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Everything is Different Now: Picking Up The Pieces

by Declan
Rating: NC-17

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Picking Up The Pieces (PART 6: Mea culpa)

The college campus appeared vastly different at night in Faith’s eyes. Instead of being open and inviting – and swarming with people – it was filled with ominous-looking buildings and vast black spaces crowded with trees. Only the occasional lamppost provided any light, and then just enough to emphasise the shadows that pooled in the many dark corners… perfect for some imaginary figure to hide.

Faith shivered and hugged her bag tighter as she willed herself (not for the first time that night) to get a grip. She pressed forward so she wouldn’t fall too far behind Buffy as they headed towards one of the larger dorms together.

By the time they had eventually reached the campus it was late evening and the place was quiet. Only a few students flitted between the shadowy buildings and the brightly-lit path.

‘Slayer that’s afraid of the dark,’ Faith mused. ‘Slayer that can’t slay. That’s an even bigger laugh.’

She couldn’t remember a time she’d felt so unsure of herself, but she knew exactly where the fear came from: she couldn’t understanding why she’d suddenly lost it like that. That vampire hadn’t been Finch. It hadn’t been human; wasn’t even a dude – all her instincts had told her that. And yet, when the time came, she’d hesitated. She’d frozen. That chilling feeling of ‘what if’ had overtaken her, impossible though it was.

And with it had come all the other feelings: the guilt, the self-disgust, and that fear of losing control.

‘More crazy to stuff in the basket case.’

Not far up ahead, Buffy stopped and turned. Obscured by the shadow of a tree, Faith couldn’t see her face but she spoke softly, almost conspiratorially, and gestured to her right. “That’s my hall up ahead.” She paused as she seemed to look Faith over, “How are you feeling?”

Faith shook her head gently as her gaze moved over the nearby shadows. “Like an idiot mostly. Tired too. Show me a place to lie down and I’m out.”

Buffy nodded and stepped closer to the brunette. She wore the same look of awkward sympathy she’d had all the way over. Buffy’s eyes flickered down as she frowned at her watch. “Willow still might be expecting us but I don’t think she’ll, uh, be up to hanging around for long.”

Faith managed a wry smile. “Means the slumber party’s out? Too bad, but hey, it’s not like I’ve got jammies anyway.”

“Yeah.” Buffy‘s lips twitched with a smile for a second before her eyes clouded over as though she were remembering something. She shook her head dully.

Faith could tell how uncomfortable Buffy was about the whole set-up, even if she had been the one to suggest it. Second thoughts, she wondered?

Faith sighed. “Look, I can’t wait outside while you and Red have a powwow. ’S not a problem.”

Buffy hesitated for another moment. “No, it’s okay. Will knows the sitch. Come on.”

They entered the building in silence, the only sound being the echo of their footsteps as they made their way up the brightly lit staircase into a gloomy hallway.

It was a place full of laughter, music and chatting voices muffled behind closed doors. A normal place. Not for the first time since waking up that morning, Faith felt like an intruder in Buffy’s life. Worse now, like baggage; a mess that needed to be cleaned-up or have an eye kept on. If she wasn’t a slayer anymore, and she wasn’t an enemy, then what was she to Buffy?

The blonde stopped outside a door, her door presumably, and gave Faith a comforting smile. “Dorm sweet dorm.”

Faith stared at the floor. She appreciated that Buffy was trying to say that she was safe, but it didn’t change the fact that she’d almost gotten both of them killed on patrol back there.

Buffy knocked once before opening the door. “Hey roomie, I’m back. Patrolling ran a little late but here we...” The door opened wide enough for Faith to see a body lying by one of the beds. “Willow!” Buffy shot over to the prone figure and knelt beside her. She put a hand on the girl’s shoulder and rolled her onto her back. “Will? W-willow?”

Willow groaned and rolled her head slowly as she put a hand up to her face. “Oof. Ow.” She whined.

Buffy gently cupped the redhead’s shoulder and brushed the stray hair out of her face, her expression a mix of concern and relief. “Will, are you okay? What happened? Did you, uh, fall off the bed or something?”

Faith cautiously stepped out from the corridor and shut the door behind her. Maybe Willow had been partying hard and these were just the after-effects? Probably not – this was Willow after all.

The redhead seemed to be coming out of whatever was affecting her as she slowly sat up on her elbows. “B-Buffy? Buffy...Oh God...Buffy, the woman, that Morley woman, with a big cape-y thing and hood, she was here!”

Willow’s voice went from groggy to hysterical pretty damn quickly. Faith raised her eyebrows.

‘Who the hell is Morley?’

“She was?” Buffy’s eyes widened in shock before her face quickly hardened into resolve. “But you’re okay, right? She didn’t hurt you?”

Willow shook her head slightly as she patted her own head. “She knocked me out. I think it was just a spell. A slumbering incantation probably, but I’m alright. I bit oogey”. She suddenly sat up quickly and looked around the floor beside her, patting at the carpet, “Uh-oh.”

Buffy, who had sat back on her haunches and glanced over towards Faith, allowing herself a quick smile. “Big relief. Uh, is everything okay?” Buffy scrunched her face in confusion as Willow searched.

Willow shook her head as she muttered to herself. “It’s not here.”

“What’s not? Morley took something from you?”

“...It’s a spell component.”

Buffy wrinkled her nose in puzzlement but looked around anyway. “Something witchy? What would dangerous sorcerer-lady want from you? Not stinky herbs I’m guessing.”

Willow seemed to have given up looking and only now noticed Faith’s presence. She tensed up. “An artefact... A stone for something I was working on.” She pulled herself to her feet, giving the bed covers one last glance over as her shoulders slumped in defeat. “Poop. She must’ve taken it.”

“So, is this the same person who’s doing all the beaucoup d’mojo stuff these days? ‘Cause I’m not ‘zactly gettin’ why she’d rip you off,” Faith said crossing her arms. “No offence.”

Willow frowned in annoyance. “It was a bloodstone. Ingredients for the… the powerful magicks I now wield.”

Faith rolled her eyes and sat down on the bed, dropping her bag on the floor in the process. She didn’t have the energy to get into it with Red.

Buffy was staring at Willow with a troubled expression. “A bloodstone? That’s… that’s not good, is it? I remember that falls into the ‘dark magick’ category. Since when do you mess around with black stuff? And why would you even?”

A guilty look crossed Willow’s face; Faith saw it before Buffy did as the redhead turned to look at her friend.

“It was really just an ‘in case’ situation anyway Buffy. That’s all. A-a precaution.” Her eyes flicked briefly in Faith’s direction and the slayer figured that meant her. A precaution for dealing with her.

Buffy shook her head, she didn’t twig as fast. “Like what kind of precaution. Why would you think...?” Buffy paused and nodded once as she caught up. “Oh.”

Willow swallowed and spoke up quickly. “It was just some insurance Buffy. Like a fire extinguisher or-or a flare gun in case of emergency. Something you have but might not even ever have to use.”

“Sure,” Buffy allowed a tight smile; her voice had an icy undertone. “The black arts type of insurance. Like what Amy’s mom used on me way back when? So that I got so sick I almost died.”

‘Huh, maybe Red is serious about using the nastiest spells she can find against me.’

Willow seemed to cringe at the memory and shook her head. “You know I wouldn’t have let it get that far. Safe, controlled incapacitation in case of-of extreme circumstance, that’s all. You did say to look into incapacitating spells right?”

“Uh-huh. Right.” Buffy threw up her arms in exasperation. “But we’re talking about a spell that’s meant to kill. Not ‘make dizzy’ or ‘nap time’ but death. What exactly is safe about that? Safe murder ?”

Buffy stepped back, shaking her head in disbelief. “And that’s even presuming that you got it right this time. Remember the last big spell you tried? I almost got married. To Spike!”

Faith raised an eyebrow at that. She was finding out all sorts of interesting things.

“This isn’t...That was an accident!” Willow blurted, “And there were others that I’ve gotten right since. I’m talking about a targeted spell on one person, something intentional. It would be… easier to control.” Willow stumbled over the last part. It looked to Faith like she wasn’t entirely convinced herself.

“Targeted killing, nice going there. And really beside the point.” Buffy ran a hand through her hair as turned away from the redhead. Faith could see that she was anxious and starting to get angry as she spun back round. “Understand Will that just because you have the power to do something, it doesn’t automatically give you the right to do it. God, you have to show some, some judgement!”

“You’re twisting it!” Willow folded her arms defensively. “And my judgement’s fine Buffy. A-and also I don’t think you should have the right to question what I’m allowed to do.”

Buffy huffed.

“You started it – ”Willow began to protest but Buffy cut her off.

She was on a roll now, her voice rising a little in anger, “The moment you decided to go behind my back for some extra deadly firepower you were basically saying that my judgement is crappy! And it’s not like this is the first time either.”

Willow looked wounded at that. “That isn’t fair. And beside the point… I don’t trust her,” she flung an arm in Faith’s direction.

Buffy looked sad for a moment then shook her head. “No Will, you don’t trust me to handle things the way I think is best.”

Willow’s mouth seemed to be working on a counter-argument but the words weren’t coming out. “Buffy...”

Buffy looked away from her. When she spoke again her voice was tight. “Just go already. Faith and I are really tired after patrolling so we need to get some sleep. Like now. We’ll be sure to clear out by tomorrow.”

Willow’s face faltered. She stooped to grab a satchel off the floor and turned to leave. She paused, “Those psych notes are on your pillow.” She gave Faith a dirty look and quickly left.

Buffy frowned at her bed as the door clicked closed and let out a long sigh. She looked at Faith. “I-I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry.”

Faith thought for a moment and then tried to shrug off the awkward. “Don’t bother. I get it, her reasoning y’know. Her place I probably woulda done the same to stick up for my friend.”

Buffy blinked before huffing out a disbelieving laugh. “Okay...I can’t believe you’re taking her side in the ‘curse Faith to death’ debate.”

“Not doing cartwheels about it but...” Faith trailed off. ‘Why am I defending Willow?’

‘Maybe because she matters to Buffy. Trying not to screw up B’s life more than I have should be the least of things I should be doing.’

“God, why is it so personal with her,” Buffy wondered, “I mean, a witchy bloodstone vengeance spell? What’s next, a body-swap?”

Faith shifted uncomfortably and tried not to look guilty. “Is that – that wouldn’t even be possible I bet.”

Buffy gestured a habitrail in the corner. “Yu-huh. Just ask Amy the rat.”

Faith didn’t know what to say. “Sure, I’ll, uh, do that sometime.”

The blonde let out a tired sigh. “Anyway, enough of that.” Buffy seemed to become aware of where Faith was sitting. “So… do you wanna take my bed?”

Faith shook her head and shrugged. “Nah, it’s yours. I could take Willow’s… unless she might not like that? Thinks she’ll catch crazy germs offa me. Or evil cooties.” She smirked at that. For some reason seeing Buffy and Willow squabble had made her feel a bit better about her own crappy situation.

Buffy shrugged. “You could take the severely uncomfy floor or...” Buffy paused and reddened slightly, then hurried on “Uh, how about we just don’t tell Will about it and you sleep there.”

Faith picked up her bag and got up, gesturing for Buffy to take her own bed and then stopped to look around the dorm room.

“Big. Even with the sharing,” she stated, figuring she should at least try for some small talk. All this melodrama was getting heavy.

Buffy sat on the bed, pressed her hands flat together and then between her thighs like she didn’t know what to do with them. “Yeah, I lucked out I guess. Had to replace my closet door and some of the carpeting due to inter-dimensional demon fun, but other than that… it’s nice.”

