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Wishing Changes Everything: Helpless

by Declan
Rating: PG-13

+1=2+

Helpless (PART 1: Future Girl)

Giles stopped his pacing to look incredulously at Buffy. “The mayor... turned into a giant snake, at your Graduation?”

Buffy was sat slumped over the desk, idly examining her nails. “Yes. A big, snake-y demon thing. Graduation, mortar boards, solar eclipse. ”

Giles pondered this. “This demon, ah, was it similar to the one we observed in the sewers?”

Buffy raised her eyebrows as she thought. “Nope, way, way bigger. And, by the way, you observed, I fought, remember?”

Giles ignored her. “So, that would be three entirely separate demon snake-encounters in only two years...Hmn, interesting.” Giles began pacing around the library again, glancing down at the notebook in his hand, “I don’t suppose you remember a specific name of the demon.”

Buffy pretended to think about it. “Personally, I like to think the Mayor decided to hold onto his own name, y’know, be all traditional. Maybe he shortened it to Richie, or Dick...yeah, that definitely fits.”

Giles gave her a withering look. “I was referring to the name of the species of demon.”

“Can’t remember, all I know is that it was a ‘pure demon’, which translates as ‘way huge’, King Kong huge. The mayor had to pull off this whole Ascension deal to do it.”

“Yes, about this Ascension, it’s not a term I’m familiar with. Anything you can add there?”

Buffy frowned as she thought back. “No, that Anya chick told us all about it last time.” She edited out the Faith parts, as always.

Giles flipped through his pages. “Anya is...Xander’s future prom date, yes?” Buffy nodded, “What has she got to do with any of this?”

Buffy sighed, she was pretty sure she covered all of this a couple of nights ago. “’Cause she used to be into the whole vengeance demon thing in a big way, things went wrong and she ended up stuck as a human in Sunnydale. Apparently she witnessed one of these Ascension things a few hundred years ago.”

“And now, because Xander and Willow weren’t caught...ah, uh, anyway, Anya has no reason to be here at this time?”

Buffy shook her head. “It’s for the best, believe me. Anyway you’re missing the point. This Ascension thing took a while okay, it was complicated and meant lots of scheming.” Buffy counted things off her fingers, “Balthazar, crusty demon guy selling Books of Ascension, magical boxes...”

Giles flipped through the notebook. “Yes, I made a note of you describing the Mayor's efforts to obtain ...’The Box Of...poprocks...” He sighed, “Well, it’s something to go on, at least.”

“You’re forgetting the contents; wiggins-causing, pants-wetting spider-creatures that eat people's face off.” Buffy slid across a piece of paper for Giles to look at, “Look, I even drew a picture of one.”

Giles peered down at her efforts. “I’m quite sure I could have lived without the speech bubble,” He commented dryly, “Though there are not many boxes of infinite spiders out there.”

“You mean there’s more than one? Who makes a spare one of those things? Did the minions of evil just get really bored one day and start boxing everything? Stupid evil.”

Giles sighed and removed his glasses to clean them. “Yes, that’s an inspiring rallying cry, Buffy. Let’s do try and keep focused for a little while longer.”

Buffy thumped her head down on the table. “Urgh, we’ve been at this for hours, days of hours, one after the other. I really don’t know everything. I don’t know how he became invincible, or immortal. Or evil. I don’t know for sure if he is human anymore. Just that he has an army of vamps and F...uh, Mr. Trick was his right hand.”

Giles looked at his watch thoughtfully. “Yes, well, perhaps you’re right. I’m sure your Mother will be wondering where you are. Is Faith with her?”

“Nope, she’s probably patrolling, killing things. I really miss those days. The vamps of this town are gonna be getting the wrong idea before long.”

Though if Buffy was honest with herself patrolling with Faith lately had been about forty to fifty per cent smoochies, which Buffy kept missing out on because Giles was determined to have every little thing mapped out months in advance. Couldn’t he trust Buffy on this? Things were golden for once.

Giles looked down at his notes, furrowing his brow. “Well, maybe with your birthday coming up you should both ease up on the patrolling?

Buffy frowned suspiciously at him. “Why would I need to rest up?”

Giles sighed and sat on the edge of the desk awkwardly. “Buffy, I have informed the council of your, ah, situation and it has been agreed that you can forego any, um, of the testing that is usually required. There can nothing gained by it. I promise that you are entirely safe.”

Buffy felt herself relax. “Well, good. ‘Cause I have plans. Ice-skating show plans. And since Dad bailed, again, then I’m going to ask Faith, see if she wants to go with me.”

Giles regarded Buffy seriously. “Tread carefully Buffy, we still don’t know everything about the wish and who caused it...”

“Only The First’s apocalyptic threats.” Buffy put in.

“...Precisely. And until we do we must ensure we keep everyone else in the dark about these future events. Including Faith.”

Buffy shrugged a little uneasily. “I get it, okay? I mean, I don’t like keeping things from the others but ...it’s for the best. I’m on board.”

Satisfied, Giles got up and walked back towards the office. “It is for the best, Buffy. Good night.”

*****

The night air smelled of possibilities as Buffy made her way through the cemetery, her eyes peeled for signs of Faith. She hoped to find the other girl on patrol and make sure both their evenings ended well. If Buffy managed to slay any vamps in the mean time, well, that would be a bonus.

Buffy knew that Faith usually ended her patrol in Restfield so that’s where she’d headed first, looking forward to the expression on the other girl's face. They’d grown a lot closer since Christmas, feeling more like an actual couple. So much so that they’d had to be very careful and ease up with the intimate stuff around Buffy’s Mom thanks to a few close calls at the house. This meant most of their ‘couple time’ happened while on patrol.

But Buffy’s birthday was coming up and eighteen is a kind of landmark age, a rite of passage, which should be celebrated in some way. Maybe with a certain girlfriend and an object that was kept at the back of Buffy’s bottom drawer...

A high-pitched scream cut through the air to interrupt her thoughts. It came from nearby and Buffy swore it sounded familiar. Then it happened again, the same scream, a little louder, but cut short suddenly. Buffy recognised it as Willow.

She took off through the cemetery, dodging gravestones and vaulting a park bench before bursting through a hedge into more open ground. That’s when she saw them.

Willow was on the ground, lying flat, her hand reaching out for a nearby stake, looming over her was a leering vampire, his legs between hers, his arms on either side of her head, his face beginning to lean down to bite her. Buffy saw Faith pull herself to her feet nearby and launch into the thing atop Willow, slamming it off of her to send it crashing over a nearby tombstone.

To the left of her Buffy caught more fighting as she saw Xander grappling with a redheaded female vamp, he managed to break away and backhand it hard across the face before it growled and came at him again; he ducked under her outstretched arms and ran behind her, over to Faith.

He tapped her shoulder. “Tag, you’re up. I softened her up for you though.”

Faith nodded and gestured over her shoulder. “That one’s getting kinda rowdy. You might wanna help Red.”

With that she moved passed Xander and grabbed the redheaded vamp by the lapels of her biker jacket before swinging her round, using all her weight to redirect her and throw her hard against a tree. Bouncing off and landing heavily the redhead groggily tried to get to sit up before Faith, grunting with effort, slammed a stake into its chest. Grimacing, the vampire dissolved into grave dust.

Xander helped Willow to her feet as the male vamp reappeared, glowering at the three of them. Willow turned her head and saw Buffy running over. She waved cheerily. “Hi, Buffy!”

The male vamp didn’t like the odds of four on one and skedaddled, turning to smash through the brush before disappearing into the gloom.

Buffy brought herself up short and stared at them, a little nonplussed. “I, uh, I heard screaming.”

Willow looked embarrassed. “I-I panicked when I fell over, sorry Buffy. But I was in total control.” Willow’s face then lit up in excited pride, “Hey, and I totally got one. A vampire, that is, I staked it and then it went poof...which I guess is what they do, but still.”

“You rocked, Red, no doubt.” Faith said as she dusted of her jacket, “And Xander here manned up, bagged one too.”

Xander beamed and twirled his stake. “Aw, it was nothin’. I gotcha back.”

Willow’s smile faded as she looked at Buffy. “Are you okay? We’re not...I mean, it's okay we came along right? Faith invited us and you were busy...”

Buffy waved a dismissive hand. “It’s cool. Just as long as you guys were careful. I mean, with slayer back-up you’re pretty safe anyway.” She glanced shyly at Faith, “I, uh, got done early. I thought I’d surprise you.”

