TITLE: The Stealing Sky
EMAIL: seraphcelene@yahoo.com
SPOILERS: through The Gift. Bargaining and As You Were
ARCHIVING: Essential-Imperfect, Buffy Fiction Archive. All others please ask.
SUMMARY: Riley returns to Sunnydale only to find that it isn't as he left it.
NOTES: AU. Assumes that the events post-The Gift never happened.
FEEDBACK: Is like air and highly addictive. In other words, yes please!
DISCLAIMER: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and all related characters belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Warner Brothers Company, UPN, et al. I'm just taking them out for a little exercise.
THANKS: to Moonwhip - as always for her encouragement and patience.

"Did I dream this belief or did I
believe this dream."
-- Paul Simon, I Grieve

The Stealing Sky

When they said goodbye it wasn't farewell so much as it was - your choice. I love you, but you decide. In the shadowed light of the back room, venom spilled unheeded as they fought. Secrets once-kept were told and opportunities were missed, forever unrecoverable.

When the bitter wind blew south a good man went with it.

A good solider, Riley Finn took orders well. He was quick on his feet and always first to volunteer for dangerous missions. Riley was likable and, even though he was quiet during those first few months in South America, the men grew to respect him. He was fair, honest and he always looked out for the others on his team. But the bitter wind that carried him south was not content that Riley should be content and it whispered in the ears of men who would listen: Too eager. Death Wish. Traitor.

There were those who brushed the troublesome whispers away, and those who swallowed the wind-swept words like honey. Riley never noticed the whispers or the stares, and if the men tended to avoid him in the mess hall, well, it really didn't matter.

Riley fought hard and lived quietly, occasionally ruffled by the pesky interference of a remembering wind from the North. Challenged by the tangle of leaves and vines, the scent of a woman that Riley tried hard to forget fought its way deep into the South American jungle to haunt his dreams with visions of green-soft eyes and shining blonde hair. The memory of their good-bye replayed itself in a thousand variations on the same theme. Sometimes the parting was sharp, angry pain. Sometimes it was a gentle, sorrowful ache in his heart. But, by and by Riley learned to forget. He hunted demons and thought about falling in love. But the wind, reeking of half-forgotten things, stirred, and Riley requested a leave of absence, packed a bag, and hopped on the next transport to Sunnydale.

When he arrived back in Sunnydale Riley realized that something was immensely wrong. Standing on the airfield, he braced his back and rolled his broad shoulders, squinting against the sun and sharp desert sky, but the air in Sunnydale just didn't shift and flow as it ought. Riley couldn't quite put his finger on it, but the dry California wind whispered slyly across his neck, ruffling his hair and tugging playfully at the tail of his shirt.

He wasted no time and rented a big, black truck with four-wheel drive. Sunnydale was a small town and, despite the malicious Santa Ana winds, he reached Revello Drive quickly.

Riley was nervous striding up the walk and his hand almost shook as he pressed the button beside the door. Everything looked as it should. Although, if he were honest, Riley would admit that the lawn was a little more ragged than usual, and the wide porch a little more unkempt.

The door opened slowly and Dawn stood across the threshold, one hand holding the door wide. "Riley?" she whispered.


A smile began to spread itself across Dawn's face before crumbling suddenly as she launched herself into his arms.

Riley laughed as he hugged her. "I missed you, too. You've gotten so tall."

Dawn squeezed him tightly around the ribs, her face buried in the curve of his shoulder, shielded from the treacherous wind whipping across the porch. "You left," she whispered tearfully, her frantic voice painfully hushed. "You left," she said again, this time looking up to stare at him with bright, accusatory eyes.

Riley gently touched her tear-stained face, his thumb rubbing across her flushed cheek. Tenderly Riley tucked a shining lock of hair behind her ear. "What's all this? Dawn?"

Dawn leaned in close, nestled against his heart, and began to cry in earnest. "So much," she cried. "Glory. Mom." Her voice broke into incomprehensible sobs, mocked by the glittering ring of wind chimes.

Riley Finn was a good solider. Sharp. And this did not feel right. This did not feel like the home he had left. This clinging girl trembling in his arms, a foot taller and grown more lovely than he would have imagined, was not at all as he remembered. Although he would not put a name to it, Riley could feel the creeping fingers of dread tighten around his pounding heart.

"Dawn, it's okay," he said steadily. "It's going to be okay." Riley held her tightly, stroking her back and because the question had to be asked he hugged her especially close. "Dawn, where's Buffy?"

"Out on patrol," Dawn hiccupped through her tears. Or that is what his dreadful heart hoped to hear even though it wasn't dark yet and patrolling, he knew, only happened at night.

In reality the question only made Dawn cry harder and the chimes ring louder.

Riley thought of all the places Buffy could be that would keep her from this broken and shuddering Dawn that he did not remember. Maybe she was at The Magic Box with Giles, doing research. In classes, maybe? It was, after all, the middle of the week and of course that was where she would be. Perhaps she had another boyfriend. Maybe Angel had returned.

But Riley Finn was a good solider. Sharp; and as he held Dawn close to his racing heart, his vision began to blur.

"Riley?" The chimes seemed to sing his name before the sly Sunnydale air stilled and settled, hot and dry, at his feet.

Riley looked up to see Willow, her red hair somehow more muted than when he had last seen her, standing in the doorway. Riley blinked against the image of her, pale and thin. A single tear escaped to slide down the curve of his cheek. Riley's voice was hushed and tight when he asked: "Where's Buffy?"

Willow's smooth, pale brow crumpled and her lips parted with a sigh that set the clever wind dancing restlessly across the porch. "Riley," she said his name and it sounded like an apology. Willow stepped out onto the porch and the wind settled once again. She reached out and touched Dawn's hair gently. "Maybe you should come inside."

The devilish wind swept through the chimes like laughter and Riley could feel his body tighten, bracing to resist the sky.