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Everything is Different Now: Picking Up The Pieces

by Declan
Rating: NC-17

+1=2=3=4=Interlude=5+

Picking Up The Pieces (PART 1: Fresh Wounds, Open Graves)

It took a long time to make the trip across town to Giles’ place; Faith was semi-conscious and staggering for most of the way, meaning that both Buffy and Xander had to help keep her steady. Faith’s dislocated shoulder was bad, too bad to be popped back into place with a simple grunt and push like last time. Even so, Buffy was more than a little wary when Xander broke off to call his place on a nearby payphone. She watched Faith carefully as Xander told Giles the basics. He explained some of what went down at the Initiative but said he’d give the Watcher the full picture when he got back over to his place, found his manacles and had them at the ready for when they arrived.

‘Probably an interesting conversation’, Buffy thought absently as she watched from a few yards away.

Next to her Faith was still hunched over, leaning back against a low wall and cradling her shoulder. To any passerby, Faith just looked like a college student, one who looked a little the worse for drinking. Afternoon drinking, but whatever.

Luckily Faith was also in no mood to give Buffy anything more than the occasional dirty look, for which Buffy was grateful. The way her mind was whirling and her body was aching, she barely in any shape for another squaring off with the other slayer.

Walsh’s incredibly dangerous project was out on the loose somewhere, Riley had been hauled off to some dark, secret medical place, and Buffy was standing next to the girl who hours earlier, had held her Mom hostage and tried to bring Buffy into Initiative custody.

No wonder Buffy was having trouble absorbing all this new information: she was close to spacing, big time.

Xander appeared next to her, his face wearing his patented frowning puppy-dog expression. “Giles is on his way over now. He sounded freaked. British-freaked, but still, I had to repeat a couple of things.”

Buffy pulled her hair out of its uncomfortably tight bun and ran her fingers through it. “I know it's not ideal Xander, but there’s nowhere else. We need somewhere to keep Faith that’s minimum safe distance and discreet. Giles’ is the best place I can think of, and thanks to his Spike experience, he’s used to having a houseguest.” Her attempted jokey tone fell flat and she looked at her friend, “You get that, right?” she asked softly.

Xander looked at her, and then glanced warily at Faith. “...I guess.”

Buffy tried to sound a bit more confident. “Then let’s go.”

They made the rest of the long way there in tense silence, with Buffy half-supporting Faith as she walked, her breathing laboured by pain. As late afternoon tipped into early evening, Buffy found herself occasionally murmuring, “Almost there,” out of automatic concern for Faith, earning a few strange looks from Xander as a reward.

Giles opened the door as they approached his apartment and ushered them inside. “Thank goodness I have habitually indifferent neighbours. Now tell me what happened?”

Buffy led Faith over to the couch and gently helped her down. She stiffly ignored the butterflies in her stomach that resulted from being so close to the other girl for so long. Bodies pressed up against each other, the occasional hint of scent from hair or skin. It was all too confusing.

Xander regarded Giles seriously. “What happened was the monkey-poop hit the spinning blades in a big way. We all got, what would be the word, demolished by some patchwork freak of a science project.”

Giles shook his head impatiently and looked over at Buffy. “Tell me what happened?”

She craned her head back. “Pretty much what Xander just said. 314? The secret project? It turns out Walsh’s brainchild is a seven foot super-demon-robot-corpse-thing that fights like the Terminator. It came back to the Initiative to download some files and stopped by to speechify at us. Then it killed a bunch of people. It was what killed Walsh. And Angleman too.”

Giles now seemed to be following what she was saying. “And Faith? What is she doing here?”

Xander nodded in exaggerated thoughtfulness. “Good question.”

Buffy shook her head. “The Initiative didn’t want her anymore. She’s badly hurt, courtesy of Adam.”

Giles raised an eyebrow. “Adam would be?”

Buffy shrugged a little. “The cyber-demon thing. That’s what Maggie called it.”

“So, it seems like Maggie Walsh wasn’t aware of dramatic irony then,” Giles replied dryly.

Faith finally spoke up through gritted teeth, “...B, you need to grab hold of my arm.”

Buffy’s brow creased. “What? Why?”

Faith looked at Buffy sideways. “You need to grab my arm, pull it towards you, then jam your knee under my armpit and pull up and away.”

Buffy’s fingers drifted down over Faith’s shoulder, trying to discern how bad the injury was. “Faith, that’s maybe not the best idea okay, you need–”

Faith cut her off savagely. “I need somebody to grow a pair and do it already. One firm tug’ll do it.” Faith gave Buffy a hard stare that also had the shadow of an appeal in it, “This thing hurts like a mother...”

Buffy clenched her jaw in frustration. “Fine. Just... don’t try anything or I’ll make you wish you’d stayed in that coma.”

Gently but firmly, Buffy grabbed hold of Faith’s left arm and pulled it towards her, securely clamping it against her chest with both hands. Faith let out a strained grunt and rolled her head like she was in pain but otherwise stayed still, her head turned away from Buffy. Sitting sideways on to Faith, Buffy raised one leg and tightly wedged her knee against Faith’s side, high up on her ribcage. Then Buffy braced herself, tensed her leg muscle and slowly leaned back. She heard Faith’s breath catch in her throat and winced in sympathetic response. Then came the quiet sound of bone grating and shifting, and then finally a small clicking-pop as something moved and Faith cried out in a mix of pain and relief.

The dark haired girl slumped forward and leaned her forehead against Giles’ coffee table, her breathing heavy and ragged. Buffy automatically went to put a hand on Faith’s heaving back, to comfort her, an instinctive show of tenderness. But then she stopped herself, checking her fingers as they hovered between Faith’s shoulder blades, before pulling her arm back. Instead Buffy’s hand went cautiously to her back pocket and grabbed hold of the taser, debating whether to use it now or wait for Faith to make a try for her.

“...Thanks,” Faith sighed, and then her eyes fluttered shut as she passed out, slipping sideways off the couch and sprawling on the floor space between it and the table.

Buffy turned to Giles. “Did you get the chains?” Giles gave a curt nod. “Good. Xander help me get Faith into the bathtub so Giles can secure her.”

Xander moved closer then hesitated as he looked down at Faith.

“Now! We have to do it before she wakes up.” Buffy grunted as she hauled Faith’s dead weight up and over to the bathroom.

She couldn’t wait for this day to be over. Then she’d just have tomorrow’s problems to deal with.

*****

As night fell upon Sunnydale, the dead soldiers quietly set to work.

With drone-like efficiently the men split up; two of them moved through Shady Hills cemetery and broke into one of the more spacious crypts they found there. The rest headed unerringly for the nearby hardware store. They went in through the locked front door, which they quietly disabled, and took all the shovels, hammers and axes they found on display. In the back, they found a few pickaxes as well as some more heavy-duty tools used in construction, which they also took.

They returned to the cemetery in time to witness their master emerge from the nearby woods. Kurenos had left a trail of decay behind him as he moved through the undergrowth, everything near him, from trees to blades of grass to worms crawling in the earth, shrivelled and died in his presence.

He didn’t need to simply touch anymore, he was growing stronger.

As he disappeared into the crypt that would become his new home, he silently directed his followers to their new tasks. Two men followed him inside with their acquired pickaxes and, at his command, started working the ground in one dank corner, their tools quickly gouging deep furrows into the old stone.

They would create a hole, an access point to the caves and tunnels that lay beneath. That would be a place to hide from prying eyes when the day came upon them again.

Outside the rest of the dead men took up their shovels, picked graves, and started digging. They moved swiftly and were tireless in their work. They dug faster than any normal man would, and came upon their prizes much quicker.

Dead bodies.

Some of the remains were mouldering, some were fresh. All were removed from their resting place in the ground and taken inside the crypt.

Anyone outside the cemetery wouldn’t have heard much noise, for the men worked in complete silence. There was no talking or breathing, no sounds of exertion, just the muted thud of earth being shifted about and the occasional sharp crack as the uncovered coffins were broken into.

Nor would anybody have seen anything. The night itself was especially black, the moon and stars hidden behind brooding clouds. And the men needed no light to see by, what they desired they simply sensed, deep in the earth.

The only illumination that could occasionally be seen was a muted flickering from one of the crypts, as if a flaming torch was being uncovered and then hidden again as it flared up.

A torch with a blue flame.

*****

The next day Willow and Buffy made their way to Giles’ following afternoon classes. He had called a general Scoobie meeting, which essentially meant debating over Faith, Adam and the Initiative all rolled up in one dangerous nightmare-package.

If it had been an actual nightmare, Buffy would’ve been cool with it, given the lack of sleep she’d gotten last night. But this morning has relentlessly arrived and reality had set in. Hard choices had to be made and Buffy was at a loss about what to do.

She thought about Faith, chained up at Giles’ place, her fate in Buffy’s hands, maybe waiting for an opportunity to break free and escape, or do something else, something worse.

Buffy wasn’t sure what to think about Faith anymore. In the space of just over two days Faith had seemed to swing back and forth between dangerous enemy and possible ally. Buffy had seen heartfelt guilt and sorrow in the other girl, but also that familiar, intense anger and hate. She didn’t know what side of Faith she would see when she arrived today.

And then there was Riley. Over the past couple of days she’d seen another side of him too, also dangerous and unstable and also just as vulnerable. And now he was gone.

How was this in any way fair? Two people she cared about, two people who she had confused, intimate feelings for, and both of them were, in their own way, lost to her. At the same time.

Buffy’s life sucked. More than usual.

Willow tried to fill the awkward silence as they walked along the street leading to Giles’. “Are you okay, Buffy? You look kind of tired.”

Buffy sighed wearily and adjusted her shoulder bag. “It kinda goes with the whole package of actually being tired, Will. Didn’t get any sleep at all last night. Only so many hours in the day to worry about stuff.”

Willow eyed her compassionately. “Any word about Riley?”

All in all, Buffy’s worries had been about fifty per cent Riley and fifty per cent Faith. She didn’t know if that made her sensible, or conflicted, or just a horrible girlfriend. But she obviously couldn’t tell Willow about the other stuff. “Nothing. Maybe it’s too soon. The Initiative has probably got him locked up in a medical ward... And I can’t get near him. Not until I come up with a better plan than just storming in and getting us all shot.”

Willow gave a sympathetic smile. “Yeah, you might wanna work the kinks out of that one.”

Buffy shook her head. “I mean, I’m worried about him. He was getting really unstable at the end there.” Buffy wondered how much those drugs had affected Riley’s behaviour. What he’d done, and what he’d said to Buffy the other day – how much of it had been Riley’s actual thoughts, brought to the surface, and how much of it just sickness? “He needs help, and I’m shut out.”

Willow tried to reassure her. “You’ll find a way. It’s just gonna take a little time.”

Buffy hugged herself as that familiar sense of being overwhelmed threatened to engulf her, the one that had plagued her most of last night. “Time that I don’t have. It’s not like I can spend all my energy going after the Initiative now. Not while Faith is holed up at Giles’, she needs to be... handled somehow. And then there’s Adam out on the loose somewhere.”

Willow made an unhappy worried face as they walked down the steps into Giles’ courtyard. “He’s really that big a threat?”

Buffy remembered the other day. How tired she’d been. How powerful and ferocious Adam had seemed. And how easily he’d beaten her, not to mention what he’d done to Faith and Riley, hurting them both so badly, and how she’d felt when she’d heard them both cry out in pain...

She stood next to one of the benches outside Giles place and before sitting down, shaken at the thought. “I could barely fight him. It was like Maggie designed him to be the ultimate warrior. He easily took on Faith and me. He’s smart, and fast... He gave those commando guys the slip no problem.”

Willow sat with her, looking concerned. “There’s got to be a flaw...”

Buffy smiled sadly. “I think the part where he’s pure evil and kills randomly was an oversight...”

“You do have you hands full with all that pure evil lately.”

Buffy pouted and held up her hands. “I need bigger hands. Like catchers mitts with fingers like bananas.” She let her head fall forward into her palms and pressed her fingers against her temples, “I shouldn’t have let them take Riley. We should’ve all gotten out of there together. He needs somebody with him he can trust, who he can count on...”

Willow put a slender hand on Buffy’s shoulder. “I’m sure he’s okay.” She didn’t sound sure at all.

Buffy raised her head again and shook it slightly. “There’s no way he can be. Everything he’s believed has been taken away; he’s got nothing to hold on to. To lose all that hope you have in someone, it can be... can make you feel very lonely.”

Willow raised her eyebrows. “Someone?”

Buffy blinked and then sighed again. “Sorry, I meant something. Just tired.” Tired of thinking about Faith, thinking about how she was going to fix this. She looked sideways at Willow, “We should probably get inside, don’t want to keep the others waiting.”

Willow got up with her. “Yep, let’s get this over with.”

They both stood up and quickly headed inside Giles’ place. Buffy braced herself for seeing Faith again; after her shoulder had been fixed Buffy hoped she’d be in a better mood to talk.

Buffy saw that Xander and Anya had already arrived and were sat on the couch. Giles was leaning against the kitchen counter, sipping from his ‘Kiss the Librarian’ mug.

“Hello Buffy,” Giles greeted her warmly as she entered. He smiled at Willow, “Willow.”

Willow greeted him as she took off her book bag. “How is everything? Nice and quiet I hope.”

Giles nodded as he put his tea to one side. “Last night was calm enough. I gave Faith a few blankets so she could make herself more comfortable. Other than that she hasn’t made any sounds.”

“I’m betting you're glad that you bought the grade ‘A’ manacles, huh, Giles,” Xander joked lightly, “The ones that are recommended by four out of five... uh, well, y’know, I can’t think a profession that’s not evil or pervy, but one of those.”

Giles sighed in reply. “Yes, well, while I have every confidence that those chains could hold a vampire almost indefinitely, I am less confident about them containing a slayer. Faith is quite a bit stronger than Spike and what’s more, unlike him, she has no desire to be in our custody. We need a more permanent solution.”

Willow was quick with a suggestion. “What about the police? Aren’t they’re looking for her because of, y’know, all the horrible murders and stuff.”

“Judging by the news, the police don’t seem to be actively searching for her anymore, for whatever reason.”

Buffy shook her head unhappily. “I don’t think they could hold for long, Will. They wouldn’t know how to handle a slayer, even if they knew they existed.”

Anya wondered aloud. “Besides, didn’t she escape from super-secret jail last time? Regular jail wouldn’t slow her down at all.”

Xander didn’t wait long to correct his girlfriend. “Ah, you obviously haven’t heard. Faith was let out so she could go and bring Buffy in for one of Walsh’s schemes. And looking at Adam, I’m guessing her schemes are generally of the insane variety.”

Willow looked at Giles. “What about the council then?”

Xander spoke up. “Been there, tried that. Not unlike smothering a forest fire with napalm, as I recall.”

Giles agreed. “Yes, although we, ah, mustn’t forget the men the Council sent are still out there, biding their time. If they were to find Faith here...”

Buffy nodded and finished the spoken thought. “Lots of badness, possibly casualties. Nothing good.”

Giles looked solemn. “Perhaps there’s some sort of rehabilitation we haven’t thought of yet. You said yourself Buffy that Faith was willing to listen to reason.”

“Well, she was before.” Buffy looked over her friends. “Guys, we should also remember that Faith fought against Adam last night, for whatever reason she was trying to help out.”

Xander smirked as he gently touched the back of his head. “Really? ‘Cause I gotta say Buffster, my head remembers otherwise. Faith was pretty eager to dish out damage to anyone.”

Willow nodded seriously. “That sounds like Faith alright. Looks like Walsh set her to default ‘destruction mode’.”

Buffy frowned at that. “She’s not a robot, Will. Walsh manipulated her because she thought that I’d turned her in. Y’know, Walsh? Psychology professor? Probably pretty good with playing the mind games.”

Willow nodded. “You’re right Buffy, Faith isn’t a robot. She made choices, all of them bad ones. She chose to believe the wrong people instead of her friends.”

Buffy shook her head adamantly. “She chose to believe a stranger instead of the girl who tried to kill her and then apparently set her up to get captured. I can’t exactly blame her for that. Can you?”

Buffy saw Willow flinch at her tone and the implied blame that lay underneath. If Willow was reminded that she was partly responsible for starting all this, then that was fine with Buffy.

Xander let an edge of exasperation enter his voice. “I can’t believe you’re defending Faith after she went after your mom like that. Walsh didn’t make her do anything. She told Faith exactly what she wanted to hear, just like the Mayor did.”

Buffy looked crossly at her friend. “We don’t know who was told what. All I’m doing is not jumping to conclusions about stuff. That’s how this whole mess got started in the first place.”

Xander made a sarcastic face. “Oh? Sorry, I thought this whole mess got started when Faith murdered a guy and then tried to blame you for it.”

Buffy scowled at Xander, she felt a rush of anger. “What did you just say?”

Xander was about to reply when Giles interrupted sharply. “That’s enough, all of you.”

After a pause from everybody he sighed heavily, “Obviously a lot has happened over the past few days. Some of it merely troubling, but a lot of it has been deeply disturbing. It is not surprising that we’re all tired and on edge, but we must prioritise the dangers we face. To that end,” Giles looked steadily at Buffy, “Buffy, you’ve spent the most time with Faith since her, ah, reawakening, and you also saw what happened last night. Why don’t you go and talk with her now, try and assess her state of mind.”

Buffy hadn’t exactly been looking forward to talking with Faith, but right now she found that she needed a break from all this other debating. It seemed like Xander and Willow had both jumped off the ‘help Faith train’. She nodded. “Alright.”

Giles nodded in satisfaction. “Afterwards we can discuss Adam and this mystery woman that have both made their presence felt.”

Right, the mystery woman who summoned that demon and has a creepy interest in Faith, with everything else that had happened she’d slipped Buffy’s mind.

With a last glance around at her friends Buffy headed down the hallway to the bathroom where they’d dumped Faith the night before. Hesitantly Buffy stood at the door, trying to make herself more steely and resolved, before unlocking it and stepping inside.

There was the dull jangle of chains as Faith swiftly sat up in the bathtub and watched as Buffy entered and closed the door. She was chained the same way Spike had been, hands and feet manacled together, the links then stretched taut and attached to a secure fixture behind the sink.

The only difference in the situation is that Giles had given a few blankets for Faith to sleep on; consequently she’d looked a little more comfortable than Spike had been, although just as unhappy.

The brunette still had some shadowy bruises around the right side of her face, and her left cheekbone seemed to bulge out slightly.

Inwardly Buffy flinched at the damage she’d done. She’d been so angry at Faith, seeing her mom scared like that, in her own home. That Faith could’ve done that to somebody who had always treated her decently...

Buffy leaned back against the sink and stared at Faith for a moment, calming both her own thoughts trying to gauge the other girl’s mood. “How are you doing?”

Faith smiled through her scowl. “Five-by-five. Shoulder’s all back to normal, ass is kinda numb though. Oh, and,” Faith grimaced as she pulled on the chains, “these are really starting to piss me off.”

Buffy didn’t react to that. “It’s just a precaution. We can’t risk taking any chances,” she said softly.

Faith smile turned bitter. “Yeah? Guess it’s only fair right? I remember the last time you were the one in chains. Didn’t end too well though.”

Buffy nodded. “And a lot has happened since then. But I still want to help you, Faith.”

Faith pulled at her restraints as she leaned forward. “Then help me out of these chains already.”

Buffy ignored the request. “Tell me why you were at the Initiative? Why go back there?”

Faith sighed as she sat back. “Why do you care?” she grouched as she stared into her lap, rubbing gingerly at her wrists.

Buffy thought about it. She kept her voice as steady as she could while she watched Faith’s face for a reaction. “I’m just trying to get the timeline down here. I mean, you go to my house, after Walsh releases you to go bring me in, you take my mom hostage, terrorise her for a while, then after we fight you run off, beat on a few Initiative soldiers –”

Faith’s head snapped up. “Hey, they were gunnin’ for me alright. Somebody out there wanted me shot full o’ holes. Probably your little boy-toy...”

Buffy shook her head. “Riley would never...” Buffy remembered that he’d been shooting at Faith with little hesitation, “More likely that Angleman did it to... maybe cover things up.”

Faith wrinkled her nose, which Buffy found distractingly cute. “Nah, he and Walsh were on the same page about all that science-geek crap, he wouldn’t want me snuffed, even if his pet project escaped.” Faith narrowed her eyes in thought, “Your boyfriend though, acting real twitchy last time I saw him. Looked like he was coming close to losin’ it.”

“Leave Riley out of this. And anyway you’re one to talk,” Buffy snapped defensively. She mentally scolded herself for so easily returning to old habits, but what was with Faith always getting at Buffy’s boyfriends? Oh, right. Jealousy...

Faith smiled as she realised that she’d struck a nerve and shifted in the tub, “You want me to answer anymore of your questions, what I found out when I holed up was in that place, then I’m gonna want food. Plus I need a shower and new duds – these are getting kinda stiff.” She shrugged her shoulders and gestured to her hands, giving a little wave, “Which means, unless you wanna scrub all my hard to reach places B, you’re gonna hav’ta give me a little freedom, y’know.”

Buffy frowned at that. Uncuffing Faith wasn’t a good idea at all, but there wasn’t any other practical solution. Humans weren’t vampires after all; they needed more taking care of.

And Buffy couldn’t really imagine herself soaping down a scantily clad, still-manacled Faith...

Buffy flushed at the unwanted, and very vivid, images that suddenly flashed through her head and straightened up. “Uh, fine. I-I’ll...I can get a hold of some of your clothes.”

“Yeah? Try looking in your closet.” Faith said pointedly.

Buffy flinched at her tone. “R-Right... I was keeping them for you, y’know, for when you woke up.”

Faith went back to scowling at her chains. “Whatever.” And Buffy saw Faith’s defensive walls come back up.

Without another word, Buffy left the bathroom, turning the key and locking the door behind her. In the living room, everybody was intently watching the television with their backs to her, the channel tuned into the new as some female reporter was dryly stating some, probably horrific, event.

Buffy rubbed at her forehead tiredly. “Oh no, what is it now? Murder? Monster sighting? Hanson reunion?”

Giles turned to her, his face crinkled in thought smoothed into a comforting smile. “Ah, no Buffy, fortunately nothing so horrific. Just macabre, that’s all. One of the cemeteries was desecrated last night, several bodies have been disturbed... removed.”

Buffy raised her eyebrows. “Grave robbing? How many graves?”

“Twelve so far, that’s why it made the news, over at Shady Hills,” Willow said, looking at Buffy with a concerned expression. “So, what’s the word on Faith?”

Buffy saw Xander turn to cautiously regard her as well. “She’s... willing to cooperate. She says she has info about the Initiative, things she discovered while she was in there. Could be useful.”

Buffy shrugged like it was no big thing, although inside she was more that a little glad. If Faith could work with them, then maybe trust could be built up on all sides. Slowly built.

“She wants me to get some on her things, fresh clothes, and she’s hungry, so maybe Giles could you bring her something?”

“So that’s it? Just like that she’s working with us now.” Willow’s tone was aggrieved.

Buffy took a calming breath. “It’s no different from the arrangement we had with Spike.” She reasoned.

Willow scowled in response. “Apart from Spike having a chip and being unable to actually harm anything, Buffy. Faith can still kill things just fine. Also she likes to kill things, which should be more troubling to you that it seems to be.”

“She isn’t able to hurt anything right now.” Buffy said through gritted teeth. “And if you’ll let me finish I am going to take precautions. Willow, I want you to research into any sort of spell that can stun or disorient Faith if she should get free. Something non-lethal that will help me take her down if I need to.” Buffy stalked over to her shoulder bag and took out the taser that Faith had used on her. “Xander, you take this for protection. It’s powerful enough to hurt a slayer, so it’ll be useful if Faith tries anything.” She walked over and handed it to him, “But only if she tries anything. Nobody goes in that room unless I’m here.” Buffy looked over at Giles. “Any chance you could dig out the tranquilizer gun we used on Oz?” She didn’t like mentioning Oz in front of Willow and was usually more sensitive but...what the hell.

Giles nodded. “I’ll unpack it from storage.”

“Do that. I’m going to get Faith some clothes and then I’m going to look into this...” she gestured at the TV, “latest mysterious happening. See if a clue walks up and hits me in the face.” She looked over at Giles, “Is anything springing to mind?”

Giles took off his glasses as he scratched his forehead. “Nothing definite, perhaps our sorcerer friend is concocting some other delightful mischief to occupy Sunnydale–”

Xander snapped his fingers. “Or it’s Adam.”

That was a bit of a leap. Buffy made a face. “Huh? Did I miss something?”

Xander waved his hands. “Y’know, like he’s building himself a buddy or a Frankenstein army or something. Could be?”

Anya raised her eyebrows and smiled broadly. “Or maybe a corpse wife. Depending on if any of the missing bodies are women.”