Faith smiled, still seeming a little breathless; maybe the hungry’s were kicking in. ”Yeah, I just figured me and the gang could hang and do somethin’ together, y’know. Bond or whatever.”

Willow nodded, still excited. “Patrolling with Faith is a lot like patrolling with you, only with a lot more grunting.”

“Yeah, she’s more Wolverine to your Spider-Man.” Xander explained, “Less witty quips and more cool one-liners. All bad-ass and sexy.”

Faith frowned at Xander and crossed her arms. “Wolverine’s the short, hairy one, right?”

Willow raised her eyebrows. “You think Wolverine’s sexy?”

Xander shrugged a little sheepishly. “It’s very possible I’m concussed.”

Faith seemed peeved. “I’m nothin’ like Wolverine.”

“You kept on calling me ‘rookie’.” Protested Xander, “And I more mean, personality-wise not physically. Heh, it’s not like I ever imagined what Buffy would look like in web-covered spandex.”

There was an awkward pause, Willow smiled knowingly while Xander reddened and coughed slightly.

Buffy smirked. “Good to know. Anyway you guys, I think you’ve gone above and beyond on this one, thanks. You can head home, Faith and I can take it from here. Uh, Wolverine and Spider-Man team up all the time, right?”

Faith shook her head. “I ain’t frigging Wolverine. I’m...that hot Greek chick, Elektra. Deadly ninja’s more my style.”

“Faith, even I know ninjas are from Japan.” Buffy rolled her at Xander and Willow, “I’ll see you guys tomorrow.”

Willow waved bye and she and Xander walked away towards the street. Faith watched them go before stepping a little closer. “You sure it’s cool me taking the guys out?” She looked questioningly at Buffy.

The blonde smiled. “I trust you to keep them safe. It’s not a bad idea, y’know. All of us going out on a slay together.” Buffy gestured between them both, “Might even keep our hormones in check.”

Faith held up her hands. “Whoa, let’s not do somethin’ drastic. I like the patrolling just fine the way it is.”

Buffy giggled. “You would...and I do to, but it’s not exactly efficient, is it?”

Faith tilted her head and leaned closer. “Way I see it, Hellmouth’s got two slayers, and if they’re both doin’ say, half the work? That still leaves one whole slayer guarding stuff, right?”

Buffy thought about it. “That does make sense, I mean mathematic...”

She was silenced by Faith’s lips on her own; the brunette’s hands pulled Buffy a little closer. After a few moments of really nice kissing Faith pulled away with a contended murmur and took Buffy’s hand. “C’mon, I’m beat. Let’s head home.”

Buffy was surprised. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, a quiet night, four vamps dusted, and nothin’ else.” Faith wiggled her eyebrows, “This way we can eat somethin’ and you can still tuck me in early.”

Buffy smiled a little even as she found herself blushing. “Sounds like a plan.”

They both started walking through the cemetery, cutting through one of the remembrance gardens as a short cut home. Buffy always found all the pretty flowers romantic, but usually she had no reason to linger here. No graves.

She squeezed Faith’s hand comfortingly. “So, my birthday.”

Faith nodded absently. “The big one-eight, huh? Got any plans?”

“I kinda wanted to talk to you about that. I’ve got tickets to an ice-show and my Dad...well, at the last minute he kind of got other plans, so...” Even the second time around it had been disappointing to see the sad bunch of flowers, the apology note and balloon with the tickets stuck to it. But Buffy could deal if Faith could take her. “If you wanted to go with me...you could. I would be fun.”

Faith wrinkled her nose. “Ice-show? Like the ones where they wear costumes and stuff? I dunno, B...”

Buffy brought out the puppy-dog eyes. “Please? I promise you’ll like it. I mean, it’s something new right? You don’t really know if you’ll like it or not. And it’s my birthday.”

Faith turned and sighed in defeat. “Fine, I’ll go with ya, alright. Just stop with the guilt trip already.” She mock glared at Buffy, “And if I don’t like it, then for my birthday we’re going to a strip joint, no complaining.”

Buffy beamed at Faith without really hearing her words. “Okay...hey, when is your birthday anyway?”

Faith hesitated, before mumbling. “December.”

Buffy frowned. “But we just passed December and you never said..? Why didn’t you say anything?” She tried to keep the hurt from her voice. But probably failed.

Faith shrugged expansively. “Hell, I dunno, it’s not like Birthdays were a big deal growing up, ‘kay. And I’m not going for some pity thing or anything, it’s just fact.” Faith’s voice rose a little in annoyance, “I never got a party, or balloons, or stupid paper hats, or a Mom who gave a shit ‘cause she was too busy getting wasted to worry ‘bout me.” Faith huffed out a breath as she calmed herself, “Sorry.”

Buffy looked at her solemnly. “Didn’t you ever get a nice birthday?” She couldn’t believe some people would treat their children like Faith described.

Faith backed up and sat on one of the low walls that dotted the remembrance garden. “Only one that stands out was when I was five...Pop took me to my first ever baseball game and I got my first hotdog. Ended up getting mustard up my nose... stung like a bitch I can tell ya. Then I spent the first couple of innings in the bathroom over the sink with Dad tellin’ me t’keep blowing my nose.” Faith shook her head at the memory, smiling. “He wasn’t there for the next one...Birthday, Mom said he ran off, never came back. Not much point in celebrating after that.”

Buffy felt a lump in her throat. “I’m so sorry.”

Faith frowned. “Which is why I didn’t say nothin’, didn’t want you feelin’ bad, nobody’s fault, just one of those things, y’know.” Faith looked up at Buffy, her eyes sad, “It’s just the past.”

Buffy stepped forward and reached for Faith’s hands, Faith let her take them. “That’s right, it’s the past. But you’re going to have a pretty spectacular nineteenth if I’ve got anything to do with it.” She smiled at the brunette, “Besides, my eighteenth could be good for you as well, if you, um, get my meaning.”

Still holding her hands Faith stood up and gazed into Buffy’s eyes. “You mean...you wanna do somethin’ special?”

Despite some trepidation Buffy nodded shyly. “It feels right. Ever since Christmas...I keep thinking what it’d be like. To be with you.”

“Like... all the way?” To Buffy’s surprise Faith glanced away nervously, “You sure? We could probably wait a week or two, till you’re positive.”

Buffy tried to catch her eye. “I’m not rushing, and you’ve been really patient. I’ve given it a little thought...and if you still want..?”

Faith smiled in reassurance. “Oh, I wanna, ever since...I can’t even remember not wanting to, I just don’t want you moving too fast.” She squeezed Buffy’s hands, “How about, we go to this ice-show, have a great time, a big blow-out...then see how we feel ‘bout the other stuff?”

Buffy felt a strange mixture of relief and disappointment as she nodded. “Okay.” She paused awkwardly ...so, ice is cool, it’s like water, only not.”

Faith smiled and they started walking again as the moment passed. “Lemme guess, that sounds like Oz.”

“I thought his comment was very deep, it really makes you think.”

Faith nodded. “I prefer thinkin’ ‘bout what ice does. Makes ice-cream, chills your beer, makes your tongue cold.” Faith raised her eyebrows at the last one, grinning slyly at Buffy.

Buffy smirked and shook her head, sometimes she just couldn’t figure Faith out.

*****

Buffy gasped as the manacles bit tightly into her wrists, Angelus smiled, stood up and walked over to the fireplace. Faith sat on the table and watched as he went by.

She smirked at Buffy. “Bondage looks good on you, B. The outfit’s all wrong, but hey.”

Buffy felt a chill sweep through her as all the details of this situation came rushing back. Her eyes flickered over to Faith, decked out in her red pleather shirt. Red lips glistening as she smiled.

Buffy felt herself speak the words hollowly. “Faith, you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Faith frowned in mock puzzlement. “Really? Weird. ’Cause something about all this just feels so right.” Faith nodded to herself, “Maybe it’s one of those unhappy childhood things.”

Buffy felt the cold stone wall against her back and the warm, smoky air of the mansion, all of it just as she remembered. This was memory, pulled from her tumultuous thoughts, and she closed her eyes and tried to will it away.

‘This is just a dream, a stupid dream, like before.’

Faith’s voice spoke up, mocking. “But it’s not just a dream, is it B? This all actually happened. You were there, Angel was over there and I...” Faith paused to stand up and present herself, “Was right here.”

“I look good, don’t I?” She commented, as her hands slid down her sides.

“You certainly do.” Angelus replied, his eyes roaming over her.

Buffy’s eyes widened as Faith sauntered over to her, standing close to lean in, hands on the wall either side of Buffy. Buffy tried to move her arms, but the manacles, unlike before, were shut tight.

