Disclaimer: I do not own any characters relating to either Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Stargate SG-1. This story is intended for entertainment purposes only and does not provide any financial compensation.

Far Beyond Normal

Chapter Twenty Four

It wasn't far to the nearest hospital, but the ambulance didn't even get halfway there before the roads in front of and behind it were suddenly blocked by military vehicles which appeared out of nowhere, forcing the ambulance driver to jump on the brakes. Armed soldiers ran to the ambulance, and the attendants looked at each other fearfully, wondering what the hell they had gotten themselves into, when the door was opened and a man entered. He was an older guy, one with the hard, lean look of a veteran, someone who had 'seen the elephant' and not the sort to take any crap from anyone. The attendants were about to berate him for delaying them when they had a horrifically injured girl aboard. One look at the man's face and they both sat there quietly, as he walked up to the girl, and gently took one of her hands in his. The hand was badly burnt, grasping some kind of fancy pendant so tightly they hadn't been able to make her loosen her grip when they had examined her minutes earlier.

Despite injuries that should have been fatal, the girl opened her eyes, one of them a deep red as the eyeball had filled with blood, the other a dark green, intelligent and aware as she looked up from her stretcher at the officer. "Hey, Jack."

The grey haired soldier smiled gently. "Hey yourself. Not too shabby, kid. Not too shabby at all." He carefully lifted her hand, wincing in sympathetic pain as she struggled to relax the death-grip she maintained on the pendant, her fingers so badly burnt they barely responded to her commands. Finally the fingers loosened enough for him to remove the pendant and its partly-melted gold chain, and he put it in his pocket before gently lowering her hand back to the padded white stretcher. "We got the details a few minutes ago when Hammond filled me in on your plan. We'll talk about it once you're better, but for now they want me to bring this back to the mountain asap."

"Take me with you…"

He shook his head. "You need a hospital right now, Buffy. It'll take us twenty minutes to get back to the SGC. These people can have you in a good hospital in less than five."

"They don't know how to treat me. About the blood. At least Frasier…"

Acting surprisingly gently for such a hard-looking man, the soldier carefully placed a finger on her lip, his other fist clenching angrily at the damage he could see to her mouth, her broken teeth, the crushed nose and shattered cheekbones. None of that carefully-controlled rage showed up in his voice when he spoke. "I'll have her call the hospital. Tell them not to give you any blood. But we gotta go, kid. When the Ori find out about this they're going to send in an invasion fleet. You should know; from what Sif has been telling us, most of this was your idea. I'm just glad you had the leverage to demand that the Asgard send half their fleet to protect us. That will hurt them bad with the Replicator situation, but I'd hate to face what is about to come down on us without their support. Just get better, Buffy. Don't worry about anything. We'll take care of it. I promise."

At his final words the badly injured girl shut her eyes, and was unconscious within seconds. When the officer stood to leave, one of the attendants felt it was safe enough to speak up. "She needs blood. A lot of it. That wound… hell, those wounds are all bleeding like hell."

The officer glared, and there was something about that glare that promised divine retribution if his words weren't followed to the letter. "She's a Slayer. She can recover from anything that doesn't outright kill her, if her body knows how seriously it was damaged. Sew her up, pump her full of sugar and water, and dump her into a tub of ice water. She going to run a temperature like you won't believe… like 113, maybe 115 degrees. Her arms and legs will be too hot to touch. That'll be her body doing everything it needs to fix what's broken. The physical changes will creep you the hell out. Her hair and eyes will change color, she'll lose at least a couple of inches of height, her nose will rebuild itself, her teeth will regrow. Don't fuck up the process by interfering. I repeat; do not fuck up the process by interfering! I'd be really, seriously pissed off if you fuck it up by interfering. Understand?"

The threat was delivered so coldly, with such an intense glare, that neither attendant doubted for a minute that it was a promise. Message received and understood, O'Neill left the ambulance, rushing back to his hummvee, carrying in his pocket something so precious that two intergalactic powerhouses were about to do battle in his solar system for its possession. Something so powerful that it might be able to affect the ambitions of beings of God-like power. Something so filthy he didn't even want to touch it, because the price Buffy had paid to get it was more than he was willing to ask anyone to pay.

Finally able to relax once she knew the pendant was in the hands of someone who could get it to the Asgard, Buffy quickly lost consciousness. She had almost been overcome by the agony of her many and varied injuries, but had struggled to remain aware until someone came for the precious device. She had been certain someone would come. It was with whole-hearted relief that she greeted the painless bliss of unconsciousness, the opportunity to put her brain on neutral and enter a state of vegetative unawareness, ignoring the world, untouched by events outside her head, blissfully ignorant of the world beyond.

So it was with considerable surprise that she felt… aware. Not conscious, not aware of the outside world, but fully and completely aware of herself. She was in a white room… not a room, but a white expanse, edgeless, no floor or walls visible, only her own body providing differentiation from the soft background white. Even her clothing was white; pristine white, the way detergent ads promised but never delivered. Her body itself was whole, uninjured, even her nails buffed and polished, her skin feeling pleasantly hydrated and exfoliated. There was no pain at all, although she could feel it when as an experiment she simply touched herself. Given the alternative, she had no problem spending some time in this white room.

