Mortal Ground – Book One: Ashes to Ashes

MAIN CHARACTER(S): Faith, Angel, Spike
SECONDARY CHARACTERS: Giles, Willow, Xander, Tara, Anya, Beatrice Hall (OC, Faith's Watcher)
OTHER CHARACTERS: There are tertiary characters, cameos, and of course, surprises!
RATING: R (violence, sex, adult language and situations)
SUMMARY: Buffy dove into the portal to save the world—now Faith is the only Slayer. Freed from prison, she returns to her duties in Sunnydale under the Council's watchful eye, landing right in the middle of an insidious plot that threatens far more than the fate of the world. Old friendships are rekindled, new alliances are born, and old enemies are revisited as Faith confronts her past and struggles to become worthy of the Slayer mantle. Meanwhile, beneath the earth, something stirs, and another Slayer's grave rests uneasy...
NOTES: This story is an epic and begins about two weeks after the events of "The Gift". It is meant to span the course of, and will incorporate some of the character plot lines of, Season 6. However, Faith's presence will affect the way a lot of things unfolded and much of the story will explore those differences.
SPOILERS: Through S6
STATUS: Books One and Two are complete.
DISCLAIMER: All characters belong to Mutant Enemy, except Beatrice Hall. The background is mostly theirs. The story is almost all mine. Songs lyrics belong to their respective owners, as noted.

Throw off your golden light
And shed it all around
Burn as the moon at midnight
Rise and fall straight down

Mortal ground

Don't turn your back against the wind
She's psycho crazy, but she draws you in
Close your eyes and free fall
Rise and fall straight down

Mortal ground

See how it twists and breaks
This fate

            ~Mortal Ground, Rhea's Obsession



Let's begin again, begin the begin
Let's begin again like Martin Luther Zen
The mythology begins the begin
Answer me a question I can't itemize
I can't think clearly, look to me for reason
It's not there, I can't even rhyme in the begin

            ~ Begin the Begin, REM


The dream came as it always did: unbidden and without apology or explanation.

She was sailing through the air, arms extended before her, electricity crackling all around her, caressing her, drawing her down into a center of soft white light. The world outside the light seemed to stop, time slowing down to a crawl. Just the sound of her breathing, the pounding of each heartbeat, the rushing roar of wind in her ears; there was only the now, only this moment, only the light. The sensation of freefall faded away as she met the center, struck and suddenly slowed by it, her head held back now instead of level, eyes serenely closed as the brilliance washed over her. It took her without gentleness or forgiveness. It took her soul and laid it bare, naked before its burning gaze. It filled her with cold, sifting fingers, inside her, all around her; seeking. And suddenly there was ravenous hunger, an aching thirst for knowledge, for energy, for the blood within her. And it was within and without- surrounding her, filling her, making love to her, tormenting her, laughing at her in malevolent glee, laughing with her in rapturous joy. It was the cause of her tears, it was the salt in her tears, it ached with empathy for her sadness and it mocked her for the same. It was the pain in her heart, it was the beating of her heart even as it slowed within her chest, and it was-- oh, it was everywhere! It was everything! SHE was everything! She was--

"Faith Winters."

It was not so much a question as a command, and not even a very impressive one, given the guard's monotone. But she sprang instantly awake; the metal springs beneath her paper-thin mattress creaking in protest as she rose obediently to answer the call. Her bare feet touched the cold concrete floor with hardly a wince, and she pushed herself up determinedly, resigned to leaving the warmth of her thin, scratchy blankets. She felt the spidery cracks that spiraled out from the drain in the center of her cell pass beneath her feet as she walked, county uniform rustling with a crackling thinness that reminded her of the mattress she had so recently vacated.

