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The Gift, Take Two

by Dafmeister
Rating: R

+21=22=23=24=25=26+

CHAPTER 21: Whispers

"Do I really have to use this thing?"

"Do stop complaining, Buffy, it’s only until we get to the car." Giles replied as he pushed the Slayer-laden wheelchair across the hospital car park.

"Yeah, think about it for a sec, Buffy," Dawn added. "How often do you get driven around by your Watcher?"

"It’s stupid," Buffy grumbled. "I’m completely fine!"

Giles sighed. "Try to see things from the doctors’ perspective. Your fever only broke three days ago. The idea that you could be back to full health so soon does seem a little far-fetched, so let’s humour them, shall we?"

"I know, I know, I just want to get out of here."

"Here we are." Giles brought the wheelchair to a halt beside his convertible, and was just about to open the door for Buffy when she sprang to her feet, vaulted over the door and settled herself in the passenger seat, looking up at him with an expression of complete innocence.

"So, did anything interesting happen while I was out?" Buffy asked as they drove away from the hospital. "Apocalypses, demon cults, anything?"

"Nothing of immediate importance, I’m afraid," Giles replied, catching the impatience in her voice. "Faith slayed the harpy, as you know, and apart from that it’s just been business as usual for the last few days."

"What about that thing at the bank?" Dawn piped up.

"Well, yes, there is that, but I’m really not at all sure what to make of it." Seeing the question form on Buffy’s lips, Giles pre-empted her. "Earlier this week there was an incident at the bank. The papers quoted an eyewitness who said that a large man wearing a leftover Halloween mask attacked the guards, distracting them while two or three people wearing black took all the loose cash from the tellers’ drawers."

"You think this mask guy was a demon?"

"It’s certainly possible. The guards weren’t able to stop it, whatever it was."

"Ooh, it beat up some rent-a-cops, big whoop. You could do that."

"Charmed, I’m sure," Giles replied, arching an eyebrow. "In any event, we should probably take a look at it. Willow’s trying to get hold of any information the police have, perhaps something that will tell us if it was a demon or just rampant steroid abuse."

"Demons robbing banks? I turn my back for five minutes…" Buffy fell silent for a few moments. "Nothing else, right? Faith’s been okay? She’s been handling everything?"

Giles glanced over at her. "Yes, she’s been fine. Didn’t you know?"

"I haven’t seen her." Buffy turned her head away, watching the houses stream past in the fading daylight. "I-I guess she’s been busy, you know, with patrolling and looking after Dawn."

*****

"Hey, Clark, look at this," Ryan said. "Slayer One’s home."

Clark roused himself from his ‘Anywhere But Here’ daydream and looked out through the heavily tinted window of the minivan they were using that day. "That’s a relief, I was starting to worry about her."

"Yeah. You think Slayer Two’ll calm down a bit now?" Ryan wondered, watching as Buffy, Dawn and Giles got out of the car and made their way to the front door. "She hasn’t looked too happy lately."

"Does she ever? And before you start getting all sentimental, just remember who you’re talking about."

"Right." Ryan paused for a moment, thinking, then turned to his older, more experienced colleague. "What are we doing here?"

"It’s called surveillance, Ryan. It’s in your job description, remember? That bit of paper you got when you joined the Council?"

"You know what I mean. We spent months tracking that werewolf pack in Canada. We should have had a few weeks back home after that, but we got sent here instead, and all we do is sit in cars and watch the house. If Mr. Travers thinks this is important enough to keep us out here, why hasn’t he sent us the gear to do the job properly?"

"Ours not to reason why, Ryan."

"Bollocks," Ryan retorted. "Think about it, Clark. We got pulled off our normal duty cycle, we haven’t got the gear to do the job properly – actually, we don’t really know what the bloody job is. And we haven’t heard anything from Travers himself, it’s all come from his assistant. We’re watching the Slayers, for fuck’s sake. You don’t think Travers has a personal interest in this?"

"Meaning what?"

"I’m not sure this job’s kosher."

"Don’t even think about it, mate." Clark snapped. "If there’s some kind of political cat-fight brewing back home, then we need to stay well out of it."

"But-"

"I mean it! Look, Ryan, I’ve been doing this job nearly twenty years, and every time I’ve someone from our side of things try to get political they’ve got arse-fucked with their trousers on. We’ve got our orders, they came through the proper channels with i’s dotted and t’s crossed, so we carry them out, and if someone higher up the food chain’s trying to pull a fast one then it’s not our business. We do the job we’ve been given, and if it’s dodgy, then we weren’t to know. Don’t ever try to play the game with those arseholes, mate, you’ll be hung, drawn and quartered before you know what’s hit you."

*****

"Welcome home!" Buffy was barely through her front door before Willow pounced on her with a hug that almost knocked the unprepared Slayer off her feet. Behind her, Buffy could see Xander, Anya and Tara waiting in the living room, and a stack of pizza boxes on the coffee table.

"Hi, Buff, come on in," Xander said, opening one of the boxes. "We figured you’d want some real food after all the crap the hospital’s been feeding you. Pepperoni and mushroom, guaranteed not to help your recovery."

"Uh, thanks, I think…" Buffy replied, gently disentangling herself from Willow and moving into the living room. She stopped as she saw Faith standing a little apart from the others. "Hi."

"B. You good?"

"Fine. You?"

"Five by five." Faith shrugged and headed for the door, sliding past Giles and Dawn as they came inside. "I’d better go patrol."

"Now?" Buffy asked, sounding hurt.

"Lots of bad guys out there, and they’re not gonna kill themselves." Faith picked up her denim jacket and opened the front door.

"Faith, wait a second!" Buffy rushed after her, out onto the porch.

"What?"

"I just wanted to, you know, thank you." Trying and failing to make eye contact, Buffy went on, "For looking after Dawn."

"Whatever." Faith turned on her heel and walked away.

"Faith!" Buffy’s call went unheeded. She watched Faith go, brushing a tear from her cheek, then went back inside.

"Oh, Giles, I’ve got something to show you," Willow was saying as Buffy came into the living room. The witch put her laptop on the table beside the pizzas. "The police had a digital copy of the bank’s security camera footage from the time of the raid."

"Well, it’s good to know the cops are spending my tax dollars on decent computer security," Xander said, only to receive a poke in the arm from Willow. "Ow!"

"Actually the firewalls were pretty solid," Willow informed him with a look of wounded pride. "I’ve just got some moves they didn’t see coming."

"I bet Tara says that a lot," Anya joked.

"Yes, thank you, can we please concentrate on the possible demon?" Giles said. He and Buffy sat down on the couch, while the others clustered around. Buffy stifled a yawn.

Willow frowned. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, just tired." Buffy insisted. "I haven’t been sleeping well. You know how I am with hospitals. Come on, let’s see the movie."

Willow started the video file and they all watched in silence as a huge figure wrought havoc in the bank’s lobby, distracting everyone while three figures in black clothes and balaclavas rifled the cash drawers.

"So, demon?" Buffy asked once the clip had ended, a faint sigh in her voice.

"It would appear so," replied Giles. "An M’Fashnik by the looks of it. They’re mercenaries, creating carnage and destruction for the highest bidder."

Willow looked over at him "A mercenary? You think Faith’s old buddy Lucas is behind this, maybe replacing that other guy, what was his name?"

"Sean." Buffy replied, almost whispering. "His name’s Sean."

"It’s possible," Giles conceded. "But I’m not sure a vampire as apparently cautious as Lucas would use an M’Fashnik. They can be rather… volatile, killing their employers for the slightest grievance."

"I don’t think the guys in black were vamps, either," Xander put it. "I mean, even if those clothes gave them enough sun-protection, they just don’t look right. Will, can you rewind the tape or whatever it is you… thanks. Look at the way they move." He pointed at the screen. "This one’s not too bad, but the other two, the shorter ones? They’re acting like extras in a bad commando movie. I bet if the recording had sound they’d be going ‘hut, hut, hut!’ or something."

Giles nodded. "So the question is, what kind of arch-villain can command an M’Fashnik and yet appear so…"

"Lame?"

*****

"Where is he?"

The vampire felt his nose break as he was thrown face-first into the alley wall. He reeled backwards and tripped over an old wooden pallet, but had barely hit the ground before he was lifted up again by Faith’s boot smacking into his ribs. Spotting a manhole cover a few yards away, the vampire tried to drag himself in that direction, but Faith grabbed hold of him, picked him up and slammed him up against a dumpster.

The vampire spat blood into her face. Faith wrenched him off his feet, over her head and down onto a garbage can, crumpling the metal cylinder. The vampire cried out in pain as ribs broke under the impact. He rolled out of the wreckage and lay on his back on the floor of the alley, staring up at the stars as he tried to gather his wits, but before he could move, Faith was kneeling over him, her knees pinning his arms to the ground.

"C’mon, you know who I’m talking about. Lucas Miller, Sunnydale’s new arch-vamp, the guy’s got to be making some waves." Faith pulled a small, plain metal cross from her pocket and dragged it across the vampire’s throat, raising a smouldering welt.

"Fuck you!"

Faith’s expression twisted and she stabbed down with the cross, driving the long lower arm into the vampire’s throat, all the way to the crosspiece. The vampire shrieked and thrashed beneath her as smoke began to curl from the wound.

"That’s got to hurt. Better think of something useful."

The flesh around the cross blackened, and flames began to lick from the wound. Faith jerked her hand away as her fingers were scorched, then scrambled back as the fire spread until the vampire exploded into dust.

Faith picked herself up from the alley floor, cursing under her breath.

God damn it, someone has to know where Lucas is! I’ve got to find him so I can-

Run away? The mental voice even sounded like Buffy.

No, that’s not- I can’t stay, especially the way I feel about her.

Then why not just go? Grab some spare clothes, get on the bike and just ride.

No. I can’t just run out on this. Lucas is part of the mess I made. I have to deal with it, then I can go.

Liar. You don’t want to leave. You’re dragging it out, hoping something’ll happen to let you stay.

Faith rounded a corner and ran straight into a wall of muscle. Unprepared for the impact, she stumbled backward and fell, looking up at a green, reptilian demon wearing jeans and a lumberjack shirt, its hands supporting a large cardboard box the shape of a table top which was propped on one shoulder.

The demon snarled at her, baring its fangs in an obvious attempt to scare her off. Faith just flipped herself upright and launched a kick at its chest. With both its arms occupied, the demon wasn’t able to block and was knocked back a couple of paces.

"Slayer!" There was real anger in the demon’s voice as it realised who it was fighting. It shifted its grip on the box and swung it at her. The blow was incredibly swift for such a cumbersome object and the box was so big that avoidance simply wasn’t an option. Faith flung her arms up to cover her head and braced herself, but the impact was still shocking. She was dimly aware of the sound of breaking glass as she was knocked to the ground, her head spinning. It took her a moment to remember which way was up, and by the time she’d freed herself from the wreckage, she wasn’t able to do anything but stare at the demon’s retreating back as it ran off.

"Son of a bitch!"

*****

Buffy sat up in her bed, casting aside sheets already in disarray from hours of tossing and turning. She turned to look at the clock on the nightstand; the glowing red digits read 4:26. Rubbing tired eyes, she got to her feet.

At the top of the stairs she glanced through the doorway into Faith’s bedroom. The open curtains let in more than enough light from the street lamps to show that the empty bed hadn’t been slept in. Is this how Mom felt every night? Buffy closed her eyes, her throat suddenly dry and tight as anxiety washed over her. Where is she? Is she okay? Will I always feel like this after she’s gone, not knowing where she is, what she’s doing?

Buffy didn’t bother switching on the lights as she crept barefoot down to the kitchen, picking her way through the familiar shadows of her home. She got a glass from the cupboard and filled it with water. The cool liquid slid down her throat, washing away a little of the tension. She bent over the sink to refill the glass.

"Death is your gift."

Buffy jerked upright and saw a paint-streaked face reflected in the window. She span around, the glass slipping from her fingers, but the kitchen was empty.

The glass hit the floor and shattered, the sound seeming to emphasise the surrounding silence.

Buffy slumped forward, leaning against the counter, her heart pounding. What’s wrong with me? Moments later she heard running footsteps on the stairs, and Dawn appeared in the doorway.

"What’s happening? I heard-"

"It’s nothing, Dawnie, I just dropped a glass. Could you turn the light on, please, and be careful - there’s probably pieces everywhere."

"Are you okay?" Dawn asked as she flipped the switch.

"Yeah, just being a klutz. Go on back to bed. I’ll clear up in here."

"But-"

"Bed! You’ve got school in the morning."

Dawn left with a typical teenage ‘Why me?’ roll of her eyes. Buffy waited until she heard her sister’s bedroom door closing, then lifted her foot and turned it over to look at the shard of glass embedded in the sole, crimson blood seeping out around the edge. Why doesn’t it hurt?

*****

"This isn’t good enough!" Roger Wyndham-Pryce snapped.

"Sir, I’m aware that our operation hasn’t produced a great deal of information so far, but I’m afraid it couldn’t be helped." Graves replied, trying to soothe the older man’s irritation. "There was a bottleneck in our supply chain, surveillance equipment was in short supply."

Wyndham-Pryce wasn’t mollified. "Surely, given your position as Travers’ assistant, you could have made sure that some of what was available was sent to our team?"

"Yes, sir, I could have, but I felt that would have been unwise." Graves held up his hand, forestalling another outburst. "Sir, please, listen to me. We can’t afford to do anything that might attract attention to what we’re doing. If Travers should learn of it before we have the information we need to move against him, well… I’m sure you can imagine the consequences."

Reluctantly, Wyndham-Pryce agreed. "Quite so, Mr. Graves. However, the longer a clandestine project of this kind goes on, the greater the chance of discovery. It is a delicate balancing act, and one in which I am completely in your hands."

"I understand, sir. Rest assured, matters are proceeding. The new equipment will arrive in Sunnydale in the next two or three days, and the team will have instructions to install it as soon as possible."

"Very well. Inform me when the first report arrives."

*****

Buffy practically sleepwalked through classes the next day, tiredness and confusion combining to keep her in a daze from which it seemed nothing could bring her out. She met Willow and Tara for lunch as usual, but barely said a word.

She got home that afternoon to find Faith in the kitchen, hunched over a steaming mug of black coffee and looking like she’d just crawled out of bed. "Hey."

Faith looked up at her and gave a tiny nod, the movement just enough to reveal a fading bruise on her face. "B."

"Trouble on patrol?"

Faith just shrugged. "Demon."

"Yeah, I guessed that much. What happened?"

"I got hit with a TV."

"A TV?"

"One of those big flat-screen ones. The demon was carrying it, still in the box." The impatience in Faith’s voice became coloured with anger. "Came around a corner and ran into the guy. I kicked him, he whacked me with the TV and took off."

"Did you catch him?"

Faith just glared.

"Right. Well, what did he look like?"

"Big, green, kind of lizardy."

"Sounds like the one from the bank," Buffy said. Faith looked surprised at that, so she continued, "Willow got hold of the footage from the security cameras. She showed us last night. After you left."

"I told you, B, duty called."

"What did I do?"

"Don’t know what you’re talking about, B."

"Crap. I know things have been kind of tense lately, between us, but you couldn’t come by the hospital once? And as soon as I get home, you take off and stay out all night."

"Don’t start with me, B. I’m not in the mood." Faith drained her mug and headed for the door.

"Why did you come back?" Buffy’s question pulled Faith up short.

"Come back?"

"To Sunnydale."

"I already told you-"

"Tell me again."

"It was the dreams, B. Someone up there had me dreaming about Hellslut and the tower and everything."

"What else?"

Faith shrugged. "What do you mean?"

"Tell me the rest." Buffy grew impatient.

"There is no ‘the rest’, B."

"Don’t lie to me, Faith."

"Screw you!" Faith snapped, turning away and heading down the hall.

"Tell me!" Buffy shoved her into the wall, blocking her escape. "God damn it, Faith, just tell me!"

"It was you, okay!" Faith screamed right in Buffy’s face, driving her back a step. "I saw you. You were dead, you won but you died. Happy now?"

"You came back to save me?"

"Yeah."

Buffy stared at her, suddenly not sure of anything. "Why… after everything, why would you do that?"

"Because I’m an idiot!"

"Stop it!" Both Slayers jumped at Dawn’s shout. She stood in the front doorway, her school bag hanging from one shoulder.

"Dawnie," Buffy began, "I didn’t hear-"

"Don’t," Dawn cut her off, the rage in her voice contrasting with the tears shining in her eyes. "Don’t treat me like a kid. You think I don’t you two keep fighting? I don’t know why, and you know what? I don’t care! Fix it!" She fled up the stairs and slammed her bedroom door.

For a long moment neither Slayer spoke, then Faith whispered, "I didn’t want you to die."

