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Everything is Different Now: Been A Long Time Since That Last Kiss

by Declan
Rating: PG-13

Been A Long Time Since That Last Kiss

Buffy stared at Faith.

The same Faith who, only a month after leaving her in that hospital bed for the final time, was standing right in front of her, on her campus, the proverbial blast from the past.

And she looked good.

Her hair was as dark and wavy as Buffy remembered and her pale skin had a little bit more colour in it, although Faith’s make up – her deep red lips and bruised eye shadow – contrasted starkly. But she looked healthy and solid, and not so fragile anymore. She was wearing the clothes that Buffy had picked out and left at the hospital, which was a good thing. And she’d decided to come and find Buffy, which was... something else, though what, Buffy wasn’t sure.

She took a tentative step forward, feeling half-guarded, half elated. To see Faith walking around and alive was... God, she looked really good.

Faith bobbed her head as she glanced around and looked Buffy over. “So. Check you out, B. Nice.” She made a vague gesture at her feet, “The big girl on campus thing is really workin’ for ya.”

The dark haired slayer gave Willow a little sidelong smile before looking back at Buffy expectantly. She was clearly enjoying the fact that she’d completely thrown Buffy by showing up this way.

But Faith sounded friendly enough, relaxed, chatty even. Buffy felt a small flicker of hope, maybe Faith had just panicked at the hospital and had hurt that guy without meaning to, with the whole ‘slayer strength’ deal? Faith was always feigning confidence to cover up something else, maybe she had realised just how much trouble she was in?

Buffy swallowed, trying to find her voice. “I was just coming to look for you.”

Faith’s smile widened, but her eyes were still cold. “But I found you first. Look at me, saving you the trouble and being all considerate.” And there was the dangerous edge to her tone, underneath all the chat.

Buffy kept her own voice low. “Are you alright?” she asked, her voice tinged with empathy.

Faith gave a little half shrug as she moved off her mark and stepped about a bit. “Five by five. That’s the thing about a coma, you come out of it all rested and rejuvenated...” She leaned forward, her eyes glittering vibrantly as they fixed on Buffy, and the dangerous edge to her tone became stronger, “And ready for payback.”

So that was where Faith was at, here itching for a rematch. Buffy felt her stomach flip-flop in dismay as she tensed up, the slayer part of her readying for a fight.

‘Why did Faith have to come here now, with Willow around, so that I can’t explain things properly?’

Buffy didn’t try to hide her unhappiness. “So much for pleasantries, huh?”

Faith raised her eyebrows. “What’d you think? I’d wake up and we’d go for tea? You tried to gut me, Blondie.”

Buffy met the other girl’s eyes as she tried to make her listen. “I remember. And I’m sorry.”

That gave Faith pause; she clearly wasn’t expecting an apology. But she recovered quickly, her eyes narrowing. “Not as sorry as you’re gonna be.”

Buffy shrugged her shoulders in exasperation. “So this is your big plan? Keep going right where we left off?” Buffy tried to reason with her, “You know that won’t end too well for one of us.”

Faith nodded and leaned close. Her smirk became more suggestive. “That’s the idea. So, how about it? We give it another go. See who lands on top.”

Buffy ignored the small flutter of desire the image conjured, though she felt herself flush and saw that Faith noticed it too. She focused on keeping her voice contrite as she tried to reason with Faith. “It doesn’t have to be like this you know.”

Faith’s smile grew wide with delight as she looked around. “Actually, I think it has to be exactly like this.”

Buffy followed her gaze to the oblivious crowd surrounding them. “No, Faith. Not here, not now.” Her voice hardened: “We’re not going to fight.”

The dark haired girl frowned in feigned puzzlement. “Really? But it was in my day planner under ‘goals’.”

“Faith, just listen,” Buffy held up her palms in neutrality, trying to placate her, “Everything is different now. You have no idea...”

Faith’s tone was dismissive. “Yeah, I scoped out the school already. Destructo-girl: that’s you.”

Conscious that Willow was watching her, Buffy pressed on. “That’s not what I meant. We can change this. The both of us.”

Faith tilted her head and pretended to think. “Really? Y’think? I doubt it somehow.” She started pacing again, “See, I kept having this dream – not sure what it means, but...”

Buffy caught sight of Willow drifting off to her right, her shoulder bag now in both hands as she circled silently around behind Faith.

‘What is she…?’

Faith kept right on talking. She was on a roll now, and anger seeping through her voice “... in the dream, this self-righteous blonde chick stabs me. You wanna know why?”

Irritated, Buffy snarked back before she could stop herself: “Because, maybe, you were killing people?”

Faith shook her head. “Nope. Actually, she does it for a guy! I mean, if it weren’t so corny it’d be fucking beautiful. True love conquers all, and that. But then...” Just as Willow got into position, ready to swing her bag at the dark haired girl’s head, Faith growled in warning: “Try it Red and you lose an arm.”