Willow’s face contorted in disgust. “Ew, what kind of sick freak would... Oh, wait, we went to school with one. Forget I said anything.”

Xander shrugged. “Hey, the guy is part marine. And we all know what soldiers like to do –”

Buffy cringed and waved her hands for him to stop. “Okay, stop talking. I’m glad I missed that.” She shook her head in mild bewilderment, “I’ll look for any indication as to who might be doing this, although I’m actually praying for zombies at this point.”

As Buffy walked towards the door Giles called out. “Buffy, we’ve yet to discuss what I found out about –”

Buffy waved him off wearily; she wanted to get gone for a while. “Later Giles, when I’ve returned with pants... and stuff.” With that she left.

‘One thing at a time, that’s all I ask.’

*****

Catherine Morley murmured the complex litany of words under her breath and felt the weight of the world press around her as she appeared in the warehouse. A small gesture with her hand and a displacement of wind whipped up out of nowhere. She made herself known.

The three men, who had been busying themselves drinking, smoking and playing cards (just like any good off-duty soldier), stopped what they were doing and looked at her, all wary. The one called Collins quickly got up and strode over, doing his best to hide his agitation.

“Where the hell have you been?” He snarled under his breath, “Gone for all of a day without any sign of you. Us busy with our thumbs wedged up our-“

She didn’t have time to sooth his ego. “Tonight.” She interrupted coldly, her transformed voice crackling with power, “The transport will be travelling through town late in the evening. I know how many guards there will be and where will be best for you to strike.” Now that the Initiative was in chaos, they would be unable to react to an attack on one of their transports. Losing too many men, not to mention their leadership, meant that they were in disarray. And, if the news were anything to go by, the slayers would still be occupied with Kurenos.

Morley had thought that their Watcher would have been better informed. Sloppy.

Collins wasn’t mollified. “That’s not good enough. Neither me nor my lads like being kept in the dark. Now, we’ve got our orders and we’ve kept up our end, giving you that body and laying low.” He shook his head through a wreath of cigarette smoke, “No more. I want answers.”

Morley’s lips curled into a smile at his temerity. “Such as?”

“Like who in the bloody hell are you, and what do you want with the slayer?”

Morley thought for a moment, before deciding to indulge him. “I am simply old. Old enough to know all the patterns and energies at work in the universe. Old enough to know what the most important force in the universe is. Would you like to know what that is?”

Collins features were fixed with hostility. “I haven’t got time for some bloody cryptic nonsense-. “

“Love. Love is the force that drives everything of worth or of value towards something else. Love of a person, an ideal, a philosophy. I am simply...guiding the slayer towards her true purpose, her love.”

Collins eyed her suspiciously. “Towards the council?” Morley simply inclined her head and acknowledged his assumption. His eyes were calculating. “It’s fifty-fifty whether this slayer is even salvageable. The terrible things she’s done. I’d imagine you’d know all about that.”

Morley’s voice became slyly complimentary. “But I know you are bound by love of duty and will try your upmost for the Council. And Faith...well, Faith’s path has always been about love and how it was denied to her. Being fulfilled is where her destiny lies. Believe in that, if nothing else.”

Collins blew out a last breath of smoke and flicked his cigarette past her dismissively. “It’s never simple with you wizard-y types is it? Fine. If it's tonight they we best get organised. I want the number of men and what they’ll be armed with, the entire route through town and any indication of what the Initiative response time might be.”

She gestured to the nearby table where a map of Sunnydale laid spread out. “As you wish.”

*****

Buffy returned to find that everybody but Giles had left. “Where did all the people go?”

Giles gestured towards the door with the tranquilizer gun. “Willow said that she had to get to her, um, Wicca group and Xander and Anya were... getting restless.”

Buffy smiled knowingly as she handled the backpack full of Faith’s things. “They were annoying you weren’t they?”

Giles gave a small sigh of defeat. “I-I simply suggested that Xander might make himself useful by examination the area around the cemetery... and to please, dear god, take Anya with him when he went.” He smiled ruefully at Buffy, “He seemed quite eager to leave.”

Buffy exhaled loudly in resignation. “I’ll bet. Did he at least leave you the taser?”

Giles showed her his other hand, which clasped the taser. “Yes, yes. I’m armed to the proverbial teeth, as it were. Nothing to be concerned about.”

Buffy moved closer and glanced sheepishly at her Watcher. “Are you sure about that? You don’t want to tell me I’m being stupid or irrational or anything? Because lately I’m feeling a little... unsteady, like everything’s going wrong and it’s because I’m not thinking clearly.”

Giles put down the rifle and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. “In times like this it’s best not to do anything rash, and that’s what you’re doing. You’re trying to assess things, to gain some perspective, and I believe that is the sensible course of action to take.”

Buffy looked unhappily down at the floor. “My friends... They just want me to get rid of Faith or something. Like it's no big thing to them.”

Giles nodded in sympathy. “Buffy, even before the, ah, wish, they didn’t know Faith like you did. That was partly circumstance and partly Faith’s own doing. She cut herself off from attachments. But you and she are connected in a way few can ever experience. And now... You can’t expect them to understand at the moment, but in time they will come around.”

Buffy gestured helplessly. “I don’t expect them to trust Faith. Possibly ever. But can’t they at least trust that I know what I’m doing.” Buffy pouted despite herself, “Because, y’know, I usually do.”

Giles caught her eye. “Give them time Buffy, and use that time to see if Faith... if she can prove willing to be an ally.”

Buffy straightened up slightly. “Right. I can do that. See, I have clothes. Clothes that prove that we’re on her side.”

Buffy remembered another circumstance not too dissimilar to this, her own words echoing back to her.

‘So I'll go to Faith's place and get her some of her clothes and stuff. That way she'll see we're on her side…’

The night at Angel’s mansion, Faith bruised and in chains. Distrustful of their help. Buffy still optimistic that there could be a way to save her. Just an eerie resonance or was history doomed to repeat itself?

Shaken by the thought Buffy asked Giles. “Any word of those Council guys, ‘cause they could seriously mess things up if they showed right now.”

Giles looked grim. “If we’re fortunate then they may think that Faith has absconded, since the police have been unable to locate her... But more likely they’ll be scouring the town’s darker side for clues to her whereabouts.”

“And how likely is it that they’ll come back here?”

Giles thought about it as he took the key to the manacles out of his pocket. “I shouldn’t think it would be wise for Faith to linger here for more than a couple of days.”

“Okay, it’s so nice to have a looming deadline.” Off Giles’ look she nodded patiently, “I know, I asked, you told. That’s how it works. I should go and talk to her again, she if her mood’s improved.”

Buffy took the key from Giles’ hand and went to head down the hallway when Giles spoke up again. “Catherine Morley.”

Buffy turned and raised her eyebrows questioningly.

“I believe that’s the name of your hooded friend from the other night. The one who raised Kurenos,” Giles settled back against the table, “She is... or rather was a Watcher a very long time ago. A sort of cautionary tale if you will, for young trainees of the academy to whisper about on occasion.”

“A former Watcher, huh?” Buffy moved a little closer so that there wasn’t a chance that Faith might overhear. “So what does she want with Faith? I mean, she mentioned that her master might want something from Faith, or for Faith to do something.” Buffy tilted her head and frowned, “Did I mention that she was cryptically vague, or vaguely cryptic, whichever.”

“It is said that Morley seeks vengeance on the Watcher’s Council for some... slight against her.”

Buffy shook her head in wonderment. “Wow, I couldn’t imagine why anybody would want payback on that swell bunch of guys.”

“Yes, very droll. But accounts in one of the Watcher’s diaries seem to indicate that she has interfered in the life of a slayer previously. That, ah, she tried to manipulate events for her own purposes.”

Buffy shook her head questioningly. “What purpose?”

“Well, it’s all a little imprecise and long-winded, but basically, a sacrifice. A sacrifice to put something sinister in motion, but the account doesn’t mention what.”

Buffy stepped closer and hissed. “It’s gotta be the djinn!”

Giles nodded in agreement. “Undoubtedly.”

“Totally. We know it’s imprisoned and probably wants out, so Faith is its ticket somehow.” Buffy thought about it, “But if it were that simple, then what was all of last year about. Why grant my wish and not Faith’s? Why not go into her dreams and get her to wish, manipulate her or something?”

“Clearly there is more to it than that, and until we learn more about the djinn and the true scope of its history and powers then we are somewhat in the dark. However, thanks to our friends in the council I now have an idea where to start looking – there is a book that will give us much needed answers, and I may be able to obtain it.”

Buffy nodded, feeling a little bit of relief creep back into herself. Information was good; it gave that nice, safe illusion of control. She missed that feeling a lot lately. “Right. You look into that. All we need now is to get Faith on our side. Cool.” Gesturing to the backpack, Buffy walked back to the bathroom and unlocked it. “I hope you’re decent, I come bearing clothes.”

She opened the door and saw Faith still lying in the tub, knees drawn up and hands resting on her thighs. “Gosh B, I was just gonna start on my aerobics, but I guess it can wait for you.” She smirked and sat up a little, “Hope you gotta key in that backpack o’ yours.”

Buffy nodded absently as she opened up the backpack and brought out some clothes. She hadn’t picked anything fancy; just jeans, a motor city t-shirt that she knew that Faith liked, plus some underwear that Buffy had felt all squirmy when handling.

Buffy took out the stack and placed it on the seat next to the bathtub. She straightened up and fixed her eyes squarely on Faith, who was watching her intently. “Before I uncuff you I should mention a couple of things; there’s a Councils operations team in town looking for you. Giles says they’re very dangerous, handle all the murky stuff and they want to take you back to England for, well it’s not specific, but I’m betting it won’t be pleasant for you. If you try and escape then they’ll find you. But while you’re here then you’re safe for a bit.”

Faith tilted her head and smiled sweetly. “Shucks, B. You’re always lookin’ out for me.” She paused and thought about it, “So, those Watcher guys have assassins on payroll, sweet bunch o’ guys, huh?”

Buffy shrugged and muttered. “You should’ve seen the surprise birthday they threw for me...”

Faith squinted in confusion. “Huh?”

“Nothing. Just don’t try anything. You do and you can kiss goodbye to the last of my good will and I’ll hand you over to them myself. Got it?”

Faith shrugged easily. “Cool it, B. You let me freshen up and we’re square.” She smiled knowingly at Buffy, “I won’t try nothin’, long as you don’t go takin’ advantage of me.”

Buffy huffed weakly and rolled her eyes. Then she cautiously reached down into the tub and unlocked the cuffs. She straightened up, feeling her body tense on instinct as she saw Faith flex her fingers and stretch out her arms.

Buffy pulled the chains away from the other girl and draped them over her shoulder. She took a couple of steps back towards the door.

“Okay, you’ve got ten minutes to freshen and change, then I come back in and secure you. So hurry.”

Without waiting for an answer Buffy quickly left and locked the door, trying to stop the soft, warm, squirming nervous feeling in the pit of her stomach she felt every time Faith smiled at her. Feeling her skin flush slightly every time Faith’s husky voice drifted into her head…

‘She’s not the girl you knew.’

But if Buffy really thought that, then why was she trying so hard to help her. Faith’s softer side must be in there somewhere, under all those damaged layers, the scabs and bruises and hurt, and Buffy would do her best to try and find it.

She didn’t want to even consider the alternative.

*****

Xander peeked into the now empty cemetery. The local reporter had apparently taken off and there was no sight of Sunnydale’s finest. The only sign they had visited was a roped off area indicating the mass of dug up graves. The whole thing looked a mess.

Xander guessed that the police had done the bare minimum (Exhibit A: Faith the incredible unsubtle fugitive) and they were now probably patrolling that dangerous area of the high street between the Espresso Pump and the donut shop.

Thinking of donuts, Xander’s stomach rumbled in response. He shouldn’t be hunting out corpse clues on an empty stomach... uh, on second thoughts.

“Are the cameras gone already?” Anya asked. She sounded mildly put out that she’d missed the whole media event.

Xander relaxed a little now he wouldn’t have to lie to get past any official types. “Yep. Only five minutes of air time for the inhuman interest story. This is Sunnydale after all.”

“Well, it can’t really be all that serious then can it?” Anya decided, “I don’t see anything shady, let’s go.”

Xander quashed his irritation. “Anya, could you just hold on a sec. I’m trying to be useful here, okay? We find out any info, that’ll be helpful to Buffy, and that’s good.”

“If she were paying you maybe. Otherwise I don’t see how it contributes –”

Xander held up a hand to make her stop, like he’d heard some small sound and now wanted quiet. He hadn’t, but the silence was still useful. “I’m gonna get a closer look, Aan. You stay here and keep a look out."

Anya thought about and then nodded. “Okay, just be careful of the zombies. Try to come back in one piece. The important piece.”

Xander gave a dismissive wave. “There aren’t any zombies Anya. Besides, it’s broad daylight; I’ll see ‘em coming a mile off.”

‘There coming to get you Barbara...’

Xander shuddered; he had to remember that zombies didn’t work like that... unless commanded to by their zombie master. Like that hooded wizard lady or the demon that Buffy killed...

Great, this whole stupidly lethal attempt to take his mind off Faith and all his confusing lingering thoughts about her was definitely one of his dumbest ideas. But it wasn’t like he could stay in Giles apartment, not with her just... next door, it was too weird.

Seeing Faith at the Initiative, looking beat up but mostly just smiling and confident and beautiful had been a shock. And then the whole dislocated shoulder thing after had brought back that night so strongly for him.

‘Don't worry, I'll steer you 'round the curves.’

Faith smiling down at him. The feel of her on top of him, kissing him, grinding against him, clenching around him. Her boobs. Then Faith tossing him out on his ass half-naked… Her boobs.

Xander shook his head, also remembering the other, much more lethal encounter. The strength in her fingers as they tightened on his throat. That looks in her eye like she was getting off on it. The two memories were like night and day, belonging to two completely different people. Only Faith was both, sinful and psychotic, one and the same, and dangerous. How could Buffy even begin to trust somebody like that?

And now with Buffy acting like Faith would be around for the duration, plus Anya’s growing curiosity about his ‘ex’ meant that any diversion had sounded good.

Besides, Xander was Scooby gang guy, just because he wasn’t bumming around on campus all day, he was still a vital part of the team. So he wasn’t big-knowledge guy, or magic-witch girl, or super... anything. He could still help.

This, right here, was helping. He was gonna help their asses off.

Xander cautiously peered over one of the heaping mounds of earth, spotting the occasional shard of splintered wood sticking out amongst the soil, all flat and polished like bits of a coffin. The huge piles of dirt and broken coffins suggested things dug up rather than things rising up. And it looked like a group of people were doing the digging too. Jagged holes in the ground pointed to people digging as fast as possible, maybe looking for something?

Counting the separate piles, Xander saw that some of them seemed to merge with each other, like a lot of these holes had been dug simultaneously.

‘Hey, check out logic-guy. Logic-guy and his special observing powers, which means I have something to tell Buffy. Go me.’

Maybe a cult or something was looking for an object buried in specific coffin but didn’t know which one. They were after an amulet or a magic ring... or a map to a haunted gold mine.

‘You suck at this Harris.’

Xander heard Anya shout. “Xander, somebody’s coming!” He winced at her noisy announcement. Didn’t she know what Psstt! meant?

He turned around to see two men walking over to Anya, from a distance both of them looked like Initiative soldiers and they walked with that brisk but stiff movement that he recognised in military guys.

But... something was off.

The late afternoon was quiet: the sun hung low and lazy in the sky and everything seemed peaceful. Vaguely, Xander wondered where they’d come from, since they were walking towards them from the centre of the cemetery, where they seem to have just appeared, not by the edge near one of the gates. Weird.

And there was something in the way they walked that looked off to Xander, a certain sense of urgency. Not like they were going to talk to them or ask them to move along, but like they were going to do something. It was a subtle difference that Xander recognised from many a high school bully. The ‘eager to cause pain stride’ he called it.

Surprisingly, Xander didn’t freeze or panic, he knew he was only two minutes walking distance from the nearest occupied street and the cemetery had about half a dozen exits. He’d just grab Anya and walk in the opposite direction, just like any ordinary rubber-necker would.

Xander quickly moved to edge of the cordon and ducked under the barrier. “Hey, Anya, we’re done here. Come on, we’ll go this way.” He casually gestured to a gate off to their right, about fifty feet away.

Anya gave him a slightly puzzled look but walked over to him anyway. “Those men are moving very purposefully over here. I’m not sure I like it.”

He grabbed her arm and started moving around the patch of disturbed graves. “Me neither. Let’s skedaddle, possibly amscray.”

“You’re babbling Xander. Making up words is not a good sign. Do you think they know that I’m a former vengeance demon? Did Faith tell them in order to get me out of the way? I wouldn’t put it past her you know.”

Xander nodded in agreement even as he skirted the far corner of the barrier and headed towards the path that would lead them out of the cemetery.

Then the two men broke into a run, not a jog, but a proper Tee-one thousand burst of urgent speed, straight in their direction.

‘And there it is; blind panic, my old friend.’

Xander roughly pushed Anya in front of him. “Run, go. Now!” He shoved her forward even as he picked up his feet and ran himself. Skirting a tombstone before he was pounding down the path towards the exit, he snapped a quick look off to his right to see one of the men leap the barrier and jump over one of the empty graves. The other one cut to far right, possibly to head them off.

In desperation, Xander poured on the speed. He was a natural at this, the whole running for his time thing, he was born to it. It was his gift, his –

Somebody slammed into him from the side and he tumbled to the ground. The soldier who had tackled him rolled and came up on his knees a few feet to his right. There was a scuffing sound as Anya turned back a dozen yards up ahead. “Xander!”

“Go on! Go!” Xander waved his arm even as picked himself painfully up off the ground. He guessed this is why linebackers were paid so much, because of the pain.

He winced and saw the other soldier closing the distance.

The soldier who tackled him circled towards him, blocking any escape. “I warn you, I have powerful friends. Literally powerful. One of them could probably pull your head off and the only down side would possibly be damaging her nail polish.”

The man took a step forward but didn’t say anything. Probably because he couldn’t: he had a large gash across his throat about an inch above the collar of this blood stained uniform.

Xander grimaced and nodded. “Looks like you’ve already got a little damage there already. Probably make it easier for my friend to... y’know. Just saying.”

The soldier lunged at him and Xander took a quick step back and tried to push him away, knocking his arms as the man grabbed at his throat. The guy was swift and reversed his grapple to seize Xander’s elbow and twist it behind his back. Xander struggled and bent as much as he could but the man pulled him back into a hold, Xander felt his socket strain painfully.

“Hey, no fair. Zombie’s aren’t supposed to know wrestling moves unless there are Luchadores involved, and I don’t see any colourful masks.” He gritted his teeth as the man pushed him stumbling forward and the second soldier approached, quickly pulling a knife.

Xander struggled with everything he had, vaguely envisioning dislocating his shoulder and then judo throwing the zombie-commando on his ass.

‘Any second now...’

The second soldier drew closer, his dead-clouded eyes focused on Xander as he drew back his blade.

Suddenly the man behind Xander was catapulted forward, losing his grip on Xander’s arm and sending them both lurching forward off balance. Xander regained his quicker, stopped dead and gave a swift kick to the first soldier’s knee so he faltered still further and collapsed against his undead pal, impaling himself on the knife. Both zombies staggered under their combined weight and folded to the ground, struggling to get up again.

Xander turned on his heel to see a wide-eyed Anya holding a stone urn in a death grip. She took a step backwards and hesitantly dropped it to the ground. Xander bounded over to her and grabbed her hand, giving one last glance as the two soldiers he turned to run.

“That’ll teach you to mess with me when I’ve got a... girl.” With that Xander turned and ran for Giles.

He’d found a clue.

*****

Playing it safe Buffy had given Faith a little over twenty minutes of privacy, listening to the hiss of the shower from out in the hallway as she tried hard not to think of Faith in the next room, with the steam and the water and the possible soaping...

Buffy shook her head out of her thoughts. ‘It’s just because I’m tired, that’s all. My willpower has taken a pounding. I get my proper rest and I won’t be thinking about... those things.’

So Buffy had busied herself by preparing a sandwich for Faith, a pretty surreal experience. But offering food had gotten Faith to open up last time and if Buffy wanted to question her about the Initiative, and maybe even gather some information on Adam, then this was the best way to start.

Buffy heard the squeak of pipes as the water turned off and the soft thumping of Faith climbing out of the bath. Fidgeting with the sleeve of her sweater, she decided to count to twenty before knocking on the door.

Do not touch the handle until Faith tells you to come in.’

Finished with her sleeve, Buffy idly pushed the food around the plate she was holding; a ham sandwich, an apple and three cookies; no soda though, just a bottle of water. Giles really needed to stock up on more snack foods if Faith was going to staying here for any length of time.

Buffy took a nervous breath and softly knocked on the door. “Faith, you decent?”

Buffy heard a grunt of annoyance and then Faith spoke up. “Sure.”

Buffy unlocked the door and entered the bathroom, warm and damp and hazy with the heat from the shower. Buffy tensed up, half expecting Faith to try to jump her and escape, but then she saw Faith clad in nothing but a fresh bra and panties, turned away as she busily finished drying her hair.

Buffy froze up, as her eyes locked on Faith’s side profile, taking in the sight of her glistening skin, the slick black fabric stretched across her butt, her slim hips and the curve of her back as she turned towards the door.

Buffy quickly averted her eyes. “I thought you said you were dressed,” she uttered, managing to keep the tremor out of her voice.

“You asked if I was decent, which I’m not. Never have been,” Faith smiled widely as she lowered her towel, “I figured you knew that and were just being all polite.” She shrugged, a motion that did distracting things to her bra-clad breasts. “Musta forgot that you were a tight-ass prude as well.” Her tone was light and teasing but Buffy caught the undercurrent of aggression in it. Faith had gone back to trying to bait her.

Scowling in annoyance, she put the plate to one side, watching for any sudden move from Faith, but the other girl was busily stepping into her jeans and pulling them up her legs.

Buffy straightened up. “Okay, you’ve washed up, gotten some clothes and there’s the food. Enough hoops Faith, no more jumping until you give me something useful.”

Faith grinned as she pulled the jeans up over her backside and buttoned them slowly. “Give me a chance to put a shirt on, B.” The movement of her hands drew Buffy’s eyes to the sight of her waist, and the faded pink scar above her waistband; the stab wound. Buffy flinched at the sight of it and raised her eyes to Faith’s chest, then quickly to the wall opposite.

‘I am the worst prison guard ever.’

But Faith seemed content not to cause trouble; she languidly picked up her t-shirt and pulled herself into it, with minimal amount of wriggling involved. With most of her skin now covered Buffy forced her gaze back to the Bostonian. “See, you don’t hav’ta ‘avert your eyes’ no more.” Faith shook her head slightly in pity, before sitting back on the lavatory seat and reaching for her food.

Buffy pressed her lips tightly together. “You might want to take this a bit more seriously Faith. You’re in a bad situation at the moment, and you're running out of friends.”

Faith’s smile faded, a ghost of it lingering on her face. “Is that what we are, B? Friends? I don’t remember us ever being that solid.”

Buffy paused and looked away from the other girl, feeling the now familiar sadness tinged with remorse when she remembered all the missed opportunities of the past. “Then I guess we both have regrets, right? You know it and I know it, but right now, we need each other.”

Faith munched on a cookie even as she rolled her eyes. “Is that right?”

Buffy looked at her. “Yes. The police, the Watcher’s Council, this Adam guy... plus there are other threats too. If you’re smart then you’ll see it’s not the best idea being alone right now.”

Faith thought about it for a moment. “Cops aren’t a problem anymore, and that Adam guy’s nothin’ t’do with me. No reason I can’t blow town and take my chances elsewhere.”

“Is that really what you what? You’re still not giving me a straight answer as to why you went back to the Initiative.” Buffy shook her head in exasperation, “I keep telling you it doesn’t have to be this way.”

Faith smirked. “Yeah? Well, the shackles say otherwise, B.”

Before Buffy could respond, she heard the sound of the front door opening and loud scuffling sounds as people hurriedly entered.

“Giles, we have a problem. Is Buffy back yet?” It was Xander.

Buffy frowned absently at Faith before calling out. “I’m here Xander. I’ll be out in a sec.” She looked at Faith, then at the nearby manacles. Faith just smiled sweetly and bit into her sandwich. “Your call, B. You gonna put your money where your mouth is?”

Buffy gave Faith a pointed look. “Stay here.” Wondering if she was making the right choice, she left the bathroom and closed the door behind her, locking it with a key.

‘Might be crazy, but I’m not stupid.’

Buffy headed into the living room to see a flushed and exhausted Xander. He looked like he’d been running flat out. Giles had fetched a couple of glasses from the kitchen and was busily pouring Anya some water.

