a lot more innocent people get killed?" She looked back over her shoulder toward the back door and the patch of disturbed earth where she'd buried Chloe the night before. "I think we've got to take the chance."

"No, sure that this is really your idea, and not whatever demony mojo you came back with," he continued doggedly. His jaw was set in a belligerent, eminently Spikish scowl, but she could see the concern lurking behind it in his stormy blue eyes. "You're talking about offering yourself up to the Seal, Buffy. I don't care what the First Slayer said to you; how can you be sure it's not the First Evil, calling you down there so it can set up shop in your body and not just your image?"

Buffy sighed. She could see how he might worry; but she could also See exactly why that wouldn't happen, and it irritated her that she was limited to the medium of words to explain it. "I'm not offering myself to it. It's... it has to do with the fact that the First Slayer bled there too, and laws of, uh, dissimilarity, and... a whole lot of other mystical things I'm not really qualified to explain. You're just going to have to trust me."

"Even if you're right, though, why not just us? Why take Dawn and her friends along?" Xander put in his two cents. "Especially the boys. If their uncles are part of some Initiative-y organization, letting them see what you can really do might just be asking for a cage in your future. You know that, Buffy. At least, before demon you would have known that."

"Before slightly more demony me," Buffy snorted. "Really don't think you're one to be talking, all things considered." After what they'd heard about Cordy, and what they now knew about Slayers? Not a one of Xander's exes hadn't been all or part demon at some point in their lives.

"He has a point though, Buffy," Kennedy frowned. "Why shouldn't your sister stay here? She's not even a Potential."

"In an ideal world? Of course she should," Buffy shrugged. "I'd ask her to take her friends upstairs with Anya and the Potentials and call it a slumber party. But-- for mystical reasons, in some ways, we count as the same person. I can't explain it now-- but I can't take the risk that she might affect the loophole, too."

Spike sighed, then relaxed his posture. "Well. Long as you've thought this through. I'm in. Better we try it now, before we're up to our ears in more Bringers and Turok Han than we can handle."

Xander gave a resigned nod. "I backed you up with nothing better than a rock in my hand once, when you'd just spent months angsting while your boyfriend was killing people, so..." he said in musing tones, then held up a finger as if he'd just had a revelation. "Oh, wait!"

"Xander!" Willow hit him in the arm, shooting an apologetic glance at Buffy. "Of course I'm in too, I'm just-- you know how iffy the magics are for me right now. Do you really think it's a good idea for me to be accessing them directly over the Hellmouth? What if it all goes wrong?"

"It won't," Buffy shook her head. "This is all about me; the power, the weakness, what comes next. You just have to speak its language, frame it as a ritual that'll stick."

"If you're sure," Willow said, then turned to Kennedy.

Kennedy still looked pale and a little wary, the way she had when Buffy had first come back through the portal; Buffy wasn't sure what exactly the story was there, but the Potential Slayer swallowed under Willow's searching gaze, then nodded and reached out to twine her fingers through the red-haired witch's. "If you're in, I'm in."

"Good. Great," Buffy clapped her hands together. "Then let's arm up, and tell the others what's the what."

She turned toward the weapons chest, and began digging through it for her favorite sword.

Time for show and tell? What? Nick blinked at the blonde woman with the three feet of sharp steel in her hand. "Depends on who's doing the showing and who's doing the telling," he answered her, warily.

Buffy Summers had been creepily cheerful ever since she'd walked back through a wall of blue light with black-washed eyes; but there was something more earnestly appreciative in her expression as she grinned in reaction to his comment. It made her shared heritage with her sister a lot more obvious. "If you turn out to be evil, I'm going to be really disappointed, you know; with a smart mouth like that, you fit right in."

"You might be surprised how many dangerous women have said something like that to him over the years," Jon drawled at his side. "And I notice you didn't answer his question."

"Sorry, was that a question?" Buffy raised an eyebrow at Jon. "Either of you boys know how to use a sword?"

Nick exchanged a wary look with Jon. "Some?" he shrugged, echoed by Jon. He'd encountered a lot of primitive weaponry in his anthropological and archaeological studies even before he'd joined the Stargate program, and both of them-- well, the original versions of Jack and Daniel-- had run into a lot more in their trips off world. The Goa'uld had liked to limit their slave worlds' technology as much as they could, resulting in highly uneven tech levels in the various cultures SG-1 had visited through the Stargate.

"Some's better than none," she nodded, "and I'd prefer you have some kind of backup for your zap guns in case they don't work on everything. Weapons chest's in there; pick whatever you're most comfortable with."

That... was not what Nick had been expecting. He threw a wide-eyed glance at Dawn; she seemed equally surprised, but not in a negative way. Whatever her sister seemed to be implying with her offer of a show-and-tell nearly had Dawn vibrating out of her skin in anticipation, in fact.