It was eerily quiet in the building, and it was easy to imagine some monster crouched in the darkness beyond her cell, great jaws slavering in anticipation as she approached the bars, waiting for a chance to reach through and… She shook her head, banishing the distracting thought, but something, some sixth Slayer sense perhaps, began to tingle insistently at the base of her neck. She hadn't encountered any monsters since she'd been incarcerated, but she was always prepared for the possibility. A Slayer is ever vigilant. Hadn't that been what her Watcher used to tell her? The thought brought a bitter smile to her lips. Monsters were unlikely, but still… it was awfully late for visitors. She glanced to the left and saw her rowmate; a vague lump huddled in blankets, barely visible in the darkness of the cells.

And then she was close enough to see the form standing in the shadows outside her cell door, the silhouette of a young man whose stance was just a bit too militant to be a simple prison guard. He was clothed entirely in black with what looked like an assault rifle strapped across his back, legs together as he stood stiffly, studiously indifferent to her existence, his eyes focused somewhere over her left shoulder on the stone wall behind her. Without speaking, he slid open the door of the cell, the grating of metal on metal echoing throughout the otherwise silent hallways.

She hesitated on the threshold a moment, for the first time realizing how important this was if they were sending armed guards down to pick her up. It had been a long time since they had considered her dangerous enough to be handled with that much security. She had no idea what was going on, but she had a feeling that if she refused to go with him now, he would simply club her over the head and drag her wherever they were going. He had that feeling about him; a rough and tumble kind of guy who'd sooner shoot you than look twice at you.

He seemed more like a soldier than a guard, she thought as she stepped into the hall, watching him with interest as he slid the door shut again behind her. And he wasn't bad looking, either, in a rugged sort of way. She shook her head and swallowed a chuckle, knowing that she'd been in here way too long already if soldier-boys like this were starting to look good to her. Oh sure, there was something to be said about a guy in uniform, but most of them were so down-to-business, so devoid of personality and passion that they moved like automatons even in bed. As if proving her point, he clicked the door into place, straightened and regarded her without expression as he motioned for her to walk in front of him. With a raise of her brows and shrug of her shoulders, she turned and he put one hand on her shoulder to guide her through the darkened hall, moving her toward the center of the building. Even his touch seemed clinical.

She was lost after the first few turns, and after what seemed like an eternity of twists through narrow corridors, they arrived in what appeared to be a more administrative area. Past several official looking doors and beyond four guards who stood stone-faced at their posts, the hall opened up into an area that she recognized from when she'd first been brought here. It was filled with guards and soldiers, but it was a welcome respite.

Relaxing a bit now that she was out of the tight quarters of the hallway, she continued walking past several strong-looking iron doors to the right, wondering if one of these was to be their final destination, as she suspected. A moment later the soldier tapped her on the shoulder, signaling her to halt in front of one of the doors and she waited, filled with curiosity.

He swung open the corrugated iron door to reveal exactly what she'd expected to see: a tiny interrogation cell. A hanging lamp with a single bulb burned dully, encased behind dingy, hard plastic. The dim light illuminated the sparse furnishings within; a small aluminum table and two metal chairs. Much of the room was still shadowed, but she didn't need to be able to see very well to know that all the furnishings were bolted to their respective surfaces in an effort to render them ineffective as weapons.

As she stepped inside, the chill of the room raised goose bumps along the flesh of her upper arms, slipping easily beneath the thin layer of the blue County uniform shirt she wore. The guard stepped in behind her and took position by the door as it slammed shut with a resounding thud. She knew he was there, but she didn't turn, having already sensed someone else in the room. A moment, a heartbeat, Slayer's senses narrowing to a fine point, honing in on the softly breathing presence at the far corner of the room. Dark eyes narrowed fractionally, and she seemed to scent the air, almost like a predator stalking prey. Another moment, and then a man stepped from the shadows of the corner.

He was elderly, but there was nothing frail about him, despite his thinning white hair and beard. Indeed, in the way that only the English seem to have, it heightened his sense of presence, rendering him more striking than he otherwise would have been. That he was English she had no doubt of, and if the regal bearing he possessed were not enough, the tweed suit he wore confirmed it completely.

Quentin Travers, Head of the Watcher's Council. She did not know him personally, but she knew enough of him to recognize him on sight.