Buffy looked over at Willow and gave a small shake of her head. Still startled, Willow backed off quickly.

Faith continued without missing a beat, pacing back and forth. “...So I wake up and find out this blonde chick isn’t even dating the guy she was so nuts about before. She’s moved on to,” Faith smacked her hands together for emphasis, “the first college beef-stick she meets. And not only has she forgotten about the ‘love of her life’, she’s forgotten about the chick she nearly killed for him.”

Buffy cringed inwardly. ‘Riley. She saw me with Riley.’

Faith stepped closer again, so they were mere inches apart. “So, that’s my dream.” Faith smiled fondly, “Well, that and some stuff about cigars and a tunnel. But, uh, tell me, college girl, what does it mean?”

‘To hell with this.’ Buffy crossed her arms, keeping her face neutral as she looked Faith up and down. “How about I ask you a question instead. How are you liking the clothes I left for you?”

That got a reaction, Faith’s smile faltered as a confused look crossed her face. Her eyes darted about, like she was expecting a trap. But there was no snappy comeback.

Buffy took the opening. “Faith, you’ve got to get out of here, now. The cops will be looking for you, okay?” She met her eyes, “If you want to get the full picture, and not just some theory you pulled out of your butt, then you’ll meet up with me, tonight.” Buffy thought quickly before deciding, “At Angel’s mansion.”

Faith’s face hardened. “Ooh, goodie. So I get to walk into your trap? You think I’m stupid?”

“For coming here? Sure.” Then Buffy made her voice reasonable, almost pleading, “But midnight tonight, I’ll be alone, I swear. If I’m not, if I’m not on the level, then go after whoever you want. But first give me a chance to explain.”

Faith was clearly wary; she glared at Buffy and then at Willow, trying to gauge their sincerity. She must have seen the surprised look on Willow’s face because she gave a small nod in understanding, and Buffy a dangerous smile, “See ya ‘round.”

Then she bolted, moving swiftly through the crowds, with the occasional glance over her shoulder to see if Buffy was trying to pull anything, or follow her. Buffy heard the sudden, loud electric whoop of a cop car pulling up, but by that time she’d lost track of Faith in the mass of students.

The other slayer was gone.

Buffy turned to Willow. “Well, that was lively encounter. You okay?”

Willow nodded. “Uh, sure. Just glad I didn’t have to pull out my nerdy, book-bag swinging, martial arts.”

Buffy cautioned gently. “You didn’t need to provoke her.”

Another enthusiastic nod. “Uh-huh. She was already plenty provoked by the sound of things. In that uniquely unstable Faith-way of hers. I guess she’s not as sorry as you were hoping for?”

She watched the two police officers slowly return to their cruiser. Faith had gotten away. Buffy shook her head sadly. “Not overly so.”

“And now comes the inevitable trap-springing, right? With the nets and heavy weights and possibly a cage of some sort?”

Buffy spoke up with more confidence than she felt. “No. I’m going to talk to her like a reasonable person. If I turn up alone then it shows her that she can trust me, and then she’ll listen.” She looked at Willow, “I can reach her, Will.”

The redhead’s eyes were wide with concern. “But Buffy, your plan seems to hang on that hugely wrong assumption that she’s, y’know, reasonable.” Willow made an emphatic gesture as she spread her hands wide, “Killers aren’t reasonable; generally speaking it’s not in their vocabulary. And girls who side with evil demons against their friends can’t even spell reason.”

“I know you think that Will, but...” She frowned as her beeper, the one the Initiative had given her, went off. An emergency. She guessed that they must have an assignment for her, and she did have some time to kill before tonight. Buffy looked at her friend. “Listen, talk to Giles. Tell him what happened, where I’m going to be and when. And stay cautious; I’m not going all ‘blind Faith’ with the trust here. You keep an eye out on campus, and tell Giles to do the same, okay? I’ve got to go.”

She had confidence that Giles would back her decision and give her the time she needed to try and reach the other slayer. She just hoped that she was up to it.

Willow’s face twisted with worry. “But Buffy...”

Buffy took off with a quick glance back. “I’ll see ya.”

Walking through the Initiative’s large open-air facility, Buffy cleared her mind of the Faith-whirlwind that was sweeping through her life and tried to focus on this, her new mission, and her new allies. She was still somewhat in awe of the scale of it all, the resources they seemed to have. That and the volume of men running about like it was some ultra-serious paint-balling weekend. Still, Willow’s doubts lingered at the back of her mind, and Buffy couldn’t help herself imagining jump-suited men on zip-lines dropping from the ceiling during a climactic fire-fight. Like the base belonged to some evil Bond villain or something.