“Now how does it go again? Oh, right I start whining about my childhood. Again. Seems however you play it B ya still hav’ta listen t’me yammer on about my upbringing.”

Buffy squeezed her eyes shut. Tried to will herself awake, this wasn’t memory, this was some twisted subconscious thing brought on by who knows what.

Faith grinned widely at Buffy’s discomfort. “Anyway, as I was saying, when I was a kid I used to beg my Mom for a dog. Didn’t matter what kind, I just wanted, you know, something to love.” She leaned forward and licked the side of Buffy’s exposed neck, the blonde girl shivered and tried to twist away, but she was still fastened tight.

Faith murmured into her ear. “A dogs all I wanted. Well, that, and toys.” Suddenly a sharp scalpel was in Faith’s hand, the other reaching and grabbing the bottom of Buffy’s top.

Buffy sucked in a quick breath as Faith quickly drew the scalpel up her torso, slicing through the thin black material all the way to the neck. Scraps of fabric fell away on either side, leaving Buffy’s golden skin glowing in the fire light, naked except for a lacy white bra.

“Somethin’ t’play with.” Faith’s eyes gazed hungrily down Buffy’s body before she called over in a sing-song voice. “Oh, Angelus. You might wanna get over here.”

The vampire chuckled darkly as he examined the sharp surgical instruments. “No, thanks. Buffy’s ‘charms’ lose their appeal fairly quickly.”

Faith shook her head as she smirked. “He’s so mean, isn’t he? Can’t believe you let him pop your cherry like that, B. But, thinking about it, maybe it’s that you’ve got a type. If somebody tries t’kill you, what’s your solution? Date them?” Faith sniggered mockingly, “I mean, if you wanted to experiment, why me, huh? Why not Cordelia? Well, okay, that’s an obvious one, but what about sweet little Willow? She adores you y’know, wouldn’t take that much to turn that crush into something a little more interesting.”

Buffy grimaced. “Stop this...this isn’t even real. So, shut the hell up.”

Faith’s expression twisted into a sneer. “It’s just as real as playing ‘happy families’ with me. I mean sure, I’m probably dynamite in the sack; after all I’ve had a lot of practice, y’know? But could you ever really trust me, after all the things I did to you by choice, for the fun of it?” Faith shook her head in fake annoyance. “But, darn it I’m going off script.” Faith swirled the scalpel as she thought, “Skip over the Mom stuff, drink, abuse, yada, yada...Angel’s a killer. Angel says...” She looked over at the vampire.

Angelus shrugged. “She’s right, I probably will.”

Faith turns back to Buffy pointing at her with the blade. “And that’s where I reveal that a long, slow, torture is all part of the plan. ‘Cause I just want you to know: If you’re a screamer, feel free...Huh. I guess I really do know if you’re a screamer, don’t I?”

Despite herself Buffy felt tears forming behind her eyes. “Faith...please...”

“Well, I haven’t got you begging like that just yet, Buffy, but give it time.” Faith leaned in closer and suddenly for Buffy it was like the memory was playing again. “You know I come to Sunnydale. I’m the slayer, I do my job kicking ass better than anyone, and what do I hear about everywhere I go? Buffy. So I slay, and behave, and do the good-little-girl routine and who does everyone thank? Buffy.”

Buffy opened her eyes, her tone plaintive. “That’s not my fault.”

Faith made a noise like a game show buzzer. “Sorry, thanks for playing, wrong answer, Buffy.” She said sneeringly, “You resented me from the moment I got here. You got jealous, then you just settled for ignoring me...except of course when you needed muscle, then it was ‘where’s Faith, my bestest slaying pal.’ From the instant I arrived until to second you stabbed me in the gut you only had one thought swirling in that empty little head of yours. That you were better than me.”

Buffy shook her head. “You’re wrong, you’re twisting everything...”

Faith gave a harsh laugh. “Oh, get real, Buffy. You took more time mulling over whether to kill Angelus, y’know, the vampire who was killing people left and right, than you did me. Admit it, Buffy, you thought I was a loser from the first; a shallow, slutty, party girl, who enjoyed herself way too much for your liking. It was a relief to you when I went bad, ‘cause then you were back to being special, number one. And even when you had everything you still had to take from me.” Faith’s voice started rising, “This was supposed to be my town. I was supposed to be the slayer. You should’ve been dead!”

Buffy frowned, suddenly realising something. “You’re calling me Buffy.”

Faith turned mid-rant. “Huh?”

“She always calls me B, even when she’s gone over to the Mayor and laying out the master plan she always calls me B.” Buffy glared at Faith, “I don’t know what you are, but you’re not Faith. You don’t know her, and you can’t act like her. So stop with the games.”

Faith suddenly looked a bit sheepish. “Whoops, I guess I overplayed my hand. Got all caught up in the role. I guess I’ll just have to cut this short.” With that ‘Faith’ slashed her arm upwards, the scalpel gleaming as it raced towards Buffy’s throat...

Buffy sat up in bed, her room reverberating with a strange high-pitched sound, after a few moments she realised it was her screaming, as Buffy’s Mom burst into the room and switched on the light. “Buffy?”

Buffy was shaking and trembling as she cut off her screams and closed her mouth, her sheets seemed tangled and damp with sweat. She looked wide-eyed as her Mom came over and sat on the bed. “Honey, are you alright?” She combed some stray hairs away from Buffy’s face as she cupped it. Buffy tried to control her laboured breathing as her Mom hugged her close. Over her shoulder Buffy saw a concerned Faith standing in the doorway, arms folded with worry. “Y’okay, B?”

Buffy didn’t answer, just closed her eyes and turned her head. The contrast was too jarring. Two Faiths, both real, both acting like completely different people, which one was Buffy supposed to believe in? Which one was true? Was what she dreamt... had that been the real side to her?

Buffy pulled herself back from her Mom. “I’m okay, Mom. Really, just a bad dream.”

Her Mom ran a hand over her forehead. “Oh, sweetie you’re burning up. Maybe you have a bug.”

Faith scratched her arm. “Maybe I gave it to her. Think I’m comin’ down with somethin’ too.”

Her Mom looked Buffy over, her eyes wide with concern. “Do you want some warm milk? Or I could make some chicken soup?”

Buffy gave a slight shake of her head as she glanced at her alarm clock. “Mom, it’s way too late for soup. I’m fine, really. Probably just ate some bad cheese.”

Her Mom seemed to be judging her sincerity before nodding. “Okay, you see how you feel in the morning, if you’re not up to it, you don’t have to go to school, okay?”

Buffy nodded as her Mom got up and left, paused at the doorway to murmur something to Faith, the brunette smiled eagerly and nodded. Buffy’s Mom left.

Buffy frowned. “What was that?”

“Hot chocolate, your Mom’s gonna make some. She asked if I wanted in.” Faith glanced down the corridor before coming forward to sit on the bed, “Y’sure you’re okay?”

Buffy tried to quash her irritation at the question, and the old wariness that crept into her at Faith being so close. She nodded. “Just a nightmare.”

“Musta been somethin’ bad, havin’ you screaming’ like that.” Faith curled her lips slightly, “Hey, play your cards right, you could play hooky tomorrow.”

Buffy sighed. “I don’t want to play hooky...but I do need to get some sleep so...” Buffy looked pointedly at Faith and then at the door.

Faith’s smile faded and she shrugged uncomfortably. “Uh, sure. Get some rest.” She gave Buffy a searching look before getting up to leave.

Buffy flopped back on the bed as Faith left. She didn’t need this, memories playing tricks on her. Thankfully the dream was already beginning to fade, but it had seemed...manipulated somehow, like the Faith in her memories was being used as a puppet...yeeug, puppet.

But still what dream-Faith had said resonated in Buffy, how can one person be so different? Faith wasn’t Angelus, she’d done all those things with a soul in her heart, had fun and then...Buffy had stopped her, just like she’d stopped Angelus. Stabbed Faith and sent her to hell, or at least tried her best to.

Buffy knew that Faith could be kind, sensitive and sweet; but she could also be vicious, cruel and deadly. Which version was the true one?

Is this what the First meant when it had mentioned betrayal? That some things were inevitable and that wishing didn’t really change anything?

‘Well, screw that, Faith has a choice and so do I. No one’s destined to do anything, not if I have a say in it.’

Buffy tried hard to shut out any dissenting, disquieting thoughts and buried her head in her pillow, hoping that sleep would bring some clarity, not more questions.

