Prologue

~ 2003 ~

"Can you see her?" Cordelia Chase stood on her tip toes searching, the sea of blue in front of them, for the young redhead.

Rupert Giles sighed. He had spotted her the second they took their seats in the stand. She was there, at the front of the crowd, where the students who were graduating top of their class stood.

"There she is!" Faith pointed to Willow.

His former charge looked impossibly proud, as she should be. After all, she had come a long way in the last four years. She had gone from a broken child to the strong young woman they saw in front of them.

It was a shame that it was an illusion.

The strength, and peace, Willow had made for herself was an illusion. They all were well aware of it, especially he and Angel. The two of them had fought their hardest to show Willow that what she was doing would only harm herself in the long run. Willow refused to listen.

Giles truly believed that Willow died along with Buffy, Xander, and Oz at graduation. This woman wasn't the Willow he met seven years ago.

Four years since their deaths and Willow, in Giles' opinion, still hadn't dealt with the reality of what happened. What eighteen year old could deal with those horrors? Giles blamed himself completely. Not only did he allow Willow and Xander to help Buffy and Faith, but he had been so lost in his own grief about losing one of his slayers that he hadn't seen the state Willow was in.

Until it was too late.

Angel had been lost in his grief as well, at losing his soul mate. Only Faith had seen the signs of Willow's all consuming fear. Faith warned them all that Willow wasn't coping with the loss of Xander, Oz, and Buffy.

It was only when the news of Willow's parents came, that Giles truly realized what was happening to the young witch. He still thought it was incredibly unfair. Giles believed in a higher power, The Powers actually, and he couldn't understand how they had let this happen to her.

Willow's parents had cut short their conference in Europe to see Willow graduate – as a surprise. Willow hadn't even known, not until their remains had been finally identified.

They had lost against the Mayor at Ascension. They hadn't lost completely, but they had failed in their duty to keep people safe. The Mayor had killed almost the entire graduating class before Faith could lure it away from the survivors and into the library.

Willow's parents perished during the battle, along with Buffy, Oz, and Xander.

That had been the proverbial straw for Willow. After everything she had witnessed, she was terrified of the demon world around her. It wasn't a surprise. Willow wanted to get away from the world of the supernatural. She wanted a normal life.

She wanted to forget.

Giles should have taken her to England – they all should have done something.

Now it was too late. Willow had created the perfect life for herself. A life that was safe, secure, a life where she would never be alone, where there would always be someone there to help her. A world governed by it's own laws, and rules. She had found a constant, permanent world where she could excel and live without ever having to face demons or the supernatural again.

A world she loved with frightening devotion.

"You did everything you could," Cordelia slipped her hand in his. They had all become close since Graduation, they were more family now than they were back then. "Maybe we're wrong, maybe this is right for her. She looks so happy."

That she did. "It's an illusion," he voiced his thoughts quietly. "She's pretending that the world she grew up in doesn't exist. Sooner or later, that's going to catch up with her."

She was, after all, a powerful witch. How long did she think she could deny her power? Sooner or later it would show itself, and she'd be powerless to stop it. Oh god! This was a right disaster.

"Maybe," Faith joined in the discussion. "But I gotta agree with the Cordy. She came top of her class, Giles. That’s impressive, considering the nerds she's up against."

"Yes, Faith," he spoke with patience. This was a discussion they were all familiar with. "If you consider what failure would mean for her, are you surprised she came top of her class? If she failed she would have had to come home to us. Willow would rather die than let that happen."

It was a miracle Willow even invited them here for her graduation. Willow didn't call them often, and when she did, she never spoke about what they did at Angel Investigations. Even her e-mails were vague and never probing. Willow simply didn't want to hear about demons.

It was too painful for her.

It broke Giles heart seeing Willow like this.

"I don't think she's forgotten about her life, Giles," Faith argued. "She'll never forget that."

No she wouldn't.

