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Everything is Different Now: Goodbye To What You Knew

by Declan
Rating: PG-13

+1=2+

Goodbye To What You Knew (PART 1: Mommy Issues)

Faith smiled as she watched Joyce fall limply to the floor, the older woman’s face a mask of disbelief until it softened slowly into unconsciousness. Tranq darts will do that to a woman, especially when they’re designed to take out things a lot nastier than suburban mom-types.

Still, fast and quiet was best; a person never knew who was peeping through their window in a neighbourhood like this. Faith had been waiting across the street since dawn, unseen in the shadows as she squatted between two hedges. And as soon as she’d seen Joyce, Faith had stepped out and started walking. Crossing the street, casual as anything, Joycey never even looked up from her paper.

‘Guess in Sunnydale they worry more about night-time creeps instead of daylight home invasions.’

Feeling pretty pleased with herself, Faith stepped over Joyce’s body and glanced out of a couple of the windows, seeing if in fact there were any twitchy neighbourhood types. But nope, not many cars in driveways, a lot of people were getting an early start to work – which reminded Faith, Joyce had better call in sick soon, she was gonna be having a nice day off.

‘We’ll call it ‘Hostage Day’’.

Faith smiled at that before making her way over to the older woman, grabbing her by her arm and her dressing gown, and effortlessly picked her up. Carrying her limp form in her arms, Faith heaved the woman upstairs and into her bedroom, placing Joyce down on her still rumpled bed.

Faith left her there; the darts were powerful enough to leave somebody doped up for a good few hours. Even so, Faith took the time to disable the phone by the bed; she wouldn’t want Joyce to get any bright ideas about calling the cops.

Job done, Faith headed back downstairs to the kitchen, smiling at the small thrill she got from walking around somebody else’s place like she owned it, poking in their private things, going through their stuff.

The kitchen was rich with the smell of freshly brewed coffee, but Faith didn’t take any. The stuff always smelled way better than it tasted to her. Instead she opened the fridge and poked her head in; milk, orange juice, lots of diet soda. Maybe it had been bought for Buffy but it hadn’t been touched. Faith opened up the pack, grabbed a can and shut the door.

Casting her eyes over the kitchen, Faith saw that the sideboard next to the wall phone had an address book on it. She flicked through it, absently sipping on her coke as she did so. She saw numbers for relatives, pizza delivery, UC Sunnydale – she got to a number for the gallery and a name next it. Somebody named Irene. Bingo.

Faith cradled the phone and, dialling the number, put on her best ‘sick’ voice.

There was a click at the other end and a female voice. “Hello?”

Faith wheezed a little and then spoke up. “Hi, is that Irene? This is Buffy.”

The voice on the end was unsure. “Buffy? Oh, you must be Joyce’s daughter.”

Faith found herself smiling. “That’s me. Listen, sorry to drop this on you, but Mom and I have caught some kind of majorly grotty virus. We’re, like, totally sick” Faith said, trying capture Buffy’s natural Valley Girl essence, but it wasn’t easy.

“Oh, Joyce is poorly? That’s just terrible.” There was a moment of hesitation, “What should I do?”

And Faith was worried about fooling this woman. “Oh, Joyce thinks it’s just a twenty-four hour deal, so she’ll be in tomorrow, for sure.” Faith faked a harsh cough, “So why don’t you take the day y’know? Well, that’s what Mom says to do.”

Irene sounded surprised, but pleased. “Really? Joyce said that? Well, okay.” Another pause, “I don’t want to be getting into trouble though…”

“Don’t sweat it. You’re golden,” Faith replied smoothly. “Now, if you’ll excuse me I have to make soup for my Mom and then tuck her up in bed, ‘cause I’m the bestest daughter in the whole world.”

With that Faith hung up and sighed. That job done, she decided to kill the next hour or so making herself a mega snack for breakfast. Sleeping rough hadn’t been as easy as she’d remembered and she was starved.

‘Getting soft there Faith. Gotta watch that. Still, cash is gonna make things a hell of a lot easier after I finish up here.’

Rooting through the fridge she quickly found eggs, bacon and waffles, cheese and bread. Faith got out a pan and went about making the biggest damn omelette she could manage. She grilled some bacon, toasted the waffles, and then added some cheese to the omelette to make it all rich and gooey.

As she sat down to eat her cheesy concoction, she wondered when Buffy would turn up. College was college, but this was her house after all, and a ‘dutiful daughter’ would surely come by to check up on her flesh and blood, wouldn’t she?

Faith was banking on it, but she’d been a little surprised that Buffy wasn’t here already, waiting for a smack down-drag out fight with her sister-slayer.

Maybe Faith wasn’t the only one that had been forgotten.

After polishing off all her food, Faith grabbed the dart gun from the sideboard and walked back through the house. It was big, bright, clean and warm, safely nestled right in the heart of suburbia, and all the while Faith had been stuck in a crappy motel with a broken down shower and noisy neighbours screwing at all hours.

Some chosen ones get all the luck.

Faith shook the bitter thought away as she headed towards Buffy’s room. Digging into Buffy’s inner sanctum should be fun way to pass the time. The couple of times Faith had been in there all she could remember was pink and white everywhere, lotta stuffed toys, and loads of girlie hair, skin and nail products.

Faith predicted that on closer inspection she’d find more of the same, plus lots of virginal white underwear and a handbook on how to a be a tight-assed moralising bitch.

She checked in on Joyce first, jabbing her hard in the ribs just to check that she wasn’t playing possum. But she didn’t react, just kept snoozing away, so Faith left her alone.

And Buffy’s bedroom was all exactly how Faith remembered it; minus some wall posters and that googly eyed stuffed pig that had clearly joined Buffy on her college adventure.

She was wrong about the underwear though: the top of the chest of drawers was empty apart from a couple of pairs of pyjamas.

Most of the other drawers were filled with old clothes, some stuff Faith recognised from the various times they’d been patrolling together, plus some really girlie things that Buffy obviously didn’t like to wear anymore because she‘d finally realised that she wasn’t, like, twelve.

Nothing much else here though. Obviously Buffy didn’t do overnight stays that much, not with this selection. Faith closed the last drawer and went over to the closet, opened it up.

And found her stuff.

‘What the..?’

A big cardboard box lying on the floor of the closet, filled with Faith’s tops, shirts, jeans, leather pants. A lot of her stuff from last year was sitting here gathering dust. Faith squatted and pulled out the box and saw it wasn’t just filled with her clothes – B had even taken her spare boots and her crappy walkman.

And her bow.

Propped up against the back of the wall was her bow, the sweet one she’d made good use of last year, offing scum both human and vamp alike...well, almost. And Buffy had taken it all for herself, not to wear, obviously, but as what, mementoes maybe? Trophies? Things to sell off the next time she had a fucking yard sale?

‘Bitch.’

For all Faith knew Buffy had her friggin’ knife mounted up on a wall somewhere, with a little plaque telling people where she got; how she stepped over the body of a dying slayer to claim it.

Hell, maybe Joyce has it in pride of place somewhere in the house, bloodstained and everything. A gift from her darling daughter.

Faith had been wrong, Buffy hadn’t forgotten about her, not at all. She probably liked to remind herself of what she did to Faith. Got a real kick out it.

Faith thought back to the mansion, Buffy’s words of regret, her sorrowful tone, and her big, sad eyes that seemed to look right into Faith, like she knew what she was feeling.

Faith shook her head. Quite an act, everything considered.

“Bitch.” Faith muttered and tossed the box and all her other stuff up on the bed.

She’d happily take it all with her when she’d finished beating the tar out of B and leaving her trussed up for the Initiative mopes.

All Faith had to do now was wait a while and give Buffy the biggest reminder of all about what she was really capable of.

*****

Buffy frowned in mild annoyance as Pepe Le Pew tried unsuccessfully to seduce a cat. Come to think of it, that didn’t really scream ‘suitable cartoon material’ in Buffy’s mind. More, ‘weird Internet fetish’.

She sighed as the scene played out on the television. “I’m pretty sure I met this guy in high school.”

Anya looked interested. “A talking French skunk? Was it demonic in some way? Did you have to slay it?”

“I think she’s referring to his seduction technique.” Willow clarified gently. She seemed pretty amused by the TV.

Anya turned her head to look thoughtfully at the television. “He does seem very forthright in his advances. But some people like that. Xander for example – “

Buffy interrupted another possible ‘TMI’ moment from Anya. “Uh, could we watch something else? I’m not really feeling the fun here.”

Willow stuck out her bottom lip. “It’s either this or Marvin the Martian.”

Anya’s forehead wrinkled in annoyance. “Does he ever manage to kill that sinister rabbit?”

Willow shook her head tiredly. “Nope.”

“Well then –”

Just then, Giles stepped blearily through the curtain of hung blankets that hung behind the television, and turned it off. “Must we have the noise? My head is splitting.” He sounded like he’d gotten less sleep than Buffy.

A small smile played across Willow’s mouth. “Well, look who’s a cranky bear in the morning,” she teased.

Giles reply was dryly sardonic. “Yes, I can’t imagine why I didn’t sleep well in my beachball.”

“Every time you moved it made squeaky noises,” Anya complained, adding, “it was irritating.”

“Really? I’m surprised you could hear it over your Wagnerian snoring.”

This wasn’t really the way Buffy wanted to start the morning. “Okay you guys, could we not, please? Everything’s screwed up enough without you two doing scenes from my parents’ marriage.”

Anya and Giles looked at each other sheepishly. “Sorry,” Anya muttered.

Giles ran a tired hand through his hair. “Yes, I’m sorry too.” He looked at Buffy, “How did everything go last night? You didn’t wake me so I assume...”

At least Buffy could bring up some good news. She nodded. “Curious the demon? Killed it dead. Well, deader anyway, it was pretty rank as demons go. But I managed to get it in the woods when it ran into a squad of Initiative guys.”

Giles frowned at the news. “So, ah, they saw you then. That was unfortunate.”

“Couldn’t be helped, goat-boy had already done some major damage by the time I got there, so I couldn’t wait for subtle.” Buffy shrugged unhappily, “Besides, Riley was there too.”

Giles frowned as he remembered something. “Did you, ah, burn the remains afterwards?”

Buffy smirked slightly. “Well, Riley and I didn’t have any smores so...Plus, forest fires; bad for all of us, and bad for America.”

Giles gave a small smile. “All I meant was... I’m sure I read somewhere that it was best way to dispose of the remnants of Kurenos.”

Buffy shrugged lightly. “He’s dead Giles. Believe me; I turned him into itty bitty demon chunks.” Buffy reviewed her last statement somewhat sadly, “I’ve been doing that way too much lately.”

Giles seemed to let it rest at that. “No matter. Still, now Riley must be relieved to know that you’re alive and well, that’s something.”

Buffy heaved a sigh. “A big something. We got into a long conversation, heavy on the awkward. Y’know how it is, comparing and contrasting murderers we know. Faith got points because she has actually killed before, but Walsh was way ahead on premeditation and deviousness.” Buffy put some fake pep in her voice. “It was all very exciting. And that was before Spike showed up.”

Giles nodded in understanding. “Yes. That must have been, on top of everything else...well, poorly timed certainly,” he finished awkwardly.

Willow looked over at Buffy. “It’ll be okay Buffy. Riley’s just confused that’s all.”

Buffy shifted under her blanket, bringing her knees up to her chest. “I don’t know. Seems like things could get heavier. I mean his whole world’s falling apart.” She sighed and propped her chin on her knee, thinking not just about Riley but about Faith, “It’s just one huge mess is what it is.”

Sensing that the conversation was moving away from slaying matters, Giles quietly excused himself and moved back behind the screen.

Anya looked at Buffy sympathetically. “And after all that stuff you went through with Angel...” Then she brightened, “You know you really should get yourself a boring boyfriend, like Xander.” She paused then added, “You can’t have Xander.”

Buffy sighed wistfully. “Well Riley was supposed to be Mr. Normal Joe guy. Somebody I could start to... move on with. That was his appeal. We were supposed to do dumb stuff like hold hands through the daisies going tra-la-la...”

Willow pouted in concern. “Poor Buffy, your life resists all things average.”

Buffy blew out a breath. “You’re telling me. This is the third, I-I mean second time of trying. It always ends up going wrong somehow.”

Anya tried to cheer her up. “So dump him already.” Then added seriously, “But you can’t have Xander.”

Buffy nodded solemnly. “I’ll try and remember that. Besides, I can’t just quit when the going gets tough. I have to make it work.”

Willow smiled encouragingly. “I bet you will.”

Buffy put some determination into her voice. “No. No bet. I will make it work.” She paused, “Okay that may have come out a tad more.... insane than I wanted it to.”

Any reply was interrupted by Xander hurrying down the stairs, a tray full of breakfast-y items in his hands. He gestured urgently. “Turn on the TV. Now.”

Willow leaned over and turned on the television as Xander put the tray down. Giles came back through the curtain, toothbrush in hand, drawn by the activity.

Buffy frowned in puzzlement as the screen sprang to life. It was the news.

“...the victim was a homeless man known by locals to frequent the area around the park. A source in the Coroner’s office tells us that the man was stabbed with looks like some kind of large skewer, and his body was then horribly mutilated. Police have not named a suspect, and the killer is still at large...”

Buffy had heard enough, with a sinking realisation she said. “The Polgara demon had a skewer on its arm. That was the one that Maggie specifically wanted us to bring back alive.”

The others looked grimly at each other. Giles spoke up. “Then she must have sent it after you.”

“And it got distracted.” Buffy shook her head, she’d been so close to that park last night, but she’d run off chasing a phantom woman, and now somebody else was dead. “God...”

Willow shook her head. “Buffy, it’s not your fault. How could you know?

Giles agreed, his voice tinged with concern. “She’s right, you mustn’t blame yourself.”

Buffy felt tired, she felt sore, but mainly she felt angry about reacting all the time to things, about not making any progress. That was gonna change.

She put some steel into her voice. “I’m not going to,” she said resolutely as she stood, tossing her blanket to one side. “I’m going to the crime scene to see what I can find out. You guys research the Polgara demon; I wanna know where it is. I’m going to stop it before it has a chance to hurt anybody else. Stop it in an inventively painful way.”