*****

Buffy entered the library the next day, classes having crawled by like they were determined to turn her thoughts to grey mush. Restless feelings had meant Buffy had gotten little sleep the night before; she had decided to talk things over with Giles.

Buffy saw Giles come out of the office and, surprisingly, Faith was in tow. She looked unhappy. Had she told Giles about last night? The bad dream.

“Faith?” Buffy stopped and glanced between her and Giles.

“Good afternoon, Buffy.” Giles greeted her, “Faith was just giving a short report on last night’s patrol. Rather slow, I gather, which is good.” He turned back to Faith, “I’ll talk with you again tonight.”

Faith nodded before giving Buffy a tentative smile before walking passed her and leaving, Buffy looked questioningly at Giles. “What’s tonight?”

Giles sighed. “It seems I might have been a bit overzealous with our, ah, ‘future review’. So much so that I have been neglecting Faith, so tonight we’ll be sword-fighting.”

Buffy perked up at that. “Ooh, a midnight duel. Can I watch? I wanna see Faith whup you.”

“Buffy, I’ll have you know I fenced at university. I’m not one to, uh, buckle my swash as it were, but I’m sure Faith will not have an easy time of it...Although she does have a natural predilection for weapons training, especially blades.” Giles mused before regarding Buffy as he walked over to desk, “As for you witnessing said contest... Well that depends on whether you finish the assignment I’m proposing you.”

Buffy followed him over. “Assignment? But I have Birthday plans tomorrow, remember? You know, getting off my case and letting me relax a little. I’d kinda like to break the ‘horrible Buffy Birthday bash’ streak I’ve got going.”

Giles nodded patiently. “Yes, and tomorrow I’m sure you’ll enjoy indecent amounts of sugary cake, but for now, an...opportunity has arisen.” Giles offered her the paper, “The mayor is attending a charity event this evening. It seems, evil though he is, he can’t resist...”

Buffy raised her eyebrows as she took the paper. “...Sugary cake?”

Giles allowed a small smile. “Publicity? Perhaps just the chance to keep up appearances? For whatever reasons the Mayor and some of his security staff will be in attendance. In the meantime you will infiltrate the town hall and try to ascertain how far along the Mayor is with his, ah, Ascension plans. Perhaps we’ll find some clues that you missed the last time?”

Buffy frowned. “I suppose...but alone? I dunno, shouldn’t I probably take Faith along with?”

“It was my understanding that you’ve infiltrated his offices before to steal the box? Surely you know the layout, the security weak-spots.” Giles took off his glasses, “I’m not asking you to engage Buffy, just to gather whatever data you can and report back. As for Faith...reconnaissance isn’t her strong suit and we would have to explain how the Mayor became a suspect in wrong-doing.” Giles shook his head, “It will be easier if and when we have some evidence, Buffy. Surely you realise that.”

Buffy pouted a little despite herself. “I...guess. Just been a while since I’ve gone all lone wolf.” She paused before nodding determinedly, “I can do this...And be back in time to watch Faith kick your swash-buckled butt.”

“Excellent.” Giles nodded in agreement before looking over Buffy’s shoulder, “Cordelia, can I, uh, help you?”

Buffy turned to see Cordelia standing by the library doors. “I’m here to talk to Buffy, actually.” She gave a small, helpless shrug like she couldn’t believe what she just said.

Giles cleared his throat. “Very well, but, ah, please make it quick. Buffy has some...errands to run tonight.” He then made himself scarce by disappearing into his office.

Buffy looked at Cordelia cautiously, she hadn’t really spoken to her since Christmas. “Hey, um, how have you been?”

Cordelia sighed irritably. “Can we just get this over with?”

Buffy smirked. “Get what over with? The game where I have to guess where this conversation is going? ‘Cause as games go, not fun.”

“I thought Xander would’ve told you that...” Cordelia stopped and rolled her eyes before taking a deep breath, “Fine. I’m sorry; I was out of line with what I said to you. Not that I totally didn’t have a point...But I shouldn’t have said it. I was mad at Xander and his, I don’t know, hormonal fantasies or whatever.”

Buffy looked warily towards Giles’ office, she didn’t really want him overhearing anything awkward. She waved a dismissive hand. “You didn’t have to mad at Xander, okay. I asked for his advice, he’s my friend. That’s it.”

“Buffy, please. The guys had a crush on you for like, forever. And I’ve seen the way he looks at Faith.” Cordelia frowned, “And the two of you together...”

Buffy stepped forward and interrupted. “Cordelia, you love Xander, right?”

Cordelia made a face. “I...I guess. I mean, he makes me happy and when I think of him, us... together I feel, uh, better.” She frowned at Buffy. “Why?”

“Because you have nothing to worry about. Xander, he might have daydreams, or make silly jokes. It’s kind of how he copes with new situations, but he’s with you because he loves you. You click together, y’know.” Buffy walked a little closer and lowered her voice, “And when you click with somebody, it doesn’t matter who, you don’t notice anybody else, not really. I didn’t choose to fall for Angel or...for Faith, these things just happen.” Buffy scowled and shook her head, “And I’m so not a drama queen.”

Cordelia smiled. “Little bit.”

“Whatever. But if I was I‘d certainly have the right to be.” Buffy pulled her bag onto her shoulder, “How many eighteen year old girls have to spend their Friday nights saving the world?”

Cordelia raised an eyebrow. “Hypothetical?”

Buffy nodded and glanced to see Giles deep in book-mode. “Well, yeah...And you can tell Xander we’re good now...We are good, right?”

“As good as we’re ever going to be, I guess.” Cordelia thought about it, “So the ‘you and Faith’ situation is for real, not just some attention getter?”

“For real.” Buffy shrugged, “I mean, I tried the whole normal thing with Scott...it just didn’t work out. Things with Faith...”

“Be vague.” Cordelia stated flatly.

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Fine, I’ll be all flowery. Faith is like three different people rolled into one, she’s...always surprising, and exciting, and she makes me happy. Does that make sense?”

Cordelia shook her head as she opened the library door. She was as blunt as ever. “Sorry, I’m a practical girl. Unless one of her ‘three different people’ has a penis, I’ll remain mystified. Anyway, good luck with the save-age or whatever.” And with that Cordelia left, things between them better than they had been, which Buffy supposed was something.

With a last look at Giles, Buffy left for her house. She would mention the whole dream thing later, when more vital things were done with. But for now she had to quick change into urban ninja mode and then go on to the town hall to do her civic duty.

‘That’s me, Future Girl to the rescue.’

*****

With a final heave Buffy pulled herself off of the ladder and up onto the roof, swinging the backpack that had been Faith’s Christmas present off her shoulder she crouched in the shadows and looked towards the skylight.

No sounds and no vampire security walking the grassy perimeter had made it a pretty easy infiltration so far. Buffy guessed that the Mayor thought that his anonymity was his best protection.

The last time Buffy had done this she’d been in the company of Willow and Angel and the only alarm system there’d been was the one for the big box o’ spiders. Nothing electronic.

Buffy also remembered that the skylight led into a conference room, on the same floor as the main corridor that led to the suit of offices. One of which belonged to the Deputy Mayor. From there she could find the Mayor’s office, and maybe a helpful ‘how to become an invulnerable immortal while in political office’ book while she at it.

From her bag Buffy pulled two fresh stakes, a length of rope and a stick of chewing gum. Popping the chewing gum in her mouth she made her way over to the skylight and peered down.

All clear.

Putting her backpack down to one side she put the stakes into her inside jacket pocket and silently opened the window, tied off the end of the rope onto a nearby pipe before dropping it over the edge into the room. Taking the gum out of her mouth she pressed it against the latch mechanism to stop it from locking when she closed it behind her. An open skylight would look wicked obvious to anyone coming into the room and casually looking around.

‘”Wicked obvious”? I guess Faith’s rubbing off on me...’

Swinging her leg over Buffy quickly descended, stopping only to gently close the window. Pleased that the catch didn’t take she landed softly on the conference table, coiling the rope she threw it high up onto the top of one of some nearby cupboards so that it didn’t hang down. As long as nobody turned on the main light it wasn’t that obvious.

Scooting off of the table she cautiously approached the twin doors exiting the room, grabbing one of the handles she opened she carefully opened the door and peeked out.

Which is where her luck ran out.

Just as she was looking a large man in a dark suit and lime green tie was making his way down the corridor, his eye caught the movement of the door and he turned, seeing Buffy’s profile.

Grimacing Buffy opened the door more fully. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I just got like, totally lost. Is the tour over?” Buffy said emphasising her valley girl inflections.