Seeing her now was testament to that. Willow wouldn't be working so hard to keep this safe, secure life fixed firmly around her, if she had forgotten what life outside this… prison was like.

How could they have let this happen? He should have tried harder to talk to her, offered to take her to England… anything but this. This… this… was a disaster waiting for a place to happen.

Please God, don't let Willow destroy herself with her fear.

"Graduates," the voice boomed. "You are dismissed."

Giles watched as Willow screamed in excitement and threw her hat in the air, then threw her arms around the man standing next to her.

She was making the biggest mistake of her life.

The three of them waited in silence for Willow to make her way over to them. Well not Willow, she was no longer just Willow. She was…

Lieutenant Willow Rosenberg, United States Air Force.

How could this be anything but a disaster? Why couldn't Willow see what a mistake studying at the Air Force Academy was? Mistake? No. Willow would never believe that. To Willow this place was a sanctuary. She was safe.

Life here was stable. Real. No demons present.

It offered her everything she craved. Willow had left a chaotic world and embraced a regimented one. The impact the Air Force had on her was unbelievable – four years of being away from their love and support had left Willow vulnerable and she was completely consumed by the world she was now in.

Giles prayed he was wrong and this would turn out well for her.

"Congratulations," he pulled her into an embrace. "We're all so very proud of you."

She beamed at him. "Thank you."

Faith and Cordelia squealed and hugged her at the same time.

So when do you go start the pilot program?" Faith wanted to know as the three girls headed over to the parking lot.

Giles was taking them all to dinner, then Faith, Willow, and Cordelia were off for two weeks in Hawaii as a graduation present. His graduation present to Willow. He might disagree with Willow's choices, but he'd be damned if he wasn't going to support her. Willow might need him one day and he wanted to be there when she did.

Angel felt the same. He had also bought Willow an expensive graduation present. Far more expensive than the one Giles had gotten her. Angel still felt guilty and was over compensating.

He brought Willow a motorcycle.

Giles shuddered. It was still hard to believe that the shy, unassuming Willow, was going to be an Air Force pilot AND she rode motorcycles. She was completely denying the magic inside of her and embracing what the Air Force wanted her to be.

She was in complete denial.

So incredibly lost.

"I'm not," Willow admitted when they reached his car. "General Kerrigan called me into his office before graduation. I've been selected for a special training program."

Special training program? He didn't like the sound of that. Neither did Faith and Cordelia, if their faces were anything to go by. "What kind of program?"

How could someone change this much in four years? She was confident where before she was shy, serious where she was joking. There was none of the glib humor Buffy used so much. She was an officer in the USAF and was acting accordingly.

"It's classified."

A cold hand clamped over his heart. "Willow," he spoke in a soft, gentle tone. "I hope you know that you can trust all of us. You know we can all keep secrets."

A slight pain flashed in her features.

He had just reminded her of her own secrets.

"No, I don't mean… I know I can trust you."

His hopes soared. This was the closest Willow had ever come to talking about her life before the Academy. "I'm glad," he reached and squeezed her hand.

She pulled her hand away. "The training I've been selected for is classified, I don't have the clearance. They'll tell us what we're training for when we've reached the final part of the program. Then we'll be sent to a special training facility where we'll have our final evaluation."

Call him paranoid but that didn't sound right. Why wouldn't they tell their recruits what they were training for?

"Didn't you have your heart set on the pilot program?" Cordelia asked, her voice had a slight nervousness to it.

"I'll still get my wings during this training and my masters in astrophysics," Willow hopped into the back seat of Giles convertible.

Faith jumped in next to her. "How long is it? The program?"

"Two years."

Willow was going to train for an unknown project for two years and she didn't have a problem with this? Giles had underestimated Willow's loyalty and dedication to the Air Force. The Willow he knew would never follow something so blindly.

Giles prayed that the fragile reality Willow had created wouldn't shatter and destroy her.


Part One

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