Buffy looked at each of them in turn, hoping to somehow transfer some of her own determination to them. Then she noticed how Willow and Anya’s faces faltered into smiles and Buffy looked down at herself in realisation.

“That probably would’ve sounded more commanding if I wasn’t still wearing my yummy sushi pyjamas”, she pouted.

*****

Riley was still confused as he made his way through the dorm.

He’d been walking around campus all night, his mind running over what Professor Walsh had said, then what Buffy had said – what she’d claimed. Riley was still bleary about what he should do next, and the lack of sleep wasn’t helping things either. He needed to talk to the Professor, not about Buffy, but about 314; about the other slayer, about... all the questions he had.

Suddenly Forrest was by his side as they walked up the stairs. “Hey man, where the hell were you? Beta Team got into a scrape last night, took some hits, and they said that you were there at the scene? What went down?”

Riley wiped at his face tiredly. ”The hostile’s neutralised, Forrest. Buffy took care of it.”

“Buffy,” Forrest stated flatly, “I guess that explains where you been the rest of the night, huh? You two getting past the shy phase is one thing, but Gibson and Wolkowski got tanked last night brother, some of us were worried –”

Riley frowned, interrupting sharply: “I wasn’t with Buffy. I was alone, I needed to, I don’t know, think some things through.”

Forrest raised his eyebrows at that. “Yeah, what things?”

Riley considered his friend, Forrest wasn’t exactly a slayer fan, at least not lately, but Riley needed somebody to sound out some things on before he went to Walsh.

Riley looked up and down the hallway carefully and then, gesturing to his room, opened the door and closed it after Forrest followed him in.

Forrest made a ‘spooky’ gesture with his hands. “This is mighty ominous. What’s up man?”

Riley turned away, absently scratching at his hand, thinking about how to phrase his question. “Did Walsh tell anybody about what happened to Buffy? Anything about sending her out on a mission?”

Forrest thought for a moment. “Nope. Nothing. Why?”

Riley rubbed his chin. “Anything about two HSTs breaking out of the pens, night before last?”

“No... Wait a sec, yeah there was. A team was redeployed for some cleanup assignment the other day. I would’ve been leading but, well, we’re all still pretty much benched because of that other slayer, y’know. Plus the Professor’s been busy putting her through her paces.”

This was the first Riley had heard of this. “What?”

Forrest’s tone was sour. “Word is, ‘Faith’ got the full Initiative tour, just like Buffy did. Supposed to be working with her now, too, I guess.”

Riley wrinkled his forehead. Buffy had been so sure that Faith was in danger from Walsh; maybe she was wrong about the other things too. “Buffy said that Faith was in danger from the Professor, and she said that the Professor set her up, tried to kill her.”

Forrest looked incredulous. “She said what?” He paused, his scepticism evident. “Does Buffy have any proof?”

Riley shook his head. “Not that she showed me, but I’m not sure why she’d lie about it.”

Forrest shrugged. “I don’t know, man. There’s always been something off about her, always asking her questions.”

Riley had heard this before and ignored his rising irritation. “Buffy thinks that she was getting close to something, that the Professor has some kind of secret­ –”

Forrest smirked bitterly. “Is that right? Buffy’s got a theory.” Forrest pointed at him, “And now she’s using you to get answers for her. And you’re falling for it.” He shook his head sadly.

Riley felt a flush of anger. “I’m not falling for anything here. I’m just figuring things out, that’s all.”

Forrest snorted derisively. “What’s to figure out? Buffy’s trying to spin your head; she’s got some freak agenda –”

Riley started forward, jabbing a finger at Forrest’s chest. “That’s enough!”

The door opened and Graham entered, he looked visibly shaken. “Guys...”

Riley’s jaw clenched but he reigned in the urge to get into things any further. “What is it, Graham?”

The other man swallowed, like he was trying to sum up the will to speak up. He shook his head. “Professor Walsh is dead.”

*****

Giles traced his finger absently along the page as he muttered through the rest of the passage. No mention of the Polgara sub-type, although in general the species of demon seemed to be rather dim-witted. Buffy should have no problem picking up its trail before any further damage was done.

That was something of a relief to Giles, since Buffy didn’t seem to be at her best. He had seen the weariness that rested on her shoulders before she’d left. She was still brave, still determined, but also tired and heartsick. He could only imagine how much all the events of the last few days, since Faith’s return, must be weighing on her.

And now that the true colours of the Initiative had been revealed by Walsh’s actions, Giles couldn’t see an end in sight. Except via the rather daunting prospect of infiltrating the Initiative base in hopes of getting to the truth and perhaps rescuing the other slayer.

And then there was the sinister figure that Buffy had run into last night. Some meddling sorcerer who seemed to aware of a lot of what was going on in Sunnydale nowadays, and was taunting Buffy with that knowledge.

‘Marley’, a somewhat innocuous name for a dark sorcerer... sorceress, and yet one who seemed to have the power to conjure up fiends from the underworld.

Very ominous. But there was something about Buffy’s description, about her recounting the meeting with this person and what they...she had said, that had resonated with Giles. It had stirred something in his memory, rumours and idle gossip from his academy days; cautionary tales about the price of dabbling in darker things. Nonsense myths. Or so Giles had thought of at the time.

Still, most of his research materials about such things, mysterious magical beings and the like, were back at his apartment, as well as the wealth of knowledge contained in the diaries of previous Watchers that could be of some use. They could help bring the half-shaded memories of his school days into focus.

“Muffin?” Giles became aware of Xander standing over him. “Not as in ‘this is my new pet name for you, but as in –'” He waved a rather sad, stale looking muffin in front of Giles face. “Brain food?”

And suddenly, Giles thought the idea of getting the bloody hell out of here to do some proper research was a splendid idea. Tea, toast and wading through some of the Watcher’s diaries seemed just the ticket.

He stood up. “Ah, Xander. Yes, thank you but no. These books just aren’t going to be enough to get to the root of our particular problem. I’m afraid it’s vital that I return home immediately to gather more, um, material.”

Xander looked around at the books strewn over his basement floor. “Really? Are y’sure? Most of these books seem... really thick. We could probably barricade the door with them, I mean if we had to.”

Giles nodded sagely. “I’m positive about this. We must, ah, widen our parameters.”

Willow looked up from her demon compendium. “You shouldn’t go alone, Giles. We don’t know how dangerous it is out there. Or even what the Initiative’s up to.” She set her book carefully to one side and stood up, “I’ll go with you, give you some backup in the form of the voodoo that me-do.” She frowned at that before covering and giving Giles a confident smile.

“I think that’s an excellent idea,” Anya enthused loudly from the couch, “You should both go away for a while, so Xander and I can­ –”

“Research!” Xander finished loudly, giving everybody a too-wide awkward smile, “We’ll keep right on with all that researching while you’re gone. Grab that knowledge with both hands.”

Giles thought for a moment before nodding. “Very well. See that you do that. Keep it up.” Giles sighed at his ill-considered phrasing before motioning to Willow to leave, “We should be a couple of hours at most, Xander. We’ll bring back more in the way of research material.”

With that Giles followed Willow out into the back yard.

Xander watched them both go. “And donuts. Bring back donuts,” he hastily called after them.

*****

Side by side Riley and Forrest stared into the room where the Professor lay dead in a pool of her own blood.

Riley felt at that moment like his world was coming apart piece by piece, relentlessly crumbling under some unseen force or pressure of circumstance that would not stop. And yet it was also an abstract feeling, shot through by an almost dizzying numbness at seeing the woman who had been his mentor lying dead in front of him; by thinking about her being brutally stabbed through the heart and then left undiscovered for hours.

Riley blinked, tried to think and take this in. What did this mean? Who could’ve done this?

Forrest spoke up, his voice full of cold rage. “Look at that wound. Staked.”

And then it was clear.

“Faith.” Riley said flatly. He’d read her file, she’d done this before. Exactly this. And when Walsh had let down her guard, Faith had done it again. “Where is she?”

Graham cleared his throat behind them as he answered. “She’s gone, nobody knows where. But, maybe it was the Polgara – ”

Scratching at his hand, Riley shook his head. “No way. We let that murderous freak out of confinement to wander around, and this is what happens.” He blinked away some sweat. He turned to Forrest, “We suit up. Now.”

Forrest was grimly determined. “No argument here.”

Angleman approached them, obviously having heard. “You’ll do no such thing, Agent Finn,” he said firmly. “Listen, everybody’s upset but now is not the time to go charging off without knowing all the facts. That’s not what the Professor would want, and you know it.”

Riley flinched at Angleman’s rebuke. He didn’t say anything. His mind was full of images of the dark-haired girl, her flashing eyes and dangerous smile as she ran towards him in that corridor. Her fluid movements as she beat men bloody trying to escape. He remembered her and Buffy at the mansion, silhouetted by firelight, leaning close, hushed voices.

Intimate.

Buffy gently touching her hair like...

“Agent Finn, are you listening?”

Riley blinked and snapped his head towards Angleman. The scientist leaned closer and looked him in the eye. “No movements. As of now we’re under complete lockdown until Washington gets here for an internal investigation. Is that understood?”

‘Like hell.’ Riley thought, but nodded shakily. “Yes, Sir.”

Angleman looked at Riley, then at Forrest, Graham and the rest of the assembled men. “I’m sorry. I know we’ve all been hit hard lately, what with last night and now this. Which is all the more reason for calm heads. Now, all of you return to your quarters, there’s nothing you can do here.”

With that Angleman moved away to supervise the removal of Professor Walsh... of the body.

Riley watched him turn his back and then gestured to the others to get their attention. “Listen, Angleman can talk all he wants but I’m still in charge until the brass gets here and tells me otherwise.” He looked around at his men, his voice firm even as he felt something cold writhing in his gut. He’d never felt this angry before. “And I say that there’s a supernatural killer out there who needs to be brought down.” Most of the men nodded, a few were unsure, including Graham. But Riley pressed on, “Go and suit up for armed patrol, and I mean loaded guns men. We’re not fooling around on this one, she’s too dangerous. Let’s move out.”

Riley watched as they all left without hesitation, some eager to suit up and dole out a little punishment for the hurt they were put through the previous night, others trusting in Riley and obeying orders out of habit.

Riley felt a little better; actually doing something instead of endless internal debating was something of a relief. Walsh was dead and somebody was going to pay.

And Buffy better not get in the way.

*****

Michelson and Reyes entered the crypt slowly, sweeping the shadows with their rifles. Reyes was conscious of the fact they weren’t hunting a demon, but some psycho bitch with superpowers. Power enough to do god knows what to a human being. He tightened his fingers around his weapon instinctively as he stepped to one side, shining his scope behind one of the larger tombs.

Michelson ducked past a couple of pillars and scanned the shadows. “Any sign of our wayward girl?” He didn’t seem to be that nervous as the other man.

Reyes wiped some sweat from the back of his neck. “You could take this a little more seriously, y’know.”

Reyes heard a light chuckle from the shadows as Michelson stooped down behind an ornate stone slab. “Oh please. Man, this chick has vamoosed already. She ain’t a creepy, slimy thing. She’s probably hitching her way to Reno as we speak.”

Reyes sighed. He saw the point. “Still, orders are orders.”

There was no reply, just silence.

“Michelson?” No answer. Reyes scowled and straightened his stance, “Hey, J-dog quit messing around over there.”

Then there was a quiet wet, rattling sound, almost like a choking, half-cough and then a swift, sickening crunch, like somebody twisting a cooked chicken leg.

Reyes froze; sweat now gliding across his cold, clammy skin. He noticed how stale the air was, how much this place was a place of death, of dead things.

Reyes hastily shouldered his gun, readied his aim, and crossed himself.

‘Jesus, she’s here, she’s right here, inside with us.’

A lone guy up against a supernatural chica capable of taking out an entire squads of men herself? Not gonna happen.

He should just run for it. Back up slowly, get outside and use his radio to call for support. Contain her in the crypt until–

He saw Michelson reappear out of the shadows, feet shuffling across the floor as he rounded the tomb, his gun pointed at the floor, his head cocked to one side like he was staring at the floor to his left.

Reyes felt relief flood his system, the adrenaline seemed to deflate him slightly as he relaxed.

He chuckled. “Hell man, you had me worried. Would’ve shot your ass off if you’d jerked me around any longer.”

Michelson turned to him, his head lolling sideways like a scarecrow’s. He gazed at him with cold, dead, unseeing eyes filmed with white. They seemed to be lit from behind by a faint bluish hue. It was almost mesmerising. Reyes hesitated for a moment before trying to raise his gun.

Michelson swiftly raised his other hand, the one holding the knife, and buried the blade in Reyes’ chest in one swift motion.

Reyes took a single, shocked step back and then was hit by that deflating feeling again. Not pain exactly, but the release of tension all through his body. His legs dropped out from under him as he fell to the ground, as if in slow motion. He fell limply onto his side as he saw as figure – something – round the corner of the slab.

His only clear thought was that he wished that it had been the Slayer standing there, and not some twisted mockery of life. Its hideous form seemed painful to the eye, a... the only word Reyes could think of was blasphemous, thing, looked as if it had been mashed together using various forest animals, and goat, and man.

The thing stepped forward. Even as Reyes’ lifeblood pooled across the dusty stone floor and he knew that he was dying, he shivered in fear as the things hoof-like foot splashed in his blood.

Reyes tilted his head slightly, feeling colder than he’d ever felt as he gazed up at the putrid blue orbs that looked down at him with alien curiosity. Then slowly, so very slowly, the demon reached down and seized his head with one warped talon.

Reyes trembled as he felt pain seize him, like a cold, black knife was raking at his insides. He choked as his last thoughts tumbled through his head. At least his life was ending; he wouldn’t get to see what horrible thing would happen next.

But he was wrong.

*****

Shading her eyes against the glare of the morning sun, Buffy watched from a distance as the medical examiners rolled away a stretcher with the remains of the victim underneath. From what she could see Buffy could tell that the homeless man had been somehow bound to the nearby climbing frame and then... whatever happened, had happened.