"So you came to take my place?"

"Better me than you, B." Faith turned away and followed Dawn up the stairs.

Buffy stood watching her go. She didn’t react when she heard Spike’s voice. She knew he wasn’t there.

"Every Slayer has a death wish."

*****

Up in her room, Dawn pulled the ancient book that had occupied so many of her thoughts lately from under her bed.

I’ve got to do something, make them talk to each other instead of yelling to avoid it. But can I really summon a demon? Even for this?

*****

Xander put the tray down on his coffee table and handed mugs of tea to Willow and Tara, then sat down beside Anya. "Okay, Will, this was your idea. What’s up?"

"It’s Buffy. We have to help her."

"Help her with what?" Xander asked. "Do we even know there’s a problem?"

"You saw how she was last night."

"She just got out of the hospital, Will. She could have died, I think we can cut her some slack if she’s not herself."

"I think something fell on his head at work." Anya said. "He says he wears his hard hat, but I’m not sure I believe him."

"I wear the hard hat, An."

"Then how can you think nothing’s wrong?"

Xander’s shoulders slumped. "I don’t. I just don’t know what we can do about it. How can we help her when we don’t even know what’s wrong?"

"Do you think it’s Dawn?" Tara wondered. "Looking after her, I mean. It’s a lot to deal with on top of college and Slaying, and it must remind her of her mom a lot."

"It’s more than that, Tara," Willow replied, her voice hesitant. "I… I think it’s about Faith."

Tara looked unhappy. "Baby, I know you don’t like her, but-"

"Tara, please," Willow said. "Just listen. When Buffy was in the hospital, before her fever broke, I heard her say some things. I know she was probably delirious, but…"

"What did she say, Will?"

"She said ‘Faith, don’t leave me,’" Willow replied, having to fight to get the words out. The others just sat there, shocked.

Anya snapped out of it first. "Faith’s leaving? When did that happen?"

"She has been acting kind of weird lately," Xander said, thinking things over. "I mean, when Buffy got hurt she was climbing the walls, and then when Buffy came home it was like she couldn’t get out of the house fast enough."

"Do you think there’s something going on between them?" Tara asked.

"No," Anya said firmly.

"Yeah, I’ve got to go with Anya," Xander added. "Buffy and Faith? I can’t see it."

"That’s not what I meant." Anya said, her voice sharp. "I didn’t mean nothing is happening, I meant something isn’t happening."

Xander looked at the two witches. "Is anyone else confused?"

Anya snorted her impatience. "There’s something between Buffy and Faith, but it isn’t happening, it’s not moving, it’s just sitting there."

"An-"

"Hands up everyone who spend eleven hundred years with emotionally damaged women? Oh look, just me."

Willow shot Xander her patented ‘You’re marrying her?’ look, and asked Anya, "So, what’s not happening between them?"

"How would I know? I did vengeance, not therapy. All I know is that it’s messing both of them up, and Dawn’s probably catching the fallout."

They all looked at each other for a moment.

"So what do we do?"

*****

"It doesn’t get any easier, does it?"

Sean, sitting in the driver’s seat, looked across at Lucas. "What doesn’t get easier?"

"Waiting. You’ve planned, you’re ready, and now you just have to wait." Lucas shifted in his seat, moving for its own sake. "I always thought it was easier for the ones in charge; the Mayor never seemed to get nervous, whatever was happening."

"Lucky for him."

"You must have had a lot of times like this, during the war."

Sean just nodded.

"Looks like there’s going to be another one. A war, I mean. Afghanistan. The whole country’s fired up."

"That’ll change when the bodybags start coming home. This country’s got rich and comfortable. Weak. People don’t have the stomach for a real fight any more."

"What do you mean?"

"Lucas, I went into Normandy with the 82nd Airbourne, parachuted in the night before the landings, us, the Brits, the Canadians and all the rest. In the first twenty-four hours, we lost over ten thousand men killed, wounded or missing and we were glad to have got off so easily. Nowadays a few Marines get bushwhacked in some African fleapit, and the whole Corps gets called home like a dog. People seem to think they can win a war without anyone dying."

Lucas gave a way smile at that. "Trying to tell me something, Sergeant?"

"Yes," Sean replied without a trace of humour. "No matter how well tonight goes, no matter how much equipment we buy in, some of us aren’t going to live through this thing. Even if both Slayers die, you might go with them. Can you handle that?"

Lucas met his gaze without flinching. "Yes."

"Good." Looking down the street, Sean saw a set of headlights approaching and started the engine. "Here we go."

*****

Weaklings!

The M’Fashnik glared at the three children who had employed him, his contempt turning to rage. "You pitted me against the Slayer! For that I will kill you!"

"Hey, no fair!" Jonathan whined. "We didn’t know she was gonna be there. And you broke our TV!"

"Silence!" The demon kicked over a table, scattering toys in all directions.

"Careful with the collectibles, dude!" Warren cried, rushing forward to protect them only to be seized by the throat and lifted into the air.

"You owe me, tiny man. You will bring me the Slayer’s head, or I will rip out your spine and beat you to death with it!"

"Okay… okay…" Warren managed to gasp. "Just let me breathe!" The M’Fashnik dropped him, and he went on. "Just give us a minute, all right? Let us figure out just how to do it."

The three of them went over to the other side of the basement and began whispering. The demon watched them, wondering how his contacts had dared to send him here. Finally, Warren came back brandishing a slip of paper.

"Here’s the Slayer’s name, address and phone number," he whispered, slapping the M’Fashnik on the arm as though they were old friends. "You want her head? May the Force be with you."

For a moment, the M’Fashnik contemplated tearing Warren’s own head off, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort. It snatched the paper and stomped away up the basement stairs.

Note to self: Find the idiot who sent me here. Kill him. Eat his children.

*****

"Please have a seat, Miss Summers," the doctor said as Buffy entered the office.

"Thanks."

"What seems to be the trouble?"

"I’m having trouble sleeping." Buffy hesitated before elaborating. "I’ll lay there for hours, and I’m exhausted, but I can’t keep my eyes closed."

"And how long has this been happening for?"

"Nearly a week, since I woke up in the hospital."

"While you’re awake, do you spend a lot of time worrying about things?"

"Yeah, I guess so."

"It sounds as though stress is a major factor here. You’ve certainly had a lot to deal with over the last few months, with the loss of your mother and your recent injury. I recommend trying to minimise the stress factors in your life wherever possible – I know it sounds obvious, but it just examining the problem can be beneficial. In the meantime, I’ll prescribe some pills to help you sleep." The doctor pulled out her prescription pad and began scribbling on it. "They’re fairly strong, so make sure you stick to the stated dosage, and above all, don’t mix them with alcohol."

"Thanks."

"A few good nights’ sleep should help enormously," the doctor said, her voice as reassuring as her years of experience could make it. Buffy didn’t seem to respond, so she asked, "Was there something else?"

"What? No, no, nothing."

"Buffy, please. Whatever you say to me stays in this room, you know that."

Buffy still hesitated before answering. "I… I’ve been hearing things, voices, people talking to me. You probably think I’m crazy…"

"Far from it, I’m not at all surprised." Trying not to smile at the shocked look on Buffy’s face, the doctor went on. "You’re not schizophrenic. You haven’t been sleeping, so obviously you haven’t been dreaming. Dreams are a vital part of your psychological defences. They allow you to work unconscious thoughts, worries, and fears in a safe environment. The process is so important that if your mind can’t do it while you’re asleep, it does it while you’re awake."

"You’re kidding?"

"Not at all. Most people, if prevented from dreaming for a week, would be hallucinating freely. If all you’ve experienced are a few voices in your head I’d say you’re holding up quite well. Once you start sleeping and dreaming normally, the voices will stop."

"So, they’re dreams?" The doctor completely missed the fear in Buffy’s voice.

*****

Buffy answered the phone on the fourth ring. Dawn watched her greeting Giles with forced cheerfulness in her voice. The conversation was brief, then Buffy hung up and walked to the base of the stairs. "Faith!"

"Yeah?"

"Giles wants us all over at the magic shop ASAP. There’s been another robbery."

"Okay, I’ll be right down."

Dawn went over to her sister. "Can I come?" she asked, not quite pleading.

"Dawn…"

"Buffy, please, I just want to help."

"I’m not sure that’s-"

Dawn interrupted, pointing at the front door. "Is it supposed to be doing that?"

The doorknob was slowly turning one way then the other. Buffy reached out to grasp it, and then the door burst open, knocking her back into the dining room.

Dawn screamed as the M’Fashnik stormed through the door. It thrust an arm out and flung her out of the way, sending her straight at Buffy and putting them both on the floor. "Slayer!"

"Right here!" Buffy replied, scrambling out from under her sister.

The demon looked at her. "You are not the Slayer," it snarled, before being slammed into the doorframe as Faith threw herself headfirst down the stairs at it. For a few seconds she held the advantage, but then the demon landed a punch to her stomach that lifted her off her feet and dumped her onto living room floor.

Buffy charged in, launching a flying kick at the demon’s back. It staggered under the impact, swinging its fist around in a wild backhand stroke that she easily ducked under. She followed up with a string of punches to the body, but first one arm, and then the other was grabbed. She wasn’t able to get a grip of her own on the demon’s arms, and a moment later, she was sent flying out through the front doorway to land in a heap on the path.

The demon stared after her, its huge fists gripping the doorframe. "You are not the Slayer! What are you?" Before she could reply, the tip of a sword burst through its chest, and it slumped to the ground, revealing a still-shaky Faith behind it.

Faith pulled the sword free and handed it to Dawn. "Thanks, Bitesize." Dawn took it, looking at the blood-soaked blade with a slightly squeamish expression on her face, and went to clean it off while Faith walked over to Buffy. "You okay?"

"Yeah."

"Man, I hate when they come after you at home. Isn’t that our job?"

"You are not the hunter. You are the lamb." For a moment, the Master’s words filled Buffy’s ears, and she instinctively spun around, looking for him.

"B?" Faith asked, worried. "What’s wrong?"

"Nothing!" Buffy replied, too quickly. "Nothing, just making sure there aren’t more of them. Come on, let’s get Reptile-boy here moved, Giles is waiting."

"Sure." Faith followed her inside, watching her with concern.

*****

"So there’s been another robbery? Another bank, same M.O.?" Xander asked a short while later, as they all sat around the table at the Magic Box.

"Er, no, I’m afraid not." Giles replied. "It was an armoured truck, in Oxnard, shortly before dawn today, and the attack was altogether more sophisticated. The truck was boxed in with other vehicles, all stolen, and the doors were blown open with explosives. Both the guards were killed."

"Okay, bad, but it doesn’t sound spooky," Willow said. "Shouldn’t we be letting the police handle this one?"

Giles took off his glasses. "The police statements say the guards throats were torn out. It would appear that the police in Oxnard lack the same level of wilful obliviousness one finds in the typical Sunnydale officer."

"Vampires. Lucas and Sean?" Buffy wondered.

"Sounds like it was well planned," Xander put in. "Just the way a guy like Sean would do it."

Faith cursed under her breath. "Great. How much did they get?"

"Around fifteen thousand dollars." Giles replied. "The truck had already made several deliveries."

"Why would a vamp want that kind of money?" Dawn asked.

"I’m not sure I want to know." Buffy pushed her chair away from the table and began pacing. "Two big robberies in a week - anyone think they’re connected?"

Giles shook his head. "It does seem like an enormous coincidence, but I must confess I can’t see any link between the two."

"Me neither," Xander agreed. "One’s almost a comedy, the other one’s as professional as it gets. It’s like playing ‘Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon’ with demons."

"So there’s someone else," Tara said, more to herself than anyone else.

Giles gave a sigh. "It would appear so."

*****

The trip back to Revello Drive passed in silence.

"Mind if I grab a soda before patrol?" Faith asked as they entered the house.

Buffy flopped onto the couch, still in the same bleak state as when she’d left the Magic Box. "Sure."

Faith and Dawn went into the kitchen. Faith took a can from the fridge and headed for the door, while Dawn began preparing her dinner. After a moment, she heard Faith’s voice, low, almost a whisper. "Bitesize?"

Dawn moved to the kitchen door and saw Faith standing at the bottom of the stairs, looking into the living room. She walked over to join her. "Yeah?"

"Keep the noise down, okay?" Faith pointed toward the couch, where Buffy had slumped over onto the cushions, fast asleep.

"You’re not going to wake her?"

"No, let her sleep, she needs it," Faith said. "I’ll go solo tonight."

"Okay," Dawn said, reluctantly. "Be careful."

"You got it. Go, eat."

Dawn returned to the kitchen, but had barely got her pizza out of the freezer when she realised Faith was talking again. She almost replied before she realised that Faith wasn’t talking to her. After a moment’s internal debate, she crept through to the rear of the living room and peeped around the corner, wreathed in shadow.

Faith was sitting on the edge of the coffee table, whispering to Buffy, one hand gently brushing a few strands of hair from her face. "I’m sorry, B. For everything, everything I did, everything I said. I know me leaving’s going to hurt you. The way I feel about you, it’ll hurt me more, but I have to go. I won’t risk dragging you down with me again." She leaned over and gently kissed Buffy’s cheek, then stood up and left the house.

Dawn just stood there in the shadows for a moment, stunned, then she hurried upstairs. She took the old grimoire and its associated talisman from their hiding place, her mind made up.

CHAPTER 22: Once More, From The Top

Disclaimer: The Buffyverse is owned by Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Fox and a bunch of other people who aren’t me. No infringement of copyright is intended blah blah blah… Some of the dialogue is taken from "Once More, With Feeling" which (obviously) I didn’t write and don’t own. Some of the songs are from "Once More, With Feeling" and modified to suit my plot. The others are based on "Somewhere I Belong" and "Lying From You" by Linkin Park and "My Immortal" by Evanescence. The original songs are copyright of Warner Bros Records and Wind-up Entertainment respectively.

As soon as she heard Dawn’s bedroom door close, Buffy opened her eyes and sat up, blinking to clear her vision. Did I hear… did Faith say…? She looked toward the door, trapped for a moment by indecision, then grabbed a jacket and ran out into the night.

The street was deserted, Faith had vanished. Buffy looked up and down the road, hoping against hope that she’d appear by magic from the shadows, then picked a direction at random and started walking. Her mind echoed with what she’d heard, or thought she’d heard.

Faith has feelings for me?

No, I imagined it, I must have.

But why would I…

She’s leaving, it’s upsetting me…

But I felt her kiss me…

Did I?

Why would I imagine it?

Do I want it to be true?

The same thoughts ran around in Buffy’s head for hours, through streets and alleys and graveyards. She didn’t know when the music began, it seemed as though it had always been there, and it felt like the most natural thing in the world when she began to sing, pouring her heart out even as she was attacked by first one vampire, then another and another.

	I’ve been making shows 
	Of trading blows
	Just hoping no one knows
	That I’ve been
	Going through the motions
	Walking through the part
	All to hide the aching in my
	Heart

As her enemies’ ashes scattered on the breeze, she cried out to the night sky.

	I think I finally see
	The problem here is me
	I shouldn’t even be
	Alive

*****

What the hell is going on? Faith turned the corner toward the Magic Box and immediately had to dodge out of the path of a streetsweeper, who went tangoing by holding his broom like a dance partner. She was reaching for the shop’s door when she heard the voices inside.

	What can’t we face if we’re together…

You’ll never be a part of that. A poisonous whisper crept through Faith’s mind, bringing tears to her eyes. For a moment she leaned against the doorframe, putting her mask back in place, then she pushed the door open just as the singing stopped. "Okay guys, what’s the story? Last night I had a pair of vamps singing for mercy, and now there’s a guy cross the street doing show tunes about his dry cleaning. Someone want to clue me in?"

Everyone froze as she came in. Giles cleared his throat and said "Ah, yes, well, actually we were just, er, tossing a few theories around. I think some research is in order."

"Great. Book me."

*****

Okay, remember, act excited. This is all very weird, and totally not something I knew was coming.

Dawn burst into the Magic Box and ran over to the gang, who were still seated around the research table. "Oh my God, you guys will never believe what happened at school today!"

"Everything went West Side Story?" Faith asked without looking up from her book.

Dawn’s look of disappointment was only half-faked. "I gave birth to a pterodactyl," she replied, a little put out by how calm everyone was. "So, you guys too, huh?"

"Yeah," Xander said. "Been there, sung that. What was your number about?"

"Math." Dawn sat down with them at the table, sneaking looks at Buffy and Faith whenever she could. Both seemed engrossed in what they were reading, but Buffy at least looked tense and uncomfortable. Faith just looked bored. "So, any idea’s on what’s caused the Broadwayathon?"

"Not yet," Faith muttered, "but if I end up doing Cats down Main Street, something’s going to die."