Naturally that was the moment she heard something, the sound of someone approaching. It wasn't the sound of footsteps, but the sound of movement, of someone coming closer, not being furtive, not hiding themselves. But it took a minute before she saw anything, the newcomer not approaching from a vast distance, but just coming into view, as if through a mist which blocked her eyes from seeing into the distance. It was a sad little man in a brown coat, a dark hat on his head, the bright flowers of a Hawaiian shirt visible under a coat which had gone out of fashion before Buffy was born. She, of course, recognized him instantly. "Whistler. Why am I not surprised?"

He paused a few feet away, sad eyes searching hers, obviously remembering the last time they met, the threats she had tossed around liberally, the anger she had wanted to express through a serious application of applied violence. A pale shadow of that remembered anger flowed through her again, but after the fight with the rock Beast, she was just too damned tired to bother. He seemed to understand that, so approached closer. "Hey, kid. Long time no see."

"Not long enough." When he turned his sad eyes on her, looking hurt, Buffy scoffed. "Don't give me that! Every time I see you more crap falls on me. You're like my own private sign of the Apocalypse! And you're not even a horse! Shouldn't you have showed up like, eight months ago, and at least given me a hint about what was happening?"

Holding up his hands defensively, the balance demon maintained a carefully generous separation from the human. "You figured it all out on your own, kid. And until now we've been lying low, going out of our way not to even think about you. The First is watching us, and the last thing we want to do is give it the slightest hint that you're not as dead as it thinks you are."

Scowling, Buffy wondered if it was a sign of maturity that she wasn't hitting the annoying creature just on general principles, or an indication of her continuing lethargy and emotional detachment from life. Either way, what Whistler said made an unfortunate degree of sense. "So why are you here now? I'm not dying, am I? Jeezus, a fourth time would be really getting carried away…"

"No, no, you'll live. You're hurt bad, real bad, but the people working on you are top notch, they'll keep you alive long enough for the Slayer healing to kick in. But, for the next fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, you're about as dead as a living person can be and not stay that way. Remember how you could see the First when you were dying in that cavern? You're sort of in a similar state now, without the whole 'dying' thing at the end. That gives us the opportunity to meet you here, where the First can't see us."

Buffy nodded her understanding. "Okay then, you got fifteen minutes to fill me in on what is going on, and what I'm supposed to do about it." She frowned when the demon shook his head negatively, his expression, as usual, sad.

"Sorry Blondie, but as I said, the First is watching us, meaning that my kind can't tell you anything, can't help you, can't give you advice. We're all bending through hoops not to even think about you, or what you might do, or how you might do it. Because even thinking about it might attract the attention of the First. It was quite a hoot negotiating with the Ancients, with neither side ever able to come out and say what they wanted, only able to hint about what they were willing to trade in exchange for what they couldn't actually come out and say they wanted. We literally can't help you Buffy. We're actually kind of hoping you can help us."

Scowling in frustration, Buffy almost reached out to beat upon the small man, held back only by the suspicion that he was being, for once, quite truthful. "Well, if you can't help, what the hell are you doing here? Just confirming what I already know doesn't do much when there is so much more I don't know."

The balance demon nodded, understanding. "We can't help you, but we can arrange for it for you to help yourself, just this once. We won't be able to do it again, but just this once, you happen to be here, in this place, at the exact same time as the First is busy god knows where, doing god knows what. And let me tell you, it took some fancy footwork on our part to arrange for the First to be off somewhere else at the precise moment when you would be here. But it worked; you're here, and for the next fifteen minutes I can arrange for you to be back in your old body. That's all the time you'll have to learn what you need to learn. After fifteen minutes you need to put everything back exactly the way you found it, so when the First returns it won't know you were visiting." He met Buffy eyes steadily, noting the shock in her expression, his own intense with the pressure he was under. "You've only got fifteen minutes. Then it's Cinderella time. You won't be in a state to maintain the connection to this realm, and the First will be on its way home. So you only have fifteen minutes. Just fifteen minutes…. Fifteen… minutes…"

His lonely, sad voice seemed to draw out, slow down, like she was in a drugged stupor, which was certainly possible as his eyes became hypnotic, the surrounding white room becoming wavy, discorporate, incorporeal. Only Whistler's sad eyes retained their focus as the world around them faded into a jumble of random, psychedelic weirdness. Until finally even the background faded into blackness, only Whistler's eyes remaining, his distorted voice continuing his chant of her fifteen minute time limit, until finally even that disappeared into the all-encompassing blackness of what she feared might only be her delusional mind.

She awoke suddenly, eyes wide open, going from deep sleep to full awareness instantly. It was a battle condition, and she was a Slayer, aware that something was wrong, not giving any outward sign that she was awake, but all of her senses on full alert. She was in bed… an expensive, luxurious bed, in a darkened but obviously expensive and luxurious room. Very high ceiling, very expensive furniture, although not much of it, she noted without moving a muscle.

And there was someone in bed with her. A girl-type person of the female persuasion. Moving carefully, silently, Buffy took extreme care not to wake up the other person as she got out from under a thick duvet, and stood up. Under her feet was decadently thick carpeting. A huge bay window provided some illumination, even though it was night, and shears blocked what little light there was from entering the bedroom. Still, there was enough illumination for someone with her eyes to quickly survey the room, showing the expensive furnishings, genuine artworks on three walls, a huge walk-in closet opened to show the beginnings of an impressive selection of designer clothing. It was pretty obvious that the First had expensive tastes, and had somehow acquired the financial wherewithal to indulge those tastes.