Buffy grimaced at the imagery that sprung to mind, but then hardened herself.

‘Skirt the cordon; find the things trail- because these things always leave a trail, and then reward it for its ‘inventiveness’ with a good being killed.’

Satisfied with her plan, and the prospect of violence that came with it, Buffy was startled as Riley approached her from the side. He was dressed in full Initiative gear and looked tired and worn down. And grim.

Buffy took a deep breath and turned to meet him. She wanted to try and makes things right, she needed his help...not just his help; she wanted to show her support. Things must be tough for him as well right now, Buffy wanted to show him that he could at least trust her. And that meant explaining the Spike thing. Great.

“Buffy,” Riley said coolly. He scratched at his hand as he turned his head, surveying the distant crime scene for himself.

“Hey,” she replied gently, trying to gauge his reaction. His expression was cold, hard. He didn’t look at her. She gave a hesitant smile. “Listen, about last night. I know I must’ve thrown you... with what I said, I could’ve phrased things better, and I’m sorry for that. And the Spike thing isn’t nearly as tweaked as it looked.” She paused and glanced at the ground, “Okay, maybe it is, but there’s an explanation that almost makes sense...”

She trailed off as she saw that her words weren’t having the desired reaction. Or any reaction beyond a clenched jaw.

Buffy raised her eyebrows. “Listen Riley, I’m trying to apologise here okay? Which is pretty big of me considering I was almost made death on toast by your boss. You wanna give me something besides, y’know, stony silence?”

Riley looked at her, eyes narrow with anger, his face now flushed. “Maggie’s dead,” he spat.

Buffy blinked in shock. Walsh was dead?

She tried to digest the news. “What happened? Who killed her?”

Riley looked disbelieving. “What do you think happened, Buffy? Faith killed her. Y’know, the girl you’re so concerned about. Stabbed her to death.”

Buffy shook her head at the news, stunned not just by what Riley was saying, but also his cold anger, the rigid certainty in the way he said it. She’d been positive that it was the Polgara, that’s what it had to be. “No. That’s...” she stammered, “You’re making a mistake. She wouldn’t do that. Faith...”

“What? Doesn’t kill?” Riley’s voice was harsher now, a tremor of contained fury running through it. “That’s a laugh. She’s a killer, Buffy, it’s what she does.” He paused as he took her measure, “It’s what you both do.”

Buffy felt like she’d been punched in the stomach; for a moment she couldn’t draw her breath or hold a thought. “How can you even say that to me? After everything...” She looked at him searchingly and he glanced away, seemingly regretting what he’d just said. “Forget it. I’m going to go, find the Polgara – ”

“The Polgara’s dead.” Riley’s voice was like granite – the tremor had gone. “We both know who did this, Buffy.”

“No, we don’t. You’re wrong. Whatever did this, it wasn’t Faith, and I’m going to go and find it, then I’ll kill it, as us killers are want to do.” She glared at him, “And you can go to hell for all I care.” She made her words as cold as she could to match his own and then stormed off, shaken.

She couldn’t believe Riley had spoken to her like that: like he didn’t care for her, like it was a choice between her or the Initiative. He had shrugged his shoulders and made a choice.

Buffy tried to clear her mind; she’d worry about him... all that later. She had to find Faith, and find whatever had done this.

To even think that Faith could have done that to some random... Buffy shuddered. They didn’t know Faith, not really. They’d just read a file, all of her mistakes gathered up on paper in one place; they hadn’t known her before, or since. They hadn’t seen her kindness, how tender she could...

Buffy shook her head. That wasn’t the Faith of this world, not yet. But Buffy had seen hurt and regret and guilt when they had last spoken, and those weren’t the feelings of a cold-blooded killer. She could reach Faith, talk to her again, maybe protect her and figure things out while the Initiative was out on the hunt.

So Faith had escaped, and Riley and the Initiative were now looking for her? Where would Faith go? Where would she hold up? Buffy was certain that she wouldn’t leave town, not yet, too much stuff left unfinished.

And all Buffy’s friends were holed up at Xander’s, safe from the Initiative and Faith. Which left where? Graveyards? Warehouses? Maybe Angel’s mansion?

Buffy sighed, that was as good a place to start as any, but she should make one stop along the way.

*****

Faith had gotten bored with going through Buffy’s things so now she went through Joyce’s.

“Ruby Sunset.” Faith wrinkled her nose and tossed in back, “Burgundy Skyline.” She smirked and shook her head, tossed in back in the drawer. “Harlot.” Faith smiled, “Hmn, way to go Joyce.”

She looked at Joyce reflected in the mirror, now fully awake and huddled up on the bed. She looked like she was concentrating on not trying to look scared. Doing a pretty good job too.

Faith had to admit, she did enjoy the fear, just a little bit.

“Y’know, normally I wouldn’t be going with a colour this dark, but I read in some magazine that seven months in a coma can damage a girl’s natural skin tone.” Faith uncapped the tube, twisted the bottom and slowly applying some of the colour luxuriantly over her lips. “Good thing pale is in this year.” She smiled at her reflection, as she capped the lipstick again. “Or was it last year?” Faith shrugged the thought off and smacked her lips together, leaning into the glass to plant a big glossy lip print on it. “Anyway, for real now; I wanna ask ya something, and you gotta promise to be honest and not spare my feelings just because I could kill you.” Faith paused to pull on her jacket; she noticed that Joyce eyed both the sheath knife at her waist and the dart gun on the dresser, “You promise?”

Joyce looked at her knees, composing herself. “I promise.”

“Okay,” Faith flicked her hair back from her jacket and adjusted herself. She turned around, lips pursed, knowing how good she looked, feeling even better. The day had been working out pretty great so far, but it was nice to have somebody to talk to again, even a hostage. “How do I look?”

Joyce stared at her for a long moment before deciding on a word. “Psychotic.”

Faith scratched the back of her head as she pouted. “Hmn, I was shooting for sultry, but hey.” She smiled a relaxed smile. Faith had always liked Joyce, and the woman wasn’t disappointing so far.

“Bet I know what you’re thinking.”

Joyce’s tone was derisive. “Really.”

“You’re thinking...” Faith closed her eyes and waved a hand like a mind reader, “‘You’ll never get a way with this!’” She smiled knowingly, “Warm?”

Joyce shook her head as her tone took on a pitying quality. “Actually I was wondering how you got so damaged and unhappy.”

Faith scoffed at that. “Me? I’m five-by-five here Joyce, having a blast actually. As for the damage... not so much anymore, even with Buffy trying t’kill me an’ all.”

Joyce‘s face fell and she looked at her clasped hands. “So I saw.”

Faith’s grin widened, she knew it. “Aw, so Buffy filled you in on the whole deal? Thought so, kinda takes the superhero shine off your little girl though doesn’t it? Tryin’ to feed me to her ex.”

Joyce looked up sharply. “You don’t know a thing about my daughter.”

“Oh, don’t I? See, while you having a little nap I’ve been checking this place out. Not much sign of B these days. Bet it feels real lonely poking ‘round this house all by your lonesome. But Buffy’s too into her own deal to remember dear old Mom.”

Joyce shook her head firmly. “You’re wrong.”

Faith stepped closer to the bed and leaned forward. “Really? Tell me Joycey; are y’surprised to see me up and about at all? I’ve been awake and walking around for a while now, and y’know, there being a crazy chick on the loose an’ all – a crazy chick with a wicked grudge against her no less – maybe B might’ve called on dear ol’ Mom to give you a head’s up.” She glanced pointedly at the phone, “Little late now though doncha think?”

Joyce raised her chin defiantly. “Maybe my daughter thought better of you than this, going after somebody who treated you decently.”

Faith gave Joyce a cold stare, her smile fading. “Her mistake. She’s the one who took everything from me, Joyce. She tried to finish it and failed. Now you’re just,” Faith thought about it for a moment then shrugged unhappily, “damage. Happens all the time, to people who don’t even deserve it. Way of the world.” Faith’s smile returned as she squashed down those other, more unpleasant feelings. Confusing feelings. “Besides, I don’t think Buffy thought better of me at all.”

Joyce let out a soft laugh and actually smiled sadly. “Oh, boy, do you have it wrong, young lady. For all your cynical talk Faith, you don’t know everything; you’re still just a child. So either slit my throat or listen up, you want truth well here’s some.”

Faith wrinkled her nose and smiled indulgently “Check the attitude on Mommy Dearest. You got a pair on ya Joyce. I like seeing that on a woman your age.” Faith took a step back, and folded her arms. “Sure, go ahead. Got plenty o’ time. We can get to all that other stuff later.”

A vague threat would remind Joyce not to try anything.

Joyce looked down at her hands, wringing them as she collected her thoughts. “Last summer, after all that horribleness that you put Buffy through, she was different somehow. She tried to hide it of course, but she was in pain.” She paused, gnawing on her bottom lip. “She was very unhappy.

“At first I actually thought that it was my fault. I was the one who persuaded Angel to end things, to give Buffy a better chance at a normal life.”

Faith raised her eyebrows in interest, this was new. “Did ya ever tell Buffy that?”

Joyce nodded. “Eventually. I could see how much she was hurting: she wasn’t sleeping, she would just wander around the house at night, end up on the couch instead of in her room. She ate very little; she was distracted all the time, like her mind was elsewhere and imaging goodness knows what. And she would always be going out places during the day, like she couldn’t stand to be around the house. She said that she was checking in with Giles or patrolling in the evenings but... she was lying, covering.”

Faith didn’t say anything; she was too busy listening to the soft trace of heartache she heard in Joyce’s voice, how she cared for her daughter. Faith guessed that was what a parent was supposed to sound like.

Joyce looked at Faith again, her gaze strong, unafraid. “I didn’t know what to do, she wouldn’t talk to me. She just waved away my concerns, saying that she was just tired from slaying. And then finally she caved and told me that it was because of Angel, that she missed him.”

Faith shrugged her shoulders. “Shine a light on that revelation. True love or whatever,” she muttered. That’s at least that was how Buffy had always seen it.

Joyce shook her head. “But she was still lying. I knew because that’s when I confessed to her, how I had told Angel to end things with her. And Buffy, she was... okay with it. She understood that Angel leaving was what she needed, what had to happen. But she was still hiding something.”

Faith frowned in confusion and despite everything she found herself asking. “What?”

“It was only when I ran into a friend at the store I found out. She said she’d seen Buffy visiting somebody at the hospital a lot lately, several days a week.” Joyce looked Faith squarely in the face, “So one afternoon, I went there and found her by your bedside.”

Faith glanced away from Joyce, casting her eyes about and not resting them for anywhere for more than a moment. She felt... like before at the mansion, like there was a tide of noise and feeling and sensation rushing around inside her. Like part of her was bottled up, prevented from escaping, apart from the occasional whispered question that she batted aside.

Faith sneered at Joyce. “So, B felt bad, huh? She told me the same sob story already. Just means that she coached you on it too.”

Joyce shook her head gently, sympathetically, which for some reason really pissed Faith off. She was the one in control, she had the power and now Joyce pitied her?

“You said it yourself Faith, Buffy didn’t think that you would come here after me. She never even told me that you were awake. She told me everything else though, what you did to her and what she did in return, and how the guilt of what she did was eating her up. How she wanted you to wake up so badly –”

“Bullshit!” Faith shouted, jabbing a finger at Joyce, “You’re just the same as her. You act all sorry when there’s no fucking way that you would care. She wouldn’t... not after I... Not after what happened.”

Faith felt her voice crack; she felt a rushing noise in her ears, a torrent of pressure pressing at her from all sides. Suddenly Faith found it difficult to catch her breath, like she wasn’t getting enough air.

Joyce had leaned forward on the bed, “Faith.” Her voice was soft. She didn’t look afraid anymore.

‘Big mistake, she should be afraid, she doesn’t know what I’m gonna do. I’m a killer...I could kill just like that...’

Instead Faith grabbed the dart gun from the dresser and pointed it at Joyce. “Just shut up!”

“There’s proof.” Joyce continued quietly, “Buffy doesn’t know I have them, she wanted to get rid of them, because of all the disappointment. But I kept them anyway, I thought it was a decent thing that she and Mr. Giles were doing.”

Faith shook her head in confusion. “What are you...?”

Hesitantly taking her eyes off the gun that Faith still had pointed at her, Joyce gestured with her hand. “The bottom drawer of the dresser, on the right.”

Faith glowered at Joyce as she half turned and knelt; using one hand to pull open the drawer and move some clothes out of the way she saw a small stack of papers. Letters.

Faith grabbed a handful and pulled them out, dumping them on top of the dresser as she stood up. She shot a quick look at Joyce but the older woman hadn’t moved from the bed. She looked oddly expectant and just gave a small nod of encouragement to Faith.

Tearing at the envelopes, still only with one hand, Faith scanned across the letter, a reply by some Institute of Neuroscience based in California, saying that judging by the scans that Buffy had sent there was little hope of any return to consciousness.

Part of the letter read ...‘it is evident from your correspondence that this woman means a great deal to you. All I can suggest is that you do not give up hope. Science makes great advances each and every day, and one day soon your friend, who in many other ways remains strong and healthy, will be able to make a full recovery under the right treatment...’

There was another letter, either unsent or returned without reply, written by Buffy: ‘...if you could please look at the medical information contained within. You will see that my friend is making lots of progress in terms of recovery; she is in every way a fighter. She is actually one of the strongest people I’ve ever met, and I care for her very much. I urge you to see the same strength here that I see and that you recommend any treatment that you think may work in this situation...’

Faith blinked uncomprehendingly at the letter, running the words over in her mind and trying to put them in any other way that would make sense.

‘Friend.’

‘I care for her very much.’

‘One of the strongest people I have ever met.’

Faith felt pressure build behind her eyes, saw the words on the letter blur. She blinked rapidly and dropped the letter to the floor.

This didn’t make any sense, after all the damage they’d done to each other why would Buffy even care?

Except she did care. Now Faith knew that everything Buffy had told her had been true; she had meant every word, even after everything that Faith had done.

Faith felt her gun hand waver; she’d almost forgotten that she was holding it. She pressed her palm against her eyes until the pressure eased a little.