"Oh come on," Dawn said, surprised at the anger in Faith’s voice. "Don’t you think it’s kind of cool? Songs, dancing, what’s wrong with that? It might even help some people, you know, bare their souls?"

*****

"… and what about the silk pyjamas? I don’t even own silk pyjamas!"

"Enough!" Giles flung up his arms in despair, finally bring a halt to the torrent of complaints Xander and Anya were pouring out at him. "Both of you, stop! I understand that your little matinee performance was disturbing, but there’s more at stake here than your artistic pride!"

The underlying anger in Giles’ voice stopped them both in their tracks. Xander turned to him, agitation replaced by uncertainty. "What’s the matter, G-Man? It’s just people singing and dancing, right?"

"No," Giles replied, his anger subsiding. "There have been several deaths reported, people burned alive."

"As in burnt up? Somebody set people on fire? That's nuts!"

"I don't know," Anya muttered. "One more verse of our little ditty and I would've been looking for a gas can."

Giles ignored her. "Well, clearly emotions are running high. But as far as I can tell these people burnt up from the inside, spontaneously combusted. I've only seen the one. I was able to examine the body while the police were taking witness arias."

"Okay, but we're sure that the things are related, right?" Xander said. "The singing and dancing, and burning and dying."

"I can’t be certain of anything, though it would be an enormous coincidence if they weren’t connected," Giles replied. "We’ve got a few leads, but nothing definite. Buffy and Faith are checking the local demon haunts – at least, they’re supposed to be. Neither of them seems to be particularly focused at the moment."

Anya just rolled her eyes at that, as though Giles was simply stating the obvious, but Xander was watching him a little more closely. "You know something, G-Man. What’s going on?"

"It’s… it’s private."

"No, it’s not. We all know there’s something wrong with those two, and if it’s affecting their work, it puts all our lives at risk, not to mention everyone else in town." Xander paused for a moment, taking some of the venom out of his voice. "Look, when one of us has a problem, we all help, that’s how it works."

"You’re right, I know, it’s just that they wanted to keep this between themselves as much as possible." Giles took of his glasses and began massaging the bridge of his nose. "Faith’s leaving, and Buffy isn’t taking it very well."

"What?"

"When?"

"Why?"

The detached, Watcher-trained part of Giles’ brain wondered how two people could say three things simultaneously. "Faith is leaving. She thinks that her presence here is alienating Buffy from the rest of us and harming us as a group."

"And Buffy’s not happy about it?" Anya asked.

"Buffy is extremely upset, although she’s been trying to hide it from everyone. I think she’s trying to protect Dawn as much as anything."

Xander mentally reviewed Buffy’s recent behaviour. "When did all this start?"

"I can’t say when Faith made her decision, but I learned of it while Buffy was visiting Angel."

"But that was weeks ago!" Xander protested. "If Faith’s so hot to skip town, how come she’s still here?"

"It’s the vampire, isn’t it?"

Giles nodded, surprised at Anya’s insight. "Yes. Faith sees Lucas as her responsibility, the last loose end from her first time in Sunnydale. She intends to leave as soon as he’s destroyed. You’ve noticed that she’s recently been appearing later and later in the day? From what little Buffy’s said to me, I’m certain that Faith has been staying out until dawn every night, trying to find something that will lead her to him. I’m starting to worry that she’ll go after him on her own."

Anya’s eyes widened. "You mean take on Lucas, Sean and who knows how many more by herself?"

"Why not?" Xander said. "Faith’s never been big on forward planning."

"Great!" Anya threw up her hands. "So either Faith gets herself killed, or Lucas gets dusted and Faith leaves. Either way, Buffy’s going to be a wreck."

"So what do we do?" Xander asked after a moment’s pause.

"I don’t know. I don’t know!" Frustration and anger began to creep into Giles’ demeanour. "I’m a Watcher, my Slayers need my help, and I don’t know what to do!"

*****

"The sun sets, and she appears. Come to serenade me?"

"So you know what’s going on?" Buffy closed the crypt door behind her and walked toward Spike.

Spike laughed a little. "Well, I’ve seen some damn funny things the last couple of nights. Six hundred pound Shurago demon making like Yma Sumac – that’s going to take some shifting." He brandished a bottle of whisky. "Drink?"

"A world of no." Buffy brushed some of the dust from the raised platform around the edge of the crypt and sat down. "So, any idea what’s causing this?"

"Oh. So that's all. You've just come to pump me for information."

"What else would-" Buffy stopped herself. "No, not saying it."

"Well, don’t let me bore you with small talk," Spike snapped, opening the door. "Don’t know a thing." Buffy closed her eyes for a moment, head bowed, then stood up and began walking to the door. Spike stopped her, putting his hand on her shoulder. "What’s wrong?"

"It’s nothing." Buffy shook his hand off and went to leave, but Spike slammed the door shut ahead of her.

"Tell me."

It was the gentleness in Spike’s voice that broke through. Buffy’s shoulders began to tremble and she covered her face with her hands, hiding her tears. "It’s Faith…"

"What about her?"

"She’s leaving me, Spike. She’s leaving Sunnydale and I don’t know if I can take losing her! She’s been so cold lately, she barely even talks to me, but it’s like the only time I even feel alive any more is when I’m with her!"

"Oh bloody hell!" Spike snatched up the whisky bottle and flung it across the crypt. "Look, Slayer, I get that you don’t want me, but coming in here and moping because you can’t have the one you DO want? Forget it, that’s a step too low even for me."

"Spike, what-"

	I died, so many years ago…

*****

The Magic Box was a lonely beacon on a darkened street as Buffy arrived, long shafts of light filtering through the blinds and casting narrow beams across the road. Inside, Xander, Anya and Giles were at the table, surround by piles of books, while Willow and Tara worked at the counter behind a heap of magic supplies. A series of muffled thumps from the back room told her that Faith was training.

"Hey Buff," Xander said. "Get anything out of Spike?"

"Nothing helpful." Buffy looked around. "Where’s Dawn?"

"We took her home about an hour ago, she said she was tired," replied Willow. "Don’t worry, we checked the house, everything’s locked down tight."

"Okay. Thanks. Have you guys come up with anything?"

Giles put his book down. "Possibly. We’ve come across a few accounts of similar events, all of which seem to revolve around a particular demon."

"And get this, the guy has to be summoned," Xander put in. "This isn’t just random, somebody brought him here."

Buffy growled with disgust. "What is it with people summoning demons? Hasn’t anyone figured out that it never ends well?" She took off her jacket and dropped it on the end of the counter. "So, any idea who’s playing Dark Lord today? Lucas, the guys with the bank demon?"

"Nothing more than supposition, I’m afraid," Giles replied, flexing his shoulders. "However, Willow and Tara are working on something that should prove useful once we actually track down the demon."

Buffy looked across at the two witches with something very like relief on her face. "Thanks, both of you. I don’t know what I’d do without you." Tara blushed and ducked her head, while Willow smiled at her. Neither of them saw Buffy’s eyes flicker toward the training room door. "I’m going to go work out for a bit, okay?"

*****

Faith didn’t seem to notice when Buffy entered the room, her attention was completely focused on the punchbag. Buffy watched her for a few moments, then began changing into her training clothes. All the time, a few lines that Spike had sung ran over and over through her mind.

	You’re scared, afraid of what you feel
	And you can’t tell the one you love, ‘cause then you’d have to deal

Buffy sat down on one of the benches. Spike thinks he knows what I feel? I don’t know what I feel anymore. The one I love? Was he talking about Faith? She looked up at Faith, who was practically snarling as she launched another kick.

I look at her, and all I feel is pain. How can that be love? And she acts like doesn’t care about anything anymore. Or anyone. It’s like the last time.

Last time, when she was hiding-

Faith launched a last flurry of punches and stepped back, turning her head around fast to catch Buffy staring at her. "You want something?"

Caught by surprise, Buffy stammered out, "I-I-I thought maybe you’d like to do some sparring, I mean, if you want…"

"Sure." Faith dropped into a fighting stance. Buffy sighed and went over to join her. They circled each other for a while, then Buffy made a slow, clumsy attack that Faith evaded without effort, replying with a kick that knocked her sideways. "Come on, B, that all you’ve got?" Buffy took a step back, stung as much by the venom in Faith’s voice as by the bruise on her ribs. She attacked again, with the same result. The cycle continued, each half-hearted attack drawing a single blow in response, each one at barely less than full speed and power, followed by an insult. Eventually, Buffy over-extended her arm on her attack. Faith grabbed it and threw, slamming Buffy down onto the floor hard enough to knock the wind out of her. Before she could catch her breath, Faith was on her, twisting her arm behind her until her shoulder burned. "Quit fighting like a girl, B."

Faith released her grip and stood, turning away. A second later, Buffy’s foot slammed into her legs, knocking them from under her and dumping her on her back. Buffy had her pinned down in moments, tears pouring down her cheeks. "Stop it!"

Faith sneered. "Stop what? You’re the one wasting everyone’s time! You want to train for real, give me a call."

"I know what you’re doing!" Buffy grabbed her by the shoulders, her knuckles turning white. "Stop trying to make me hate you! I’ll never hate you!"

"You can do it, B. Just like riding a vamp, it’ll all come back."

"Faith! Stop hiding and talk to me, tell me why you’re doing this."

"Just being me."

"I heard what you said, when I fell asleep on the couch."

Faith froze for a split second. "What’re you talking about?"

"I heard you. You said you were leaving because of the way you feel about me, and then you kissed me."

"You’ve got a weird imagination, B…" Faith tried to sound dismissive, but her voice was wavering.

"Why did you kiss me at Tara’s party?" Buffy demanded, watching a hint of panic creep into Faith’s eyes.

"What? I was just… I was…" Faith’s voice cracked as she gazed up into Buffy’s eyes, seeing the anguish there fully revealed for the first time. She fell silent, the mask slipping from her face.

Buffy watched the arrogance and attitude drain away, leaving Faith looking as scared and alone as Buffy had ever seen her. Without making a conscious decision, she lowered her head until her lips brushed across Faith’s. Faith’s body tensed for an instant, then seemed almost to melt away, relaxing completely as her lips began to move. Supporting her weight on one arm, Buffy began to stroke Faith’s cheek as the kiss deepened.

After what seemed like hours, Buffy lifted her head and looked down at Faith, whose cheeks were wet with both their tears. "I know you felt that too."

"Get off me!" Faith flung her arm out, knocking Buffy aside, and scrambled away.

"Faith?" Buffy regained her footing, pain and confusion welling up inside her. "What’s wrong?"

Faith picked herself up, turning to face Buffy as fresh tears streamed down her face. "God damn you, Buffy!" She burst out through the back door and disappeared into the night.

*****

Everyone was still engrossed in their work when Buffy emerged from the training room, back in her street clothes. She’d dried her tears, but her eyes were still red and puffy. Willow was just looking up when Spike burst through the front door, propelling what looked like a human-sized puppet ahead of him. "Lookie lookie what I found!"

"Is-is this the demon guy?" Tara asked.

Spike shook his head. "Works for him. Has a nice little story for the Slayer, don't you? Come on, then. Sing."

Music rose in the background, but instead of the expected song the demon’s voice was almost conversational. "My master has the Slayer's sister hostage at the Bronze because she summoned him and at midnight he's going to take her to the underworld to be his queen."

Giles rolled his eyes, as if to say ‘not that one again’. "What does he want?"

"Her." The demon pointed at Buffy.

Spike began, "If that's all you've got to say, then-" but the demon broke free and fled before he could finish. "Strong. Someday he'll be a real boy."

"Dawn’s in trouble," Buffy whispered to herself. "Perfect."

Willow had gone deathly pale. "Buffy, I’m so sorry, we thought-"

"It’s okay. Not your fault, you didn’t summon this thing. Is your spell thing ready?"

Tara nodded. "A-almost, we just need a few more minutes."

"Okay, I’ll go to the Bronze, make sure Dawn’s okay. You guys follow soon as you can."

"What about Faith? Where is she, anyway?" Xander asked, looking toward the back room.

"Forget Faith, she’s gone." Buffy pulled on her coat.

"What?"

"Don’t worry, Slayer, I’ve got your back."

"I thought you wanted me to stay away." Buffy’s voice was heavy with bitterness. "Isn’t that what you sang?"

"Awww, Spike sang a widdle song?" Xander sneered.

Spike almost snarled. "Fine. I hope you dance ‘til you burn. You and the little bit."

As Spike stormed out, Giles turned to her. "Buffy, you shouldn’t go alone, we still don’t entirely know what we’re dealing with. Just wait a few minutes, or contact Faith-"

"It’s Dawn, Giles. There’s no time." Buffy ran out before he could respond.

Giles stared after for a second, then went over to the counter. "Finish your work." He picked up the phone.

*****

Damn it, damn it, damn it! Why did she do that?

Faith slammed her fist into the alley wall, the rough brickwork tearing at her knuckles. For a moment she watched blood welling up in the tattered skin. Figures. Everything with B ends in blood and pain.

Her cell-phone rang, startling her out of her reverie. For a moment she almost ignored it, then dug it out of her pocket. "Yeah? Giles? What… I’m rolling." She stuffed the phone back into her jacket and tried to run for the Bronze, but for some reason her legs wouldn’t move faster than a purposeful walk. Somewhere close by she heard a guitar start up, and then the words were coming out.

	When this began
	I had nothing to say
	I was so lost in the nothingness inside of me
	I was alone
	So I let her in, only to find
	That she’s found another way to send me out of my mind
	And now I know
	That all the agony her words revealed
	Is the only real thing that I’ve got left to feel
	Nothing but pain
	Just stuck, hollow and alone
	And the fault is my own, and the fault is my own
 
	I want to heal, I want to feel what I thought was never real
	I want to let go of the pain I’ve held so long
	Erase all the pain till it’s gone
	I want to heal, I want to feel like I’m close to something real
	I want to find something I’ve wanted all along
	Somewhere I belong

Across town, Buffy heard the same guitar music, felt her own words rise inside her.

	And now there’s nothing to say
	I can’t believe I didn’t see what was in front of my face
	I was confused
	Looking everywhere only to find
	That it’s not the way I had imagined it all in my mind
	So what am I
	What do I have but negativity
	’Cause I can’t justify the way my friends are looking at me
	Nothing to lose
	Nothing to gain, hollow and alone
	And the fault is my own, and the fault is my own
 
	I want to heal, I want to feel what I thought was never real
	I want to let go of the pain I’ve held so long
	Erase all the pain till it’s gone
	I want to heal, I want to feel like I’m close to something real
	I want to find something I’ve wanted all along
	Somewhere I belong

Streets apart, the two Slayers’ voices merged into a single refrain.

	I will never know myself if I must do this on my own
	I will never feel anything else, until my wounds are healed
	I will never be anything till I break away from me
	I will break away, I'll find myself today

Buffy reached the main door to the Bronze and kicked it open, just as Faith did the same with the back door. Their eyes met across the dance-floor and they stopped in their tracks.

"Well, what have we here? A double feature."

The languid, almost contemptuous voice dragged both Slayers’ attention to the stage, where they saw a terrified Dawn, dressed in a ball-gown, seated next to a smirking, red-skinned demon in a shiny blue suit.

Buffy stalked into the nightclub, Faith mirroring her on the other side. As she reached the pool table, Buffy asked the demon, "You got a name?"

"I’ve got a hundred."

"Well, I ought to know what to call you if you're going to be my brother-in-law."

Dawn gasped. "Buffy, I-"

"Don't worry. You're not going anywhere." Buffy’s face was like stone. "I am."

"What?" Faith and Dawn burst out together.

Buffy ignored them. "Deal’s this. I can’t kill you, you take me to Hellsville in her place."

"No way, B."

"Shut up, Faith."

The demon chuckled. "And what if I kill you?"

"It’s been tried. Never sticks."

"We’ll see." The demon snapped his fingers, and half a dozen puppet-men emerged from the shadows, fanning out around the Slayers.

Instinct took over. Buffy and Faith moved back to back, staying close together. It was over in seconds, the six puppet-men lying dead or unconscious on the floor. Buffy tried to move toward the stage, but Faith grabbed hold of her arm. The lethargy that Buffy had shown at the Magic Box was gone, and this time it was Faith that was thrown across the room, skidding to a halt by the stage steps. She was on her feet again in moments. "You’re not doing this, B!"

"You don’t get a vote!" Buffy yelled back as the rest of the Scooby Gang arrived through the wreckage of the main doors. "You’re the one walking out on me!"

The demon’s smirk widened, and once again electric guitars could be heard, loud and discordant. Everyone was looking at Buffy, but it was Faith’s voice that joined the music.