“Yeah.” Clearly lots of stuff had happened to Buffy while Faith was getting her coma on. “Guess it doesn’t stop, does it? The world just... keeps throwing stuff your way,” Faith said.

Buffy gave her a solemn look. “It really does.”

Faith stared at her hands, rather that than risk seeing any more sympathy from Buffy. “Don’t ever catch a break.”

“Not really. Not since I was 15. That’s the slayer gig.”

And just like that Faith felt frustration surge within her. “Which kinda sucks if you can’t slay no more.”

Faith heard the concern on the other girl’s voice. “Faith, you froze up. Once. It doesn’t mean anything.”

The brunette threw her hands out in exasperation. “Except almost getting myself offed, B! By some lame-ass vamp...And I stopped you doing your job. That’s a big anything.” Faith gave a bitter laugh and ran a hand through her hair as a thought popped into her head, “Hey, maybe I’ve caught the yips.”

Buffy was about to reply before she scrunching up her face. “’Caught the… Like you’ve got a disease? Measles or something?” Buffy looked confused, “Is there even such a thing as slayer measles? Is that in the slayer handbook?” She sounded put out.

Faith snickered despite herself; Buffy could be so damn cute even in the midst of a serious conversation. One of the things she lo… dug about her. “It’s a sports thing, baseball and stuff. Star players just lose it – their talent – for no reason. Some never get it back. Gets so bad they have to retire.”

“Oh. Right. Not so big with the sports these days. Not since cheerleading.”

Faith snorted in response and Buffy glared playfully.

“Cheerleading is so a sport,” the blonde stated, her face softening into a smile. “And it really is too soon to say what’s wrong, or broken, or if anything’s even that serious. Maybe you just need some time. We have lots of options. And Giles... Giles will have slayer textbooks and diaries and possibly charts for such things. We’ll be okay, Faith. We just need to rest for a while.”

Or she did at any rate. Faith wondered if Giles had diaries about slayers that went evil. Maybe she was the first one. A trailblazer. Go Faith.

But she didn’t say anything, just nodded in agreement. “Giles is gonna have to wait until tomorrow, ‘cause I’m beat. All this freaking out is tiring, y’know.”

Faith shifted back on her hands to lie out on the bed. For once she didn’t feel like getting undressed with an audience so she just lazily kicked off her boots. They thumped loudly onto the floor.

She put her hands behind her head and stretched a little. Arching her back and sighing as she eased a small kink out of her back. She must’ve picked that up during some fight or other. Just as Faith closed her eyes, she suddenly remembered something that Willow had said: “So, who’s this Morley lady?” Buffy didn’t speak, so Faith turned her head towards her and cracked her eyes open. “Buffy?”

Buffy looked up from where her eyes were boring the bed covers, her face a little red and flushed, although now her expression was more confused. “Uh... oh, Morley! Right, right. Morley is… she’s out prime suspect for who’s doing all the summoning and sinisterness lately. Your basic mysterious sorcerer-type who comes to the Hellmouth to mix it up and party. Only now she has a bloodstone for her next recipe for evil.”

Faith pushed herself up on one elbow. “So now there are two of ‘em out there on the loose? Doesn’t seem fair.” She scowled absently at the thought.

Buffy caught her eye and held her gaze firmly. “Two slayers now though. Evens the odds.”

Faith felt something flutter in her stomach at that. Something caused by the way Buffy looked at her, the way she spoke; all that determination and steeliness. It was similar to the look Buffy had the night she came to Faith’s apartment in some way.

'Where she tried to murder you for Angel.'

Faith settled back and shifted her gaze up towards the ceiling. Closing her eyes she tried her best to push out that little voice that always seemed to whisper her worst thoughts. Buffy was trying. For whatever reason that Faith couldn’t figure out she was making an effort to help, so Faith should shut up and let her. And try and help her in return.

‘How exactly? By slaying? That’s out. Maybe by driving away all her friends. And her boyfriend. Hey, that has real possibility.’

She cleared her throat. “That’s somethin’ in the plus column I guess.” With that Faith squeezed her eyes tight and tried to focus on something else. She willed sleep to come. “Anyways, G’night B.”

“Night Faith.” Then she heard Buffy move over to the door and switch off the main light. Then cross again and open a window to let some air in.

That was better; Faith felt the cool caress of a night breeze against her skin. She relaxed a little more, focused on the comfy bed and crisp sheets under her. Faith wiggled her toes as she imagined shedding crazy cooties all over Willow’s bed.

Not reformed; in the process of reforming.

Then Faith heard the soft rustle of clothing – 'what the hell?' – quickly followed by covers being pulled back and Buffy shifting around in her bed.

Guess Buffy wasn’t feeling too shy at the moment. That was something.

Faith allowed herself a smile at the thought. Try to focus on the up-side.

She’d survived the day, got to hang around with Buffy for most of it, there was even popcorn and a movie. Shit, it was almost a date. Plus, it was the closest thing she’d ever get to sleeping with Buffy.

And that confusing, fuzzy thought was the last Faith had before she dozed off.

*****

Those slayers needed killing.

Biff had finally, after much struggling, managed to dislodge the stake that one of the slayers had jammed deep in his back. He’d had to knock it out against a tree – which had been both risky and painful – before heading back to his posse. He didn’t want any of them seeing him like that. Looking hurt and weak.

And Daisy was dead.

That wasn’t too surprising, he’d only sired her a couple of months ago in Reno but still, his gang were gonna see him as pretty puny unless he handled things just right.

Down in El Paso Gorch had told him that this was the ultimate party town, Hellmouths and critters and lots of fresh necks ripe for plucking. But after a few days he’d already met up with the downside. He’d have to tell his boys something good.

So he’d tell them about running into the slayers – he was pretty sure there was only mean to be one of ‘em but this was the Hellmouth so who knows – and how he’d fought them off single-handed like, but Daisy hadn’t been so lucky. Then he’d get angry, and come up with a plan, a plan to take over this wide-open town. Lay real low for a day or so and plot something. Something real cunning.

Biff adjusted his bandanna as he hit the meeting spot at the tree line. He was still hungry, his bloodlust like a raw gnawing in his stomach. He hoped that one of his boys had brought along a snack to bring back to their lair.

Then he saw them up ahead. None had any meat with them and he growled in annoyance. Jimbo saw him approach and adjusted his baseball cap to scratch at his hair. “Hey GD, you’re running late. See any action?”

Biff kept his voice low and angry. “Ran into a couple of them there slayers. Managed t’give ‘em a taste ‘fore they put Daisy down.”

Jimbo made a pained face. Dallas, who’d liked Daisy an awful lot and had wanted to sire her himself, eyed Biff angrily and spat. Boots and Hatch just looked at each other dimly before Boots spoke up. “Uh, what’s a slayer?”

“Trouble.” Dallas answered as he scratched at his chin, “They follow you back?” he challenged.

Biff felt his blood rist. “They weren’t in no condition to follow me anywhere. I got away clean.”

He paused and glared at them all to see if any of them had the sand to show doubt or dare dispute. Jimbo still looked sad, Boots and Hatch looked both puzzled and wary. Dallas grimaced like he was pissed but didn’t comment further.

Biff grinned with new found confidence. Swaggering like the big boss, he stepped between them all and gestured for them to follow him into the nearby tunnel. “This is what we’re gonna do. We lay low for now, pick up a straggler or two tomorrow night and feed up, and then boys, we’re gonna raise some dust and wake this town!”

He heard a whoop from somebody (probably Jimbo) as he stepped into the gloom of the sewers and then came up short. Up ahead he saw something standing in the shadows. Something big.

Whatever it was – Biff couldn’t get a scent of what kind of critter – it suddenly spoke in a deep, reverberating voice. “I’m been thinking. About vampires.”

The critter moved into the light and he saw it. Some ugly freaky human. Big and messed up with shiny metal in his face and… Different colours? Biff felt his fangs extend, might get to feed tonight after all.

He grinned. “You made a mistake buddy. This here is my place.”

The man looked around, taking it all in. “Your place. Yes, the sewers. You hide from them; crawl about in their filth, scavenging like rats.” The man took a couple of steps forward and looked at Biff, “What do you fear?”

Biff grinned and turned slightly to look at this buddies. “Why doncha come on over and I’ll show you fear. Jimbo, do the honours.”

Jimbo growled, flashed his teeth and rushed forward in response. Suddenly the guy took another step forward, real quick like, and grabbed the vampire around the neck before he could react. He held him tight as Jimbo struggled uselessly. And then he started talking again like nothing had happened. “You fear the cross. The sun. Fire.” He laid his other big mitt on Jimbo’s shoulder, “And, oh yes.” With a ripping tearing sound he pulled Jimbo’s head from his body like it was nothing. He dropped what was left to the ground as it burned and turned to ash. “I believe decapitation is a problem as well.”

‘Shitfire!’

Biff gaped for a second before he put his hands up like he was going to back up. “Yo hoss, you can have the place. We can just clear on outta your face. That’s cool.”

The guy… creature smiled at him like he hadn’t heard what he said. “You fear death,” he walked over to them, “Being immortal you fear it more than those to whom it comes naturally.” Biff watched as he circled them, all of them, as they stood frozen. He seemed to be thinking, “Vampires are a paradox,” he said looking at Biff.

Biff swallowed. It weren’t often he had to look up into somebody else’s eyes. “A para..? Sure, we could be that. We’ll be whatever...” Biff stopped talking as the creature stepped closer.

“A demon in a human body. Hybrid. You walk in both world, and belong to neither.” It paused, “I can relate.”

It reached and put a hand on his shoulder. Biff tensed up and looked at the huge, gnarled hand so close to his neck.

“Come. We have a lot to talk about.” With that it led him into the darkness.

*****

“Maybe you should sit down.” Tara smiled tentatively and gestured towards the foot of the bed.

Ignoring the bed, Willow sniffed unhappily and sank down onto a chair instead. She hadn’t actually been crying but she still felt the same hollow ache inside that had become so familiar this year. Like the bottom of her stomach had fallen out and now her heart was left all dangly and aching. The rest of her felt just as miserable, as if unhappiness had set in like flu.

Buffy had all but thrown her out of her own dorm room. Picked Faith – Faith! – over her in the ‘who do you trust more’ situation. Even though Willow had been trying to help and Buffy didn’t even get that.

“Maybe it wasn’t that bad,” Tara reasoned softly. She crouched in front of Willow and offered a small, comforting smile, the corner of mouth turning up as her eyes glimmered warmly. Willow felt a little better almost at once.

“It was pretty bad. She told me to go. And, okay, that was my plan all along but still...”

Tara hesitantly put a hand on Willow’s lap and squeezed her knee. “Did you tell them that the spell was my idea? T-that I’m the one found it. I mean, I-I know it’s unpleasant and you should never use it on a normal person but–”

Willow avoided Tara’s gaze and shook her head. “That’s not...not what the problem was about, e-exactly. I didn’t even get round to telling Buffy about the spell. It’s probably a big raspberry anyhow given that Faith is back in the fold. Helping and stuff.”

Tara seemed to be thinking about it, when Willow glanced her way Tara’s forehead was crinkled. “But, wasn’t she like that with you guys before? And then, then she h-hurt that man and everything just got worse.”

Willow nodded. “Then we brought her back and then she betrayed us. That’s the saga.” Willow shook her head as she came back on topic, “But Buffy, well, I guess she wants to give Faith another chance, which means trust, which means no more spell research behind any backs. So that’s that.”

Tara nodded as she brushed some hair away from her face. She stood and went over and sat on the bed. “Well, it’s too bad...but maybe, maybe it’s for the best, y’know? It’s better to believe in the good of someone than to expect the worst.”