The man glared menacingly at her but didn’t call out or reach for a radio or anything. “What are you doing here?”

“Not buying it huh? If I was Fletch you would’ve bought it.” Buffy sighed, “Well, since you ask, I’m multitasking.” She counted things off on her fingers, “I’m breaking into the Mayor's office, critiquing all the crappy furniture that the Mayor somehow thinks is tasteful and, also, I’m kicking your ass.” With that Buffy shot forward, grabbed the vampire by his lapels and yanked him with her, back into the conference room.

Startled the vampire never the less responded quickly, knocking Buffy’s hands aside and taking a wild swing at her. She ducked, moving to get between him and the open door. She bashed it closed before turning and kicking him solidly in the back. He stumbled forward as she drew a stake. Time to make this quick.

But then Buffy staggered as she was hit with a dizzy spell, she blinked and swayed slightly as her vision swam.

‘What the hell..? No, this can’t...No crystals, there were no injections. Giles wouldn’t...’

The vampire struck her in the face, knocking her back hard against the door. Growling and now in vamp face he forced himself against her and tried to drive his mouth against her neck. Desperately Buffy fought him, getting a hand under his chin and forcing his face up, with a forceful grunt he rammed her head against his face, knocking him backwards. She felt the strength in her muscles as she struck him hard, twice across the face before a powerful uppercut sent him sprawling back onto the conference table.

With a fast, clumsy lunge Buffy managed to jab the stake deep into his chest, letting go as she suddenly felt her legs give out from under her and she sank to the floor.

This wasn’t weakness; at least it didn’t feel like it to Buffy. It was similar to the dizzy spells that the serum had given her, like sudden vertigo that sapped the coordination from her limbs. Her head was spinning and she felt hot, feverish. Where had this come from? Giles wouldn’t send her on this mission if he thought...

She had to get out of here, back up onto the roof. Buffy shook her head in an attempt to clear, by that just made it worse, blackness started to creep into he edges of her vision, before her eyes distinct shapes blurred like a mirage, rippling and blending with the black as the conference floor carpet got closer and closer...

It felt like Buffy had only closed her eyes for a second, forehead resting on cheap scratchy carpeting. She blinked, moved her head slightly to see feet. Lots of feet. Four pairs of smart black shoes and one pair of stylish brown spats at the front.

“Y’know slayer, there is a difference between being cocky and just plain stupid. And I think you just found the line.” Trick squatted down a few feet away from her and smiled, “What’s the matter, you gettin’ puffed after staking one vamp?” He cocked his head at one of his underlings. “Who’d she get?”

“Murdock.” The vampire stated, sounding upset.

“Uh, which one was he?”

“Colourful ties.” Another said dismissively.

Trick shook his head sadly. “Aw, see. Now that guy had... panache, why did you have to go and do that.”

Buffy’s head was clearing now; she looked up and saw three guys, security, in power suits. Definitely vamps. But surprisingly the fourth person was a nervous looking Finch; obviously the Deputy Mayor was working late.

Buffy tested her muscles; they seemed fine, a few pins and needles but no real sign of weakness. Her mind, senses were still a bit dull, no way she could hold her own against four vampires, especially if one of them was Trick. Buffy was in trouble, she knew it and more importantly Trick knew it too. But maybe there was something she could do to even the odds. Trying to be casual but deliberately failing she glanced at her watch as she sat up.

Trick caught the gesture. “You need to be somewhere?” He said dryly.

Buffy gave her best dead-eyed stare and bluffed him. “You really don’t think I came alone did you? Maybe you forgot what we did to your last boss. We.”

Trick lost his smile and stood up quickly. “You two check the Mayor’s office first they spread out. Look for the other slayer. Check with security down stairs.” Buffy felt a little better as two of the burly vampires hurried back out the door. Better odds.

Finch didn’t move, just spoke up nervously. “I think we’ll...I mean, shouldn’t we have h-her escorted off the premises? Right away?”

Trick raised an eyebrow as he turned to look at Finch. “Oh, I don’t think the Mayor would want that. Besides, she just got here; she should see something for her efforts.”

Buffy moved in a blur, flipping to her feet and kicking Trick in the side. But she was slower than usual and he turned with the blow, evading it. But fortunately Trick stumbled backwards over a panicked Finch before he could counter.

Buffy tried to press her advantage and ran face first into a strong right cross from the second vampire that sent her reeling. He followed by charging into her, his flailing arms knocking her back before she could regain her balance. With a bone-jarring thud they both crashed against the wall, his hands seizing her throat and ramming her head back a couple of times before Buffy gripped his hands and twisted one of his thumbs under there was a dull cracking snap. Roaring in pain he slammed an elbow into her temple as she dodged under him and to the side.

Trick was already heading her way, his face vamped and grinning confidently. The last time they’d squared off properly Buffy had almost died, only Faith’s timely intervention had saved her. She pulled a stake, shifted her stance and kicked back at the vampire behind her as he came at her again, her boot catching him in the stomach.

Pushing off against him she snapped a jab at Trick’s face, saw him dodge easily as he turned into a spin kick. She should’ve read it better but instead caught a solid blow to the ribs and then a stinging backhand. Buffy just barely managed to dodge his legsweep by leaping backwards onto the table and kicking out with both legs. Her feet ploughed solidly into his chest and Trick flew back against the wall with a satisfying crunch.

But the other vampire grasped her outstretched legs and pulled her forcefully off the table. Buffy landed heavily on the carpet and wasn’t fast enough to avoid the foot that stomped on her chest, and then a follow up kick to her stomach. Buffy winched as pain shot though her, she twisted onto her side to catch another powerful boot before kicking back and up into the vampire’s groin.

With a strangled snarl he backed off only to be replaced by Trick who snatched Buffy, yanked her up and brutally smashed her head against the edge of the conference table. Buffy reeled as she broke his grip and tried to back up but Trick was quicker, hitting the side of her face with something heavy, a paperweight? And suddenly she felt roaring in her ears.

She was obviously slower than she realised from her light-headedness, she brought up her arms to block another blow to her head, but caught one to her throat instead. Coughing, Buffy snatched at the wrist, punched wildly at her opponent, the blows connecting solidly, before twisting the limb and throwing Trick to one side, watching as he slid over the polished conference table to crash heavily on the other side.

Buffy shook her head as she drew a stake from her jacket, slay one and run, get away before the whole security brigade comes crashing down. She snapped a look at the other security vamp that came barrelling at her, lashing out with a low kick to trip him. He collided with her and they both went tumbling, his heavy body bearing down on her so all she had to do was turn her wrist slightly and suddenly he was dust.

Buffy coughed in a lungful of air as she struggled back to her feet. Across the table Trick adjusted his suit, his yellow eyes glaring at her.

“Well, this has been fun, but...” He gestured behind her to where three vamps stood in the doorway, having returned after completing their sweep. Buffy felt her shoulders slump, she was already hurting, and for some reason not at her best, too slow and dizzy. So Buffy did the only thing she could think of, she charged at the remaining vamps and, just as she thought they would, they charged her. She spun agilely on a dime and ran back towards the conference table, stepped up and kicked off it before flipping high over the security’s rearing heads. Landing somewhat gracefully behind them she grabbed the double doors and pulled them shut as she stepped back into the corridor.

‘Haven’t been that acrobatic in a while...and, Ow.’

She spotted two more vamps heading up the corridor, speeding up suddenly as they saw her, while the doors in her hands vibrated alarmingly as the vampires inside tried to force their way out. Stepping backwards quickly Buffy grabbed a nearby chair, kept there for guard duty, and hurled it at the oncoming blood suckers, getting a little satisfaction as they tripped clumsily over cheap furnishings. She ran the other way down the corridor, ignoring office doors, looking for an emergency exit. Nothing, just a big frosted glass window at the end, and with them all being about three stories up...

She snapped a look back to see the couple of vamps had become a mob, Trick wasn’t amongst them, but then he didn’t need to be, in her condition they would tear her apart no problem. Buffy grimaced, braced herself and ran as fast at the window as she could, if she pushed off hard enough she could maybe hit the tree line around the building and break her fall.

‘Well, as mission successes go, this was about sucked out of ten.’

Buffy smashed through the glass at a dead run and dropped into darkness.

Helpless (PART 2: What’s Right About This Passage Again?)

Buffy limped into sight of the school just as she finished picking the last of the leaves out of her jacket with her free hand. Her other arm was still cradling her ribs after their sudden encounter with a tree branch.