	You pretend everything is what you wanted to see
	And I’m exactly like what you had always thought I should be
	So I pretend to forget about the killer that I am
	Acting like it never happened just ‘cause you say I can
	But I can’t pretend this is the way that I’ll stay
	Why can’t you see the truth?
	I can’t pretend I’m who you want me to be, so I’m
 
	Lying my way from you
	I want to be pushed aside so let me go
	Let me take back my life, I’d rather be all alone
	Anywhere on my own, ‘cause I can see
	The very worst part of you is me

Faith turned to the other Scoobies, some of her old resentment burning in her eyes.

	I remember what you thought of me
	Remember all your whispered talk of who I ought to be
	Remember coming back and hearing it from them again

Her head snapped back around to face Buffy, and she began circling the other Slayer.

	But you pretended up a person who was fitting in
	And now you think this person really is me
	And I wish it could be the truth
	But the more you push the more I'm pulling away ‘cause I'm
	Lying my way from you
	I want to be pushed aside so let me go
	Let me take back my heart, I’d rather be all alone
	Anywhere on my own, ‘cause I can see
	The very worst part of you is me

On the last line, she grabbed Buffy by the shoulders, standing so close she could feel her breath on her face and Buffy could see the pain and self-loathing in her eyes, her voice falling to a whisper as faint wisps of smoke drifted from her. The others watched, unable to speak.

Slow clapping from the stage broke the silence. "Now that was a performance from the heart. Not quite the fireworks I had in mind, though."

"Get out," Willow growled.

"Hmm, I smell power. More than you realise." The demon stood up. "I guess my bride-to-be and I should be on our way." Dawn shrank away from him.

Giles’ voice was as cold as Willow’s had been angry. "That’s never going to happen."

"I don’t make the rules. She summoned me, she wears my talisman." The demon waved his hand at the pendant around Dawn’s neck.

Faith turned away from Buffy. "I don’t care."

"Too bad." The demon took Dawn by the arm.

"Get your hands off her!" Faith leapt toward the stage.

The demon’s smile became malevolent, music rising again in the background. In one movement, Willow and Tara raised their hands, intertwined around a crystal.

"Silentium!"

A pulse of white light shot out from the crystal like a shockwave, overtaking Faith in mid-air and leaving dead silence in its wake. The demon’s mouth flapped uselessly for a moment before Faith crashed into him. By the time Buffy reached the stake, Faith had yanked a stake from her coat pocket and driven it into the demon’s eye.

Willow let go of the crystal. It hit the floor and shattered, the sound breaking the silence and the spell. Buffy ran over to Dawn and flung her arms around her. Dawn collapsed in tears against her. "I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…"

"Why, Dawnie?" Buffy whispered, clutching onto her sister as though afraid she’d slip away again. "Why did you do it?"

"I didn’t know what would happen! I thought it was just songs and people saying how feel," Dawn sobbed, her voice muffled against Buffy’s shoulder. "You were both so unhappy, and then I heard Faith say she was leaving, and I just wanted us all to be happy again. You’ve got to make her stay, Buffy."

"I don’t think I can…"

"Please!"

Blinking tears away, Buffy looked around, but the stage was deserted. "Where is she?"

The others, who’d been transfixed by Dawn’s outpouring, seemed to break out of a trance. Tara said, "She didn’t come this way, she must have slipped out the back."

"Get her back, Buffy." Dawn whispered, releasing her grip on her sister. "I don’t want to lose anyone else."

Buffy got to her feet. "I will, for you."

Dawn shook her head. "For you."

*****

In the alley behind the Bronze, Faith collapsed against the wire fence, trying and failing to hold back the tears, and the words that came with them.

	I'm so tired of being here
	Condemned by all these doubts and fears
	And if I have to leave
	I know that I should just leave
	But instead I still linger here
	Like I can’t leave you alone
 
	These wounds won't seem to heal
	This pain is just too real
	There's just too much that time cannot erase
 
	If you cried I'd wipe away all of your tears
	If you screamed I'd fight away all of your fears
	And I’d hold your hand through all of these years
	And you would have
	All of me

Her head jerked up in surprise as Buffy’s voice answered hers.

	You used to fascinate me
	Like a diamond in the night
	Now I’m trapped behind a pain I cannot hide
	Your face it haunts
	My once pleasant dreams
	Your voice it chased away
	All the sanity in me
 
	These wounds won't seem to heal
	This pain is just too real
	There's just too much that time cannot erase
 
	If you cried I'd wipe away all of your tears
	If you screamed I'd fight away all of your fears
	And I’d hold your hand through all of these years
	And you would have
	All of me

Faith stood and walked toward her, their voices blending again.

	I've tried so hard to tell myself that you're gone
	That though you're still with me
	I've been alone all along

Less than an arm’s length apart, they reached out to each other.

	If you cried I'd wipe away all of your tears
	If you screamed I'd fight away all of your fears
	And I’d hold your hand through all of these years
	And you would have
	All of me

As the final notes died away, their lips met, the salt of their tears dissolving in the kiss. Both of them knew that the others were watching from the doorway, but in that moment they were the only people in the world.

Then it was over. Faith broke the kiss and stepped back. "I can’t, I’m sorry…"

She ran.

CHAPTER 23: What A Slayer Needs

"What do we do now? How do we fix this?" Xander’s voice was hushed, but the question seemed to echo around Buffy’s kitchen, hanging in the air between him and Giles. The Watcher was on the verge of replying when the door opened and Anya walked in, shutting it behind her.

"How are they?" Giles asked.

"Dawn won’t stop crying. Tara’s sitting on her bed holding her. Buffy’s still sitting on the couch, not talking. It’s not like she’s catatonic, she just won’t say anything. Willow’s still trying, but I don’t think she wants to talk to any of us right now."

"What the hell happened tonight?" Xander’s voice left no doubt of his incomprehension. "Buffy and Faith making with the smoochies? What’s that about?"

"Okay, Xander, here’s how it works," Anya said as, though talking to a child. "When two people care about each other very much-"

"An! You know what I mean. When did Buffy jump on the gay-train? Shouldn’t there have been signals, or a memo or something?"

Giles shrugged. "There weren’t any with Willow, if you recall."

"Okay, good point, but Faith? Of all the girls in Sunnydale she chooses Faith?"

"Yes, I’ve been pondering that myself and, to be honest, I can’t think of a more likely candidate, except perhaps Willow." Giles saw the look of amazement forming on Xander’s face and pre-empted the question. "Xander, for all their history together, Buffy and Faith share something unique just by being Slayers."

"There’s some kind of mystic bond between them?" Anya asked.

"I don’t think we need to bring in the supernatural to explain it. The simple reality of what being a Slayer means is something that we can never fully understand."

"Why not?"

"Because we can leave," Giles replied, as though it were the simplest thing in the world. "Any one of us can walk away from this life, the dangers we face, at any time. You have skills that could find you work in any town in the country. Willow could transfer to practically any university in the English-speaking world. I could ask to be reassigned without even leaving the Council."

"You think we’d do that?" Xander was hurt and a little angry.

"No, I don’t, you’ve all proved your dedication and loyalty many times over. My point is that we have a choice. Buffy and Faith will never have that luxury; Buffy learned that very painfully when she ran away after sending Angel to hell. The Slayer is drawn to the darkness in the world, and it to her. Neither of them will ever be free of it. They may react to it in different ways, but they both carry the same burden."

"So it’s a comfort thing? Buffy wants Faith because Faith knows how she feels?" Anya asked.

"No, it’s more than that," Xander replied, his eyes losing focus as his mind worked, making connections he’d never made before. "You saw them tonight, this whole Slayer bond thing’s just part of it."

"I have to agree," Giles said. "There’s a genuine depth of feeling on both sides, that much is obvious now. Their shared understand is just a foundation for that, not the whole. I wish it were. That would make helping Buffy through this loss a great deal easier."

"She hasn’t lost anything yet." Xander said, grabbing his jacket and heading for the back door.

Anya grabbed his arm. "Where are you going?"

"Find Faith, stop her from leaving."

"You don’t even know where to look!"

"I’ve got an idea."

"For God’s sake be careful out there!" Giles called after him, and then he and Anya were left alone. For a short while they just looked at each other, unsure what to do next, before they heard footsteps on the stairs.

They found Tara standing at the living room door, talking to Willow. "Dawn’s asleep. I put a blanket over her - I thought I should leave her in peace."

Hearing Tara’s voice seemed to bring Buffy back to herself. "Thank you, Tara, all of you. I’m sorry I’ve been such a mess tonight, I’ll be okay now. You don’t have to stay."

"It’s okay, Buffy. We’re here for you."

"Will, please, I’d really like to be alone right now, okay?" Buffy looked at each of her friends in turn, trying to seem strong again. "I’ll be fine, really."

Willow looked at Tara, hoping she would have some idea of what to do, but Tara was as helpless as she was. She felt Giles’ hand on her shoulder; the look on his face told her the truth she’d refused to accept from herself. There’s nothing more we can do here. Arguing with her won’t help.

She hugged her friend, whispering "Call me if you need anything, okay?" into her ear. Buffy didn’t return the hug, and her nod in reply was perfunctory at best. The others mumbled goodbyes and headed for the door. Buffy’s last words did nothing to inspire hope.

"Turn the lights out, please."

*****

Colours swirled in the liquid, orange, amber, brown, flecks of light glinting on the surface. Faith raised the glass and the scent of cheap whiskey enveloped her, overwhelming the odour of sweat, smoke and stale beer that permeated the bar.

This is where I belong. This is my world, and that’s never going to change. I’m such a moron, thinking I could ever be a part of hers. Her world’s clean and bright and shining, and people like me aren’t even allowed to look in the window in case we smudge the glass. If I let her let me in, I’d taint everything I touched, bring it all down, bring her down, down here with the dirt and the stink and the sleazy guys checking me out. They’re the ones I belong with; the ones who get you drunk then take you outside and fuck you up against a wall. Time was, that’s all I wanted. Should’ve kept it that way. Simple.

Maybe if I try it again it’ll all come back to me.

Maybe it’ll take the pain away for a while.

She set the glass down hard, some of the untouched whiskey slopping over the side onto the stained, pitted wood of the bar.

That won’t stop it coming back.

She sensed someone moving in behind her and waited for whatever crude pick-up line was coming.

"Faith."

The voice was about the last she expected, or wanted, to hear. "How’d you find me?"

"Wasn’t hard. I figured you’d head for the rankest dive you could find."

"Get lost, Xander, I don’t want to hear it."

"And look how much I don’t care."

A hand dropped onto Xander’s shoulder. He looked around and was confronted with a flabby, pockmarked face, the mouth split by a sneer that revealed three kinds of teeth: rotten, broken and missing. "The lady wants you to leave her alone. Beat it or get beaten."

"The ‘lady’ could put both of us in the ground without breaking a sweat," Xander replied, looking with obvious disgust at the grimy paw on his shoulder. "You going to move that or wait ‘til it crawls off on its own?"

The would-be ‘rescuer’ snarled and brought his other hand up for a punch, but Xander ducked to one side and planted a short jab onto a crooked nose covered with burst veins. The thug staggered back, blood trickling down his face. He pulled a switchblade from his pocket, but never got a chance to use it. Faith’s boot struck him in the stomach, knocking him over backwards. His head struck the edge of the pool table and he slumped to the floor.

Faith looked around the bar, at the circle of suddenly hostile faces. "Great, just great." She stormed out, with Xander right on her heels. She rounded on him as soon as they were on the street. "What the hell are you doing?"

"Do you have any idea the mess Buffy’s in right now?"

"Yeah, I know. Tonight’s top story: Faith screwed up again."

"So what are you going to do about it?"

"The only thing I can do. Go home, get on the bike and get out of your lives for good."

"Run away again, you mean."

"Is your brain loose or something? I’m the problem, you’re the solution. I get out of town, then you, Red and Giles get Buffy back on her feet. That’s how it works. You’re pretty good at it, remember?" She walked away, only to be brought to a halt by what Xander said next.

"We’re not in high school any more, Faith!"

She stopped for a second, pulling her old attitude around her like a cloak before she turned. "Yeah, sorry, I keep forgetting, seeing as how I missed graduation."

"Not going to work, Faith. Points for effort, though." Xander tried to put more reason and less aggression into his voice. "Maybe you haven’t noticed, but things have changed a bit since those days. We don’t get to hang out in the cafeteria then go to the library after school and bug Giles, or sit around all day watching Indian soap operas. You didn’t see what happened to us the year after school finished. We all drifted apart; Buffy and Willow were in college, Buffy had Riley and the Initiative, Will had witchcraft and Tara. Meanwhile, I was stuck in my parents’ basement, and Giles was going around in circles in his apartment. We let it happen, and it nearly killed us all."

"Yeah, but you fixed it, right?"

"Pretty much, but we’re not in the same place we used to be. We can’t be, we’ve all got jobs or college or kid sisters to look after. We help, we hang, but we can’t be there for Buffy same way we used to be. She needs someone who lives her life, Faith. She needs you."

"No, she-"

"I know what I saw tonight, Faith. When she was kissing you, it was like she was free, like this weight had been taken off her and she could just be Buffy again. I haven’t seen her like that in so long I almost didn’t recognise it. If you really care for her, you won’t take that away from her."

"It can’t, it won’t work. You and Red, you don’t want me here."

"I’m the one asking you to do this, Faith. I’ll talk to Willow, I’ll bring her round. It might take a while, but she wants Buffy to be happy. You make that happen and she’ll be okay." He took a step toward her and placed his hand on her arm. "This is your chance, Faith. Time to decide if you’re going to run from yourself all your life, or are you going to be a better person. It’s your choice."

He walked away.

*****

The Summers’ house had always seemed painfully beautiful to Faith, a place of happiness and love that she could touch but never hold on to. Now, as she stood on the driveway looking up at the house, it was suddenly terrifying.

Her bike stood beside her, its polished blue shell gleaming in the streetlights. She reached out, fingertips brushing the fuel tank.

I could just go. Climb in the window, grab a bag and some clothes. I could be two hundred miles away by dawn. I’d never have to see that pain in her eyes again.

Except I’d see it every time I closed my eyes, and I’d never know if I could have taken it away. But what do I say to her? How do I do this?

She let herself in and stood in the darkened hallway, listening to the silence and trying to figure out what to do.

"You’re back."

Faith jumped as Buffy’s toneless voice sounded in the living room. From the doorway, she could see Buffy sitting on the couch exactly where the others had left her, silhouetted against the window. "God, Buffy, you scared the crap out of me! What’re you doing siting in the dark?"

"Do you care?"

"Of course I-" Faith cut herself off, refusing to take the bait. "Look, Buffy, can we talk?"

"Just go, Faith. Forget Lucas, forget me, forget everything. Just go."

"Do you want me to leave?"

"I just said-"

"No, I don’t mean tonight, or tomorrow or the next day," Faith said as she went over and sat down on the coffee table. "Do you want me to leave?"

"You know I don’t, but I can’t take the waiting and hoping any more."

"Ask me to stay."

"Faith…"

"Please, Buffy, I need to hear you say it."

"I want you to stay."

"Why?"

"Because you make me feel like I’m alive!" Tears sparkled on Buffy’s cheeks. "It’s like I’ve found something I hadn’t even realised I’d lost, and now I’m so scared of losing it again, and everything-"

Whatever Buffy had been about to say was smothered as Faith kissed her. Buffy froze for an instant, taken by surprised, then she abandoned herself to it.

Finally Faith broke the kiss and gasped, "Okay."

"Okay?" Buffy asked, confused, hopeful and afraid of that hope.

"Okay," Faith replied, smiling even as her eyes filled with tears. "Okay. I’m staying."

"You are? But what about all the things you said, about Willow, and Xander, and everything? What’s changed?"

"I have. Whatever it takes to make this work, I’ll do it. I’m not leaving you, Buffy, I-"

It was Faith’s turn to be silenced by a kiss. When they released each other, after what seemed like days, they both had reddened eyes and cheeks smeared with tears, but neither could stop smiling.

"Wow!" Faith said, her eyes a little out of focus.

"Big wow," Buffy agreed. "I guess we should probably have that talk."

"Yeah."

*****

A short while later, the Slayers faced each other across the kitchen counter, each clutching a steaming mug.

"So…" Buffy began nervously. "How… how does this work? You and me?"

"I don’t know. I’ve never been that big on relationships before, you know? I guess I’d like to take things kind of slow, if that’s okay with you?"

"Sure! I mean, I want to do this right, not have it be some ‘get some, get gone’ kind of thing."

"Okay, yeah, good. So, how do you want to do it? Go slow, I mean. Well, what are you doing tomorrow night?"

"I don’t know, patrol, maybe meet the guys at the Bronze… wait a second, are you asking me out? As in, on a date?"

"Well, yeah," Faith replied. "I mean, that’s what couples do when they start out, isn’t it?"