Willow felt her lips twitch into a small smile. “I can’t do both?”

“That’s not really how it works. S-sometimes the act of trust is – it can be enough to show somebody that there’s another choice. But I-I suppose maybe it has to be genuine, y’know?” Tara shrugged her shoulders to show that it wasn’t easy to tell which was which.

Still Willow felt warmth at the sentiment. She remembered when she used to be like that all the time, willing to see the other side. To be compassionate. She didn’t understand what had changed.

Tara was shaking her head and frowning. “It’s just – I feel really sorry about the other things, the spell and everything getting spoiled. I mean, thinking about it, it’s not like you can tell them it was my idea really. They don’t even know I exist, right?”

Willow heard the undercurrent of sadness, maybe even hurt, in Tara’s voice as she continued on.

“I know all about them, but...”

Willow quickly got up and sat next to Tara on the bed.

‘Is that what Tara thinks? That she’s not special? That she doesn’t mean...’

“Hey...”She tentatively put a hand on Tara’s leg, giving it a gentle pat.

Tara was shaking her head and glancing hesitantly from Willow to her lap. “No, I get it, it’s totally fine. Like a secret...”

Willow reached and took the other girl’s hand. “Tara I never...I mean it’s not like I don’t want my friends to know you, it’s just...” Willow thought about it, tried to put this whole situation into a way that explained how she felt, “Buffy’s like, my best friend- even though... with the arguing and disagreements and stuff...this thing that’s all drama and weirdness… There’s still a whole bunch of us. It’s kind of a group thing that revolves around the slaying and I-I really want you to meet them and meet Buffy after this craziness is over. But, at the same time I kinda like having something that’s just, y’know, mine.”

Willow saw Tara smile at that, just a little curl of her the side of her mouth, and how her eyes softened in understanding.

But Willow didn’t know how to finish so she just continued on talking. “And I don’t usually use that many words to say stuff that little. But, do you get that at all?”

Tara gave a gentle nod. “I do.”

“Great.” Willow nodded and not knowing really what to do next she climbed off the bed and made her way over to her bag, still thinking out loud. “Anyway I think tomorrow, after my classes, I’ll go and find Buffy and just… make it better. I can do that. I’ll make with the sorry and then she’ll understand what I did. Or at least why I did it.”

Tara spoke up again. “I am, you know.”

Willow turned, a smile quirking her lips. “What?”

Tara turned to look up at her. For once her gaze was unwavering. “Yours.”

*****

Buffy woke up well before her alarm to see that Faith was gone. She blinked and squinted sleepily. Willow’s bed had never looked so big and empty without the expectant form of Faith laying there, all black clad, curvy and slinky. Not slinky. All normal, girl-shaped, and vulnerable.

‘Get it together, Buffy.’

Buffy sat up and pulled the covers around her, looking about, immediately noticing that Faith’s boots were gone but her rucksack was still here… Maybe she had just stepped out for a while. The thought made Buffy a little nervous; Faith shouldn’t be wandering off alone.

She scrambled out of bed and stepped into her clothes, taking advantage of Faith’s absence to avoid any awkward dressing/undressing scene.

Boy, had that been a mistake. Last night Buffy had reasoning that changing into pyjamas would’ve been too impractical in the dark, but she hadn’t wanted to sleep in sweaty and dusty slaying clothes all night either (because ew) so she’d quickly skinned down to her underwear and crawled under the covers.

Then of course she’d spent the best part of two hours frantically tossing, fully aware of how skimpy and bare she was clad in a room with Faith and her aforementioned slinkiness (NO SLINK!). So she’d spent that time desperately trying to quieten her roiling emotions and any feverish – and impractical –thoughts that popped unwarranted into her head.

Meanwhile Faith had been busily snoozing away and hadn’t woken up once. She really had been tired.

Now back in her clothes again, Buffy closed the window, went to her dresser and brushed the bed-styling out her hair before moving back over. She’d sit and wait for Faith. Or maybe go and get something for the both of them? Coffee? Or snack-like things from the cafeteria? Little baggies of junk food?

Buffy frowned in sleep-addled thought. She should hold off and be here when Faith returned from… wherever the hell she had gone off to.

She glanced over at her bedside table and saw Willow’s neatly written and diligently annotated psych notes. She picked them up, gave them the once over and sighed at the thought of her best friend.

What had Willow been thinking? How had Willow even been thinking to believe that that was any sort of solution? Buffy couldn’t believe that her friend would be that reckless, or to be honest, mean when it came to spells.

Buffy had wanted something to put Faith out of action, maybe even hurt her, but not harm her to that extent.

Faith was a human person, with a soul. Did the situation really call for something so ‘final solution-y’? This is the kind of rage-thinking that Xander had had about Angel last year. Taking no chances and killing before something bad might happen.

And Buffy hadn’t even been caught passionately smooching Faith, not even a little, so what was Willow’s excuse?

The ringing of the phone brought Buffy out of her troubled reflecting.

Buffy reached over and picked up the phone. “Hello?”

Giles’ voice sounded positively upbeat in comparison to Buffy’s own thoughts. Chipper even. “Buffy. Excellent. I’m glad I caught you before your classes.”

Buffy glanced at her alarm as she stretched an arm above her head. “Yeah I, we got up early. Is everything okay?”

“I would say more than okay. Progress. As in quite possibly something of significance in regard to our... well, the djinn matter.”

Buffy perked up at that. “Oh! Well that’s good right? I would describe that as positive.”

He cleared his throat. “Tentatively speaking yes. Certainly a definite avenue of research. The only problem is that I’ll need to go out of town for a couple of days. A simple matter of following up on a particular book. I trust you can hold down the fort until I return?”

Buffy nibbled at her bottom lip thoughtfully as she looked at Willow’s bed. “I guess. I mean, how difficult can it be to hold down a fort? They’re pretty heavy. It’s not like they’re going floating off anywhere. Unless it was one of those inflatable forts you get at kid’s birthday parties–”

Giles interrupted her ramblings by clearing his throat. “Indeed. Now, is Faith there?”

Buffy’s eyes flicked around the room guiltily. There really wasn’t any need to alarm Giles, especially if he was on the verge of leaving town. “Uh, oh sure. But she’s asleep.” Buffy lowered her voice a bit, “I’m letting her get her rest. She’s still pretty out of it.”

“Oh. Right. Of course, she must’ve been through a lot. You both have. Ah, how is she? Her state of mind?” His voice was a mixture of concern and tension.

Buffy kept her voice light and positive, full of more confidence than she felt. “She’s feeling much better. She really helped out yesterday Giles, and I think… I think she’s remembering that she used to do this, help us, from before. I really think she can get better.”

Giles gave a noncommittal ‘hmn’ before adding, “Well, I do hope so.”

Buffy stood up and moved about a bit, fidgeting with the phone cord. “So, why did you want to speak to her? I could pass along a message.”

“Hmn? Oh, I just thought, what with my absence for the foreseeable future, Faith could use a roof over her head that was somewhat less, um, crowded with potential… Ahem, well anyway I cleared out the back room last night; give her a place to hang her hat as it were. I think it might be for the best.”

Buffy felt a little relief at the suggestion – even if the motivation was still a bit ambiguous. “That’s a great idea… but, what about those Watcher-henchmen? If they start looking for Faith they could start at your place and be all ‘Wow, that fugitive slayer was incredibly easy to find–’“

Giles interrupted. “I believe those men will no longer be a problem. Somehow they got themselves arrested by the Sunnydale Police Department. An event of such staggering unlikelihood, I had to verify it personally. But there we have it.”

Buffy couldn’t believe that for once luck was on their side. She grinned happily. “No way! They’re in the slammer? So, now what?”

“I suspect the Watcher’s council will have to expand a lot of effort to free them and get them back on native soil. It should be a while before they enact another plan.” Giles paused for a moment, “I do wonder how such a thing could’ve occurred. It isn’t like them at all.”

“Well, this is great, all of it. I’ll gladly tell Faith when she gets back. Uh, back from sleep.” Buffy added lamely.

Giles was apparently still thinking. “Hmn? Oh yes, quite. I’ll leave a key under the front mat and some food in the fridge. As I said a couple of days at most until I return.” Giles hesitated, “Stay safe won’t you? And use good judgement.”

“I will. There won’t be any problems. We can manage just fine without you Giles, believe me. Faith and I will be very good, quiet and sensible. Safe in our fort.” Buffy finished teasingly.

“Yes. Quite.” Giles replied a little stiffly, “Well then, we’ll speak again in a few days.”With that he hung up.

Buffy frowned at the phone for a moment before putting it down. Giles shouldn’t worry about her so much. A couple of days without adult-like supervision weren’t that daunting.

‘Morley!’

Buffy shook her head stupidly. How could she have forgotten to mention Morley visiting Willow and stealing magical badness?

Or maybe she shouldn’t mention that last part to Giles. Or maybe emphasise that part? She could see herself gesticulating wildly and reminding Giles of Amy’s crazy witch-mom when Giles had saved her life from fever-death. Giles would frown and nod sagely and then do… something. Talk to Willow. Some sort of important talk. And a whole bunch of scolding.

‘Could it wait until he gets back? Maybe I shouldn’t completely snitch on Willow until we’ve spoken again. In a day or so.’

Buffy shook her head at her thoughts. She should definitely tell Giles about it, but do some editing for later. Just the highlights.

She picked up the phone and dialled Giles place. The phone rang and rang until it got picked up by the machine.

Urgh, Giles must’ve phoned her then left right away and now he was on his way to… somewhere. Vaguetown, USA.

Buffy put the phone back in its cradle and only then noticed something scrawled on the pad used to ‘log incoming calls’, a remnant left over from Kathy’s reign. Willow and her never used it but still scribbled down the occasional useful number, like a nice take-out, or another student’s contact.

At the bottom somebody had written: ‘Hey B, don’t panic. Took off for a while to get my head straight. Later.’

Unsigned but the ‘B’ kinda gave it away.

Buffy put down the notepad. ‘ No point waiting around and miss class two days in a row.’

Other than that she wanted to give some attention to something else that had been on her mind lately, and now she might have the time to do just that.

*****

Ethan Rayne watched with interest as the hooded figure stood in the middle of the large hotel suite and muttered the last of several complex litanies, this one in Latin. He saw that he held something in his hand, a dark red gemstone, which was surrounded by flickering light, sometimes a golden yellow and sometimes a brilliant pure green halo of spell-effect.

The figure’s voice rose in timbre as he suddenly brought his hands together forcefully. Brilliant golden light engulfed his arms briefly as the last incantation was spoken aloud.

Reddunt sanguine. Ducet me potestatem. Unde aeternam iuncta vivifica me .”

Interesting, Rayne mused, as the robed figure’s hands parted and the gem – a bloodstone now that Rayne could see more clearly – floated in mid-air for a moment before falling to the carpet.

“It is done,” intoned the hooded form. “Use your skills to place this stone within the device. Take special care to do it without damaging the enchantments and take your time Rayne; this must be done correctly if the spell is to remain viable.” He gestured at the ground.

Rayne hesitated before gingerly reaching down to pluck the stone. It was still warm and its interior swirled with a smoking, purplish glow. He placed it on the nearby desk. On its surface already lay the strange palm-sized contraption and a variety of tools for dismantling it.

Rayne inclined his head slightly. “It should take me some time to extricate and replace the mechanics of this thing. Since you’re a dab hand with the conjurations perhaps you could speed up the process considerably. We might even see results by tomorrow evening–“

“Do as you will.” The figure shook his head almost wearily. “But I must rest now before we enact the next part of our plan. Simply summon me when you are finished.” With that the figure turned and was gone, like a two-dimensional image suddenly being turned sideways.