And then Faith heard two things almost simultaneously.

She heard Joyce gasp softly in surprise and she heard the creak of floorboards out in the hallway. Faith raised her head and turned just in time to see the blurred form of Buffy punch her in the face.

*****

Buffy had entered through the back door, planning on surprising her mom and maybe easing her own sense of guilt.

But immediately, she’d sensed something was wrong in the house. The downstairs lights were off; there was an open but discarded can of soda on the side, dirty dishes tossed in the sink; an untouched coffee pot.

And then Buffy’d heard voices from upstairs.

Faith and her Mom. There was shouting, Faith’s voice.

Buffy’s heart had stopped for a moment, seemingly paralysed in her chest. She felt her face flush in anger. Faith had escaped the Initiative and come straight here, to her home, after her mother.

She’d killed Walsh. Riley had been right. He was many things but he wasn’t a liar, and maybe she’d even killed that homeless guy too.

A sick monster on a rampage.

Buffy had no articulate thoughts as she climbed the stairs; her mind was filled with an almost static-like buzz of fury that blocked out everything else. A last fleeting thought was that maybe Faith had come here to hide, to escape the Initiative and had gone to Buffy’s mom for refuge.

Then she saw through the open doorway that Faith pointing a gun at her mom.

And that was the last coherent thought she had for a while.

Buffy threw herself into the room. She met Faith’s surprised gaze with her fist, using her momentum to punch her as hard as she could. At the same time Buffy snapped her leg out and struck the gun from Faith’s hand, sending it tumbling across the carpet.

“Buffy!” Her Mom’s voice was loud as she cried out a warning but Buffy already had Faith on the back foot. She grabbed the dark haired girl’s jacket, pulled her forward and swinging her around towards the doorway.

Surprised, Faith didn’t put up much resistance as she was let go and flung out into the corridor.

Buffy snapped a look at her mom. “Call the cops. Now!”

Her Mom looked like she wanted to say something but Buffy was already moved out the door.

Press the advantage, don’t give Faith an inch.

Buffy knew from experience how dangerous the other slayer could be and she couldn’t afford to think about... to hesitate.

She swung another punch at Faith, but the other girl ducked, grabbed Buffy’s shoulder and slammed her against the far wall. Buffy retaliated by jabbing an elbow back to connect with the side of Faith’s head, she then pushed off the corner of the corridor with her foot and spun around to deck the other girl with a roundhouse.

But Buffy must’ve telegraphed because Faith was ready and blocked the leg with her own knee, following up by launching a powerful fist and Buffy’s face. Buffy blocked it barely, but countered faster, punching Faith hard in the stomach and then a sharp jab to her face. Faith’s head flew to the side as she stumbled slightly, giving Buffy the opening to slam a foot into her side and another punch against her lower back, gouging against the hard muscle there and the more tender nerves underneath. Faith grunted in pain, the first noise she’d made so far, and turned to lash out again. Buffy managed to duck the clumsy blow in the cramp confines of the corridor but moved directly into Faith’s actual attack, a knee to the face.

Buffy’s head snapped back as she found her footing again, but Faith was on her, slamming them both against a nearby door and then dragging Buffy, and herself, towards the top of the stairs.

As if enjoined in an inelegant dance, they both went over, tumbling head first down the staircase, hard wooden steps hammering at arms, shoulders and ribs. Buffy gritted her teeth against the pain, seeing Faith’s face twisted in a grimace as they both tumbled to the bottom in an ungainly heap.

Acting on instinct Buffy pushed herself away from the other girl and rolled to her feet: ignoring the tired feeling in her limbs, ignoring the pain, she assumed an aggressive combat stance, lashing out with a solid side kick that Faith easily deflected with a back sweep of her arm.

Faith – all smiles now, the bitch – backed off for a moment, smirking. She gave Buffy a mock wounded look. “I thought you weren’t gonna fight me, B?”

Buffy glowered at the other girl. “I’m not going to fight you, Faith. I’m going to beat you to death.”

Then Buffy saw a flicker of something on the other girl’s face. Fear? Sorrow maybe? Buffy stepped forward and slammed a fist into Faith’s jaw before the other girl could even react, she felt the satisfaction of Faith grunting in pain before returning a fist in kind, driving it into Buffy’s ribcage.

Buffy turned with the piledriver punch, pivoting and ramming an elbow into the centre of Faith’s back, then ducking under a backhand before coming up and landing two hard lightning punches across the other girl’s face. Faith knocked another fist to one side, grabbing Buffy by the throat and slamming her back against the wall. Buffy grimaced as her head bounced painfully off the surface.

Faith gritted her teeth, she seemed angrier more than playful now. “C’mon, B. You really didn’t think you could get rid of me that easily, by locking me up forever? I’m like a bad penny that way.”

Buffy squirmed against hard clasping fingers. “And what about Walsh?”

Faith shrugged even as she tightened her grip. “Had to get outta there somehow, playing her seemed my best bet. This is me we’re talkin’ about B; I’m just full of surprises. Whaddya think was gonna happen?”

Buffy braced herself against the wall and prepared to break the hold. “I should’ve finished the job while you were sleeping.”

With that she simultaneously kicked Faith hard in the gut and twisted against her arm. Locked it at the elbow and twirling and slamming Faith face-first into the wall. She followed up with another kick to her lower back even as Faith kicked back herself, sending her heavy boot crashing into Buffy’s stomach, winding her.

Faith spun and kicked out again, Buffy managed to block as she backed up. Faith followed aggressively; seemingly not as tired as Buffy was, she threw a couple of powerful punches that Buffy batted aside. Another strike, another elbow flew out of nowhere and caught Buffy in the side of the head. She staggered and barely managed to duck another aggressive cross.

Buffy manoeuvred around so she was between Faith and the stairs, she deflected a few blows that were obvious feints before getting surprised by a strong knee that cracked painfully against her ribs. Buffy felt something give a little. She’d feel that one later.

Buffy responded with her own flurry of punches, a cross then jab, then two body blows followed by a surprise hook that snapped Faith’s head up and back. Buffy gave a half cry of triumph as she hurt the other slayer.

Faith took a step back and licked the blood from her lip; she smiled that intimate, flirty smile of hers. “There’s my girl.”

That was the moment Buffy lost it: she launched herself against the dark-haired girl, taking her by surprise as the both crashed to the floor in the centre of the living room. Buffy was on top, straddling her, deaf except to the roaring sound in her ears as she rained blow after blow down on Faith.

“I will. Never. Be. Your girl. Ever!” she cried out, her voice cracking as she snarled. Buffy drove her fists into Faith’s face, smacking her face to one side and then the other, dazing the other girl with her fury. Buffy’s vision blurred with tears as she threw punches down on the girl she had loved, the girl that she could’ve loved if she...they had done things differently. But that was over now, gone. It was a cruel, tantalising dream of what could’ve been. “I loved you.” Buffy choked out, “I was going to save you.” Her hands grabbed Faith by the hair and slammed the dark haired girl bodily against the floor again and again. Faith barely managed to knock Buffy’s hands away as she struggled to right herself.

Buffy’s hand flared in pain as Faith managed to move her head to one side, and Buffy pounded the floor with her fist. But she just threw Faith back into place, hammering blows against Faith’s arm that she’d risen to block her face.

Before the other one came up and jabbed something deep into Buffy’s side. Buffy cried out as pain flashed through her, making her spine go rigid with white-hot agony. She slumped to the side as Faith shifted her hips and threw her off.

Buffy cried out again as Faith drove the metal tines of the taser against her stomach and squeezed the trigger. Buffy saw another flash of blue as she jerked from the pain, flopping in agony. Faith rolled away and got to her feet. Buffy tried to do the same, but only managed to get to her knees before she was kicked in the side so hard that she flew up in the air and landed with a soft thud against the couch.

Buffy looked up blearily, hands clutching her stomach, nerves jangling with random pulses of electric pain. She saw Faith standing over her; her face badly battered, taser in hand. Saw her smile grimly and spit blood onto the floor. “Almost had me B.” She chuckled wetly, “Now gotta turn your unstable ass over to Walsh. For your own good o’ course.” Faith paused to wipe her face with her sleeve jacket.

Buffy shook her head. “You killed Walsh...” She coughed weakly and tried to get her muscles to work right; they clenched and trembled weakly but otherwise wouldn’t cooperate. “You killed her... and you escaped.”

Faith paused and stared hard at Buffy. “What?”

“You’re a murderer...The Initiative is out looking for you, Faith... Riley is,” Buffy grimaced as a particularly painful tremor ran through her. “Riley knows what you did.”

Buffy blinked through the pain in time to see Faith drop the taser to the floor and take a step back, almost like she was in a daze. Or maybe all those blows to the head were catching up with her.

Buffy focused on Faith, on the confusion on her face. The dawning horror. “Faith?”

“I didn’t....” Faith glanced sharply at Buffy and then shook her head in a sort of confused desperation. “Screw this. I’m outta here.”

And then she was running to the door, opening it and disappearing out into the day.

Buffy watched the other slayer go in a kind of abstract manner, her emotions and all her inner turmoil subsumed beneath brief powerful flares of pain that wracked her body. But even they were giving way to a leaden tiredness that settled in her limbs, in her torso, in her head, a sort of deadening sensation.

The last thing Buffy remembered quietly murmuring before she passed out was, “This means I won right?”

Goodbye To What You Knew (PART 2: Confluence)

When Riley had decided to follow Buffy, he’d done so for conflicting reasons. His stronger feelings were a mixture of practicality, and a fear that his doubts about Buffy had foundation: maybe she really was on Faith’s side. After all they were both slayers, they had something in them, maybe something dark, that separated them from everybody else in the world. Riley couldn’t shake the voice, the nagging, incessant though that told him that that fact was important somehow, that the insurmountable bond between them couldn’t be broken, no matter what got in the way. And Buffy’s behaviour, her inability to see what Faith really was, was a perfect illustration of that.

How could Riley compete with that closeness, the allure of that darkness?

Riley shook his head, it was all so confusing, so unsettling, nothing was steady and straight anymore.

But there was another part of him had been feeling more than a just a little bit guilty about what he’d said to her. He wanted Buffy on his side in this; he wanted her to know that he wanted to believe that she wasn’t like Faith. Despite his darker suspicions, he knew he needed Buffy’s help to catch the other slayer, and he hoped by following and helping her, he could show willing.

Riley had expected Buffy to head straight to the outskirts of town, that maybe she knew of some place, a warehouse, building or cave where a wanted murderer like Faith would go to ground. He figured that in her capacity as ‘slayer’ Buffy might have contacts or an ‘in’ for finding the whereabouts of darker things.

Instead he followed her to suburbia. To her house.

Riley had stopped when he’d seen her head around the back of her place on Revello Drive. He waited for a few moments to see if she was just stopping by, but after a minute or so he realised that in his uniform he was far too conspicuous for any sort of daylight surveillance.

As quickly as he could, Riley ducked around the back of a vacant house and changed into civilian clothes, stowing his rifle in his backpack but keeping his sidearm handy just in case.

That done, Riley cautiously made his way back along the street. He was looking for a good vantage point when the front door of Buffy’s house burst open and Faith came sprinting out into the open, moving fast. She had been hiding at Buffy’s house, and Buffy had gone back to warn her.

Riley brought his radio up to his mouth as his other hand scrambled for his gun.

“This is Agent Finn to all units; I have a positive sighting of the target. Repeat I have a positive I.D of the target. Target is heading south on Revello Drive, and moving fast. Converge on my position and engage. I am in pursuit. Over.”

Stowing his radio, Riley took off after the dark haired girl, who had already put some distance between herself and his position. He saw her briefly stop at the corner of the street and hesitate before breaking off from the sidewalk and disappearing through someone’s backyard, then effortlessly hopping a six-foot high fence.

Riley moved as fast as he could. He’d done the cautious thing in calling for backup, but most of him felt eager to catch Faith and bring her down himself.

He would look her in the eye before he put a bullet in her brain.

He would do it for Walsh.

*****

Buffy groaned piteously as she was gently shaken awake.
“No... No, I don’t wanna go to the Poconos...” she murmured.

“Buffy? Buffy, are you alright?” Her mom’s concerned voice gently pried her fuzzy thoughts.

Buffy blinked groggily and opened her eyes. She frowned. “Mom, what are you doing in my dorm?”

But before her mom could respond, the sharp stab of pain coming from her body brought her memory back in stark relief.

Fighting with Faith.

Sneering, seductive, evil Faith. Faith who had come to her house to kill her mom.

Suddenly, Buffy sat upright on the couch. She felt terrible, aching, tired and wrung out.

One hand clutched at the tingling burning sensation that ran up her side even as she turned to her mom.

“Mom? Are you okay? Did she hurt you? God, I’m so sorry I allowed this to happen,” she said guiltily, eyes scanning her mom for signs of injury; bruises, cuts... gunshots. God, what had Faith done before she stopped her?

Joyce managed a smile through the concern on her own face. “Buffy I’m fine, really. You’re the one who... I heard you from upstairs; you sounded like you were in a lot of pain.” Buffy heard a tremor in her voice, “When I came down Faith was gone and you weren’t moving. I-I thought you were...”

Her voice faltered and Buffy saw that she was fighting back a few tears. She seemed overwhelmed.

Buffy gingerly pulled herself off the couch to gently clasp her mother’s hands, trying to comfort her. “Mom, I’m the slayer okay. That means I’m tough. Faith just got me with a...Well, I’m not sure what. It hurt... it was a hurting, poke-y thing that was...” Buffy scanned the floor where she dimly remembered Faith dropping something. “There.” She grabbed the chunky black device off the floor.

A hi-tech looking taser, like something the Initiative would use. Faith must’ve gotten hold of it while she was escaping the facility.

‘I guess I should be thankful she didn’t stick me with a knife.’

What had Faith said? Something about turning her over to Walsh? Why would she have said that if she had killed her?

Buffy pushed the confusing thoughts to one side. Faith lies – it’s what she does. It was that simple. Buffy couldn’t let herself get distracted or sloppy or hesitate ever again. She would just have to figure out the truth later when all this was dealt with.