"Yeah, but we’re not exactly like other couples, are we? We already live together, and we’ve kind of shot past the dating stage to the big-time emotional trauma."

"I know, but we’re Slayers; we’re never going to be exactly normal, are we? I just thought it’d be nice to try doing the relationship, getting to know you thing."

Buffy thought about it for a moment. "Yeah, it would. I’d like that." She was about to say something more, but yawned. "Sorry, it’s not you, I promise."

Faith was already yawning herself. "No problem, Buffy, it’s kind of late. Let’s get some sleep - we can talk dates in the morning."

"Okay." Buffy drained her mug and walked around the counter to stand by Faith. "So, if we’re starting in first-date mode, does that mean no more smoochies?"

"Not a chance!" Faith replied with a wolfish grin, wrapping her arms around Buffy’s waist and pulling her close.

Buffy sank into the warmth of her embrace, eyes closing as she tasted Faith’s lips again. A slight noise made her open one eye a fraction, and what she saw sent her jerking back, away from Faith. "Dawn!"

Faith snapped her head around to see Dawn standing in the hallway, still in the ball-gown she’d somehow acquired the previous evening, her bloodshot eyes staring at them in disbelief.

"You… you… are you… you can’t do this if you’re leaving! I can’t stand it!"

Buffy rushed to her sister. "No-one’s going anywhere, Dawnie."

"She’s right, Dawn, I’m staying."

"You are? And the two of you are…"

Buffy looked back at Faith. "Yeah."

Dawn’s squeal of delight had both Slayers covering their ears. "Oh my God, I can’t believe it! I love you guys!" She flung herself at Faith, almost knocking her off her feet with a hug that meant more to Faith than she’d ever have dared to hope. Almost immediately Dawn was reaching out for Buffy as well, drawing her into the embrace.

"Okay, okay, time we all hit the sack," Buffy said, her voice lighter than it had been in weeks. They all trooped upstairs, and Dawn quickly disappeared into her room, leaving the Slayers alone.

"Quite a night, Buffy," Faith said, one hand caressing Buffy’s cheek.

Buffy smiled, putting her arms around Faith’s waist. "I’ve had worse." They kissed one last time, and then turned away to their respective bedrooms. Faith was just about to open the door when Buffy called to her. "Faith?"

"Yeah, Buffy?"

"Call me B."

CHAPTER 24: Rules Of Engagement

"You know, B, this’ll probably go a lot better if we actually get out of the car."

Buffy nodded, staring across the street at the Magic Box and imagining her friends waiting inside. "Right. Get out of the car, go over there and just tell them." Her finger tightened around the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white.

Faith took the teasing note out of her voice. "Look, Buffy, if you don’t want to tell them about us, that’s five by five. I don’t mind keeping it a secret for a while. Just tell them you’re okay."

"No, no, I have to do this. Today. ‘Cause me hiding things from my friends? Never ends well." Buffy turned to look at Faith with something very like fear in her eyes. "What if they can’t deal? I mean, Tara’ll probably be fine with it, and Anya’s just going to want to know if we’ve had sex yet, but Will and Xander? I don’t know how they’re going to feel about this. And Giles? What am I going to say to him?"

"Quit worrying about Giles, he’s cool."

"Giles? Cool? About Slayers dating each other? Nuh-uh, not cool. Three states over from cool. Big states. Alaska-size states. There’ll be throat-clearing and ‘Dear Lord’ and cleaning of glasses! It’ll be a nightmare! Oh God, what am I going to-"

Faith kissed her, smothering whatever she was going to say next. "We’ll get through this, B, whatever it takes. Chosen Two, remember?"

"I know. It just seemed a whole lot easier last night. In daylight…"

"I get it." Faith kissed her on the tip of her nose. "You’re going to do fine, B, I’ll be right there with you."

Buffy smiled at her and opened the door.

*****

As soon as Buffy entered the shop, she looked quickly at each of her friends in turn, sitting around the research table with their eyes on the door the moment it opened. She passed quickly over Anya and Tara, and didn’t linger on Giles, knowing that he wouldn’t show anything obvious until he chose to. It was Willow and Xander who bothered her most.

Willow’s reaction only confirmed her fears; she had clearly been worried, but that seemed to ease a little as she saw Buffy, only for her face to harden as Faith appeared.

Xander, however, surprised her. He looked just as worried as Willow when she walked in, and his concern only abated after he saw Faith. "Hey, Buff, what’s up? Not that I mind an excuse not to have to watch my crew scarfing down cheeseburgers and stuff, but usually it means we’ve got bad guys inbound."

Buffy sat down in the only vacant seat, clasping her hands together on the tabletop to keep from fidgeting. "Okay, guys, here’s the thing… last night, in the alley… I think you all saw… Me and Faith, we’re…"

"Boinking like ferrets?" Anya offered.

"No!" Buffy almost yelled, panic tingeing her voice. "Oh God, I didn’t mean… not no as in…"

Faith took a couple of quick steps from where she was standing by the counter and laid her hand on Buffy’s shoulder. "It’s okay, B, just slow down, take your time," she said, glaring at Anya.

Buffy felt calmer as soon as Faith touched her. Placing her own hand on top of Faith’s, she addressed her friends again. "For a while now, there’ve been some feelings developing between us, but it took a while for us to figure it out. After last night we’ve decided to see where it leads. We’re dating as of last night. I hope that’s okay with you guys, ‘cause… Will, please, listen!"

"I can’t, I can’t be here…" She turned on her heel and stormed off into the training room.

Tara was about to go after her, but Xander stopped her. "I’ve got it."

*****

Xander had barely closed the door behind him before Willow was pulling open the back door. "Will, wait!"

"How can you be okay with this? Ever since Faith came back things, have been wrong, and now she’s dating Buffy? How am I supposed to react to that?"

"Maybe be happy that Buffy found someone?"

"Are you insane? We’re talking about Faith! Remember, knife to my throat, ’I like to kill people’? How can I be happy about this?"

"Hey, hey, slow down a sec. It was me she went all Boston Strangler on, remember? Look, I’m not bouncing off the ceiling about Faith either, but just think back to last night, okay? Buffy’s been miserable for months, and if Faith can change that, I say let her try. You saw them in the alley. Faith cares about her, you can’t deny that. We’ve got to give them a chance."

"And what if it all goes wrong? What if Faith screws it up or turns on us again?"

"We pick up the pieces and help Buffy through it, same as always. Then we look into payback, maybe with voodoo dolls."

"Promise?"

"Cross my heart, Will." Xander’s voice was uncompromising. "She blows this chance, she doesn’t get another one. Look, I’m not saying you and Faith should start braiding each other’s hair – though that is something I’d pay good money to see – just give her a chance. Can you do that?"

Willow wanted to say ‘no’, but her mind kept returning to the previous night and the state Buffy had been in when they left her. "Let me talk to her."

"Buffy?"

"Faith."

*****

No one said anything after Xander left the room. Everyone had focused on Buffy, but none of them could think of anything to say. Anya was about to try when the door opened and Xander emerged. "Faith, Will wants to talk to you."

"Me?" Faith was confused, but she complied. Willow was standing with her back to the door and her arms folded across her chest when Faith entered the training room. "Got something to say, Red?"

"I don’t like you," Willow replied without turning around. "I don’t trust you. Everyone else thinks you’ve really changed. I’m not so sure."

"You want to skip to the end? I already know this part."

"Shut. Up." Willow turned around, and the look in her eyes did more to silence Faith than any words. "I will give you one chance to get this right. We are not friends. We will never be friends. I will be polite to you because it’ll be easier for Buffy, but no more. Make her happy and I’ll play nice. Hurt her and I swear by every power I can name that I will end you."

"Geez, Red, I get the point…"

"I’m not finished." Willow came closer until she was standing eye to eye with Faith, her voice dropping almost to a whisper. "I had this talk with Riley, but I don’t think he took me seriously, so let me be very, very clear. I can’t take you in a fight, but I don’t need to. You have no idea of the powers I can call on, and if you betray her again, I will invoke every one of them to make you pay. I can tear your skin from your flesh, boil your eyes in their sockets and burn you alive from the inside out, and I can keep you alive, conscious and sane through it all. And when I’m done, I will tear your soul from your body and cast it into the darkest, deepest pit of hellfire I can find to burn for the rest of time. Do you understand?"

It took Faith a moment to remember how to speak. "Yeah… yeah, I got it."

"I hope so." Willow walked past her and back out into the shop. She stopped at the table and asked Buffy, "Are you coming to the Bronze after your date?"

"Uh, yeah, we’ll probably stop in before patrol… You’re okay with this?"

"Getting there," Willow replied, hugging her friend. "Just be careful, okay?"

"All right, then," Giles said as Faith rejoined them. "I think that’s everything. Buffy, if you and Faith would like to get the practice equipment ready, I’ll join you in a moment. Oh, Faith, would you mind coming over to my flat this evening, say five-thirty? Since you’re staying in Sunnydale, there are some aspects of your training I’d like to discuss."

*****

"Do you think the redhead was serious?" Ryan wondered as he watched the group dispersing on the screen in front of him. "I think she was serious."

"The witch isn’t our concern," Clark replied, picking up his cell phone. "Hammond, you’re clear. You and Evans get to the house and start wiring the place up. We’ll call you if the Slayers leave the shop."

*****

Faith had managed to push Willow’s outburst to the back of her mind and there was a spring in her step when she reached Giles’ flat that afternoon, full of nervous excitement about the evening ahead. She almost barged straight in, but restrained herself and instead gave a brisk knock on the door.

Giles opened it almost immediately. "Faith. Come in."

The cold formality in his voice caught her off guard. "Nice to see you, too. What’s yanked your chain?"

"Just sit down, please."

"This isn’t about training, is it?" Faith asked as she crossed to the couch. "That’s why we’re here instead of the Box. This is about me and Buffy."

"Yes."

"God damn, I thought you’d be cool with this." Faith threw herself onto the couch and glared up at him. "What is it, you think I’m just gonna screw her and dump her? I don’t know what Demon-Girl’s been saying, but we’re not playing around here. We only got together last night, and you think we’re doing it already? Or maybe I’m just not good enough for her, is that it?"

Giles let her finish before sitting down in the armchair opposite her. "Faith, I didn’t ask you here to object. As long as the two of you are healthy and happy, and your work isn’t affected, then what you do together in private is not my concern. Frankly the fewer details I have the happier I’ll be."

"So what is it?"

"I’m worried about Buffy, and I need your help."

"Something’s wrong with B?"

Giles didn’t answer her right away, and seeing the normally eloquent Watcher struggling for the right words sent a shiver down Faith’s spine. When he spoke, it was to ask a question of his own. "How old were you when you met your first Watcher?"

"Thirteen, going on fourteen."

"You were something of a loner, I believe."

"Pretty much. There were some guys I hung out with, but nothing major."

"And you saw less of them once you began your training?"

"Yeah, Miss Harper kept me pretty busy, and she was always big on the whole ‘higher purpose’ thing. I snuck out a few times to blow off steam. What’s that got to do with B?"

"Have you ever wondered why the Council’s policy is to limit a Slayer or Potential’s contact with others?"

"I figured they were just a bunch of uptight Brits. No offence."

"None taken," Giles assured her with a dry smile, then he grew solemn again. "It isn’t done out of malice or heartlessness, Faith, however much it might seem that way. The Slayer stands at the forefront of humanity’s defence against the darkness. Self-confidence, self-reliance, strength of will; these are vital parts of her arsenal in a battle where help is seldom available. By keeping Slayers and Potentials at a distance from friends and family, the Council has always sought to keep them focused on their task and prevent them from developing a dependence on others." Giles leaned forward in his seat, looking right into Faith’s eyes as he spoke. "That never happened for Buffy. We didn’t find her until after her predecessor was killed. She was flung into the battle completely unprepared; it’s a testament to her spirit that she survived, but becoming the Slayer took a heavy toll on her. She lost every friend she ever had, and then had to leave her home and come here. She’d never been alone in that way, and I don’t think she’s ever truly recovered from it."

"Yeah, but she’s doing okay now, right?" Faith said. She didn’t see what Giles was getting at, but she didn’t like what she was hearing. "She’s got you and Red and Xander and all."

"I’m afraid that’s the problem."

"What, you think her having the guys is bad?"

"There’s no doubt that Willow, Xander and the others have been an enormous help, probably the key to Buffy’s success, but there is another side to the story. When she came here, Buffy consciously rejected the idea of a Slayer working alone. I’m afraid that the strength of the group is weakening her as an individual."

"No, you’re wrong."

"Am I? Do you remember the night when Glory took Dawn? Buffy collapsed completely, and I don’t think she would have recovered without Willow’s intervention."

"Her sister got snatched by a hell-god, Giles!" Faith’s voice rose, smouldering with anger. "Who wouldn’t freak out?"

"A Slayer can’t." Giles replied, putting more force into his voice, meeting her anger head-on. "The stakes are simply too high. If it were an isolated incident, I wouldn’t be so concerned, but there’s a pattern. Her father left, then Angel and Riley, and then her mother died. With each loss, Buffy has leaned a little more heavily on those that remain. When you were hospitalised after we defeated Glory, Buffy was close to breaking point. The thought of you leaving Sunnydale terrified her, and last night, after you ran, she crumbled. She looked exactly as she did when Joyce passed away. It wasn’t just an emotional loss, Faith. She relies on you, and that’s dangerous."

"You don’t think she can trust me?" The thought that Giles still saw her that way hurt, more than she thought it would.

"It’s not a question of trust, Faith."

"Then what’s the problem?"

"You could die." Giles’ response cut the legs out from under her anger. "Any one of us could. The work we do is dangerous in itself, but there are the other risks we all face but never think about. It could be a car accident, or a fire, or a fall down stairs, or any one of the thousand other mundane ways people die. It could happen to any of us, at any time, and I don’t know what the consequences would be. I’m not so concerned about you because you had to learn self-reliance long before you ever heard of the Slayer, but Buffy’s always had someone to turn to."

"So what do you want me to do? How do I help her? You said you don’t want me to break up with her."

"No, no that might cause exactly the crisis I’m trying to avoid. I wouldn’t ask you to do that even if I thought you’d listen." Giles gave her a real smile for the first time since she’d arrived. "What I’m asking for is a lot more difficult. Be there for her, fight beside her, but don’t let her use you as a crutch, no matter how hard it is to resist. If you truly care for her, help her find the strength to stand alone."

"Sounds easy when you say it like that," Faith said sarcastically. "How do I know where to draw the line?"

"Welcome to my world. Faith, I wish I had a handbook or a manual for this but I don’t. We’ll both just have to do our best and hope that it’s enough. Can you do that?"

"Don’t have much choice, do I?"

"No, Faith, we really don’t."

*****

"Too slutty… too slutty… not slutty enough… can’t fight in this skirt…" With each muttered comment, the pile of discarded outfits got higher and Buffy’s frustration went up another notch.

"Are you ever going to be ready?" Dawn walked in from the bathroom, arms crossed, the picture of teenage impatience. "I swear I’ll never take this long when I start dating."

"Which will be never," Buffy snapped, tossing another blouse onto the heap. "And you have no idea how hard this is. It’s our first date, Dawn. Getting the outfit right’s hard enough even without the dating-a-girl and may-have-to-fight-demons issues. Is Faith waiting? She’s probably waiting already. It’s so easy for her; all she has to do is throw on a tank top and some tight jeans and pow! Instant sex-bomb."

Dawn burst out laughing. Seeing Buffy’s aggrieved look she explained. "Okay, first of all, you are so into her, it’s actually scary. Second, Faith’s still in her room looking at clothes. You guys are making such a big deal out of this."

"It is a big deal!" Buffy flopped down onto her bed, surrounded by clothes. "What if I get this wrong? What if I screw up somehow? Everything’s happening so fast, I don’t know if I can handle it. What if she doesn’t like me?"

"Okay, look," Dawn said, sitting beside her. "Faith already likes you. I know this is the first official date, but you guys have been dancing around this stuff for weeks. Just be Buffy. She likes that, for some reason."

Buffy gave a rueful smile. "I’m not sure I even know who Buffy is any more. This last year I haven’t had time to just sit back be me. I think I’ve forgotten how."

"That’s what tonight’s about, remember? Nothing big and complicated, just a movie, pizza and some hang-time at the Bronze. Be Buffy and Faith instead of the Slayers."

"Yeah, that’s the plan, assuming I ever figure out what to wear."

"That top, those pants and black boots with the buckles. Also, you might want to wear a bra with some support, make the most of what you’ve got." Giggling, Dawn ducked out of the room just ahead of a thrown slipper.

*****

The phone rang. Quentin Travers put down his tea and newspaper with an scowl and picked up the handset. "Travers."

"Good morning, sir. This is Michael Ryan, Intel Team 6."