But this was the government – generally speaking, the good guys. Mom, and apple pie and monster-hunters. It was hard for all that, in Buffy’s mind, to gel with some ulterior sinister purpose.

‘I guess that just makes me old-fashioned. And surprisingly patriotic. Go me.’

“Miss Summers.”

Buffy turned to see Professor Walsh striding over, all stern and lab coat-y. She held a clipboard in one hand and gestured to Buffy with the other. “Walk with me.”

Nervously, Buffy did just that, hands clasped in front of her. “You, uh, beeped me.”

The older woman nodded. “I did. Agent Finn was late this morning on account of performing some task for you. Would you care to explain to me what was so important?”

‘Poop.’ Buffy winced in apology. “It was nothing really, a-a personal errand.”

Walsh’s tone was brisk. “That ‘errand’ of yours meant that our team was delayed in re-apprehending a rogue HST. Unfortunately we lost our chance.”

‘Oh, that would be Spike and the tracer.’ “I’m sorry I got Riley, uh, Agent Finn in trouble. It won’t happen again.”

They stopped at a bench just outside the armoury. Walsh turned to her, “I know it won’t. And...” she said, softening, “Riley is a big boy, he makes his own decisions – and pays for his mistakes.”

‘Great. Now his ‘mom’ already thinks I’m a bad influence.’ Buffy tried to explain. “It turned out that, well my errand – it did lead to important slayer business.”

Walsh raised an eyebrow. “Anything we can assist you with?”

“No!” Buffy blurted, before regaining her composure, “I mean, it’s... old slayer business. It’s complicated.”

Walsh gave her a piercing stare before turning her gaze to the workbench. “Very well. Don’t hesitate to call if need to.”

With that she picked up a manila folder and handed it to Buffy: “I also called you in because I wanted to get you up to date on all our outstanding targets. These are threat assessments of creatures we believe to be in the area but for various reasons have been unable to locate. This way we can better co-ordinate our respective reactions when in the field.”

“Cool. A dossier.” Buffy opened it up, flicked through and saw a few official looking documents and lots of vital statistics. She smiled, “It’s not going to self-destruct on me is it?”

Walsh looked at her blankly before continuing on. “Read it through carefully and if you have anything to add to them, please do – and submit a copy with the additional information back to us.” Walsh gave Buffy that stern look again. “I trust that the material here will go no further.”

Buffy gave her best confident nod. “Count on it.” Then she paused, “Um, am I supposed to salute you now?”

“That won’t be necessary.” Professor Walsh turned and left, heading for the ‘research’ area. With everything else that had happened, Buffy had forgotten about getting some clearer answers from Riley and the Professor on the work they did here. What was the deal with the behaviour controlling chips? What was ‘314’ and why did it have some people spooked? Nothing too ‘classified’ but some extra details about their end goals would be nice, Willow and Xander were right, there were too many nagging questions.

Later, after she’d dealt with Faith.

Buffy’s mind had been busy working out exactly how she was going to do that, but she hadn’t really gotten past the ‘talk to her’ plan, which was sort of vague as plans go. But there were other, crazier plans.

One was where she laid everything out about the wish and the djinn and everything that had happened, which Giles – both Giles – had forbidden. Plus there was the ‘would Faith ever actually believe it’ factor. Buffy had lived through it all and sometimes even she had trouble believing it, so there was little chance of Faith doing so without a lot of proof.

Another plan involved just walking up to Faith and kissing the hell out of her. That one had a real appeal to Buffy; her mind liked to play the scenario over and over again, usually with accompanying melodramatic music. The upside to that plan was that it’d sure show Faith that things were different. But Faith – this more unbalance Faith – might mistake it for some sort of bizarre attack or trick and end up punching the hell out of Buffy. And then she’d just end up madder than before.

No. Knowledge was definitely the way to go here, Buffy knew all sorts of things about Faith that she hadn’t before, about her personality, and about the way she thought and reasoned. Buffy could get past all those defences and explain things clearer: last year, everything with Angel, her own regrets about how things turned out, and about how she didn’t even consider Faith an enemy any more.

Of course even with the possibility of success there was still the police to worry about: they were still going to be on the hunt, and it was just a matter of time before they remembered Faith’s little bedside visitor and came asking Buffy all sorts of questions. Harbouring a fugitive anyone?

Willow and her hacking skills could come in handy for breaking into the police files. Maybe. But that meant convincing her, which at the very least meant getting Faith safe, stable and on their side. All of those things could take time.

Buffy sighed as she looked down at the dossier. She just sucked at the whole multi-tasking thing – if something was on her mind, it tended to push everything else out of the way, and Faith was a big something.

Buffy stepped into the elevator that would take her back up above ground and she decided, firmly, that she would go all out tonight, mount a big charm offensive to bring Faith back to the Buffy-side of the force. But for that to work, she needed to do a little prep work before the big meet up.

