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.

Return To Normal

Authors Note: This story begins immediately after the end of Far Beyond Normal. If you haven't read it, you may have trouble understanding what is going on at the start.

Chapter One

Dawn Summers none-too-subtly indicated she did not wish her three-slayer bodyguard contingent to enter her quarters by trying to slam the door in their faces. Unfortunately a pneumatic device attached to the door prevented it from crashing shut, causing one more indignity in an evening filled with them. From their expressions, they were just as glad not to enter, and were sneering in contempt at her tantrum. It had been a long night, and slayers were not renowned for their willingness to conceal their feelings, even from those they were tasked to protect. They were no longer just exasperated; they despised her, and weren't afraid to let her know it. If she wasn't Buffy Summers little sister, they would be just as happy to stand aside and let whatever demon clan that wanted to kidnap her be their guest. Most of them would happily pay to watch them sacrifice the annoying bitch she had become over the past few weeks. Lil' Sis's recent behavior hadn't made her too popular with the employees of Slayers Inc.

But Big Sis ran Slayers Inc with an iron fist, and nobody was crazy enough to piss her off by being so incompetent as to allow Dawn to be kidnapped. Again. Not after what happened the last time it happened. Not after Buffy had personally expressed her displeasure to those who had failed in their duty. It had been such a painful learning experience no one was tempted to repeat it. No matter how much the girl deserved it. Or seemed to go out of her way to expose herself to demonic elements. Or just generally piss off the slayers on her security detail. So no matter how minor the actual loss would be should Lil' Sis get whacked, the downside was too painful to compensate for the momentary pleasure of watching some demon strangle the annoying little brat.

It hadn't always been that way. When they first came to public attention after the horrific Demonic Incursion in Los Angeles, when the Master Vampire Angelus had released the forces of Hell from his Evil law firm, it had actually been Dawn who garnered most of the attention. Younger and taller and possibly even prettier than her formidable sister, she was a 'normal' girl, enthusiastic and articulate, knowledgeable about the mystical events occurring but not so powerful that she was needed on the battleline like Buffy had been. For the first few years she had actually been the unofficial spokes-person for the slayers, her long dark hair, brilliant blue eyes, and prominent cheekbones providing a human face to supernatural events confounding and frightening the human populace who until then had been unaware of the mystical underworld. She was also being trained as a Watcher, the human half of the Slayer/Watcher tandem, and given her brains, public profile, family connections, and native ability, it was generally assumed that she would likely lead the entire organization sooner or later. Dawn was in demand, and when Slayers Inc set up camp in Cleveland, whenever anyone who was anyone threw a party, her name was always on the guest list.

There were stories about her, of course. Rumors about her whininess, pettiness, and propensity for kleptomania. Not many people were surprised; she was young, beautiful, and spoiled. Naturally she was going to be a bit of a bitch. At least, unlike her competitors in the Hot Young Babe media hype machine, she made an effort to ensure that she was wearing panties before she went out, and had yet to be sent away to Rehab due to underage alcoholism. Most of the people who actually knew Dawn noted that although she might once have acted less maturely than she would have preferred, given her situation at the time –what with the death of her mother and the looming threat of the demonic annihilation of Sunnydale-- her behavior had been understandable. More importantly, it was all in the past. She had grown up, finally come into her own both personally and professionally. It was unfair to hold past behavior against her when she had worked so hard to overcome her reputation.

Then suddenly, without warning or apparent cause, Dawn abandoned all the work she had done to prove herself. She became more and more sullen and angry, to the point where she was becoming an actual embarrassment to the organization. After this latest fiasco they would probably have no choice but to remove her from any further duties with the Council.

Which was a real shame, because escorting Buffy Summers' younger sister used to be considered one of the less suck-tacular jobs a slayer hanging around Slayer HQ might be assigned. The girl liked to shop –she was a Summers, after all- and she attended classes most of the day, which made it pretty easy to cover her. More importantly, she was so freakin' hot that guys were drawn to her like flies. This was important because most guys were scared-shitless of introducing themselves to a slayer, afraid of having their masculinity challenged by a girl who could easily rip their balls off if they got pissed of by some retarded male behavior. In other words, if they acted like a normal guy. Dawn was able to draw them in, and make them sufficiently comfortable that her slayer bodyguards had a chance to make a decent impression before the poor intimidated bastards ran for the hills. Unfortunately, for the past few weeks, Summers Junior had been regressing to her bratty teen persona, and it was getting real frickin' old real frickin' fast.

You would think that after being the target of monsters and depraved warlock's pretty much from the moment she hit puberty, Dawn Summers would have long since figured out that she needed a bodyguard. Doubly so since Slayers Inc went public and her sister became fabulously wealthy. For the past several years she had seemed to adjust to that unfortunate reality. Lately however, everything they did irritated her. And she wasn't hesitant about letting them know either. Whiney, obnoxious, bitchy; she had devolved into the teenaged harridan they had all heard about; the petulant, capricious spawn they had hoped she had finally outgrown. But the Bitch Was Back, with a vengeance, and she wasn't shy about letting everyone know it.

The slayers on her guard detail were already sick to death of it.