Silently making her way over to the bay window, Buffy looked out, seeing a vast expanse of manicured lawn, the glow of a city off in the distance, enough stars visible to make it clear she was a long way from urban blight. She sensed, but couldn't see, people out there in the dark gardens. Slayers, on patrol. So… the First liked elbow room, and either had serious enemies or suffered from even more serious paranoia.

Turning away from the window, she checked the other doors leading from the room, not wanting to leave the bedroom when she sensed another Slayer patrolling the hall beyond. Instead she entered the bathroom, closing the door silently before turning on the light, absently noting the expensive fixtures and plumbing, but more interested in looking at herself in the mirror. Her face was older. Lines under the nose and eyes, bone structure sharper, eyes bigger and harder. She was still beautiful, her lips excellent, her nose a bit sharper than she'd like, body far too thin, but her hair was wonderful. It was just a quick peek into the future, the way she'd look in five or ten years, her suspicions about the disparity between the timelines of the Sunnydale universe and her new one confirmed with one glance in the mirror.

A quick glance around the bathroom reinforced her impression that the First had excellent taste, and the money to indulge them. The room was bigger than most bedrooms, and in addition to the usual amenities had a separate sauna, a shower, and a huge tub reached by marble steps, built into a curved turret in the building and completely enclosed by one-way glass. Hanging plants added wonderful touches of greenery. It was one of the most spectacular rooms Buffy had ever seen, and she almost explored further, desperate to see the towels, when she realized that she had a pretty rigid time limit. There was another door leading from the bathroom, and she could practically feel the presence on the other side. Without knowing how she knew, Buffy quietly opened the door, not surprised at all to see Dawn.

She was sleeping in the same kind of wonderfully comfortable bed that Buffy had awakened in, and the room was at least as nice, if a bit more modern in terms of furnishings and decorations. Fortunately she was alone. Buffy wasn't sure if she was ready to come across someone sharing Dawn's bed. Not wanting to startle her sister she carefully closed the bathroom door and made her way over to the huge bed, gently nudging it without touching Dawn directly. Even so the girl awoke instantly, eyes wide and frightened as she looked around for the cause of the disturbance, barely able to make out Buffy standing there in the darkness. "What do you want?"

Her voice was pure Dawn; a bit whiny, but a lot nervous with a whole undertone of fright. Just hearing it almost caused Buffy to break down in tears, so relieved to hear her sister once more that she was almost overcome with emotion. Unfortunately Dawn misinterpreted her silence, and reached over to turn on a bed-side light, holding her blankets close to her chin defensively. With the additional illumination Buffy was able to see the girl clearly, and was stunned by the change since the last time she saw her, back in the high school just before she entered the Hellmouth. She had always known Dawn would grow up to be beautiful; but she'd underestimated how much so.

It was hard for Buffy to believe that Dawn was now just as old, or even older than she was, somewhere in her early-to-mid twenties, but her hair and skin were perfect, better than Buffy's, she thought with the slightest twinge of jealous annoyance. She had always felt that Dawn's hair was her crowning glory, long and full and shiny from the care she took to maintain it. When they were younger Buffy had found it relaxing, even soothing, to simply brush Dawn's hair, finding comfort in the familiar ritual, contentment in being together with her sister, not fighting, barely even speaking. She was disappointed to see that Dawn had cut her hair, and curled it, in a sophisticated and more adult style that, objectively, suited her perfectly, but was a change Buffy hadn't expected. Given the amount of time that had passed she should have expected it… but for some reason it wasn't until she saw Dawn's hair that she truly realized how much time had passed in this universe, rather than seeing her own face in the mirror.

Concerned at the unusually long silence, Dawn glared at her, tying to project anger, but it wasn't hard to see that she was frightened of the girl still standing at the end of the bed, looking at her face as if she had never seen her before. Finally, after what had seemed an interminable delay to the nervous girl, Buffy simply sat down at the end of the bed, sighing and obviously trying to choose her words carefully. "Pretend I just lost my memory. Pretend I don't remember anything that happened since we activated the Potentials in the Hellmouth. Tell me everything that happened since then. In five minutes or less."

Dawn looked at her like she thought she was crazy, giving Buffy the impression that this was far from the first time her little sister had subjected her to such a look. "You lost your memory? What are you talking about? What happened to your memory? I don't see…"

In an effort to break through the babbling, Buffy glared at her, which was enough to make the other girl shut up, her eyes hooded and nervous. But she quickly regained her voice, not challenging Buffy but demonstrating that she hadn't been thoroughly cowed. "Okay, you lost your memory. Whatever. So, after you went down to the cavern, Willow activated the SHiT's… er, the Potentials, I should say… and you all fought the torak-han. Spike activated the amulet, killed all the bad guys, and brought down the cavern on top of their bodies. We all ran like hell, the bus barely keeping ahead of the collapsing crater, you jumping from building to building because, typically, you missed the bus. Finally we made it out of Sunnydale –which is now a huge lake, by the way- and, after a short stop at the nearest hospital, made our way to Cleveland to set up Slayer HQ.