"Thanks, I think," he said, dragging Jon with him toward a gorgeously hand-carved chest that held a startling range of live, well-cared for edged weapons. He handled several before choosing a gladius-- a Roman-style short sword-- that fit his hand well; he saw several knives disappear on Jon's person before he picked something a little heftier, a hand-and-a-half sword with a mystical symbol etched into the knob on its pommel. To his surprise, Dawn was right there with them, choosing a crossbow of her own; he'd thought Buffy might have been trying to separate her from them again to give her some kind of extra directions, but it was the principal hanging back for a low-voiced conversation this time.

"Fine," Wood finally said, raising his voice again as the teenagers finalized their choices. "I'm the one with the keys anyway; you're not going down there without me."

"Good," Buffy replied, firmly. Then she eyed Nick, Jon, and Dawn again, checking them over, and nodded. "Stay behind me as much as you can. Decapitation or a bolt through the heart will fell just about anything. Anything that doesn't work on, yell for one of us and run. Any more questions?"

"Yeah. Where exactly is this show and tell going to happen?" Jon groused.

"Where else? Under the high school. Ground zero for hell on earth," Dawn answered for her sister, with a grimace.

Somehow, Nick got the feeling she didn't mean that as a metaphor. "You're... serious," he blinked at her.

"Dead serious. Well, live serious," Dawn made a face, then chuckled. "Buffy's the one who's dead serious, and Spike's undead serious, so we're pretty much covered on the serious front."

Jon snorted, then nudged Nick. "Babble at each other later. This, I've gotta see."

For themselves? Nick remembered the translation that had provoked his first real conversation with Dawn only the day before, and wondered what they'd have to exchange for this particular piece of knowledge. Well, only one way to find out.

"All right then. Dawn, lock the door behind you," Buffy said, then headed for the front door.

The march across Sunnydale in the dark reminded Nick of the groups of girls he and Jon had seen leaving the Summers residence night after night over the past couple of weeks; they hadn't understood what the purpose was before, but Buffy's throwaway mention of a 'patrol' earlier made him wonder, now, what other beings' movements they'd missed. Their focus had been on what they'd assumed at the time was a resistance organization formed to fight a group of sneaky Goa'uld, and if it really had been Goa'uld, that would have been fine; but it wasn't, and if his elder self were there, he'd be getting a lecture on making assumptions.

That would have to wait for later, though. For now... he turned on a heel as a bush next to their sidewalk suddenly rustled and shook, then disgorged a man with no eyes thrusting a very sharp knife in their direction.

"Buffy, Bringers!" Dawn called, raising her crossbow and taking a shot as she backed out of its way.

The bolt didn't slow it-- but Nick's sword did as he swung to block the 'Bringer's' knife, and then Jon's blade was there, transfixing the thing through the torso. He brought up a boot to kick its corpse off the blade, then swung to face the next Bringer rushing out of the bushes, leaving Nick to face the third.

The jarring swing of the razor sharp blade through that Bringer's spine threatened to bring Nick's gorge up in his throat; but it did the job, and then Buffy was there, taking Jon's opponent out and then urging them onward.

That wasn't the last fight-- or the easiest-- in the two blocks nearest the high school; by the time they reached the doors, all of them but Buffy had at least one scratch, even Dawn, and several of them were covered in Bringers' bodily fluids, even after Nick and Jon had started alternating sword blocks with zat shots. Nick wished he'd brought peppermints, or Vicks Vapo-Rub, or anything else strong to cut the scent; but he'd smelled worse, and so had Jon. They closed up the gap between them as Principal Wood unlocked the doors and let them into the halls, protecting each other's backs as always; only this time, Dawn was between them, and neither Sam nor Teal'c were there to back them up.

"Where to now?" Nick called to the front of the group.

"Basement. Keep close; the walls have a way of moving around down there, it's creepy," Xander called back.

"Are we going to need a spool of thread?" Nick quipped, meeting gazes with Dawn.

"Nah; the guy that built this was no Daedalus. Buffy and Principal Wood know where we're going. And Spike practically lived down here for awhile," she shrugged, smiling crookedly.

"And of course she speaks your language," Jon gave an exasperated sigh.

"Speaks the man who also got the reference," Nick pointed out, taking the opportunity of the momentarily lull in the fight to wipe the blood from his blade with the hem of his shirt.

"Down here." The principal led them to a staircase, then waved them all down, gaze lingering suspiciously on Spike, and then Jon and Nick as they filed by one by one.

The basement seemed straightforward to Nick at first, despite the Labyrinth reference, but he saw Jon's frown deepen as they passed through room after room, as if it threw off his directional sense. Then the floor ahead of them abruptly opened up into a wide expanse of dirt, dipping at the center to expose a round, circular shape like a sewer cover of evil. It was marked with a pentagram and several arcane symbols, including a goat's head.