The door finally closed, her escort/bodyguard/jailers trapped on the other side. Dawn released an exhausted, regretful sigh, and reached over to flick the light switch. There were no overhead lights, merely dozens of small, low-wattage spotlights shining on pictures mounted from floor to ceiling and on just about every flat surface. This was the 'Celebrities' Room. All of the pictures in this room were of Dawn mingling with celebrities; movie stars, singers, famous athletes. Pride of place went to a famous photo of her with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, which had been on the cover of 'People' magazine. Dawn's eyes were drawn to the picture even as she walked through the room, into the 'Politicians' Room, which had even more pictures of Dawn being introduced to World Leaders and other Very Important People.

They, along with the 'Titans of Industry' room off to the other side of the hall, were pathetic attempts to prove her own existence by providing a record of all the Rich & Famous people she knew. Intellectually she knew that not one of those people remembered her half a second after she gave them her donation for whatever cause or campaign they wanted funded, except perhaps noting that she was Buffy Summers sister. But at least the pictures provided a tangible reality, validating her own existence. She knew George Clooney; therefore she was. Which was more than could be said of the girls in the 'Slayers' room, so young and proud and convinced of their own immortality, all now dead and already forgotten by almost everyone except Dawn… and perhaps their long-lost families.

The night had been a bad one. They had all been bad lately, ever since that night two months earlier when the real Buffy had come into her bedroom and announced that the First had killed her. At first she had doubted it had really happened, wondered if it had just been a horrible nightmare, tried to convince herself that what she had seen that night hadn't been real. But it hadn't taken long to confirm everything the real Buffy had told her in the few minutes they had together. To confirm that the Buffy she had been living with for the past few years was just a shell, occupied by the same malicious demi-goddess bitch who had actually murdered her sister.

She hadn't gone off half-cocked. For weeks afterwards she'd thought things over carefully. Considered everything she'd seen, everything that had happened since Sunnydale. The changes in Buffy. Xander and Giles leaving the Council. Willow's descent into magical addiction. The way Slayers Inc had been set up, and the way monies were being passed through its Byzantine accounting system. But mostly she thought about her sister. The hero who had died for her. The big sister who had given up her dreams of a normal life to take care of her. The twisted, sociopathic bitch she had become. But it wasn't until the Governor's party weeks afterwards that she had been sure, that she finally knew with an absolute blinding certainty that the real Buffy had really come to her that night, and she was actually living with a monster.

Among the guests had been a young accountant and her new husband. She was someone the higher-ups were keeping an eye on; smart, ambitious, real good at her job but possessing the sort of charisma which drew people to her like flies. They were already feeling her out about going into politics, testing her loyalties, investigating her background. The husband was a potential problem; a boy-toy, pretty but useless, a high school BMOC who hadn't had the talent to go pro but who had the brains to leech onto the plain-but-smart girl rather than the stereotypical cheerleader bimbo. If the wife went into politics, with her background she might look a bit too deeply into some of the deals Slayers Inc had made with the local government. Dawn had watched carefully as her 'sister' walked up to the happy couple, placed her hand just so on his arm, and said something to the frumpy wife. Nothing derogatory; other people in the vicinity overheard her, but nobody reacted.

Except the wife. A strange expression came over her face. A quick glance down to where Buffy's hand had already moved on from lightly stroking her husband's arm. The sort of casual gesture which happened a hundred times at parties, between a hundred people. But Dawn had seen it before. Had been watching for it. 'Buffy' would go up to someone who either was or might become a potential problem and say something trivial, something nobody else would even recall later. But it was words or a gesture which would mean something to her target, would trigger a memory, would soon somehow achieve meaning ludicrously out of proportion to the insignificant gesture which had triggered the reaction. A childhood memory, a humiliating experience, a suppressed tragedy. No one would ever put the blame on 'Buffy' for 'inadvertently' triggering a succession of events which would lead to alcoholism, or divorce, or suicide. But Dawn wasn't the only one who had started to notice that Bad Things happened to those who crossed Buffy Summers.

Without even pausing to think about it, Dawn had shrieked at her 'sister,' the look in the poor woman's eyes freezing her to her very marrow. The look in 'Buffy's' eyes frightened her even more; a coldness, a depthless contempt swiftly replaced by a sad look of betrayal, the pain of dealing with an immature brat of a sister. But in that one instant Dawn knew that everything the real Buffy had told her was true. Knew that this monster pretending to be her sister was doing these things deliberately, was destroying people and lives with a calculating maliciousness more frightening than any overt destructiveness could be. And knew there was nothing she could do to stop it. There was no proof that Buffy had died in the cavern; nor was there any way she could derail the plans of an entity which could read the minds of everyone who might consider opposing her. Only Dawn, and the monsters whose minds were too foreign to be read by even an entity as powerful as the First, were immune. It was no coincidence that hundreds of slayers were presently hunting down and slaughtering those very monsters.

She was tempted to walk out, just leave and never return, until common sense prevented her from doing something so foolish. It was pathetic that her first thought was for her pictures. How would she know she was really 'real' if she didn't have the pictures to prove it? More importantly, there were practical considerations. There was nowhere she could go they couldn't find her. Willow's mystical beacon was backed up by technological equivalents. Plus there was the non-trivial matter that there really were monsters out there who would kill her on sight just because she was Buffy Summers' sister. Before she did anything stupid, she needed a plan. More than that, while she was still 'inside' Slayers Inc, she needed to set up a few devices of her own. Once she left, she would need a way to find out what they were doing. Because whatever it was, Dawn intended to stop it. If the First wanted a war, Dawn intended to give it one.