"You with me so far?" Buffy simply nodded, giving her sister a bit of a thin smile at her sarcastic tone and depiction of events. "Okay, after we set up Giles and most of the newbie Slayers in Cleveland, the Scoobies scattered to collect the new Slayers who had just been Called all over the world and sent them to Cleveland for training. You and I settled in Rome for a couple of years while I finished school and you spent your time boinking this Immortal guy and basically throwing the Fear of Buffy into the European demon populace. The Immortal introduced you to the upper echelons of European society and somehow, for once in your life, you managed to make a good impression.

"By the time we hit the thousand Slayer mark, the secret got out and governments tried to get involved. We flew back to Cleveland and basically called a press conference where you went public and arbitrarily put yourself in charge of the Slayers, and told governments that if they wanted Slayer help they would have to go through you. You were the oldest, you had all that caché with the Euro-trash, but you were an American so the White House couldn't freak about having a euro-weenie in command, and the other Slayers looked up to you for saving their pathetic butts back in Sunnydale, so basically everyone went along with the plan. You led a team of Slayers into Pakistan and captured Osama bin Laden. You sent a team of Slayers into North Korea and took out their nuclear weapons. You sent a team of Slayers into Iran and captured most of the leading clerics, let them know there was nowhere they could hide that you couldn't reach, and if they used atomic weapons you would hunt them all down personally. Since then they have been quietly reading their Koran's, behaving like good little boys and keeping their heads down.

"And while that was going on you had teams take out most of the vampire and demon populations around the world. They're keeping their heads even lower. So there; is that what you wanted to know?"

It was what Buffy wanted to know, but wasn't what she had expected to hear. Capturing bin Laden actually sounded pretty sweet. She hadn't liked to stray from the supernatural when performing her duties, preferring to leave mundane matters to mundane authorities, but she hadn't had a thousand Slayers to back her up either. With those resources available she might have been tempted to branch out as well. It seemed to her that the First Evil had done a surprising amount of… good. With Dawn still glaring at her, Buffy was also pretty sure there was a lot more to the story. "So where did this house come from? Even Travers didn't have a place like this."

The question seemed to catch Dawn off guard, and her tone was a bit more puzzled, a bit less angry, when she explained. "Well, with the demon population cowed but good and better than a thousand trippy Slayers looking for something to do, you set up a company for them to be hired out to those who need their kind of help. As bodyguards, detectives, consultants; stuff like that. Nothing makes a zillionaire oil Sheik happier or more impressive to his clan than to have his own coterie of hot, nubile young Slayers. You charge an arm and a leg, but the people who hire your girls can afford it. I've seen your financial statements. Thirty six million Euros profit, this quarter alone."

Buffy whistled quietly, impressed. "Anya must be in her glory with all that money to play with."

Dawn looked at her, her expression surprised, confused. "Anya didn't make it out of the school. We never even found her body after Sunnydale collapsed. What gives here, Buffy? Don't tell me you really lost your memory?"

For a second of two Buffy was silent, closing her eyes in pain at the loss of another friend. She and Anya had never been close, but the ex-vengeance demon had been Xander's girlfriend and had held her own as part of the team. But from Dawn's perspective it had also happened a long time ago, and Buffy's reaction had made her even more suspicious. "So if I'm doing all those wonderful things, how come you're pissed off at me?"

For the first time, her sister met her eyes directly, unflinching, no longer afraid. "You mean besides the fact that you're fucking Willow?"

"I'm what?" Jumping to her feet in surprise, Buffy looked back towards the room she had awakened in, but of course could only see a wall. In her own mind however, she was recalling the girl in her bed at the time. "She had dark hair! If that's Willow what the hell is she doing with dark hair? And why the hell am I sleeping with her?" Desperately trying not to scream too loudly and bring the patrolling Slayers she could sense in the corridor outside the bedroom running, Buffy's words came out harsh and intense, her posture defensive as she stalked around the bed, unable to remain still. The idea of the First sleeping with Willow freaked her out. The knowledge that Dawn thought it was her sleeping with Willow was just… icky.

Her reaction totally threw Dawn. Whatever she was expecting, having been debating whether she should bring the matter out into the open for months, this wasn't like any of the reactions she had prepared herself to expect. Defiance, yes. Even amusement. Buffy had become progressively harder, even meaner over the years, and seemed to take a positive delight in shocking people, especially Scoobies, with her behavior. Giles almost never visited any more, and when he did he looked at the girl he had once loved like a daughter like he wanted to kill her. Buffy seemed to relish in his reaction, taunting him, baiting him to give his rage expression. So to have Buffy react like she was just as horrified as Dawn had been by the relationship wasn't anything close to what she was expecting.

On the other hand, Willow had been getting progressively creepier herself for years. She was back with the magicks, toying with it, testing her limits, saying all the right things about not abusing it, but dying her wonderful red hair so that nobody would know how far she had really gone the path towards Dark Willow. But Buffy's horrified reaction, perversely, made her almost defend the relationship. "What's this? You lose your memory and you're freaked out that you turned into a lesbo? You haven't given up on men. Should I tell you about the three-somes? More-somes, even?"

"I am not a lesbo! Lesbian. Whatever. And I'm not freaked out about it. Well, I'm not freaked out about the lesbian part. I'm freaked out about the Willow part of it! She's my friend, for crissakes. That's just wrong!"

Dawn smiled, enjoying the opportunity to see her infuriatingly possessed and viciously sarcastic sister on the receiving end for once. "You have a problem with boinking friends? Damn, I got that one all wrong. Should I be screwing my enemies instead?"