Arms folded over her chest, Faith paced the length of the tiny room, the ghost of her trademark smirk tugging at the corner of her mouth.

"So, you finally come to check up on me. Y'know, I was beginning to wonder if you guys had just given up the whole Watching deal all together. What's with all the cloak and dagger, though? You getting bored in your old age or..." she trailed off, glib tone becoming suddenly uncertain on the last few syllables, smile leaving her lips as she took in the severity of the elderly Watcher's expression.

"I'd heard that you were arrogant," he noted, seeming to size her up in the semi-darkness.

"Well that'd give us something in common," she said breezily, affecting a carelessness she didn't really feel.

He frowned, lips thinning into a hard line. "You should know, Faith, that there were those among us who voted to end your tenure as a Slayer," he said meaningfully. Like a good soldier he was right down to business, just as he was reputed to be. She noted that his steel grey eyes never wavered as he spoke, fixed on her countenance as if taking careful inventory of every tiny twitch, every change in her expression, no matter how small.

As if she were a criminal. As if she were dangerous.

She drew her arms tighter against her chest and glanced down self-consciously at the uniform she wore. "They wanted to off me," she summarized quietly, eyes still downcast as she spoke. And then they seemed to almost bounce back up to meet his gaze, a false light shimmering in her dark irises, a deliberate lightness that verged on bitterness. "Not that you guys would ever have the balls to do that with all your tea-parties and tweed and self-righteous talk talk talk. I'm surprised you actually got off your doddering old asses and made your way down here. But here we are." She spread her arms wide as if presenting herself and gave him a crooked, cynical smile. "So did you come all this way to tell me how lucky I am that you let me live or are we actually going to get to a point sometime soon?"

Quentin's lips seemed to thin even further, if that were possible, the compressed line disappearing almost completely.

"While luck might be exactly what saved you, I do not feel inclined to call it such in light of the circumstances that prompted the vote in the first place." He let the words linger between them a moment, not so much a hesitation as a dramatic pause. Even as his words summoned a feeling of foreboding from deep within the primal source of her Slayer instincts, she could not help but admire the man's sense of timing and drama, wondering if it was something that came innately with being English.

She knew what he was going to say. She knew it before he spoke and she didn't want to hear it. Didn't want to know. Didn't want it to be real. Hadn't she felt it? A slight tugging in her soul as if something, some tiny spark had suddenly been extinguished? As if some small but vital part of herself that she had only been aware of in the most distant sense had suddenly ceased to exist, leaving a vacuum where before there had been a comforting presence, more sensed than known? She didn't want to know, didn't want her fear confirmed, and she tried to speak up quickly, glibly, interjecting before he could get the words out-- but her own words froze in her throat, turning to ice and sending a bone-chilling cold down through her body, forcing its way through her veins to her heart, nesting there.

"Buffy is dead, Faith."

She felt as if all the breath had been knocked from her body in a single blow, the air leaving her in a dizzying rush.

"B?" she asked weakly, and it was all she could do to force the sound from her mouth as she exhaled shakily.

Quentin Travers watched her closely, trying to determine the depth of her emotional reaction to the news, and for the first time, he saw just a trace of vulnerability. For the first time since he had seen her she seemed diminished somehow, more frail, older and paler; a ghost of herself.

And then she closed herself, cutting off the moment as she turned away, unwilling to let him see how much he had shaken her, how deeply this wound had cut her. She closed her eyes for a moment, memory crashing on memory, Buffy's face suspended in the darkness behind her eyes, and sighed softly.

Oh, B.

But now was not the time for sorrow, or recriminations, however well deserved. She could not break down in front of this man. She would not. She bit down hard on her lower lip, drawing blood. The physical pain was almost a relief compared to the emotions that rattled inside her like fragments of shattered glass, cutting her at every turn. Buffy's face disappeared into the shadows of memory once again, and the world swam back into focus.

"How?" The question was sharp, almost brutal, her voice ragged with emotion and edged with anger.