Xander nodded in Buffy’s direction before moving over to the couch. Buffy crossed her arms in concern and followed after him.

“Xander? What did you find out?”

“A whole bunch. In the cemetery,” Xander gulped as he clutched at his side, “Dead guys dressed up like Initiative soldiers. Or at least one of them was dead, had a pretty convinced stab wound on his throat.”

Buffy nodded. “So it is zombies.”

“Or perhaps another one of Maggie Walsh’s escaped experiments?” Giles wondered out loud as he came in behind them both. Anya scurried past him with some water.

“Zombies.” Xander gestured wildly as he caught his breath, “Running at me in broad daylight. I mean, most of me was scared but the Romero purist in me was just offended. I mean, c’mon; fast zombies.” He threw up his arms and sat down on the couch.

“It was awful.” Anya sat next to him and rubbed his arm comfortingly. “Luckily they weren’t going to eat you. Just stab you to death.”

“I’m glad you’re okay,“ Buffy turned to Giles and frowned. “Well, speedy dead guys are a new thing. Any theories?”

Giles shook his head. “In my experience zombies are decaying corpses animated by magic; they are not in the habit of ‘running down their prey’ at a sprint. They’re too slow, too clumsy. Maybe if the magicks controlling them were sufficiently powerful...” He looked uneasily at Buffy.

Anya sighed impatiently. “Maybe they weren’t zombies.”

Giles busily chewed on his glasses and went to his bookcase. Buffy looked over at Anya. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, maybe they aren’t one hundred per cent dead. They could be Sqweska demons – those little worm-things love taking a dead body for a ride. Or revenants, damned souls animated by demonic energy.”

“Oh dear lord.” Muttered Giles in sudden realisation and began hurriedly searching for something specific, Buffy recognised it as his ‘eureka panic’ mode.

Anya looked a little sourly in his direction. “I was just trying to be helpful.”

“I think you might’ve been,” Buffy murmured as she watched Giles flick through one of his leather-bound books, “I’m guessing it’s worse than zombies.”

Giles evidently found the page he wanted. “Here: ‘Known in most informed occult circles as The Reaper of Death, Kurenos goes by many other pseudonyms, the Bringer of Decay, Lord of the Barren and Prince of Resurrection.” Giles flipped through a few pages before continuing, “The demon has the ability to drain the life-force from any who come into contact with him. The victims of the demon must be completely burned or they will rise once again when touched by the demon’s necrotic energy.” Giles slammed the book shut in frustration, “Blast!”

Buffy frowned. “So, are you saying that these Initiative guys are still active even though goat-boy is toast?”

Giles shook his head, seemingly trying to collect his thoughts.

“Well that’s good. Right?” Xander prompted.

Giles leaned back against the bookcase, his whole body agitated. “It stands to reason that if these precautions must be taken to dispose of corpses simply infected by necrotic energy then they must also apply to the source of the energy; the Prince of Resurrection, namely his own.”

“That’s a lot worse.” Xander stated glumly.

Buffy threw her arms up in exasperation, she didn’t need this. “But I killed this guy already. I slashed him into itty little bite-sized pieces, did you see my outfit? Totally wrecked by gunk.”

Giles was rubbing his forehead. ”It makes no difference; Kurenos must have risen later after fully regenerating himself. Draining the, ah, energy from his surroundings to do so.”

Buffy sighed in sad realisation. “And I left him in the woods. He’s probably ‘Reaper of the Squirrel Population’ by now.”

“I fear it’s far worse than that,” Giles stated grimly, “I think there’s a real possibility that Kurenos is in the process of building an army.”

Xander tried to be optimistic. “Twelve isn’t exactly an army.”

Giles’ voice was flatly bleak as he explained. “Oh, that was only one night. Those twelve and whomever else Kurenos has are now his foot soldiers, they can dig twice or three times as many graves, swelling their numbers. And as his power grows, he won’t have to wait to have them brought to him, he’ll be able to will them into existence with a thought.”

“Add to that the numbers in all the cemeteries in Sunnydale, any innocent passers-by who aren’t as fast as you guys, plus any wandering vampires...” Buffy trailed off in realisation, “God, I’m so sorry Giles.”

Giles looked at Buffy. “It isn’t your fault Buffy, you could only act on the information I gave you. That’s my job... was my job.” He dropped the book onto one of the small piles around the bottom of the bookshelf and rubbed his forehead. His face was strained with worried realisation.

“Hey, look everything’s been pretty crazed lately, right.” Xander’s voice was positive and he stood up and looked at both of them, “So we missed something, no big. Buffy can kill Necro-boy again; just wear your most expendable outfit.”

Buffy resisted the urge to shudder; she didn’t relish the thought of taking the demon on again, not without Riley’s help...

Giles’ voice was edged with warning. “Kurenos is powerful, Buffy. He’ll be stronger than before and now, what with his followers... I’m afraid that you might not be able to face him alone.”

Buffy thought for a moment before looking in the direction of the bathroom. “I won’t be,” she said firmly.

Picking Up The Pieces (PART 2: The Dead And The Damned)

Giles shifted uncomfortably in the silence that had followed Buffy’s announcement. Xander just blinked in baffled alarm. “You... wanna run that by me again, Buff?”

Buffy began pacing, not at all defensively. “I said, if I’ve got to take out something as big as Kurenos that I’m going to need Faith’s help.”

Xander acted like he didn’t understand what she meant. “As in, going over tactics and giving you a pep talk and stuff? That kind of help?”

Anya patted Xander on the back gently. “I think she means with the actual killing of the thing. You all keep on saying that’s one of Faith’s strengths, right?” She smiled perkily at Buffy.

Buffy nodded cautiously at Anya’s support. “Right, I guess.”

Xander stood up threw his hands in the air. “Wrong. This is totally wrong. It’s a big, giant, thundering mistake of an idea.” He waved a hand at Giles, “Back me up here, Giles.”

Giles looked pained in having to speak up. His face was doubtful. “Buffy, while I don’t doubt that ultimately you’ll be able to reason with Faith, and perhaps in time she could be of help to us.” He shook his head sadly, “This, this is just too soon.”

Buffy appealed to Giles. “Didn’t you just get through making it clear how dangerous this demon is, and how, right about now, it could be ‘Night of the Living Dead’ out there? There isn’t time enough to be cautious; I need serious back-up, and somebody to watch my back.”

“And give it a hearty stabbing?” Xander jibed. “Putting Faith out there is just going to be throwing gas on the bonfire. We, all of us, can back you up. We get Willow, some flamey torches, weapons, possibly a chainsaw, and then –”

Buffy interrupted him. “Xander, there’s no way I’m risking you and Willow on this. Kurenos took apart an entire Initiative squad without batting an eye. And I’m not strong enough to take on a powered-up, regenerated, new and improved demon all by myself. I won’t be able to protect you properly.”

Xander shook his head, irritated. “I never asked for you to–”

Buffy cut him off again. “No, because you never have to.”

Xander appealed to her. “Look, Faith has pretty much been a go-to mercenary-assassin for every major bad guy since she got here. First the Mayor, then Angel when she thought she’d stolen his soul, and now Walsh. How the hell can you think about trusting her again?”

Buffy shook her head and tried again to reason with her friend. “In the end Faith helped me against the Mayor; she told me how to get to him. And she didn’t even know Walsh was evil. When she did, Faith went to find out what was going on instead of blindly following along. That’s progress right?”

Xander almost rolled his eyes. “Right. So she’s an unreliable mercenary-assassin. How does that make it better again?”

Giles held his palms up in the air. “Buffy, we don’t even know if Faith will even be willing to help. She hasn’t acted like a slayer for, well, quite a while now.”

“She wants to change Giles. I know she does, deep down. She just... doesn’t know how to ask for help.” Buffy saw Xander about to object again, “We’re wasting time here, and this is my call. I’ll just have to live with the consequences.”

She quickly turned and walked down the hall to the bathroom. It was funny how the room was quickly starting to feel like a refuge from bickering with her friends.

Buffy pressed her forehead against the door for a moment, gathering her strength. Could she do this? Could she even try and persuade Faith to help?

Maybe it was possible, after all instead of running, instead of just getting out of town or jumping on the nearest freighter and disappearing, Faith had returned to the Initiative. That mattered; it had to. It meant something that Faith had decided to help out and had gotten hurt for her troubles.

Buffy had to try something, take a chance and show Faith some trust. And that started with asking for her help, maybe Faith would see that as a sign; see it as a way to begin to repair things between them.

Without announcing her intentions, Buffy quickly unlocked the bathroom door and stepped inside. Faith hadn’t moved from the lavatory seat, she slouched casually as she drank the last of her water.

She lowered the bottle from her lips and simply watched Buffy for a moment. “Somethin’ up?” She raised her eyebrows expectantly, her lips in a curious half-smile.

Buffy paused as she leaned back against the door, closing her eyes and running a nervous hand through her hair as she tried to think up a good opening argument.

In the end she opted for the truth. She opened her eyes and looked directly at Faith. “Yeah, there is. We’ve got trouble of the seriously big kind. There’s... a really nasty demon running around out there that’s literally raising an army of the dead in the middle of Sunnydale. I need to stop him tonight, before it’s too late. And I need your help to do it.”

Buffy caught a twitch of surprise in Faith’s eyes before her smile broadened slyly. “My help? Huh.” She cocked her head as she seemed to consider it, “Why’s that exactly?”

Buffy felt her jaw tense at Faith’s teasing tone, but she swallowed her pride. “I fought this thing a couple of days ago and... I barely managed to beat it. But it’s back now and Giles says that it could be a lot stronger than before. And now it’s got a dozen or so zombie-minion things that it whipped up with some demony mojo.” Buffy rubbed her eyes as she finished, cursing inwardly at how tired she felt, how weak she must look in Faith’s eyes.

Buffy thought about appealing to Faith’s pride, in her abilities as a slayer. Or maybe she could challenge Faith to show Buffy that she still had the fighting chops to help stop a demon. Or Buffy could say that this is what she’d always wanted, for Faith and her to fight on the same side again. That she missed that feeling so much sometimes it felt like a physical wound, an ache that wouldn’t –

Faith stood up and grabbed her jacket. “No problem.” Her face and voice were neutral, devoid of excitement or any smug confidence. She shrugged as Buffy just stared at her. “I’m guessin’ if you’re askin’ me then it's gotta be serious. So let’s motor already.”

Buffy straightened up as Faith moved closer. “You, uh, you’re going to help, just like that?”

Faith scowled. “Let’s not make this a Hallmark moment, ‘kay. I’m just itchin’ to do somethin’ other than sit in Giles’ depressing-ass bathroom. Gettin’ out t’slay somethin’ that’s got you runnin’ scared? That’s icing.”

Buffy frowned. “I’m not running any... You know what? Forget it, come on.”

Buffy let Faith leave the bathroom first since she was still wary about turning her back on the dark haired girl. All this could still be some sort of trick, but the way Buffy saw it she really didn’t have a choice. Nevertheless she stayed close behind the other slayer.

Faith came out into Giles living room with that easy, confident swagger that she might well have had patented. “Check it out, gang’s all here. Giles and Xander and,” she blinked in Anya’s direction, “Whoever you are. ‘Sup, I’m Faith.”

Giles and Xander noticeably stiffened to see Faith up and free and walking about, but Buffy managed to catch Giles’ eye and give him a reassuring nod.

Anya just stared at Faith for a long beat before quickly turning and slapping Xander hard on the arm.

“Ow!” Xander yelped in surprise, “What the hell?”

Anya’s voice took on that slightly shrill tone that Buffy was hearing more and more often. “She’s very attractive. Why didn’t you mention that your ex was very attractive Xander?”

Xander looked bewildered. “I... I, uh, I mean... y’know, she’s not that...”

“Oh please. Just look at her.” Anya waved a dismissive hand in Faith’s general direction. Xander could only shrug and sheepishly stare at his feet.

Faith’s eyebrows shot up as she smirked at the two of them. “Hey lady, you can chill out okay? Me and Xand here didn’t ‘zactly ‘date’. He was more a convenient scratching post for my itch, y’know. Ships that bump in the night or whatever. No ‘ex’ involved.”

Faith turned her attention to Giles and missed the dirty look that Xander shot her way, although Anya appeared more relieved by Faith’s dismissal than anything. She still gave Xander a sidelong suspicious glare.

Faith cracked her knuckles and tilted her head in Giles’ direction. “B is acting like this latest freak is wicked bad news. You got any pointers on how t’kill it?”

Giles delicately cleared his throat before replying coolly. “Buffy can fill you in on most of the pertinent details Faith, but judging from the passages that I’ve read then I would say that immolation... fire would be the key to making sure the Kurenos stays dead this time.”

Faith thought for a second before nodding. “Check. Set this Curry-nose guy a-blazin’.” She glanced back at Buffy, “Where d’ya keep your weapons at?”

That was it for Xander, who cried out. “Oh great! So you’re gonna arm her as well now?”

Faith gave him a dismissive glace. “Word from somebody who actually knows how to fight, it’s a lot quicker to kill somethin’ if you use sharp things.”

Xander’s anger was barely restrained. “I guess you know all about that, huh?”

Buffy stepped between them. “Stop it! Now isn’t the time to be getting into this again.” Buffy shook her head before quickly moving over to Giles’ weapons chest and opening it.

She concentrated on sorting through the tangled collection of weapons, picking out a good-sized axe for herself and putting a sword to one side. She was removing a bulky crossbow from the bottom of the chest when Faith came and squatted next to her. The dark-haired girl reached in and grabbed a knife and tucked it into her jacket before picking up the crossbow and a few bolts.

Buffy glanced sideways at the other slayer. “I thought you could take the sword. I know how much you like pointy things.”

Faith smiled broadly. “All kinds, but I’ll stick with a couple of knives and the crossbow all the same. If we’re goin’ up against an army then best we don’t weigh ourselves down with things we can’t run with, y’know. In case we need t’ keep moving.”

Buffy simply nodded stiffly, aware of the intense awkwardness of the whole situation. She stood up with the axe to find Giles returning from one of the back rooms. He held up a large tin of lighter fluid for her to see before setting it down on the desk. “For disposing of the creature’s corpse once and for all” he explained.

Buffy walked over to him and glanced at the lighter fluid. “Great. Uh, what about the dead guys? That going to be standard zombie-slay time?”

Giles nodded. “The only practical differences with these, ah, ‘risen’ as it were, are their speed and the fact that they are all linked together by Kurenos’ will. If one was to be attacked then all the others will know instantly and respond accordingly.” He glanced at Faith as she finished gathering up her weapons, “Something to bear in mind when best deciding what approach to take.”

Buffy followed his gaze and then tried to look more confident than she felt. “Understood, Giles. Faith and I’ll be in full sneak-mode, count on it.”

Crossbow clasped against her hip, Faith walked on over, exaggerating the friendly smile she gave Giles before addressing Buffy. “All set. Let’s get huntin’.”

Buffy picked up her own jacket before putting the axe and the can of lighter fluid in her shoulder bag.

Giles regarded her with concern. “Please do be careful Buffy.”

She smiled slightly. “I will.”

Xander cleared his throat and spoke up, his tone conciliatory. “Look, just watch your back out there.”

Buffy exchanged an understanding look with Xander. She knew that ultimately, he always had her best interests at heart, even if he expressed it too bluntly at times. “Thanks.”

Xander gave an understated shrug. “It’s just I worry, y’know.”

“I know.”

“Feelin’ the love in this room,” Faith put in mildly as she stood by the front door.

“We wish you both much successful killing” Anya added brightly as Buffy turned to leave.

Buffy made her way over to where Faith stood. “Shady Hills isn’t too far away; we can cut through some of the side streets so you don’t look so conspicuous totting that thing around,” she said, gesturing to the crossbow.

“Yeah. Here’s hoping it’s nice and quiet out tonight.”

*****

Morley had been impressed at how well the ambush had worked, but then this is why she’d required the help of these men in the first place. The physical work necessary to complete this task successfully would’ve been... needlessly debilitating for her. Their swift attack on the prisoner transport had been brutal in its efficiency.

The unmarked, black van had rolled to a stop a few feet from the stolen roadwork signs. The driver had paused, seen the indicated detour symbol and had begun to turn the van around when the armoured car had struck them from the side.

The van had flipped onto its side with a crash-tinkle of battered metal and breaking glass, scraping loudly across the asphalt before stopping with a dull clang as it hit the curb.

The three-man squad scrambled out of their vehicle and approached the van. One of them, Weatherby, calmly shot a man as he groggily emerged from the top of the wreckage. His silenced pistol made little more than a whisper as the man flopped back, out of sight.

Smithy had smoothly moved over to the doors with a large pair of pneumatic bolt cutters in his hands, the tool necessary to sever the securely locked back doors. Once he’d jammed them into place, Morley had appeared, making her own preparations as the cutters whined and bit into hard steel.

She saw that the three operatives had grouped themselves in a tight formation, prepared for any resistance from the slayer, and in a perfect position for what she had in mind.

The cutters took only a minute, and before long the lower door of the vehicle, already somewhat buckled from the impact, dropped open and clanged onto the asphalt road. Smithy backed up as Collins stepped forward with a tranquiliser pistol at the ready.

Inside the dim interior Morley saw movement, a figure chained and crawling towards the entrance. Weatherby lifted the top door up and reached in to grab the prisoner and roughly yanked them out onto the road. The captive was hooded and clearly shaken from the impact; they raised their shackled hands up defensively even as Collins grabbed the hood and pulled it off.

Ethan Rayne squinted in reflex as he looked at the men standing over him. “Are we there already?”

Collins’ eyes widened in surprised recognition. “Ethan bloody Rayne!” He swung towards Morley, bringing his weapon around with him.

Too late.

Morley had already cast the greenish orb from her hand towards the group. It flew true, stopping and hovering at head height in the centre of them.

Tempus Furata,” she intoned as the orb shattered in their midst, an emerald mist rippling outwards, engulfing the three men in a ring of billowing mist before dispersing in moments, as if dispelled by a puff of wind.

The three men stood on the spot, frozen mid-action. Still and unblinking, they did not react as Morley stepped forward with a swish of her cloak.

She regarded the hunched figure of Ethan Rayne, a man of unique talents, the man she sought. “Good evening, Ethan.”

The sorcerer blinked once as he looked around at the three motionless men and then smiled. “That was rather good. Are they paralysed?”

Morley smiled within the depths of her hood. “Not at all. Merely an incantation – a simple perception distortion. From their standpoint, we are but in between ticks of the clock, whereas to us and the rest of the world, all moves as it should.” Morley gestured to a side street, “And so we must hurry, for the police will certainly arrive soon. And we have much to discuss, you and I.”

Despite his restraints Ethan slowly managed to get to his feet and looked her over. “Do we now? Well I’m sorry to disappoint but I don’t tend to wander off with mysterious, hooded strangers.” In spite of his predicament, his tone was dryly amused, “It’s how I’ve stayed alive so long.”

“And yet moments ago you were a prisoner. And now you are free because of me, or do you think the Watcher’s Council has any interest in you beyond scratching you out of existence?” Morley shook her head, “Come with me and will make sure that your freedom lasts. All I ask in return is that you listen to my offer and consider it.”

Ethan looked at his restraints, and then noticed his surroundings. “Sunnydale.” He chuckled, “They really did bring me back here.”

“Actually I brought you back here. For a purpose.”

Ethan gave her a look of measured curiosity. “And what purpose would that be.”

With another gesture, the cuffs binding Ethan’s legs vanished. Morley turned and walked towards the mouth of a nearby alley. “Follow me and find out.”

Rayne walked towards her, paused to cast another glance at the three men who hadn’t moved an inch. He smiled at them even as he cocked his head at the distant sound of police sirens.

“You have my thanks.” He addressed them with an ironic bow before following Morley into the alley.

By the time the police arrived they were both long gone.

*****

The slayers approached Shady Hills in tense silence. Buffy hadn’t spoken to the other slayer since leaving Giles’ place and Faith seemed content to match her silence. The dark haired slayer’s movements had been purposeful and brisk; her mind seemingly completely on the task at hand, and Buffy hadn’t wanted to disrupt that with any ill thought-out conversation.

But trying to keep her mind solely focussed on Kurenos had been difficult. Buffy was walking out and about in the night, side-by-side with Faith. Patrolling with her. So Buffy slyly watched her for signs of intent, trying to decide if the rigid tension in Faith’s body was in preparation for their fight with zombies and demons, or if Faith had a closer target in mind. Even then, part of her couldn’t help but notice the way ambient moonlight highlighted the dark sheen of Faith’s hair, the glint in her watchful eyes, the sinuous roll of her hips as she moved or the smooth, pale expanse of cleavage visible above her shirt.

Buffy should’ve picked out a much baggier t-shirt for Faith. Or possibly a sweater. A big chunky one.

Faith stopped at the entrance to the cemetery and cast a glance around before looking at Buffy, her eyes unreadable in the gloom. “Y’know, if I was gonna attack ya I would’ve done it already.”

Buffy tried not to bristle or look guilty. “Huh? I don’t–”

“You keep eye-ballin’ me like I’m gonna jump you.” Faith shook her head, “And that don’t matter out here, but in there,” she said nodding her head towards the graveyard beyond, “it’s probably gonna get us both killed.”

Buffy thought about arguing, about saying that she might be completely justified in her caution. Because that was what it was – caution, nothing else. Definitely not.

Instead she simply nodded. “You’re right, I’m sorry. It’s just... hard to switch off sometimes.”

Faith stared straight ahead into the cemetery. “Let’s get his over with” she muttered, striding forward, shoulders hunched and eyes peering intently for movement. She held the crossbow in both hands.

Buffy followed beside her, watching her left flank. She had her axe grasped tightly in her sweaty grip. She paused a moment to wipe her palms on her thighs and watched as Faith halted just up ahead. The dark haired slayer leaned back next to a particularly gothic-looking mausoleum covered in ivy and gabled with rusting wrought-iron decoration.

Buffy gazed at Faith for a long moment before finding the courage to speak up again. “I do. Want to switch off that is. And I want to thank you as well, for helping and stuff. I know you don’t have to.”

Faith stared at her, her eyes in shadow.

Buffy picked up her axe again and walked closer. “I want us to be okay again Faith. Put everything else behind us and just... be.” She spoke softly and with feeling. She knew this was probably the wrong time to be having this conversation, but then Buffy had never been good at keeping something in her head when it had settled there; she needed Faith to know.

Faith straightened, shrugging. “Whatever. You can want all you wanna B, but it doesn’t change anything.” Faith eyes were black pits but Buffy could see the girl’s mouth twisted in a sneer. “Can’t wish it away like it was nothing. Some things you can’t take back.”

With that, Faith walked off, leaving Buffy visibly stung. After a pause she shook off her hurt. “No, I guess you really can’t wish anything away” she muttered to herself, hurrying to catch up.

Faith had stopped up ahead again, her head cocked to the side. Buffy saw her step back quietly so that she was shielded on her right by a large, ornate marble headstone. In the moonlight, the pale rock resembled bone more than stone. Buffy stepped up close behind, aware of the whisper her feet made in the uncut grass, and concentrated on trying to hear what Faith had heard.

There wasn’t much to hear besides quiet; the wind rustling through the woods; the murmur of branches moving together. Then, there was a muted thud, the sound of earth falling on earth, followed by another, lots in fact. The noise was so low and rhythmic it seemed to blend with the other sounds of the night.

Just as Buffy was about to comment, Faith scampered forward, ducking past two large headstones. She nimbly vaulted up onto the roof of a mausoleum that was the size of a small cabin. Buffy watched her scoot up on her stomach to the apex of the roof before stopping to stare at something beyond.

Buffy waited a moment before padding over to the black stone structure and quickly pulling herself up the side. Careful not to make any noise as her shoes scraped against slick, moss-covered walls, she managed to crawl up onto the lip of the roof and then quietly scramble across so she was next to a motionless Faith.

“You wanna try waiting for me next–” Buffy stopped mid-sentence as her gaze caught the sight that had Faith so transfixed.

People.

A large crowd milled about below: there was no talking or cheesy zombie-moaning, only silence. Coupled with the way they all moved so purposefully, Buffy found the silence more unnerving than if they’d been screaming or wailing.

The fact that some of those walking about were clearly dead was also wiggins-inducing; heads lolled from emaciated necks and skin peeled from faces revealing large sections of gleaming bone. One man was lacking the whole of his lower jaw; another had raw looking burns all over the side of his face. Yet they all moved, digging in the ground, pulling out bodies and broken coffins, dragging the bodies off and casting the rest to pile up on one side.

Buffy had never seen a cemetery look this crowded, not even during the day at a well-attended funeral. There were at least two-dozen figures wandering unerringly in the gloom, moving as if synchronized, coordinating so they moved in a seamless group motion.

Faith scanned the whole area back and forth before bracing herself up on her elbows. “Damn. Guess you weren’t lyin’ about them building an army.”