That brought Buffy's head snapping up, and Dawn swallowed nervously at the intensity of her glare. "I do not want to know about who you have been 'boinking,' young lady. Unless you want every man who meets you subjected to a 'big sisterly' interrogation, I would suggest you not go there."

It was a threat, but nothing like the threat she would have expected to come from the sister she had been living with these past few years, the sister who had become meaner, angrier, and even sadistically smarter with every passing year. That Buffy would have threatened her. Of course, that Buffy didn't give a damn who she screwed, had never even brought up the subject. Dawn was finally starting to believe that something was definitely wrong with her sister. Or maybe something was finally right, after years of being wrong. "Okay then, if you won't talk about Willow, then perhaps I should bring up the topic of money. Even the profits from Slayers, Inc. wouldn't bring in a fraction of the outlay going through our accounts. Even on first-order approximations I figure you're paying out better than five hundred million dollars a year on various 'causes and charities,' and I don't know where the money is coming from, or who it's going to. I don't know; but I'm real nervous about what I'm hearing."

Her eyes were hard as she met those of her still mentally off-balance sister. "For instance, I'm hearing that a lot of the people paying for Slayer protection are actually being threatened by other Slayers. I'm hearing that a lot of the industrial espionage being carried out these days could not be done by people with merely-human abilities. I'm hearing that some of the most powerful and dangerous demon clans are claiming that they have 'arrangements' which make them immune from Slayer retaliation. And worst yet, I'm starting to hear rumors that entire governments are being threatened, that if they interfere or attempt to resist certain Slayer activities you'll arrange for their enemies to have access to their defenses or their families.

"The things I'm hearing are scaring the crap out of me, Buffy. What the hell are you doing? A lot of that money is going to political parties in foreign countries, to 'freedom fighters' who sound worse than the terrorists you used to put away. It almost looks like you're trying to conquer the world for some reason, to make even governments subservient to your whims."

She was still lying in bed, arms crossed above the blankets, no longer afraid to meet her sister's eyes. This time it was her sister who couldn't meet her eyes. "It's not me doing it."

That statement just confused Dawn even more than she already was. "Who else could it be, Buffy? You're in charge of the Slayers. None of them would dare challenge you. Faith was the only one with enough stature to try, and the way you slapped her down and kicked her out made everyone else who even thought about it change their minds in a hurry. So if you're claiming someone is making you do this, I'm not buying it."

Finally her sister met her eyes. "Not even if it was the First?"

Dawn's was caught by surprise. That wasn't a name she'd heard in a long time. "The First is back! I thought you killed it in Sunnydale!"

There was a slight pause before Buffy spoke. "I didn't kill it, Dawn. It killed me."

There was dead silence in the room as Dawn tried to process the words, but her mind was almost paralyzed. Then a storm of memories flowed through her brain in an instant; changes she had noticed in her sister, differences she had attributed to growing up and the result of their radical change in lifestyle. But she shook those thoughts aside. It was impossible. "No. Even if you were… dead… the First could only wear your guise as an incorporeal manifestation. You'd be a ghost who looked like my sister. I don't know what you are tying to do, but…"

Interrupting, Buffy brought up all the things she had considered when she first awakened in the mental institution in Elizabeth's body. "We were inside the Hellmouth. Spike was using a medallion provided by Wolfram and Hart, and Caleb led me right to the Scythe. There was more psychic and supernatural energy in that cavern than anywhere else in the universe, and all the tools we used to blow it apart could be traced back to the First. You know my plan was a joke… hell, you never would have kicked me out of the house earlier if you hadn't realized I was completely crazy. Face it Dawn; the First set us up, we took the bait, I paid the price, and it's been occupying my body ever since Sunnydale. You must have suspected it. I'd hate to think I sucked so badly as a sister that the most evil creature in the universe could take my place and you never even noticed it."

Dawn was staring at her in horror, eyes huge, holding herself tightly with her crossed arms. Buffy didn't say anything else, just let her process the information, let her figure it out on her own. In a lot of ways Dawn was smarter than her. Not in real-world, cut-throat matters involving violence or its theory and application, but when it came to languages or science or technical matters, Dawn had always blown her out of the water. The monks who created her had used Buffy's DNA as a template, but had modified it, had wanted their creation to have her own identity, her own personality distinct from her genetic sibling's. So it was no surprise to Buffy that Dawn was able to work through the possibilities, the permutations, far quicker than should would have been able to do had their situation been reversed. "If you… died… seven years ago, how can you be here now?"

"Whistler gave me fifteen minutes to talk to you while the First was off somewhere else. That was about five minutes ago. I have to be back in bed before it comes back. We're running real low on time here, Dawn."

The warning came too late. Dawn had already jumped out from the bed, rushing over to wrap Buffy in her arms, hugging her tightly, tears streaming down her face with the sudden realization that she had been living with an imposter, which meant that her sister was dead. Within seconds she was an emotional basket case, hearing Buffy's warning about the time limit they were under but unable to put the emotions of the situation aside and discuss practical matters when her sister had just come back from the dead to be with her, again. So she wrapped her in her arms, amazed at how short Buffy was, as it had been a long time since she had hugged her, prevented from making such emotional displays even without knowing the girl was actually the First. But all too soon Buffy had to gently disengage herself, her own eyes a bit moist and afraid of leaving such a clue for the First to ponder upon its return.