“Yes, be off with you. And thanks ever so for being so obliging.” Rayne smiled slyly before sitting down at the desk, cracking his knuckles like a concert pianist, before picking up one of the long-handled metal probes and diligently getting to work on the device.

*****

Buffy picked up her pace as she spotted a couple of familiar figures exiting Lowell house. It was Riley’s buddies and confirmed secret-pyjama-wearing Initiative types. She hoped that they could give her something in the way of an update on Riley.

“Hey... Hey!” She quickly crossed the street as the pair turned. Forrest and Graham scowled and frowned respectively at the sight of her approaching form.

“Before you start anything, you’ll just be wasting your time asking,” said Forrest, shaking his head. “Riley’s location and status is still classified Intel.” He didn’t sound particularly sorry. In fact, he stared grimly at her disappointed face.

Graham nodded at Buffy somewhat unhappily. “Hey Buffy. Excuse us but we’re kinda in a hurry.”

Buffy kept her attention of Graham. “But you’ve seen Riley? Is he alright?”

“He can’t tell you either,” Forrest interrupted, “Orders.”

“Then he’s the one that says that,” Buffy spat back, and looked to Graham again, her eyes pleading him to tell her something. Anything.

Graham glanced at Forrest and then sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “Look… I do know Riley got lucky, all things considered.”

Forrest bristled. “Damn it agent, we’re all supposed to be on lockdown!”

“It’s not gonna do any harm, man. C’mon, she not exactly a civilian. And she just wants to know he’s not dying.” Graham looked back at Buffy and shrugged. “He’s quit it with the shakes and the docs have got him on the mend where he got stabbed. He’ll be fine. Better in no time I bet. Guy’s a tough son of a… gun.”

Buffy felt something in her chest relax, a part she didn’t even realize was tense to begin with. ‘Fine’ was about as good as she could hope for. Getting better was vague but at least she could trust the source – Riley’s actual friends rather than some anonymous doof-official.

Graham cleared his throat.“So uh, what about your...I mean, the other slayer? Faith? How’s she doing?”

‘Huh?’ Buffy blinked. “Oh, she’s, well she’s doing better. Slayers can heal pretty fast so that’s… good. She’s generally good.” Buffy saw Forrest shake his head cynically at Graham as the guy tried hard to look casual.

“Did you know her at all?” Buffy asked curiously.

Graham nodded. “We met while she was in the Initiative.” He shrugged, “We just kinda… hit it off, I guess.”

‘Hit it off? What exactly does that mean? In Faith terms anyway? A nice little chat or was some sort of grunt-iness involved?’

Graham took a couple of steps backwards away from Buffy and the frat house. “Anyway, I tell Riley you’ve been asking after him. You do the same, right?”

Buffy nodded and tried to work out the emotion she was feeling besides the easing emotional tension about Riley’s fate. “Sure.”

Forrest said nothing, just turned and marched away beside Graham, glowering once over his shoulder at Buffy as he did so.

Buffy didn’t care. She got what she came for. Good news about Riley, and also news of other-ness about Faith and Graham.

It was good that Faith was making friends. With physically fit, athletic guys who are perfectly nice and have cleft chins. That is of the good.

Buffy made a sour face at the petty, jealous stirrings inside herself.

‘Urgh. Stupid brain.’

She stalked off decisively in the direction of the admin building. Because it turned out she’d totally lost track of which day it was, and since it was Saturday, she didn’t need to go and sit in an empty lecture hall and wait for ages for her class to start.

What she needed was to get a textbook from the library and then go on another Faith-hunt.

And also get some coffee, because her concentration was clearly on the fritz.

*****

Faith took another steadying breath as she headed deeper into the alleyway. It was late afternoon – still daytime – and the shady alley was empty except for a scattering of trash. Faith’s heart was pounding and chest still felt tight. She was anxious.

She’d spent most of the morning wandering aimlessly around town, first to city hall to think back to her ‘evil henchman’ days, then to her swanky apartment where she’d whiled away so many hours in between jobs for the boss. She’d even gone to the miniature golf-course where the Mayor had let her cheat outrageously and had laughed at her cheesy victory dance.

That hadn’t been such a bad end to that particular day, all things considered.

Which was partly the problem. Too much good and bad mixed in together was driving her crazy (again) so she ended up feeling guilty as shit or fuzzily nostalgic – depending on the where she ended up. Sometimes both came bundled up in the same package. It actually hurt, like a physical ache that refused to go away, that guilt and confusion and lack of clarity.

So Faith had reluctantly decided to head for the place where things had really headed south. Where she had killed a man and then gone on to make a whole string of bad choices. Nothing good about that, pretty clear cut.

She’d vainly searched around the crappy warehouse district long enough before remembering about the sporting goods store she and Buffy had raided for weapons. Finding that again, she’d been able to retrace her steps to where it had all gone down.

And now here she was.

She sucked in a breath between her teeth and forced her legs to move the last little bit closer, skirting a pile of wooden pallets and turned around a corner to see the place she could visualize so easily in her mind; alley walls, dumpster, trash. No body of course.

She replayed it over in her head, that night; the exhilaration, the danger, the rush of it. B and her staking anything that came near them, bad-ass duelling vamps dusted in an instant.

And then Buffy threw a body that grabbed at her and Faith made with the follow up. Only it wasn’t any demon that she offed, it was a guy.

Buffy had known, somehow, and called out a warning for Faith to stop.

But she hadn’t.

Every time she plunged that stake down and felt it… enter. Not slowing down for an instant.

Faith wondered about that; the timing. Could she have stopped herself? Why didn’t she?

Maybe because she was so caught up in it, the moment, or maybe she didn’t care. Maybe it was all about the kill.

There was some truth to that last part, a truth that told her that even after she realised what- who- she had killed, the thrill didn’t entirely go away. That slaying buzz, the satisfaction, it remained. Like a seed it grew inside of her, even as Buffy panicked and told her over and over it was wrong and tried to get her to face what she did – she could almost feel that seed spurt and grow stronger. That feeling. Like she’d crossed a line, discovered a thrilling secret, and that there was no point going back.

She had wanted to take it back – mostly – but the way she felt, the way Buffy looked at her, the way everyone acted…

Faith felt that she should’ve felt more guilt. That she never should’ve felt anything but that guilt. No other feeling of... pleasure.

But slaying had always made her feel good, physically. It was wired into her. And now she saw that, whatever she slayed, she still had that feeling. A little different but still there. So a part of her reasoned that it wasn’t wrong what she did, it was right.

And another part whispered that she was evil for even thinking that, that the truth was she’d always been evil. That her pop had known – which is why he’d left her. That her mom had known which is why she’d beat her so much. That everyone but her up until that point had known and that’s why they’d treated her the way they had, like a loser or a slut, like she didn’t matter.

And now she knew, and so did Buffy. She’d been found out.

So Faith had tried to get past it, to deny it, tried to blame Buffy and then finally had tried to run away. Nothing had worked. Buffy almost got herself killed by Trick trying to help her – and she was still trying to help the girl who’d try to sell her out.

Faith thought that it was then that she’d started to resent Buffy, for trying to help her when she knew – they both knew – that Faith didn’t deserve help. But being ‘oh so good’ to a genuinely evil person, all that just made Faith feel worse, made her feel angry, and began to eat her up inside.

Going to the Mayor had made her feel better for a while. The guy hadn’t betrayed her like all the others and – Faith had reasoned – she knew what he was, a scummy politician working the angles. And she’d fallen in with him because he wanted her with him, needed her near him, and not because of what she looked like but because of what she was, what she prepared to do.

Faith had felt like she’d found her place, and even if it was dark, it was hers. She belonged there.

Now she felt like there was no place for her. Not anymore – and certainly not here.

“Faith?”

Faith’s head snapped around to see Buffy standing just a few feet away, Faith’s backpack slung over one shoulder. She wore an expression of sympathy and puzzlement, and just a little bit of wariness. She slowly raised a hand and gave a gentle wave, “Faith? You with me?”

Faith blinked a couple of times. She didn’t know how long Buffy had been standing there. “What’re you..? How’d you find me?” Her voice sounded strange to her, low and husky and thick in her mouth.

Buffy walked a little closer. “I figured you might come here eventually. Kind of an important location, all things considered.” Buffy tilted her head, “You were… pretty out of it, Faith. Like, deep in thought or something. I… Are you okay?”

Faith sighed as she looked at her surroundings. “Nothing. There’s nothing here.”

“Well, yeah. Nothing left in the alley. There wouldn’t be. All there is – his grave is over in Shady Hills. Plus, there was a memorial bench put there last summer. Not that I really get the whole ‘bench’ thing at all –”

Faith shook her head and swallowed, gestured to herself. “No, I mean… There’s nothing here, B, inside.” She clasped her hands together anxiously as she turned to face the other girl. “I feel bad, I guess, but more for… everything else that happened. I feel sick about what I did, the kill, but I don’t feel bad for him, y’know? It’s just empty. I’m empty.”

Buffy didn’t say anything for a moment, then softly, “Oh.”

Faith figured that being honest was best now, even if that meant that Buffy realised the truth about her… that maybe she was beyond helping, that it was just too late, that she was sick inside and nobody could help her. Maybe Buffy was realising that she should just cut her losses and reach minimum safe distance.

Faith couldn’t blame her if she thought that.

Instead Buffy spoke up after a minute or so. “Faith. Do –” she hesitated, “Do you wanna get out of here? Like, go someplace and talk?”

Faith looked at the blank space where Finch had lain dying, a bloody wound staining his suit, the light fading from his eyes. She glanced down at her hand, the hand that had touched his chest. That had taken his life.

“Sure,” she said simply.

Then they moved together through a couple of side alleys, leaving the grungy rundown buildings behind before cutting across a street and through one of the suburban parks that dotted the town.

Buffy didn’t say anything the entire time, probably thinking about how to break the news that Faith was gonna be on her own now. Faith could feel it coming.

The blonde stopped beside a bench and sat down, placing Faith’s satchel by her feet. She looked at Faith expectantly so Faith quickly parked herself. She tensed up, preparing for whatever Buffy would say.

But Buffy was silent, just frowning a little and looking down at her hands that were clasped on her lap. She looked up at Faith.

“Do you get the bench thing? Like, as a memorial it’s kind of… lame right? I think. I mean, for some guy devoted to public service he should get something other than a commemorative plaque.”

Faith leaned back in her seat and shook her head. “Beats me.” She wondered where Buffy was gonna go with this.

“Maybe nothing is enough, or maybe it doesn’t make a difference.” Buffy sighed. “Guilt and grief are such weird things to deal with. It’s so hard to know what the right thing to feel is.” She shifted in her seat and combed a few strands of hair behind her ear.

Faith found herself watching the way Buffy’s golden curls caught the last of the evening light. Staring at the way her delicate, pretty features were set thoughtfully and serious. She could almost pretend like they were somewhere else, talking about anything else. A better situation.

Buffy continued on. “I didn’t feel anything either. About Finch I mean, not really. I know I felt horrified and scared and sick and guilty all at once to begin with. About what happened. All those emotions were jumbled up, feeling bad for him, for me. For you.” Buffy looked over at Faith, “Mostly for you I think. But I guess I could’ve been clearer on that. I handled it all so badly.

“Not so much in comparison, right. I pretty much set the scale there.”

“What I do know is that you felt those same emotions too, all of them, same as me. You just tried to hide it. But I saw. In the Mayor’s office I knew.” Buffy shook her head at the memory, “But I-I really wanted us to deal with it together. I was right there with you. I blamed myself just as much.”