"Sacrifice," came the unexpected reply. A pause, a breath, the rustling of tweed. "She sacrificed herself to save the world."

"Yeah, that sounds like Buffy," she said wryly, nodding as if in dark agreement with herself. She allowed herself the luxury of indulging in emotion just an instant longer, and then she turned to Quentin Travers, her sudden smile glittering like the edge of a dagger; just as sharp and twice as deadly.

"Well, thanks for coming by to share the cheery news, but I've got cell walls just waiting to be stared at calling my name," she said breezily by way of dismissal, eager to be done with this.

Unimpressed, Quentin steepled his fingers together before his face, contemplating her for a moment before resting his chin atop them. "I'm afraid you still don't understand. This is not a social call, Faith. I'm here to get you out and reinstate you on active duty."

Her hands came down on the back of the metal chair, and she took a moment to steady herself, even more shocked now than she had been a moment before, though she would have believed that impossible before he spoke. She fixed her dark brown eyes on him, scrutinizing, mistrustful, as if she suspected he might be toying with her. "What?" she asked, her voice so quiet it sounded almost meek.

"Buffy is dead--"

"You said that," Faith interrupted darkly, almost angrily.

Quentin hardly paused before continuing, "and we can hardly leave the world defenseless against the forces of evil."

"So now I'm all you've got," she concluded grimly, her expression conveying bitter amusement mixed with just a touch of her usual cockiness.

"No," he said briefly, firmly, steel grey eyes seeming to try to pin her to the wall. "As I said, there were those who felt your continued existence posed a threat to the balance of things. Unless you die, there can be no new Slayer. Buffy's first, brief death resulted in Kendra being called, and after Kendra's death, you were called to take her place. Now only your death can call a new Slayer." He paused thoughtfully, and then shrugged. "Certainly we could have arranged for you to be replaced, but there were those among us wise enough to realize that it would take far too long to train a new Slayer as adequately as Buffy was trained, and the threat in Sunnydale is imminent, as always. And," he added, almost as an afterthought, "you're not quite the loose canon you once were."

"Aw. You guys softened up and decided to go all humanitarian on me. You shouldn't have," she retorted with obvious bitterness. After all, there had never been much love lost between her and the Council.

Quentin cracked the faintest of smiles at her remark, and a chill passed through Faith as she wondered for the first time which side of the voting he had been on.

*           *           *           *           *           *

It was late the next night when the guard came for her again.

She had spent the day in a sort of torpor, one part of her numb with shock, the other elated by the opportunity she was being given.

Of course, it wasn't a perfect deal. It would mean she'd be out of here, it would mean being the Slayer again—the one and only Slayer this time—but it would also mean being the Council's puppet. Travers had made very clear where they stood with respect to their expectations of her.

"And what if I'm not interested in being your lap-dog?" she'd asked angrily, feeling like a wounded animal who'd been backed into a corner.

"Well, that would be unfortunate," he'd answered almost casually, stroking his beard as he walked to the table and sat down. "There are so many terrible things that go on in prison, you know. A feisty young girl like you could easily end up on the wrong end of a knife, or suffer an inexplicable accident." He ran his fingertips over the table surface lightly, not quite meeting her eyes. "At least out there you could be doing some good, even if you were, as you put it, our 'lap-dog'."

She'd felt the first of the invisible shackles clamp around her in that instant, and any happiness she might have felt about her possible release died stillborn.

"What good is that to me? I'd be just as imprisoned out there as I am in here." She'd been furious, frustrated, and it was very clear exactly who was in charge.

"And if you stay in here, your future becomes uncertain. Or certain. However you wish to look at it. The world cannot be without a Slayer."

"So you're saying I have no choice." It wasn't a question.

"My dear, we always have a choice," he'd said, rising from the table and straightening his jacket. "I'll be back for yours tomorrow."

And then he had gone, leaving Faith with nothing to do but gnaw endlessly and futilely at her own mind.