It was only when she moved away that she had the opportunity to look at Dawn, and when she did her bottom lip began to quiver. The devastated sadness in her expression even broke through Dawn's emotional reaction. "Buffy? What's wrong?"

Almost in tears, mouth quivering, Buffy gestured at her. Dawn thought there was something wrong with her extremely expensive silk gown before Buffy managed to find her voice. "You've got boobs! Wasn't it enough that they gave you all that height? No, they had to give you boobs as well!" Glancing down at her own less-than-spectacular endowment, Buffy began mumbling to herself. "Damned monks. Celibate, austere priests my ass. I should have known the horny bastards would give her tits too…"

As far as Dawn was concerned, that clinched it. Only Buffy would obsess about her cleavage at a time like this. Reaching back to hug her precious sister once again, she simply held her, tightly, twisting them a bit almost as if dancing, basking. But they had very little time, forever wouldn't have been enough, so finally Dawn released her and tried to get back to business. "So, what do you want me to do?"

With a final jealous glare at her 'little' sister's chest, Buffy tried to get back on track. "First of all, you need to get away from here. Not right away. Don't give it any reason investigate what happened tonight, because this thing is so damned smart it might put two and two together. Maybe use the thing with Willow as an excuse to leave. Accept any restrictions it demands; just get out from its home. Because I hate to say it, but you have to be the ultimate objective of all this effort."

"Me! Isn't becoming the ruler of the world enough?"

"For the First? Hell no! It wants to rule the universe, and guess what the only thing is that is preventing that from happening?"

It took a second, before Dawn scowled as she got the message. "The Key." She hadn't thought of herself as 'the Key' in a long time. It was part of her history, but conferred no power, gave her no special abilities. Since it didn't affect her life she didn't spare it much thought. But it was always there, in the back of her mind, a reality which couldn't be ignored, a potential threat she could never forget. Some part of her had always known the Key would sooner or later come back to haunt her.

Buffy simply nodded. "It knows you're the Key… but not always." At Dawn's look of confusion, she explained more fully. "Do you remember the spell that made everyone forget that Glory and Ben shared the same body?" Until Buffy brought it up Dawn hadn't remembered, but she nodded at the reminder. "Something like that is going on with you. I'm not sure if Willow did a spell, or the Key did it itself, but you could go out and tell everyone that you were the Key, and seconds later they will all forget it. I think it was the Key, because it works everywhere, even where I am. The First is partly corporeal now is affected by the same spell, so most of the time it won't know what you are either. But it's incredibly powerful… Dawn, you must never, ever, underestimate the power of this thing. It will have to figure it out each time it needs to know where the Key is, but it will be able to do it. I guarantee it. Your most basic line of defense is not to be here as a constant reminder, and force it to make a move when it decides the time has come to do what it intends to do."

"You mean, like the whole blood thing? With that stupid tower?"

Shaking her head negatively, Buffy tried to explain things that were partly the result of Asgard information, and partly her own speculations. "Glory had a prophesy to work with, a cosmic alignment which won't be repeated for a million years. The First will have to do it the hard way, which means massive amounts of power just to initiate the portal. That's probably why it needs to be so rich and powerful on a political basis. It's going to need serious clout and technical know-how just to get this thing started. Right now it doesn't have nearly enough, so you've got some time.

"The bad news here though is that it's still the First, despite wearing my body. It can still read minds, it can still manipulate people. Only it's also got Slayer muscles to back it up now. I don't think it can read you very well… maybe not at all. So whatever plans you come up with, keep them to yourself."

She paused when Dawn frowned. "You're wrong about that, Buffy. Remember the First came to me before, pretending to be mom, warning me that you wouldn't choose me in the end."

Swallowing a deep breath, Buffy sighed, hoping Dawn wouldn't have remembered that episode. She should have known better. "That wasn't the First, Dawn. I think that was the Key, warning you about me. At that time you were waaay too dependent on me, and I think it knew you were too vulnerable. I can't prove it, but I think almost everything you saw was a manifestation of your own subconscious, the Key warning you, you acting out to make it physical, make it seem real. I can't prove that, but even if I'm wrong the warning still makes sense. You can't trust me, because right now, in this world, I'm the First, and in the end, even the part of me that is Buffy won't choose you."

When she saw Dawn's look, Buffy sat down on the bed, taking some time to gather her thoughts before looking back at her sister. "I remember the whole thing with Glory, how I threatened to kill anyone who tried to kill you, how I was willing to risk the whole world on a long shot to save you. I would look at other Slayers, the ones who put their Calling above their friends, their families, with contempt, wondering what the hell they could make such a choice. Wondering how someone like Nikki Wood could risk her son to take down Spike. But after this little set-to with the First, I'm starting to reassess my position. Sometimes you have to look out for the greater good.

"Ever since I was Called I've been terrified of losing myself, losing the Buffy part of me to become the perfect Slayer. Someone without emotions. A natural predator, capable of taking out any enemy threatening her world, always alone, not close to anyone because everyone needed her skills and she couldn't show favoritism. The whole 'needs of the many' deal Xander kept bringing up. I'm not sure if I'm becoming that person, or if I'm just getting old and making judgment calls no sixteen year old should have to make because they don't have the experience to make them. But you need to know that I can't do what I did before this time, Dawn. I can't sacrifice billions of other people to save you. I want to be able to do that. I want to promise you that I'll protect you above anything, that I'll make it better. But I can't. You should know that, and make your own plans accordingly."