Moving into the 'Slayers' room to look around at the pictures of the now-dead girls, Dawn wondered how many of them had died the way they were supposed to –battling evil—and how many had been deliberately damaged psychologically by the First because they weren't suitable to its plans. Most of those girls were sixteen years old, many even younger, just the right age where their delicate psyche's could be crushed by a word from someone they worshipped like they did The Great Buffy Summers. That, even more than what she had done to the innocent accountant, made Dawn swear that she would do whatever it took to oppose the creature fouling her sister's body.

Over the next few months, Dawn enabled her plans carefully and furtively. If Buffy's suspicions were correct, the First could not read her mind like it could most peoples, but even the most cursory observation showed that it was smarter than hell, and given a few random clues would pick up trends most people would never notice. The sheer breadth of its intelligence should have warned her that the girl wasn't Buffy. Her sister had been clever enough, especially in those matters which interested her, but she had never come close to displaying the degree of knowledge 'she' now possessed. She knew the names and phone numbers of everyone who mattered. She knew their birthdays and their clothing sizes. She knew who was screwing whom, who owed what to whom, who was supplying what to whom, who secretly hated whom. She knew where the bodies were buried, who had buried them, and where the money went afterwards. Everything the Scoobies had done for her, she now handled herself; and did a better job at it than they ever had. It was beyond embarrassing that Dawn had ever thought this person could actually be Buffy.

Of equal interest was what The Entity Pretending To Be Buffy was doing to Willow. The Witch was being manipulated. Slowly, systematically, deliberately encouraged to indulge in her most secret desires, her most hidden fantasies and fetishes. Nothing she asked for was refused. Anything she refused was pushed again and again, her restraint ridiculed, her innate decency mocked, until she finally capitulated. When she finally gave in, she was lavishly rewarded. She wasn't quite a prisoner in the Compound, but on those few occasions when she had to leave, she was provided with a huge escort to ensure that no one interacted with her. Over time, she was being de-sensitized to the rules of civilized behavior, the 'outside world' an irrelevant abstraction and therefore safely ignored. Within the Compound she could do anything she wanted, without restraint, without guilt, without consequences.

Had she so desired, Dawn would have been more than welcome to join in. In many ways it would have been the perfect life; all her desires fulfilled, every whim indulged. It also would have been a sick, twisted life of depravity and moral degeneracy. Given Willow's history of jealousy, arrogant superiority, and issues with power, for her it was an especially tempting trap. It was not, however, one Dawn found equally seductive. She had her own issues, as a quick glance around her bedroom walls would quickly confirm. But her unique nature meant that certain thing were far more important to her than the sensual depravities which might tempt someone more fully human. Dawn's most treasured possession was a small picture on the end table beside her bed, one of the few pictures of her family they had managed to save before Sunnydale dropped into a massive crater. It was also the only picture of Buffy in the room… because it was also the only picture she had of the real Buffy.

Until that night, when her sister appeared to tell her she hadn't survived the destruction of Sunnydale, most of the pictures in her bedroom had been of the two of them as Slayers Inc grew in power and influence. During those years Dawn had been embarrassingly dependent on her sister to reassure her that she was 'real,' that she had family and with it a physical connection to this world. Once she realized that her 'sister' was actually the First, Dawn had been forced to look for other sources of validation, leading to the ludicrous 'Wall of Fame' covering her walls from floor to ceiling. It was pathetic that she was afraid to make the final break from the protective bubble of the mansion not because she would be starting a war with a being of god-like power, but because she couldn't face the possibility of facing each day without looking at her pictures, reassuring herself that she was real because other people acknowledged her existence in those images.

Disgusted with her own weakness, Dawn reminded herself that Buffy was still alive, somewhere. Which also meant that her sister had died, again, and was probably as screwed up as she had been the last time she went through the resurrection process. Granted that she hadn't sounded too bad during the few minutes Whistler had arranged for them to have together, but that was undoubtedly because Buffy hadn't wanted to frighten her. Dawn didn't have the slightest doubt that Buffy had gone to Heaven this time as well –if anyone deserved the peace of a Heavenly reward, it was her sister—but could only imagine how much it must have hurt her to have to be brought back to face yet another apocalyptic battle. She was ashamed of herself, whimpering over the loss of some meaningless photographs, when Buffy had lost paradise itself. But she was also reassured that Buffy had promised she would be back, because even a screwed-up Buffy knew more about fighting vengeful gods than anyone else did. Dawn was uncomfortably aware that translating thousand year old documents was one thing; leading a war against the Baddest of Big-Bads was waaaay out of her league.

Looking at the picture of the three of them, a proud mother and her two teenage daughters, Dawn remembered the day it had been taken. Riley had taken the picture at a picnic when he and Buffy were still dating. There were other pictures of the family, recovered from where her father had stored them in LA, but they weren't 'real.' Only fake baby and school pictures which had been created by the monks during the spell which had created Dawn herself. So far as she knew, this photo was the only surviving real picture of her with her family. All the other pictures in her room combined weren't worth a fraction as much as this one, no matter that it was small, and old, and off-center, and she looked like a complete dork. Looking at the picture suddenly made her realize that the rest of the prized images on her walls were sad, and pathetic, and sucked, because they were no more real than the ghost she sometimes feared she might become if no one was around to reassure her that she truly existed. She didn't really know any of the people in those pictures, not really. They weren't family. They weren't Buffy. And looking for them to confirm her existence sucked the suckitude of a sucking suckfest.