She'd made a lot of mistakes in her past, but none so huge as the abuse of the power she'd been given when she was chosen as the Slayer. She'd thought it had given her freedom, a license to do whatever she wanted, whenever she pleased. Finally, the victimized little girl had become a powerful woman, and there was no one in the world that could stop her.

And then she'd met Buffy, and everything had changed. She wasn't the only special one anymore. The town that was supposed to be hers to protect already belonged to Buffy. The friends she might have had, already belonged to Buffy, too. The man she might have loved? Hers, too. Buffy had it all. Everything Faith had ever wanted and more. Worse, Buffy hadn't seen the power as a gift, she'd seen it as a duty to be fulfilled, a responsibility to be kept. She had challenged everything Faith had believed, and in the end, she'd realized that Buffy was right. The power they'd been given wasn't to use for themselves, but to use for others. And she'd hated Buffy for making her see that. She'd hated Buffy for being better than her.

A lot had changed since then. In the past year she'd spent behind bars, she had yearned, even dreamed of having a chance to do things right, and though serving her time in prison was the right thing to do, it had nothing on the service she could be doing for the world as the Slayer. This was the opportunity she had hoped against hope for, and damned if the Council wasn't hell bent on bringing her to her knees, begging for it. Still, there was really no choice. There had been times when she'd almost thought death would be a welcome relief, but she really didn't want to die just yet. There was too much survivor in her to just give up now. That would be the easy way out, and she had vowed not to take the easy way when she'd turned herself in and come here.

She knew deep down that even this "deal" with the Council was better than the nothing she was doing now, much as she hated the idea of being their servant. It went against everything she had worked for all her life. From one prison to another of a different sort… but at least in the other, she had a chance for something more. Sighing, she twisted out from beneath her thin blanket. So many things had happened in the last 24 hours, so many things she couldn't completely process emotionally or mentally just yet.

It didn't matter. She'd known from the instant she'd been offered a second chance what her answer would be.

She rose from her creaking bed for the last time and walked to the door of her cell.

*           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *

The Cadillac pulled around to the entrance gates of the prison and cut its headlights, running lights still burning like demonic eyes in the darkness. Not bothering to turn off the engine, the driver lifted his arm, checked his watch and tapped the crystal, smiling perfunctorily.

"Right on time."

He'd taken a few private fares from here since he'd been in the business, and though the money was good, he was never sure if it was worth it. He didn't like it here, truth be told. The high fences with their barbed-wire and electric wiring, backed by forbidding stone walls gave him a sense of being smaller than he actually was. It was too easy to imagine himself on the other side of those fences, trapped like a helpless fly in a spider's web; a prisoner against his will.

Oh, he supposed that the people in there had all done something to deserve their place behind those fences and walls, but that didn't matter. It still gave him the creeps.

He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel restlessly as the long minutes passed, whistled tunelessly and fiddled with the radio buttons, occasionally checking his watch, wondering where the hell his passengers were. They had said 1:00 am, hadn't they?

Grumbling, he leaned across the console and opened the glove compartment, fumbling around inside for the piece of paper that noted his appointed places and times for the evening. He was still digging when he saw a flash of movement outside the car. Thinking it was his passenger, he turned his head to look--

--and saw absolutely nothing.

His hand dropped from the glove compartment and slowly, he sat straight up, hardly daring to breathe as he listened for any sound of movement. He was probably being silly, he tried convincing himself as cold sweat formed on his brow. Probably it was just a wild animal or something. But it was far too quiet out here, and he was so far away from the guard posted at the road entrance that he might as well be in another world. For just a moment, he envied the guard and had a clear vision of the rotund man sitting safely in his brightly lit booth, eating doughnuts and watching "I Love Lucy" reruns on his tiny black and white TV, oblivious to the dangers outside. The driver wished he were there right now, away from the forbidding fences and the darkness of night that suddenly seemed more frightening than it had since he was a child.

Just an animal, he repeated in his head over and over, and after a few minutes passed without further incident, he began to believe it.