Dawn Summers was smart. She spoke five languages and read six more. She was being trained as a Watcher, not something attempted by the academically weak. So it didn't take her long to process Buffy's warning, and as her sister had advised, make her plans accordingly. Sitting down on the bed, she took Buffy's hand in her own, and pressed it gently. "If the Key talked to me once, do you think it knows what is going on?"

Buffy released the deep breath she had taken, grateful Dawn hadn't thrown her out of the room. "I'm not really sure about anything when it comes to the Key. From what I am told, the Key doesn't think like we do, doesn't experience time like we do. I think you need to understand something, Dawn: you are the Key. You're not just a girl with the Key in your stomach like an extra appendix. You actually are the Key. The problem is that you, as Dawn, think about a billion times faster than the Key part of you does. I sort of picture it as this giant, slow, subconscious warning system. It sees everything you see, feels everything you feel, processes it all, slowly but a whole lot more thoroughly than your Dawn part. It can provide a subconscious warning when it thinks you're under threat, but is too slow to guide you in real-time.

"With Glory you were actually under threat, and that's why the Key part of you got involved. Right now the Key doesn't realize that the First is actually a threat, because it hasn't threatened you. I have no idea how long it will take for the Key part of you to figure out that you are both in serious trouble. You're going to have to help it, because only the Key has the power to stop this thing. I hate to tell you this, but if we're going to stop the First at all, you are the one who is going to have to do it. I can provide some help. Weapons, tools, things that will disrupt the First's plans, delay it as long as we can. But in the end it's going to be you and the First, because nobody else has the power to face it. Not me, not even Willow at her witchiest."

Dawn was silent for a moment, taking it all in. She had never thought of herself as 'the Key.' Ever since she had learned of the Key she had pictured it as a magic green ball, floating inside of her, a part of her but distinct from her. Buffy was saying that she –Dawn Summers- and the Key were one and the same, not like the symbiotic relationship between Slayer and Called, but different aspects of the same individual. It was a lot to take in, and she'd need a lot of time to think it through, but for now they were on the clock, and something else Buffy had said needed her attention. "You can provide weapons? How? I thought you said you were dead?"

"No, I said I died. Big difference. Especially when it comes to me. I seem to have a real problem staying dead."

Giving out a loud 'Sqeeee!" noise and leaping over to pin Buffy to the bed in a huge hug, Dawn actually bounced in excitement, the way she had when she was a kid, the way she hadn't since the First appeared in their lives. Even Buffy had to smile at the excitement in her sister's eyes. "If you're still alive, can you come back? Can you stay here? Where have you been? What is it like there?"

Sitting back up when her sister finally released her, Buffy smiled down at Dawn, lying on the bedspread, looking excited and so much happier than she had when Buffy first stepped foot in her room that she hated to disillusion her. "I can come back, eventually, but I'm actually living in another universe. Time goes different there too. Not even a year has passed for me since Sunnydale. Even if I hurry, I don't think you should expect to see me back here for a couple of years. Where I am that will only be a few months, and it will take time to arrange things."

For a second Dawn frowned in disappointment that they would once again be separated, before she clapped her hands once, accepting it, realizing there was nothing she could do to change it. And at least there was one good thing to come out of this… "Giles is going to be soooo excited when I tell him about you!"

"No! You can't tell Giles a thing!" Buffy's frantic words shocked Dawn, and had been so loud Buffy herself paused to listen for any of the patrolling Slayers who might have overheard and come to investigate. Relieved when nothing happened, Buffy turned to face her frowning sister. "Dawn, you can't tell anyone. The First could read their mind, and find out about me. If it does it will come after me, it will kill me and everyone helping me. The most important tool I can provide you is a device that will prevent the First from reading their minds, but until then you can't tell anyone about me. You can tell them you think the Buffy they know is actually the First, if you can come up with a good enough explanation, but you can't tell anyone that the real Buffy is still alive somewhere. If you do, we're dead meat. All of us."

Looking not just disappointed but mulish, Dawn tried to negotiate. "I have to tell Giles, Buffy. You don't know what things are like with him. He's been drinking heavily, and rarely shows up for work any more. You'd changed so much, and he was soooo disappointed in some of the decisions you've made, the things you've done. It will make such a difference to him to learn that it wasn't you doing those things, it was the First. We'll get him away afterwards, hide him some place where the First can't read him. She will probably just assume he died drunk in a ditch somewhere."

Buffy knew she was running extremely short on time, but she had to make Dawn understand that some things weren't possible. "Remember me just saying I wouldn't choose you if it comes down to saving the world or saving just you? The same thing goes for Giles. He would never forgive either of us for putting his life ahead of everyone else's. Don't put him in that position."

"But it would mean sooo much to him, to know that you aren't you, that you're the First, doing all these things…"

Closing her eyes, wishing she didn't have to hurt her sister, Buffy saw no other option, so faced her before speaking. "Dawn, Giles already knows I'm the First."

She wasn't surprised to see the confusion in her sister's eyes. Knowing there was no way to spare her the pain, Buffy explained. "Remember back in Sunnydale when you thought Giles might be the First himself, because he wasn't touching anyone and was acting really weird? He said he was attacked by a Bringer, but saw it out of the corner of his eye and 'thrashed it mightily?' Well, think that though for a minute. Our Giles, who had been routinely getting knocked out by newbie vamps for years, is able to defeat a Bringer who had just taken out most of the Council. Uh huh. Not likely. I figure he got captured, and he made a deal with the First."