Her mother had thought she was real. Her sister thought she was real. Her sister had died for her, and come back for her after dying yet again. Next to that, it didn't matter a damn what anyone else thought. She was real because Buffy thought she was real. And that was enough.

With that thought, Dawn finally found the courage she needed to make the decision she had put off far too long. It was time to go. Her plans had been made weeks earlier, contingencies considered, options weighed. It would take a few days to bring it to fruition, but Dawn was finally ready to pull the trigger. She would inform the others. Operation 'Get the Fuck Out of Dodge' was a Go.

Cleveland had changed since Slayers Inc. set up shop in the city three years earlier. The sudden influx of well paid, very young, very fashion conscious women had brought in businesses catering to their needs. There was a local 'hellmouth' which drew in particularly stupid supernatural entities which the slayers hunted for training purposes, but it had only a fraction of the power of the finally-closed Sunnydale monster. So with no 'big bads' and lots of super-powered shoppers wandering the boutiques, Cleveland had become one of the safest cities on Earth. The local human population was thrilled with the change, and went out of their way to welcome Slayers Inc employees. Especially its President and CEO, Buffy Summers. Even with the rumors of their problems, nobody was going to risk earning Buffy's wrath by not giving her little sister the very best service possible. No matter how strange some of requests might be.

Mademoiselle Dominique prepared the station and decorations precisely as specified, and awaited her famous customer for her scheduled makeover.

The three slayers on her security detail were almost as confused by the change in their charge as they were annoyed by it. They'd talked it over among themselves, trying to figure out where it all went wrong. The relationship between Buffy and Willow hadn't really come as a surprise to anyone. They'd been friends for year, they'd both become more…um… eclectic.. in their choice in bed partners as time passed, and finally they'd just joined forces to indulge their increasingly warped sensual peccadilloes. Nobody got hurt, nobody was being forced to do anything they didn't want to do, and, quite frankly, it took two of the weirder chix out of circulation, to the secret relief of most of the other slayers who might have otherwise been too afraid to say 'no' had one or the other asked them to bed.

Nobody could figure out why Dawn had such a bug up her ass about the relationship, or why it had taken so long before she decided to take offence. Buffy and Willow had been pretty open about sharing a bed long before Dawn took very public umbrage at an official dinner hosted by the Council, with the Mayor and assorted dignitaries present to witness the debacle. Somebody said something, and Dawn went ballistic, and damn, but that girl could scream! Buffy probably could have gotten the story killed –the media were very leery about displeasing her—but she was openly furious with her younger sibling and went on to milk the story about how she had been forced to quit university to take care of her after their mother died, and this was how she was repaid for all her sacrifices, and suddenly the matter was front-paged on all the gossip magazines. Not taking the hint about the futility of challenging her sister, Dawn had repeated the performance at the next social event she was forced to attend, until she had become persona non grata and deliberately uninvited from all succeeding events.

Most of the slayers had been real careful to stay out of it, considering it to be a 'family matter.' Nobody wanted to be seen to be picking sides in the conflict. Most of them had faced Buffy during Unarmed Combat training, and were terrified of her speed and martial skills. But that didn't mean any of them wanted her sister mad at them either. Dawn Summers had been taught languages by Rupert Giles and computers by Willow Rosenberg. You just didn't fuck with someone like that! If Buffy punished you, it might hurt for awhile; but Dawn could seriously mess with your life. You'd be assigned to babysit the most screwed-up actors, or guard the most disgusting, grab-assy Sheik in Araby. Every scut assignment that came up, your name would be 'randomly' selected for it. People learned real fast not to fuck with Lil' Sis. Besides, until this confrontation blew up in their faces, most of them had liked Dawn more than they did Buffy.

Of all the Scoobies, Dawn had always been the most social, the one most entertained and amused by parties and social affairs. The others were too old and jaded to be impressed by the 'movers and shakers' of society, whom they knew didn't have even a fraction of the impact on events any Scoobie had possessed since long before they could even vote. Dawn was still young enough and naïve enough to enjoy schmoozing with the elite, checking out the expensive clothes and back-stabbing politics which was the real purpose of most of the events they attended. But somehow, between one day and the next she just seemed to lose interest in things which had once seemed to be a vitally important part of her life. Without any warning or reason, she abruptly stopped caring about gaining the approbation of a sister she had, until then, been desperately trying to impress. If it was simply a new tactic designed to gain Buffy's attention it failed; Buffy Summers was too busy to baby-sit a sister old enough to take care of herself. But truth be told, Dawn didn't seem to give a damn any more what Buffy thought.

There was a time when Dawn Summers had a busload of friends, social leeches for the most part, snarky bitches whose back-stabbing antics provided the bodyguards with hours of entertainment. Most had dropped Dawn like a hot potato when her histrionics offended the social elite. Surprisingly, a few stuck by her as she quickly rose to social pariah status, and probably only her guards overheard Dawn warning them off. Whatever her problem was, she did not intend to back down on it, and didn't want to take anyone else down with her. Especially the ones who were good enough friends that they would have willingly done so.

It didn't make sense.

Her guards were good. Buffy had insisted on it. As angry as she might be with her sister, the girl was still way up there on the target list of every demon clan and most human criminal organizations. Unlike most personal bodyguards who were there mostly for show, those on the Dawn Patrol knew they might be called into action at any given minute, every time they left the protection of the Compound. Eight kidnapping attempts in twelve months should have made it clear that Dawn needed their protection. Privately, they were growing increasingly nervous with her motives, recognizing that Dawn was too smart to be acting so stupidly without a damned good reason. Warning away her few friends worthy of the name convinced them that something else was going on, something they weren't seeing, and that made them cautious. Dawn could be a bitch, but she was a smart bitch, and none of them wanted to find out the hard way exactly how smart she really was.