She’d gotten away from Trick and his men, but not cleanly. She felt sore all over, arms and shoulders aching from breaking her fall, head and neck from the fight in the town hall, and a badly sprained ankle from a poor landing. In action movies they always show people parachuting or jumping into a tree line like it's no big deal. Lying pack of Hollywood liars.

Forgoing the main exit, she didn’t want to explain her battered appearance to any late-night janitor’s; Buffy opted to enter the library through the back. Hissing every time she put her weight on her foot Buffy made her way as quickly as she could across the grounds, she knew Giles was still here; his car was in the faculty lot.

Buffy wasn’t worried about her physical injuries, although the fact she was being beat up more this year than last ‘year’ was kind of distressing, but she would heal.

Some of the pain from her head and ribs was already fading, and in a couple of days she’d be good as new. But mentally, getting all waverey and lightheaded was far worse. Slayers who got dizzy right before a slay had a short shelf life like, some sort of fruit, a pear maybe? Buffy never knew when those things were ready to eat.

She’d even checked both her arms for fresh injection marks after fleeing the town hall, but nothing, no holes or bruising. So she didn’t think Giles was responsible, big relief.

So Buffy would tell him, ask him for any thoughts he might have and then take the rest of the night and tomorrow off, ice-scapades beckoned. She needed some TLC from her failed infiltration mission, and since the mayor now knew that he was on her radar he’d be much more wary next time.

Buffy passed through a couple of side doors and ended up in the stacks at the back of the library, pausing in the gloom she slowly made her way forward.

As she did so she heard voices, Giles talking with someone, seemingly in sympathy.

“There, all done. Now that wasn’t so bad now was it?”

“I guess not.” The other voice was Faith, sounding pretty grumpy.

Buffy sped up a little, perhaps she’d missed the sword fight and Faith had somehow lost. She sure sounded upset about it. It would’ve been pretty surprising as well...but didn’t Faith say that she was coming down with something? Maybe it was a cold.

Buffy suddenly got a bad feeling and stopped, deciding to just listen as the conversation continued.

“So when is this stuff gonna kick in? Shouldn’t I be feelin’ better?” Faith asked Giles.

“The effects should take about half an hour to make themselves known.” Giles said reassuringly, “After that your strength and reflexes should start coming back.”

“’S good, cus’ I’m really off my game...barely gettin’ by. Like my games’ become...Lacrosse or somethin’ lame like that.”

Giles’ tone was conciliatory. “Well, I’m aware that you started you training before your calling, that must have stand you in good stead.”

Faith grunted. “Barely, though Xander and Red watchin’ my back was a big help, y’know?”

“I did tell you to forego patrolling until you were feeling better.” Giles admonished, “It was lucky nobody was injured.”

“Nah, we had a system down, it’s all good.” Faith chuckled dryly. “Maybe we should use this super-juice on the Scooby’s so they can help out some more.”

“Yes, well I wouldn’t recommend it...Some nasty side-effects.” Giles seemed to be moving around and putting stuff away, “Now did you bring your weapons like I asked?”

“Sure, everything I could fit in a bag. What’s up?”

Giles sighed, he seemed reluctant. “We’ve discovered the source of a new rash of undead activity in the area. It seems a vampire is busily siring left and right, trying to swell the surrounding vampiric population for an untold dark purpose.” He coughed slightly, “We’ve located his lair.”

Buffy could here Faith’s doubt. “Who’s we?”

“Buffy and I, we’ve been tracking attack patterns you see, looking for the source.” ‘Oh have we now...What the hell is Giles doing?’

“So where’s Buffy?” Faith asked.

“Uh, oh I would think that she’s probably waiting for you. I told her to scout the vampire’s location; fortunately he seems to occupy a nest all on his own.”

Buffy heard a chair scrape as Faith stood up. “Then where is she, I’ll head there now.”

“She’s near an old boarding house on Prescott Lane. If she’s not outside...she’s probably waiting for you inside, you know how she is.”

‘Oh, hell no... Kralik, he’s sending her after Kralik and using me as bait! This ends right now.’

Buffy stepped from behind the bookcase she’d been standing near for these long minutes, and immediately felt the familiar sense of vertigo kick in. She swayed and clutched the edge of the bookcase for support, she could still hear the conversation continuing, but the words echoed and distorted so much that couldn’t make out distinct words. She tried calling out but she felt queasiness rising in her stomach so she stopped.

Buffy gritted her teeth and fought back rising the nausea as she pressed her forehead against hard wood and musty books, fingers strong and steady but her legs felt numb. She could feel her vision swimming behind her eyes, and a sensation like water sloshing back and forth in her ears. What the hell was this...?

She heard approaching footsteps. “Buffy...” Giles’ voice, soft with surprise.

Buffy opened her eyes, still feeling queasy, and not just because of the dizzy spell. “You bastard.”

Giles was standing at the top of the stairs, not looking particularly pleased with himself. “How long have you been...?”

Buffy tested her legs by moving away from the bookcase. “Long enough,” She said glaring at him before calling out, “Faith! Faith!”

Giles looked around. “Faith left about five minutes ago, Buffy.” He spoke softly and with sympathy.

She turned on him. “You said you weren’t going to do it. You just stood there and lied to me, again!” Buffy said coldly, “You sent me on a suicide run and then used it as cover to send Faith somewhere to get killed. What the hell are you doing?” She started towards him but stumbled, she stopped herself from falling by hastily grabbing the banister.

Seemingly for the first time Giles took in her injuries, how she moved. “Buffy, what happened? Are you alright?”

Buffy grimaced as she swayed. “Like you care. How did you do it, huh? It couldn’t have been needles because that’s the first thing I checked.”

“Checked..?” Giles frowned, “Buffy, I didn’t do anything to you. I gave you my word...But the council, the preparations were already in motion and with Faith’s birthday having just passed...”

“What? You Watchers thought you’d get her a present?” Buffy gave a harsh laugh, “What do you get for the slayer who has nothing.”

Giles face was a mask of sorrow. “Every slayer must face the Cruciamentum. If it wasn’t to be you then it was to be Faith. I’m sorry, Buffy but in matters of protocol I must answer to the council.”

Buffy sneered at him. “So you betray her, the girl with trust issues and impulse control problems. That’s real smart.”

Giles sighed and took off his glasses. “You’re more right than you know.”

Despite herself Buffy asked. “What do you mean?”

Giles looked at her, his eyes tired. “Faith is…an exceptional slayer, but she does have faults. Her first instinct is to always attack, sometimes without thinking. I have tried talking to her but she’s too stubborn. She’s also reckless and overconfident and that…that I fear will eventually lead to her death. Or perhaps the death of somebody else.”

‘Alan Finch…’ “So you’re saying this is what, for her own good? …No, that’s bullshit. That’s just the council’s ‘she’ll come out stronger’ company line. She’ll come out hating you.” But Buffy’s voice sounded unsure, even to herself.

“You think I don’t know that.” Giles snapped, “But it will keep her alive longer and I have to believe that the risk is worth taking.” Giles sighed as his voice softened again. “…I didn’t want to do this Buffy, but I had no choice. You must know that.”

Buffy felt her anger growing again. “You want to know what I know…I know that your beloved superiors royally screw up this test thing. That Kralik escapes and murders his handlers before turning one of them. That’s what I know.”

Giles eyes widened in shock. “But you didn’t say…”

“Because you lied to my face and told me the test wasn’t taking place at all! I thought that was it. Done. But now everything…” Buffy froze as she thought of something, “Giles, did the Watchers know where Faith was staying, did they know that she was staying at my house?”

Giles nodded. “Of course, but why…Good lord, Joyce!”

Buffy made her way down the stairs and over to the front desk. “He’s gonna take Mom again, use her to bait Faith. He has a thing for Mothers, that’s what he told me last time.”

Buffy grabbed the phone and dialled her house, waiting an eternity as the phone rang and rang. ‘C’mon Mom, please…’

No answer, the machine got it. And Mom should be back from the gallery this late.

Buffy turned to Giles. “I don’t care about your ‘rite of passage’ bullshit; I’m going after them both. Now.”

Giles nodded understandingly. “Of course Buffy, but…your injured, badly. How did you come to…?”

“Tell you later, but Faith is not facing Kralik alone. She might not be able to…” Buffy shook her head but didn’t finish.

A new voice spoke up from behind her. “That is the point of the exercise, Miss Summers.”

Buffy turned to see Travers standing at the library doors. “You.”

Travers regarded Buffy sternly. “Miss Summers, you are forbidden to interfere with the test.”

She flexed her fingers and smiled dangerously. “I’d be kinda curious to know how you’re going to stop me.”