Buffy swallowed. “There’s got to be thirty of these guys at least.” She spotted two walking dead, one of them dressed as an Initiative soldier, dragging two bodies into a large, dank looking crypt. Within its shadowy recesses she saw brief flashes of blue light, flickering like a flame. Buffy pointed at the squat, stone building. “That’s where Kurenos must be, right in the middle of them. I recognise that blue-light thing he does.” She looked around at the lay of the land, seeing the lack of cover. There wasn’t anything between them and the other mausoleum larger than a tombstone. “We’ll never get there without being spotted.”

Faith shrugged. “So we get spotted. Big deal.” She pulled her legs up under her and prepared to stand up.

Buffy grabbed hold of her arm. “Are you insane?” She hissed and watched as Faith’s mouth twitched into a smirk, “Okay, let me re-phrase? Are you stupid? We’ll both be swamped if we go down there.”

Faith shook her head as she carefully placed the crossbow next to Buffy. “No, we won’t be. That’s the thing about guys, B; even the dead ones wanna chase me.”

Before Buffy could reply, Faith launched herself off the roof and hit the ground below. She rolled and rose, tearing off towards one of the larger groups of walking dead. Buffy could see that none of them had reacted to the quiet sound of Faith’s landing or the motion of her approach.

It didn’t last long. Buffy saw Faith approach two of the corpse-men at a swift pace and in a flash she had one of her blades in her hand. She punched the knife forward, straight through the skull of one of them before twirling and jabbing the point of the dagger upwards through the jaw of the second.

Buffy shuddered at the display of swift brutality as the two zombies dropped to the ground in a heap.

Then, almost as one, all the others stopped in their tracks and turned to look at Faith.

And Faith just kept on moving; even as her first two opponents dropped she was charging another, stabbing her blade deep into one of its eye sockets. The carcass twitched, staggered back a step before tumbling into an open grave.

The dead swarmed Faith, launched themselves at her from almost every direction as if one. They didn’t cry out or moan or scream with rage, they made no sound as they descended on her.

Buffy was already up on her knees, axe in hand, ready to go to the other girl’s aid rather than see her dragged under by a horde of zombies.

But Faith pivoted agilely, ducking under two reaching zombies before leaping on top of a headstone and kicking another one in the face. She jumped from her stone perch to another and then sprang off it to summersault over the heads of a large group of them. She landed in a clear patch of ground, turned around to whistle loudly, before taking off at a sprint through the cemetery. As Buffy watched the trailing banner of Faith’s hair, the other slayer let out a loud whoop of excitement.

The mass of zombies turned and ran after her, spilling around tombstones and piles of dirt as they simultaneously pursued her.

‘Right. Fast zombies, still not that smart.’

But Buffy still felt a knot of tension in her stomach. Faith was faster and more agile but these things were numerous. She might have a lot of trouble losing them, not to mention doubling back to help Buffy.

That left Kurenos to Buffy. Again.

With axe and crossbow firmly in hand, and her bag slung across her back, Buffy jumped down from the roof and looked around. There was no sign of any other corpses, apart from the ones that lay where they were demobilised. Buffy twisted one way then the other and then sprinted for the opposite edifice, a sunken family crypt with the name ‘Marylebone’ embossed across the top of the entrance.

Buffy actually recognised thus one; it had been a vamp nest back in her second year in Sunnydale. Half subterranean, it had a large, vaulted roof and stairs leading down to a couple of large stone sarcophaguses in the middle of the area. Plenty of open space for a fight, as she and Angel had discovered, since most of the family members were sealed up behind the walls.

Not a bad place for a bad guy lair, Buffy thought as she stepped up to the wide-open door and peered down into the room proper. The stairs descended down about eight feet, running along the right hand wall before turning so the last few steps jutted out into the open space, creating an ‘L’-shape. The sunken room had a high ceiling supported by four spiralling pillars dotted around the room. The moonlight that spilled through numerous crescent-shaped windows encircling the top of the room provided the only illumination. Deep shadows pooled in the corners of the space and at the bottom of the stairs, piled up near one corner, were half a dozen corpses, dressed in ragged remains of finery and stained by soil, waiting to be resurrected.

Buffy saw Kurenos, as large and repulsive as ever and standing between the two raised sarcophagi, both of which had dead bodies propped up on them. She saw the demon raise its hands up above lifeless torsos, talons spread in the air as thought it were about to do some conjuring trick. She saw a flicker of bluish-white light as the creature’s jaw opened, unhinging widely and showing large black teeth and a purplish tongue flecked with blue bile.

‘Yuck. Neat trick, he’s actually gotten grosser.’

Without wasting another thought, Buffy quietly dropped her shoulder bag and raised her crossbow in both hands, aiming it and pulling the trigger all in one swift motion. The bolt twanged, flew true and speared the demon straight in its rotting chest, puncturing the putrid flesh lying beneath its patchy grey fur.

Kurenos took a step back in surprise and let out a choked breath at the force of the blow. He lifted one claw to the protruding bolt as he raised his head upwards to where Buffy now stood, axe in hand.

“Oh, I’m sorry, where you in the middle of something? Because, really, this whole place is so inviting, I couldn’t help but just pop by.” Buffy moved to the top of the stairs and readied her axe, “They’ll let anybody into these places.”

The demon’s snout twitched and snuffled just like before, and then it took a breath. “...Slayer...”

The word was like an icy wind that curdled the air and reverberated off the stone walls.

Buffy suppressed a shiver. “That’s great! You’ve learned to speak. We can engage in meaningful dialogue now... or at the very least, witty banter.” Buffy shook her head in mock disappointment, “I remember how much I had to carry the conversation last time.”

Buffy was stalling. The longer she could quip, the longer Faith had to loose her grateful dead fans and hightail it back here with that knife of hers. Three was very much the crowd Buffy wanted.

But Kurenos didn’t wait: he strode forward with that gangly, liquid quickness that Buffy remembered from their first encounter and within moments its twisted gait had it mounting the steps upwards. It never took its luminous blue gaze from Buffy as it raised its sinewy arms up to attack. Buffy noticed as it got closer that its appearance was different in some ways; twisted lengths of bone now pierced the flesh all across the creature’s body, seeming to entwine with each other. Bones melded with and melted into what looked like small animal skulls, brittle spines jutted from the shoulder, elbow and forearm like razored teeth.

Buffy couldn’t get too close or she’d be shredded.

Kurenos took the stairs three at a time as he moved up closer to her, muzzle leering and twisted in what might’ve been a triumphant grin as its talons flexed like pale spiders legs.

Running nimbly down the steps, Buffy swept her axe out to the left of her to draw the demon’s gaze before using her speed and momentum to run left. She scampered up onto the wall and moved past his shoulder in a quick horizontal arc before leaping down behind him. As she did so she swung the axe out and down behind her, hoping that the surprise move would leave him open to a strike.

Kurenos managed to rear back on the narrow staircase and duck his head low so that the axe struck his horns, glancing off hard bone instead of carving into his face. The demon whirled around; claws extended so they gouged the stone wall as they travelled in a deadly arc, and cut the air where Buffy had been as she leapt backwards off of the stairs.

Buffy hit the ground and hopped back as Kurenos readjusted himself on the staircase, one gnarled hand going to his horned head. “...Slayer...”

Buffy let out a shallow, tension-releasing breath. “That’s good, but some variety in the vocab might be nice. Why don’t we try a verb, such as ‘Fail’? As in ‘He failed in hitting her.’”

Kurenos lowered his arms and stretched them wide. He seemed to suck in a lung-full of air; his breath was visible, like pale blue smoke drifting around his mouth. “...Slayer...Dead...”

Buffy smirked. “Maybe if I was to stand still long enough, but otherwise,” she raised the axe so he could see, “I’m not the one who should be worried.”

Another breath and then the demon skulked forward, hoofed feet clacking dully on the stone steps. “...Not light... Dark... Other...” It flexed its claws and leapt towards her, a dry rattle issuing from its throat that, even as she dived to one side and rolled across the floor, she realised was supposed to be a mocking laugh.

‘Not light but dark... What the..? Faith.’

*****

This was fun.

For the first time in since waking up in Giles’ bathroom Faith felt really pumped. Just letting loose and feeling the wind in her hair, the firm ground beneath her boots, the adrenaline blazing through her system. All of it kept her mind clear and made all those little aches melt away as she blurred past shadowy, leering statues and gleaming headstones that dotted her path.

Even as she angled right to avoid a looming marble obelisk, Faith could still hear the sound of thundering movement close behind her, belonging to the mass of bodies hurtling her way.

She grinned to herself as she turned right past a large run-down crypt surrounded by trees, putting her out of sight of her pursuers for the first time. Now she would lose them, pour on the speed, disappear and then double back in time for Buffy and the main event.

Faith sprinted through the shadows out into the moonlight. Streaking across dewy grass, she turned direction again, angling for some cover in the form of a thick patch of bushes. She heard a couple of pairs of footsteps that were managing to keep pace with her and gripped her knife tighter, readying herself. She burst past the greenery and turned a sharp left, planning to turn on a dime and make short work of the two dead-men-running before their friends could catch up.

Instead, she ran straight into Adam.

Or almost did. She spotted him standing in her path when she was mere meters from colliding with him so she hit the brakes. Faith lost her footing on the slick grass, flailed and slid along the ground towards him, stopping only when she reacted on instinct and jabbed her knife into the ground so she came to a stop in his shadow.

At first Adam didn’t seem to notice her. He was peering intently at the remains of a demon that he held in one hand, the body of some sort of stringy, yellow, winged creature that looked like it was in the process of being pulled apart.

‘What the fuck.’

Adam tilted his head to look at her, his patchwork face staring down at her with unnerving intensity. “You.”

Faith suddenly remembered that could damn well move and so scrambled back to her feet. Instinctively she formed a combat stance, knife at the ready, until she realised what she had been in the process of doing. She turned on impulse only to see the dead men bearing down on her, and more coming behind.

“This should be interesting,” remarked Adam coldly as he moved towards Faith.

Picking Up The Pieces (PART 3: Rest In Peace)

Willow shivered in the cool evening air as she walked back to Giles’ house. She hadn’t wanted to leave Tara, but having found what she needed to keep Faith in line she felt that it was her duty to tell the group.

Her mind lingered, as it so often did, on the time she spent with the other witch. Tara’s shy smile, her sweet nature and the way she looked at Willow all made the redhead feel like she hadn’t felt since Oz went away. In a way Willow never even considered that she would feel about anybody really, never mind another girl.

And it felt so natural to think that way. There was hesitation yes, and some nervousness, but that was all to do with external things, like her friends finding out. What would they think of her?

It’s not like Willow had ever brought up that sort of thing in conversation with Buffy, so how would the blonde girl feel?

Dating a vampire was unusual, sure, but in a world as weird and supernatural as the one Buffy was in, it made a sort of sense she rationalised.

But somebody who was the same gender as you? That was a whole different sort of unusual, one that was of the real world, with its own complexities and emotions. What if her friends couldn’t deal?

Willow sighed and hugged herself tighter. It was something she didn’t have to worry about today; she could put it off for a while, think about something else.

Faith.

Willow furrowed her brow in annoyance. Faith, with her easy confidence and knowing smirks and shallow charm was back in Buffy’s life, causing trouble again.

And Buffy was still trying to give Faith another chance, even after the dark-haired slayer had turned her back on Buffy, had framed her for murder, had betrayed her and joined up with dark forces. Because why? Nobody had been okay with her killing a guy?

Faith had been a slayer; something somewhere had given her real power, just like that. She hadn’t found it, or earned it, or deserved it as it turned out. Faith had had the power to do good, to help people, and instead she’d squandered it because she was selfish and stupid.

But Buffy was neither of those things so she mistakenly thought she could help. Even Xander still had confused feelings about the other slayer (he always had a weakness for slayers) but Willow didn’t... not anymore. She knew, ever since Faith had climbed all over her best friend just because she could, ever since Faith punched her and held a knife to her throat, Willow had looked into those eyes and seen nothing but cruelty.

Faith didn’t deserve any second chances. And now Willow had a couple of spells that would see that Faith wouldn’t make any more trouble. The first one was a nausea spell that Tara had found, a simple disruption spell that messed with all the liquids in a person’s head simultaneously. All Willow had to do was set fire to a greased bit of tallow that Tara had prepared, say a simple incantation and then blow out the flame. The smell of the smoke would make Faith feel all five-by-bleugh.

But the second spell was a lot nastier, and Willow had found it by looking through some of Amy’s old notes about her mom. The Bloodstone Vengeance spell was what Amy’s mom had used against Buffy and Willow remembered that it had been potent enough to lay Buffy at death’s door. And all Willow needed was something personal of Faith’s, some hair or a piece of clothing would do, and then Willow could cast the spell. If Faith tried anything...or looked like she was about to, she’d get what was coming to her and Willow could take her down once and for all; Buffy wouldn’t have to worry anymore.

Feeling a little more satisfied – at least Willow had some problems she could actually fix with magic – she arrived outside Giles’ apartment and opened the door.

She decided that she wouldn’t tell Buffy about the second spell, it would just end up worrying her. Willow would keep hold of it... just in case.

*****

Buffy leapt backwards as contorted barbs slashed at her face. She hopped up off the ground so her butt hit the lip of the sarcophagus, and rolled sideways onto her hip to avoid a bony-spined forearm. The demon’s limb smashed the stone rim so hard that rock dust exploded from the impact. Buffy shot out a leg to kick the side of its goat-like muzzle and knocked its head to the side, but she had to pivot back hard on her tailbone to avoid her leg being grabbed or sliced to ribbons in return.

Buffy tucked and rolled backwards over the top of the tomb, brushing past the corpse there to drop off the other side to the ground. Kurenos was much faster than before and he’d learned from their last encounter; no outstretched arms, no lumbering turns, he was quick and lithe and always pushed towards Buffy trying to gouge at her with any of his bony spurs.

She had done her best to keep her distance and look for an opening, but even so, she suffered from a couple of cuts to her forearms, a gash on one shoulder and a small puncture in her foot from an ill-timed kick.

Buffy wondered how long she could keep this up.

Ignoring the dull ache of fatigue, she stepped back and readied her axe again, but had to duck frantically as the demon snarled and threw the entire top of a sarcophagi through the air at her. Buffy dropped prone as whirling stone lid whipped just over her head and crashed against the far wall, dashing into pieces upon impact and knocking holes in the cavities beneath.

Kurenos leapt over the tomb and sprang onto Buffy, twisted cloven feet landing either side of her body as he brought his talons down on her.

It was his first mistake. It had been a clumsy pounce and Buffy was ready for it. She blocked his arms just above her head with the shaft of her axe and forced them up above her. Then she kicked her legs up and wide, a move that was more gymnast-with-a shade-of-cheerleader than slayer, to impact the demon in the back of both knees. The demon faltered instantly as he lost his footing, overbalanced by the weight of his body being too far forward, and was unable to bring his arms to bear down against Buffy.

Grimacing at the intense weight pressing against her shoulders, Buffy focused and brought her knees up to her chest, blasting them upwards straight into the demon’s face and snapping his jaw up and his head to the side. The whole of his body followed, lurching to one side and tipping over to fall on the ground to her left, stunned.

Adjusting her grip on the handle of her axe, Buffy swung it one-handed so it struck Kurenos square in the back, its heavy head punching deep between shoulder blades. The demon shuddered and howled in pain. Immediately it reared up, almost tearing the axe from Buffy’s grip and staggered backwards against the far wall, its goat-like legs kicking lumps of stone to one side as it thumped heavily amongst broken reliquaries.

Buffy quickly flipped up to her feet as Kurenos lurched towards the corner of the vault, and only then did she notice that the far corner of the floor there had been broken through to create a jagged hole, presumably for Kurenos to lay undisturbed in the tunnels beneath during the day.

She saw the demon stagger in the direction of the hole, looking to make a retreat so she rushed to block his path.

That was her mistake.

Buffy saw the blur of motion from her right only a moment before a large chunk of masonry clipped her high up in the shoulder. It hit her with such force that she spun down on one knee and dropped her axe, the stone fragment ricocheting off the wall behind her.

Buffy cried out, her arm flaring in pain at the force of the blow, even as Kurenos’ talons surged forward to grab her round the neck. He picked her and threw her round to slam her against the cold stone walls and then flung her back so she slammed against a pillar. He tore at her again and Buffy had to desperately duck to avoid sharp spurs ripping into her face. Kurenos’ arm smashed through the column as Buffy dived away from him. She rolling and came up far enough away to avoid the bony hooks of his thighs as the creature spun round in a wide arc, his hissing laboured breathing seeming to fill the dusty room.

The demon came at her again, great scything actions of his arms leaving her dodging back further away from her lost weapon. Soon, Buffy’s back foot scraped the edge of the broken floor that lay in the corner; she swayed at the edge and quickly scanned for a way past the demon’s reach.

Kurenos slowed his approach as he realised that he had her cornered, his luminous eyes seemed to flicker over her as he sized her up. He snarled dryly and brought his twisted torso forward, spreading his shoulders and lowering his horns as he brought his claws down so low that they scraped the dusty stone flags. He was preparing to run at Buffy and drive her over the edge.

Buffy squatted and searched in the gloom for something, anything that could help. Her fingers brushed against and then closed around a chunk of broken rock and brought it up behind her back. It wasn’t much but it was something.

Kurenos charged, his coiled legs and body thrusting forward as he tried to spear Buffy with his antlers. Buffy turned and leapt over the broken hole, sprang off the wall opposite and then spun back with her improvised weapon in her fist. She slammed the stone against the side of the demon’s head just in time to knock its spikes away from her, avoiding being impaled.

She landed close to the monster and tried to scramble underneath its long gait to get behind it, but Kurenos seized her arm.

Buffy felt the familiar cold burning engulf her arm, and the tingling numbness that followed spiralled up her body in an instant. She cried out in pain even as she pulled back and tried to yank herself free of the grip. She swung her piece of rock again, so hard that it broke in two against the demon’s knee. Kurenos’ fingers loosened enough for her to pull herself from his grip, but a moment later he punched a spiked forearm against her shoulder and rammed her to her knees, using his immense height and strength to pin her in place. Buffy felt the hot sting of the blow and the feel of the bony hooks in her skin dissolve into a liquid tingle that spread up and across her neck. She braced herself, mashed her hands into fists and prepared to try and break free before the demon’s aura drained any more of her life.

In desperation Buffy let her left side fall and threw up her right arm, slamming her forearm hard into sinewy throat. She felt a shudder pass through the demon; it rocked forward on its haunches and quaked at the impact of the blow.

But not Buffy’s blow.

Kurenos swayed on the spot for a moment, before both he and Buffy simultaneously looked down and noticed the two inches of steel blade of a knife protruding from his chest. Then there was the distinctive sound of a crossbow being fired and the demon shuddered under another impact. The tip of a bolt suddenly jutted from the hollow of the demon’s furred neck.

“Time to change dance partners, lumpy. She’s been hoggin’ ya all to herself for too long.”

Buffy recognised Faith’s voice and she managed to break from the demon’s weakening grip. She ducked to one side to see Faith skip down the steps, her remaining knife in one hand, and the shoulder bag in the other. Faith leapt the last few feet to the ground and landed in a crouch as Kurenos turned, animalistic features twisted into a pained snarl. The dark-haired girl slid the bag across the floor towards Buffy and readied her large dagger; her eyes seemed to shine with anticipation.

Buffy managed to move quickly to grab the axe off the floor and swung round to face the emaciated monster, even as Faith closed the distance from the other side.

The demon surged forward, perhaps thinking that Buffy was too injured to remain a threat for long so he could concentrate on the new slayer. Buffy took advantage of the inattention and flanked the demon even as he lashed out at Faith.

The dark slayer seemed fresh and strong and all the quicker for it. She ran forward, bobbed under a raking claw and struck in close with her knife, slicing the sharp blade through its gangrenous, translucent underbelly and ducking back from the arching spray of ooze that followed. Faith avoided another razor talon, knocking it away with her forearm, and then stabbed the demon twice, jabbing her blade beneath its ribs with quick, brutal thrusts before springing to the left, bouncing off the wall and using one of the holes there to jump high to hack her knife at Kurenos’ head.

Kurenos was bringing up his arm to ward her off when Buffy chopped her axe into the back of his leg. He roared, twisting in pain just as Faith’s dagger found its mark in his neck. The blade struck deep and Faith held on, knees braced against the demon’s shuddering torso as Buffy struck again, the axe impacting higher this time. Buffy saw a few bone hooks on the demon’s upper body tear at Faith’s thighs as she pushed in close against the goat-shaped monster, digging her knife out only to plunge it into the creatures chest where its heart would be.

Buffy chopped her weapon at Kurenos’ right side, cleaving the latticework of bone just beneath the skin and splitting the rancid organs beneath.

Faith gritted her teeth: she rammed and twisted her blade in the demon’s torso, one hand breaking off to punch the goat-monster in the face, her knuckles ramming against eye socket. Kurenos’ roar became high pitched as it tottered weakly backwards, bluish energy flickering in its throat and one clawed hand wrapped around Faith’s shoulder, digging and scratching at the flesh there.

Faith shrugged off the weakening grip as she tore her knife up and loose and then jumped back off the demon, pushing away with her feet even as Buffy’s last blow cleaved the demon’s leg off above the knee. Kurenos fell back, his lower body slamming into the ground and the rest of him disappearing into the opening in the floor. The lower half of him soon followed, flipping up and out of sight to crash into the inky darkness below.

Faith stood up and flipped her hair back before cautiously approaching the hole. She was limping slightly even as she tucked her stained knife inside her jacket. “Where’d this come from?” she muttered.

Buffy tried to catch her breath as she bent and rested the axe against the ground. “He had his... minion things make it I think, or maybe he did it. Like a hidey-hole or something.”

Faith peered warily into the dark pit. “Where does it go?”

“There are tunnels and underground caves all over this town.” Buffy squirmed a little as she started to feel the stings of her injuries. “Is he moving down there at all?”

Faith narrowed her eyes. “Not much, flailing his arms about some, tryin’ to find somethin’ t’heal himself with maybe?” Faith shook her head, “He ain’t going anywhere fast without that.” She nodded at the severed leg that still lay where it fell.

Buffy nodded in tired relief. “Good.”

She picked up the shoulder bag, unzipped it and pulled out the can of kerosene. She felt the full can slosh with pungent liquid; it should be plenty to finish the job.

Faith watched impassively as Buffy approached the hole, and looked down. She saw the demon writhing on a broken pile of coffins and wooden struts, the type of things used in mining, all piled underneath the fissure so that the dead could climb in and out when needed.

It also served as fuel for a convenient pyre.

Buffy uncapped the container, wrinkling her nose at the acrid stink, and tipped it so a long stream of the clear liquid poured out and down. She heard it glug out and splash on the structure below as she upended it. After a minute it was empty and she cast the container down into the dark as well.

As she fished in the shoulder bag for the matches she’d taken back at the house she saw Faith remove a lighter from her pocket. With a deft flick a small flame appeared.

Faith smirked. “You want to do the honours or should I?”

Buffy gestured at the pit. “Be my guest.”

Faith flipped the lighter into the air. It turned end over end and then dropped out of sight. Moments later there was the distinct sound of the air catching fire; the chamber was bathed with flickering tongues of light as flames spilled up like they were trying to escape the hole.

Kurenos made no sound, though Buffy could see something thrashing amidst the burning wood and smoke.

‘Silent as the grave. Thank God.’

Buffy rubbed the back of her neck, glad the numbness was swiftly passing but she could’ve done without all the scratchy wounds. Still, maybe a bubble bath would be just the thing to medicate herself with.

She smiled at that as she glanced over at Faith; the other girl stared into the fire with a dejected look on her face, maybe planning to revert to type now that the fighting was over.

Buffy wasn’t going to have that: these bridges were gettin’ built. “Thank you, Faith. That thing really had me on the back foot for a while there. You showing up when you did, it was very timely. What with your deadly aim and everything.”

Faith seemed to snap her gaze away from the flickering flame. “Uh, yeah. Whatever.” She shrugged as her expression hardened.

Buffy pretended to look thoughtful as she tilted her head at the conflagration below. “So, d’you bring any marshmallows?”

Faith wrinkled her nose and then, almost in spite of herself, her lips curled into a smirk. “You’re wicked gross, B.”

Buffy shrugged lightly as she smiled. “It’s just my mood. Comes with the hacking apart of demons.”

Faith shook her head at that and then seemed to decide something. “Woulda got here sooner but I ran into a bit of trouble in my travels. That Adam guy was out doin’ some damage.”

Buffy gaped in surprise. “God... Faith, a-are you alright? Did he hurt you?” Buffy tried and failed to hide the tremor of concern in her voice. She took a step towards the other girl and reached out as if to touch her.