So her guards were very careful to keep a close eye on her when she went out after finishing her classes. The beauty parlor was a regular stop. Like most seriously hot girls, Dawn spent a lot of time and money ensuring that she stayed looking seriously hot. Mlle Dominique ran probably the finest –and certainly the most expensive—salon in the city. She had special rates for slayers, knowing they would bring in more customers. Even in Cleveland it wasn't everyday one could see a slayer close-up, and meeting one over a manicure was far less likely to end in one being eaten by a demon than most other meeting scenarios. So the cities' female elite felt compelled to visit Mlle Dominique's if they wanted to interact with a slayer, demonstrating their courage by mingling with such potential ruffians without even the bars of a zoo cage to keep them apart.

Many of those societal doyenne had their own security, which sometimes made for interesting times sorting out the pecking order. For the Dawn Patrol, it was pretty simple: their client came first. Always. The most powerful of the elite had slayer bodyguards who deferred to Buffy's expressed order that Dawn be protected at all costs. Anyone using a merely 'human' bodyguard obviously had lower status than those who could afford a slayer. Already in the salon, getting her hair done, was Bettina Smith-Russell –the elder spawn of one of the local dynasties—and her slayer bodyguard, who was amusing herself intimidating the ex-SEAL bodyguard of the pampered mistress of a famous NBA star. There were five other clients at various stations being worked on by over a dozen beauticians, but few would realize that one of those 'guests' was also a slayer.

Grace certainly didn't look like a slayer. Most slayers were by nature athletic, and worked out constantly to burn off excess energy. Many used sex for a similar purpose. Their athleticism made them toned, and their horniness made them hot. At least, that was true in most cases. Grace was an obvious exception. It would take several inches of makeup to make her plain, puffy face 'beautiful.' As well as tinted contact lenses. Capped teeth. Cheekbone implants. False eyelashes. Constant work by an industrial-strength weed-wacker to remove her unibrow and 'stache. Some kind of voice synthesizer to do something about her naturally high-pitched, whiney tone. A chin implant. Etcetera. Lots of etcetera. And that didn't even get to her body, with its naturally squat, dumpy, frumpy form. In terms of babe-aliciousness, Grace pretty much fell last on the slayer pecking order.

A particularity in her body chemistry had delayed the onset of puberty until Grace was sixteen years old. Along with menstruation, she had also been Called. At first, she had been hopeful that her life would finally change for the better. In many ways it only got worse once she was surrounded by far more attractive slayers when she moved to Cleveland. Most of the other slayers were teenagers themselves, many had been Called years earlier than her, and almost all of them were just as catty and bitchy and cliquish as girls had been back home. Even when she quickly demonstrated far more aptitude and intelligence than almost any other slayer Grace had found it difficult to fit in. Her obvious superiority over far more experienced slayers in terms of brains and skills served only as an excuse for more taunting and back-stabbing and isolation. Grace tended to work alone, undercover, in situations where a more attractive girl would be recognized as a slayer. Nobody would ever assume Grace was one.

Her 'undercover' status meant that even those slayers who recognized her didn't acknowledge her. The leader of the Dawn Patrol was high enough in the slayer hierarchy to be aware that Grace had been assigned to keep an eye on a powerful witch by the name of Amy Madison, and a quick perusal of the other customers recognized the witch getting her nails and hair done at a station well away from where Dawn would be worked on. Willow had put enough protection spells on Dawn that even a witch of Amy's power would be hard pressed to overcome them, and slayers were more resistant to manipulative magic than the average person. If Amy wanted to make a play, she stood very little chance of overcoming all four slayers in the room. But the Dawn Patrol wasn't paid to take chances, so one of them surreptitiously sent a warning back to Slayers Inc HQ, where some of the junior-grade witches on staff were brought in to keep an eye on the situation.

Fortunately Dawn either didn't see Amy or simply ignored her, slumping into the comfortable chair at her regular station, sulking with the air of aggrieved martyrdom only the truly rich and spoiled could convey. Unfortunately for her, Buffy had raised pouting to the level of art, and she didn't quite rise to her sister's standard. When Dawn was really bitchy she whined, with a nasally, fingernails-scratching-on-a-chalkboard sub-harmonic intonation which had been know to instigate madness up to and including suicide among the unprepared. The CIA was investigating the possibility of using that whine to interrogate prisoners of war. But her pout? Not up to snuff.

Everyone in the room was discretely photographed, their images uploaded to HQ and their identities verified. Room exits were checked, the third member of the Dawn Patrol slowly remaining outside, driving around the block, keeping her eye out for external threats. It was all standard operating procedure, the team had it down to a science, and it all came up empty. HQ even updated them that Amy Madison had actually booked her appointment before Dawn had demanded they accommodate her sudden need to have her hair done, so it was unlikely to be another kidnap attempt. The team settled in to let the stylists deal with Dawn's bitchiness, tag-teaming the male bodyguard in one of their favorite pastimes, playing 'annoy-the-SEAL.' Slayers were the new elite, and would go well out of their way to making sure everyone knew it.