*****

Professor Maggie Walsh entered ‘Special Projects’ room just as Dr. Angleman was putting the finishing touches to her masterpiece. He placed the remaining blood-crusted sutures down on a stainless steel tray and stepped away from the massive body that lay uncovered on the operating table.

He took off his surgical mask and looked at her expectantly. After a moment he spoke up. “The grafting is taking, the Polgara was definitely the right choice, its musculature, fibrous nerve tissue, it’s all synching up perfectly.” He looked at her pointedly, “In case you were wondering.”

Walsh stared at Adam, her perfect creation, painstakingly designed, constructed and programmed. Her vision of the future made flesh. She thought of Riley and the slayer, of her unpredictability and her hold over him. Nothing serious yet, but it bore noting, Walsh hadn’t gotten as far as she had without anticipating every problem.

She looked levelly at Angleman. “How long before the subject can be up and running.”

Angleman looked speculatively at the patchwork creature as he removed his bloody surgical scrubs. “After the anaesthetic wears off, and we switch on his consciousness, he’ll be fully functional.”

Walsh simply nodded as she looked over the medical data for the third time that day. That was good news, when dealing with a loose cannon – it was always good to have an even bigger cannon in reserve, should it be necessary. “I want you to select two operatives for a covert mission. They’re to follow and observe the slayer and report back any pertinent information. She could be hiding something.”

Satisfied with what she saw, Walsh handed the data, back to Angleman. “Take one of the trackers out of storage, and tune it to the tracer in her pager.”

Angleman, who hadn’t been sold on the idea of cooperation but had deferred to her, asked, “Do you suspect something?”

“Knowledge is power, Doctor. And we do not know nearly enough about this powerful young girl. I intend to change that.”

He nodded in understanding as they both left, leaving the room empty save the creature on the slab and the hooded figure who’d been silently observing their conversation, unnoticed.

The figure looked down at the specimen with something approaching curiosity. In its one hundred plus years of observing the secret lives of petty humans, it had discovered many intriguing things, but this creature was unique.

The figure had seen similar surgical attempts during the war, demonic parts grafted onto young, healthy human specimens. It had watched as the surgeons sweated and carved and sewed; observed the volunteers quietly pray or loudly toast their impending ‘improvements’ and seen the end results that led to death, infection or homicidal insanity. Man and demon were not supposed to exist flesh to flesh, yet here was a remarkable exception.

As the figure ran a hovering hand over the thing’s mutilated chest, it could feel its consciousness stirring, a boiling, dark, homicidal rage born of a twisted humanity. This thing would be both a staggering success and a horrifying failure, so much so that it might... disrupt things if it were to awaken right now, when things were in so delicate a balance.

With a whispered arcane command, the figure drowned the creature’s still child-like awareness with thoughts of slumber, sending it tumbling down into unfathomable blackness. It would awake, but only when the form chose. Another pawn to be moved only when needed.

So, the slayers were to meet again: bold, but not entirely unexpected. Such a reunion would surely be something worth observing, angry sparks and empty pleas. Still, it was important for the moment that the two girls remain... at odds with each other.

But, the figure mused to itself, sometimes the pieces didn’t need to be manipulated at all – they moved that way of their own accord.

*****

“So,” Tara smiled at Willow, “as first patrols go, how did I do?”

Willow pretended to think about it. “Well, as patrolling buddies go you were very... observe-y.” She returned the blonde girl’s smile, “It helped that it was daytime, and that Faith probably wasn’t going to show her overly made-up face on campus again. But still, it was all very tense.”

“I know, when that guy sneezed I thought you were g-going to run for the nearest exit”, Tara teased lightly.

“Oh, don’t worry, that was all part of my plan. I would’ve taken you with me, lured her somewhere and then, BLAM.” Willow made a dramatic hand gesture, “Squish her with a soda machine.” Willow saw the look on Tara’s face and quickly amended, “Not ‘mega-squish’, more ‘trap squish’. Faith isn’t a demon-y thing after all.”

Tara relaxed and nodded. “Oh, in that case I w-would’ve tagged along. We make a good team after all.”

Willow beamed. “The best.”

Tara looked away shyly, toying nervously with her hair. “Um, it’s going to get dark soon. If you still... if hiding is still what you want, you could come back to mine. We could be safer.”

“Definitely, if that’s still okay. I wouldn’t want to... I mean it's minimal danger, I promise. But I want to pick up a few things from my room first, sound good?”

Tara smiled and bobbed her head.

Willow smiled back as they walked along the corridor, almost but not quite touching hands, sharing a comfortable silence. Willow felt so happy about the prospect of spending more time with Tara that she almost didn’t worry about the cause. Except the cause here was a crazy person with a yin for her best friend.