Buffy put the taser to one side as she stood up, her mom rose with her. “Listen Mom, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about Faith. It’s just... she was locked up before... If I thought for a second that she would’ve come after you–”

Joyce shook her head and made a placating gesture with her hands. “I know that honey. Just slow down okay, you can barely stand.”

Buffy squeezed her eyes shut to stave off the weakness that vibrated through her body in steady waves. She had to focus; the taser thing had jangled her nerves, that was all. Once she got moving she’d be fine.

“Mom I need to go and stop Faith. She’s in pain and that might slow her down enough so I can maybe catch her.” Buffy paused and made her voice hard, “Before she hurts anybody else–”

Her mom’s soft voice cut through her harsh tone. “Don’t do that. Don’t act like this is nothing to you. I know how you feel about her – that you feel responsible for her because of what happened, but you need to take a breath –”

Buffy jolted slightly at her Mom’s tone, the tenderness and understanding in it. She didn’t want to hear this now: she couldn’t, it was too hard. “Mom, listen... Please.” Buffy heard the tremor in her own voice, the fault line that threatened to split her down the middle. “I-I can’t do this right now okay. I just can’t. I need to get going.”

Her mom put a gentle hand on her arm. “Buffy you need to understand, Faith is confused. She found out about the letters, the ones you sent when she was in a coma. I-I don’t think that she was going to hurt me when you got here.”

Buffy pressed her lips into a thin, determined line. “It doesn’t matter mom. She hurt other people before today, too many people. It’s... too late for me to reach her.” Picking up the taser, Buffy hurried to the front door, which was still wide open.

“Buffy please, you don’t even know where she’s going,” Joyce called out after her.

Buffy paused at the door and took one look back. “Wherever she goes, wherever she’s hiding, I’ll find her.”

*****

Faith knelt by the edge of the gurgling stream to splash water on her face. She cupped the cool water in her hands and sipped, swilling the liquid around her tender mouth.

After a few seconds, she spat, watching the red liquid arch into the stream. Ouch. Tenderly she probed her ragged feeling mouth with her tongue, pressing against sore, bloody gums to check for loose teeth.

Buffy had really done a number on her.

She squinted at her reflection in the water. The bright afternoon sun streamed through the trees overhead and offered a clear vision of the battered face staring up at her. She might actually get a nasty bruise or two, and she could already feel tightness over her cheekbone – that meant swelling later on.

Didn’t feel any real pain though, not yet. All that feeling was being blocked out by a weird swimming sensation in her head, pressing against her skull and wadding her ears. Faith felt a strange disconnect, a dreamlike dizziness as thoughts floated behind her eyes. It was like her head was stuffed full with cotton wool soaked in alcohol.

Walsh was dead. Buffy had said that she’d been killed.

By Faith.

Had she done it? Faith didn’t remember doing it and it had been years since she’d had any blackouts, any lost time when rage had overtaken her. Back before she was the slayer. Another life really.

Faith remembered doing plenty of other bad stuff though. The scenes played themselves over and over on loop, vivid and crystal clear in their brutality.

Stabbing Finch. The sensation as the stake easily punching into warm, wet flesh. The satisfaction and then the creeping horror of it. Then later, scrubbing the blood from her hands, and from her shirt after she’d dumped the body. The pink water in the sink of her dingy motel room. And that look of shock and disgust on Buffy’s face, then as before.

‘Faith, you don’t get it. You killed a man.’

‘No, you don’t get it. I don’t care.’

Jesus...

Other images came to her even as she tried to push them away, to stem the tide. They streamed like a flick-book. Her hacking a hand off at the wrist, the hand of a man she’d just killed, casual as anything. Plunging her knife over and over again into Worth’s writhing body. The sounds that he had made: the strangled cries and pleas. She even remembered the sound the knife had made as it stuck in his fleshy body and the feeling of the rigid tension in her arm as she pulled the blade out...

Faith pressed her wet hands against her face, trying to concentrate on the aching tightness of her skin, the hot flush of pain as she pushed her palms against the sore spots on her face, anything to drive the parade of images from her thoughts.

She thought of striking Buffy hard across the face as she stood in chains; of her hands tightening around Xander’s throat and the look in his eye as he realised what she was going to do; the gleam of her knife’s edge against Willow’s soft, pale throat. The flash of fear in the redhead’s eyes.

Faith got up quickly from her crouch and leapt the stream, deciding to keep moving. Just run, run like she should’ve done when she was at the docks. Or like when she woken up from her coma.

Now she would just head for the stack of boulders where she had stashed her stuff and then get the hell out of town... All while being hunted by government black-ops types with state of the art tech.

Faith had a sinking feeling that she wouldn’t get very far.

Maybe she didn’t deserve to.

With a snarl at that thought, Faith turned and slammed her fist into a nearby tree, her knuckles gouging a thick furrow in the bark. Then, a second time and then again, slamming blows into the wood, large chunks of tree sloughing off as she tore into it.

‘Sonofa...’ Faith stopped as pain flared in her fingers. She panted and slowly leaned her forehead against the damaged trunk. She felt her memories submerge beneath the adrenaline; she tried to steady her breathing, clear her mind.

‘Keep it together. Just gotta think. Gotta figure a way to get these guys off my back. I-I didn’t do this...I–’

“Freeze!” she heard a voice call from behind her, along with a rustle of movement.

She turned to see two Initiative goons pointing assault rifles in her direction, rushing towards her as they got into position. One snapped a quick look at his buddy. “Just shoot her!”

They were trying to catch her in crossfire, but hadn’t gotten to the right spot yet. They obviously didn’t know how fast she was.

Without any hesitation, Faith ducked behind the tree for a moment of cover, coming out on the left side of both of them. She dived forward, hit the ground with her shoulder and rolled further to the left, closing the distance between herself and one of the commandos even as she put him in the direct line of fire of the other.

The guy was six feet away on her right when she came up from her roll and his eyes widened in surprise as he tried to bring himself up short, steady his stance and adjust his aim all at once. Faith didn’t stop moving, ignoring the tired soreness in her back and chest as she slid low, going under his aim, and brought both her arms up to knock the weapon aside.

Even as her forearm caught the underside of the stock, the gun went off, a short staccato burst of gunfire echoed through the air. Faith’s arm gripped the underside of the gun and then tore it from the man’s grip with one hand, tossing it to one side.

“Shoot her! Shoot the bitch!” he managed to cry out before Faith struck him in the throat with a quick punch. Then, she caught him solidly in the chest with her elbow before ducking under his grasping arm and using him as cover.

She saw the other soldier take aim at her before hesitating. Faith grabbed her choking human shield under the armpits, kicking his legs out from under him before tossing him through the air.

He slammed into his comrade and they both tumbled to the ground. Faith was on them before they could untangle themselves, pulling the other rifle from the soldier’s unsteady hands before reversing it and smashing it back across his face.

She flipped the unconscious soldier over, even as, wheezing and coughing, the other man tried to scramble away from her.

She wasn’t in the mood. She stamped hard on his ankle and ground her heel down against the small bones there until she felt something give.

The man screamed and flopped about as Faith finished securing his friend before turning her attention to him. She grabbed him by his padded vest and hauled him up onto his knees, looking him in the eye.

Faith smiled evilly down at him. “Y’know, as a professional demon fighter, I have to say that you really blow at the whole ‘monster-hunter’ thing. I mean, if I was some sort of evil ‘HST’ or whatever, you’d be dead, possibly eaten. So this, this is you’re lucky day. Because I’m gonna give you another chance to try and impress me, by telling me everything that I need to know.” Faith reached down and grabbed the knife from the ankle sheath of the other soldier. “Now if you answer all my questions, then I won’t get bored and kill you. That’s how you’ll know that you’re impressing me, got it? And if you start lying, I’ll know, because the eyes are the windows to the big soft pink squishy thing where I’ll stick my knife if you do.” She brought the blade up and pressed it firmly against the side of his face. She made her smile friendlier, almost reasonable. “Now, are we communicating?”

The soldier swallowed visibly, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he nodded hesitantly.

Faith returned the nod to reassure him. “Good. Now, tell me everything you know about what happened to Walsh.”

*****

The crackle of the walkie-talkie echoed in the dusty air of the tomb. “Unit Sixteen, Unit Seventeen report in, over. Unit Sixteen, what’s your status?”

The dead man raised the radio to his lips and rasped, “This is Unit Sixteen over. We need as many units as you can spare over in sector B-11. We’ve gotten many reported sightings, over.”

The tiny voice hesitated only a moment before replying. “Roger that Sixteen. We’ve got two more units in the area, should be almost on top of you, over.”

The dead man was adamant. “Two isn’t gonna cut it, Base Camp. We’re spread too thin. We’re gonna need another...” The dead man turned momentarily to the humanoid shape in the shadows at the back of the tomb before continuing, “four units over. We should have this area locked up tight after that. Over.”

“You better be sure about this Sixteen. Sending them now, over and out.”

The radio was silent. The dead man who that held the radio in his hand and his fellow dead comrade both turned silently to the demon. The demon fixed them both with the cold blaze of its gaze.

They waited in silence as it filled their heads with its thoughts, its will. They would wait until the four units arrived, eight men to be lured and then separated. After they became an extension of Kurenos, all the soldiers would move to another, more secure location, one of the older, larger cemeteries where they would then establish a base. Where they would wait until night.

Where they would build an army.

*****

Faith listened as the soldier finished his version of events. Walsh had been found dead early that morning, around about the time Faith had entered Buffy’s house.

It wasn’t exactly an alibi, but Faith was positive that she hadn’t killed Walsh, or the homeless guy that had been found gutted like a trout and strung up. That meant something else was out there, something that had escaped from the Initiative, and Faith would bet anything that somebody at the Initiative knew exactly what was going around staking people, because it wasn’t her.

She looked down at him thoughtfully. “I guess I should let you go, huh?”

The soldier’s face was slack with fear but he was too proud to say anything. She supposed that was worth something.

“If I was the rampaging psycho you all thought then this would hurt a hell of a lot more.” With that she slammed her elbow against the side of his skull. He shuddered in her grip and went limp.

That was when a single gunshot cut through the air. Faith heard the sharp crack and saw a puff of debris to her left as a tree trunk shattered on impact. Without thinking, Faith picked up the limp body of the soldier as she pushed herself up and pivoted, bringing herself around to see who had taken the shot.

To her momentary surprise, she saw what looked like a college senior, some good-looking and clean-cut guy, in a soldier’s stance pointing a large handgun directly at her. He was standing about twenty feet way, a large backpack at his feet. His face hardened with frustrated anger as he readjusted his aim. He seemed pretty surprised that he’d missed her with his first shot.

Faith held up the limp soldier as a barrier between herself and the other guy, and half-leaning back against a nearby tree, she peeked around the side. She tried to buy a little time to think. “So, you tryin’ ta shoot me or him?” The guy looked sort of familiar but she couldn’t place him.

The man seemed to twitch slightly as he shifted his stance, tried to edge closer. “Let him go.”

Faith, busily looking around for an escape route, almost rolled her eyes. “Uh-huh. Why’s that? To make your job easier?”

The guy paused for a long time as he thought about it. “You let him go and I won’t shoot you.”

‘Real convincing.’ Faith pretended to think about it whilst judging the distance between her position and a dense thicket of brush to her far left. It should be offer enough cover to get away. “You promise?” she asked in a teasing voice.

The man, who Faith now remembered as the Initiative guy who she’d seen briefly during her escape attempt, took another step closer and gestured at her with his gun. “Just let him go Faith. Haven’t you hurt enough people already?”

Something about this guy and his estimation of her intelligence really pissed her off. “Aw, c’mon, just one more.”

Then there was the loud bang of the handgun as he opened fire again. A small puff of dust appeared on the ground three feet in front of her, and then another one foot or so to her left as a third bullet tore into the soil.

‘Screw this; if I don’t move he’s just gonna blow both of us away.’

Taking a deep breath Faith tossed the unconscious soldier to her right as she prepared to feign and break left.

Then she heard Buffy’s voice cry out. “Riley?”

The man turned so he could see Buffy, the blonde girl ran into the clear patch of ground behind him. Buffy stopped dead as she took in the scene. Tense and ready, her gaze flickered between Riley and Faith, and then to the two bodies on the ground. Faith saw Buffy’s eyes harden as she scanned the two downed men and then looked sharply up at Faith.

‘She probably reckons I killed these guys too.’

Instead of thinking, Faith broke off to her left and ran for all she was worth, straight into the brush. She tucked her head down as she heard the sound of gunfire from behind her but nothing came close to hitting.

Faith leapt over a fallen log and followed the natural downward slope of woods as she tried to get her bearings.

She knew where she had to go.

She had to try and make this right.

*****

As Faith disappeared into the brush, Riley sent three bullets racing in her direction. All of them missed, kicking up small explosions of dirt in Faith’s wake. She had been too quick and Riley’s reflexes were too slow.

Buffy took two steps towards the tree line intending to follow Faith when Riley swung round and aimed the pistol at her. Buffy froze in her tracks and wondered how her morning could get any worse.

Buffy had been wandering fairly aimlessly around the woods hunting for Faith when she’d been drawn by the sound of gunfire echoing through the trees. She came running only to find Riley and Faith in a standoff with two possibly dead commandos on the ground.

Not a pretty scene.

And things weren’t getting much better at the moment.

Riley blinked sweat out of his eyes as he continued to steadily level the gun at Buffy’s face. “Y-You. She got away because of you.”

His face was twisted in a damp scowl, muscles in his neck tensing and untensing as he ground his teeth together in frustrated anger.

Buffy had never seen him like this. Riley looked sick, feverish and twitching. Also he had just accused her of aiding in Faith’s escape, which was all kinds of crazy talk.

She willed herself to stay still, even as part of her screamed to give chase after Faith, to run her down and stop her doing any more damage to Buffy’s friends, her family, hell – her life.

“Riley, I was chasing her too. She was at my home.”