Faith waved her off with a flicker of annoyance. “’S cool. He was way more interested in the zombie things chasin’ me. Ended up tearin’ into them instead. I left ‘em both to have at it and came back here.” She shook her head ruefully, “Was in a tight spot there for a sec.”

Buffy failed to keep the mild reproach out of her voice. “As plans go it was really risky, Faith.”

Faith shrugged and smiled again. “Well, they’re toast and we’re still here so it couldn’t have been too bad right?”

Buffy laughed at that. “I guess I can’t argue with that. Still, I’ll feel better after I submerge myself in a bath until I prune.” She sighed, “Let’s get out of here.”

Faith nodded and turned towards the stairs. “Me, I’m gonna need feedin’ again. All that running my ass off made me hungry.”

Buffy nodded in agreement as she followed Faith up the stairs. “Not to mention the slaying.”

Faith stopped on the stairs and looked over her shoulder at Buffy. “That guy? He weren’t so tough; I knew you were getting way too cosy when it comes to slayin’.” Faith smirked and leaned against the wall. “Lost your edge.”

Buffy scowled in mock outrage. “No way. Actually it was me who softened him up for you. You get... maybe an assist, but it was eighty percent me.”

Faith raised a sceptical eyebrow. “Eighty? As in the chick that just saved your ass gets a measly twenty percent.”

Buffy smiled teasingly as she stepped past Faith on the stairs. “Maybe twenty-five. That’s like, a quarter of an actual slay, Faith. You should be very proud.”

“Better take that back,” the dark haired girl grouched good-naturedly behind her.

Buffy twirled her axe playfully at the top of the stairs. “I think it shows a lot of grace to be able to recognise the valuable quarter of support that you gave me.” Buffy stepped out into the night, taking in a lungful of fresh, un-dusty air. She immediately felt better. “Really, you should be very grateful.”

Faith’s voice was close behind her. “In that case, lemme show you some gratitude.”

Buffy turned just enough to see Faith as she stepped closer and slammed a fist into the face.

Buffy flew face forward onto the grass, stunned by the sudden blow. She shook her head and blinked away stars before looking back to see Faith draw her knife.

The dark slayer smiled slyly. “And that’s just for starters.”

Picking Up The Pieces (PART 4: What Was Lost And Found)

The swarm of the dead was nearing sixty percent critical damage when they all ceased to function. Adam withdrew his barb from the skull cavity of the mobile cadaver and watched with satisfaction as it fell to the ground. Then he saw that all the others had stopped moving in turn.

It had taken him approximately four seconds to calculate that the mysterious energy used to animate the corpses only dissipated when the brain stem or spinal column was decisively compromised. Decapitation, brain or back injury or colossal nervous trauma all resulted in loss of function.

Interesting.

And now all of them had become dormant. A loss of data perhaps, or an interruption in the command stream, had let to this. Remarkable but inefficient.

Adam dropped the inactive remains onto the large pile of copses and body parts that surrounded him and looked around at them all. Numbers were good; cohesion of force, the unity shown here was also effective. But ultimately these bodies were human, and too fragile. Life did not cling to them for long, unlike the demon he had previously encountered.

Adam stepped over the body parts, too old and used to garner any more meaningful data from.

Still, the information was important. He was learning what would be necessary.

Numbers. Cohesion. Clarity of vision. Freedom from the weakness of humanity. From the weakness of flesh.

As Adam walked off into the night he had an inkling of what he needed to work towards.

He would need an army.

*****

Buffy let out a shaky breath as she tried to get to her feet but she felt Faith plant a firm boot in the middle of her back and push against her so she stumbled and fell again.

Faith’s voice was cold and teasing. “Ah, ah, gotta show you my appreciation first. First off, thank you Buffy for chaining me up in a fucking bathtub!”

With that growl of anger she snapped a kick into Buffy’s ribs that knocked the breath from her lungs and sent her rolling across the ground. Buffy stopped and came up off the ground on her elbows, wheezing out a groan of pain.

Faith strutted closer. “Thank you Buffy for tellin’ me to tow the line or you’d hand me over to some Watcher clean-up crew.” Another kick to the ribs that flipped Buffy onto her back, she felt jagged white flashes of pain that seemed to emanate from her torso and travel up to flare across her vision.

Buffy managed to pull herself upright and crawl away from Faith. She looked at the other slayer in disbelief. “W-why?”

Faith smirked cruelly. “Why? God, you’re so pathetic. Only reason I came here and went through this is t’get free and t’have another shot at you. It’s that simple, B.” Faith shook her head and gestured sadly at Buffy, “I mean look at you, you’re easy, with all your hand-wringing and worrying and then you go and drop your guard. It’s actually kinda funny.”

Buffy felt a gravestone push against her back and stopped crawling. She blinked in confusion, none of this made any sense. Faith wouldn’t do this, they had been fighting together, it had been working and now Faith was just throwing all that away.

“No.” Buffy grimaced as she reached up, gripped the top of the headstone and pulled herself upright. She leaned back for support. “Y-you saved my life back there.”

Faith rolled her eyes. “Wouldn’t have been as fun otherwise, B. See, I sorta did have this one dream I wanted to recreate. Had it over and over during my near-death experience, it was real vivid. There was this cemetery, see, and you and me. And you were chasing me with a knife, my knife actually.” Faith gestured to the knife in her hand, “I guess this will do in a pinch. I’m pretty sure it was just symbolic anyway.” Faith stepped closer, her eyes blazing. “Symbolic of all the things you took from me; like the slaying, the friends, the only guy who ever gave a damn about me, everything that ever mattered. You took it all, for nothing. And then you moved on like I was nobody.”

Buffy grimaced and shook her head. “I already told you that I–”

Faith stepped forward and backhanded Buffy so hard that she flipped clear over the tombstone and landed hard on the grass behind. In moments, Faith hopped next to her, grabbed Buffy by the hair and hauled her to her feet.

Buffy cried out as Faith’s strong fingers clamped down on her shoulders. “No more speeches, no more empty words, there’s just this; you and me, we finish it.”

She brutally shoved Buffy so she cart-wheeled backwards and slid across the ground on her face. Buffy stopped between piles of churned up earth and yawning open graves, the remnants of the dead.

She forced herself onto her knees, desperately ignoring the fatigue in her limbs and the burning, throbbing sensation in her chest that had nothing to do with pain. Weakness seemed to flood her, pooling in her limbs and making her bones ache with weariness. She managed to get a leg under her push herself upright as she turned towards Faith.

The other girl had her arms folded, knife still in one hand. She tilted her head as she sized Buffy up. “You’re not looking so good there, B. Maybe that demon took more outta you than I thought. I mean, I wanted you softened up some but not this weak-shit.” She paused as the sound of thunder rumbled across the dark sky, “Huh, looks like we’re in for some rain. That’s perfect; it rained in my dream too.”

Buffy huffed out a weak, desperate laugh. “So what, now we fight again? This is just sad, we fight, you lose, again, and then what? Or didn’t you think that far ahead?”

Faith grinned widely like she was having fun. “No way you’re gonna win, not with you shakin’ like that.” Buffy looked down at herself and tried to stop the trembling in her limbs.

“Nah, we’re gonna have to up the stakes, get you in the game a little.” Faith paced back and forth a little, before stopping and nodding. “I got it.” She snapped her fingers, “After I beat you I won’t kill ya off, not right away. Nah, I’ll just stick you in one of these holes for a while.”

She stepped forward, staring into Buffy’s eyes, “Then I’m gonna go to Giles’ house, kill him, kill Xander, maybe kill that chick that he’s with ‘cause, what the hell. Then I’ll have to go and find Red; I’ll make that one last I’ll tell ya.”

Buffy shook her head, despair welling up within her. “Faith, stop this.”

But Faith kept on, nodding in satisfaction. “Kill Riley? Definitely have some fun there. Then, maybe your mom? I mean, that’s kinda tired, and it’s not really a challenge but still, rounds Sunnydale off nicely. Then I probably should go all the way to LA and stake soul-boy. Do it right this time,” Faith gestured at Buffy with the knife, “After that I’ll come all the way back here, when you have nothing, when I’ve taken it all, I’ll apologise to your face.” Faith eyed Buffy coldly, “Then you’ll know how I feel, and understand why I’m doing this.”

Buffy wasn’t shaking anymore, she stood stiff as rain fell from the sky, hissing through the air to patter on obelisks and drench the ground. She didn’t feel the wet, or the cold. Her tiredness had faded and her despair was a dwindling, flickering voice in the back of her head. She allowed the slayer in her to take over. So she could end things.

Buffy shifted her stance and tensed herself. “Enough. If this is what you want, fine, but you’re not hurting anymore people.”

The sky rumbled again and opened wide, the heavens poured out a torrent. Faith growled and rushed at Buffy with her knife.

The dark slayer lashed out, her blade a leaping glint of silver in her hand as Buffy lurched away to avoid it. Faith’s strokes were angry and clumsy but fast, and Buffy had to be quick to dodge around the side of the other girl and counter her. She snapped out her arm, caught Faith in the side of the face but Faith countered with a roundhouse kick that knocked Buffy back against the slick stone of a statue. Faith stabbed at her and again Buffy saw the telegraphed move and twisted to one side. The blade scraped stone and Buffy kicked out, spinning it out from Faith’s grasp and sending it clanging against a headstone.

Faith cried out angrily and went at Buffy harder, punching her sides with a blazing ferocity. “Come on!” She cried and grappled Buffy back again, both spinning towards the ring of open graves. Buffy broke the other girl’s grip and struck out, fast punches that caught Faith in the chest and then the face, but the brunette pushed through the onslaught, grimacing as she threw a powerful right into Buffy’s shoulder that drove Buffy back. Buffy ducked a follow-up punch and spun to elbow Faith in the face. Grunting in pain, Faith shoulder barged Buffy and then back-handed her so they both tumbled to the ground. Faith went down on top of her, fists hammering Buffy’s sides and her stomach, stabs of pain that threatened to overwhelm her. “I’ll kill them, you hear me!”

Buffy surged upwards with newfound strength and threw Faith over her head. She flipped to her feet and spun to drive a heel under the other girl's chin. Redirecting a clumsy counter, Buffy punched Faith hard, feeling something burst under her knuckles and saw Faith fly back and smack hard against a stone marker that lay flat across the ground.

Buffy saw her shake as she picked herself up and glanced back at Buffy, looking at her under a wet curtain of hair.

Buffy stepped back, hit by a sudden thought. The look on Faith’s face echoed one she’d seen on Faith, her Faith, on the night the truth finally came out. Her hateful rant, all that anger, and then afterwards in the library, Faith gave insight into what she would be thinking, what she would want.

“If all I did was hurt people, then I know that deep down I wouldn’t really wanna live. You’d... you’d probably be doin’ me a favour.”

‘Oh, god.’

Faith spat something and ran at Buffy, flinging fists in Buffy’s direction. Buffy ducked back and blocked a vicious right hook then a strong left cross. She pushed and struggled against Faith’s strength as the other girl screamed in her face.

Buffy pushed and then suddenly yielded, sending Faith stumbling past her and slipping on the slick mud. The brunette’s knees pounded the ground as she twisted and struggled to get up.

Buffy shook her head. “Faith, stop this.”

“Gonna die.” Faith snarled as she righted herself, barreling towards Buffy. Buffy blocked a right cross, and then a front kick aimed at her solar plexus. Faith’s rage, all that was fueling her, was spluttering. “You hear me! I’ll kill them all!”

Buffy grabbed Faith’s surging fist and twisted to throw her over her hip. Faith slammed against the sodden earth but snapped a leg up to catch Buffy in the face.

Buffy staggered back but didn’t fall. She steadied herself as Faith came at her again. “I won’t Faith. I won’t do it.”

Faith punched her, Buffy’s head snapped to the side more with the momentum of the blow than the impact. She turned, grabbed Faith’s jacket and shoved her back hard to the ground.

Faith slid and slipped in the mud, her hair flattened against her skull. She flipped it out of her face as she came up and collided with Buffy, stumbling as she tried to land a solid blow. She screamed against her face.

“Are you listening? I’ll kill them… I’m evil!” Faith’s hands slapped against Buffy, pushing the both of them back, “I’m evil!” Her fingers were knotted in Buffy’s clothes, pushing and pulling against her, like she had no strength left, “I’ll…I’m evil! I-I’m bad, I’m bad… you hear me… I’ll kill…” Suddenly Faith’s feet slid out from under her and she fell, dragging Buffy down with her she knelt in the mud. “I’m bad!” She choked out as she pulled herself up. She looked at Buffy; her face was a crumpled mask of despair, “Please, Buffy… I’m evil… I’m bad! Just… please just kill me.” Her voice broke as she sobbed and collapsed, pushing her face down into Buffy’s lap even as Buffy put her arms around her.

Buffy pressed her head against the top of Faith’s head; she heard the sound of anguished cries and wet sobs over the thundering downpour of rain that beat against them both.

Stroking her hands through Faith’s hair, she made gentle shushing sounds as she cradled the other girl’s trembling form.

Buffy remembered the daydream she’d had, when she’d first heard Faith was awake. About how she would find her and take her and hold her and tell her everything would be okay. But now she had no voice: this was stark reality not some stupid fantasy. Cradling the broken girl in her arms, Buffy didn’t know how to handle this much pain in somebody else. Where could she begin to help?

All that she could remember at that moment was Faith’s voice, in the library. Her last words about the things she’d done in this world, about the person she had become.

“Don’t give up on me, B. Please.”

Buffy closed her eyes against her own tears and gently rocked Faith against her, murmuring. “I won’t. I won’t ever. I promise.”

*****

Ethan Rayne stopped at the entrance to the Watcher’s safe house. “I won’t be staying here”, he said flatly, his tone almost prim. He rubbed his now freed wrists as he gave the place the once-over.

Morley kept on moving into the cramped interior of the warehouse. “Of course not. Eventually the Watcher’s Council will pull strings, at some expense, and remove their men from incarceration to return here. This place is not suitable for any long-term operation, but there are things here we have need of.”

Rayne looked over the remnants left by the previous occupants, taking in sagging camp-beds and a beer-stained card table. “What could we possibly need here?”

“Money, for one thing.” Morley gestured to a briefcase on top of a pile of rucksacks, “Earthly resources always come in useful when you need somewhere quiet to work.” She walked over to one of the workshop benches and saw what she wanted, sitting there because the fools had not known what was in their possession, “And this.”

She scooped up the arcane mechanism that had briefly been in Faith’s hands before she’d had a chance to use it. This was what Morley had come here for; with some modification by a skilled chaos sorcerer, it would be perfect for her plans involving the two slayers.

Morley looked over other leftovers, electronic equipment, a police scanner, a few guns, modern crudities she had little use for. She turned back to Rayne. “I believe around here somewhere are refreshments.”

Rayne was already pawing through the packs, finding rolls of dollars and a bottle of amber liquid. “Single malt. Not bad. One of them had taste at least.”

Morley motioned to get his attention. “Not here. There are suitable clothes in the packs there. Change and then go to the Fairmont hotel and obtain a suite. Pay cash and wait for me there.”

Rayne thought about it and nodded readily. “Very well.”

Morley laughed at that. “You are so transparent Ethan. You think that with clothes and money you can simply disappear without repaying me for my generosity. And so you might, but you will not get far. I will inform the Initiative of your exact location and be done with you.” Morley stepped closer, liking the wary look on Rayne’s face. He wasn’t used to being read so easily, “However, if you are at the hotel when I return I shall tell you my plan.”

“Yes, well the thing is I’ve sub-contracted in the past. It’s never really worked out to be honest.”

“And your enmity with Rupert Giles has?” Morley chuckled, “I offer you power Ethan. A chance at revenge not only at Rupert Giles but his beloved slayer as well.”

“Oh, I do like power.” Rayne replied with relish.

“Not only power but the chance at causing some real chaos. Unleashing anarchy. Does that sound like something that would appeal to you?”

Rayne gave Morley a measured look. “Fairmont hotel you say? I’ll be waiting, and I’ll want details before I commit to anything more.” With that, he walked towards the back with one of the packs.

Morley watched him depart and smiled. “As you wish.”

*****

Buffy limped as she pushed through the kitchen door. She stopped and gently guided an unresisting Faith into the gloom, out of the rain. The house was warm and dry and Buffy suppressed a shiver as she reached out and turned on the light.

She turned back to Faith just as her mom came into the room; Joyce was wrapped in her dressing gown and looked tired. “Buffy?” She saw Buffy and then saw Faith and the state they were both in, “Oh, my God. What happened?”

“We’re okay Mom...Faith and I; we fought a demon and got kinda beat up in the process. Please don’t worry.”

“I hadn’t heard from you since yesterday when you went... chasing off.” Her mom cast a look at Faith. The dark-haired girl wasn’t listening or aware, just staring down at the kitchen table, looking through it into a faraway nothingness. “Is she... are you sure you’re alright Buffy?”

Buffy tried to smile and it came out shakily. “Sure, just... Faith got hurt, so I’m gonna, I mean she’s gonna stay in my room, okay?” She saw Joyce about to object, “Just for tonight I promise, I’ll... I’ll be with her the whole time.”

Joyce took this in. “Well, okay. You get her settled; there are fresh towels in the hall cupboard. And then you and I should talk.” Her voice was firm and full of mom-authority.

Buffy nodded wearily. “Okay.”

Joyce watched as Buffy delicately took hold of Faith and led her out of the kitchen, through the dimly lit house and up the stairs. She took the girl to her bedroom and switched on the bedside lamp. She left briefly to grab a warm, fluffy towel from one of the cupboard shelves. When she came back Faith hadn’t moved form her spot, her eyes flicked aimlessly across the room, like she didn’t recognise where she was.

“Here.” Buffy said and draped the towel across her shoulders, “Sit.” She manoeuvred Faith to sit on the bed and lay on her side. The dark-haired girl trembled as she pulled the towel tight around her and drew her legs up, curling on the bed. Buffy took a hesitate step back. “I-I need to go and talk to Mom... but I’ll be close by in case... I’ll come back.” She turned away.

“...Buffy.” Faith spoke softly, her husky voice had never sounded wearier.

Buffy turned around and put up her hands. “Just don’t, okay. I-I...God.” Buffy put her face in her hands, she felt like crying or screaming into a pillow. She felt like she was about to have an out-of body experience brought on by pure stress.

She brought her hands down when the moment passed and looked at Faith. The other slayer was looking at her now, had come back to herself. She seemed aware.

Buffy shook her head. “Ever since you woke up from that coma, my whole life– a life that I was managing to cope with- has just fallen apart. My friends, my boyfriend, everything seem so fragile right now.” Buffy sniffed and hugged herself; she made herself look at Faith. The brunette’s eyes never left her, wounded brown pits that seemed to flicker with something. “Things aren’t the way they should be, they’re all different, and I thought that I could fix... I thought I could maybe try and make it like it was, just like that, if I worked hard enough at it. And it just seems like things collapse even harder, and I think ‘what’s the point’.”

Buffy stared hard at Faith before moving to sit down on the edge of the bed. She sensed Faith tense up as she watched Buffy come nearer.

Buffy half-turned and put a hand on Faith’s leg. “And then I see you and I remember. I remember you Faith, I remember who you used to be, who we were, before everything fell apart. That’s the point.” Buffy blinked back tears, “I know you won’t believe me, especially after tonight, but I know you, Faith. I know exactly who you are, in your heart, where it matters. Maybe you’ve forgotten, by I never could. We know, we sense parts of each other that nobody else could ever...” Buffy cleared her throat as she gazed at Faith. “I believe in you, Faith. And I believe in us. That’s why I know that we gonna get through this, that we’re going to fix things, together. I don’t care how long it takes, or if you fight me, or whatever. We’ll get back to where we were.” Buffy sniffed and stood up, she felt Faith’s eyes on her. “Get some sleep; I’ll be back in a little while.”

Buffy left the room, leaving the door ajar slightly as she walked to the head of the stairs. She took a long, steadying breath, and then went down to talk with her mom, to offer some reassurance.

Buffy hoped that her mom believed her. She hoped that Faith believed her.

Hope was pretty much all she had left.

*****

INTERLUDE: Remember Me

By now, Buffy was accustomed to hushed atmosphere of this time of night, and to the calming background noise of the kitchen in particular. The soft drumming of rain against the windowpane and the uniform ticking of the clock were the familiar soundtrack to the moments after her many late night patrols. But Buffy was usually alone on these occasions, not trying to begin an awkward conversation with her mother.

She adjusted the warm towel on her shoulders and leaned forward on the counter, blowing softly on her steaming hot chocolate as she flicked her eyes back to her mom. “Thanks for this. There’s nothing like the rain to make you, uh, really cold and wet.”

Joyce was leaning next to the fridge holding her own mug of cocoa. She smiled tightly. “Well, I would say something motherly about catching a chill out there, but to be honest Buffy that’s the least of my concerns right now.”

Buffy nodded solemnly. “I know.”

Her mom’s smile faded. “Yesterday morning you went tearing out of the house after Faith who, incidentally, had been holding me hostage. And then I don’t hear anything from you until you show up here in the middle of the night, with Faith in tow, looking like you’ve both been through hell.” Joyce gave her a wide-eyed look of concern, “I don’t think I’m out of line in asking for a serious explanation here.”

Buffy stared into the depths of her hot chocolate. “I know that. It’s just – it’s been a long night.” She took a deep breath, “The thing is – Faith... she didn’t do a lot of the things that I thought that she did. It took a lot of time to sort out all the... confusion. And then she ended up helping me out when she didn’t have to, and she got hurt. She, we just needs somewhere to rest up for a while... tonight and maybe tomorrow?” She glanced up to see her mom’s reaction.

She looked wary.

“Buffy, I know that you and Faith have been through a lot together. And you might think that you have a responsibility to her, but you’ve been through so much already, isn’t there anyone else than can take care of her? Doesn’t she have any family?”

Buffy’s face fell. “I... I don’t know. Maybe back in Boston.” She muttered the last part quietly. Shouldn’t she know more about Faith’s past before Sunnydale than just vagueness?

Joyce nodded thoughtfully before adding, “And what about those people who Mr. Giles used to work for? The, uh, Watchmen?”

Buffy shook her head sadly. “’Watchers', Mom. And right now all they want to do is lock her up and punish her. They don’t want to help.”

Joyce sighed. “Are you sure that Faith even wants to be helped? When she was last here she was... very unstable, Buffy.”

Buffy pressed her lips into a firm line. “I know that, but I promise that she... She isn’t like that now; she doesn’t want to hurt anybody else. She just wants to stop...” Buffy felt her throat tighten and an anxious squeeze in her chest, “Mom, I’m the only person who can help her.”

Her mom was silent for a moment as she digested Buffy’s words. Buffy tensed, expecting a flurry of objections. But Joyce just took another sip of her cocoa.

“Okay then. I suppose we should try and make her welcome, at least until you’re both feeling better. I think the spare room is full of things from the gallery but we do have extra sheets and pillows for the couch.”

Buffy blinked. “Um, Mom, I don’t expect you to be okay with this, at least not after...everything that happened –”

Her Mom held up her hand. “Buffy, please. I may be new to this whole other side of you, being the slayer, but I know people. I remember the first time Faith came here for dinner, and again two Christmases ago when I spent some more time with her.” She paused and smiled at the memory, “I liked that girl Buffy. And even if she made some... very bad choices, even if she did hurt people, if you think you can help her get back to who she was then I’ll support you.”

Buffy felt her throat tighten up again. “Mom...”

“I trust you, Buffy.” Joyce braced Buffy in a warm hug, and stoked her hair gentle as Buffy returned her embrace. “And I know you have a good heart. If anyone can help Faith, you can.”

Buffy allowed herself a moment to enjoy her mother’s comforting embrace, feeling some of her tension drain away as she buried her nose in warm dressing gown. She inhaled deeply her mother’s scent before pulling back and discreetly wiping her eyes. Buffy felt drained, both physically and emotionally, but for the first time in a while she also felt calmer, soothed and cared for. A weight had been lifted, a weight she hadn’t really been aware of until now.

Joyce kissed the side of her head. “Now, I’m going back to bed. I’ve a long day tomorrow and having an extra house guest is really no excuse for being late.” She delicately tucked a loose strand of hair behind Buffy’s ear. “You should turn in as well.”

Buffy nodded lazily. “I’m gonna take a bath first, clean up a little.” She made a dismissive gesture at her Mom, “Go on, I know where everything is.”

After her mom went to bed, Buffy finished her drink and headed upstairs and took some fresh bedding and pillows from the closet. She intended to sleep curled up in the chair in her bedroom, so she could remain close to Faith.