And Buffy had been odd too. Not crazy, just odd. Had she really left clothes for Faith at the hospital? Because that was going above and beyond the whole ‘playing fair with your enemies’ thing, leaving them useful stuff.

And she had acted, well, really nice to Faith, considering. But that was Buffy: if there was a chance to help Faith, then Buffy would take it.

And that was fine with Willow, in principal. She was all for reforming and helping, if Faith wanted it. But that was a big if, that ‘if’ was a carved out of stone, biblical monolith-thingy, with lots of little people scurrying over it with hammers and chisels.

‘Okay, weird image. But accurate.’

And what if Buffy was all ‘pacifist-y talker’ and Faith jumped her with a big knife, ‘cause that was a girl who liked her knives, and ended up hurting Buffy.

Or worse.

Buffy was great at the slaying vampires and demons and stuff, but the other, grey area, human stuff... She wasn’t as quick off the mark as Faith McStabs-a-lot, or whatever her actual name was.

Willow allowed those grouchy, worrying thoughts to gnaw on her happier ones as they approached her dorm room and then she saw Riley standing outside it, about to knock.

He seemed to sense her looking at him and turned with an easy smile. “Willow. Hey, have you – is Buffy around?” He nodded a vague greeting at Tara. There was an awkward pause as the three of them stood looking at each other.

Tara spoke up. “I-I’ll let you get your stuff. Um, and see you later?” And before Willow could object Tara took off, probably thinking that it would be less uncomfortable for Willow, which was true, but Willow still didn’t want her to just ‘be gone-poof’, she wanted her to hang around and then...

Riley seemed to sense a wrongness. “Is everything okay? I didn’t mean to…” He craned his neck to watch Tara disappear around the corner, “interrupt anything.”

“You didn’t.” Willow murmured before shaking her head, “Let’s see if anybody’s home.” Willow got out her oversized, fuzzy key ring before opening the door and letting it swing open. She peered in and frowned, “Nope doesn’t look like it. If she isn’t here, isn’t she usually with you guys?”

Riley nodded absently. “She was, earlier today. She was talking with the Professor; I just wanted to see if she was okay. With everything.”

Willow tried hard to be nonchalant as she shrugged and stepped inside, “Probably best if you call back tomorrow. I think Buffy said she was going to visit her mom today.”

“Oh.” Riley seemed disappointed, “So you’ve seen her today? Did it go okay at Mr. Giles’?”

For a long moment Willow didn’t answer because she wasn’t sure how much Buffy had told Riley about everything – and then she remembered that that Buffy had deliberately not told him about Faith. So he must know about the meeting, but not the specifics, “Um, yeah, but I-I wasn’t there, so I don’t know.”

‘Aha! I riposte your innocent inquiry with a lame, vague lie. Take that Mr. Super-secret agent. Tara happy-time has clearly scrambled my brain.’

Riley was slightly bemused. “But, you just said you talked to her today? And it sounded like official slayer-stuff, which you help out with all the time, so I figured...” He trailed off before asking, more pointedly, “Willow, did Buffy tell you not to say anything to me.”

Willow blushed as she babbled. “No, it’s not even like that. It’s just – Buffy has an e-errand to run. A slayer thing and, uh, she didn’t want you worrying, n-not that it’s dangerous or anything. I-it’s a walk in the park, a very...safe park, with ducks and things.”

She tried to give him a reassuring smile, but it crashed and burned and came out as a screwed-up grimace.

Riley frowned at her. “Listen, Willow, I’m not going to pull the clingy boyfriend card on you, but if you think that Buffy might be in danger then you should tell me because I can actually help. I also know twenty or so well-armed, violence-inclined guys I can call to back me up when I help.” He reached and put a hand on her shoulder, “Now, straight up: how serious is it?”

Willow sighed inwardly and made a decision. Buffy was the slayer, but maybe this time they could just play it safe. With a nice, safe contingency plan. “Very.”

*****

Buffy was secretly glad that her mom was staying late at the gallery. She didn’t like to think of herself as a terrible daughter, but meeting up with her mom right now would involve lots of deception, trying to escape the inevitable dinner invitation, and magnifying the general uncomfortableness of her current situation.

Her mom knew more about what had happened with Faith than anybody else apart from Giles, and maybe she’d be able to somehow sense a change in Buffy, being all sensitive and mom-like, and then decide to press her on it.

When Buffy did see her mom, she wanted it to be free of any awkwardness that came from, oh say, people you tried to kill coming back with a vengeance. She would want a complexity-free mom-reunion. With pie.

Buffy was thinking a lot about food as she raided the fridge, figuring that one sure fire way to get off on the right foot with Faith was snack food. Admittedly, the idea had sounded a lot better when she’d first thought of it, but Faith was probably very hungry, what with being a slayer, ex-coma patient girl on the lam. Buffy doubted that the other girl could just stop by the nearest Doublemeat Palace and load up. So, all that being said, the way to a girl’s heart...

