Willow groaned as she worked the kinks out of her spine. Eighteen hours on three airplanes in the last twenty-four hours wasn’t her idea of a good time. She was pretty sure airline seats were designed by demons with falsified engineering degrees and a gleeful enjoyment of sadism. Smoothing down the wrinkled lines of her silk pantsuit, she collected her bag from the overhead compartment and blearily made her way to the exit of the plane.
The chipper voice of the airline attendant telling her to ‘have a nice day and come back soon’ elicited a sneering growl that momentarily silenced the perky twenty year old Barbie doll. Wondering why some people just couldn’t enjoy flying fleetingly occupied her thoughts; then she shrugged and went back to mentally planning her evening as she shooed the remaining passengers from the plane. The scowling redhead was soon forgotten.
Willow stomped toward the terminal, praying that Buffy was on time to pick her up. She didn’t notice the admiring glances of the male passengers as she walked by them; a slender, graceful woman with deep red hair twisted into a sophisticated French pleat, tired green eyes huge in her heart-shaped face. Blowing a stray tendril of hair from her eyes, Willow shifted her carry-on from one hand to the other and wondered again why she had decided to fly from Hong Kong to the United States in one long marathon trip. ‘Because you wanted a vacation, you twit! And now, you *need* one…’
Shading her eyes against the glare of the terminal, Willow glanced around, looking for Buffy’s blonde head or Riley’s tall, solid frame. The gate was teeming with crowds of passengers, friends, and relatives. Since she had long since learned to travel in comfortable flat shoes, Willow didn’t have the added height from heels to aid her in her search. "Being short really stinks!" she muttered to herself as she was shoved this way and that in the current of humanity surging through the terminal. Someone’s hand copped a feel on her ass and Willow shrieked and spun, but already the anonymous groper had been swept away in the crowd. Frustrated, she considered levitating to get a better view, but decided that might be a little conspicuous.
"Dammit, Buffy, where are you?!"
Graham dashed through the airport, cursing under his breath at the number of people in his way. It just figured that the one day he had to come to the airport, half of Raleigh decided to join him there. After circling for half an hour, he had finally found a parking space that *might* be legal if the police mistook his military i.d. sticker for a handicapped parking permit. Weighing his morals against the damage Willow would inflict on him if he were late, he decided to take his chances with the meter maids.
Finally reaching the gate where Willow’s plane was unloading, he leaned against a pillar to look for her. Staring out over the mass of bobbing heads, he wondered if he’d even recognize Willow. His memories of her were three years old, and though time had not dulled the mental picture of her he carried within his mind, it was very possible that everything about her had changed.
And then, his question was answered. A flash of mahogany red caught his eye, and he swiveled to get a better look. Where…and there it was again. A flash of red, then it was gone. Again and again it happened, and he chuckled as he finally realized what it was. Willow was jumping up and down, trying to get a decent look beyond the shoulders of the taller people around her.
Graham skirted the crowd, coming up behind the slender figure of his ex-girlfriend. Each time she jumped, a few more strands of hair escaped from the clips holding it up off of her neck. His breath caught as he realized she hadn’t cut it…
Graham and Willow lay naked and entwined on their bed, a sheet twisted around their hips. Willow had one arm flung across his chest, and her head lay pillowed on his sweat-slicked shoulder. Graham’s hand was slowly petting the waist-length fall of her hair, arranging strands so that her shoulders and back appeared to be clothed in a fine cobweb of silk.
"I’m thinking of getting it cut again," Willow said as he continued to run his fingers through the silky length. "It’s just getting to be so much trouble to keep up…"
Graham stilled abruptly, then tilted his head downward to stare into her passion-darkened eyes. "Don’t you dare! It would break my heart if you took away my favorite toy!" He wrapped his arms around her and rolled so that she lay trapped beneath him, her hair now flung out in a silken blanket across the pillow. He took a long strand and brought it up to gently feather across one pink-tipped breast. As she shivered in pleasure, he leaned down and gave her a drugging kiss, murmuring against her lips. "Shall I show you what I can do with your beautiful hair?"
Willow agreed later that perhaps her hair wasn’t *that* much trouble…if Graham promised he would keep showing her his talent for arranging it.
Now, he groaned under his breath as the memories came flooding back. He willed away the burgeoning tightness in his groin as he strode toward her, reaching out with one only slightly shaking hand to tap her on the shoulder.
Willow stilled as the sound of the achingly familiar voice resonated through her body, leaving goosebumps across the exposed skin of her neck and arms. She turned slowly, bracing herself. "Graham?"
She hadn’t changed! Perhaps she was a little thinner, and a few fine lines had appeared in the corners of her eyes, but otherwise she was still the same beautiful woman…‘that you walked away from, you idiot!’
Graham’s mouth quirked up in a half-smile as he caught the surprised note in her voice. "I take it you weren’t expecting me?"
"No…Buffy didn’t tell me. Hey! Buffy didn’t tell me!" Willow’s voice shook with suppressed anger. "That’s it. She’s officially on my list of people to turn all warty some day if I decide to take up black magic! I’ll give her a big old hairy wart right on the tip of her nose, and maybe a hair, too, growing right out of it, and…"
Graham willed himself not to burst out laughing as he took her bag and began steering her toward the baggage claim area. Willow continued to detail the ‘terrible’ things she was going to do to her best friend as Graham took her baggage claim ticket and collected her luggage from the carousel, mentally thanking Buffy for her oversight. Willow was so busy thinking up inventive punishments that the awkwardness of their first meeting in three years was forgotten.