Looking at her with wide, disbelieving blue eyes, Dawn scurried away, for the first time doubting which Buffy was actually the First. "No! He would never betray you! He was practically your father! You're lying to me, trying to deceive me. You're really the First…"

Sighing, Buffy merely lay down on the bed, not even looking at Dawn as she continued. "I had already died twice. I was waaaay past warranty. And I was also in way over my head, and didn't even know it. I didn't say he 'betrayed' me, Dawn; I said he made a deal. The best deal he could get under the circumstances, since he had a pretty weak hand. He couldn't save me, but he could do something for the Potentials, maybe even something to protect you. He probably felt dirty as hell for doing it, which was why he didn't interact with us much when he came back to Sunnydale. He even tried to make things as easy as possible for me, offering encouragement even though he knew what I was doing was futile. I don't even blame him, really. It would be pretty hypocritical of me if I did, when I'm doing the same thing to him; putting the needs of the mission ahead of the needs of my friends." She laughed bitterly, and Dawn could hear the barely-suppressed tears in her voice. "I've become the Slayer he always wanted me to be. He would be so proud."

It took her a few seconds, and a lot of thinking, before Buffy's words made it through Dawn's anger. But it was the tone which affected her most. No matter what Buffy said, it was killing her to order her not to tell Giles the truth. And despite what she said, it hurt her that Giles hadn't told her the truth. But it was also an order that Dawn, at least intellectually, understood was correct. "Why would he even bother making a deal? What was the point? If you couldn't stop the First, none of the Potentials was going to."

"What's the first rule of Slaying, Dawn? Don't die. What you and I are doing right now was the point of making a deal. When you are still alive you never know what might come up. When you're dead, well, your chances of improving the situation are somewhat limited. He made the right call. He really did. I hope I can tell him that some day."

Nodding slowly, Dawn tried to change the subject. "If the First is using your body, why don't I just shoot it… you. You'd still have the body you're using where ever you are, and with the First now corporeal, shooting it would kill her as dead as anyone else."

It took a bit for Buffy to gain control over her emotions, but finally gave Dawn a shaky grin. "Good idea, but the First already thought of that. It's now part of the Great Slayer Chain of Life. If my body dies, it just transfers along with the Slayer to the next Potential to be Called. And the one after that, when she dies. It can't be stopped so long as there is another Potential available. God only knows when that will be. But until then, we can't stop it by attacking its host… and the only one you can tell about me being alive is Xander."

Not expecting the sudden switch in topic, Dawn stared at her sister in shock, until Buffy explained herself. "Caleb took Xander's eye for a reason. He went well out of his way to do it, when there were a lot of Potentials around he could have hurt, and they represented far more of a threat than Xander did. Even the way he acted when he did it was interesting. He seemed almost indignant. He gave this weird speech about taking the eye because Xander was the 'one who sees.' I'm not sure, but I think he was upset that the First couldn't see Xander. Taking the eye was his weird way of leveling the playing field.

"Once again I'm guessing, and I don't know how Xander could be invisible to the First when nobody else is. I'm thinking Willow did it; he was always her best friend, and she tended to look out for him. If I'm right, until I get you the psyonic disruptors, you and he are the only two people that the First can't read. But remember that the First knows you are the Key despite the spell making people forget it. If the First is really determined to read Xander I wouldn't be surprised if it could. But I also think it considers Xander to be too little a fish for it to pay any attention to him in the first place. If you're going to trust anyone, I'd suggest Xander."

Buffy didn't know how much time had passed, but suspected she was right at the outer limit of what had been provided. She got up from the bed, and without a word being said, Dawn understood that the time had come to say goodbye. Just like back in Sunnydale, at the school when they separated to go to meet their respective destinies, Dawn silenced her sister when she tried to say something appropriate. Words wouldn't be sufficient. Nothing put in words could express all the feelings, the emotions of the moment. So they simply hugged each other tightly for a few seconds, before Buffy suddenly released her, and rushed back to the other bedroom, getting into the bed only seconds before she felt consciousness slip away. It was probably a good thing. She didn't know if she could have prevented herself from waking Willow, and warning her that the First was using sex to manipulate her, twisting her best friend into a caricature of the wonderful person she was, turning her back into the psychotic, power-mad lunatic which had once cost her everything she held dear.

Or perhaps it was just as well that she had an excuse for not warning her.

She did know that the first thing she wanted to do once she was released from the hospital was visit her new Willow and hug her so tightly her bones would ache. And after that, she wanted to talk to General Hammond about something called a Quantum Mirror.


This brings 'Far Beyond Normal' to its conclusion. The story will pick up again in a sequel titled 'Return To Normal' which, unfortunately, I haven't written yet. It's been plotted out, but it will be awhile before I get to posting it. I'll need to write a lot of it before I start posting, because I prefer quick updates, and it damned near killed me meeting my posting schedule with this one. The sequel will be more an ensemble piece than the Buffy-centric story this one was, simply because I won't have to provide as much background story so can use the space for additional characters. I should warn those of you who can't stand Dawn that she'll be a major player in the sequel.

I want to thank everyone for their feedback and encouragement. I put a lot of work into this story and I'm glad to see so many of you enjoyed it.