Mlle Dominique had no idea why she had been asked to set up the station in such a precise manner, but she did know that unless she wanted to go back to being just plain 'Miss Denise Johnson' she had little choice but to accommodate her clients most bizarre whims. Fortunately the person Dawn Summers had sent to implement her directives had come after business hours. The thought of such a strange little man interacting with her clients wasn't a pleasant one. Not that there had been anything particularly offensive about the young man. He had just been… well, odd might be the most charitable description. Fully accredited, of course. Mlle Dominique had seen to it personally that his credentials were verified and full security protocols followed. Not that she'd actually had to see to it herself. Andrew Wells had been such a… unique little man that everyone on her staff had double checked his orders every step of the way. Special mirrors had been set up. A very beautiful silk rug was placed in front of Miss Summers' chair. A favored painting hung on a nearby wall. Special flowers, and scented incense discretely burning in a tiny briar. None of it was outrageous. Just… unusual. But Mlle Dominique had, of course, heard about the antics of her now-infamous client. She was more than willing to do anything to keep her from going postal in her salon and freaking out the other rich customers.

While the stylist did what she could with her ratty hair, Grace surreptitiously looked around the fancy salon. Even if her cover hadn't prevented her from asking for the slayer discount, she'd never have gone to a place so fancy. There was no point. Even fractional changes in humidity had catastrophic effects on her hair, and she had long since given up any attempt at taming it. But, she was on an expense account, this would undoubtedly be her last chance ever to be pampered in such opulent decadence, and she was sort of enjoying the experience. Three 'technicians' were working on her –hair, face, and nails—and their carefully-maintained non-expressions told her all she needed to know about what they thought of their chances of changing her into a raving beauty. Grace already knew the answer, but anyone who could afford the rates Mademoiselle Dominique charged was likely to express their disappointment more enthusiastically than Grace normally would. She'd looked the way she looked for a long time. She was dealing with it.

Sometimes it was harder to do so than others. Her cover required her to try to get friendly with Amy, who was pretty enough that her tart, barbed comments regarding Grace's lack of equivalent attractiveness had burned. The Junior Summers didn't even have to make a sarcastic crack for Grace to want to lash out in rage. Dawn was so goddamned beautiful that sometimes Grace wanted to carve her perfect face off with a dull knife, just so she didn't have to compare it to her own every time she saw her. But she didn't, because Grace had also learned self control. She'd had to if she wanted to survive.

There were eight stations in the salon, each with its own chair, sink, equipment area and room for up to four attendants. There was a spa off to Grace's right through a short corridors lined with gilded columns and tall Grecian statues. There were plants everywhere, but the main working area was oval shaped, open so that, if they wished to do so, the clients could speak to each other. That area dominated by a huge round sunroof covered in delicately frosted glass, and surrounded by hanging plants. It wasn't really necessary to augment the natural light, but carefully-placed mini-spotlights were available to the stylists should they require them. In addition, omnipresent mirrors were also surrounded by mini-lights. At right angles to the corridor leading to the spa was another leading to the reception area, and between them, but far more discretely, was a door leading to what Grace had already discovered to be a spectacularly sybaritic bathroom.

Even if she hadn't been a slayer, Grace's stubby, fat fingers would have looked ridiculous with long nails, so it didn't take long for the 'nail person' to finish the minimal work Grace had requested. Those nails were far stronger than those of a normal girl, and the person working on them had been forced to use some serious strength to get the scissors to cut them. Since they dealt with slayers quite often in this salon, the girl might have her own suspicions as to Grace's identity. But if she did, she was professional enough to keep them to herself. Wet hair wrapped in a towel, and wearing a decadently-thick housecoat, Grace was helped up so that she could proceed to the spa.

Just a few feet from the corridor entrance she paused to look at the painting on the wall. It was… bizarre. Almost abstract, but with an underlying theme of stormy violence. Clouds and torrential rain might obscure a distant valley, if you squeezed your eyes almost shut and looked at it just so. But mostly there was just the impression of the imminent onset of violence, not the calm before the storm, but the just-barely-leashed power already being tossed around just before things really hit the fan. She didn't recognize the work, although Grace was quite a fan of the artist. Most slayers were. Almost all of her paintings conveyed the impression of someone standing on the precipice of incipient, overwhelming violence.

Casually, she reached out to lightly brush the edge of the frame…

…and the world exploded.

It was as if the painting had come to life. Thick black clouds boiled out of it. Lightning bolts struck out, smashing statues, scorching everything they touched, bouncing off the mirrors on the walls. A howling wind blew the plants around with hurricane strength. Light from the skylight quickly winked out as the clouds grew thick enough to block the sun, and the screams from the women in the salon were barely heard over the booming of thunder. Like everyone else standing up, Grace had been knocked on her ass by the unexpected storm. Somehow, despite the torrential downpour obscuring the view of anything more than a few inches in front of her face, she could see the leader of the Dawn Patrol, and both of them almost instinctively turned to look at Amy, who stood, ignoring the maelstrom around her, arms stretched out, lips moving as she spoke some kind of spell neither of them could hear over the thundering noise of the impossible storm.

Nobody trusted witches, and for good reason. Sooner or later almost all of them went bad. Even the few that didn't simply had too much power to be trusted not to abuse it. Unless they were part of a self-regulating coven, slayers treated witches as potential threats by default. One like Amy, who had always refused to join a coven as it might limit her activities, and who was one of the more powerful witches on their threat board, would automatically be suspected as the source of any problem which suddenly popped up. Without even having to discuss it every slayer in the room fought their way through the sudden hurricane towards the psychotic witch.