Pleased with her reasoning, she pulled out various foods and put them all into a backpack, making sure she had a good selection; most of a block of Velveeta cheese, some smoked salami sausage, a half-finished tub of coleslaw, two pots of vanilla yoghurt (she hoped Faith appreciated the sacrifice), a large bag of cheesy chips, and a half a family pack of Oreos. She also pulled out bread and jelly and a jar of chunky peanut butter.

Buffy paused as she double-checked her memory to make sure Faith wasn’t allergic to nuts or anything, because otherwise Faith might think it was a lame attempt to poison her.

No, she remembered that they had made peanut butter sandwiches after the whole thing with the creepy ‘Hansel and Gretel’ demon.

They had both been discussing what other fairy tales could be real. Buffy had wondered about that family that lived in a giant shoe, or was it tiny people in a normal shoe? Either way, giant, shoe-wearing demons or little people living near your feet, it had freaked her. And that was when Faith had confessed to having a recurring childhood nightmare about the Gingerbread Man:

Faith was spreading jelly on her bread. ‘Urgh, Some creepy little cookie thing runnin’ about, don’t mind sayin’, gets me a little jumpy.’

Buffy delicately cut the crusts off her sandwich as she reasoned. ‘But you know it can’t actually hurt you right? Plus it’s all tiny and edible.’

Faith shrugged. ‘Well, in my dreams it was always carrying a big ass rolling pin, used ta run up and hit me in the leg with it then run back under the bed. Laughing and singing that lame little song of his. Really pissed me off.’

Buffy smirked at Faith’s aggrieved tone. ‘Agreed. Taunting, animated pastry shouldn’t be allowed.’

Faith scowled a little. “Hey, I didn’t make fun of your lame ‘shoe’ thing, ‘kay.’

‘Okay’, Buffy apologised before leaning closer and whispering, ‘Anyway, if you want, you can sleep in my room tonight. That way if this little guy shows up I’ll just eat him. I like cookies.’

Faith grinned as she raised her eyebrows. ‘Hey, are you offerin’ to eat my cookie?’

Buffy blushed at the implication. ‘Faith, that isn’t even a thing... is it?’

Buffy smiled as the memory fitted into her mind. The house was full of them now, quiet, intimate happy moments between the two slayers. And even if Buffy couldn’t get that back – and she couldn’t because she was with Riley now – she still wanted a friendship, some sort of closeness with Faith. And to try and help her with every bad thing she had done.

Faith was a slayer after all; she could be a force for good, so it wasn’t like Buffy was being selfish when she wanted Faith back on her side. Faith couldn’t be happy with all the things she’d done, the choices she’d made. The wish-verse Faith had even said as much, and that girl would know.

‘Regrets. Regrets give us something in common, something to build upon. I can show Faith that, and then I can reach her and we can begin to start over.’

Buffy finished packing the bag, adding a couple of bottles of water at the last minute. Faith might be thirsty.

That task completed, Buffy placed the bag by the back door, switched off the light and tidied up a little. Then, after a second thought she went upstairs to her closet and grabbed some of Faith’s clothes and stuffed them in another bag. Crumpled but fresh clothes, yet another way of showing Faith that Buffy cared.

She just hoped that it was enough.

*****

Faith stared through the display window at the large selection of knives.

If she was going to go to this ‘meeting’, she’d feel a lot better with a blade or two, something to even the score when Buffy sprung her trap.

Of course, there was a nasty little voice that spoke up and urged her not to go, because of all the risk, because it was the sucker play, walking into a set-up like that. Much better to hit Buffy when she wasn’t ready for it or maybe just bug out of town like Buffy had expected her too.

Except Faith didn’t like the idea of running: you ran when you failed, like she had done in Boston. Fleeing with all that fear and failure weighing her down, bumming around New York aimlessly, before scraping the cash together to get across country and track down the slayer.

The other one.

So if Faith ran now it would be another failure, without getting some payback, something out of it: she knew that she’d never stop feeling like she was being chased.

Screw that.

Plus, Faith hated to admit it, but B had surprised her. Faith had been all set for a fight and Buffy hadn’t bitten – not even a little bit – at Faith’s jibes. She’d apologised and looked all sorry and saint-like as Willow had looked on.

But that wasn’t the surprising part, Buffy always acting better-than-thou in front of her friends; it was only in private that the knives came out.

The thing that Buffy had said about the hospital, leaving the clothes for her, that was what stumped Faith. If Buffy had left the clothes, then she’d left the other stuff, maybe even the flowers. And Faith had been trying to think as to why she’d do that, and hadn’t come up with anything. So another part of her, a small part, was curious as to what Buffy had to say, what little justifications she was going to throw out as to why she had done what she did.