Riley eyed her suspiciously. “I know. I saw her leave. Then I managed to track her here. To this.” He gestured his head to the two Initiative soldiers lying unmoving on the ground. “I suppose you’re gonna say that she didn’t do this either.”

Buffy shook her head slowly, sadly, keeping her eyes locked on Riley’s flinty gaze. Something was seriously wrong here. “No, Riley. I’m with you now, okay. She went after my mom, that’s why she was at my house. She’s dangerous Riley. We should be working together on this.” She kept her voice soft and reasonable as she could.

His lips curled into a cold, cynical smile. Very un-Riley-like. “Uh-huh. Is that right? And why should I trust you? You vouched for her, remember? Vouched for Hostile 17 as well. Working with demons and murderers and making the rules up as you go along because they don’t apply to you. Why? Because you have special powers? Is that why you defended her?” He shook his head in disagreement, eyes twitching. “I’ve got the gun, which means I get to hear the truth Buffy. Now.”

Buffy regarded Riley with worry. “You know the truth Riley, Walsh tried to kill me. Maybe she tried to kill Faith too, only Faith fought back, I don’t know. I don’t have all the answers, but right now I’m more worried about what’s happening to you.”

Riley took a solid step forward and jabbed at Buffy with the gun. “Don’t turn this around on me. Don’t...” Riley let out a shaky breath and seemed to realise what he was doing. Maybe he saw a flicker of something on Buffy’s face because suddenly a look of dawning disbelief crossed his face; he looked at his handgun as if seeing it for the first time. Unsteadily he lowered it. His other hand went to his face and wiping at his eyes. “What the hell am I…?”

Buffy slowly approached him, her eyes still wary but softening with concern. “Riley, you don’t look too good. Please, let me help you.”

He ran one trembling hand through his hair, his gun hand was pointing at the ground. “I-I have to go...go and find Faith. Stop her from...”

Buffy shushed him gently. “Riley, stop. I can find her, okay. You’re not well; you need some rest...or something. When was the last time you slept?”

Riley’s feverish gaze flickered to Buffy’s face and then around at his surroundings. “No... Just stay away. You need to stay away from me. This all started... because of you.” He took a couple of staggering steps back, “Just... please.” His voice was trembling, “What’s happening to me?”

Much as Buffy loathed breaking off any pursuit of Faith, Riley seemed dangerously sick. Buffy wondered how long he’d been like this before the symptoms or whatever was happening now had shown themselves? Possibly days.

Buffy took another step and was at Riley’s side. She gently put her hands on his arms. “Riley, please. We need to get you someplace safe.”

Riley didn’t resist as Buffy guided him out of the clearing. She had to get him someplace safe, someplace where he could rest. She could figure out the rest of this mess later.

*****

As she pored through yet another demonic codex, Willow wondered if there wasn’t a more efficient way of doing this. Maybe something magical, a demonic locator spell might do it, but she’d need to involve Tara for the spell to be effective.

Willow was wary of involving Tara in any of this: the Initiative, Faith, or this new mysterious wizard person that Giles was now researching. It all seemed very scary and intense, like it was building towards something.

Willow glanced over towards the kitchen counter where the older man sat reading through watchers diaries intently.

Willow closed her book and pushed it onto the growing pile on the coffee table. “So, any joy? And by joy I of course mean information.”

Giles looked up from his survey. “Hmn? Oh, some success. It is nice to be flexing my somewhat rusty Watcher instincts. It seems I might have a name for our mystery woman. No clue as to what has motivated her to come to Sunnydale.”

Willow picked up her mug of tea and walked over. “Hellmouth-y hi-jinks are probably a safe bet, right.”

She thought back to Tara’s tarot cards a few nights ago and the mystical convergence of events that she described. Maybe this mystery woman was the one doing the manipulating. If that were the case if would probably be a good thing to mention it soon.

She could say that Tara was a witch friend... which was exactly what she was, so where was the harm?

Willow sighed; after this whole Faith/Initiative thing had been sorted then she’d maybe introduce Tara to Buffy, see how that went.

Maybe she should buy Buffy a cupcake first, as an apology for getting Riley involved with the whole Faith sitch. But really, hadn’t it been for the best? This meant was Faith is safely behind... bars? Bars, instead of being out possibly hurting people.

Plus Buffy even gets the gift of a cupcake from Willow.

“Ah, here we are. A confirmation, a sighting in Los Angeles, 1932.” Giles nodded in satisfaction as he tapped a particular page in the book, “Morley. Catherine Morley. She was quite the Watcher in her day. A lot of the senior boys used to mention the ghost of Morley. It was a pun on Marley from Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’.”

Willow wondered at that. “Why is it a pun exactly?”

Giles closed the book, his expression becoming more pensive. “Because in the story the ghost of Marley was a warning to Scrooge. An indicator that one must change their ways or be doomed to damnation.”

“Oh,” Willow struggled not to shiver at his description. “You see, that’s why, in general, I prefer the Muppets version.”

“So, she was here for the earthquake.” Giles murmured, “And now she’s returned for some other purpose. We did have an earthquake a little while back...” He trailed off in thought.

Willow frowned hard. “And that purpose involves... Faith!”

Willow’s eyes widened as Giles’ front door opened and Faith strode in, even though she was supposed to be in super-government jail, all tied-up and stuff.

The slayer stopped a few feet inside the doorway even as Giles lurched to his feet and belatedly tried to push Willow behind him. “God! Ah, Faith... I-I.”

Faith held out a hand. “Don’t. Move. Neither of you.”

Giles half sat back down on his stool in response, even as he glanced towards the other exits, or the windows.

Willow could immediately see that Faith had been in some sort of fight. Somebody had left a couple of dark smudges of bruises on her face. Her lip had been busted but was now healing, and her cheekbone looked a little too red and shiny.

‘Maybe she was beaten up by Initiative soldiers. And now she’s escaped and come for revenge because she knows that I ratted her out.’

Willow almost cringed at the thought, except how did she know to come here for her? Maybe she was after Giles? Or Buffy? Or maybe Buffy was the one who messed her up so bad? But if that were the case then where was Buffy now?

Pushing away all the questions, Willow screwed her courage – after all she faced down Faith once before already – and stepped out from behind Giles.

She fixed Faith with her best cold stare. “Y-You made a big mistake coming, Faith. For now I am prepared for you. While you slept all those long months I studied the dark arts of witchcraft, and so am unafraid of your pitiful strength. Come no closer or I will smite you.”

Faith looked slightly puzzled, even a little wary, before her mouth slowly curled into a cold smile. “I don’t see no book bag around Sabrina, so what’re ya gonna smite me with.”

Willow held her hands as if to cast a spell. “A... An element. In fact all the elements are mine to command. So just watch it.” That last part fell a little flat in Willow’s ears.

Faith tilted her head as she looked Willow over. Willow tried to stop the cold liquid fear in her stomach spreading to her limbs. Now would not be a good time for trembley, shakey Willow to make herself known.

“If you’re so powerful Red, how come Giles is itching to run towards the chest there – which, I’m guessin’ here, is loaded with weapons?” Faith shook her head dismissively and took a large, challenging step forward.

With that and a small shake of dismissal the dark-haired girl turned her attention to Giles, her voice seemed casual. “I didn’t kill Walsh, didn’t kill any homeless dude either. Something else is doin’ it.”

Giles blinked and did his best not to look baffled. He did pretty well. “I-I know that, it was the Polgara.”

“Yeah, well if it was that simple how come all the commando boys think it’s me that did it? Either this demon is some kind of ninja at framing people or somebody somewhere is hidin’ something big.”

Willow was about to dismiss Faith’s words as more lies but that last part rang true with some of what they all knew already. 314? That was a big, secret something. Maybe another bit of cryptic to add to the convergence.

Giles was processing this as well but looked hard at Faith. “I see. I have to wonder why you’re telling me this and not Buffy.”

Willow saw a flicker of something on Faith’s face. Guilt maybe. But then it was gone and Faith just smirked dryly. “B and me already had a throw-down this mornin’ so I doubt she’s in the mood to listen.” She saw the look on both their faces and chuckled, “Cool your jets G. Your golden girl’s fine, little sore maybe, but she didn’t get the worst of it.”

“Good.” Willow spat on instinct; she wanted Faith to know what she thought of her.

Faith shrugged casually. “If you wanna say something useful then tell B that if she wants real answers, and a rematch with me, then she can find ‘em in the Initiative, ‘cause that’s where I’ll be."

And with that Faith turned and left, closing the front door behind her and leaving a vacuum of questions in her wake. Willow blinked and glanced sidelong at Giles. That could’ve gone much, much worse.

Giles sighed in resignation. “Deadbolts. I need to install deadbolts.”

*****

Kurenos watched impassively as the corpse-men dragged their former fellows into the tomb, leaving red smears on the dusty ground as they brought them closer. They laid them before him like a gift, a supplication.

Kurenos’ gaze caught the last vestiges of life flickering within them, the hot warm spark of vitality, as it spluttered to escape their cooling flesh.

He slowly reached with his talons and clawed at the bodies; he felt their life flow enter him, make him stronger and more connected to the world. In return he gave them animation, a cold flicker of his blue flame that made them twitch and jolt. He became aware of the stiffness of their joints, the heaviness of their limbs, and all of what they saw, heard and felt.

He watched them all stand and was pleased.

For now they numbered eight.

*****

Wiping the damp away from Riley’s forehead, Buffy finally got him to lie back and settle under the blanket. He was still shivering violently and clutching himself tightly, but at least she’d gotten him to stop scratching until his skin was red raw.

She stroked his hair and shushed him gently, feeling his temperature as she did so. He was burning up.

The fever wasn’t just affecting his body but his thoughts too. Riley had been ranting, unsure of anything and almost in despair that everything he knew was seemingly unravelling. Buffy felt that familiar feeling of helplessness overtaking her again: somebody she cared about in pain, unreachable, and all she could offer were hollow words and empty promises.

She needed to do something now, something solid and tangible.

Trying to marshal her resolve, Buffy stood up and parted the curtain that hung across the centre of Xander’s basement. She saw him talking with Willow, who must’ve arrived back while Buffy was tending to Riley.

Buffy looked expectantly at Giles as he made his way over. “Did you find anything?”

“A great deal as a matter of fact, but nothing that can’t wait for the moment. Willow and I had a visit from Faith not too long ago. All rather disconcerting.”

That stunned Buffy. “Faith? Faith was at your house?” Giles nodded and Buffy felt her jaw clench in response, “Well, she certainly is doing the rounds today.”

Giles reassured her. “She was, ah, little the worse for wear and, more importantly, she hadn’t come to fight. She claimed that she was innocent of Professor Walsh’s murder. She also wanted me to pass on a message to you.”

Buffy blinked at that. This didn’t sound like Faith at all, going to Giles and leaving messages was weirdly out of character. Faith liked direct confrontation; it’s how she got her jollies. “What was the message?”

“She, ah, claimed that the real answer lay within the Initiative facility and that if you wanted to know the truth you should look there, because that will be where she’ll be.”

Faith was going back to the Initiative? Why? And why was Buffy trying to figure out the actions and motives of a crazy person.

Buffy looked pointedly at her former Watcher. “Uh, Giles, did you kindly explain to her that I probably won’t be welcome at the Initiative, given that Walsh tried to have me killed not so long ago?”

Giles smiled slightly as he adjusted his glasses. “Unfortunately she didn’t linger long enough for me to respond with any of that.” He shook his head slightly in thought, “I must say it seems rather a lot like a trap to me.”

Buffy worried her bottom lip in thought and then made a decision. “It doesn’t matter, I’m going in anyway.” She saw he was going to object and pressed on, “It’s Riley, he’s sick. And not grief sick, junkie sick. And it’s getting worse.”

Giles followed her reasoning. “You think Professor Walsh did something to him?”

Buffy nodded as she saw Willow, Anya and Xander moved over to join the discussion. Willow still seemed a little wide-eyed. “Did Giles tell you about the showdown?”

Buffy simply nodded. “I’m glad you’re alright.” She turned her attention back to Giles, “If Walsh or the Initiative did something to Riley, I want to know what it is.”

Xander bobbed his head in agreement but said. “That might be tough what with Maggie’s deadness and all.”

Buffy had been thinking about that. “She must’ve kept records somewhere. About Riley, about 314, about all of it. And I doubt she was the only person at the Initiative who knew what she was up to.”

“So what’s the plan?” Xander asked.

Buffy had a made her decision. “Giles, the rest of you, keep researching. I’m going back into the Initiative.”

Willow looked in alarm at Giles. “Did you tell her that’s where Faith was going to be?”

Buffy looked steadily at her friend. “I can handle Faith.”

Xander protested. “Not alone, you need somebody there to watch your back.”

Buffy turned away and picked up her jacket from the couch. “I think enough people I care about have been put in danger today. There’s a quota and it’s been reached.”

Xander stepped up next to her, ever persistent. “Listen, you need somebody to back you up, right? And... Uh, you know I’ve got all that military experience.”

Buffy frowned at her friend, it was sweet of him to offer but could she really risk him getting hurt? Even if she wasn’t feeling in top shape right about now...

”Maybe. Do you still have some of your commando gear?”

“It’s not like you were in the ‘Nam”, Anya called out as she saw Buffy considering his offer, “you were G.I Joe for one night.”

“Aan!” Xander snapped at her, irritated.

Anya walked over to him, clearly upset. “It’s just with Faith there and these Initiative guys also being there, those are two separate groups who want to kill you.” She reached out and stroked his arms fondly, “Can’t you help in some other way, like Xerox handouts or something?”

His face softened with a smile and he cupped her shoulders. “I’ll be careful. Promise.” He walked off to get changed.

Giles and Willow exchanged glances before Giles spoke up again and Willow turned back to the table piled high with books. “It might be a minor point by how do you propose getting inside the Initiative. Surely their security system is next to impenetrable.”

“I have my clearance. I’m hoping that between my death and her death, Maggie didn’t have a chance to revoke it.”

Giles awkwardly patted the book his was holding. “As for whether it was the Polgara that killed Walsh, I’m afraid the signs aren’t hopeful. Polgaras are not the most subtle of demons, yet there’s been no sighting of it since its original capture.”