That done, she ran herself a bath, making sure the water was as hot as she could stand she poured in bath salts to provide some bubbles. She stripped off her fouled and grungy clothes and tossed them to one side, wincing as they pulled at the bloody mess of her wounds. Scratches, scrapes and a couple of punctures marred her flesh, still in the process of healing. Buffy knew that they’d be fully healed in a couple of days but she would feel better cleaning them while they were still fresh, just in case.

Then, Buffy artfully pinned her hair up and stooped next to the bath. She dipped her hand into the streaming tub and, gauging that it was hot enough, turned off the tap and stepped in. She winced at the sting of her sore foot as she immersed it in water, and braced herself for more as she lowered herself into the near-scalding water and leaned back until she was neck deep in heat and bubbles.

Letting the stinging pain and rawness of her wounds slowly melt into the liquid heat, Buffy savoured the feeling as her muscles uncoiled in warm lethargy. She rubbed her hands down her arms and across her stomach, drawing up her knees and bracing her feet on the bottom of the tub as she left her mind drift, allowing all her troubled thoughts to turn to mist and glide away.

‘Emptying my head of deep thoughts shouldn’t be too difficult. Just imagine math class. Algebra. Miss. Jackson writing long lines of numbers and letters on the board... So very bored.’

Buffy smiled to herself and raised one of her legs out of the water, running her hands over the muscles there, testing and massaging with her fingers. She’d really had enough of fighting, brawling and kicking. Also, being kicked was getting kinda old.

If she could go a week with no fighting... Well, maybe not a week, that was a long time, but a few days. Or maybe just one long day of non-violence, that would be something approaching happiness...

Taking it easy seemed like a great idea. But Riley was still out there somewhere and so was Adam and so was the whole Initiative problem and also there was that Morley woman...Urgh.

But tomorrow she would focus solely on helping Faith, getting her well again, showing the other girl that she meant what she said, that she wanted Faith to get better. To get back to who she used to be. Buffy knew she could do that and she knew in her heart that Faith would in turn help her, stop her from being overwhelmed from the tag-teaming evils she was facing these days.

‘We could have our own tag-team. The Chosen Two... High-fiving and ass-kicking all the vamps... Defcon One... And there could be Riley... he could help with the... he has guns...’

Buffy put her leg down and settled her head back against the edge of the bath, letting her arms drop into the water and float weightlessly by her sides. Every part of her felt like it was wrapped up and surrounded and softly caressed by water. It whispered about her ears and licked between her toes. Buffy heard nothing but the quiet lapping of the water against the side of the tub, the muffled sound of her heartbeat and the slow, relaxed sound of her breathing. She sighed contentedly as the warmth penetrated her skin and muscles and soon her mind seemed set to slide off into the air...

*****

…It felt like she was somewhere else, floating. Then, she slowly came back to herself. She became aware of the damp sheets against her back, the warm air on her skin and the tickle of Faith’s hair as her head moved up Buffy’s body. She felt a wet, passionate kiss against the side of her neck. She moaned and turned her head, her eyes catching the other girl’s.

Faith grinned as she bit her bottom lip. “You okay?”

Buffy blinked to see if her brain was still working. Yep. “I-I...Wha? Where did you learn to do that?”

Faith sniggered slightly. “Maybe I’m just naturally talented. Or maybe seeing you naked makes we wanna do all sorts of things t’you.” She bent her head to kiss Buffy at the base of her neck, “I’ve been with girls before, Buffy. Just practice is all.”

Buffy swallowed and tried to think of something intelligent to say. “That was like nothing I’ve...” Buffy’s nerves suddenly returned with a vengeance, “Do... you, uh, want me to do that... to you?” She didn’t think she could make Faith feel that good; the whole thing was just too daunting.

Faith laughed a little, and smiled. “Well, you don’t hafta, it’s not like I’m gonna make you, y’know.” She eyed Buffy sympathetically, “Buffy, just relax, okay. We’re havin’ fun, it’s not a test or nothin’... Just being with you is…” She trailed off and shook her head as she thought about it.

Then her eyes lit up. “We could use that toy of yours. You seemed to really dig it last time, made me kinda jealous.” She stroked a hand down her side deliberately drawing Buffy’s gaze to her body, “You wanna make me feel good, right? We’ve got a night. I haven’t even done half the things I wanna.”

Still up on one elbow, Faith leaned in and kissed Buffy on the lips. Her breath still ragged, Faith’s mouth worked against Buffy’s, gently parting her lips. Weakly Buffy realized that she tasted herself on Faith’s tongue but found that she didn’t care. She felt her body responding to the dark haired girl’s passion, embers of desire still smoldered in her belly, her skin still hummed with need and energy still coursed through her.

She pulled back a little and smiled against Faith’s lips. “Okay. But you’ll have to get it. For some reason my legs aren’t working...”

Faith returned her smile. “It’s not like you're gonna be anywhere anyways, not for a while” she smirked, rolling away and off the bed and padded over to the chest of drawers.

Buffy took in the sight of Faith’s naked back in the moonlight. The way her dark, tousled hair was swept away from one side of her neck, the supple curves of her back and hips that drew Buffy’s eye down to the smooth mounds of her ass. Faith’s back bent slightly as she leaned down and pulled open one of the drawers. “Where is it anyhow?”

Buffy blinked out of her revere. “Um, bottom. It’s in the bottom drawer.”

Faith dipped her back down as she smirked over her shoulder. “Anything else down there I should know about? Anythin’ naughty that I’m gonna find?”

Buffy bit her bottom lip and shook her head as she tried not to stare at Faith’s bent-over form. “I don’t really have a ‘naughty drawer’ or anything like that. I had enough trouble just hiding all my slaying stuff from Mom.” Buffy thought about it for a moment, “Do you have a, uh, naughty drawer?”

Faith straightened up and turned towards Buffy, giving her an unrestricted view of her front. “Nope, but this one guy I ran with had a naughty wardrobe full o’ stuff. Ronnie was into all kinds of kinky shit, no lie.” Then Faith held up her hand and brandished a small, glossy tube, “Found it.” She walked back over and slinked onto the bed, walking up on her knees until she was next to Buffy before swinging one leg over and straddling her. Buffy couldn’t help but gaze at Faith’s easy and unashamed nudity as she knelt over her, eyes hooded seductively.

Buffy felt the bottom of Faith’s thighs brush the tops of hers, saw the way the pale moonlight shaded her smooth stomach and the curve of her breasts. The dark-haired girl’s nipples were dark spots against a pale expanse of flesh. Buffy watched as they moved as Faith breathed in and out.

Faith caught Buffy’s eye with a sly smirk. “Hey B, my face is up here.”

Buffy moved her eyes upward and smiled bashfully. “Sorry… All this is very new.”

Faith’s smile broadened as she leaned forward and kissed Buffy lightly, lips gently brushing and tasting before puling back. “’S not like I mind. You gawping at me is very cute.”

Faith then made a show of flexing her shoulders and then slowly stretching her arms up above her head. Buffy’s eyes widened as she saw Faith’s breasts lift up and stand proud and as lower down her firm belly stretched taut.

Faith grinned cockily and Buffy felt her face heat up. “Showoff.” She murmured even as she smiled.

Faith nodded slightly at that before lowering her arms. “And it’s all for you, B.”

Her voice was only half-teasing, there was an undercurrent of sincerity in it that made Buffy forget her embarrassment and made her want to show Faith how much she wanted her, wanted this, like she had always wanted it.

Buffy put her hands by her sides and pushed herself up so that her back rested against the headboard, she felt as small thrill of pride as she saw Faith’s own eyes roam over her body, and the brunette’s lips parted slightly in desire.

Faith shifted closer and settled back on her haunches, her butt resting just above Buffy’s knees. She held out one hand. In it was the sleek vibrator. It glinted in the pale light. “There ya go, B. Take it and see if you can make me purr.”

Her husky voice put an emphasis on the last word as she leaned close again and handed her the toy. Faith then put her arms either side of Buffy’s head and rested her hands on the headboard there.

Buffy held the vibe in her right hand as her left traced its way up Faith’s side, feeling silky skin beneath her touch as she trailed her fingers up and curled them over Faith’s shoulder. She inclined forward to kiss Faith’s soft, full lips, moaning slightly as Faith’s mouth captured her own, tongue playing over her teeth and probing deeper into her mouth. Faith sighed wantonly as she pushed herself firmly up against Buffy, her passion leaving the other girl’s head buzzing with lightheadedness.

Dimly Buffy remembered how to switch on the vibrator and turned the base of it between her fingers so it hummed into life. She reached her left hand down and under the other girl’s embrace to cup the soft flesh of her breast, eliciting a soft moan as she ground her pelvis down against Buffy’s lap. The warm flesh of her buttocks was now slick with sweat; she pushed herself against Buffy as if she was molding herself to her, so there was no gap visible between them.

Buffy brought the vibe up and pressed the tip against Faith’s thigh, causing the brunette to stiffen slightly at the contact before relaxing again, her movements still soft and sinuous, and her hips rolling and grinding with a silky grace.

They continued kissing, Faith stroking one hand through Buffy’s hair as Buffy’s fingers stroked and massaged one breast and then the other, feeling the hard pebbles of Faith’s nipples against her palm. Buffy stroked the vibe up the top of Faith’s thigh and then across her stomach. She felt Faith’s breathless giggle against her mouth at the ticklish sensation.

The giggle turned into a gasp as Buffy’s hand slid up a few inches and pressed the tip against one straining nipple. Faith’s mouth broke away from Buffy as she tilted her head back, tongue pressed against teeth to try and stifle her groans. Buffy now used both hands in concert, one hand to hold steady and then the vibe to tease and sweep over tender tissue.

An unexpected thrill rippled through Buffy, not only at the sight of Faith experiencing pleasure, but also at the thought of control. She felt a glimmer of pride at being able to make Faith feel so... good.

Buffy deftly pulled the vibe away from Faith and dropped it down, even as she leaned in to kiss the long expanse of Faith’s throat, working her mouth up and across exposed skin, feeling the throb and pulse of the other girl’s pulse under her tongue. She pushed the toy lower, trailing the humming cylinder down Faith’s navel and then working it lower still.

Faith moaned huskily and stiffened again, her hand in Buffy’s hair clenching in response to the vibe finding her centre. Faith’s body quivered slightly as her hips stopped moving and instead pushed closer to Buffy, gently rocking. Buffy glanced down to make sure her hand was in the correct place, before using her thumb to turn the base of the vibe. The barely audible hum became a quiet buzz.

Faith’s response was immediate, she mashed her mouth against Buffy’s, both hands in her hair as her hips pushed down against Buffy’s lap, pinning her hand there. Faith moaned lustily against Buffy’s mouth as she sucked on her lips and duelled with her tongue. She pulled Buffy’s head back in aroused enthusiasm as she ground herself down against the throbbing tube in Buffy’s hand. Faith’s muted groans became steady pants, punctuated by the occasional high-pitched whimper against Buffy’s lips as she fought to catch her breath.

Buffy kept a tight grip of the toy between her now slick fingers, managing to tip it up slightly so the humming shaft pressed more fully against Faith’s wetness. Faith’s undulating motions became jerkier as she dropped her head and pressed in against Buffy’s shoulder.

She surged and then shuddered as she gasped wetly into Buffy’s neck. Buffy managed to manoeuvre the vibe so it stopped making contact and the brunette sagged slightly against her, nuzzling her neck.

Buffy heard Faith’s groan huskily. “More.”

Buffy smiled at that and managed to turn the slippy dial at the base of the vibe up another notch. She moved her wrist so it was directly under Faith’s pussy with the vibe pointing up. Then she slid the whole thing, quickly and smoothly, inside the other girl.

Faith gave a strangled husky cry as she shivered at the tremors deep inside her. Her hands left Buffy’s shoulders and gripped the headboard tight, Buffy heard the distressed creak of wood as Faith’s arms tensed, muscles taut and rigid in erotic apoplexy.

Instead of Faith riding her lap, Buffy found herself probing deep with the vibe, lancing it between clenching walls as she placed a steadying hand on Faith’s lower back. Buffy placed her lips against hot, dewy skin as she kissed Faith’s heaving chest, feeling the heavy thudding of her heart and the way her breath was stuttering and ragged.

She pulled the toy out before thrusting it deeper again, receiving another appreciative response from Faith. The dark haired girl’s head was thrown back, her eyes closed as she bit her lip in erotic repose. She now seemed content to let Buffy set the pace and Buffy felt another jolt go through her, the thrill as the other girl trusted her enough to give up her precious control.

Buffy swept the toy down and out and placed the tip against the top of Faith’s entrance before leaning forward to kiss and nibble at the satiny soft skin of her neck.

Through her teeth Buffy felt the first tremors of Faith’s climax, bigger than before – a lot bigger. Faith seemed to be fighting the loss of control even as the feeling swept over her. Her body writhed and shook against Buffy, her groans coming fast, with no breath between them apart from the odd brief escaping cry of surrendered pleasure. Buffy had never seen Faith look so... naked and exposed as she was at that moment. Her body contorted, her beautiful face slack with overwhelmed passion. For a moment it seemed like Faith was frozen that way, and then the moment passed.

With one last husky cry, Faith rolled off of Buffy’s lap and flopped onto the bed beside her, skin flushed and sweaty. Her chest rose and fell as she reached up and ran a hand through her hair. With one last burst of breath she let out a breathless giggle. “That’s the best Christmas present you ever got.”

“Uh-huh.” Buffy murmured in agreement as she slid down and pushed herself against Faith’s side, eagerly kissing her neck and shoulder, feeling the incessant pull of her own need within her. The sounds Faith had made – the groaning and breathy whimpers – had left Buffy eager for more. She traced her tongue as she butterfly kissed along Faith’s collarbone and down the slopes of her breasts.

She felt Faith’s fingers lazily curl through her hair. “So, you want me t’go down on you again?”

Buffy paused in her kissing and looked up through her eyelashes. “Not right away, I-I mean if you’re too tired –”

Faith shook her head slightly. “Get on top of me.”

Buffy eagerly sat up and after a moment of hesitation she swung her leg up over Faith’s hips and straddled her waist. She held herself above the dark haired girl, a little unsure. “Like this?”

Faith seemed to be stifling a grin and gave a little shake of her head. “Other way, B. Swing yourself ‘round so you can see my feet.”

“Oh.” Buffy frowned and tried not to look embarrassed. She straightened up and manoeuvred around so she was facing the bottom of the bed. She saw Faith’s legs spread slightly as she drew her knees up.

“’Kay B, you need to back up a little and bring that fine tail o’ yours closer.” Buffy could tell that the other girl was talking around a smile.

“Okay.” Buffy looked over her shoulder as she shifted backwards, “You could be a little clearer y’know.”

“Uh-huh? What, you never seen porn before?” Before Buffy could answer, Faith grabbed her hips, lifted them up so her knees came off of the bed and then pulled her backwards. Buffy slid her hands out to stop herself from falling but then Faith planted her down so her hips were level with the other girl’s shoulders. Her legs were spread wide and she could feel warm air between her inner thighs. She felt Faith shift behind her and stifled a soft moan as she Faith blew a soft breath against her clit.

Buffy found herself looking down at Faith’s flat stomach and the dip of her pelvis that led down to the smooth juncture between her thighs. A few dark, wispy curls were visible in the shadowy cleft and Buffy felt a nervous swoop in her tummy.

‘Oh... What if I can’t do this? What if I hate the smell or the taste of her or something? What if I completely fail as a lesbian?’

Meanwhile, Faith was busily letting her hands roam over Buffy’s butt and hips, occasionally stroking the satiny skin and making Buffy squirm at the sensation.

The dark haired girl’s firm grip settled high up on Buffy’s ass, holding her hips down so Buffy felt like she was now spread wide over Faith’s face.

When Faith spoke again her voice was soft and breathy with desire. “Just do what I do, ‘kay? Copy me and you’ll be fine. Whenever you’re ready.”

Then Buffy felt Faith’s breath return to her crotch and then her tongue flicked up and along the length of her pussy. Buffy felt her stomach twitch and roll. Her arms tensed, and Faith tightened her grip on her to keep her in place as she felt her own toes curl and hips instinctively dip down to meet the other’s girls mouth. Buffy’s mouth dropped open at the exquisite sensation, as Faith continually placed deep kisses and tongue lashes on every part of her, exploring Buffy’s dripping cleft, sucking her nether lips into her mouth to nibble and lap at them. Then moments later Faith changed tact and pried her tongue against Buffy’s labia lips, burrowing deep and sliding wetly between her clenching walls. There was no rhythm, just the fast writhing and twisting as Buffy found her thighs clenching tight in automatic response. She gasped and lowered her head to press it against Faith’s belly, panting against undulating flesh.

But just as Buffy was getting used to that, Faith changed again and settled on concentrating most of her effort on the apex of Buffy’s pussy, vibrating her tongue against her throbbing clit.

Buffy clenched her hands and balled up the sheets in her fists, between moans and sighs of pleasure her breath became quick and ragged as she found herself rapidly being pulled headlong towards climax.

She was rocking back on her knees now, revelling in the feeling not just of Faith’s mouth against her but the other girl’s hands as they roved over her thighs and buttocks and squeezing the slick flesh between strong fingers.

Buffy shuddered and cried out as Faith wedged her tongue inside her and glided it back and forth, gliding and stroking against the edge of her clitoral hood. It's too much for Buffy; she jerked and whimpered against Faith’s stomach as climax seized and shook her wildly at her core. She found herself undulating back against Faith, hips rolling almost violently even as the other girl stopped her ministrations and pulled her head back.

Buffy heard Faith panting wetly as she dimly realised that she hadn’t even done anything to Faith in return.

‘That’s bad... I fail at... lesbian...ism. And I’m a bad girlfriend.’

Belatedly through fuzzy thoughts, Buffy started kissing Faith’s stomach, softly caressing the smooth skin around her navel, even as she extended her neck and pushed her face between Faith’s thighs. Buffy felt the other girl’s legs spread to accommodate her as she concentrated on kissing further down, scrunching her nose in focus.

The smell, which was a mix of the slight tang of Faith’s sweat and something else, wasn’t unpleasant. Far from it.

Buffy‘s lips quickly met Faith’s springy but damp hair on her journey downwards and tasted something wet and slightly salty. Buffy paused and licked her lips experimentally as she felt Faith’s hands return to her hips.

Even though Faith’s voice was now straining slightly with need, she still just offered some gently encouragement. “Just start with somethin’ simple. Spell out yer name with your tongue. Or my name. Or the friggin’ alphabet. Whatever works, ‘kay? ”

Buffy nodded, even though Faith couldn’t see, and nosed herself further downwards. She curled her hands around Faith’s warm thighs and lowered herself so that her breasts pushed against Faith’s body. She could smell Faith’s arousal more strongly and pressed her face forward to lick at the slick, shadowy folds.

Her nose gently bumped the top of Faith’s mound and Buffy felt the other’s girl’s stomach hitch at the contact. Maybe being upside-down wasn’t the best way to learn a new skill but Buffy gently nudged herself down, following her tongue and the musky aroma of Faith’s arousal. Buffy licked past short hairs into her folds and tasted more of the other girl’s juices, much stronger than before, with a tangy sweetness underneath the saltiness.

‘Not so bad. Or at all, actually.’

With growing confidence, Buffy began to stroke her tongue more wildly, undulating and gliding it across silken folds. She flattened it out to push deeper in search of more flavour, licking along her outer lips, curling her tongue as she lapped harder.

Buffy heard and felt Faith muffled moan as the dark haired girl shuddered and then pressed her own mouth against Buffy’s centre and started to return the actions Buffy was giving. Buffy sighed as her sensitive pussy twitched in response to Faith’s questing mouth and tightened her own grip on Faith’s thighs. She tried to respond in kind, pushing her face down and closer to Faith’s pussy and went wild, licking and nibbling and sucking, determined to show Faith that she was a natural, or at the very least a very quick learner.

After another few minutes, that seemed lengthened by the rebounding sensations of what Faith was doing to her in turn, the dark haired girl’s hips surged and went wild. Buffy heard a few husky groaned coupled with a squeak of pleasure and Faith’s thighs clamped hard around her ears for a long moment before becoming limp. Faith’s ministrations continued, but they were sloppy, as if her whole body had become boneless and loose.

Buffy raised her head up a little and kissed and nibbled soft inner thigh. She felt like she was beaming with satisfaction. She might’ve started slow but she caught on quickly enough.

Then she felt Faith shift again underneath her. “We’re not done.”

Her voice was still husky and rough with arousal and Buffy realised that Faith’s hands were still firmly gripping her backside.

Then she felt one hand leave its place and slide under and between her legs. She felt stiff fingers press against her opening as Faith seemed content to continue.

Buffy smiled and wiggled her butt teasingly; half hoping Faith would see it as a challenge, something to spur the dark haired girl on. Such thoughts sent warm tendrils of desire shooting through the deepest parts of her.

Buffy groaned as Faith’s fingers pushed firmly against her opening, quickly sinking into her yielding depths. Buffy lowered her head again, determined to distract Faith as best she could and pressed her flattened tongue directly against the top of Faith’s mound, swirling it around and daintily nibbling at the engorged flesh there.

Faith responded by thrusting her fingers – more than the two that Buffy had felt before –deep into Buffy and relentlessly began curling and flexing them. Buffy felt her hips rock backwards as Faith’s thumb, still on the outside, ground against the side of her clit. Buffy shuddered and tried to redouble her efforts, her tongue and lips developing a gentle rhythm, swirling against Faith’s slick channel.

Faith’s fingers continued in their assault as Buffy felt the other girl’s lips and tongue against her butt, nibbling on the softness there before sweeping lower and nuzzling between her cheeks. Buffy squirmed at the new sensation and her muscles twitched involuntarily as Faith kissed and licked the inside of her cleft. Buffy’s concentration faltered and her breaths became more ragged as Faith dragged her tongue further inside the curve of Buffy’s ass before pressing herself against the tight ring of muscle she found there and twirled her tongue around.

Buffy let out a choked gasp and clenched up as new feeling raced up her spine. She opened her mouth wide and instead of crying out jammed her mouth against the inside of Faith’s thigh and clamped down hard. Her ass bucked under Faith’s grip and Buffy surrendered to all the combined sensations. Her body melting under hot sparks that radiated from everywhere. Her body and Faith’s seemed to merge as she felt the other girl’s rushing blood next to her ear. She felt nothing but the girl beneath her, in her, surrounding her, as her lungs seemed to want to burst with sensation...

Buffy’s eyes snapped open to find herself staring up at the bathroom ceiling through water.

She rammed herself off the bottom of the bathtub and broke to the surface fast, choking and spluttering as she clung to the side of the tub. As she was wracked with shuddering coughs, a few trickles of water and saliva came out of her mouth even as she wiped them away with the back of her hand. Her mouth tasted like soap as well as a more an acrid taste that stuck in the back of her throat, making itself known every time she took a breath.

Her chest ached but the rest of her body hummed with the feeling of rushing blood. Her skin was flush and tingling, her brain running a mile a minute as her stomach coiled with a hot tension she recognised all too well.

‘Jesus, that was... intense.’

Buffy shook her head and tried to ward off her arousal and get her body back under control. It wasn’t always this bad when she stayed at her own house. Sometimes, the memories just made her awaken feeling sad and cold and alone. But this, this was new.

Buffy waited in the now tepid water until she’d settled down a little, undoing the wet mess of her hair and combing it out thoughtfully. Maybe it would be best if she didn’t sleep in the same room as Faith. She should just sneak in while Faith was asleep, grab some clothes and go and sleep downstairs on the couch until morning.

And then think of some other arrangement for tomorrow night, because she was clearly crazy, and couldn’t trust her own thoughts in her own house.

Buffy shook her head in disgust as she wiped her eyes, blinking out soap-scummed water. After a few more moments of hesitation, she pushed herself up and climbed out of the bath. Stepping onto the mat she wiped the steam away from the bathroom mirror and stared at herself.

Maybe her brain liked to torture her with memories of Faith, of all those perfect times gone forever, never to be remembered. Never to be shared with anybody.

Her alone.

She never could get them back, and as much as she might want to, she couldn’t allow herself to try and recreate them with Faith, this Faith. The girl was a damaged, fractured reflection of the girl she loved. And Buffy was with Riley now, a good, decent guy who she could let into her heart if she wanted. She had to forget about Faith.

‘Right. A really simple plan then. I’ll get right on that, maybe with a lobotomy or a forgetting spell or a convenient blow to the head like was always happening on those dumb soaps. Great in theory, not so great in practice. ’

She couldn’t will herself to forget anything. She just had to deal. The more time she spent helping this Faith, the less she would remember and pine for her Faith. Deal, heal and move on. Starting tomorrow.

But she wasn’t going to spend another night here; she’d figure something else out. Something that would work for her own sanity and for Faith... and Faith’s sanity come to think of it.

Buffy smiled sadly and teased her hair out between her fingers. What a mess. But at least this mess she could fix tonight.