But maybe Buffy had been lying? Maybe she was playing Faith, like she had before, and she wanted Faith to fall for it again?

Hence the knife.

That was when Faith spotted the cop car. The cruiser moved slowly down the high street, two guys in the front scoping out everybody who was passing by, casual but thorough. Thinking quickly, Faith ducked in with a nearby crowd of students, head down, and kept pace with them as they crossed the street in front of the car and around the corner.

Then she split off, moving quickly across street, gaining some distance before rounding another turn. Faith kept to the shadows, glancing over her shoulder as another cop car appeared up ahead.

Without much choice she headed into an alley. There wasn’t enough time to make it through and out the other side, so Faith pressed herself up against the wall. There was a ladder attached to it that might lead to the roof. If they spotted her...

The police car’s spotlight washed over her briefly – Faith froze against the wall, holding her breath. The light moved on as she heard the garbled squawk of the police band radio as the car passed without stopping.

Faith exhaled: the whole fugitive thing was going to get real old, real fast. She needed to find some place to hole up until midnight. The cops would check the places she usually hung out at, which didn’t leave her a lot of options.

Then that voice started up again: where would the police search? Known associates, right? Friends, except she didn’t have any friends; Buffy killed the only friend she ever had and now she was just going to hand herself over to her.

‘Face it, you’re out of options, you’re on your own.’

Then a gravely voice spoke up from deeper in the alley. “Faith.”

Faith turned to see a large demon standing behind her, hairy and butt ugly. It casually walked towards her. “A friend sent me.” The creep reached into his jacket pocket, “I got a little remembrance from him...”

Faith struck out before it could finish speaking, grabbing the demon’s head with lightning speed and twisting it up and around into a headlock. She tensed her arm as the demon struggled and then wrenched its head around before she heard something give with a dry crack.

She dropped the demon to the ground, its body splayed, coat open, showing a plain envelope. Faith stepped over and picked it up, examining it. It was marked on the front with the label ‘Office Of The Mayor Of Sunnydale.’

‘Huh. Guess he was on the level. Too bad chump.’

Then she heard the low rumble of a cruiser as it rolled on to the street near the other entrance to the alley. A spotlight swept her way. Faith clamped the envelope between her teeth, scrambling across the alleyway to pull herself up the ladder and out of sight.

Later, she watched the video.

Seeing the boss again left a hollow ache in her chest. His smile and his goofy jokes; the fact that he was still worried about her – that he was still trying to help her even after he was long gone.

She listened to his voice, the sorrow in it, and the regret. The only guy who had ever given a damn about her and he was gone. And she was alone. He was still speaking, comforting her:

‘But you’re never alone. You’ll always have me. And, you’ll always have this.’

She looked at the box, opening it as he instructed, listening to the delight in his voice as he gave her another gift, like he wanted to see the look on her face when she saw it.

Whatever the hell it was.

But she listened anyway as the Mayor described the device’s origins and what it did.

Faith smiled to herself and looked at the doo-hickie in her hand. As presents went, it was way better than a bunch of flowers.

And it gave her options.

*****

Giles gave a long-suffering sigh as he searched for his front door key. Tonight had been a potent blend of disappointment and worry that had left him in desperate need of a drink.

The Magic Box had been unable to locate the rare book he had asked about, citing that the last copy sold through them was now in the hands of a private collector. And no, they could share that person’s personnel details with anybody, nor were they willing to pass on any request to the owner for a private viewing.

Apparently it didn’t matter that Giles had been a watcher for most of his life, trusted with knowledge and secrets that would make lesser men take to the aforementioned drink rather more readily. All that mattered was that one little word, former. As in, can no longer be trusted.

‘Snotty bastard.’ Giles grumbled uncharitably. That’s what happens when one business has a monopoly on a trade.

And then there was Buffy and her upcoming rendezvous with Faith, which Giles had heard about from a somewhat hysterical Willow rather than from Buffy herself. But then, like with a lot of things these days, Giles wondered how much help he could be – he couldn’t really judge the situation accurately.

Buffy knew Faith, rather more intimately than bore thinking about really, and if Buffy thought she could reach her – rehabilitate the other slayer – then Giles had to trust in that. He had already thought of and dismissed every other option.

One of which was waiting for him when he got home.

Giles closed the door and tried the main light, only to find that it wasn’t working. The desk lamp switched on from across the room, illuminating the three men that were sitting in his living room. One of them casually lit a cigarette and gave him an easy smile. “Hello, Rupert.”

Giles wasn’t in the mood to bother with pleasantries. “Collins. What are you doing here?”

Collins spoke around his cigarette. “Have a wild stab in the dark. And that’s the only clue I’m giving you.”