"Fascinating," he muttered. "This is the thing we're here for?"

"The Seal of Danzalthar," Dawn nodded. "Uh, Buffy, what now?"

Buffy's gaze had gone black again at some point; she didn't answer Dawn directly, just turned to the friend who'd opened the portal earlier. "Showtime," she said. "You know what to do?"

Willow wrung her hands. "I think so. You and Dawn start off; I'll follow you in Sumerian, then Latin."

"And the rest of us'll hold off anything that comes to interrupt," her girlfriend said, resting a hand on her shoulder.

"Right," Buffy replied, then stepped over to the pit and waved her sister to her, before drawing her blade across her hand and squeezing her fist above the seal.

Dawn balked, voice rising in alarm. "You said it wouldn't need Summers blood!"

"Sorry. But it's just a few drops," Buffy assured her, then raised her voice. "So it can't ignore me when I say: I renounce all claim to the Line of Sineya; to the Line of the Ones! To the Slayer!"

A roar went up; the room lit with strange light; and more eyeless men, faces carved with strange symbols, poured into the room.

Nick swallowed, then dragged his gaze away from Dawn, now shakily cutting her hand, and readied his zat'nik'atel.

7. Class Protector Award

Willow lowered her hands as she finished the last of her chant. Step one of Sealing the First Evil back up, hopefully complete; thank goodness step two was supposed to be more symbolic actions on Buffy's part and less Willow-y spellwork. Her breath was already coming short, and her scalp sort of tingled, making her wonder what shade her hair was; she was also very, very aware of the influx of Bringers pouring into the basement.

She wished Giles had got back from his latest trip to England before this happened, or that Buffy had been willing to wait for him to return before trying it. She did trust Buffy, but the consequences if their plan went wrong-- for any reason-- were kind of terrifying. This was the First they were bopping on the nose, one of the oldest continually existing beings, if not the oldest being, in creation.

A hush fell over the room as something changed, and Willow tore her gaze away from the fitfully glowing Seal of Danzalthar to meet the scowling gaze of a second Buffy, arms crossed petulantly across her chest. The one standing across the seal from Willow turned too, lips thinning as she caught sight of the intruder.

"And what, exactly, was that supposed to accomplish?" the faux Buffy said.

Buffy took a step toward her double, subtly putting herself between its incorporeal form and Dawn. "I thought that would be obvious, even to you," she taunted it. "Me rejoining the Slayer line made it unstable; and unstable equals more room for you to move. So, I renounced myself from the equation. Simple as that."

"Oooh, so you stopped the door from opening any more than it had already." The First Evil gave a mocking shudder. "And in the process actually gave some of your own power away. I'm so scared."

The real Buffy smirked. "Yeah, and in a prison cell somewhere, a frenemy of mine probably just shivered too, and has no idea why. I don't get one over on Faith very often; I'll have to visit her later and tell her all about it. But that's not actually the end goal here. Sorry to disappoint. You think we didn't figure out the Seal needs something other than blood to close?"

"You renounced Sineya, and that wasn't even the point?" The First snorted, and then its form shifted again, to-- oh, God--

"Now this," it said, in a beloved and long-missed voice, "I've got to hear."

"Stop it," Dawn spoke up suddenly at Buffy's side, her voice breaking angrily on the words. "You aren't her. Stop it."

"Oh, but I've missed you, Dawnie," Tara's lush mouth curved in an unaccustomed smirk. "Haven't you missed me? More than Willow has, I'm sure." She-- it-- turned her gaze back to Willow, eyebrow raised in jarring scorn. "Really, Willow. You thought you could replace me with that arrogant child?" It gestured toward an indignant Kennedy, the only one of the Potentials they'd brought with them.

"No one's replacing anyone," Willow replied firmly, trying to keep the tremor out of her voice as she clenched her firsts. "She's her own person, with her own strengths to appreciate. Just like Buffy's her own being now. The first of a new line. We're going to add her binding to Sineya's-- and there's nothing you can do to stop it."

The First Evil's form shifted a third time, then: to another woman whose disappointed expression weighed even more heavily than Tara's. Willow could hear the breath catch in Dawn's throat at the sight.

"I might have expected something so inherently flawed out of all this drama," Joyce Summers's ghost said scathingly. "What line? You're just one being! You don't have the power to bind me. And even if you did, it would die when you do. I'm not seeing any incentive to call off my army, here. Isn't that what you're really here for? To try to threaten me-- me-- into leaving your precious Potentials alone?"

"They're not my Potentials anymore," Buffy countered, pained lines framing her eyes as she stared down her mother. "And I don't have to be a whole line. All I have to be is a part-demon with the heart and spirit of one of your kin, so the laws of similarity apply; like Sineya, but not of Sineya, so the streams don't cross. The Shadow Men gave that to me. And all I have to do with it is kick the door shut long enough for the original binding to take back over. By the time someone screws it up again? It won't be my problem anymore."