Between the howling wind, monsoon rain, and shifting shadows from the lightning, movement was almost impossible. Foolishly, Grace tried to stand, and was quickly knocked off her feet again, rolled by the force of the wind to where Dawn was down on the floor, covering herself with her silk rug in an effort to protect herself from the elements. With Grace covering their principle, and the wind favoring their own movements, both slayers on the Dawn patrol quickly made their way towards Amy, who was standing almost calmly in the surrounding violence, frowning. When the first slayer tried to leap on her she simply waved one hand disdainfully, and the wind suddenly swept her aside, crashing her into one wall, the mirror above that station shattering with the impact. Instantly regaining her feet, she used the distraction provided by her counterparts launching their own attack to try to make her way back to the witch, who was screaming and waving her hands violently, balls of light seeming to leap from her fingertips, only their speed preventing her energy balls from frying the three slayers.

While they fought, Grace grabbed Dawn, and used her greater strength to support the taller girl as they made their way towards the corridor leading to the spa, away from the battling trio and the overpowering mystical storm. To their surprise the ex-SEAL bodyguard had already reached a similar decision, and was guiding not only his principle, but several of the other girls --those not paralyzed with fear, or shrieking like banshees as they clutched their chairs with death-grips and demanded that someone save them-- away from the danger zone. Naturally he was being extra-protective towards the very beautiful woman he was being paid to protect, but he had two of the stylists sheltered by his powerful body as well, and they were all making their way to safety. Grace paused for a moment to add her own muscle to the human chain, and they slowly made their way to the corridor, nobody able to hear anything over the noise of the thunder, the wind, and the shrieks of the shrieking harridans being left behind, indignant that nobody was coming to rescue them, even though they wouldn't make the effort to save themselves.

Once in the relative shelter of the corridor, Grace abandoned the others, grabbed Dawn by the arm and practically dragged her to the back of the spa, where she quickly rushed towards the back exit. The others followed much more slowly, but Grace didn't pay them any attention. They were no longer her problem. The door was locked, but that didn't even slow down a slayer. Smashing it open, she dragged Dawn through, to where the final member of the Dawn Patrol was just then screeching to a halt in their armored SUV, the passenger door already open. Pushing Dawn into the vehicle, Grace leapt in after her, the big truck already moving even before her foot left the ground. Using her incredible strength, Grace virtually picked up and tossed Dawn into the back seat, ignoring the driver, who was almost panicking as she frantically demanded an explanation as to what the hell had just happened.

He already knew what had happened up to that point, but what happened next came as quite a surprise to the ex-SEAL who was only then coming out of the spa with the three women he had been able to save. Without the slightest hint or warning, Grace suddenly struck the other slayer in the jaw, knocking her unconscious, and swung the wheel to crash the vehicle into the wall of a nearby building. They had just been getting under way so weren't moving very fast at that point, so nobody was harmed by the crash, and the ex-SEAL could see the butt-ugly slayer and Dawn Summers quickly exit the vehicle, just as another car pulled up in front of them. A geeky-looking guy was driving, but the slayer glared at him until he sulkily moved over and let her take the wheel. Given that the Summers girl walked by herself to the rear door of the second vehicle and got in without being coerced, he was able to confirm his initial impression that this wasn't an abduction. Little Sister was making her move.

Unlike the slayers inside the salon, he'd noticed that the witch had been just as surprised by the appearance of the magical storm as they had been. Miss Summers, he had noted, had been fully prepared for the sudden deluge. The witch hadn't even been paying much attention to the slayers until they attacked her. It didn't take the ex-SEAL long to piece together what had just happened, and come to a decision of his own. Looking around, he saw a metal pipe that was exactly the right size and shape to jam between the doorknob and the concrete lip of the stairs. Given that there was no other piece of pipe anywhere in sight, it was pretty obvious it had been prepositioned. Equally obviously, they hadn't used it, because they knew he was close behind them, accompanied by innocent civilians. That pretty much told him who the 'good guys' were in this, so he casually whistled as he put the pipe in place to jam the door as they had intended. It wouldn't stop the slayers for very long, but it would slow them down, and in an escape attempt such as this he was well aware that the first few minutes were the most critical.

Most of the elite military units had pretty much had it up to here with being taunted by slayers. Insolent, egotistical little twits who hadn't had to work for their abilities, but who went out of their way to denigrate those who had. Whining about being oppressed by men, but doing the exact same thing in reverse once they gained the upper hand. Just because the shoe was on the other foot didn't make it any less ugly. Anything he could do to mess with the slayers, that was exactly what he would do.

"We have escaped from the Death Star, my Princess. But I must remind you to be careful, as the Forces Of Evil will be able to find you without the shielding from the enchanted tapestry."

Andrew, not surprisingly, was as excited as he was frightened. He had never been the most courageous guy in the world, and here he was, aiding and abetting in an escape from Slayer Central. Not to mention, he was now trapped in a car being driven by a crazy person. They were traveling at least twice as fast as he would have considered safe, but he knew better than to say so. He'd met with Grace a number of times as they worked out the details of the escape, and had a very good idea as to how she would react should he suggest that she slow down. He didn't think the chubby slayer was entirely stable, mentally speaking, but also knew for a fact that she was immensely strong, even by slayer standards. He couldn't help but whimper aloud as she swung in and out of traffic with bare inches to spare from cars on either side.