Faith shook her head. “B, no–”

Buffy pressed on. “I knew all about blame by then, about guilt, about losing control, from Angel and I...I’m sorry that I didn’t try harder to reach you.”

Faith suddenly reached over and put her hand on Buffy’s, a gesture that surprised them both.

“Don’t. Don’t ever put any of this on you. You were right to say what you did. I shoulda...I should’ve dealt with it instead of pushing you away and trying to pin it on you. I hate that I did that.”

Faith took her hand away after another moment, still thrown by the act of touching Buffy like that. She never got touchy feely, at least not about big-emotional stuff.

Buffy shrugged. “People freak. They panic, they do stupid stuff or lash out when they’re scared.” Buffy’s green eyes turned and gazed into Faith’s brown ones, “The point is I’m not sure there is a right way to feel about grief and guilt, just as long as you’re honest and try and cope the best you can. What you’re doing now Faith, being honest with it, and feeling that pain, that’s good, that’s being strong and dealing.”

Faith swallowed her eyes flickered away and then were drawn back by the other girl’s gaze. Buffy seemed so certain. “It is?”

Buffy nodded. “I know it must be so hard for you but, just like before, all I want to do is help you. Any way I can okay? You can tell me anything.” She allowed a small comforting smile and then blew out a breath. “I actually didn’t come and find you to speechify at you. I came because I have info.” She picked up Faith’s rucksack and passed it to her, “Here, this is yours. I’ve found you a place to stay, at least for a little while.”

Faith raised her eyebrows. “A place? What place?” She hoped it wasn’t another motel.

“First we need sugar. All this walking and deep thinking burns calories. We’ll hit the ice cream parlour on our way. Come on.”

Buffy stood up and Faith did the same but hesitated a moment. “B?”

Buffy turned. “Yeah?”

Faith swallowed nervously but made herself meet Buffy’s eyes. “I want you to know that,” she gestured vaguely with her hands, “I’m sorry for... I… For everything. I know there’s not enough sorry for what I did really but...” Faith trailed off, “God, I suck at this so bad.”

Buffy reached over and took Faith’s hand. She smiled at the other girl. “Not really. I’ve heard worse. Now come on.”

They headed off into the night.

*****

Ethan Rayne gently placed the metal plate back into its housing and delicately ran the stylus around the edge of the mechanism. The enchanted tip made the etched glyphs glow softly on the shining surface. With a whispered hiss the metal fused up again and locked into place with the other pieces.

Rayne put the stylus to one side and placed his fingertips on the central panel of the device, holding his breath as he did so.

And after a few moments the soft warmth and the vibrations thrumming through his skin and felt elation. He grinned in satisfaction, glad that he hadn’t lost his touch.

It was done, the mechanism’s magicks were intact; altered for another purpose but still enabled. It had been tough work but Ethan’s knowledge of transformation magic had allowed him to see the flow of the devices manna and sense the dark ancient energies that would drain or alter or transfer depending on the will of the wearer.

His will.

Rayne stood up from the desk, pocketed the device and checked his watch. His hard, swift work had paid off. He estimated that he had a moderate window in which to act uninterrupted before Morley became aware of his deception.

Whistling idly to himself he left the room briskly, thinking of the chaos to come. Thinking that tonight, this night, would be the first night he would taste true power.

It was time to see Sunnydale burn again.

Picking Up The Pieces (PART 7: Confessions And Confrontations)

“Are you sure about this?” Faith asked warily as she peered at Giles front door, “Maybe G said ‘Faith can stay in my bathtub while I’m away’. That I could get.”

Buffy squeezed the other girl’s hand in a show of comfort. “I’m sure that Giles trusts you more now, because of what I told him about the two of us vee Kurenos. For him that’s a biggie, y’know, you getting back into the demon fighting; a good sign. Add to that the fact that those watcher guys are out of the picture then this makes the most sense,” Buffy trailed off. She gesturing expansively towards the apartment with her other hand, “Anyway, let’s go check out the perks. And by ‘perks’ I mean Giles cleared out the spare room in the back and there’s food in the fridge. Or so he says.”

“Yeah,” Faith frowned as she stared off beyond the welcome mat. “Didja tell him anything else, about –“

“No.” Buffy interrupted softly. She took her hand from Faith’s grip and rested it on her shoulder comfortingly, “And I won’t. You were going through something, some powerful guilt, and I get that. But nobody else has to know, okay?”

Faith shrugged unhappily. “Maybe Giles does, so he knows what he’s got to work with.”

Buffy thought about it for a moment before nodding. “You could do that. Maybe have a think about it and then we’ll tell him together, if you want. But I don’t think he has to know.”

Faith nodded in understanding as Buffy ducked down and lifted up the welcome mat and found Giles’ key .

‘He does know how locks work!’

She quickly opened up and stepped inside. “So ta-dah, um, again. I mean, you’ve obviously already been here. Still, the joys of an empty house are a many and varied thing. I remember how excited I was that first time. Y’know, back when I was thirteen.”

Faith was already moving past her and over to the couch, where she stopped and dropped her bag, rolling her jacket off her shoulders as she did so. She turned to look at Buffy. “Hate to break it to ya B, but I’ve already experienced that ‘joy’ many times over. Spent lots o’ times on my lonesome.”

Buffy mentally kicked herself, thinking of all the times Faith spent holed up in her motel room on her own. “Right.” She glanced around awkwardly. “But still, you’re safe here. That’s the main thing.”

Buffy saw that Faith was fidgeting with her fingers restlessly before the other girl spoke up again. “Look, don’t go thinking I’m not appreciating this; you squaring things with Giles. And a proper roof over my head instead of a motel is a step up. But you don’t havta act so up and hyper-cheery. I know you’ve got stuff that’s stressing you out, lotsa things you gotta deal with other than me.”

Buffy waved those thoughts away with a dismissive hand gesture. “That stuff is other. I’m good here.”

Faith let out a sigh and then busily started taking in Giles’ apartment, craning her neck to check out where the stairs led to. “’Kay so… where am I sleepin’ if not the tub?”

“Giles has a space in the back that he set up. Just a sec.”

With that Buffy headed down the corridor past the bathroom to the unexplored back room. She peeked through the open door enough to see the room beyond; a cramped space with bulging bookshelves jammed against every available wall, dusty crates of books and a (presumably) long-forgotten exercise bike were crowded in the centre. That last sight made Buffy raise an eyebrow.

A cleared strip of floor led from the door over to a fold-out camp bed against the far wall. Next to it sat a small stack of boxes – probably containing yet more books – with a small desk lamp perched on top.

‘Wow, Giles, you shouldn’t have. It’s so… poky. Even Smurfs would get claustrophobic in here.’

“So the uh, bedroom’s really cozy. I mean, nice and snug and with, well there’s a lot to read,” Buffy called out to Faith.

There was silence for a moment and then Faith called back. “Hey, check it, I’ve found Giles’ booze!”

Buffy turned and hurried back into the living room.

The dark haired girl was smiling and holding up a fancy crystal bottle filled with amber liquid. “Lookie here.” She swished the decanter, “Think this’ll be a nice way to liven the evening up. Quick, grab a couple of glasses.”

“Put it back Faith.”

Faith tilted her head. “C’mon B, a nightcap will make us both feel better.” She was giving Buffy her best pleading puppy dog look, something Buffy hadn’t seen in a long time. Suddenly Buffy felt herself wanting to cave.

She hesitated and then relented. “Okay, one drink. And I’ll pass anyway thanks. Alcohol can change a person, sometimes literally.”

Faith smirked good-naturedly as she went over to the cupboard and fetched out two tumblers.

“Irish measures.” She pronounced as she sloshed a generous amount into both glasses and looked over her shoulder at Buffy. “You seriously gonna make me drink alone.”

Buffy held up her hands and moved over to the sofa, taking off her coat as she did so. “I’m not making you do anything.”

She planted herself down and sighed in relief. She’d walked a lot today.

Holding both glasses Faith joined Buffy on the couch, careful not to spill. “B, you earned it. We both did. So how ‘bout a little somethin’ to take the edge off, help us unwind a little?” She held out one glass to Buffy and slowly waggled it in an enticing manner.

Buffy smiled at Faith’s attempt to tempt. “You’re a bad influence.”

Faith’s happy expression faltered and she looked away. Then shaking her head she reached forward and placed the drinks on the coffee table. “You’re right, this is stupid. I shouldn’t even be–”

Buffy put her hand on Faith’s arm. “Faith, that’s not what I meant. I didn’t–” She paused before trying again, “What the hell, right? We did earn it. It’s been a long few days and I think we should toast to surviving them more or less intact.” Then Buffy took one of the drinks and raised it up between them. “Join me?”

Faith met her eyes for a long moment before nodding and picking up the other glass. She moved a bit closer and turned side-on. “What should we..?”

Buffy pondered. “How about this; ‘it’s never too late to make a fresh start’... or something. Meh, I’m pretty much no good at these.”

Faith let out a snort. “Okay. Here’s to ya B,” Faith clinked her glass against Buffy’s and then took a long swallow. Buffy looked at her nearly full glass and took a cautious sip.

Buffy sighed as the liquid made fiery path to her belly. Giles sure knew his brandy. “Good stuff.”

Faith nodded. “More of a Jack girl but yeah, this’ll do fine.”

Buffy pursed her lips as she reminisced. “Come to think of it the last time I had a drink was right here, with Giles after the graduation battle-thingy.”

Faith didn’t say anything in reply, just frowned and glanced away, jaw tense.

Buffy suddenly realised how that could be interpreted. “I wasn’t...I mean; we weren’t celebrating or anything, Faith. It was more a, a commiseration.” Faith turned back with a blank look. “Sort of a drowning of sorrows kinda thing.”

Faith simply nodded in understanding and took a drink. Then, “Why was that? The sorry stuff. You won, B. No doubt kicked ass and did major property damage.”

Buffy hesitated as she thought back to that night, both times around. She took a sip before answering. “I still had regrets though. About everything with us, like I said, and some of the students got hurt in the fight.”

“Angel left town, right?” Faith put in.

Buffy’s stomach swooped at the mention of Angel’s name. “Uh, yeah. It was all tough. It felt like things had come at a high price, y’know. Lots of heartache.” She quickly took a longer drink and felt the warmth spread through her. Better. Buffy leaned forward, elbows on knees. “I guess that’s why I...I took all your stuff. It was like ‘this is something I can be doing’, keeping your things safe.” Buffy shook her head, it felt a little heavier than before, “That’s why I took everything, not like it was some trophy but… it was to show you that I still–”

“Buffy.” Faith interrupted quietly, “Forget about that. I was just mouthing off. I guess I didn’t understand. Still don’t really, but it don’t matter now.”

Buffy shook her head again as she continued on, still clinging to a thought that she wanted to get out. “But the knife – I didn’t, I don’t have it. I think it was in the high school when everything went boom. Even if I hadn’t lost it I would never keep it. Because...”

“I know. You don’t have to explain that part,” Faith’s voice was low and husky, soft with understanding. The brunette sighed and then continued. “It’s weird. That knife was… pretty much the only thing I ever got given in this town. It was like, even though I know it was this cool-nasty piece of work, it was still a present. ‘Was nice to get something like that. A part o’ me almost misses it, something that was mine.” She shook her head, “I guess it’s the same with the bow, something that belonged to me, but like, at the same time it’s...” She trailed off.

Buffy swallowed some brandy. “Tainted?”

Faith nodded forcefully. “Yeah. Like all the good is messed-up because of the bad mixed in. Like it feels stupid and wrong to miss having those things.”