"…and maybe I’ll give her cream that she’ll *think* will get rid of her stretch marks from when she gets pregnant…she’s not pregnant, is she?…but it’ll really only make them worse, all purply and stuff, and she’ll never be able to wear a bikini again, and…oh! Is this your car already?" Willow looked around in surprise as she watched Graham tuck her luggage into the trunk of a bright yellow Volkswagon Bug. "I love these! Only they don’t make the putt-putt sound that was so cute when they made the old ones…" Her voice caught in her throat as Graham lay one long finger against her lips, his so familiar way of silencing her in mid-rant.
Willow took a deep breath and slid into the passenger seat, holding exquisitely still as he leaned down and buckled her in. The scent of his cologne filled her senses as his arm accidentally brushed across her silk-covered breasts. Straightening, he slammed the door shut and headed around to the driver’s side of the car, as Willow abruptly realized she wasn’t breathing and took a huge gulp of air.
Growling under his breath as he yanked the parking ticket out from underneath the windshield wiper, Graham settled into his seat and swiftly headed toward the exit. His arm still tingled where it had come in contact with the warm firmness of…he sternly curtailed his steamy thoughts and began searching for something to say to fill the silence.
A glance at Willow told him that conversation was not going to be any part of their trip; her eyes were squeezed shut and he had the sneaking suspicion she thought he thought she was already asleep. Actually, a relief. He had no idea what to say to her. One look at her, and all of the feelings he thought were dead and buried within his heart had roared back to life.
‘Graham is here! Graham is here!’ her tired mind babbled to her as they pulled out of the car park and headed toward Buffy and Riley’s house. ‘How will I survive this?’ Frantically trying to remember that she felt *nothing* for him any more, she closed her eyes and pretended to sleep.
Soon, the pretense became reality.
"Our top story today…police report they have no leads in the disappearance of a family reportedly camping just outside Greenville at the state recreation area located there. Their campsite appears undisturbed, though an anonymous source within the department says that police have gathered a large quantity of a salt-like substance from the ground around their tents. Investigating officers refused to comment on whether this newest disappearance has anything to do with two other similar occurrences in the past few days."
Buffy snapped off the radio as the report ended and spoke into the speakerphone. "Giles, there’s something about these disappearances that is setting off my spider sense. There’s no sign of blood or violence, and all three disappearances happened at different times of the day. But the really weird thing is, when I plotted them on a map of North Carolina, they’re happening in almost a straight line headed straight for me. Please, tell me this sounds familiar to you. What is going on?"
Giles sighed, and Buffy almost smiled as she got a mental picture of him, surrounded by books and arcane reference material. "I don’t know, Buffy. There’s nothing in any of my research that indicates these happenings have any supernatural cause at all. I’ve not stopped pursuing other avenues, however. Olivia is attempting to locate some material on folklore and legends for that area through the historical society web-sites for North Carolina. Perhaps in a few days…"
"Giles? Using a computer to help in your research? Is it possible that Armageddon came and went without my noticing?"
"Oh, very funny, Buffy. Go ahead and mock, but Olivia has finally convinced me that perhaps it is sometimes more efficient to use others’ libraries rather than attempt to purchase everything myself."
Buffy smirked as she leaned over the telephone. "She’s on you again about saving money for Jesse’s future, isn’t she?"
Giles snorted. "Bloody hell, I’ve explained to her the Watcher’s Council will pay for his schooling, but she insists that he be provided with a college fund in case he chooses not to become involved with his family heritage."
"She has noticed the little tweed suits Jesse insists you buy him, hasn’t she?"
"What does his clothing…oh, very amusing. It was just one, and that was because he wanted to dress like a Watcher for Halloween…alright, I get your point. I just don’t think Olivia is ready to admit defeat in this arena as of yet."
Buffy giggled. "I find it more than a little ironic that your four year old son wants to grow up to be a Watcher and not a grocer or a fighter pilot."
A splash of yellow through the window caught her eye, and her teasing ended. "Giles, gotta go. Graham just pulled up with Willow. Keep looking, will you? I’ll call you again tomorrow."
"Buffy, do you really think that interfering in Willow and Graham’s lives is a good idea?"
Buffy wrinkled her nose at the admonishing tone of Giles’ voice. Giving the phone a little wave, her finger hovered over the disconnect button as she answered him. "Sorry, going now. Love ya, give Jesse and Olivia hugs from me."
Hanging up to the sound of Giles’ muffled protests, Buffy sprinted over to the window in time to see Graham lifting a sleeping Willow from his car. "Well, they’re both still breathing. All is not lost."
Giving herself a mental pat on the back, Buffy went to open the door.
The pull was growing stronger now, as the renewed strength in its body allowed for faster travel through the countryside. Primitive brain focused only on the seductive mental smell of its ultimate prey, it fed and moved on automatically.
By day, it dwelt in the shadows, emerging only to catch its meals. Instinct warned it to stay out of sight. The two-legged creatures it vaguely remembered from its last awakening had multiplied and were easy to catch but didn’t taste very good; their essence was too pure to truly sate the predator within it. In the night, the Croatoan traveled more quickly, using the cool, salt-free inland waterways to facilitate travel and hide its presence, feeding on the slippery, primitive life it found along the way.
It needed the taste of death to complete its cycle of growth. And death beckoned from the west.
End Part Five
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