Knowing she was scaring him even more by taking her eyes off the road, Grace turned to their crazy wizard and smirked. She didn't really mind Andrew. She had begun to see him as kind of like her retarded little brother. If she'd had a brother, retarded or otherwise. One of the reasons she had agreed to help Dawn escape, even knowing what it would mean for her own future longevity, was the chance to get Andrew out of the vipers den before they skinned him alive. Some of the things he did irritated people. Well, most of the things he did irritated people. Truth to tell, Andrew in general irritated people. But some of the slayers back at the compound were even crazier than he was, and not in a 'retarded little brother' kind of way. Sooner or later one of them would unthinkingly strike out in anger, and Andrew was too frail to withstand much in the way of slayer punches.

Getting Andrew out wasn't the only reason Grace agreed to help. She was getting close to 'striking out in anger' herself, and she had a pretty good idea what would happen if she did. With her standing at the bottom of the social pecking order, anyone she hit was likely to have a lot more allies than she did. No matter how good she was, there was simply no way she was going to be able to overcome the difference in numbers. In addition, good as she was, she didn't think she was good enough to take Kennedy if Buffy's pet rottweiler decided to make her one of her famous 'object lessons' on the foolishness of fighting within the Compound. Plus, there had also been the ego-boost of planning and executing such a complicated escape out from under the very noses of Slayers Inc's best people.

Grace had been stunned when Dawn Summers of all people approached her with her plan. Not just that Little Sister would suggest it, but how goddamn smart she was in planning it. Grace knew that she herself was easily one of the smartest slayers in the Compound, but she would never have come up with such a plan, or all the maneuvering needed to keep the others from discovering what she was up to. Even knowing the price she'd pay if they were caught, Grace had agreed to help her from the very first meeting. As they made their way to the highway and out of the city, Grace saw no reason to regret making that decision.

Dawn should have looked ridiculous wearing a silk rug like a shawl, but when she looked at the girl in the rear-view mirror Grace unconsciously scowled in jealous irritation. Even looking as ridiculous as it was possible for a person to look, Dawn still somehow managed to look like the Princess Andrew called her. She had a natural poise to go with her physical beauty, neither of which Grace could never match. She should be jealous –hell, who was she kidding? She was jealous!—but Grace also admired her courage and intelligence. It certainly didn't hurt that Dawn was one of the few people to acknowledge Grace's own abilities, even if she was exploiting them for her own purposes. Glancing over towards Andrew, Grace spoke the first words since they left the spa. "Hey, Merlin. You sure that rug will keep Willow from tracking her?"

"Yes, Lady Grace, it should. As you know I was involved with the mystical search team when Princess Dawn was abducted the last time by those horrible Wertesh monsters, and gained considerable familiarity with the family of spells The Red Witch established to track her via the Nether Realms. The wards cast into the woven patterns on the rug should suppress those signatures. Alas, my own powers over The Force are too weak to actually neutralize such sophisticated spells, but given time, those magic-users in the Coven we are heading towards should be able to break even spells such at these."

Grunting non-committally, Grace couldn't help but point out "That's a lot of 'should's.'"

Nodding his head with unnecessary vigor, Andrew agreed. "One cannot be too sure when dealing with opponents such as The Red Witch or The Evil First Buffy." Grace had to suppress a smile when she saw Dawn rolling her eyes in the rear-view mirror, but Andrew wasn't done. "None the less, it must be noted that we remain free, despite passing the time mark for Stage Three Alert under the SOP guidelines for Princess Dawn being kidnapped. The Red Witch Herself will be involved now, yet I have not detected any trace of her astral form. I believe that the three Morglach demons I released into the sewers wearing pendants emulating Princess Dawn's mystical signature just before meeting up with you at the salon are performing their decoy function the way the Princess had hoped. This should buy us another half hour or more. That should be all the time we require. The wards protecting the Coven grounds should be adequate to conceal us once we reach their safety."

This time it was Dawn's turn to grunt non-committally. That was still a lot of 'should's.' Going to the Coven for help was the most dangerous, but also the most critical, part of her escape plan. If she wanted to get rid of Willow's markers she had no choice. Nobody else had the power to do so. But she wasn't sure if such powerful witches could be overcome by the spell which made everyone else forget she was the Key. She had tested it to determine that both Grace and Andrew had quickly forgotten once she'd told them, but neither of them were as powerful as some of the witches in the local Coven. It didn't really matter either way, however. If she didn't get rid of Willow's mystical bugs, the game would be over before it even began, so she had no choice but to take a chance on them being trustworthy. A word that didn't come easy to her when dealing with witches.

Without a word being spoken, Dawn knew that Grace was thinking more or less the same thing. Meeting her eyes in the mirror, she addressed her partner-in-crime, and hoped she would one day be able to show her friend that her somewhat unprepossessing exterior concealed not just a heart of gold, but that of a lion. "You can join us, you know. Andrew and I have no choice, but you can choose to stay with us if you want."

Shaking her head negatively even before Dawn finished, Grace rejected the offer. "There's nothing for me there. We'll stick with the plan. Too many slayers have dropped out of sight, and those that did will have no choice but to join together for survival. The contacts you've given me will give me a starting point. I'll find these 'Ronin' of yours. Even if they don't trust me, they have to know what we're up against.

"The slayers have to know that the First is back."

There wasn't much Dawn could say to argue with that sentiment. So she fell silent, and let Grace concentrate on getting her to the relative safety of the witches coven.