“I get that. But maybe you can, uh,” Buffy stumbled as she searched for the word, “Reclaim it. Some of it anyway. Like with your bow. That’s why I,” Buffy waved a hand vaguely, “still want you to have things, if you can do good with them.”

Faith sighed. “It’s not just things B, it's other stuff. Memories.”

“I know.” Buffy said simply.

She knew all too well about mixed feelings towards the past, the conflict that could eat you up, the regrets and guilt about your own actions and thoughts towards other people. She took another long drink and felt a bit better; fuzzy and warm and better, like her limbs and muscles were uncoiling and becoming more fluid.

“Subject change.“ Muttered Faith and she thought for a moment. She seemed to hesitate. “So, what’ve you been up to for all these months, huh? What about your buds? You all go to college together or what?”

Buffy shook her head to clear the fuzziness. “Xander doesn’t go, he’s a civilian.” She smiled, “Cordelia went off to LA and stardom. But now she works for Angel, as his secretary or something, which must be an experience. Oz left town because he was getting all wolf-y and wanted to control himself better. Long gone I’ll bet.”

“But Willow’s now my roomie, as you saw.” Buffy frowned at that. Willow. She still needed to talk with Willow sometime about the harmful magics. Buffy took another long swallow and sighed.

Faith shifted on the sofa. “So, what about that… your guy. Uh, Riley?”

She looked down at her empty glass. Here she was drinking with Faith – getting a lot friendlier than was strictly wise actually – meanwhile Riley was injured and alone in the Initiative somewhere. Buffy let out a soft whimper as she slumped back on the coach at the realization.

‘I’m a terrible girlfriend. Really, I should get an award or plaque or something.’

Faith hurriedly put her drink to one side. “Damn, I didn’t mean t–”

Buffy shook her head. “Fine. His friends told me that he’s fine, and it was a struggle to get that much out of them. But other than that, nothing. Those boys like their top secrets.”

She heard Faith clear her throat and try to sound positive. “But fine’s somethin’ right?”

“Sure. But I don’t know what the Initiative’s version of fine is. They could be forcing him back on those screwy drugs, or torturing him for all I know.” Buffy flapped her arm for emphasis.

After a few moments of quiet Buffy felt Faith put a hand on her leg and shift closer. “It’s gotta be hard worrying ‘bout him. But take it from somebody who got to poke about their insides for a bit, I doubt those guys are gonna be hurting one of their own. It’s not that kinda place.” Faith hesitated and then nodded, “I’ll bet it’s is just like they say, he’s getting patched up by some top doc.”

Buffy smiled at the hopeful thought and tilted her head back to look up at Faith. Her brown eyes were warm and soft with understanding; her features crinkled in an awkward sympathy smile that Buffy could tell was genuine. She was aware of Faith’s nearness, her smell and touch that were all so inviting. Not to mention the dark wavy hair and the pouty nibble-able bottom lip, those unguarded eyes now seemed so expressive as they looked into Buffy’s own.

Buffy’s thoughts became muddled as she found herself swimming in that gaze. “You’re pretty,” she murmured dreamily.

‘...Oh crap!’

For a moment Faith acted as though she’d misheard. Then she blinked and her smile grew slightly wider even as her eyes narrowed in puzzlement. “Huh?”

Buffy’s thoughts whirled as she scrambled for a get-out. “Insightful. Getting pretty insightful there Faith, with all the advice-giving and the comfort uh, also-giving.” Buffy made a show of rolling her eyes, “Because I, y’know, probably would go on and on about pining for my boyfriend otherwise.” Buffy pushed herself up straight and smiled in apology, hoping that her red face would be taken as the flush of alcohol and not embarrassment. “My mouth had to catch up with my brain there.”

For a long moment Faith seemed uncertain before simply shaking her head in wonderment. “Think you’re a real lightweight when it comes to liquor, Summers.”

‘I have to get out of here. Tipsy Buffy and Empathy Faith is way too dangerous a mix.’

Buffy shrugged awkwardly. “Yeah, that’s me. Anyway, I really have to be going. I said I’d check in with Mom sometime this evening.”

That was half-true, since she’d plan to talk with her mom after her Gala-thing tonight; on the phone. But suddenly some night air and a face to face seemed safer and less confusing.

Buffy stood up, swayed a little and then steadied herself against the couch. “Oop. Guess I really should’ve eaten something today.”

Faith squinted up at her. “You sure you’re gonna be okay getting home?”

“Oh totally. Fresh air will do me good.” Buffy waved in a carefree way but carefully so she wouldn’t stumble. She edged around the couch. When Faith began to stand up Buffy patted the air, “You stay, I’ll show myself out.”

Faith shrugged. “’Kay, whatever.” But she looked unsure.

Buffy got near the door before she remembered something and turned back. Trying to keep her voice light she said. “Oh, before I forget, there was a guy from the Initiative, Graham, he was asking about you, if you were okay.”

Faith smiled a wide, toothy smile that was a shade too lascivious for Buffy’s liking. “He was?”

“Yeah. He, uh, was so worried that I figured you two must’ve bonded or whatever.”

Faith’s smile became more wistful. “Nah, never got the chance to do anything more than admire the scenery, if you know what I mean,” she drawled. “Prolly for the best.”

Buffy smiled happily. “That’s great! Uh, I mean, I very much agree. With that. It would be too complex otherwise.”

Faith shrugged. “Ain’t really my scene. Too much drama.”

Buffy nodded happily and half-turned to go, then felt a small pang of conscience. “You’ll be okay here alone, right?”

Faith nodded slowly but was still staring at Buffy a little warily, like she was still trying to judge her sobriety. “Reckon so, B. I’ve put you out too much as it is.”

Buffy shook her head. “It wasn’t any trouble.”

Faith raised a skeptical eyebrow before just shaking her head. “Whatever okay, this is still weird.” She waved her hand about Giles apartment, “Really weird.” Then added, “But not bad weird. I mean, uh, it was… y’know, weird.”

“Bordering on surreal.” Buffy added in agreement. “But it’s nice. Definite improvement on before.”

Faith gave an uncomfortable smile. “Not that hard.”

Buffy paused awkwardly by the front door. “So, I’ll swing by tomorrow morning before class. Check in?”

Faith hesitated. “You don’t have t–”

“Want.” Buffy said firmly.

Faith seemed uncertain but gave a small smile anyway. “Uh, okay, sure.”

Buffy gave one last backward glance as she opened the door. “Bye.”And then she made her escape.

*****

Willow glanced at Xander as they walked along Revello Drive, Buffy’s house fast approaching. “Thanks for this, Xander.”

Xander shrugged. Truth be told he was glad to get out of the house on a Saturday and avoid the risk of random chore-assignment that he’d managed to dodge for most of the day.

“Not a problem. Moral support is the support that I’m best at. Since morals don’t actually weigh anything.” Xander glanced sidelong at Willow, “So, are you gonna get round to telling me what you and Buffy had a falling out about?”

Willow looked down at her hands. “Um, well, Faith.”

Xander shook his head in mock-surprise. “I’m shocked.”

“Well, it’s just… The spell I was prepping wasn’t to Buffy’s liking and she got mad. She thought that I don’t trust her, which isn’t fair. It’s Faith I don’t trust. Nobody should trust her ‘cause of the clear, obvious danger. We all should be understanding the danger. And Buffy’s all...well, she’s blinkered. She has blinkers on her head.”

Xander gestured expansively with his hands. “There may be a lack of blinking on Buffy’s part but, and it is a tiny but –” He hesitated. ‘Time to be balanced analysis guy’.

Willow frowned at him. “What? What is the but?”

Xander sighed. “There is a reason, Willow. Look, Buffy tried to kill Faith. To flat out, straight up ice her. I was there when Buffy made that choice. So I understand why she’d be… sensitive to what other angles we should try. Buffy did the ‘bad’ option already. It didn’t end well. So now she wants to really try hard at the other. I mean with Buffy being a good hero-type person, I get that. I kinda don’t wanna, not entirely, because I worry about her safety. But, on the other hand, I want her to do the right thing. For her, because it might end better.”

Willow pouted in thought. “That’s seems insightful. So, you’re okay with this?”

Xander shook his head dubiously as together they took the path up to Buffy’s porch. “No way, I’m not there yet. But it has occurred to me that could be Buffy thinks that a little more firepower might come in handy these days. Adam has us all squirrelly. He’s evil. And mysterious. And easily the widest bad guy we’ve ever faced. Could be Buffy thinks that Faith can help with that.”

Willow stopped. “Buffy has plenty of help. She has us.”

Xander had been wondering about that a lot since they blew up the high school. “Yeah, us; with our advanced techno-cyber military-fighting knowledge, all of which we could fit on the back of a postcard. Maybe she thinks Faith with a big ol’ knife might be a tad more useful.” He tried hard not to sound bitter. Because he wasn’t.

“But she can trust us.” Willow’s voice was plaintive.

Xander nodded. “Right, but the trust works both ways. Point is if Buffy puts her foot down – even though it’s a dainty foot – we need to respect it.”

“Respect it.” Willow repeated thoughtfully.

Xander caught her eye. “Respect the foot. And we could also try and support her with all this other stuff.” He waved his hand airily, “Zombie-making demons, mysterious cloaked beings and stitched-up freakshows of nature. We’re her ‘something’ of support. Something –”

Suddenly the front door swung open and Buffy peered out, her face quizzical. “Hey. Why are you two just standing on my front porch talking?”

Xander gave his best inane grin. “We were going to knock but I got distracted trying to think of a metaphor for uh, something. I forget what.”

“I think I finally get why the pizza place fired you.” Buffy commented dryly. Then she stepped away from the door to allow them both to enter. He could see that she avoided looking in Willow’s direction.

Xander tried not to sound defensive about his spotty work record. “Hey, I think you’ll find that it was because I complained about the lousy tips. Entirely legitimate.”

He watched as Buffy made her way over to her couch and sat down. She seemed awkward and tense, her shoulders looked stiff and her folded arms screamed ‘defensive mode’, like she was preparing for an argument. So he decided to be the first to break the ice. “No patrolling tonight?”

A small shrug. “I’ve got some time later, I’ll do a sweep and keep an eye out for Adam.”

Willow was nervously tugging at her own sleeve. “Where’s your mom?”

“Big Saturday night gallery-gala thing, so it’s just me and the quiet until later.”

Cue awkward silence.

Willow started busily looking around and occasionally glancing in Buffy’s direction. Buffy stared at the switched off TV and seemed like she was thinking about things to say. She looked over at Xander. “So...how’s Anya?”

Xander smiled and nodded. “Heh, so I guess we really are that desperate for conversation. You’re asking about Anya. Anya. The girl you scrunch your nose up at every time I mention her.”

“That’s – I do not,” Buffy spluttered.

Xander held up his hands. “That’s a topic to be avoided for another time. ‘Cause now we’re all gonna have a calm, thoughtful talk about Faith, misunderstandings and burying of hatchets. Okay, that sounds like a scarier conversation than I would like to have but tough, we’re doing it.”

“I don’t really want to talk right now.” Buffy grumbled.

But Willow found her courage and stepped closer. “Buffy –”

Suddenly Buffy stood up and turned towards Willow. “Y’know something: I talked to Giles this morning, he rang to ask about Faith and update me about Morley, and I racked my brain to find a reason not to tell him all about your crazy spell stunt. I mean, have you come up with anything new to justify cursing Faith to death? Some new nifty reason?” Buffy said, throwing her hands up for emphasis.

Xander did a double take at Willow. “Uh, death-curse? Maybe you should’ve mentioned that bit of info.”