“Mr. Giles, control your slayer.” Travers kept his voice firm, “Before she does something you’ll both regret.”

Giles fumed. “The test is over. Kralik has escaped and by now either Blair or Hobson will have been turned. This whole thing has spun impressively out of control. Quentin, I’m appealing to you to stop this at once.”

Travers nodded somberly. “I am…aware of the situation. It changes nothing.”

Giles just stared in disbelief as Buffy glared at him. “That maniac has my mother.”

That seemed to give Travers pause. “Then…in that case you must rely on your fellow slayer to rescue her, just as you would trust her with your own life, night after night.”

Buffy stepped forward but stopped herself just in time. “I am seriously considering hitting you.”

Travers didn’t even blink. “A slayer must be more than physical prowess, Miss Summers. She must have cunning, imagination, and a confidence that comes from self-reliance. Believe me when the exercise is over your friend will be stronger for it.” Travers looked at Giles, “You’ve told me of this girl…her talents. That combined with Miss Dormer’s notes…”

Buffy had had enough; she hurried over to Quentin and grabbed him. “This isn’t an exercise, moron. This is people’s lives you’re playing with.” She then shoved him hard to one side and raced out of the library, she’d lost enough time talking with that crusty old idiot. At least Giles understood the dangers now, but the question was did Faith?

*****

The boarding house loomed before Buffy, doors closed, windows boarded and bricked up. A house of death with Faith and her Mom trapped inside.

Despite the pain in her chest and limbs, her weakness, the light-headedness that faded in and out, Buffy hadn’t hesitated. She’d pushed out all those sensations, including the seeping feeling of helplessness that threatened to overcome her.

She’d pressed herself onward, sprinting over to this place as fast as she could, as nightmare after nightmare reeled through her head, of her Mom tied up and helpless, of hearing Faith calling out her name in fear and panic, of not being there in time.

Now with focused anger she kicked at the sturdy front door, feeling solid wood and lock tear away from the door jam, the noise was jarringly loud in the quiet of the night.

Buffy stepped cautiously into the house, its dilapidated surroundings coming back to her in eerily clear detail. But there were some differences, scattered across the foyer floor were a few weapons, splintered stakes, a dropped dagger, even a small axe embedded in the wall opposite, like it had been thrown.

But what caught Buffy’s eye and made her insides freeze was blood.

Large droplets scattered across the floor, trailing to the stair case, like somebody was steadily seeping blood as they moved. Buffy reached and snatched up an intact stake, looking left and right towards the murky shadows. Nothing.

Buffy walked forward, heading for the foot of the stairs when she heard a creak from behind her. She turned to see a vampire lunge at her from behind the front door, its growl mixed with a snarl of pain as it had tore itself loose of a crossbow bolt that had pinned it to the wall.

Buffy dodged backwards and kicked out on instinct, her foot connecting low and making the vampire stumble past her. She twisted the stake as she spun and lunged at its back but, quicker than she had thought, the vampire turned and seized her exposed wrist. He slammed a fist into her sore ribs before throwing Buffy around and across the room with deceptive strength. Buffy stumbled forward as her foot connected with something heavy and she crashed hard against a crumbling sofa.

That’s when she heard the female scream coming from upstairs, one not of fear but of pain. Buffy struggled to get up, cursing the sluggishness in her limbs as she was grasped around the back of the neck and hauled up.

“I’m getting real tired…” Without looking she jammed the stake backwards directly into the vamps heart, “Of grabby men.”

She turned and walked through the exploding haze of dust, quickening her pace as she neared the foot of the stairs. The screams had stopped; all that greeted her as she ascended was ominous silence.

Despite her better judgement Buffy cried out. “Faith! Faith, hang on!”

Halfway up the steps Buffy paused to step over bits of broken banister, spotting a discarded penknife she recognized as belonging to Faith, as well as curious wood shavings littering one of the steps. Faith making new stakes? And where the hell was Kralik?

A voice from above answered her last question. “Well, what do we have here? Dessert? And I haven’t even finished my main course.” There was a dry chuckle.

Buffy gripped her stake as she looked up into the darkness, she saw Kralik descending, almost casually, and he held his pills in one hand. “Hey, you wouldn’t have some water would you? I just hate dry swallowing…it, heh, drives me crazy.”

Buffy readied herself, her legs tensing. “I’ve got something that’ll make your pain go away for good, it’s a regular cure-all.” She looked into his eyes as they caught the half-light, “Where’s Faith?”

He grinned and almost giggled. “I killed her.” Buffy’s heart almost stopped.

And that’s when he struck out with a leg at Buffy’s face, her eyes flickering with uncertainty, catching her solidly under the chin and sending her flying forcefully back down the stairs. Her back crashed hard against the hand rail, splintering old dead wood as it disintegrated under the force of her weight. The impact sent white-hot pain spiraling across her back, Buffy came to moments later on the floor in the lobby, shattered spokes and broken bits of wood lay all around her. She scrambled for her lost stake.

Suddenly Kralik brought his boot down on her searching hand, heel crushing painfully against her fingers. Buffy cried out as he clutched at the back of her neck and pulled her upright. She struggled against his strength, shooting an elbow into his stomach. He barely grunted, ignoring any pain, before swinging her around and face first into the newel post. Creaking timber exploded on impact as Buffy barely got her arms up in time to protect her head, she tumbled away onto the floor and rolled forward, partially blinded and feeling wetness on her face. She scrambled as she tried to get some space, a doorway between herself and Kralik so she could regroup.

Buffy pushed herself up and wiped her hand across her eyes, pushing away any fragments of wood. She saw a door up ahead, maybe the one to the basement?

But Kralik was relentless, seizing her shoulders in a vice-like grip, his voice a sing-song rasp in her ear. “Someone’s in the basement. Let’s go see.”

With that he flung Buffy headlong at the door which shattered as it impacted against her. Stairs flew up to meet her as Buffy bounced down them, twisting and tumbling end over end as the floor hammered her body, ribs blaring out in strident agonizing chords as she crashed in a heap at the bottom. Her head swam as the dust settled; her brain was being filled with a chorus of painful signals. Something liquid trickled down into her ear, she wasn’t sure if it was blood or sweat.

Buffy’s limbs felt leaden but still she managed to pull herself up, blinking to clear her vision she sensed Kralik at the top of the stairs. She crawled across the floor, through the rubble and debris that was scattered everywhere.

Buffy saw her Mom, still gagged and tied to a chair to one side, held as a terrified prisoner. To her left stood Faith, battered and bloody, she looked at Buffy, her face grim. There were scratches on her forehead, bloody smears on her neck where she looked like she’d been bit, her bottom lip was split and her left cheek was beginning to swell. Faith didn’t react to Buffy, or how she looked. Her jaw was rigid with tension, her cheeks pursed, her mouth clamped shut and her eyes unreadable. In her right hand she held a crossbow; the left was curled protectively against her side like it was hurt.

Buffy felt a hand clutch at her leg before she was hauled back into the shadows, hearing her Mom’s panicked cries through her gag. Buffy tried to resist but her muscles wouldn’t work, her limbs felt like useless dead weight and her nerves trembling with soreness. Kralik effortlessly pulled her upright.

He held Buffy rigid against himself, shielding himself from Faith’s aim. “Now little girl, let’s make a deal. I cast aside this...tasty meal when you toss your weapon. That sounds fair, hmn?” He chuckled darkly, his hand clamped on Buffy’s throat.

Buffy tried to shake her head, to speak or make a sound but his grip was too tight, and she was too weak. It seemed like everywhere that didn’t hurt was dead and numb.

She tried to read Faith’s eyes, but all she saw there was fear.

Faith didn’t say anything, didn’t hesitate, she just threw the crossbow so it clattered between them. Buffy watched as her Mom’s eyes widened in terror.

Buffy felt Kralik sigh and then toss Buffy like a rag doll, she slammed hard against an old industrial washing machine, she huffed out a painful breath as she hit the floor, and her head slumped. Blearily with her eyes she willed Faith to try and retrieve the crossbow.

But Kralik was walking towards Faith at a predatory stroll, and had already stepped over the discarded weapon. His hands held high. “See, I’m a man of my word. I’m not a monster...Well; actually I’m a monster of my word, but you get the idea.” He glanced between Faith and Buffy’s Mom and then tapped his chin thoughtfully, “I’ll tell you what... after I turn you, you can decide which one to eat and which one to turn. One big happy family. How does that sound?”