Buffy looked solemnly at him. “So, most likely that it is Faith that’s doing the killing.”

Giles face softened in compassion. “Buffy–”

Buffy held up her hand to cut him off. “It’s okay Giles, you gave me fair warning and you were right. Maybe after this is all over you can contact those Council friends of yours once we get a hold of Faith.”

Giles seemed troubled at that suggestion. “Well, I’m sure we can find another way.”

Buffy let her sad gaze drift into sad contemplation. “Yeah? Let me know what you come up with.”

*****

As Faith wrestled with the cover of the ventilation pipe, she took a small measure of comfort that her mind had stopped tormenting her with guilty thoughts. Probably because it was busily screaming at her, asking her what the hell she thought she was doing.

This wasn’t like her, she knew that. Faith should just cut her losses and run. Leave Sunnydale, leave Buffy, leave all the crap that had mounted up here like a monument to her failure, and just disappear. That’s what she had been going to do, so what the hell had changed?

The only thing Faith could come up with was her stupid pride. She would’ve been happy... or at least content, to run out of town having handed Buffy over to the secret, bad-news organisation. But this, running after being framed, after being beaten up by a teary Buffy ranting about...

‘I loved you. I was going to save you.’

...Stuff, Faith just couldn’t do it, or didn’t want to do it.

She was stubborn that way. So she would do something useful, try to help or uncover whatever Walsh had been trying to hide, find out what her goals had been.

And then Faith would run.

Faith paused and pulled out the much-creased map from her back pocket. It showed a network of conduits that she’d used to escape the first time, avoiding larger vents with their motion sensors, and sticking to the ones she could squeeze through.

That would lead her back to the research area, which is where she wanted to be. Anything that hadn’t been on the tour, the places where they kept the demons, the creepy hi-tech lab places, all that shit, that’s where she needed to poke around.

Faith had mixed feelings about whether Buffy would decide to show. She really didn’t want to see her again, but she wanted to show her that she hadn’t done anything wrong. Not this time. It was Buffy who was in the wrong, setting her up and locking her away or whatever she’d decided to do.

Of course it had dawned on Faith since the encounter in the woods that maybe Buffy’s boyfriend, Riley, had done something without Buffy knowing about it. Maybe Buffy had told him all about her and he hadn’t liked any of it.

Hell, the guy didn’t exactly seem stable, gunning away at her like that. Maybe he’d been like that before, in the mansion? Maybe he’d followed Buffy when she was trying to make nice and had shot her down…

Whatever.

Coulda, woulda, shoulda. No use crying about it now.

Get in, find the answers, and possibly the cast iron proof that she hadn’t killed Walsh, then get out and get gone.

With one last look at the map Faith entered the Initiative.

*****

Xander straightened out his uniform for possibly the fifth or sixth time as he walked through Lowell house. It still fit him pretty well; maybe he actually could pass for one of these Initiative soldier boys. With minimal sucking in of his gut and everything.

He glanced around nervously and murmured to Buffy. “Things seem quiet.” Part of his mind insisted on framing it as ‘eerily deserted.’

Buffy was wearing glasses and had her hair done up like every unrealistically gorgeous female scientist in every sci-fi movie Xander had ever seen. She even had a lab coat folded under one arm so she could complete the look when needed.

Finishing another scan of the room as they walked, she glanced at Xander, seemingly confident. “Usually is this time of–”

She flinched as a burly frat boy/commando came out of nowhere and brushed right past them. Mercifully, they went unnoticed; the guy was in a hurry to elsewhere.

Xander followed as Buffy cautiously headed down a side corridor, peeking about a bit before she stopped to fiddle with a light switch and stand in front of the mirror.

Xander glanced warily about before stepping next to Buffy. “Maybe you should check the look later.”

Buffy wore her annoyed face and she none-too-gently pushed him back against the wall.

“Ow.” Where had that come from? “What did you do that for?” He tried not to sound too aggrieved.

Buffy cast an apologetic glace towards him before facing the mirror again. “Sorry. I’m the only one who can pass the retinal scan.”

Did she just say..? “The... Ew! I don’t wanna see that!”

Buffy gave him one of her patented ‘patient’ looks. “Retinal scan, Xander.” She took a deep breath and turned back to the mirror.

Xander saw a thin shimmer of green light at the top of the mirror move steadily downwards.

Buffy tensed. “Well, we’ll know in a few seconds if my clearance is still good.” The green light swept over her.

Xander felt himself tense up as well. “Or if we’re about to die at the hands of fifty grief-filled military goons...”

Buffy gave a half-smile his way. “You wanted to come along.”

Xander heard a computerised voice mention something about a verified scan and then the mirror slid to one side and a door opened into a small, white, brightly lit room. Very sci-fi. Very cool.

Buffy stepped inside and Xander followed. “And to think, the last time I infiltrated a frat house the most interesting thing that happened is that I got dressed up like...” He trailed off as he remembered he would never share that story with anyone, ever. Man, his mouth ran on when he was nervous.

He coughed as the door closed. “So, what happens now, do we get teleported someplace or–”

“It’s just an elevator Xander.” Buffy replied patiently.

At least she sounded less nervous; in theory the hard part was now done. Unless they got down there and the security staff went all pod people on them, pointing and screaming.

Yeesh.

After the briefly weird sensation of moving without seeing any other point of reference move, they came to a stop. Xander felt himself go rigid as the doors slid open and he saw...

A secret base.

An actual underground hidden lair of utter awesomeness. In tandem he and Buffy both stepped out of the elevator onto a raised walkway.

Xander saw stairs leading down to the ground level, soldiers and scientists walking about, some sort of sunken level that looked like it was lined with tin foil, plus a couple of those little vehicles that he only associated either with airports and Bond villain bases. “Holy moly.”

Buffy sighed. “I know.”

Xander shook his head in wonderment, almost picturing the lake of piranhas and weather dominator in the next room. “I totally get it now. Can I have sex with Riley too?”

Buffy just grabbed him impatiently by the arm and pulled him over to the stairwell. They made their way down the steps as Xander, fighting all geek-giddiness inside of him, tried to look like just another goon, or possibly a flunky.

He adjusted the fake gun at his hip even as he rounded the top of the stairs and tensed up when saw two other goons...soldiers, deep in conversation and walking up the stairs towards them.

Thinking quickly he turned and grabbed Buffy hissing. “Quick. Pretend to make out with me.” Man, he’d had dreams like this...

Buffy pushed a hand at his chest and shoved him away in alarm. “What? What are you talking about?”

Xander scratched the back of his neck as he pretended to be absorbed by...something. “Well I...ah. You know, uh, in the movies the guy and the girl have to h-hide.”

Buffy looked down at her prop clipboard and eyed him warily. “Please. Could you possibly draw more attention to us?” She touched her hair self-consciously as the two men passed them on the stairs.

Xander tried to hide the flush of embarrassment and blew out his cheeks when the men didn’t spare them a second glance.

He and Buffy exchanged looks and then continued on down the stairs. Buffy shook her head. “This is the Initiative Xander. Military guys and scientists do not make out with each other.”

Xander tried to defend himself. “Well, that’s because they’re the bad guys Buff. They represent everything that I stand against. You ever think about that.”

“Just...will you stop trying to get us caught?” Buffy said lightly. Xander saw her absently press her hand against her side.

Xander’s forehead creased with concern. “What’s up?”

Buffy glanced at him and dropped her hand. “Nothing. Just still feeling that fight with Faith is all.”

Xander looked around to make sure no groups of official looking were walking near them. “So what if we run into her here?”

Buffy subtly patted her pocket. “Then I have a little something to introduce to her. See how she likes getting zapped.”

Then they were both across the floor of the complex and approaching one of the laboratory doors. Buffy paused to fish out her key card, then scanned it and opened the door. She turned to Xander. “I’m positive that’s as far as my security clearance is going to get us. From now on we’re gonna have to feel our way. Got it?”

Xander met her gaze nervously. “Got it.” ‘We’re doomed.’

*****

Buffy made her down one of the labyrinthine corridors of the Initiative when she heard a familiar voice and stopped. It was Dr. Angleman, Walsh’s number two and definitely somebody who would have the answers she needed.

Buffy quickly gestured to Xander to back up and they both managed to take cover round the corner when Angleman appeared at the far end, busily talking to one of his staff.

Angleman sounded anxious. “...the longer they go without their meds –”

“Everyone’s off their schedules because of the Professor’s death.”

“It’s dangerous. I don’t want to think about the damage our guys could do under the stress of withdrawal, especially since they won’t understand what’s happening to them. These guys don’t know they’ve being getting meds through their food. We have to find them all, stat.”

“We’ve located most of them, but over a dozen are still out on patrol – ”

Angleman’s tone was curt. “Bring them in. And get me Finn. Find him. He’s the one I care about. He’s too important to the work to lose now.”

Angleman dismissed the other man and walked down a side corridor, lost in thought. Buffy followed him at a discreet distance.

Xander kept pace with her. “That’s gotta be why Riley was acting all twitchy. The withdrawals?”

Buffy narrowed her eyes. “Without telling him. They were using him as a guinea pig for their experiments.”

Xander quipped in agreement. “Yeah, imagine that. The secretive military organisation not being all above board about stuff.”

Angleman reached the end of the corridor and swiped his key card; after it buzzed loudly he opened a nearby door and disappearing inside. Buffy hurried ahead, using her clipboard to stop the door closing completely behind him.

Tensing for a moment she pushed the door open and entered the room.

And saw Faith.

She had Angleman pressed up against a filing cabinet on the opposite side of the room, a knife held to his throat.

Buffy heard Xander’s sharp intake of breath; even though it had been a possibility, Buffy hadn’t been fully prepared to run into Faith here. She’d assumed that the other girl had been lying, trying to play her in some way.

Faith looked back over her shoulder, giving Buffy a good look at the bruises she’d caused. She actually smiled slightly at the sight of Buffy. “Hey there, B. Check you out. Scientist Barbie.”

Buffy heard Xander close the door behind them both as she stepped forward, feeling that familiar tension at the sight of Faith. The slayer in her was itching for battle. “Faith. Let him go.”

Faith gave a small shake of her head. “Sorry, but I got here first, which means I get to ask the questions.” She turned back to Angleman, “Now spill, or spill.” She pressed the knife a little harder against his throat.

“What do we do?” Xander wondered.

Angleman looked appealingly at Buffy. “Help me, please. She killed Walsh.”

Buffy took another step forward. “Faith...” She said warningly.

Faith pulled Angleman’s face closer to hers, Buffy couldn’t see her expression, but her voice was cold and threatening. “You know how slayers don’t kill humans? Well, I do. Your one shot of getting out of this with your skin mostly intact is telling the truth. I didn’t kill Walsh, and I’m guessing you know that, so what exactly are you hidin’?”

Buffy took another step closer and kept her voice reasonable. “Faith, we don’t have time for this. He did something to Riley, and I want to know what.”

Angleman glared in Faith’s face. “She’s right, you don’t have time. Somebody’s coming. I’m sure they’ve already seen all of you on the security monitors –”

From the far right of the room, Riley appeared at another entrance. His voice rang out, as cold as it had been before. “Monitors are non-functional at this time, Sir.” He looked between Faith and Buffy, his dark-rimmed eyes flatly suspicious. “Went down about ten minutes ago.”

Faith smiled widely at Angleman and then at Buffy. “Nice goin’, B.”

Buffy frowned in puzzlement as she took off her glasses and looked round at Xander. “What? I didn’t do that?”

Xander held up a hand to interrupt her. “Then at least one thing is going right then, Buff. Because this, right here, is all becoming the text-book definition of a cluster f–”

Angleman spoke up, his voice commanding. “Finn, take this woman to the stockade, immediately!”

Faith cast a challenging look at the twitching Riley. “I’d like to see him try. I guarantee that you won’t though.” She said the last part through gritted teeth as she tightened her grip on Angleman.

Buffy took another step forward, putting herself between Riley and Faith just in case one of them tried something. She reached a hand in her lab coat towards the taser she’s stashed there.

Buffy looked searchingly at Riley, trying to reach him. “Riley, don’t do anything, okay? He can still tell us what we need to know.”

Riley didn’t respond, his eyes flicked between Faith, Angleman and then Buffy. Buffy wasn’t even sure that he’d exactly heard her, but he stayed put.

Angleman seemed to sag as he realised his precarious situation. Faith relaxed the knife on his throat and seemed to decide to change tack. “Maggie wanted Buffy dead, right? We can all agree on that.”

Angleman’s eyes flicked to Buffy. “Yes. But understand that the Initiative has no interest in eliminating the slayer. It was her own vendetta –”

“Then why did she pay me to go and bring Buffy back in,” Faith asked, perplexed. “Why the change of heart, huh? Bear in mind that I’m a high school dropout, use small words.”

“She wanted what?” Buffy blinked in confusion at the new revelation before looking at Faith in hard realisation. “Wait, she paid you? So now you’re not even a right hand of evil, you’re just some mercenary?”

Faith half-turned to face her; she still had one arm on Angleman’s chest, her knife pressed flat against it, holding him in place. “Kinda missing the point there B. I wouldn’t kill her if she was paying me would I?”

Buffy nodded in rigid agreement, even as her hand closed around the taser in her lab coat. “Answer her.” She said to Angleman.

“I-I don’t – ” A tilt of Faith’s head stopped his lie cold, “I-It was the project.”

Buffy felt a tiny rush of excitement at the thought finally of getting some answers. “The project? 314?”

Angleman sighed in defeat. “I-It killed Maggie, and then escaped.”

314 was a thing? A killing thing that had... Faith hadn’t done any of the things that Buffy had spent the last few hours convincing herself she had: killing Walsh, killing random people, maybe even trying to kill her mom.

Riley closed on them all, growing more agitated. “That’s enough. You’re making her sound like some sort of psychopath. She wasn’t like that. She was a brilliant woman.”

Angleman raised a defensive hand. “She was. It’s not –”

But Riley wasn’t finished. “All she was trying to do was help people. And this is the way you want people to remember her?”