"And isn't that just like you," the First snarled. "Foisting your responsibilities off on someone else...."

Deliberately, Buffy turned her back on the ranting spirit, dropping to her knees at the Seal's edge. "Dawnie?" she said quietly. "You've done your part. Back up the others."

"You'll never succeed!" The First roared, exploding outward into a form as large as the whole room: something red-eyed and enormous and sharply clawed, crowned with horns. Then it vanished-- as a whole new tide of Bringers, mixed with a few demons and vampires for variety, began pouring into the Sunnydale High School basement to stop the former Slayer and her friends.

All the fighters moved immediately to meet them-- except Spike, who suddenly froze in his tracks. His eyes went distant, and he hummed something under his breath; then he morphed to demon face and turned his back on the attackers, gaze seeking out Buffy's across the room.

Willow gasped and raised her hands, ready to blast Spike if she had to. She and Dawn were the only ones free to act; Xander, Kennedy and Principal Wood were busy with a group of Bringers on her side of the room, and Dawn's friends Jon and Nick were taking the bulk of the other side since Spike had stopped fighting, abandoning their swords to fire blasts of blue-white energy from their sci-fi guns at anything that moved.

"Spike, what are you doing! You can't-- Spike! Nick!" Dawn yelled, trapped between her sister and her friends by the influx of bad guys. She had her crossbow still in her hands, but it shook like a leaf in a windstorm as her aim wavered back and forth between her friends' attackers and the potential disaster in their midst.

Inexplicably, though, Spike took only one step toward Buffy. From everything they knew about the trigger, he'd follow whatever the First had told him to do as long as it was active; the last time he'd attacked Buffy under its influence, he hadn't stopped until he'd got a taste of her blood. But now, Willow could practically see him fighting the command, gritting his teeth and growling under his breath.

The entire time, Buffy stared back at him, green eyes meeting angry gold. She was down on the part of the floor that sloped toward the Seal, off balance and off her feet, with no way to quickly react; a sort of resigned, determined energy radiated off her like heat. She didn't get up, or move, or do anything except look him in the eye and say four words.

"You promised me, Spike."

Spike jerked his head to the side, as if he'd been slapped. The humming stopped, and his expression contorted again; then he raised his voice, replying to something none of the rest of them could see. "No. I won't. I won't hurt her again!"

An inarticulate cry of disembodied rage filled the room, and Spike shook his head again sharply, shedding the demon face before turning to lunge into the melee around Dawn's friends. A big vamp had got past Nick's gun arm, pushing his weapon up and out of the way as it went for his neck; Spike wasted no time ripping its head clear off its shoulders. Then he shook off its dust, turning to the next Bringer trying to get past them.

Dawn let out a sob of relief, then turned her crossbow over to the mob facing Xander, Kennedy, and Wood, and fired past them to nail another vampire squarely in the chest.

Willow's shoulders slumped at the reprieve; she bent forward for just a moment, bracing her hands on her knees.

"Willow, you okay?" Kennedy called to her, voice worried.

"Peachy! Just taking a breath!" Willow called back, shakily. "You?"

"All good here!" Kennedy replied. "Just get it done!"

And on the strength of that reassurance, Willow turned back to Buffy again, ready to protect her for the final push. Praying to whoever would answer that her friend had been right, and this would all be over soon.

Nick had no idea what the hell was going on anymore.

He'd put together enough from the things they'd seen since stumbling into Buffy's living room portal adventure to get that the shapeshifting spirit taunting people in the town was some kind of Anubis analogue, an incorporeal overlord with a lot of corporeal stormtroopers. He wasn't sure how a mixed bag of underage vigilantes, a high school principal, and a vampire had ended up its mortal enemies; but if you took out the magic, it wasn't so different from his own experiences before he'd been cloned and woke up as a teenager himself.

It was all the rest that was really throwing him. Was he really supposed to believe that a high school counselor and her college friend could banish a being like that by the strength of their will? Could 'magic' as they practiced it be a form of psychic ability, like the gifts activated by advanced Ancient DNA? Was the 'Seal' they'd come here to access some kind of Ancient technology with ritualized activation mechanisms-- with potentially useful applications to the SGC? Or did he just want to think that, to put off dealing with the fact that the entire foundation of his understanding of the universe might have just shifted, yet again?

...Or to distract himself from the feeling of blood trickling down his neck, from where that last attacker's teeth had broken the skin. He'd been seconds away from adding yet another death to his tally.

"Nick, are you okay?" he heard Dawn call to him.

He shot another of the 'Bringers' twice in quick succession with his zat, and threw a quick glance over his shoulder. Dawn was standing near the center of the dirt-floored room, shifting her crossbow to cover whichever of her friends currently needed extra help. She was glancing his way too, wide, stressed blue eyes meeting his. She was a little disheveled, but looked mostly untouched except for the still-bleeding cut across one palm from where she and her sister had started off the Seal-closing ritual.