So she got to work.

*****

Picking Up The Pieces (PART 5: Faith Healing)

Faith woke up and slowly realised that she wasn’t dead. She could tell because she felt awful; sore all over as well as aching and tired and hollow. She lay there for a long time and watched weak sunlight stream through the window. She willed herself back to the oblivion of sleep.

Nothing doing.

Parts of her body might be dull and aching but her head was clear and fully awake. The lights were on and some noisy, grouchy fucker had made himself at home.

Faith slowly pulled herself up and looked around uncertainly as her memories of the previous night returned, and she remembered how she ended up in Buffy’s bed.

Part of her took some comfort in the fact that she seemed to be waking up in strange locations that were slowly improving. First, a crummy hospital bed, then a government prison cell – a government lab, then Giles’ bathroom and now she was at Buffy’s house. A few more nights and maybe she’d wake up in some sweet apartment somewhere and all of this would be a hangover of a nightmare.

Faith paused at the thought, but nothing flickered inside. Nothing in the funnies department either, just the hollow feeling like all her insides had been scooped out.

She remembered Miss Dormer, her old Watcher, mentioning something about ‘gallows humour’ one time, something about poking fun at really terrible things or circumstances. Faith wondered if that applied to things like not being killed. Was there anything like ‘post-gallows humour’?

Maybe she’d just invented it.

She closed her eyes and saw Buffy’s sad, beautiful face looking at her. ‘I believe in you, Faith.’

Suddenly restless, Faith swung her legs off the bed and stood up. She looked about before she realised she didn’t know what she should do – go looking for Buffy? What if she ran into Joyce? Did Joyce even know she was here, or would she scream and call the cops? Maybe she’d simply spit in Faith’s face.

Faith sat back down again. She didn’t like the idea of facing anybody right now. ‘Stay put. Don’t go wandering about when you don’t know the sitch.’

Faith ran her hands through her hair as she stared at the floor and thought. It was when Buffy and she had finished with that demon, taking their time burning the damn thing’s body, that Faith realised with sudden clarity that this is what a slayer was; this is what she should’ve been from the beginning.

She had been chosen for this. Chosen by something powerful, sought out and taken in by her watcher because she was special. And then trained to use her talents to stop what Miss Dormer had described, kinda stuffily, as ‘agents of darkness’.

So she should have been fighting evil instead of helping bring it about. She should have been helping people, killing vamps and demons, not working with them. And not just because she’d felt ignored and overshadowed by Buffy.

What kind of person does that anyway? Teams up with the bad guy just because he’s nice to her? Does any horrible job he asks because he makes her feel... like she’d never felt before in her life. Like she belonged somewhere.

But Faith sure as hell didn’t belong anywhere now, which is why she’d attacked Buffy last night. She wanted it – things – to just end already. Better for everybody involved if she got done away with. And Buffy doing it seemed the most obvious choice: she’d wronged Buffy so many times, tried to kill her friends, Angel and then her, she figured Buffy should be the one to do it again. She figured that deep down some part of Buffy would want to do it again.

But she hadn’t. So now what? Was Faith supposed to just go on living after everything she’d done? That didn’t feel right. Hell, nothing felt right. Everything felt off, washed out and unreal and – off.

Last night, Faith had felt like she’d been playing a part. She felt disconnected from stuff. She’d stepped out of the room and let ‘angry, psycho bitch-Faith’ take over; let her rant and rave and attack before she’d been overwhelmed and everything had tumbled in on itself.

Fragments of memories as sharp as glass pierced and cut her insides until it hurt so much that she couldn’t stand it. The pain had been like an animal pushing beneath her skin, roaring so loud that she couldn’t think clearly. But even though it had been inside her Faith felt like she’d been running from it, rushing to get away. The faster she ran, the louder it got until it felt like she was falling, not rushing. She was falling out of control.

Faith wondering if this is what going insane felt like.

She hadn’t remembered much after that. She’d been cold and wet; things were fuzzy, they echoed in her ears. Buffy had led her somewhere... here, and then she’d been in the bed and Buffy had been talking to her like a person, and not a monster.

‘I remember you Faith. I remember who you used to be.’

Faith shook another shaky breath from her lungs. She wasn’t sure she could really remember who she used to be – not now anyway. She remembered some fragments, some details of the year before – a scene here or there – but if she lingered on it too long, it’d spin on its axis and she’d see something else, something bad. Stabbing or choking or shooting or punching, the expression on somebody’s face; contempt or fear or hated, etched so deep it made Faith flinch.

She couldn’t live like this. Maybe if she went somewhere, started over fresh...

‘Just like after Boston, right? Run from the bad stuff and it’ll all go away? Mom, Dad, Diana, Kenny, Gage, Kakistos. All the damage I couldn’t ever outrun, would just be waiting for me wherever I ended up.’

No. She’d stay and let Buffy decide what to do with her. But what if Buffy wanted to hand her over to the cops or the Watchers Council?

Faith didn’t know. She hated feeling like this, like she was adrift with nothing to hold on to. At least back in the bathtub she could put on a front, be nasty and aggressive and try to get a rise out of B. She couldn’t do that now though. Now there was nothing. Faith felt lost in a fog, not seeing any sort of future.

There was a light knock on the door. Faith jumped to her feet, her hands at her sides bunching into fists on instinct.

“Faith? Are you awake?” Buffy’s voice was soft and tentative.

Faith relaxed a little and sat back down on the bed and tried to think of what to say.

‘Hey B. Thanks for not killing me, even though it’s what I wanted and now I feel real bad about dumping all that heavy shit on you. So, d’ya have any eggs, ‘cause I’m starved.’

The door opened a little bit and Buffy was a little louder. “Uh, Faith?” She sounded normal, business as usual only with a crazy houseguest.

Faith took a breath. “Hey.”

She tried to make the ‘hey’ sound light and carefree, and not nuts, but her voice was still a little croaky after everything (screaming and crying) the night before and it came out rough. She thought that she must sound pretty scary.

The door opened further and Buffy appeared in the doorjamb. Aside from the small bruise on the side of her mouth, the graze on her cheek and the fading redness along her jaw line, all of which Faith had inflicted on her, she looked perfect. That healthy, shiny golden hair now had a wave through it and it curled into ringlets at the end, and she was dressed in fresh, non-slayer clothing – dark pants and a chunky white sweater. In Faith’s eyes she looked brand new.

Though perhaps Buffy did look a little tired, bad night’s sleep? And the expression on her face was a little... wary would be Faith’s guess, or maybe just awkward.

‘Gee, why would that be, dumbass.’

Buffy smiled tentatively. “Hi. I just wanted to see if you were okay... Um, awake really. You’re sleeping through the best part of the day... which is something my Mom always says a lot. I’m not sure what that means; is morning sun better than afternoon sun? I mean is there any science there?” she trailed off uneasily.

Faith didn’t want to stare at her. That might seem threatening, so she let her gaze drop to the carpet. “So... Where’s your mom?”

Buffy made a vague gesture behind her. “She’s at the gallery. But she knows, uh, obviously, that you’re here. And she’s fine with it.”

Faith’s eyes flicked up to Buffy again. “Not sure how she can be.”

Buffy shrugged uncomfortably. “I talked to her and explained... things.”

‘What things exactly?’ Faith wondered.

Buffy seemed to realise that she needed to be clearer. “I just said that you helped out last night with... the demon and stuff and that you, y’know, weren’t going to hurt anyone. Anymore.”

“Right.” Faith swallowed. “I think... Look; I think it’d be better if I just went.”

Buffy frowned. “You mean like leave?”

Faith got up and paced about a little. “Or jail maybe? I dunno, somethin’.”

Buffy shook her head. “The police aren’t even looking for you anymore, at least according to Giles.” Buffy stepped into the room, “Do you know why that is?” she asked softly.

Faith pushed a loose strand of hair behind her ear anxiously. “Walsh did somethin’, found a patsy to take the fall for what I did last year. But maybe if I turn myself in I could still–”

Buffy crossed the room in a second. “And what good would that do?” she asked, her eyes staring into Faith’s. “You can’t help people in jail.”

Faith let out a dry laugh. “Yeah, I’m a real help right here, huh? Putting folks in danger just by breathing.”

“Don’t say that.” Buffy caught her gaze again. “You helped me last night.”

Faith flinched and looked away. “I know what I did... tried to get you t’do.”

Buffy’s voice was firm. “There isn’t any easy way out of this Faith. The things you did last year, you can make up for them, if you want to. And you can’t do that if you try and get yourself killed. You owe it... to everybody you’ve hurt to fight. You owe it to yourself to fight.”

Faith stared at the floor, feeling her fists tighten at her sides. “I don’t know if I can.”

Faith felt a tentative touch on her shoulder. “You can. I know you can. But no one’s expecting you to do this alone, okay? I’m going to be here, and Giles, and my friends –”

Faith looked up sharply. That was never going to happen. “No way. Giles, okay, sure. I mean he’s still a watcher right? But I’ve got nothing to say to your buds, screw ‘em. And I know they ain’t interested in me. Just...keep ‘em away from me.”

Buffy blinked in surprise at Faith’s outburst but nodded slowly. “Okay, I-I guess we don’t need to involve them. This can be just you and me to start.”

Faith looked away again and grimaced unhappily. “I don’t even know how to start somethin’ like this.”

Buffy was quiet for a long moment and then her voice was brighter, more confident. “We can do simple, normal stuff. That’s a start, right? You could freshen up, change your clothes,” Buffy gestured to her closet, “The stuff’s all still in there. And then I’ll make us some breakfast.”

Faith looked at the other girl and briefly felt her lips twitch. “What is it with you an’ feeding me all the time? Tryin’ to make me all fat and compliant?”

Buffy smiled dryly in return. “That would be a neat trick. Twice over. But fine, you can make breakfast – there are waffles in the fridge. I have some phone calls to make anyway. Gotta check in with Giles and Willow, let them know we’re okay.”

Buffy gave another, more reassuring smile, and turned to leave. When she was at the door Faith called after her hesitantly, “Buffy...”

The blonde girl turned. “You don’t have to say anything now Faith. Simple steps, okay?”

Faith didn’t know what to say to that. She just nodded in silence and watched as Buffy left and closed the door behind her.

Simple steps.

‘Right, so step one; don’t go crazy. Check. Step two; find other clothes and then dress. Step three; have the most awkward breakfast of all time.’

This was going to be a long day.

*****

Buffy tapped the last digits into the hall phone and then leaned against the wall. She listened as Giles’ line buzzed at the other end, while upstairs she heard Faith moving about. Buffy was grateful that Faith seemed to be a lot more responsive now, alert and awake and more inclined to listen.

Faith seemed so completely different from how Buffy had seen her before. All of her defensiveness, her anger (okay, most of her anger) had gone. It felt like the time when the truth about Kakistos had come out; when Faith had stopped lying and putting on a front, and had showed how scared she had been inside.

Seeing her so sad and fragile had been such a contrast to Buffy’s resurfacing memories. But Faith was still beautiful and Buffy had felt that familiar tug of attraction and the awkwardness that came with it, returning at full strength.

Luckily Faith had seemed too preoccupied with her own thoughts to notice.

There was a click as the handset at the other end was picked up. “Yes?” Giles sounded tense.

Buffy took a breath. “Giles, it’s me.”

His next words came out in a rush of relief. “Buffy, thank god. Are you alright?”

“Yeah, sorry for the late... early call, but it was a long night. Kurenos is dead, then set on fire and now dead again... Faith and I got pretty trashed though. We’re holed up at my house, just until we’re a little less walking wounded. We’ll be okay in a day or so.”

He cleared his throat. “Well, all in all I must say that’s quite a relief. We saw on this morning’s news that there had been a pile of human remains found in the cemetery, which was, ah, a good indication of your success.” Buffy heard Giles hesitant before pressing on, “And, I-I’m glad that Faith is also alright. It seems that you were correct to trust her Buffy.”

Buffy felt a twinge of guilt. “I know it was a big risk, but I think she really wants to try to make up for all the damage she did last year. And she really helped out when it mattered; she distracted a whole bunch of zombie-minions so I could get a clear shot at Kurenos. She did end up running straight into Adam because of it though.”

“Good Lord. What on earth was he doing there?”

“I don’t know. Maybe wanted to compare Bad guy notes? The only thing Faith said was that he was more interested in the army of stiffs than fighting her – that’s his handiwork all over the local news. I’ll see if I can’t get a little more out of Faith over breakfast.”

“Very well. And do feel better. Buffy, ah, keep me appraised of anything pertinent with regards to Faith.” Giles cleared his throat, “I’ll continue to do some more research into our newly acquired spectre, Catherine Morley. And see if I can’t garner a clearer idea of her plans as to why she’s here and now.”

Buffy frowned in thought. “Right. We took her pet demon out of the game, that’s something. Must’ve hurt her plans somehow.”

Buffy could almost hear Giles cleaning his glasses. “Delayed them perhaps. I have the worrying notion that the summoning of Kurenos, whilst dangerous and reckless in the extreme, was simply a distraction to mask some darker purpose.”

Buffy sighed in mock disappointment. “You couldn’t let me have one morning to bask could you? Well, whatever it is, we’ll deal.” Buffy heard Faith’s footfalls on the stairs and quickly wrapped up the conversation. “Listen Giles, you get your research on and I’ll load up on the carbs, show this Morley gal she’s messing with the wrong slayer...s.”

With that she put the phone down and turned as Faith ducked her head into the dining room and spotted her. Faith’s eyes flicked everywhere but Buffy, probably looking for signs of other people – maybe her Mom – before settling back on Buffy’s face.

The bruises Buffy had given Faith the last time she’d been here had dulled overnight. They were dark smudges on her pale skin, overlaid with a couple of fresh ones from the fight in the graveyard. She hadn’t bothered to wash but had changed into fresh clothes. She was wearing a plain, black sleeveless t-shirt, dark jeans with a brown leather belt and a fresh pair of boots. Even with her hands casually pushed into her pockets Faith’s whole body language screamed how uncomfortable she was. “So...Giles’ okay?”

Buffy absently fiddled with the phone cord. . “Uh, yeah. His is not to worry, not anymore.”

Faith’s eyes flicked down and then back up. “So, what was... what’s he researching? I overheard.”

Buffy tried to stay casual. “Oh, well, you see turns out that the demon we killed needed to be summoned. So we, Giles and everybody, are going to try and find out the who and the why and stuff. This begins with books.”

Faith shrugged. “Oh. Makes sense, I guess. Are you gonna be helping with that?”

Buffy made a sour face. “Not really in the mood for any kind of paper-related activity. I’m gonna call Willow and ask her to cover for my lectures today.” Buffy tilted her head and smirked, “So I guess you’re stuck with me.”

The side of Faith’s mouth curled into a half-smile. “Darn. So if you’re stickin’ around guess I’d better get my ass in gear and make you them waffles then.”

Buffy picked up the phones again and gestured over her shoulder to the kitchen. “You guessed right.”

The tension between them broken, at least for this conversation, Faith moved passed her as Buffy phoned her dorm room. Willow picked up on the first ring. “Hello?”

“Hey, Will.”

“Buffy! How is everything? Are you okay? ...I mean, you probably are okay because you’re calling me, but how okay are you?”

“Been better. But as of last night the score remains; Forces of Darkness- nil, Buffy Summers... a whole lot. Wouldn’t even fit on the scoreboard, that’s how much.”

Buffy heard a huff of relief from the other end of the line. “That’s good, because when I got back and you were gone, and then Xander said Faith had left with you... big worry.”

Buffy paused for a moment and waited to see if Willow would add anything. She didn’t. “Faith’s fine too.”

A tense pause. “Uh-huh. So, is she there with you?”

Buffy cocked her head as she heard a light clatter from the kitchen. “She’s nearby. Listen I was wondering if you could cover for me in class? Just say that I’m ill or something. Not hung-over ill but something else, vagueish. I’m kind of beat up from fighting the demon.”

“Oh, sure no problem.” Willow’s ready eagerness to help made Buffy smile fondly, “And later I could come over. I’ve got something to show you.”

Buffy took a breath. “Actually I’m thinking about coming over to the campus in the evening, after a quick patrol. We could meet up and talk.” Buffy paused before adding, “It would be nice.”

“Yeah, that sounds great.” Willow perked at the thought.

Buffy twirled the phone cord uneasily. “The thing is I, uh, don’t really want to leave Faith alone right now, and we can’t stay here. Well we could but, with the awkward... So I thought that she could maybe... stay at my, I mean our dorm. Just for the night.” Buffy cringed into the receiver at how lame she sounded, “I know it’s a lot to ask–”

“It’s fine.” Willow replied calmly, “I get that she’s on... our team now or whatever and you feel that you can trust her. I can spend the night at the library; I have to cram in a major way anyway.” To Buffy, Willow sounded like she was trying very hard to be polite.

Buffy reassured her again. “It’s only for one night, and then maybe we can figure something else out. Something more permanent for her.”

Silence then, “Sure.” Willow didn’t sound sure.

“But I’ll see you later on tonight?” Buffy pressed.

“You bet. And don’t worry about lectures, I’ve got you covered. Okay, bye now.” Before Buffy could reply Willow had hung up.

Buffy sighed and put the phone back in its cradle. She pondered her relationship with her best friend for a few moments, how tense it had been, how distant they sometimes seemed from each other. She would have to do better when she had a face to face with Willow. Maybe when the redhead could see that Faith had really changed and trusted in that...

‘Or I could try bribery? That might work better. Or quicker anyway.’

Buffy rubbed at her forehead and put all that out of her mind for the moment. That was a problem for later, the only problem she had now was–

Buffy smelled burning.

She sniffed the air and turned towards the kitchen as she heard a muttered curse and the loud clang of a pan. “Uh, B, I hope you like your waffles kinda... black.”

Buffy hurried towards the kitchen. One problem at a time.

*****

Morley watched as the sorcerer paced back and forth across the sumptuous penthouse suite, examining what she’d just handed him. His face was a mixture of curiosity and admiration at its construction.

“Where did you get this?” Rayne asked as he turned the arcane device over in his hands.

“Through a third-party” Morley answered dismissively, and then asked, “Well, can it be done?”

He considered for a moment. “If I knew who had created such a thing then it would be easier to alter it in the manner you describe. Also, I’ll need some tools, and most importantly, another channelling crystal.”

Morley gestured to the nearby bed where she had put the briefcase when she’d first appeared. “There you’ll find what you require, as for the crystal; I will have that soon enough.”

Rayne rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “It would have to be something powerful enough to affect a slayer, and attuned to the dark magics.”

“Perhaps a bloodstone?” Morley queried.

Rayne looked doubtful. “It would have to be exceptionally pure, and faultless in its consistency, otherwise the whole thing would overload rather spectacularly.” He moved over to the bed and snapped open the briefcase, “I trust that you don’t want that to happen?”

“I will provide what is necessary by tonight,” Morley stated confidently, thinking of exactly where she could require one with ease. “And then you can begin.”

“Three days.” Rayne proclaimed confidently, “If you want it done right then three days and I’ll have your device completed for you.”

Morley knew that he was lying; it was how chaos worked in such things. It was the only real way in which they were predictable. She nodded in acceptance. “Thank you Ethan. When you’ve finished our deal will be complete and you can have your run of Sunnydale. The slayers will no longer be a problem; of that you can be certain.”

“I look forward to it,” Rayne said as he picked up one of the tools, a scalpel-like blade etched with runic symbols. He examined it with interest. “These are exquisite.”

“You may keep them after we’re done here. I’ll have no further use for them.” Morley turned and moved to the centre of the room, “Until this evening then?”

She vanished from his sight and saw his watchful gaze linger about the room after she had gone. He waited a moment before moving the case of instruments from the bed onto the nearby desk, carefully removing and investigating each one before setting it down carefully.

After he’d removed all the tools and picked up the device again, Morley saw him pause, lost in thought. Then she heard him muttered, “So that’s what you’re up to. How prosaic.”

Morley smiled. It was so much more rewarding to see Rayne struggle to figure it out. It meant that he would be so pleased with his own cleverness when he found the answer that it would blind him to other things.

Contented, Morley left for a more important meeting with a very dangerous man.

*****

After a mostly silent breakfast (which might’ve had something to do with the charred waffles Faith had created) Faith left Buffy to the washing up and went into the living room. Feeling on edge, she sat on the couch and picked up the TV remote. Maybe something on the box would take her mind off... everything.

She pressed the button and nothing happened, so she mashed the button firmly. Still nothing. She pointed the control straight at the television and pressed harder. Nothing.

“Stupid,” muttered Faith and brought the remote to her lap, squeezed and rapped in with her knuckles. Maybe the batteries were dead or maybe she was just cursed.

She sighed in frustration and then looked up to see Buffy standing by the door, drying her hands with a towel and giving Faith an expectant look.

Mildly embarrassed about being caught out, Faith cringed. “Uh, this isn’t working.”

She saw Buffy’s face fall, crushed. “You might want to give it more than a couple of hours before you give up on this whole thing” she croaked. “Look, I realise that I don’t exactly know what you’re going through okay, but I am trying. Coping with what you did – that’s going to be a struggle, and maybe you’re always going to be haunted. But if you face your actions, deal with them now, maybe you have a real chance to turn a corner here. If you can just trust me enough to help you.”

After an awkward pause, Faith raised the remote and wiggled it. “Uh, this isn’t working. I was trying to switch it on and...” She trailed off.

“Oh,” Buffy moved closer, “Right. That’s for the VCR; you’ll want the other one.” Buffy quickly scanned the area and pointed to the side table, “There, that one’s for the TV.”

Faith nodded. “Cool.”

She turned and grabbed the remote. Turning on the TV without glancing in Buffy’s direction, Faith concentrated on flicking between channels and looking for something to grab her attention. Cartoons maybe.

Buffy stood there aimlessly for a moment and then slowly sat down on the end of the couch, “So, uh, thanks for the... for breakfast.”

Faith still kept her head turned towards the screen, which was showing a black and white film of cowboys chasing after each other. She glanced at Buffy out of the corner of her eye. “No problem. I sure cooked the hell out of them waffles, huh?”

“Yeah,” the blonde nodded absently as she fidgeted with the couch, her fingers plucking and smoothing out the fabric. She looked like she was thinking of something to say.

Faith watched as the cowboys caught up with a stage coach and tried to rob it, half-taking in the flat bangs and puffs of smoke of six-shooters. “Red’s got you covered?”

Buffy looked momentarily confused. “Huh? Oh, sure. She’s going to take my classes for me... Actually I wanted to talk to you about. I’m going back to campus this evening and think that maybe you should come along with.”

Faith glanced over at Buffy doubtfully; she wasn’t so sure that was a good idea. “What about those Initiative guys? Isn’t college their turf now or somethin’?”

Buffy sighed. “Maybe. All I know is that after Walsh and Angleman’s death they let us both go. I think they’ll leave us alone. Most likely, they’re more worried about Adam at the moment, trying to reorganise and clean up Walsh’s mess.”

“But, lemme guess, you want to find this Adam guy first?”

Buffy nodded more confidently. “Adam said that Walsh had ‘plans’ for him and what with her turning out to be a sociopath, it’s probably not one of those ‘ten steps to a better you’ type of plans. Adam seemed committed to carrying them out. Or a version of them anyway. And Adam was active last night; he’s clearly up to something. I don’t trust the Initiative enough to think that they’ll be able to stop him. I think that’s going to be up to us.”

“Guy’s serious business. Waltzed back into the secret base ‘cause he thought nobody could stop him. Then breezed past the both of us. Now he’s spending his time taking apart demons and bodies.”

Buffy frowned as she followed the train of thought. “Like he’s testing himself.”

Faith nodded in agreement. “Learning how things work, how to kill ‘em and how badass he is. The way he was talkin’ I’m not thinking rampage, but something bigger.”

Buffy raised an eyebrow and smiled lightly. “You seem pretty certain.”

Faith’s eyes shifted away. “You wanna know how a monster thinks best ask another monster.”

“Hey, you don’t talk that way” Buffy scolded. Her voice was so hard and certain that Faith’s eyes felt drawn back to her, “You are not a monster, Faith. You just made a mistake and got... lost. The mayor–”

Faith interrupted as she shot up from the couch, tensing. “I don’t wanna talk about him. I-I can’t... Not yet.” Faith was breathing heavily, suddenly feeling like she was suffocating in the house. She could hear the blood rushing in her ears as images pushed inside her mind. Maybe she should take a walk to clear her head.

“Okay,” Buffy responded sympathetically, her voice almost soothing. “We don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want. Look, just sit down, okay. Please?” There was another pause and then Buffy said lightly, “I have popcorn.”

Faith’s eyes flicked to where Buffy was perched. Buffy gave her a dippy smile in return and Faith felt herself deflate slightly. After a moment she felt herself calm, she pushed her hands through her hair as she felt the rushing noise in her head diminish.