Faith still didn’t speak; her lips were pressed firmly together. But Faith’s throat seemed to flexing involuntarily, her wide eyes fixed of Kralik as her right arm went behind her back before quickly pulling out a crucifix and brandishing it at Kralik.

Buffy’s eyes widened in despair. ‘That won’t work, he’ll get past it and... hurt her.’

Her eye’s searched frantically across the floor before spotting the crossbow nearby, its bolt having skipped the groove and rolled to within reach of Buffy. She flexed her fingers, feeling a twinge in her shoulder as she did so, but she managed to scoot a little and close her fingers around the wooden bolt. She tested to see if her stiff legs could move. Trembling with effort she managed to pull them under herself. As she did so Kralik stepped to within a foot of Faith.

His teeth were bared at the cross, his body trembling with tension before he suddenly seized Faith’s wrist and pulled her close, laying her hand and the crucifix against her skin. “Ah, that’s...nice, a little lower. That’s it.” Smoke rose from his chest as he moved Faith’s hand around, “This holds no fear for me, little girl, it’s just wood.” He leaned forward against her trapped arm, his mouth wide and smiling, “What are you afraid of?”

And then Faith smile.

And spat.

A long stream of water came from her mouth, arching directly into Kralik’s face and open mouth, splashing against his lips and blistering as it did so. Kralik screamed and choked in agony as his face and throat were engulfed in sizzling smoke. “Aaarrrggghh!” Kralik screamed, clawing at his throat and mouth, eyes wide and bulging. He released Faith’s hand and she jerked the crucifix away and pulled it back.

“Ain’t afraid of you asshole.” Faith plunged the crucifix down into Kralik’s face, its long stem sinking deep into his eyes socket. His screams and bellows became louder and higher pitched as he staggered and fell backwards onto the floor, his body writhing and jerking in agony. Faith followed him down, straddling him.

Faith snarled as she pulled the cross back, revealing that the long stem had been sharpened to a point. “Stake’s just wood too, dumbass.” She plunged it down, her face twisted in savage glee as she stabbed at his throat, again and again. Burning, holy wood punctured through undead flesh, burning and crisping as it did so. Kralik writhed in agony, parts of his neck and lower jaw were now smoking constantly from the burning holy water, almost beginning to blacken and melt.

Faith brought her hand back in a wide arch before stabbing down once more with full force, straight into Kralik’s chest, and then the smoke was curling up from nothing but dust, Kralik’s cries were silent and the basement was eerily quiet again.

Buffy pulled herself to her knees. “Faith! Faith...god, are you okay?”

Faith slumped back on her haunches, energy seemingly spent. Her voice was dull. “A little sticky...think my wrists broke.”

“Don’t worry we’ll get you out of here...” Buffy stopped as Faith started crying, the brunette covering her face as harsh sobs wracked her frame, her shoulders trembling with a mixture of relief and sorrow. Buffy went over to her and hugged her shoulders.

To her surprise Faith resisted her, and pushed her away. “Where were you? You were supposed to be here...” Her voice was accusatory, “...Giles said you’d be...” She voice suddenly became dull with realisation, now that the terror of her situation was over, she was beginning to realise what had happened, what Giles had done.

Buffy backed off and made her way over to her Mom, concentrating on removing her gag and bonds, and then she could see about fixing Faith.

Because she was broken.

*****

“Congratulations. You passed.” Travers, with his hands in his pockets, nodded at Faith, “The exhibited extraordinary courage and clear-headedness in battle. The council is very please.”

Faith sat at the desk, curled in a chair, her left arm now in a crude splint, her eyes dully watching Travers.

“Well goodie, now I feel all warm inside.” She voice cracked with barely contained anger, Buffy, watching from across the table, could relate.

Travers nodded in understanding. “You think the test was unfair?”

“I think the next time I see you, you better be moving your tubby ass in the other direction.” Faith snarled.

“We’re not in the business of fair, Miss Lehane. We’re fighting a war.”

Buffy spoke up. “Actually, we’re fighting it. You’re watching. There’s a difference.”

“I’ll get to you in due course Miss Summers; there are consequences for the actions you took.”

Giles spoke up from behind Travers. “The test is done Quentin, you should leave. We’re finished.”

“Not quite.” He turned to regard Giles, “The slayer is not the only one who must perform in this situation. You lost control of your slayer when you became personally involved.” Travers sighed regrettably, “I have recommended to the council, and they have agreed, that you be removed from your duties as watcher effective immediately. You’re fired.”

Giles seemed a little taken aback. “On what grounds.”

Travers shook his head in disappointment. “You took the side of your slayer against the council’s wishes. It has become clear that your affection for her has rendered you incapable of clear and impartial judgement. And that is useless to the cause.” His voice was firm now, “It would be best for you not to have any further contact with either slayer.”

Giles shook his head. “I’m not going anywhere.” He said firmly.

“No, well, I didn’t expect you to adhere to that. However, if you interfere with the new watcher or try to countermand his authority in any way you will be dealt with. Are we clear?”

Giles didn’t even try to hide his distain. “Oh, we’re very clear.”

Nodding Travers turned back to Faith, smiling softly. “Congratulations again.”

“Screw you.”

Travers frowned slightly at the disrespect, but shrugged it off as he left. “Yes, quite...Spirited girl.”

Faith watched him go before slowly getting up, wincing as she did so.

Buffy hurried over. “Faith, don’t move.”

She looked at her dully. “Get away from me.”

Buffy stopped and held back. “We need to get you to a hospital. We should’ve gone earlier.”

Faith glanced between Buffy and Giles. “You don’t seem t’be too surprised by all this, B. Why is that?”

“I...” Buffy hesitated, “I didn’t know Giles was going to do this to you, I swear.”

Faith eyed her suspiciously before turned on Giles. “Why?”

“It’s a council test, Faith. It’s done when the slayer reaches eighteen.” Giles paused uncomfortably.

“And Buffy’s eighteenth is comin’ up so I get the short straw, is that it?” Faith limped passed them both, scowling. “Guess it don’t matter. We know who the favourite is anyways.”

Giles stepped forward hesitantly. “Faith...”

“We’re done,” Faith interrupted coldly, “I see you again, I’ll kill you, I swear. The only reason I ain’t is ‘cause you’re Buffy’s watcher.” Faith tilted her head slightly and smiled thinly, “Although, I guess you ain’t anymore, huh? Well, how ‘bout that. Best watch your back then, Rupert.”

Giles held up a placating hand. “Faith, I didn’t have a choice...”

“You better stop talkin’ now; otherwise I’m huntin’ ya down when I get my powers back.” Faith’s eyes burned into him, “How didja do it anyhow? I mean, apart from that last injection, obviously.”

Giles shook his head, his face miserable. “A muscle relaxant in your water bottle, mixed with sedatives.”

Buffy stepped in front of Faith. “Faith, please. I know how it feels. I know how angry you are, but we can get past this, okay? You don’t have to forgive Giles, but we need...”

“No, actually you need to,” Faith looked Buffy up and down, “And you don’t know how it feels...to be...t’have everything that makes you special just taken like that. If you knew how it felt... there’s no way you could ‘get past’ it.” Faith stopped as she thought about it. “Tell me, B, if your Mom hadn’t been there, would you even have showed up?”

Buffy looked disbelieving. “Of course I...I came to save you!”

Faith glared at her. “Well, you’re hidin’ something, I’m sure of that. And I’m done trusting blindly...So until you tell me whatever it is you’re not tellin’ me, we’re through.” She went to move passed her.

Buffy moved desperately to stop her, to get her to listen. “Faith, please just stop, don’t do this. I can explain!”

“Move it, or we throw down, B. I mean it.” Faith wouldn’t look at her, “Joyce is waiting to take me to the hospital.”

Dumbly Buffy stepped aside and watched the brunette leave, she couldn’t feel anything. All the pain of her own injuries was swept away by the terrifying numbness that gripped her heart.

Holding her head Buffy slumped down on one of the chairs, dimly aware that it was now past midnight. Her birthday.

Giles spoke up softly, hesitantly. “Buffy...You and Faith, ah, is there something...”

Buffy spoke in barely a whisper, her throat tight, and her eyes holding back tears. “Don’t Giles. Just, please... don’t.”

And through her head, those sentences from Christmas swirled. Echoing back and mocking her.

‘“It’s strange, don’t you think that the most powerful hate is born out of love. All that jealousy and passion. Not to mention betrayal. It all burns so fierce.”’

‘“Faith...that’s not her anymore, she wouldn’t betray me.”’

‘“Interesting. You thought I was talking about her...”’

...continued in The Zeppo...

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