"I'm fine. It's just a scratch!" he replied.

"Of course he'd say that even if he was bleeding out-- but he really means it this time!" Jon added, loudly.

"You can stop helping anytime now," Nick said in a singsong voice, gritting his teeth as he turned back to the fight.

"Just being-- ugh-- a supportive friend!" Jon replied, slashing at the throat of one of the 'demons' mixed in with their attackers, a rocky-skinned creature bigger than Teal'c that had somehow, impossibly, shrugged off at least three zat blasts.

"Eye, stab it through the eye! I know that one!" Xander yelled.

Jon did as suggested, after his sword bounced off its armored neck-- and whooped as it slumped backward, dead. "Got it-- thanks!"

"No prob!" Xander replied as he turned back to his own fight; and then Buffy's voice rose again, cutting through all the other noise in the room.

It had only been a few hours since Nick had believed he and Jon had stumbled across some strange warrior goddess cult; keeping to that metaphor, what was going on seemed to be more or less an ascension in the older sense of the word, transforming a human being into the embodiment of something greater. He didn't remember much about the time he'd spent Ascended-- the Asgard cloning process hadn't affected those buried memories-- but he did still remember preparing himself for it. And the way he'd felt then looked a lot like the expression on Dawn's sister's face now, as he cast a glance at her over his shoulder.

"It isn't blood that closes the Seal. It's tears. Remorse. An expression of deep regret or guilt for a wrong committed." Buffy had tipped her head back, eyes fluttering shut as she focused on something internal, legs still folded beneath her. Her voice thickened noticeably as she continued.

"And I do regret; I regret so much. Every person I couldn't save. Everyone who died because they got involved in my fight, or because I made the wrong choice, or because I didn't get to them in time. Every friend that I hurt because-- because they tried to connect to me, and I cut myself off from them. Because that was what it meant to be the Slayer. To be alone. And now there's all these other girls suffering, because I came back when I wasn't supposed to and gave you a foothold in this world."

Another glance between zatting Bringers showed tears shimmering on her cheeks, and everyone else casting distracted glances at her, too. Nick thought about the guilt he'd carried for years, as Daniel, for opening the Stargate in the first place-- for exposing Sha'uri's people to destruction, for so many other worlds wrecked or changed because of his choices-- and felt a deep sympathy. Then he thought about how it felt to be adjacent to that now, with all the same knowledge and none of the power to do anything about it, and shifted his gaze to Dawn. The younger Summers' eyes shimmered with tears of her own, and his heart went out to her.

"But it ends today," Buffy continued firmly. "I'm not the Slayer anymore; I'm something else. Someone at this school once gave me an award for being the class protector. So let's go with that. I'm here to protect the people in this place, one more time."

Nick heard a hissing sound then, like water dripped on a hot skillet... and then the press of Bringers into the basement suddenly reversed flow like the changing of a tide. Within seconds, their group were the only beings in the room. The unnatural radiance that had poured up off the Seal began to flicker-- and the whole basement shook, sending all the fighters staggering in the dirt.

"No!" Angry, disembodied words echoed around them as they all braced themselves: the same roaring voice of the giant, ghostly form the First Evil had last used. "You can't stop me; I will overrun the...."

The light winked out; the earth quieted; and the voice cut off, as abruptly as if someone had hung up a phone.

"...evil overlords anonymous society?" Xander said tentatively, into the silence that followed. "'Cause I'm thinking that was a rule 24 failure, right there."

Jon coughed in that telltale way that meant he was covering a surprised snicker. "What, the one that goes: even though this takes some of the fun out of the job, at least I will never utter the line, 'No, this cannot be! I AM INVINCIBLE!!!' because death is usually instantaneous?"

"Yep, that'd be the one," Xander replied wryly, then headed for the center of the room. He was covered in cuts and scratches-- they all were-- but no one seemed seriously injured. "Uh, Buffy? You good?"

Buffy had leaned forward over the Seal to do whatever she'd done; she sat back on her heels, wiping at her face, then gave her friend a watery smile. "Can we not talk about anything I just said, ever again?"

Xander held a hand down to her, then pulled her up into a hug. "What, you said something? Sorry, I think my ears are full of dirt." Willow joined the hug next, dragging Dawn along with her, and all four clutched each other close for a long moment.

Willow went to Kennedy as they broke apart, and Xander stepped back to say something to Wood; Nick thought Buffy had headed for Spike, but he lost track of the details at that point, because Dawn moved his way the minute her sister let her go.

"We're gonna, um, have to put some antiseptic on that," she joked awkwardly, gesturing to his neck. "You never know where a vampire's teeth have been."

Nick smiled back, ruefully. "You know, I've experienced some pretty surreal things in my life, but I gotta say, I've never had a night like this. Was this... normal?"