“Faith.” Giles nodded before adding dryly, “Well, no doubt by now you’ve searched the place. You might have noticed that she’s not here.”

Collins shrugged. “We know that you’ve been keeping tabs on her during her convalescence, you and your slayer both. I’d be surprised if a sensible chap like you didn’t have an inkling about where she might go.”

Giles set down his coat and then, feeling like an intruder in his own home, made his way over to the drinks cabinet. “And I’m to help you because?”

Collins turned easily in the chair to follow him. “Remember Dublin, ’92. We were comrades in arms once.”

Giles poured out a measure of scotch. After a moment’s hesitation, he made it a double. “Yes, once. And you arsed it up the last time you were here.”

Weatherby spoke up angrily. “Don’t compare us with him.” He spat, “Wyndham-Pryce and his bloody amateur hour bollocks.”

But Collins remained relaxed. “And you forget that we’ve read Pryce’s last report. We know that this girl’s got it in for you. And sided with a demon over you and all those other worthies. Not to mention that every free breath she takes puts your slayer in danger.”

Buffy could look after herself, although Giles didn’t voice those thoughts aloud.

But still, Buffy was young and she was conflicted: as with Angel, Giles couldn’t see this ending well for the girl. Then again, maybe these men could be helpful in another capacity.

Giles took a long drink before replying. “I do happen to know that the two of them are meeting tonight. And where they will be. That information would be useful to you?”

Collin’s face remained impassive; always the professional soldier he didn’t rise to the bait. Weatherby, the true believer, scowled angrily. The third man, the one Giles didn’t recognise, stayed quiet and watched Collins.

Collins stubbed out his cigarette and grunted. “Want is it that you want, Rupert?”

Giles looked steadily at Collins, “Firstly, I would ask for the assurance that Buffy would be in no way harmed during your operation.” He phrased what he said next carefully, “Secondly, I need the name and address of a man who is in possession of an important book.”

“The Council could get you the book, if that’s what you want.”

“They couldn’t. It’s a rare, proscribed text, but they would have a list of those who own a copy. I would like a copy of that list. Something the Council would have no trouble providing me with."

Collins nodded and stood up. “Very well. After we have the slayer. Now, where are they?”

Giles smiled grimly. “No, I think now would be better. Believe me we have plenty of time, and call me cynical but after you take Faith in, your priorities might shift.”

Giles saw the other man weigh up the options and then take a mobile phone out of his pocket and dial the number of his bosses. The former watcher tensed as he drained the last of his scotch and hoped, for Buffy’s sake, that he was doing the right thing.

*****

Weird being back here after so long. Angel’s place. Now hereby dubbed “place where I hang out with my exes”.’

Buffy stepped through the busted French windows and glanced around the gloomy, dusty interior. She’d never thought she’d say it, but the place really did suffer for lack of Angel’s housekeeping. She switched on her flashlight and played it across dirty, leaf-strewn marble, cobwebby walls and what looks like a rat’s nest in one corner.

‘Urgh, okay, not the best place for a midnight meet-and-greet with somebody who possibly wants me dead. Last time I was here it was way more ‘gothic romance-y.’

Which had been seven months ago, give or take. Either letting Angel bite and drain her, or she and Faith and Angel saying their goodbyes. Both memories were intense enough that Buffy hadn’t really been eager to revisit them. But she also saw this place as a safe haven, or at least some place that Faith and her could meet undisturbed and talk things out.

And if that were to happen, then it would probably help if they could see each other. Buffy put down her stuffed backpack against one wall, then went searching for and quickly found a small stack of wood and some matches to get a fire going. She spent the next five minutes striking and cursing every damn match until, horror movie cliché, the last one lit up and she managed – with the help of some torn newspaper – to get a blaze started in the fireplace. The room was gradually illuminated by flickering firelight, pushing back the shadows and warming the stale air. Much better.

She looked at her watch; it was ten past midnight. Maybe Faith wasn’t coming; maybe she got on a bus or hopped onto the tracks or something...

“Remember the last time we were both here?” Faith spoke up from the shadows.

Buffy gasped in surprise, spinning around, she backed up a few steps as she tried to spot Faith in the gloom. “Faith, I didn’t think you were gonna...” Buffy shook her head, “You’re late.”

Faith swaggered on over, all relaxed. “Been here a while. You should’ve noticed but looks like your eyesight’s as bad as your hearing.”

Buffy quashed the flicker of irritation at Faith’s jibes. The other slayer wanted to get a reaction from her, to go back to their familiar roles of antagonists. Buffy wasn’t going to fall for it. “So now you know I was telling the truth. I’m alone.”

Faith nodded vaguely then folded her arms in front of her. She gave Buffy that cold, expectant smile again. “So now what?”

Buffy tried for a reassuring smile. “We talk.”

...continued in Betrayals...

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