"How did you get this number?"

"Intel, sir, finding things out is what we do."

"Very amusing. What-"

"I’m sorry to have bothered you so early in the day, but I just finished my shift, and I wanted to thank you for the new equipment you sent us for the Sunnydale operation. It’s top gear, best I’ve worked with."

"What Sunnydale operation?"

There was a pause, and when Ryan spoke again he couldn’t keep an element of pride out of his voice. "I knew this job wasn’t legit."

"Ryan, if I remember rightly, you’ve not been with us for long, so let me give you some advice. If you wish to remain in the Council’s employ, I strongly suggest you explain yourself immediately."

"Yes, sir. We finished our last assignment, that werewolf pack in Canada, and we were supposed to be coming home for some leave but we got diverted to Sunnydale instead. We’ve been here for over a month."

"Doing what?"

"Watching the Slayers. To start with we just watched the house; that’s what got me wondering about the job, we didn’t have the right gear. That all turned up a couple of days ago. We’ve got cameras and microphones in the Slayers’ house and their Watcher’s shop, plus trackers on Slayer One’s Jeep and Slayer Two’s bike."

Travers’ initial irritation was condensing into cold rage. "On whose orders?"

"The Council, sir, or so we’ve been told. Everything came through direct from your assistant, Mr. Graves. All the reports go back to him, too."

"Written orders?"

"No, sir, everything was done over the phone."

No paper trail eh, Julian? "Very well, Mr. Ryan, you’ve done the right thing contacting me."

"What do you want me to do, sir?"

"For the moment, continue the operation as before. Contact me again tomorrow on this number, and I’ll give a secure line of communication. I need to know everything that your team is reporting to Mr. Graves, and if your orders change, inform me as soon as possible, but don’t break cover unless absolutely necessary."

"Understood, sir. Should I contact the Watcher or the Slayers?"

"No, best not to tip our hand too soon. Stout heart, Mr. Ryan, we’ll get to the bottom of this."

"Aye aye, sir."

Travers put the phone down. So, Julian, what are you up to?

CHAPTER 25: The Gathering Storm

"Four of them, two of us," Buffy said, turning toward Faith with a mock-serious look on her face. "Does that seem fair to you?"

Not taking her eyes off the vampires advancing on them through the park’s picnic area, Faith replied "What’s the matter, B, you want to take this one solo?"

"No, I’m just saying-"

"Yeah yeah, always making jokes." Faith kicked the leading vampire in the chest, knocking her to the floor in a swirl of neon-red hair. "Me, I just hit them."

"Oh, come on," Buffy objected as she ducked under a punch from the next, punk-attired vampire and replied with two of her own. "I’ve seen you taunting demons worse than I ever have!"

"Sure I do, I just don’t waste my time with dumb-ass vamps. They’ve got no respect for it. I mean," Faith paused to throw a vampire in a grimy suit across the nearest picnic table, "look at that guy. That suit looks like he was buried in it. And they just charge in, not even making threats. If I’m going to be breaking out the one-liners, I want a bad guy that’ll work with me, you get what I’m saying?"

"Hey, at least that one looks like a vamp. What’s the deal with Soccer Mom here?" Buffy asked as she kicked a vampire in a floral dress on the chin. "So yeah, I see your point. I just think it keeps them off-balance, you know, helps to finish them quicker."

"What’s the big hurry? We’ve got some quality violence going on here, B. You got plans or something?"

"Actually, yes," Buffy span around, grabbed the chain linking the punk’s ear and nose, ripped it out and kicked the vampire away before turning back to Soccer Mom. "I plan to dust these vamps, finish our patrol, then go home and make out with my girlfriend. But if you’d rather roll around in the dark with dead guys…"

Soccer Mom exploded. Through the dust cloud, Buffy saw Faith smirking, her arm still extended from throwing the stake. "Nah, your way sounds more fun."

"That one was mine."

"Aw, I’m sorry baby," Faith said without a hint of remorse. "You’re cute when you pout, you know that?"

"Yeah, you say that now, but…"

"But what?" Faith asked as she grabbed Neon and kicked her legs out from under her.

"Look, we all know how you get after a fight. As soon as you get in the door, you’re raiding the refrigerator, and all I get is smoochies. What happened to the other H?"

"Come on, B, we talked about this. We said we weren’t going to rush things." Punk was staggering to his feet, blood dripping from his nose and earlobe. Faith seized his arm and threw him back toward Buffy. "Catch!"

Buffy held out her stake and let momentum take care of the rest. "I know, I know, but do you have to make it look so easy?"

"You think it’s easy?" Faith shot back as she turned to face Suit, who was finally returning from his trip across the picnic table.

"I don’t know, that’s the point." Buffy dragged Neon to her feet, then backhanded her across the face. "I feel like I’m getting blown off for a sandwich."

"Seriously? B, I’m dying over here." Faith flipped herself onto a table and launched a flying kick at Suit. He stumbled away from the impact and landed next to Buffy, barely managing to raise his head before her boot smashed it back down again.

Buffy immediately had to dodge aside as Neon tried to grab her throat. She countered with a series of punches to the face, driving the vampire back toward Faith. Neon tried to leap clear, but Faith caught her with a kick in the stomach and the vampire collapsed.

Buffy took a moment to look Faith in the eye as she spoke. "Really?"

"God, B," Faith replied, tucking a lock of blonde hair behind Buffy’s ear. "Every time I look at you, I want you like I can’t believe, but I’m not going to let my hormones screw this up, or yours."

"And the post-slayage snack attacks?"

Faith actually blushed a little. "Deal with one H, it helps with the other one."

"Baby, just when I think I’ve got you figured out, you show me another- vampire!"

"Huh?" Faith shot a look over her shoulder and saw Suit charging in behind her. She drove her elbow into his face. "Do you mind? We’re having a moment here!"

"That’s vamps for you, no consideration," Buffy said with a laugh in her voice as Faith set to pummelling him.

"Yeah… wait a minute. Did you just call me ‘baby’?"

"Uh, yeah?" Buffy replied uncertainly. "Is that bad?"

"It’s fine, cupcake. Snookums." Faith looked over at Buffy with an evil grin on her face. "Pookie."

Buffy tried to look offended, but in moments she was too busy giggling to do anything else.

She was also too distracted to notice that Neon had regained her senses. The vampire lashed out with her fist, striking her in the pit of her stomach. Buffy doubled over, the breath driven from her lungs and unable even to cry out. Neon rolled to her feet, grabbed hold of Buffy’s jacket, lifted the Slayer off the ground and drove her bodily through the bench, the base of her spine hitting the concrete beneath.

Faith heard the sound of splintering wood and glanced over her shoulder, expecting to see Buffy standing beside a heap of wreckage and a broken vampire. She froze when she saw that it was Buffy who was on the ground, with the vampire looming over her. Before Faith could move, Suit had jumped on her. She dispatched the vampire in moments, throwing him backwards into a bush that pierced him in a dozen places beside the heart, but she could feel the seconds ticking away and Buffy still wasn’t moving. Even as Faith began to run, Neon was stooped over Buffy, focused on completing the kill.

"Time’s up, Slayer."

The gloating remark had barely been made when Buffy struck. Her legs snapped upward, locking around the vampire’s neck and flipping her over. Neon barely had time to realise what had happened before Buffy had snatched up a broken plank from the wreckage and driven it through the vampire’s heart.

Buffy was still coughing in the dust cloud when Faith reached her. "Shit, Buffy, you scared me! You okay?"

"My ass hurts."

The grouchy tone in Buffy’s voice told Faith that there was no serious damage. She took Buffy’s hand and helped her up. "Aw, poor B. Want me to kiss it better?"

"Ooh, I like that idea!" Buffy giggled.

"Nice try," Faith laughed, giving Buffy a playful slap across the buttocks. "This painkiller’s for oral use only." When Faith broke the kiss, Buffy was wide-eyed and a little dazed. Faith smirked at her as she asked "Pain gone?"

"Pain? There was pain?" Buffy struggled for a moment. "Oh, that pain! Yeah, it’s a little better, but I think I need another dose." She went in for another kiss, but to her surprise, Faith didn’t respond. She was staring straight over Buffy’s shoulder, the playful grin gone from her lips. "Faith? What’s wrong?"

"I’ve seen that van before."

*****

"Time to go, guys, we need to hit the museum. Once we have the diamond, we can finish Phase One." Finally. No one replied. Warren looked back from the driver’s seat. Andrew and Jonathan were staring, slack-jawed, at the monitor screen. "Hey! Guys!"

"They’re… they’re… making out…" Andrew’s voice was almost reverential.

Warren scrambled over the back of the seat and shoved them out of the way so he could see the screen. "Wow!"

Jonathan nodded, hardly daring to breathe. "This is better than free cable porn."

"Yeah," Warren said with a gulp. "Tell me you’re taping this."

"Everything." Andrew began stroking the screen until Warren slapped his hand away.

"Ow, that hurt!"

"Cry-baby."

"Asswipe." Andrew looked back at the screen. "Hey! They’re stopping! Why are they stopping? Make them stop stopping!"

Panic spilled across Jonathan’s face. "Oh my God, they’re coming this way. They’ve made us!"

"Keep it together, Shortround, we’re ready for this. Grab a hold of your Magic Bone-" Whatever else Warren was planning to say was lost under a wave of sniggering, echoed by Andrew.

Jonathan wasn’t amused. "What bone? No-one said anything about bringing the bone."

"You forgot your bone?" Warren giggled, while Andrew gasped for air beside him. "Dude, you never come out without your bone!"

"They’re getting closer!"

Still failing to control his mirth, Warren got back behind the wheel.

*****

"Faith, come on, it’s just a van."

"No, B, I’m telling you, I’ve seen it before."

"So what? It’s not like there’s a huge town for it to get lost in." Buffy followed Faith out of the park, muttering, "I can’t believe I’m missing out on smoochies for this."

"How many black vans can there be in Sunnydale? And how come I keep seeing it when we’re patrolling?" Faith stormed down the street, cutting across the road toward the van parked on the far side. "Something’s off here, and I want to know what."

The van’s headlights came on and Faith froze, blinded by the burst of light, as the van tore out from the curb and came straight at her. Buffy ran up and grabbed her, dragging her aside to land in a heap in the gutter as the van roared by.

"Son of a bitch!" Faith swore at the retreating taillights, blinking the spots from her eyes. It took her a moment to realise that Buffy was pinned beneath her. "You okay, B?"

"My ass hurts again."

*****

Faith practically kicked the front door open when they got home that night. Buffy closed it behind them rather more quietly. "Faith, why’s this bothering you so much?"

"Why’s it bothering me? That bastard’s been following us around for weeks, and now he’s trying to run me over!"

"Yeah, I know, I’m worried too, but we both okay now. Can we just leave the whole ‘Who’s the Bad Guy’ thing until the morning and try to relax tonight?"

"B…"

"Please?" Buffy moved in close to Faith, looking up at her with her best pleading puppy-dog look. "Pretty please? I’d be very grateful."

Faith rolled her eyes. "You know B, back in Boston Father O’Connell was always warning guys about girls like you."

"‘Girls like me’?" Buffy repeated in a voice that said ‘Tread very carefully’.

"Yeah, the ones who look all sweet and innocent and can get a guy to do anything just by batting their eyelashes," Faith replied, slowly walking Buffy backwards into the living room. "You know, temptresses."

"I’m a temptress?"

"Got to admit, B, you look pretty damn tempting…"

"Faith!" Buffy said, feigning shock, as her legs bumped up against the edge of the couch. "Whatever would Father O’Connell say if he could hear you now?"

"He’d probably have a heart attack. I know what I’d say to him, though."

"What?"

"Bless me, Father, for I’m about to sin." Faith pushed forward and toppled them both onto the couch in a laughing tangle of legs. The laughter didn’t last long, though, before the two Slayers were kissing like teenagers.

"Do you have to do that where I can see you?"

They looked up and saw Dawn standing in the doorway with a faint look of nausea on her face.

"What’s the matter, Bitesize, don’t you like to watch?"

"Ew!"

"Faith!" Buffy slapped her on the shoulder. "She’s my sister! And you," she switched her gaze to Dawn, "what happened to ‘You guys are so cute! This is so great!’?"

"That was last week. Smoochies meant no-one was leaving town," Dawn replied. "Now, it’s pretty much just my sister getting suck-faced."

"Way to screw the mood, brat." Faith got to her feet. "I’m going to go hit the fridge."

"Me too," Buffy said, following her. Behind them, they heard Dawn flop onto the couch and turn on the TV. Buffy leaned against the kitchen counter and watched as Faith started assembling one of her mountainous sandwiches. "Faith, what you said earlier, about not wanting hormones to ruin this, us…"

"Yeah?"

"Thanks." Buffy put her hand over Faith's as it lay on the countertop. "It means a lot to me."

"I just want to be careful, you know?" Faith said, stepping closer. "This whole relationship deal’s kind of a new idea. I didn’t know careful would be so hard."

"Tell me about it," Buffy replied with a rueful smile. "It’s still a good idea."

"Yeah."

"Guys! Hey, guys!" Dawn’s voice echoed down the hallway, breaking the moment. "You’ve got to see this!"

*****

"This is ridiculous. People get killed in this town every day, there’re demons all over the place and nobody even notices, but one guy gets frozen and suddenly everybody’s interested." Buffy stood on tiptoe, trying to see past the woman in front of her. "Can you see anything?"

Faith elbowed her way between a pair of gawpers. "Look’s like something’s going on by the doors, wait a second… yeah, they’re bringing the guy out."

"I can’t see a thing. I knew I should’ve worn heels."

Faith suppressed a smirk. "There’s a bunch on cops coming out too. You want to try sneaking in the back? I’ll take a closer look at Frosty and meet you inside?"

"Okay. Be careful."

"Do I have to?" Faith replied with a grin as she left.

It took Buffy a couple of minutes to work her way through the crowd. Fortunately, everyone was too engrossed in the spectacle by the main entrance to notice her disappearing around the side of the building toward the service doors.

"You took your bloody time. Too busy playing ‘Hide the stake’?"

Tension rippled through Buffy’s body as Spike emerged from the shadows, trailing a haze of cigarette smoke, but she didn’t look at him. "What do you want?"

"Show a little sympathy, love, a bloke got frozen here, remember?"

"Why are you here, Spike?"

"You know why. Something happened here and it’s weird even by Sunnyhell standards. I figured you’d turn up sooner or, well, sooner, and maybe you could use some help."

"Now you want to help? Now? Dawn needed you, she could’ve died and where were you?"

"You didn’t want me there!"

"You told me to stay away!"

"I didn’t want you hanging around moping because you were too thick to see what you wanted! I never would have turned my back on you when you needed me! I came to you, I was ready to cover your back when everyone else wanted to wait and you threw it back in my face! Well, if that’s how you want it, fine! You’re on your own!"

Buffy watched him storm off, then jumped in surprise when she heard Faith’s voice behind her. "What’s with Sir Lurksalot?"

"Nothing. It’s nothing." Buffy gave herself a little shake, trying to shrug off the encounter. "Come on, let’s get this over with."

*****

"Hi honey, I’m home!" Buffy smiled even as the cliché echoed around the house. She dropped her college bag in a heap beside the door. "Faith?"

"Kitchen, B."

Buffy smiled again. Big surprise, she thought as she walked into the kitchen and, to her astonishment, found that Faith wasn’t busy emptying the refrigerator, but was standing by the sink, drying dishes. "Don’t move, I need a camera!"

"What?"

"I need proof, no-one’s going to believe I’ve got you domesticated."

"Bite me," Faith said, flashing her trademark insolent grin over her shoulder.

Buffy laughed. "I thought you’d never ask," she said as walked up behind Faith and put her arms around her girlfriend’s waist. Faith’s answering laugh turned into a gasp of pleasure as Buffy began nibbling the side of her neck. "Hmm, you like that?" Faith span around in Buffy’s arms, fastened her lips over Buffy’s and pushed her back against the island. A moment later, Buffy had been lifted onto the island, pushed down on her back and Faith was kneeling astride her waist.

"Want. Take. Have." Faith grabbed the front of Buffy’s blouse and ripped it open, sending buttons flying across the kitchen. Buffy only had time for a single squeak of surprise before Faith had fallen on her like a wolf on a lamb, kissing and nipping her way down Buffy’s chest and over her stomach.

Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the assault was over, and Faith had climbed down from the island and pulled Buffy’s skirt up around her hips. In a single movement, Faith hooked her thumbs into Buffy’s underwear and yanked it down around her ankles. She didn’t move for a moment, then she walked quickly around to the refrigerator. As Buffy twisted her head around to watch, Faith opened the icebox and took out a Popsicle.

"Buffy?"