"Not so much. I mean, yeah, once a year we have some big bad come through, but this was a little high on the extreme-o-meter. Good news is, though, once we take 'em down, we're usually clear for several more months? Barring, you know. The usual patrolling for vampires, and stuff."

"And stuff." Nick grinned at her. Then he remembered his own 'stuff', and his smile faded. Their last attempt to talk about who he and Jon were, and what they were doing in Sunnydale, had kinda been interrupted.

"Speaking of. Uh, stuff," he cleared his throat.

"Yeah, speaking of," Buffy broke in, Spike at her shoulder, raising an eyebrow at them both. "Let's get back to the house, make sure everyone's okay. And then I think it's time we had a certain conversation."

"You're probably right."

Dawn gave Nick an awkward, hopeful smile, then accompanied her sister out of the room.

Nick hung back as the others followed, exchanging a glance with Jon.

"I think this one's gotta be our call," Jon shrugged. "Jack wouldn't like it. But he's not here."

Nick took a deep breath, then let it out, reminded again of his thoughts about finding a new, equally important career out of the shadow of the original Jack and Daniel. "No pressure, then."

8. Just Gotta Live

"So let me be sure I have this right," Giles said, sounding like he wished he was wearing glasses at the moment, just so he could take them off and polish them. "In the brief span of time I was away, you children somehow managed to uncover previously unknown truths about the Slayer, leveraged that information to silence the First Evil, revealed Buffy's secret-- and not just Buffy's but Dawn's as well, a potentially much more dangerous exposure-- to a pair of young men with a connection to an American military operation, and, lest I forget, somehow defused the psychological trigger that was turning Spike back into a conscienceless killer?"

Xander winced at the rising tone in the older man's voice. He'd forgotten, when Giles had called to let him know when to pick him up from the airport, that Buffy's Watcher had been way, way out of the loop on everything that had happened over the last couple of weeks while he'd been with the Devon coven. So Xander had ended up stumbling through a disjointed, rambling report of the highlights as a consequence of trying to explain why there might be a couple extra teenagers of the male persuasion at Buffy's house when he arrived.

"I know, I know how it sounds," he chuckled, weakly. "We're all still in whiplash mode, ourselves. The whole Slayer Emergency Kit thing happened so fast, Buffy just kinda steamrolled right through it, and struck the Seal while the iron was hot. I don't think even she expected it all to go as well as it did. I mean, it's not even May! I hope that doesn't mean something else is going to go down in a couple months; it's bad enough we're still having to feed and house all the Potentials. Not to mention Andrew. The rest of us are helping Buffy as much as we can, but if more girls end up here before word gets out they're not being actively hunted anymore...."

"And you're sure of that?" Giles cut him off. "I know what you said happened under the school, but...."

"Do we have any proof?" Xander didn't blame him for being skeptical; he would have been, too, if one of his subordinates had told him no need to show up for work today, thanks, they've already finished the warehouse they were building overnight. "Surprisingly, yeah. Buffy and Spike went hunting for Bringers this morning and found a few still holed up in some old winery outside of town, supposedly waiting for a prophet to arrive. He never showed, but Wil found this spell that was supposed to let dying people say goodbye to their loved ones, and Andrew ended up channeling one of the tongueless freaks while they interrogated it. Even they apparently can't hear the First anymore, so they have no way of knowing where to go or who to attack. Survey says the deeper binding should last as long as Buffy does, so. It's as solid as we can check it."

"I'll have to track down a few specialized spells to further verify the state of affairs," Giles replied, grimly. "And the rest?"

"Can't really speak to the Spike thing." And really, he didn't want to. He'd gone looking for Buffy to ask her something earlier that afternoon, and caught them cuddling-- fully clothed, thankfully-- on Spike's bed in the basement; for the sake of everyone's peace of mind, he'd backtracked immediately. And not just because of the whole, whatever, Buffy and Spike thing; he still didn't really get what it meant that Buffy was technically not a Slayer anymore, and he didn't think she did either. But he hadn't missed the fact that she'd walked around ever since the ritual under the school acting as if a huge weight had fallen off her shoulders.

"Except," he remembered, "after he broke through the conditioning during the attack, he said he recognized what song the First had been using as his trigger. He asked Dawn to download him a digital copy of it, but that's all I know. About the guys, though...."

Xander knew Nick and Jon still hadn't told the Scoobies everything; they'd been very careful about what they'd said, and how they'd said it. But to be fair, the Scoobies had been just as careful about the details of certain things they'd shared in return, and the two had fought as hard as anyone else to guard the Seal of Danzalthar while Buffy had been putting her plan to muzzle the First in motion.