A half-laugh spilled out of her mouth; she really was pretty messed up.

Buffy stood up and gestured for Faith to sit. “You sit; watch 'The Good, The Bad And The Grainy’ and I’ll rustle up some popcorn. Then later, on the way over to campus, we can patrol, catch us a couple of vamps if we’re lucky.”

At the thought of patrolling together Faith felt her insides start to unknot for the first time since she’d woken up. She managed a genuine smile. “Now you’re talkin’.”

*****

Giles hung up the phone and adjusted his glasses in thought. His calls to the dispatch officer of the Sunnydale police rarely yielded any result. As contacts within the department went, it was really the best that Giles could do, but for once, his contact had proved useful. Three men had been arrested late last night after unsuccessfully holding up an armoured car. Whilst the nature of the robbery was still unclear, at least to Giles’ contact, two things was certain: that all had been armed with handguns, and that the three men involved were British nationals.

That meant the Special Operations Squad had made an uncharacteristic blunder and had gotten caught. Giles knew what would happen next; the Council would scramble to extract their men if at all possible and cover up any involvement they had in had gone on.

The armoured car description had been troublingly vague and made Giles wonder what they had really been up to. Not a simple robbery – that was for certain. If Faith had been being transported then perhaps that would’ve made some sense, but otherwise?

Faulty intelligence was unlikely, but Giles didn’t see any other explanation.

Still, Buffy would be pleased. It meant that Faith would be off the Council’s agenda, for a little while at least. At last Giles could turn his attention to another, more pressing, matter.

He stood up from his couch and went over to the stack of currently dominating his coffee table. He sorted through them with his left hand as he fished in his pocket for the folded piece of paper with his right. It contained the name and address Collins had given him in exchange for the false information pertaining to Faith’s location.

At the back of the book he found what he was after; a business card that Oz had brought back from his sojourn to LA. Giles had been idly using it as a bookmark. He frowned momentarily at its strange design before dialling the number.

Giles sat on the edge of his desk and thumbed the piece of paper. He wasn’t that familiar with Los Angeles and its neighbourhoods, and so hoped to utilize the services of somebody who made his living there. This should be right up his alley.

There was a click as the other end picked up. A vibrant female voice answered. “Angel Investigations, we help the hopeless.”

“Hello Cordelia, this is Mr. Giles calling from Sunnydale.”

There was a brief pause, then. “Giles? Giles. Oh my god Giles!” Giles had to pull the receiver away from his ear for a moment.

When he brought it back Cordelia was still talking excitedly. “...need our help with something? What would you need investigating anyway? You’re not the librarian anymore. Is it about books and stuff? You do have another job right?”

Giles felt a flicker of irritation at that question but pushed it to one side. “Ah, actually in-between projects at the moment. Which is why I would like to speak with–”

“Well I hope you’re not unemployed or anything because Angel’s services don’t come cheap. Very often. But we do have some very reasonable ‘friends and family’ rates that I’d be happy to­ –”

Giles smiled around gritted teeth and kept his voice as pleasant as he could. “Yes. That all sounds wonderful Cordelia, but all I require at this juncture is to know if Angel is terribly busy at the moment. I would hate to arrive at an inopportune time.”

Cordelia seemed to consider what he had said for a moment, he then heard the sound of pages being turned. “Hmn, let’s see. Possessed boy? Done. And the demon drug thingy... Did that. And yuck by the way. Nothing important, why?”

“Please inform him that I’ll be dropping by tomorrow to talk about him helping with a tricky acquisition.” Giles heard her take a breath, “And yes Cordelia, I’m willing to pay. This won’t be some routine enquiry, otherwise I wouldn’t think of involving him.”

“Okay then.” Cordelia seemed very pleased at the prospect of Giles’ money, “I’ll totally pass on the message.”

Giles breathed a sigh. “Thank you Cordelia, goodbye now.” He set down the phone and before he knew it he was polishing his glasses in mild exasperation. Just like the old days.

Still, with a day or two and Angel’s invaluable assistance, Giles could gain access to information that really would shed light on Morley’s true cause, and possible gain more insight into her unseen master.

With Buffy seemingly preoccupied with a contrite Faith, it seemed safe to take this action now, before Morley could unleash another one of her schemes.

He looked over the pad of copious notes he’d written about Morley’s known life and movements over the decades. A lot of it was from unsatisfying apocryphal sources and didn’t point towards her overall motivation but it was something to go on, which is a lot for Giles these days when it came to research.

Still, Giles felt buoyed by the prospect of taking more direct steps in learning about the djinn, actions with a purpose. He hadn’t felt this focussed in a long time it was sad to say.

Just like the old days indeed.

*****

In her unnaturally long life Catherine Morley had met with many foul creatures that she considered soulless, murderous and cruel. But this was the first time she had felt unnerved in the presence of one.

The small, slight creature that appeared to be a man in a dressing gown walked back into his living room-cum-office space with a book hooked under one arm. Morley found herself gazing around the piles of arcane books, stacks of papers and various objects both magical and mundane that cluttered his ‘shop’.

The old man-creature set the book down on a side table next to the fireplace and opened it, peering at the next by the light of the fire. “Now, what was it you said that you required?” His voice was bright and genial enough, but it still set her teeth on edge.

“A mirror of Eibon,” Morley stated evenly. “I was told that you would be able to supply one.”

The man muttered to himself as he flicked through the pages. “Oh. Huh. Well now, I seem to have a mirror of Drakose, but that isn’t really what you need now is it?” He mused and then chuckled, shaking his head as he did so.

Morley waited a few more minutes before becoming impatient. “Was I misinformed?” She said sharply.

The man looked up at her, his glasses catching odd light coming off the fireplace making his eyes look black. “Not misinformed exactly. I don’t have something that powerful on the premises – far too tricksy for me, yes Sir. But I do know where it can be acquired.” He smiled broadly but it didn’t reach his eyes.

For a moment Morley was certain that her illusion and voice distortion weren’t fooling this man for a moment, that he could see her true self.

Then he looked down, closed the book and shuffled over to a nearby writing desk, lightly humming a melody as he did so. “No, something like that attracts certain beings that are really too unpredictable to be running a shop near. Tell me, you have an interest in dimensional magics?” He asked the last question a little too sharply as he set the book down.

Morley narrowed her eyes warily. “The mirror is a powerful scrying device, able to behold and communicate with what is lost or hidden. That alone is where my interest lies.”

The little man shrugged mildly as if it mattered little to him as he pulled out a piece of paper and scribbled something onto it. Morley got the impression that she might have avoided a more unpleasant reaction.

With a flourish, the man stopped writing. “This should do it; the mirror is in the possession of a Malvak beast, it has a nest close to the coast. Likes the salt air and collecting shiny magical trinkets. A real magpie in that way,” he smiled at her, “only bigger, obviously.” He scurried over to her in a manner she was beginning to find unsettling, and handed her the paper. “There you go. No charge.”

Morley quickly took the note. “And I don’t suppose that you carry anything that would come in useful when tackling such a beast?”

The man smiled. “Oh well those things are very resilient when it comes to spells and such. I suggest that you might want to try something simpler, violence maybe.”

He smiled a reptilian smile at her again before turning away, humming his tune as he did so.

Morley left as quickly as she was able.

*****

Buffy pushed a couple of stakes into the inside pocket of her suede jacket and turned to look at herself in the mirror. She ran a hand over her hip, touched at her hair to straighten it as she assessed herself. Flattering yet combat ready patrolling ensemble? Check. Suitably snug and stylish jeans/jacket combo? Check. Artfully arranged hair that was both bouncy yet didn’t look as if she’d spent hours teasing it into its present shape? ...Maybe?

‘This is just patrol. A nice, non-awkward way for both of us to pass the time and fight evil things. Get back into that old rhythm like we used to... Not my ‘we’ because that ‘we’ was way into other things rather than fighting. The making out and the... Best not to go there.’

Buffy scowled at the mirror and shook her head. Last night, a break from slaying had seemed like the best idea ever. But finding ways to talk to Faith uninhibitedly or trying to show her that Buffy could really help with the healing and the listening and without tension or baggage tended to end in long periods of silence.

The popcorn and the movie had certainly helped on that score. Buffy had seen Faith just relax a little and allow herself to unwind, but Buffy knew that it had been the prospect of slaying, of action, that had given Faith the sense that things could be like they used to be. The two of them out in the night.

Buffy smiled at that. Even though she only felt eighty? A solid eighty percent slayer-ready, this still felt like a good idea. They would watch each others’ backs, keep a lookout for Adam but basically do a quick sweep as they made their way over to the college dorms. Faith was now busily filling one of Buffy’s old school bags with most of her own clothing, cramming them in until bursting no doubt, and Buffy had taken the opportunity to give herself a once over in the bathroom mirror.

There was a knock on the door. “B, you still in there?”

Buffy took a deep, steadying breath. “I’ll be right out.” Satisfied with what she, saw she turned and opened the door.

Faith was standing in the corridor, one hand clutching a well-stuffed rucksack and the other a black trash bag. Faith nodded her head in Buffy’s direction. “You wanting to look your best for the vampires?”

Buffy shrugged. “All part of my genius plan for them to underestimate me. They see me all dressed up like this then they think ‘dinner’, not ‘slayer’.” Buffy pointed at the trash Faith was holding, “What’s in that?”

Faith shook the bag a little. “Just some clothes and stuff. Probably best that I chuck it.”

Buffy frowned slightly. “Are they damaged at all? I didn’t really touch any of your clothes after I washed them and put them away.” Buffy cringed at a sudden realisation, “Did I shrink them? If I did that’s totally my bad because I’m not used to using the washer-dryer set up. No way was I gonna have Mom thinking that I was wearing all that, um... black.” Buffy cleared her throat as she attempted to backtrack, “She hates me wearing black clothes. She uh, finds it too depressing.”

Faith pretended not to notice her clumsy backpedal. “Right. Can’t tell ya how many times I get mistaken for a goth. Now that’s depressing.”

They both smiled at that and Buffy shook her head. “Anyway, don’t throw any clothes out – if you can’t fit them in just leave them here.” She reached out and grabbed the bag even as Faith tried to stop her. Buffy felt with her fingers that it wasn’t fabric that Faith was getting rid of; it was something much more solid. Buffy took the bag from Faith and opened it up. She saw the bow half-wrapped up in a threadbare sweatshirt.

Faith looked down at the floor and scowled. “I didn’t wanna make a big deal or nothin’. Just ditchin’ it and move on y’know. ‘S not like I’m gonna be using it again.”

Buffy remembered how much Faith had liked this bow. Liked it enough to go back and steal it again from the store they’d broken into. Loved it so much as the Christmas present that Buffy had given her. Buffy closed the bag. “You should keep it.”

Faith scrunched up her face and shook her head. “Buffy...”

“I mean it. This is something that you know how to use and you’re good with it. So even if you don’t want it now, I’m still going to hang on to it. And when the time comes that you want to use it,” she looked levelly at Faith, “That’s fine with me. Okay?”

Faith opened and closed her mouth a couple of times, like she didn’t know how to respond before finally settling on a puzzled look. “Okay. Whatever. Keep it.”

She shook her head and headed for the stairs. “Sun’ll be down soon so I’ll be waitin’ outside. Hurry it up.” Without looking back, Faith rushed down the steps, banging open the front door as she left.

Buffy sighed at Faith’s quick exit and pulled the bow from the trash bag. As she put it back in her closet, she saw everything else had been taken. She remembered the few times last summer she’d stayed up late, idly going through Faith’s clothes, and thinking about ‘her’ Faith and when she had worn a particular item. She’d tortured herself with those memories right up until the beginning of term. In the end, it had almost been a relief to close it all up for good. Only, now it was all gone and Faith was back.

Smiling sadly, Buffy closed the closet doors and headed down to the living room, switching off all the lights apart from the antique lamp in the foyer – to ‘deter burglars’ Mom said.

On the front porch, Buffy saw Faith, now clad in a denim jacket with the backpack slung over her shoulder, waiting for her by the post box. As she walked down the path to her she put on her best, breezy smile. “You all set?”

Faith gestured to her backpack. “Just waiting on you,” she stated, her voice muted, almost cautious.

So Buffy started walking along the path, hoping that her ‘carefree’ body language would some how relax Faith. She resisted the urge to swing her arms like a five year old. “We should start over at Clear Brook cemetery, that way we can do a quick circuit before heading over to the campus. Sound good?”

“Works for me,” Faith replied evenly. She kept pace with Buffy but kept her eyes on the ground in front of her.

The two of them walked in silence for a few minutes, crossing a couple of streets as they met the hedge that marked the boundary of the cemetery. Buffy glanced over at Faith; the dark haired girl seemed thoughtful. “Is everything okay?”

Faith just grunted. “Uh-huh.”

Buffy waited to see if the other girl would add anything else before finally commented, “You seem really quiet, that’s all.”

“Just don’t feel like talkin’, that alright with you?” Faith retorted with a harshness that made Buffy involuntarily flinch.

Buffy didn’t want to get into any more awkward exchanges. She sighed. “Fine.”

The two slayers spent the next twenty-five minutes walking through three graveyards in silence, Faith looking everywhere but at Buffy, scowling at shadows and rustling bushes. Buffy could see from the way she moved that Faith was itching for something to fight.

By Shady Hills, Faith was positively vibrating with tension. Buffy watched her fingers clench and unclench when she suddenly realised that Faith didn’t have a stake.

“Hey wait,” Buffy stopped and opened up her jacket, “You should probably take one of these. Can’t kill a vamp without one. Well, you can but it’s a lot harder y’know...” she mumbled, offering a stake to Faith.

Faith stared at Buffy for a moment, then reached behind her and pulled one from the back of her waistband. “I’m covered, thanks,” she muttered.

Buffy pouted in mild confusion. “Where did you get that?”

Faith looked back at her steadily. “It was in the box of stuff from the closet, down at the bottom. Figured you musta kept it ‘round for some reason.”

Buffy shrugged. “I must have picked it by accident when I was going through your apartment.”

Faith’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “And why’d you take my bow, exactly?”

“What?”

“Clothes I get, can’t get by without ‘em. And boots too. But a weapon? I killed a guy with that thing B, tried to off Angel too, in case you forgot.”

“I didn’t,” Buffy said sharply, wondering why the hell Faith was being so aggressive.

Faith leaned in closer. Distractingly close. “Do y’have my knife lying around somewhere too?”

Buffy’s mouth almost dropped open. “No! How could you even... Why are you talking like this?”

“Why are you being nice to me?” Faith countered harshly, throwing her arms out. “We threw down last night and now you’re treatin’ me like we’re some kinda super-buddies, which we never were, and getting these little looks on yer face –”

Buffy took a step back and scoffed, even as she felt a flush of embarrassment rush her. “Oh, I’m sorry that you don’t like my face all of a sudden. I’ll try not to have expressions if they might offend you.”

Faith shook her head at Buffy in frustration. “I saw you get all... nostalgic back there. So what’s your deal, B? Tell me that? What are you after?”

The vampire slammed Faith off her feet before she could answer.

Buffy blinked for a moment at the space where Faith had been standing, before following the sound of bestial snarling and grunting as Faith kicked away from her opponent, rolled across the grass and flipped to her feet. Across from her, the vamp did the same.

Buffy saw that the vampire – a she – was definitely an out-of-towner: tall, voluptuous, with dyed blonde hair and plenty of dark roots showing, she was dressed in trashy biker leathers. Her face was twisted into a snarl and her bared fangs gleamed in the moonlight. Faith grinned and readied her stake as the woman circled her.

“This is so not your lucky night, lady. Going after two slayers, not just one.”

“Daisy’s not worried, ‘cause she was leavin’ you fer me, cutie pie,” another voice cooed to Buffy’s left. Buffy spun and saw another vampire, a male this time, striding towards her, his demonic face twisted into a leer, “She prefers ‘em a little more dark and sultry, ya understand? Me? I like ‘em a little brighter.”

Buffy readjusted her stance to face the guy. Behind her, she could hear Faith grunting in effort and the smack of fist against flesh. She’d be fine.

The vampire in front of Buffy was large – huge actually. He’d a black bandanna tied tight around his head and up top, his leather vest gaped open, revealing a well-muscled torso beneath. Tight fringed buckskin pants and cowboy boots completed the look.

Buffy smirked as she took in his outfit. “So you like ‘em brighter huh. Why’s that? Opposites attract? And can we take a moment to deal with that outfit? What, were you thrown out of the Village People for being too camp?”

The vampire frowned and looked down at himself, then grinned humourlessly. “This is my bad-ass destruction outfit. I’m ‘Gravedigger’, killer of innocent folk.”

Buffy nodded her head in sudden understanding. “Oh, you’re a TNA wrestler. I’ve always wanted to kill one of you. I’m ‘Buffy, slayer of vampire fashion victims’.”

With that she hopped forward and punched him in the face. He grunted in annoyance and swung a right-cross that she ducked easily. He was very slow.

Buffy feigned left and pivoted right, spinning around and hitting him twice with a backhand-forehand combination. He staggered back and Buffy quipped. “If it’s any consolation you’ll make a very amusing anecdote one day.”

Gravedigger snarled. “I ain’t no annie-dote!” He backhanded her across the face and then lashed out with a sly foot that caught Buffy low in the stomach, hard enough to send her tumbling across the grass. Buffy rolled to her knees as he lumbered closer and tried to grab her. Buffy deflected his grasp, jabbed a solid left into his groin and elbowed him in the chin.

The vampire took a faltering step back and Buffy rose and grabbed his outstretched arm. She twisted it up into an arm lock, and swung her leg around so hard against his knee he lost his footing and dropped to his haunches. She kicked him twice in the face, his neck snapping backwards with the force of the blows, and locked his arm in place with her left wrist; she then readied her right hand, the one with the stake, to strike.

As she was about to drive home the finishing blow, Buffy shot a glance over at Faith just in time to see her get into serious trouble.

Faith must’ve been toying with her opponent, throwing her around and revelling in the fighting because the vampire still wasn’t dust. She was battered, weary and barely conscious and now laid slumped down low against a headstone. Smiling, Faith stepped forward smoothly, raised her stake to finish it... and faltered. Buffy saw it happen; she saw Faith’s entire body suddenly lose that confident, coiled motion that was slayer-in-action. She hesitated, lowered her stake and shook her head, as if she was dazed. She was trembling.

And it was in that moment of hesitation the vampire leapt onto her, driving Faith against the ground, hands pushed her shoulders down and her head sideways to bare her neck. The blonde woman hissed loudly and prepared to bring her teeth down into the struggling girl.

“Faith, no!” Buffy cried out just as Gravedigger came to his senses and reared off the ground at her. His muscles flexed and he easily broke from her arm lock, at the same time bringing his right fist swinging up and around to punch Buffy in the face.

She staggered under the power of the blow and was thrown backwards, her lower back hitting a gravestone. She shook the bright spots out of her eyes in time to see that he was barrelling at her.

Thinking quickly, Buffy hopped up backwards onto the top of the tombstone and somersaulted over the oncoming vampire, punching her stake down into the centre of his back as she did so. She landed in a crouch as the snarling vamp gave out a straggled cry and sprawled over the back of the headstone.

But Buffy was already moving. Covering the short distance to Faith she saw the female vampire finally bring her fangs down against Faith’s neck. Instead of running, Buffy slid the last few yards across the slick, dewy grass and slammed her outstretched foot into the side of the vamp, knocking her sideways off her perch and away.

Buffy scooped up Faith’s lost stake and flipped over the other slayer's prostrate form to land between her and the vamp-skank. The woman lunged, hoping to catch Buffy off balance, but she simply pivoted on her hip so the vampire extended past her and then punched the stake between her shoulder blades. Her aim was sound and the vampire became ash in an instant, swirling in the air around them.

Faith coughed. Buffy looked down to see the other girl sit up, a hand pressed against her neck. She was still shaking.

Then Buffy heard a straggled cry from her right. Gravedigger sprang up from behind the gravestone, one hand behind his back scrambling at the stake that must’ve still been lodged there. Buffy had missed the heart – only eighty percent slayer after all.

“This ain’t over Slayer. I’ll be seeing you.” Then he took off and fled in the opposite direction.

Buffy sighed dryly. “Not one for the rogue’s gallery I think.”

Buffy then squatted down next to Faith. “Let me see.” She gently pried at the fingers clamped on Faith’s neck and looked beneath. She saw a scratch, a trickle of blood, but no puncture marks. She squeezed Faith’s shoulder comfortingly, “Don’t worry, no damage.”

Faith shuddered and let out a shaky breath. “You think. I think I’m plenty damaged already.”

Buffy stroked her hair, caught Faith’s eyes. “What happened?”

Her eyes were darting about, flickering guiltily. “It was Finch. I saw... Finch and it was like that night all over again a-and I-I couldn’t... I –” Her voice was husky, broken and trembling.

Buffy hugged Faith close and shushed her. “I’m sorry. This was stupid of me. It’s too soon to be doing anything like this. I just thought...” Buffy shook her head.

She hadn’t been thinking about Faith, only about her own discomfort at actually talking with her.

Faith pressed herself against Buffy’s chest, her breath shivery. “I don’t think I’ll ever... stop seeing ‘em,” Faith said, so soft and weak it was almost a whimper.

“It’s going to take time,” was all Buffy could think to say.

*****

Willow lay on her bed flicking idly through her textbook. Reading the same passage for the fourth time and failing to take it in caused a curious mix of annoyance and boredom. She sighed, and shifted on her stomach to crane her neck around to see her bedside clock; it showed a little after eight. Willow pursed her lips and then looked up at the front door expectantly.

Still nothing. No Buffy arriving, and no Faith trailing after her.

It was good that Buffy had done her super-slaying thing last night and triumphed, although it wasn’t really a surprise. After all, she was Buffy. As soon as Willow had seen the morning news – big pile o’ bodies – she knew that another villain was toast.

What had been a genuine surprise to Willow was Faith not betraying Buffy for the… Well, Willow had lost count of the actual number of betrayals. The point was that one more wouldn’t really have made a difference.

But Faith hadn’t. She’d helped Buffy. So maybe Buffy could see to it that Faith stuck to killing the right sort of things.

Maybe. Or not, either way her plan wasn’t going to change.

Willow felt a nervous twitch deep in her belly. She wanted them both to arrive so she could enact ‘the plan’ already.

Her plan was simple really: act really happy to see that Buffy was okay – that part would be easy because she was – and then, with some reluctance, extend hospitality to Faith. A simple ‘Hey there Killer’... or something.

Willow would then show how good a friend she was and also give Faith a ‘thank you’ hug, for helping out Buffy. Or if that didn’t feel right, then a pat on the back to show solidarity. Physical contact was the key so that the oh-so-fashionable Wiccan bracelet Willow was wearing (and currently toying with nervously) would snag on a few strands of the slayer’s hair.

Willow would accidentally pull them out, cue embarrassed apology. Then she’d quietly make her excuses and leave to go and visit Tara. And hey, presto... or some other magical word that was actually magical, she had the necessary last ingredient for her spell.

Willow felt a small flush of guilt at the prospect and sat up on the bed. She reached into her bedside drawer and drew out a small black crystal about two inches long and rounded at the ends. A bloodstone. She held it in her hand as she again weighed the prospect of even doing such a thing.

Deception didn’t come naturally to her, she felt bad about lying, about cheating, or even thinking about those things. But... this was the big stakes. An untrustworthy, murderous somebody would be in their midst without the benefit on a chip or the excuse of being a demon. How could Willow sit by and not do something when she knew she could.

But it just an emergency measure, she reasoned. A ‘use in case of extreme bad happenings’ plan. Like if Faith threatened the people she cared about.

Willow couldn’t... she refused to just sit back anymore with her book-bag and feel helpless, not when she could stop Faith.

Willow frowned and chastised herself. ‘Not when. If and only if it was necessary.’

The spell was dangerous, fatal even. But it was also easily reversible. Willow could cast it, watch it take hold and then undo it when Faith had been incapacitated and put somewhere she couldn’t harm anymore people.

Willow sighed. If it were really that straight forward then maybe she really should tell Buffy about it; hiding it from her friend made it feel wronger somehow...

Willow was pulled from her thoughts by the brief magical tingling on her skin and a heavy gust of wind that blew hair into her eyes. Surprised, she scrambled to her feet even as she clawed the threads of red away. She saw that a cloaked figure had appeared in her dorm room. Willow gaped and unconsciously pressed herself back against the wall.

‘Why my dorm room? First Spike, then D’Hoffryn and now... I’m guessing the Ghost of Christmas Future?’

The tall figure’s hooded gaze turned towards her. “Ah, Miss Rosenberg. The witch. Pardon my intrusion but it seems that you have in your possession something I require.”

A cloaked hand shot out towards her, but Willow saw nothing but darkness.

...continued in part 6...

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