Faith tore off the wrapper and walked back around the island, positioning herself between Buffy’s knees. The shaft of crimson ice in her hand glittered in the light, casting reflections into Faith’s dark eyes. Buffy laid her head back on the counter and braced herself for the first frozen burn.

"Buffy?"

The image shattered as Willow’s elbow dug into her ribs. Buffy sat up with a jolt, blinking as the last fragments of her daydream melted away. Around her, a few students were still packing their things away, but most were crowding through the doors out of the lecture halls. "Class is over?"

"Way over," Willow replied. She sat watching as Buffy tossed her notepad and pens into her bag, an obviously curious look on her face, but she didn’t speak until they had left the building. "Was it nice where you were?"

"What? Where I… no, no, I was just thinking, you know, about that thing Professor Todd said, you know, the thing, about the…" Buffy saw the way Willow was looking at her and gave up. "Sorry."

"Faith?"

"Yeah." Buffy cast a nervous glance at her friend. "I know you don’t like talking about her, Will."

"No-no, it’s okay. I mean, it’s still weird and crazy, but if you need someone to talk to…"

"I know. Thanks. Are you coming over to the Magic Box? I’m meeting Faith there to do some research on last night’s freezy-monster."

"Yeah, I’m meeting Tara there."

"Cool." They walked on is silence for a while before Buffy whispered, "What’s happening to me, Will?"

"What do you mean?"

"We’ve only been together a week! We’ve had two actual dates, for God’s sake, we’ve barely started, and it’s like all I can think about is… it’s like I’m…"

"Turning into Anya?"

"Yeah. And not in a good way." Buffy said with a definite note of grumpiness in her voice. "I don’t get it, I’ve never been like this before."

"You want some pop psychology?"

"Yes, please."

"You and Riley were… together regularly, right?"

"Together?" Buffy was confused for a moment. "Oh, you mean with the…"

"Bible study, yeah."

Buffy stared at Willow in shock. "How did you know about that?"

"Dawnie talks," Willow replied with a mischievous grin.

"Oh, I am so going to kill her for this."

"Anyway," Willow said, cutting of Buffy’s nascent rant "the point is that you got used to regular study sessions, but you haven’t been to class for, what, a year? Most of the time you’ve had things to worry about; your mom, Dawn, Glory, Faith showing up again, you getting hurt, there’s always been something. Maybe this is the first chance your body’s had to get your attention?"

"Maybe. God, this is all so confusing! I feel like I’ve a whole bunch of different Buffys running around in my head and they’re all saying different things."

"Like what?"

"Well, it’s like there’s the one who thinks Faith’s whole ‘take it slow’ idea’s really sweet and romantic, and she’s always fighting with the one who just wants to say ‘To hell with it!’ and tear off all Faith’s clothes. There’s another one who’s spent all week just repeating ‘Wow! I’m dating Faith!’, and the one that still can’t believe this is actually happening, with the history and all. And then there’s the Buffy who keeps asking what it all means. I mean," Buffy unconsciously lowered her voice, "am I gay now? ‘Cause when did that happen? And it’s not like I’m having fantasies about cheerleaders or anything, and that guy that works at the Espresso Pump? Still think he’s cute. If I’m gay, shouldn’t I be, you know, gay? Am I making any sense?"

Willow didn’t reply at once. Buffy glanced at her and saw her friend’s face redden before she burst out laughing. "I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I just keep seeing all these different Buffys running around arguing. Oh God, now two of them are having a pillow fight!"

Buffy managed to pout for about two seconds before she started laughing as well.

"Thanks, Will, I needed that."

"Any time. And yeah, you were making sense. I know exactly how you feel."

"You do?"

"Sure." Willow sat down on a bench and gestured for Buffy to join her. "Look, Buffy, I didn’t just wake up one day and think ‘To hell with guys, I’m going to get me a hot witch’. I met someone, we spent time together and things happened. I didn’t plan it; it wasn’t a choice I made, I just fell for someone who happens to be a girl." She took Buffy’s hand, looking at her with eyes that were both happy and as serious as Buffy could ever remember seeing them. "I’m not with Tara because I’m gay, Buffy. I’m gay because I’m with Tara."

A smile passed across Buffy’s lips at that, but it was bittersweet. "I was the most useless best friend ever, wasn’t I?"

"Hey, come on," Willow said, the beginnings of the ‘resolve face’ appearing around her eyes, "you had stuff going on as well, remember? You get major allowances for the killer cyborg factor."

"I still should’ve been there for you. I don’t know if I could deal with all this if I didn’t have you to help me."

"You did the most important thing you could have done, Buffy; you made Tara one of us. Do you have any idea how much that meant to me?" Willow put her arms around Buffy’s shoulders and pulled her close. "Whatever happens, I’ll be here for you, okay?"

"Okay." Buffy returned the hug, trying to convince herself that her friend was right. "Thanks, Will."

*****

Buffy and Willow arrived at the Magic Box to find Faith and Tara sitting together at the table, with a pile of books between them. Buffy skipped over to join them, greeting Giles and Anya in passing before bending down to kiss her girlfriend. A moment later, Buffy jerked away with her face twisted in disgust. "Have you been smoking again?"

"Yeah, I had a couple. What’s the big deal?"

"Your mouth tastes like an ashtray."

"Come on, B," Faith said reaching out for her girlfriend as one eyebrow began to wiggle.

Buffy immediately darted away. "Oh no, you’re not going to eyebrow your way out of this one. No more smoochies until you’ve used a whole bottle of mouthwash."

Meanwhile, Willow had taken the chair next to Tara, scooting it right up beside her. "How’s it going?"

"Not good, or too good, depends how you look at it," Tara replied. "We’ve found over a dozen demons and spirits that can freeze someone solid."

"Nothing local, though," Faith added. She caught Willow’s gaze flicking between her face and the book she was holding. "Yeah Red, I can read, and I can write my name and I can add, too. One plus one is two. Two plus two is four- ow!" She rubbed her arm where Buffy had poked her.

"There’s no need to be sarcastic, Faith," Buffy pointed out.

Giles decided to intervene before things went any further. "Yes, yes, can we perhaps focus on last night? Faith, you were saying none of these creatures is normally found near here?"

"Yeah, they’re all cold-weather types, which figures, I guess. They seem to stick to mountains and the Arctic."

"I can’t find any spells that would do something like this, either. I’m sorry," Tara added.

"All right, then," Giles replied. "Perhaps it would help if we knew what this creature was doing at the museum. Willow, could you see if you can access the police reports?"

"On it." Willow took out her laptop.

"You think something was stolen?" Tara asked.

"It’s possible. A museum at night is hardly a good hunting ground. In the meantime, while Willow’s working her magic with that machine, we can talk about this business with the van." Giles listened while Buffy and Faith outlined what had happened. "That’s interesting. Are you sure it was the same van, Faith?"

"Yeah, I’m sure. There was a patch on the left side where the light hit kind of funny, like part of it had been re-sprayed."

"Plus it took off as soon as we got close," Buffy reminded him. "That kind of makes it seem weird and suspicious."

"Indeed. I don’t suppose you got a good look at the license plate?" The expressions Buffy and Faith were wearing answered that one. "Well, I’m not sure what more we can do about it apart for being vigilant."

"Got it!" Willow said, breaking into the conversation. "You were right, there was something taken, a diamond."

Anya perked up. "Ooh, was it cursed? Diamonds a great for that."

"No idea. It was here it was on loan from the British Museum-"

"What!" Giles burst out, startling everyone. "Not the Star of Lucknow?"

"Yeah, how did-"

"I can’t believe they let it out of the museum, let alone sent it here…" Giles suddenly realised they were all staring at him. "The Star is one of the centrepieces of the museum's jewel collection. It’s said to have some kind of mystical properties, perhaps operating on the quantum level. That’s why the Council has always made sure it remains in the museum."

Buffy banged her fist down on the table. "Damn it! First we get a vampire gang who want us dead, then someone starts using demons to rob banks, we find out we’re under surveillance and now someone steals a magic diamond! What happened to bad guys coming one at a time?"

"Now, Buffy, it may not be quite that complicated," Giles said, trying to soothe her. "Some of these things may be the work of the same people. The bank robbery and last night’s theft, for instance. The blend of the mystical and the larcenous does seem similar."

"I hope so. I’ve got enough asses to kick as it is." Buffy sat back in her chair, staring at the ceiling. "So, what do we do?"

"For now, I suggest we proceed as normal," Giles said. "Remain cautious and keep looking for information."

"Right."

*****

The front door was open.

Buffy ran up the path. It seemed to stretch out forever, keeping the doorway just beyond her reach, then suddenly she was pushing the door wide open.

The smell of blood hung in the air. For a moment Buffy couldn’t see anything, her eyes adjusting from the bright morning sun outside to the shadows within the house. Then she saw.

Giles lay on his back in the hallway, his shirt soaked with blood. His eyes stared up at the ceiling from his bone-white face. More blood formed a slowly growing pool on the floor.

Buffy turned her head away, toward the living room, and saw Willow and Tara. They lay entwined together on the couch, as though they were taking a nap together. Their blood stained the couch almost black.

Buffy wanted to call out, to scream, but she couldn’t. Her head turned again and, through the kitchen doorway, she saw Anya slumped against the island, her face covered with blood. Out of the corner of her eye, Buffy saw movement and looked up the stairs to where blood was trickling over the edge of the landing.

Her legs wouldn’t move faster than a walking pace. With a horrible slowness she climbed the stairs and saw Xander lying on his side on the landing, his hands clutched together over the bloody stomach, his lifeless face still contorted with pain.

Beyond him, in the corner by her bedroom door, Dawn lay in a pool of blood. Buffy forced herself past Xander’s body and saw that her sister was breathing, barely.

"Dawn! Can you hear me?"

Dawn’s eyes opened, struggling to focus. When her lips parted a trail of blood slipped from the corner of her mouth. "Buffy?"

"I’m here. You’re going to be okay, Dawn, you’re going to be okay, just stay with me!"

"Where were you?" There was a wet, bubbling sound in Dawn’s throat. "They came here. We couldn’t stop him. Why did you leave us?"

"Dawn!"

Dawn’s eyes went blank.

Buffy’s eyes flashed open. For a moment she was disoriented, then she flung herself out of bed and through the connecting door to Dawn’s room. She almost collapsed with relief when she saw her sister sleeping peacefully, undisturbed by her entrance.

The door from Dawn’s room onto the landing opened and Faith came in, pale and trembling. The Slayers looked at each other for a few seconds, and then Buffy gestured for Faith to join her in her room.

"You had it too?" Faith asked as soon as she closed the door behind her.

Buffy just nodded as Faith sat down on the bed beside Buffy, rubbing her arms as though she was cold.

"All of them…"

"Dawn said ‘Why did you leave?’ I don’t get it, we’re not going anywhere."

"You think we should call Giles?"

"Maybe… no. No, we’ll go over there tomorrow, before he goes to work."

"Okay."

Faith stood up again and was about to leave when Buffy caught hold of her arm. "Faith, wait."

"What?"

"I know we’ve got rules, but…" Buffy hesitated, glancing down at her bed. "Could you stay with me tonight? I don’t want to be alone."

*****

The office door burst open and one of the vampires stepped inside. Lucas was sitting at his desk, engrossed in an old book. He didn’t look up. "Yes?"

"Boss, Sean’s back."

Lucas stifled the surge of excitement that ran through him. He carefully closed the book, using the moment to compose himself, and walked out into the main part of the warehouse. The others watched him cross over to the main doors, his pace even, the epitome of the imperturbable leader.

One of the vampires he’d sent with Sean was pulling open the main door. Outside, under a sky that was already showing the first hints of the oncoming dawn, Sean and the other vampire he’d sent were unloading metal cases from their van and stacking them on the concrete loading dock.

Gesturing for the others in the nest to help, Lucas asked, "Your contact had everything?"

"Everything we need."

"How many did you get?"

"Four."

Lucas gave an approving nod. "Okay, bring on to the office. Everyone else, get the rest of it stacked away." He followed Sean into the office, and it was only once he was inside that he let the mask slip. "Only four?"

"I told you it wouldn’t be cheap." Sean set the case down on the desk. "This isn’t some converted Tec-9, Lucas. I bought quality, and it costs."

"What’s in the other crates?"

"Ammunition. If we’re going to make this work, we’ll have to practise until using these is like instinct. We’ll need somewhere to train, somewhere out of the way."

"There’s an old gun club out toward Oxnard - it closed down a few years back but the building’s still there."

"Sounds good. You want to go tonight?"

"If there’s time."

"Time?"

"I want us to have a fall-back site, Sean, somewhere we can go if we’re found here before we’re ready."

"Secure line of retreat, always a good plan. Any ideas?"

"I’ve thought of a place, but I want you to see it before we start making plans."

"Okay, we’ll check it out tonight, then start training."

"Good." Lucas lifted the lid of the case and paused, staring down at the matt-black metal and plastic inside. "And then we make them pay."

CHAPTER 26: Listen to Teacher

The early morning sunlight had long since begun to shine through the curtains, filling the room with a diffuse glow that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere all at once. Faith watched the light shimmering in Buffy’s hair, a few loose strands drifting to and fro in time with her breath. She lay with Buffy’s head on her shoulder, one arm in a loose arc around her waist. She hadn’t dared move in the brief hours since Buffy had finally succumbed to sleep.

This is a mistake, Faith told herself. I’m supposed to help her be strong, not treat her like a scared kid. She couldn’t make herself believe it. The censuring voice in her mind couldn’t master the fragile peace on Buffy’s face, or her own need for someone to hold her and push back the fear she’d felt the previous night. She knew it was a lie, but for the first time she could remember, Faith felt truly safe, and she didn’t have it in her to break the spell.

However, the decision wasn’t hers to make. The alarm clock on the nightstand clattered into life, causing a moment of startled paralysis before Faith stretched out her free hand to silence it.

Buffy let out a groan, screwing her eyes tight shut before opening them, blinking as she tried to adapt to the light. It took her a few seconds to remember she wasn’t alone. “Hey.”

“Morning, B.”

“Have you been awake long?” Buffy asked, noting the dark circles around Faith’s eyes.

“Half an hour, maybe,” Faith lied. “You know me and mornings.”

“Yeah,” Buffy replied, the word melding into a yawn. “Did I hear the alarm?”

“’Fraid so, time to go face the world again.”

“Can’t we just stay here instead?” Buffy asked. “Just for a little while. It’s… it’s nice, you and me, together.”

Faith had to muster all her self-discipline not to give in. “No time, B. You’ve got a kid sister to get ready for school, then we’ve got a date with Sigmund Giles for dream analysis.”

“The dream. I almost forgot.” Buffy’s voice sounded hollow. “Something’s coming, isn’t it? Something bad?”

“You tell me, girlfriend, you’re the prophecy vet.”

“I don’t want to be!” Buffy pushed herself away from Faith and sat up with her back turned. “Why can’t we ever have some time just for us?”

“’Cause then we’d be like normal girls?” Faith sat up and wrapped her arms around Buffy. “We’d spend hours talking about nail polish, and shoes, and getting all giggly. Can you imagine?”

“Yeah,” Buffy said wistfully. “Sounds nice.”

“Nice?” Faith repeated in horror. “Kill me now.”

“You don’t ever think about having a normal life?”

“I had a normal life, B. It sucked. I like who we are, I like that normal’s not a part of it.”

“I know, you’re right,” Buffy said. “I just wish…”

“Yeah, me too.” Faith kissed the back of her neck. “Time to go, girlfriend.”

*****

Giles sat back in his armchair and looked down at the coffee table, focussing on the cold cup of tea he’d forgotten was there. He took a moment to steady himself before looking back at the two Slayers sitting side by side the couch. “Are you sure it was the same dream?”

“We…” Buffy’s voice failed her for a moment. “We’re sure.”

Faith unconsciously put her hand over Buffy’s. “Same people, same places, same order. We checked.”

Giles took off his glasses and began cleaning them, condemning himself for his cowardice in failing to meet their eyes. “Well, yes, that would appear to rule out coincidence. Do you have any idea as to the, um, the cause of death?”

The girls looked at each other for a moment, then Buffy shook her head. “It was too dark inside the house, like the light couldn’t get inside. All we could see was the blood.”

“So what’s the skinny, Wise One? Who do I hit and where do I find them?”

“I-I really don’t know, Faith. Without more information, I’m afraid I don’t even know where to begin.”

“So the hell do we do?”

“At this point, there’s nothing we can do. We’ll just have to be vigilant.”

“That’s it?” Buffy’s voice began to crack, panic seeping in. “‘Be vigilant’, that’s the advice of the mighty Watchers Council?”

“Well forgive me for not having all the answers on a plate, Buffy, I’m afraid I’m not at my best this morning. You see, no-one’s ever foretold my death before.”