"Buffy's secret was as a lost cause after everything they saw, but we didn't actually tell them all of Dawnie's. Just that she was only technically born a couple of years ago, not why or how. And we only told them that much because they told us, first, that some mad scientist actually made them both last year. That's why their personal histories are so full of holes. The scientist wanted to do some kind of tests on their freaky genetics, but they got rescued before he would have, ah, ended the experiment, so... they were looking for somewhere to live where they wouldn't stick out like weirdos, I guess."

"And, naturally, ended up in Sunnydale," Giles said on a sigh. "Dare I ask why they told you that much?"

"We sorta might have maybe mentioned the Initiative in the course of trying to explain Spike?" Xander winced.

"Ah." Giles' tone was eloquent in its resignation. "Of course. Well, I suppose the damage is done now-- I trust Buffy is making certain not to leave either of them alone with her sister?"

"I'd assume so? But I'm not gonna ask; I'm actually kind of relieved the Dawnster's not fixated on me anymore, and I don't want to put myself back in the middle of that." He had more than enough on his hands at the moment with his occasional, continuing, confusing, post-breakup hookups with Anya.

"I suppose I can hardly blame you for that," Giles said. "I suppose I'll investigate what I can on this end before I catch my flight, and I'll talk to the Academy headmaster about the Council's other surviving locations. Once I've verified the danger's passed, we should be able to find somewhere for the girls to stay that isn't on Buffy's floor. You can let her know that, as well; perhaps that'll reduce her stress somewhat."

"Will do, G-Man. See you in two days, then."

"Do stop calling me that, would you?" Giles griped, and ended the call.

Xander hung the receiver back up, then leaned back in his chair, stretching until his back popped.

"So do you have any other calls to make now that you've wasted fifteen minutes confusing Giles?" a matter-of-fact voice came from the bed. "Or can we finally get back to our celebration?"

Xander glanced over, and felt his mouth go dry at the sight of his mostly-ex, stretched out sans even the sexy negligee she'd had on under her blouse and skirt when she'd shown up on his doorstep to 'celebrate not having to spend twenty-four seven with a bunch of hormonal teenagers hogging the bathroom and spraying toxic fear pheromones all over everyone else's mood'.

"Naked celebrations are the best kind," he agreed wholeheartedly, all thought of anything else that might have been or might be or might be going to happen in the town abruptly and thoroughly banished from his mind.

He might not know where things were ultimately going with Anya anymore, but he did know that she was right here, right now, still giving him some kind of chance; she deserved to be put first for once. So he was going to do exactly that. Everyone else could just take care of themselves for a little while.

"So let me get this straight," Jack O'Neill said, after a long pause over the secure phone line. "I sent you to California to investigate rumors of Goa'uld, and you come up with proof that Darth Anubis is even less original than he thinks he is, instead?"

"Yeah, because that's the important part of everything I just said," Nicolas Jackson snarked back. Leave it to Jack.

"No, I get it. Vampires, demons, and witches, oh my." Jack heaved a resigned-sounding sigh. "I don't suppose the next thing you're going to tell me is that all that was a metaphor for whatever's really going on?"

"Sorry, Jack."

"Vampires, really? On top of everything else? Damn it, Daniel... sorry. Nick."

"I'll take that as a compliment, this time," Nick replied, dryly. "You should have seen the look on Jon's face when it sank in for him that all of it was real. Look, I know how it sounds, but I swear to you, we're not crazy-- and you should be able to find proof on your end to verify the basics, at least. Ms. Summers said the Army's been here before, part of a secret group based under the college who were researching this kind of thing and called themselves the Initiative. At least two officers who knew Buffy's people pretty well supposedly made it out alive. A Riley Finn and a Graham Miller; and I think the second name sounds familiar."

"Captain Miller? Huh," Jack said, thoughtfully. "I think you're right. I thought that guy took the introductory briefings a little too well. All right; I'll table my skepticism 'til I have time for a little chat with him. Speaking of chats; you know anything more about that contact that gave Daniel the info about the Order of Aurelius? 'Cause I'm thinking, there was a suspicious lack of fangs and sorcerers in the story he spun us."

"Not much. We're not exactly friends; but we crossed paths back when Daniel was getting one of his PhDs. Guy knows his stuff, but he was a little stiff in the everything back then, and more than a little condescending. And he paid a lot more credence to references to the supernatural in his research than I did. Now I'm wondering if he isn't a part of that community himself, and just censored out the more overt references from habit. He'd have had no way of knowing that the details he did leave led us down another path entirely. I'll double check now that I can call him on it, but I'm pretty sure that's all it was. He'd have had no way of knowing anything about what we do at the Mountain."

"You're sure about that?" Jack pressed. "All of it?"

"Jack...? Is everything all right?" Nick frowned; the general sounded unusually stressed. He didn't typically think of the original version of his best friend as old, but before their cloning Jack had been a decade or so Daniel's elder, and Daniel himself had been pushing forty. And they'd all seen how the job had worn on Hammond.