He had just written the incident off to paranoia when the car lurched and began to shake violently.

*           *           *           *           *           *

"So, Miss Winters, are we quite clear?"

"Five by five," she answered amiably, gritting her teeth in a close approximation of a smile. The last hour had been a grueling session of question and answer for her, and if Quentin gave her one more instruction or order, she thought she might scream.

Quentin didn't appear convinced. "I take it that means yes?"

"Yes," she answered shortly, leveling him with a look that said she had reached the end of her patience with him.

Quentin seemed to take the hint, and they walked the rest of the distance to the private car in silence. It was weird, she thought, to be walking across this yard in jeans and a tank top, on her way to freedom a good many years before her sentence was up. She shoved her hands in the pockets of her jeans as she walked, listening to the soldiers walk in perfect unison of step behind her and savored the warmth of the balmy summer night, wondering what kind of deal the Council had cut the State to get her out. She doubted any of it was legal, but if one had enough money, or power, it was more than possible. That was how the world worked after all. She'd learned that very early in life.

As they reached the car, she slowed her step, stopping as Quentin leaned to open the door for her. She tried to push past him and avoid another sermon, but he wedged himself between her and the open doorway, planting his feet firmly, hands clasped behind his back.

"I'll remind you one last time, Faith. It was a near thing, the Council voting to keep you alive," he said surveying her sternly. "One misstep, one failed order, could be all it takes to reverse the decision."

"I get it," she answered cynically, rolling her eyes. "Screw up and I end up like a Kennedy."

"I wouldn't take that so lightly, or be so flippant if I were you. Don't forget who's calling the shots around here."

She bit down on her lower lip, managing to hold her tongue. Barely.

"And if you try to run..." he said, coming nearer to her, meeting her eyes intently with something like dispassionate joy, "we WILL find you."

"I said I get it, okay?" she blurted, her voice rising a notch with irritation and helplessness. She got it, all right. They had her by the proverbial balls and they knew it.

At that moment, she wanted nothing more than to feed the bigoted man his own teeth, but she couldn't even properly express her anger. And, she hated to admit it, but they had every reason to expect her to turn on them. The bottom line was, if she wanted out of here, she was at their mercy and she had to play their game. She hated it. She loathed it. She practically chafed in the invisible shackles they had placed on her, the shackles that she herself had helped create by allowing herself to be caught in such a position... but at that moment; she just didn't have a choice. Not a real one, anyway. "Okay," she said again, more softly this time, attitude receding, eyes and shoulders down.

"You keep that attitude and we'll get along just fine," Quentin added with a note of satisfaction, motioning to the soldiers behind her. "Heckler, Jenks, I want you two in the car with us. It's a long ride from here to Sunnydale," he paused, looking at Faith as he moved out of the way to let Heckler into the car, "we wouldn't want you to get lonely on--"

A thin scream of terror cut the night and Heckler flew out of the backseat of the car, just missing Jenks as he sailed by and landed on his head in an unconscious heap several yards away.

"Oh, I don't think we'll be needing Heckle and Jeckle for company," came a smooth, male voice from inside the car.

As one, the five remaining soldiers drew their rifles and dropped to one knee, barrels trained on the open door to the backseat, awaiting orders.

Belatedly, the shock wearing off, Quentin tried desperately to scramble away from the car, tripping and falling backward in his haste. A hand flashed out from inside the car, almost faster than the human eye could track, caught the Watcher by the belt-buckle and snatched him inside before he could hit the ground.

The soldiers shuffled in confusion, at a loss, left without orders and their leader not only captured, but directly in their line of fire. Faith stood open-mouthed, staring at the dark opening in the car, poised to fight or flee.

The voice from the backseat spoke up again, softer this time. "Come on, Faith. Let's go."

This time, she recognized it.

She dove for the Cadillac, arms stretched out before her, reminding her hauntingly of her dream. Then she was inside and the door slammed shut behind her even as the car squealed away from the prison, kicking up gravel and dirt all over the bewildered soldiers.