Buffy took a step closer to Riley and touched his arm. “Riley, I heard Angleman. He said that she was feeding you drugs –”

“No! That’s not... You don’t...” Riley’s gaze wavered, like he was confused.

Faith shook her head in disgust at Riley. “Wake up, chump. Walsh was a stone cold bitch, believe me I know the type. Get in the way and her grand plan and you’re just so much meat.”

Riley exploded at the dark haired girl. “Shut up! You don’t know!” One of his hands hesitantly went to his gun but he seemed to stop himself, trying to regain some control.

Buffy put a hand on Riley’s shoulder to stop him even as she snapped a look at Faith. “Faith, enough already.”

But Faith had already turned her attention back to Angleman. “Okay, so now I wanna know why Walsh wanted B alive? What the hell was this 314 project? What was in that room?”

Something slammed into the ground behind them all. Buffy twisted away from Riley to see Xander backing up from the horribly mutilated body of an Initiative soldier that had been dropped from above.

Buffy tilted her head upwards to the catwalks that surrounded the top of the room.

Standing on the far left was a man. Or at least something in humanoid form. Arms by its sides, it stared down at them all almost impassively.

Then it spoke, its dark voice echoing. “Me.”

*****

Yeah, in hindsight, Faith probably should’ve just run.

She took one look at the huge, freaky stitched-together looking guy who was pacing back and forth above them and figured that she would’ve been better off leaving town.

She had found Angleman, gotten some answers, run into Buffy – who, sidenote, was back to being in full-on bitch mode, (just like last year) – and now she got to meet whatever Walsh had being using this whole Initiative-thing to build.

And it was huge. Kakistos-huge by the looks of it.

And it was busy yammering on, talking English in that precise and deliberate way that Faith imagined that European tourists spoke like. Only, y’know, more evil.

“I’ve been thinking, about the world. I wanted to see it. Learn it. Experience it in all its wonder. So I did what every child did. I explored. I experienced. I killed and I felt...good. Pure. But it didn’t tell me about the world; it just left me with more questions. Why I feel. What I am.”

Lightning quick, the thing dropped off the catwalk and landed in front of them all. Faith took a wary step back, and saw Xander back up even further. Buffy and Riley both seemed glued in place, but somehow Angleman had gotten well away from Faith.

It didn’t matter; there were bigger things on her mind right now.

“So I have returned home,” the creature finished, as it looked them all over.

The guy – Faith was gonna go with ‘guy’ because of how much he talked, demons were never this chatty – was some kind of surgical nightmare.

Stitched up his front with big, metal staples, he had steel plates fixed to his arm, leg and chest. Some kind of metal plate covered a lot of his head, and like a Cyborg, he had wires and stuff coming out in places. He was multi-coloured all over; greenish and brownish and flesh coloured, and he was wearing military fatigue pants, so ‘guy’ fit him best.

Didn’t move like a demon either, demons always lumbered along, like animals. This thing moved like a man, a soldier even, smoothly and with surprising agility for something so large. Faith even saw it analyse the room in one sweep, glancing at and dismissing Xander, ignoring Angleman, focusing most of its attention on Riley and Buffy.

It continued, placing one hand up to the side of its head as it bowed it slightly: there was a whirring noise and then he seemed to straighten up again. “I am kinematically redundant, bio-mechanical demonoid. Designed by Maggie Walsh. She called me Adam and I called her Mother.”

‘So the guy goes and kills her? Man, and I thought I had a mad-on for my mom.’

In a slightly quavering voice, Angleman spoke up from the safety of his corner. “Adam, Maggie would want you to stand down now.”

Adam regarded Angleman for the first time. “Yes. But I seem to have a design flaw.”

Faith was so glad that this thing killed Maggie. Poetic justice. Or maybe not: horrible, mangling justice sounded a lot more fitting.

Adam, if that was the dude’s name, kept right on talking. “In addition to organic material, I’m equipped with GP2D11 infrared detectors, a harmonic decelerator plus DC servo...”

Faith saw that Buffy was staring at Adam’s arm, green coloured and thickly muscular. “She pieced you together from parts of other demons,” she murmured in understanding.

“And man. And machine.” Adam looked at her. “Which tells me what I am, but not who I am...” He continued walking back and forth. It was unworried that it was in the same room as two slayers. Maybe he didn’t know...or maybe he didn’t care.

“Mother wrote things down. Hard data, but also her feelings. That’s how I learned that I have a job here... and that she loved me.”

That seemed to be it for Riley. He took a step forward and looked over Adam in disgust. “She wasn’t your mother – and she didn’t love you.”

“Don’t think that’s the point”, Faith said up warily; if Riley was gonna provoke this thing she wanted to get into position first. Get on this thing’s right hand side, the side with the human face.

But Riley continued on. “She made you because she was a scientist.”

‘Guess that’s one word for her.’

Xander winced in Riley’s direction. “Riley...”

Adam looked at Riley more closely; he put a hand up to the side of his face. There was a whirling sound again, like a computer powering up. “Riley Finn. Oh, Mother created you too.”

“Maggie’s not my mother.” He looked at Buffy, almost like he was trying to reassure her, “I have a mother. A real –”

Adam interrupted him. “A birth mother, yes. But after you met Maggie, she was the one who shaped your basic operating systems. She taught you how to think, how to feel. She fed you chemicals to make you stronger, your mind and your body...” He looked at Riley more intently, Faith thought that maybe it was smiling, “She said that you and I were her favourite children, her art. That makes us brothers... family.”

Faith got the feeling that this intimate, crazy talk was gonna blow up real soon, so she backed up and circled to the left, ignoring Angleman’s questioning look. Buffy was busily looking at Riley with concern, maybe realising that this guy was about as screwed up as her last boyfriend was. The girl sure could pick ‘em.

Riley moved forward again, more menacingly this time. “No. I’m not like you.”

Adam tilted his head; he was watching only Riley now. “No, not exactly. But we are the way. The way forward. We are the beginning and end of all things. Alpha and Omega, a paradox. You don’t see it now, but you will.”

Riley was about ready to snap, even Buffy could see that now. Riley blinked furiously, jaw clenched. “No, I won’t. I’ll kill you first.”

Adam’s voice was dismissive. “You won’t. You haven’t been programmed to.”

Riley swallowed convulsively; sweat glistening on his desperate face. “I can not be programmed. I’m a man.”

But Adam pressed on. “I know it all now, brother. The plan she had for us. What happens. How it ends, in all its glory.”

Riley shook his head, disbelieving. “No...”

Faith could now see that Adam’s eye, the human one, was as clear and devoid of sanity as any she’d ever seen. He smiled at Riley, his voice full of menacing promise. “Do you want to hear?”

“No!” Riley went for his gun, drawing and aiming in one smooth motion but Adam was much faster. He caught the arm as it was raised; knocking it down and to one side so hard that Riley dropped the gun to the floor with a clatter.

Buffy rushed Adam from the side, but she ran straight into a powerful backhand strike that knocked her to the ground with a cry of pain.

Riley, his face twisted in fury, slammed Adam full in the face with a mean haymaker that barely moved his head. Adam responded in kind by upper-cutting Riley so hard that he went flying through the air and landed hard, crashing to the ground about twelve feet away.

It was Faith’s turn. She came at Adam from the other side, planning to jump up, then grab and drill the knife into his good right eye, but Xander decided at that moment to rush in too.

Faith guessed that maybe he’d forgotten she was there, or that he’d thought she wasn’t going to jump in to fight the uber-cyber demon thing so he might as well have a pop.

She saw Adam spot his dash a mile away and quickly bring back a fist that would pile-drive Xander’s chest and probably kill him. Faith quickly shifted her position, grabbed Xander by his shoulders and threw him backwards into the wall. His head thudded hard as he slid to the ground. Not pretty but better than the alternative.

Faith then twisted into a roundhouse that struck Adam high in the waist, hitting solid muscle there and not really doing anything. Adam shot out a powerful right jab that Faith managed (barely) to block, and even then the power of the blow didn’t tally with the word ‘jab’; it was way too strong.

Instead of using the knife in her right that she’d used to block, she threw a hard left under his outstretched arm into his place where his kidneys should be. It thudded into the hard meat there. For her trouble Faith got a swift and powerful elbow directly to the solar plexus, exploding the breath from her lungs and sending tumbling backwards to the ground.

By then, Buffy had recovered and came at Adam swinging, kicking him high and hard in the chest (Buffy had always been better with those high kicks), but Adam didn’t respond except to slam her face with a left jab. Buffy stood her ground against the towering figure and punched him hard in the gut. Adam brought his arm up high and then down in a blur, his deformed face a mask of fury, and chopped the flat of his hand against her shoulder. Buffy cried out and dropped like a stone.

Faith snarled with rage and rushed at him in anger. She switched the knife to her left hand and slammed a powerful right cross directly at his chin as he turned. She saw Adam take a momentary step back at the impact, maybe just in surprise, but it was enough. She struck him again, lower this time, her fist punching where those freaky stitches held his chests together and then, pivoting, she swung her left arm at his jugular.

Adam caught her wrist when the blade was only an inch from his thick neck, and twisted her arm so she dropped the knife, all in one smooth motion.

He looked at her, at her stretched arm, calculating. And Faith knew what he was going to do before he even did it, but she couldn’t stop him.

Adam twisted her arm down and around and at the same time slammed his other hand hard against the back of her shoulder. The old injury, her shoulder, flared in red agony as the joint popped loose. Faith gave a strangled cry of pain even as Adam slammed a knee up into her gut so hard that she was lifted off her feet, and then he tossed her through the air like she was garbage.

“No!” Faith heard Buffy shout out in alarm, her voice muffled in Faith’s ears by the shredding agony of her arm.

Faith came down hard on her bad shoulder and slid across the floor to where Xander was holding his head, recovering. She tried to draw a breath but the pain in her shoulder was awful, much worse than before, and the iron band of pain across her chest making it hard to breath.

She managed to roll on to her back just in time to see Adam kill Angleman, skewering him with some sort of spike that jutted from his forearm. Faith tried and failed to sit up when she saw Adam do the same to Riley, impaling him through his side and sending him crashing to the ground.

Buffy lasted only a little longer than that. She kicked Adam high in the back with a fly kick, only to be caught with a solid backhand that threw her against the wall so hard that she bounced to the ground just as fast. Faith felt her heart seize up at the brutal sight of Buffy being crushed so effortlessly that she momentarily forgot about her own pain.

But then Faith saw Buffy sit up, holding her head as she frantically tried to stand up and continue fighting. Faith felt her red-rimmed dizziness return as she watched Buffy barely manage to roll onto her knees between Adam and a badly injured Riley.

Adam stood above all of them, victorious.

“Thank you,” he said. He maybe sounded a little breathless, if Faith could call that a little victory. “This has been... very interesting.”

He walked leisurely past them all. Faith could hear somebody hammering against the door to the room, but she knew he could simply get out through the ceiling; it’s how she’d gotten in.

She let her head drop to the floor; the red rim of pain across her vision was getting stronger. She was done, whatever they were gonna do to her, she was in no condition to fight; between this and her fight with Buffy earlier, she was through. She saw the red darken and sweep over her eyes, even as she heard the door to the room give way to gunshots.

*****

Buffy cleared her head from the last blow long enough to see Riley, slack with pain, lying prone against the wall. She crawled over to him and saw that he was (at least) still conscious, hurt but alive.

Buffy cupped the side of his head and looked into his eyes. “Riley? Are you okay?”

Riley winced in pain, his hand holding his bloody side, he didn’t respond.

The door to the room burst inwards and the commandos entered, but Adam wasn’t anywhere to be seen. It was the second time today that Buffy had lost a fight and the victor had run off, she guessed she was lucky that way.

The victor... She’d heard Faith cry out in pain during the fight; saw what that creature had done to her. Buffy looked over at Xander who looked unhurt as he was hovering over Faith, who now seemed out of it.

“You’ve got a demon in here.” Xander winced as he gestured upwards, “Went out through that vent.”

Forrest ignored him; he stared at Angleman’s body and then at Faith. “Right. And she just happened to be in the neighbourhood.”

Graham looked at Xander as he knelt over Faith’s body.

Buffy shook her head, ignoring the flair of pain in her neck. “She didn’t do it. Something messed her up, it looked sort of half-man –”

Forrest scoffed. “You expect us to believe that.”

With difficulty Riley managed to speak up. “It’s true, I saw it. It killed Angleman.” He gave Forrest a firm nod, “Go. Now.”

Three soldiers scrambled up the ladder to give chase. Forrest looked questioningly back at Graham who frowned down at the unconscious slayer. “Something did a number on her.”

Frustrated, Forrest went over to Riley and knelt at his side, his face filled with anger and concern.

Buffy looked at Riley too; he seemed weak. “He needs a hospital.”

Forrest examined Riley’s wound and nodded. “We’ll take it from here.”

Buffy pressed her lips together in worry. “I want to go with him, see that he’s okay.”

“It’s a military hospital,” Forrest said curtly. “You need to look to your own, and we’ll look to ours.”

Buffy shook her head. “But –”

Forrest snarled angrily. “Back off. Or haven’t you done enough?”

Buffy saw two marines’ level rifles at her steadily. Xander slowly came round the side of them, eyes wide and anxious. He held out his hand, “Buffy? We have to go.”

Buffy stood up and watched as Graham and Forrest helped Riley to his feet. Forrest nodded coldly in Buffy’s direction. “Escort them out.”

Graham cast a sympathetic glance back. “Riley’ll be fine. You should see to Faith, she’s hurt pretty bad.”

And then all Buffy could only watch as they carried Riley off, even as he weakly muttered her name, and then get herself marched to the elevators with Xander. When she stepped in, two burly soldiers casually dumped Faith’s limp form in after them.

“Take it from here,” one muttered as the doors slid shut on them.

Xander looked at the door, then down at Faith, then at Buffy. “Well that was terrible. What happens now?”

Buffy stared down at Faith. She thought about the badly injured, dark haired woman, about the Watcher’s Council, about the Initiative and where they were taking Riley off to, wounded and unwilling.

She sighed. Nothing was ever easy. “I...I don’t know.”

...continued in Picking Up The Pieces...

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