"Oh, same old, same old. Nothing I can actually talk about, even given present circumstances," Jack replied, bluntly. "Subtitled, more of the same. Just-- watch yourself. Maybe it's a good thing you're around a lot of tough customers right now, even if every last one of them is batshit."

"Jack?" Nick repeated the man's name. Gossip around the mountain used to say that Jack and Daniel could hold entire conversations just saying each other's names; it didn't work as well between Nick and Jack now as it did between Nick and Jon, given the changes in names and voices since the clones were dropped back into the middle of puberty, but it was still pretty close.

"Let's just say a certain someone is MIA with a bunch of Legos right now, courtesy of last year. Don't know if they know enough to go for you, too, if he doesn't work out, so... stick close to Jon, all right?" Jack cleared his throat, roughly.

For a long moment, Nick had no idea what to say. He'd just gotten used to being one of two Daniel Jacksons in existence; he wasn't prepared to be the only one again, anytime soon. "I, uh. Of course, Jack. You'll keep us posted?"

"As much as I can," Jack agreed. "Could take a while, though. Sam's dad's here now; I have to be in a briefing with him in half an hour."

Nick winced; whatever had brought Jacob Carter to the SGC from the Tok'ra had to be dire, given what little he knew about the current state of things between their High Council and the Tau'ri. "Guess I'd better leave you to it, then. You all right with how much we've told these guys?"

"Not really; but as long as you don't tell them any more, I doubt it'll do much harm," Jack groused, leaping on the opportunity to change the subject. "I should have expected it anyway, as soon as I heard there was a girl involved."

"What?" Nick didn't think he'd said that much about Dawn. "What did Jon tell you?"

"Hah; he didn't have to. I was there when you-- when Daniel-- met Sha'uri, remember? You know, that time he fell in love so fast-- and I'm not even talking about the surprise diplomatic marriage part of things, here-- that he agreed to abandon his whole life and planet in favor of a smart, pretty girl and her fascinating new culture, less than twenty-four hours after they'd met? I can't imagine why that came to mind, just now."

Nick felt his whole face flush at the suggestive sarcasm. "I'm old enough to be her father, Jack."

"You mean Daniel is. Actually-- from what you said, it sounds like this girl's actually just a year older than you. How do these women even find you guys?" Jack made a tsk'ing noise.

Nick snorted. "Let me guess, you haven't stopped teasing Daniel about his new friend the pirate yet?"

"Oh, like I'd let material that rich go anytime soon," Jack replied, dryly. "You should see the security cam footage. In fact, I think I'll have some of it sanitized for telltales and sent to Jon-- he needs to know what to expect. Hair pulling, Nicolas. I never woulda guessed you had it in you."

"So you keep telling me," Nick replied, dryly. "As if he's never been embarrassed by some of your encounters with women on missions."

"Save that conversation for Jon," Jack said, loftily. "I gotta go, kid. Stay safe. Keep checking in, even if one of us isn't available. Someone will be, eventually."

"Ditto," Nick replied, then hung up the phone as the other end disconnected.

Not the ringing endorsement he'd half-hoped for; and not good news either on the home front. He could only imagine what the Replicators wanted with Daniel's buried memories of his year Ascended. But that wasn't his life anymore; this was.

He and Jon had transferred to Sunnydale in hopes of doing some good despite being exiled from the calling they had both devoted their lives to; and they'd done that. Were doing that. Would keep doing that, it sounded like, for the foreseeable future-- it wasn't like they could return to the SGC for years yet, anyway. He'd have to get another degree... maybe at the same college as a certain young woman?

A reluctant smile tugged at his mouth as he thought about Jack's teasing, again. Then he shook his head, got up, and went to find Jon to tell him about the conversation. They had school in the morning, and then they were supposed to meet at the Summers' house again, and then... well, they'd see what they'd see.

In a place out of time, in the inner chamber of a hidden tomb, a woman with long white hair turned over in her sleep. Her dreams had been rising toward waking for years, filled with the conviction that her long wait would be over soon; that the Last Guardian of the Hellmouth was near, ready to claim M? from its rocky vault to wield against the minions of Sineya's old foe. But something had changed.

The sense of the anomalous presence in her mind, the knot in the Slayer line she'd always known would one day come, had unraveled without ever drawing close enough to call her from her rest. It had been inevitable that one day the Shadow Men's short-sightedness in casting the curse to pass Sineya's abilities from one Chosen girl to the next would disturb the magics guarding the Seal of Danzalthar; but somehow, the matter had self-corrected without her input.

One day, another Slayer would live a second life; one day, that girl would come to wake her. But that girl would not be Buffy Summers.

Content, the sole remaining ancient guardian sank into a deeper slumber, prepared to wait as long as she must.


Go to: Top | Long Fanfic (Complete) | Fan Fiction Index

© 2015 Jedi Buttercup.