Willow shook her head in frustration. “It was just something to incapacitate a slayer.” Then she looked towards Buffy. “And I am sorry I didn’t tell you right away, talk things through with you before…” she trailed off. “But you have to know I would never have let it get that far. I couldn’t.”

Buffy glared at Willow hotly. “That’s not–” She shook her head in exasperation; “You shouldn’t have even considered it. Not too long ago Faith actually saved me, from a demon. And what does she get in return? The warm, fuzzy feeling of having mystic blood poisoning hanging over her head.”

Xander patted the air. “Okay, how about we all calm down a little. Neutral corners?”

But now it was apparently Willow’s turn to vent in anger. “So it’s totally bad for me to ‘even consider’ using some murky magic on Miss super-psycho-slayer who wanted you dead not too long ago, but it’s just fine that Faith went rampaging last year ‘cause she’s suddenly all sorry now. How does that work exactly?”

Buffy’s teeth were gritted in angry frustration. “You have no clue what you’re talking about. Faith is helping, you’re not!”

“You two, stop this!” Xander made a dramatic chopping gesture with his arm and stepped between them. “This isn’t a daytime talk-show, we’re friends. There isn’t anything here that can’t be worked out.” He turned to Willow, “Secrets; bad. Death-curses; bad. In combination? Very, very bad and also wrong. You know that’s not what we’re about, which is why you’re here.”

Then he looked at Buffy who was pacing near the fireplace. “Buffy, Willow only did what she did because she was worried about you. We both were. ‘Cause of the track record that you seem to be ignoring. Okay, there was some line-crossing; agreed. But it was a crazy situation. But after last year nobody – not even you – knew which way Faith was gonna jump. And maybe we still don’t, but we’ll deal with it together, right?”

Buffy closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. “Is there? Is there a ‘together’ with this?” She opened them again and looked at him, her eyes weary.

Willow spoke up softly, her tremulous voice sounding a lot more contrite. “Always. I’m sorry, Xander’s right. Faith doesn’t matter. We care about you.”

Buffy sighed. “Well then that’s a problem Will, because I care about –”

The loud knock on the front door startled them all.

Xander glanced out the window. It was late outside. “Uh, expecting anybody?”

Buffy frowned at the door in irritation. Man, she really wasn’t in the mood for visitors tonight.

Xander put a soothing hand on Buffy’s arm. “I’ll see who it is. Heh, I don’t think we were quite loud enough to cause a disturbance. You two keep at it, I think we’re close to a Scoobie break-through.”

Then he made his way to the door, he peered through one of the side windows and made out just enough to see a shadowy somebody in a uniform and ballcap.

Willow moved a bit closer to Buffy and sat down on the sofa. “So… maybe it’s Riley. Or Riley-related.”

Buffy’s lips twitched in a tiny conciliatory smile. “That would be nice.”

“Not the right kind of uniform for it to be a Riley-ogram. Is your mom expecting a delivery?” Xander swung open to see the guy standing there was looking down at his clipboard. Past the man’s shoulder Xander spotted a black van was parked up on the curb. “Hey bud.”

Xander could sense Buffy already moving towards the door just as the man raised his head and smiled widely at Xander.

“Good evening boy.”

Plummy. British. Evil. Xander instantly recognised both the face and the voice but completely froze because of the unexpectedness of it.

He saw Ethan Rayne dressed as a parcel guy just as he dropped the clipboard to the ground, revealing a knife clenched in his hand. Another hand shot out and seized Xander’s shoulder. Before he could react Xander, was spun around and the knife pressed to his throat, as Rayne forcefully pushed them both inside.

Xander saw Buffy stop dead in her tracks; stunned. Her eyes widened in disbelief. Willow jumped up from the coach and squeaked “Oh my God, Xander!”

Xander swallowed nervously at the feel of cold steel at his throat yet he still found himself speaking up. “Uh, guys? Ethan Rayne’s here. He’s got a van outside and a knife at my throat. And possibly a job.”

The voice spoke up loudly over his right shoulder. “And now it seems as if I’ve got a hostage, doesn’t it Miss Summers.”

Xander tried to crane his neck to see his captor but Rayne held him fast in place, his other arm locking him in place.

Buffy’s eyes narrowed. “What are you doing here, Ethan? Let Xander go and tell me what you want.”

Rayne sighed theatrically. “It would’ve been so much easier if you had answered the door slayer. I don’t have time to deal with your company.”

Buffy spread her hands apart slowly, her voice straining for a conversational tone. “Well I’m right here. Deal with me then. Alone.”

Xander felt Rayne’s grip relax slightly, the blade easing away from his skin.

Then Willow took a steadying breath and stepped forward and gestured towards them both with her hand. “Et ventilabit tergum… eorum–

Rayne scoffed quietly and suddenly Xander was catapulted straight at Willow, his arms flailing for balance even as his legs were knocked out from under him. He slammed into her hard, knocking them both back so that they collided hard with the edge of the couch and tumbled to the ground. Xander heard Willow cried out in pain as she landed.

Xander tried to twist himself, and felt his head bounce painfully off the coffee table as he desperately tried to avoid squashing his friend. Instead he slid onto his side, wedged sideways. He saw that Willow was wincing and cradling the back of her head. She’d taken a hard knock.

Xander looked up and back in time to see Buffy rush Ethan. He watched as Rayne seemed to swipe at Buffy with his knife and suddenly she was under the arcing steel, grabbing his outstretched arm and yanked it forward hard. With a deft flick of her wrist Buffy sent the knife spinning across the floor even as she began to bend Ethan’s arm back on itself.

But then Xander saw Rayne swiftly smack his other hand against the side of Buffy’s head and Xander saw her freeze up, shuddering and spasming like she’d been hit with a taser. There was some sort of smoky glow, a black, pulsing flash, almost like an absence of light, between Rayne’s hand- that seemed to be holding something – and Buffy.

For some reason Xander found hard to look directly at whatever the hell was happening, he saw Buffy jerk and spasm, her face contorted in pain, and a moment later it was over and Buffy slumped to her knees like she was stunned.

Xander felt a rush of angry energy as he picked himself up off the ground and launched himself towards Rayne. Without his knife Xander figured he could dole out some pain on his English ass. “Okay, that’s just about enough.” He stepped around a prone Buffy, grabbed Rayne’s shirt with both hands and tried to shove him back and away from his friend.

Rayne didn’t move an inch; he just smiled smugly at Xander as he struggled to push him back.

Then he broke Xander’s grip, easily knocking his hands away, as he swatted him across the face with a casual forehand. Pain lanced across Xander’s face and through his head as he was flung back, twirling through the air to crash down hard, crying out as a bumpy and uneven surface gouged into his chest and stomach. The staircase, Xander thought dimly, and coughed dully in pain.

“Yes. Yes, that’ll do nicely.” He heard Ethan chuckle and walk across the hallway, grunt as he picked something up and then fading footsteps as he left the house.

Then Xander lost consciousness.

Picking Up The Pieces (PART 8: Free Rayne)

Wesley Wyndam Pryce entered the offices of Angel Investigations, jacket slung over one shoulder and somewhat dusty parchment tucked under the other, and spotted Cordelia lingering outside Angel’s door.

At first he thought she was busy organising folders, or putting a client file away as she finish up for the day, but then he realised that she was simply shuffling them around. Her attention was focused entirely on listening to whatever was going on behind the closed door. She was so intent she didn’t even seem to register his presence.

Wesley cleared his throat delicately. “Good evening Cordelia.”

Without turning Cordelia made an irritated gesture with her hand, indicating him to be quiet.

Wesley bristled but moved closer, curious as to what was going on. A typical client meeting didn’t usually elicit such a response from the young woman – perhaps they were particularly wealthy or famous? This was the land of Hollywood after all; perhaps stardom had come calling… It also might explain the lateness of the hour.

“Hovering, are we?”

Cordelia nodded emphatically. “Yu-huh! And with good reason. Visits from Sunnydale are always disturbing and intense; magic rings, peroxide-y vampires, Buffy. Especially Buffy.”

Wesley raised his eyebrows and smiled. “One of your old school chums? That’s splendid for you.” Although he did hesitate at the thought of any sort of reunion himself: his status had been... somewhat reduced since Sunnydale. Those days when even then his station had garnered little respect, it had to be said.

Still, there was some satisfaction in being Angel’s stalwart ally, fighting the good fight and whatnot.

Cordelia gave him a look. “No, Giles. He and Angel are in there yammering about old times and no doubt updating Angel about you-know-who and all the details of her fabulous slaying lifestyle. This has got to be about Buffy. Y’know, you would’ve thought to get over the ‘heartbreak of all heartbreaks’ Angel might want to move slightly further away than somewhere a leisurely car ride would take you. Not that I’m complaining you understand, but the guy really takes an age to get over–”

Wesley interrupted Cordelia’s stream of consciousness. “Rupert Giles?”

Cordelia nodded slowly. “Of course.” She arched an eyebrow at him. “Is this gonna be awkward Wesley? Because I thought, you know, what with you both having being fired and everything, you might have more in common now. Like, former-Watcher solidarity?” She asked brightly.

He found himself frowning at the door. “Perhaps I should come back at another time...”

Cordelia cocked her head. “Why are you here now anyway?”

He gestured to the scrolls he was carrying. “I just wished to show Angel a new acquisition of mine; parchments written in a rare dialect of the almost extinct Glar’kahmeket demon language.” He took in her blank expression, “Do you have any idea what that could mean?”

She tilted her head the other way as she considered. “That you have no life? Don’t have to be a private investigator slash actress to work that one out.”

“It means I’ll be able to cross-reference demonic tongue much easier.” Wesley replied, sniffing at her derisive tone. “And you’re not a proper investigator, you’re a secretary.”

“If somebody has to follow deadbeats around in disguise and cut up demon parts with a hacksaw, then that qualifies as above and beyond. Investigator is what is says on my pay checks.”

“And what do mine say?”

Cordelia gave an exaggerated smile and put a hand on his back and gestured towards the door. “Oh, never mind that. Here I am talking your ear off when you wanna be showing everyone your dusty scrolls. And I’ll bet Giles will be impressed too.”

“Well, like I said, if the timing is inconvenient–”

“Pfft! Get in there.” Cordelia deftly reached over, rapped on the door then opened it.

Beyond he saw Angel and Giles sitting on opposite sides of the desk. Giles was staring down at a notepad resting on his lap, seemingly in thought and Angel was leaning forward on the desk, his face set in its usual sombre expression. He shifted his eyes to look at Wesley. “Wesley, didn’t expect to see you coming by so late. Everything alright?”

Wesley stepped in as Cordelia followed close behind. “Oh, yes. Quite well actually. Just... happened by really.” Wesley looked between the two men, “If I’m interrupting...”

“Not at all.” Giles stood up and took off his glasses. He was dressed very much like a retired college professor; chunky grey sweater, tan jacket and dark slacks; overtly professional, if perhaps a shade too trendy in Wesley’s view. Giles extended his hand and smiled, “Good to see you again Wesley,” he said warmly.

Slightly surprised, Wesley took his hand. “Yes, and you also. A bit strange us meeting up like this.”

“Not so strange. I’ve been informed that you’re an associate here.” Giles gestured towards Angel who simply nodded.

“Yes, yes. I was very fortunate to land on my feet.” Wesley replied modestly “And what of yourself?”

“Still... feeling things out as it were. I was a Watcher for rather a long time and...” He trailed off before changing the subject “I’m actually here to uh, hire you, as it were. But the job is rather time sensitive, hence the lateness of the hour.”

“Job?” Wesley asked.

“Don’t worry, he can pay.” Cordelia assured him.

“Yeah, about that.” Angel was frowning. “I still don’t know if we’ll accept. It’s not really what we do.”