“Yeah, that’s usually your job. Kind of hits you in the gut, huh?” Buffy paused and glanced down as Faith’s hand tightened on hers. “I’m sorry, Giles. This one scares me more than the regular dreams. I don’t usually see people I care about dying.”

“Seems like that’s the only kind I get,” Faith muttered. “Should we tell the gang about this?”

“I think we have to,” Giles replied. “They need to be on the lookout.”

“And you remember how they were when we didn’t tell them about Dawn,” added Buffy. “Tonight, at the Magic Box?”

“Yes.” Giles hesitated, then added “Do you intend to tell Dawn?”

“She needs to know,” Faith replied.

Buffy said nothing.

*****

Faith danced back a few paces across the training room floor, easily staying ahead of her attacker. “Take it easy, Bitesize, you're not chopping wood here.”

“No,” Dawn replied between gasps for breath, “I'm trying to chop you.” She drew her practice sword back and launched it point-first at Faith again.

Faith flicked the attack aside with her own sword and sidestepped as Dawn staggered forward under the momentum of her attack. “You're over committing, leaving yourself wide open.”

Dawn tried to spin around and swing at the same time, a clumsy attack that Faith simply ducked under. “If I don't go in hard, how do I- ow! That hurt!” She clutched at the sore spot on her hip where Faith had jabbed her.

“Made the point, though, right? If your sword's got a good edge, you don't need a lot of force to cut with it. Any time you attack too hard, you're exposing yourself. Got it?”

“Yeah, I got - Buffy!”

Faith jumped around and saw Buffy in the doorway, arms crossed across her chest, lips pursed. “You're fighting children now?”

“Come on, B-”

“Don't. Don't talk, don’t move, don't even think. You,” Buffy jabbed a finger at Dawn, “go sit with Will and Tara.”

“But...”

“Go!”

Dawn flung her sword down and stormed out of the room. As the door closed behind her, Faith tried to calm the situation. “Look, B...”

“Are you insane?” Buffy asked in a near-whisper. “Did your brain get sucked out since this morning, is that it?”

“I'm just trying to look out for her.”

“By teaching her to fight?”

“She needs to know how, B.”

“No, she needs to know how to run!”

“And what if she can't? What if she's hurt, or she gets cornered, or she's just not fast enough? If she's going to be working with us, she's got to know how to defend herself.”

“She's not going to be working with us.”

“Why not, B? She's as much a part of this as anyone.”

“I don't want her to be part of this!” Buffy yelled. “I want her safe!”

“There is no safe, B! Even if we baby-sit her 24/7, things are still going to come for us. If we leave her alone, she's helpless. What're you going to do, send her to live with your dad? You think they don't have demons in Spain?”

“I don't want her living this life, Faith. I have to care of her. I want her to live in the light, not be surrounded by blood and pain and...”

“News flash, B, it's not up to you. She's your sister, really your sister, and sometimes she's so like you it freaks me out. You still think she's a kid, but she's growing up fast and she wants in. You want to stop that, you'll have to shut her out. You don't know what it's like being stuck on the outside. Keep it up long enough, and she's going to hate you for it.”

“Is that your excuse?” Buffy spat before she could stop herself. “Oh God, Faith, I'm so sorry, I didn't-”

“Yeah, you did.” Faith had to stop for a moment to clear the anger and hurt from her face. “I know what I did, B. I made a bunch of stupid decisions and everybody paid, but actually, yeah, being on the edge of everything didn't do me any favours. You don't want to make her feel the way I was feeling. If you don't let her in, she's going to go around you, and I don't know where she's going to end up.”

“But what if something happens to her, Faith?” The tears Buffy had been holding back finally escaped. “What if I can't protect her? She's all that's left of my family, if she-”

“I love her too, B.” Faith kissed her forehead, trying to quell the terror she saw behind Buffy’s eyes. “We've just got to do the best we can and hope.”

“What if it's enough?”

“It's all we've got.”

Buffy’s head dropped, a sob breaking free from her throat. Faith held her, but almost immediately Buffy pulled away, wiping the tears from her eyes with an irritated sweep of her hand. “God, look at me, how pathetic is this…”

Faith brushed a lock of blonde hair away from Buffy’s face, drawing a rueful smile. “Hey, no-one calls my girl pathetic, ‘specially not you. Got it?”

“Five by five.”

Faith’s jaw dropped and she gave Buffy a mock shove. Buffy’s smile turned into a full-blown giggle and she shoved back. Faith laughed in return. “You think we should go put the brat out of her misery?”

“Could… could I talk to her by myself?”

“Sure.” Faith went out into the shop and called to Dawn. “Yo, Bitesize, big sis wants a word.”

Dawn rolled her eyes and strode through the door, expecting another argument. She found Buffy turning one of the practice swords over and over in her hands. “Yes?”

“So Faith’s been teaching you some moves?”

“Yeah.”

Buffy threw her the sword. “Show me.”

*****

Faith closed the door and let out a sigh of relief. She leaned against the doorway for a moment, watching Giles and Anya attending to the last few customers and straightening things up, working together in an almost seamless routine. Willow and Tara were at the table, looking some of the books Giles had left out. Tara looked up for a moment and smiled at Faith. Willow ignored her.

Okay, here comes the hard part. Faith took a deep breath and began walking toward the table. She collected a bottle of chilled water Giles had left on the counter, then dropped into a chair across from the witches. “Hey Red, T-Bear, how’s it hanging?”

Willow looked up this time, but said nothing and returned her attention to her book. Tara gave Faith an apologetic look and replied “We’re good, thanks. Is everything okay with Dawn?”

“Five by five, it’s just B being Big Sis, you know?” Faith fiddled with the bottle cap for a moment. “Look, Red, I know this sounds pretty funny, but I need a favour.”

“You’re wrong,” Willow said without looking up. “That’s not funny.”

“Willow…” Tara said in a plaintive whisper.

“Fine…” Willow slammed the book shut, causing Giles to wince in the background. “What do you want?”

“It’s, what, three weeks to Christmas and I’ve got no idea what to get for B. I’ve never had to shop for a girl before, you know, and now I’ve got the cash to get her something nice. I figured, you’re her best friend, you’re a girl and you’ve got some experience, so maybe you could come look with me?”

“Jewellery’s good.”

“Jewellery’s out.”

“Why?”

“I already got her a necklace for her birthday; I don’t want to do the same thing twice.”

“So give it to her now.”

“Can’t, I’m getting it modified, won’t be ready ‘til after New Years.” Faith swallowed her pride. “Please, Red.”

Willow almost said ‘no’, but she felt Tara’s hand on hers and couldn’t do it. “The Espresso Pump, 11 o’clock Monday. If you’re late, the deal’s off.”

“Thanks, Red,” Faith replied, glancing at Tara as she said it.

“Whatever.”

Faith did her best to ignore the barb. She sat back and began leafing through one of the books, while Giles showed the last customer to the door and flipped the sign over to ‘Closed’. He looked over at Anya, totalling the day’s takings. “Will Xander be long?”

“He’d better not be, I told him if he’s late, I’m not having sex with him tonight.”

Faith and Willow both muttered “Yeah, right”. Willow shot a glare at Faith that she pretended not to notice. An uneasy silence settled over the table, broken only by the rustle of pages turning.

A car pulled up outside, and a minute later Xander came through the door. “Hey guys, what’s the crisis?”

“Hello Xander, take a seat, please,” Giles said. “Anya, would you fetch Buffy and Dawn?”

Xander took the empty seat beside Willow, while Giles sat next to Faith. Anya returned and sat between the two men, then Buffy and Faith joined them, Dawn failing to hide a smirk. They filled the gap between Faith and Tara. An anxious glance passed between Buffy and Faith, and they both turned to Giles for guidance as the others waited, a sense of unease growing in them as they realised how nervous the Slayers were.

Giles said quietly “I think it would be best if you explained what happened for yourself.”

Buffy and Faith began to describe what they had experienced the previous night. They spoke carefully. Hesitantly, trying to remain objective but all too aware of the effect their words were having on their friends.

“Wow,” Willow said when the story was over, breaking a stunned silence. She clutched at Tara’s hand under the table. “I mean, wow. So that’s it? Game over?”

“We don’t know that,” Giles said quietly.

“No, I’m sure it was just a cosmic crossed line,” Anya retorted.

Dawn was staring at Buffy and Faith. “Why are you leaving?”

“We’re not leaving, Dawnie!” Buffy replied. “Why would you even think that?”

“You said, in the dream, I said ‘Why did you leave us?’ I said it to both of you, there must be something-”

“We are not leaving! I don’t care what the dream said, we’re not.”

Faith let out a bitter laugh. “Good thing I didn’t book that Valentine’s Day trip to San Francisco.”

Buffy jerked around in her chair. “San Francisco? Valentine’s Day? What’re you-”

“It was just an idea I had, B. Get away from things for a few days, just you and me. Guess that’s out of the window now.”

“Aw gee, Faith, I’m real sorry our deaths are screwing up your vacation plans!” Willow stood up so fast that her chair toppled over and stormed away from the table. Tara followed her, wrapping her arms around her girlfriend.

“Sweetie, it’s okay…”

“No it’s not!” Willow turned to face her, and the other saw the tears streaming down her face. “Tara, I can’t lose you again…”

“I guess there’s no point ordering the bridesmaids’ dresses now,” Anya muttered as she looked away from the two witches and swept her eyes over those still at the table.

“Ahn, I don’t think this is the right time for-”

“What do you want me to say, Xander? I was going to live forever, remember? I manage to deal with the fact that I’m only going to get a few more decades, I start making a life for myself and now that’s gone too, so what exactly am I supposed to be feeling right now?”

“That’s enough!” Giles snapped. As soon as the words were out he looked ashamed of himself. “I’m sorry, Anya, I shouldn’t have… My point is, this is a warning, not a certainty.”

“Oh good, we’re only maybe going to get slaughtered.”

“Look,” Xander said after a moment “maybe I’m turning into stupid high school Xander again, but what’s the big deal?”

Faith felt Buffy tense beside her and exploded “Were you even listening? Do you have any idea-”

“Whoa, hold on a sec, I know it sounds pretty awful. I’m just saying; Big Bad coming to get us, what else is new?”

“They saw us all dead, Xander,” Anya said. “Us, not other people.”

“She’s right,” Willow said. “This isn’t an apocalypse, Xander. This is personal.”

“So what?” Xander pushed his chair back and began pacing. “If it was an apocalypse, we’d be getting in the way anyhow. What’s the difference?”

“The difference is-”

“Nothing.” Buffy said quietly.

“Huh?” The others turned to see a new look of determination on her face.

“The difference is nothing,” she repeated. “He’s right. There’s always something that wants us dead. At least this time we know it’s gunning for us. We do what we always do: we find it, we stop it, we move on.” She looked over at Xander with gratitude in her eyes, and he quickly looked away, cheeks reddening a little. “I know we’re all thrown by this, I was thrown, but beating prophecy is what we do.”

“All right,” Faith said, flashing a proud smile at her girlfriend. “Where do we start?”

Giles cleared his throat and said “Well, I’d suggest we begin with what we already know.”

Willow rubbed one reddened eye and asked “Do you have any idea what killed dream-us?”

“Can’t say for sure.” Buffy thought for a moment. “Whatever it was, it was pretty violent. I couldn’t see any wounds, but there was a lot of blood. I don’t think it could have been poison, or a disease or anything like that. Do we think this is someone new, or someone we already know about?”

“Plenty of options,” Willow replied as she sat down and opened a notepad. “Lucas, the demon Hole-in-the-Wall gang, the black van guys, the diamond thieves... Even if Giles is right and the bank and the museum were done by the same people, that’s still at least two different groups.”

Giles spoke up. “No-one was killed, or seriously hurt, at either the museum or the bank.”

“So maybe it’s Lucas we should be focusing on?” Xander asked the Slayers. “We know he wants you guys dead, we’re probably on the hit list too.”

“Yeah, but in the dream it was daylight,” Faith pointed out. “Besides, how would vamps get in the house?”

“I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on the setting, Faith,” Giles said. “These dreams are typically vague and riddled with metaphor. Your finding us dead in your home could simply be an indication of an attack on that which you consider safe and familiar.”

“Or it could mean the people,” Tara suggested. “You know, your house being your family, like in Romeo and Juliet.”

Giles agreed. “It’s certainly possible.”

“That’s my girl,” Willow said with pride. “Anyhow, it’s not like we’re going to invite a vamp in, are we?”

Everyone looked at Dawn. “Hey! That was one time, and it was Harmony!”

Dawn’s annoyance broke what was left of the tension around the table, and after a few more minutes of discussion, the group broke up. As they all gathered their belongings, Giles spoke again. “I do have one piece of good news. The diamond that was stolen, well, isn’t a diamond.”

“I got this one,” Buffy said to the others before turning to face him. “Huh?”

“It’s a fake. A reproduction.” Giles allowed himself a slight smile. “The real diamond is one of the items that the Council keeps secured in the British Museum for safety. I could hardly believe that they would allow it to leave the museum, let alone send it to a small, low-security museum like Sunnydale, so I called Quentin Travers yesterday. The diamond is still safely under lock and key in London; what was stolen is simply a very well-cut piece of crystal.”

“What do you know, the Council’s doing its job for a change,” Xander remarked, and with Giles usual admonition to ‘be careful’, they went their separate ways.

As they got ready to go out on patrol, Faith noticed Buffy wincing as she flexed her wrist. “You okay, B?”

“How long have you been training Dawn?”

“Just today. Why, she land one on you?”

“She just clipped me, no big. She did better than I thought.”

“Yeah, she’s a pretty quick learner. Then again, you suck with a sword…”

*****

“…come on, B, I said I was sorry.”

“You told me I suck!” Buffy snapped as she stomped into the house after patrol that night. “Some girlfriend you are.”

“I said you suck with a sword, B. Which you do. You want me to lie to you?”

“First of all, yes, I want you to lie instead of telling your new girlfriend she sucks. Second, I do not suck!

“Yeah, you do.”

“I’ve beaten plenty of guys with swords. Remember those duellist vamps? And I beat Angel.”

“Those vamps sucked too, and Angel’s not exactly the Fifth Musketeer.”

“Faith-”

“What’s pattern-welding?”

“What’s what?”

“What’s the difference between a high guard and a hanging guard?”

“Huh?”

“Who’s Hans Talhoffer?”

“Faith, what the hell are you talking about?”

“You don’t know crap about swords, B. Neither did the guys you’ve fought. I’ve seen them; they just wave the blade around and hack at you. You can take those guys with your bare hands, but if you have to go up against a real swordsman you’re going to get razored.” Faith took her by the shoulders and looked deep into her eyes. “I’m not going to lie to you about something that could get you killed.”

“Way to over-sell it…” Buffy muttered.

“Don’t!” Faith’s grip tightened on Buffy’s shoulders. “Don’t joke about this, Buffy. You’re a great fighter, most days you can take me, but give me a sword and I’d cut you in half.”

“Again with the ‘How Not To Talk To Your Girlfriend’.”

“Okay, look, can we not fight about this?” Faith brushed a lock of hair away from Buffy’s face. “How’s this: you and me, back yard, tomorrow morning. You prove me wrong, I’ll quit bugging you. I prove you wrong, you let me train you. Deal?”

“Deal. And you are so getting your ass kicked.”

Faith smirked. “You think you can stop staring at it long enough to kick it?”

“The way you keep trying to look down my shirt, I could take you blindfolded,” Buffy retorted.

Faith hooked her fingers into Buffy’s neckline and pulled her in for a kiss. “Get some sleep, girlfriend, you’re going to need it.”

“Sleep. Yeah.” Buffy looked nervously up the stairs. “I’m not sure I want to.”

“You think we’ll get the nightmare again?”

“I don’t know. After last night, I don’t even know if I’ll be able to sleep.”

“If something bad’s coming, we won’t be much good if we’re exhausted.”

“I know. I’ve still got those pills the doc gave me after the harpy, I’ll think I’ll try one. You want?”

“Not a chance, B, I don’t trust drugs.”

“Okay.” Buffy kissed her again. “Good night.”

“’Night.”

At the foot of the stairs, Buffy stopped and asked, “Faith, how come you know all that stuff? Pattern-weaving and everything?”

“Pattern-welding,” Faith corrected, a shadow seeming to pass over her. “It’s… old stuff. Maybe we can talk in the morning.” She squeezed past Buffy and up the stairs.

Buffy went through her night-time routine a little faster than normal that night. When she was finished, she sat on her bed and retrieved the bottle of sleeping tablets from the drawer of her nightstand. She looked at it for a moment, turning it over in her hand, listening to the pills rattle inside, and then she tossed it back into the drawer, unopened.

...to be continued...

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