Giles nodded gravely. “I understand that, but I must stress that it’s of the upmost importance.”

Wesley tried to catch up. “What is the job may I ask?”

“Is it seedy?” Cordelia asked brightly, “Because we can totally do seedy.” She put some feeling into her voice when she added, “We’re desperate.”

Angel chuckled lightly and held up his hand in an ‘easy there’ gesture. “We’re really not that desperate. Business has been... steady.”

“Yeah; steady, as in slow, as in not moving. Kinda dead actually. And not you dead either, really dead.”

Giles addressed Angel again. “I understand your reticence–”

“Because you’re asking me to steal from some guy.” Angel added flatly.

Wesley was surprised. “Larceny? What on earth for?”

Giles sighed and adjusted his glasses as he explained. “There is a man who is... who possesses a book that I wish to well ah, acquire.”

Wesley heard Cordelia sigh. “You really should let it go Mr. Giles. Sometimes you can take this whole being a librarian thing too far.”

“It isn’t a library book,” Giles replied a tad peevishly. “It is an exceedingly rare and prohibited tome.”

Angel was staring at the desk and furrowing his brow. “And how do you know who has it? What’s your source on this?”

“Indisputable. The Watcher’s council informed me of the identity of the owner – a warlock by the name of Manfred Greeley – and his residence within the city. There is no doubt that the book is in his possession.”

Ignoring the news that Giles was still in contact with the Council, Wesley spoke up. “Ah, I’m familiar with him; I gather Greeley is a collector of some repute. Also I must say he isn’t someone who one should trifle with lightly.” Wesley regarded Giles curiously, “I would wonder what this is all in aid of.”

“That’s a good question. If I’m going to risk my people going up against some practitioner of the dark arts,” Angel gave Giles a measured look, “I’d kinda like to have an idea why.”

Giles cleared his throat. “That’s understandable. Very well, the book in question is vital in regards to a threat currently at large in Sunnydale, an entity that has a keen interest in the slayer.” Giles tapped his notepad on the desk for emphasis, “The book is called ‘Fragments Of the Nameless City’, a collection of teachings and musings of a sorcerer and scholar known as –”

“Amra’k Zahn.’” Wesley finished triumphantly. It was good to show that his Watcher muscles were more than a match for the older man. Then he frowned in realization, “But I was to understand that he was something of a charlatan in magical circles.”

Giles adjusted his glasses. “In arcane matters perhaps but I’m more interesting in the many apocryphal tales he was able to attain during his studies. They promise to be most illuminating.”

Then Cordelia chimed in with her thoughts. “While all this is interesting to an extremely dull person, I’m not really sure what the big deal is in ripping off a random stranger to get some dead guy’s dear diary.”

Wesley pondered for a moment. “Well, if it’s at all relevant I believe I saw Greeley at an auction. He was making a bid on your eyes. Like I said, he’s an avid collector.”

Cordelia’s tone was deadpan. “We should definitely get this guy.”

Angel was still thinking. “And this will help Buffy?”

Giles hesitated. “In the interests of full disclosure this malevolent being isn’t just interested in Buffy, but also in Faith; the other slayer. She’s a tad more active at the moment.”

Wesley froze on hearing that name, one that he hadn’t heard or even thought about for months now. Faith had been his charge, his responsibility, and his failure.

His first thought was that he should call the Watcher’s council at once, explain things to them and offer to somehow bring her in. He could almost picture it, his triumphant return to England and his reinstatement, his father’s pride as Wesley’s esteem rose once again. And most importantly, the slayer who had willingly worked for the forces of darkness being brought to heel and stopped from harming any more people.

Wesley was shocked at the power of the imagery, and the realization of how badly he still wanted an opportunity to become what he once was. He didn’t trust himself to speak, so instead he just listening.

“But why Faith? Is it something to do with her past, with Mayor Wilkins?” Angel had taken the news in his stride; clearly Giles had mentioned this fact already.

Cordelia gaped as she help up a hand. “Wait a minute, Faith’s awake? As in not-in-a-coma-anymore alive?” She looked askance at Angel, “Way to bury the lead, boss.”

“Giles says that Buffy is dealing it, which is enough for me. I don’t want to interfere again.” His voice was firm although he didn’t sound too happy.

Cordelia didn’t stop there. “Well does she need any extra weapons to help deal with Faith? ‘Cause we have spare weapons. We might have all the spare weapons down in that lair of yours actually.”

Then Wesley found his voice and asked sharply “And when were you planning on giving me a heads up? In case you had forgotten I was Faith’s watcher.”

Giles regarded him coolly. “I truly didn’t see the need, as of yet. Faith’s recuperation both mentally and emotionally is in a very precarious state, so I would say that for the foreseeable future Faith no longer has need of a watcher.” He adjusted his glasses before adding dryly, “And for that matter neither does Buffy. But I can assure you that she is handling it.”

“Not really feeling better,” Cordelia put in.

Wesley couldn’t believe that Giles was advocating this course of action, it was so... passive. Actually, come to think of it he could. “And you really think this is the best course? An entire lack of adult supervision over a... sick, disturbed girl with that much power.”

“She has all the supervision I feel is warranted. But when I have need of your particular brand of help I’ll be sure to call for it,” Giles said sharply.

Wesley flushed in anger. “Was it any worse than your style of care? By which I mean none at all.”

“Okay, that’s just about enough.” Angel raised his voice up over them, “There were chances, choices were made and there were errors in judgement. But let’s not try for a repeat. If this helps Buffy with... the Faith situation then we’ll do it. Agreed?” He glanced at Cordelia and then at Wesley.

Wesley looked at Angel and nodded. But he couldn’t shake the thought of the Watcher’s council and the possibility of his glorious return.

*****

Willow managed to raise her head from the floor with a lot of effort. Dimly she heard the far off screech of tires. She took in the empty hallway and the wide-open front door.

‘Why is the door open... Ethan Rayne!’

“Xander! Buffy?” Willow blurted desperately as she scrambled to her feet and looked around. She did her best to ignore the swimming sensation as she moved her head around, but still grabbed onto the edge of the door for stability. Her other hand clutched at the back of her head where she could feel a lump forming.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Xander sprawled on his front halfway up the stairs.

“Xander!” She scampered over to him and touched him on the shoulder, feeling instantly better when he stirred and slowly started to wriggle on the staircase. “Xander, what happened?”

“Ethan Rayne. He... there was a great deal of pain, I’m pretty clear on that part but not much else.” He slowly rolled onto his side and glanced about. Willow flinched when she saw the blood on his mouth, a cut on his cheek and redness on his jaw that was already starting to swell.

“How did he–? What did he do?”

“Pretty much slapped me in the puss and then walked away.” Xander surveyed the empty hallway with mounting frustration; “He must’ve taken Buffy with him.”

Willow put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Take it easy. How did he manage to take Buffy?”

“Magic or something, he was stronger than usual.” Xander cupped the side of his jaw tenderly.

Whilst Xander recovered Willow hurried over to the door and looked out. No sign of Buffy or Rayne or anybody out on the street.

Where did they go? How did Rayne end up in Sunnydale again? Didn’t Giles and Buffy hand him over to the Initiative? Didn’t those people lock anybody up properly?

Willow shook her head at all the questions; she needed help now.

Moving quickly, Willow ran to the phone on the kitchen wall and – reciting the numbers as she did so – dialled Giles’ place as fast as she could.

“C’mon, c’mon,” she muttered quietly as the phone rang on. After five or six rings the line connected.

Willow felt a rush of relief. “Giles! We’ve got troub–”

“Guess again.” Willow froze when she heard Faith’s husky and amused drawl cut her of on the other end.

Willow held the phone in a death-grip as she gaped into space. “Faith? Faith! W-what are you doing at Giles’?”

Faith sounded nonplussed. “Right now? Eating a casserole.” There was a pause. “Ain’t half bad, Giles can cook for sure.”

‘Try to stay calm.’ Willow managed to keep her voice firm and steady. “Where’s Giles? Have you... Did you do something to him?”

There was a snort of disbelief. “Like what? Knocked him out and stashed him in a closet?” Faith mocked before pausing, “Buffy told me he took off on some spooky-related business. Ask her if you don’t believe me.”

‘Giles has gone off somewhere? But Buffy didn’t say anything.’ Willow’s mind was whirling with too many things. “W-where did Giles go?”

Faith sounded impatient. “Don’t. Know. B might though so you ought’a try asking her, if you’re on speaking terms that is.”

That last part had a sly edge to it and Willow felt herself flush in anger.

She couldn’t think of anything else to say, panic was seizing all her thoughts and whirling them into a nonsensical maelstrom of badness. Buffy was taken, Giles was gone and Xander was hurt.

So Willow slammed the phone into its cradle in frustration.

“Will?” Xander called after her so she headed back towards him.

“I tried calling Giles and Faith answered. She’s over there right now; she says that Giles has gone.”

Xander was slowly moving his jaw around with his hand but he stopped. “It must be the concussion because for a minute there it sounded like you said that Giles is missing and Faith is what, squatting at his place?”

Willow put her hands in her hair and clenched them. “I don’t know what to do. There’s no Giles and Ethan has Buffy.” Willow shook her head in bewilderment at that, “I mean, why does Ethan have Buffy? What does he want with her?”

Xander was looking at the floor as he thought hard. “It must be for a spell or something. W-we have time, Buffy’s gonna be okay, we just have to... to think of a plan, a non-sucking type plan.”

“We need to find Giles.” Willow bit her bottom lip in agitation as she tried to think up a solution.

Xander’s head turned slightly and suddenly he stooped to pick something up before holding it between them. “I remember; Ethan was holding this in his hand, he touched Buffy with it and there was, uh, magical shenanigans of some kind. I guess. It knocked her on her butt, whatever it was.”

“He must’ve dropped it when he skedaddled.” Willow murmured as she looked at Xander’s hand. She saw a bent and slightly scorched metal device, about the size of her palm, with lots of bits of loops and strange mechanisms hanging off it. The metal looked black and twisted in places, and parts of the casing appeared to have come loose. Willow scrunched up her face. “What is it?”

“C’mon Will, are you blind? It’s clearly a gizmo, or possible a doo-hicky,” Xander shrugged. “Mainly it’s the only clue we’ve got to go on.”

Willow nodded in agreement as she started to focus on some sort of solution. “I can get with the researching but we really need help; we should find out if Faith’s telling the truth.”

“I’m wracking my brains to think about why she’d lie about that. Kinda easy for us to call her on it.”

“Yeah, I mean, but why wouldn’t Buffy mention it?”

Xander shrugged helplessly. “Well, she’s had a lot on her mind; probably didn’t get a chance.”

“Do we risk going over there. I mean, without Buffy? We have to do something?” Willow thought about who they could turn to for help.

Tara. Willow trusted her completely and also the other witch was caught up on all things slayerette. But Willow wondered if the best time for an introduction was really right this minute. Maybe she didn’t have a choice.

Xander sighed. “Y’know, I’ve got a really bad idea. But I’ll need to swing by my place first, and then we’re heading over to Giles’.”

*****

The sudden jolt of movement brought Buffy back to consciousness. She blinked slowly as her eyes adjusted to gloom, the only sensations she could feel clearly where the rhythmic thump and shudder of the ground beneath her and the occasional stab of light that flashed across her eyes. It took her a moment to realise that her perspective was all skewed, that she was looking at things upside-down, things that were moving before her eyes with speed.

‘A window?’

No, a windscreen; she was looking at a segment of windscreen framed between two front seats of a van. With some effort Buffy rolled onto her front and pushed herself to her knees, ignoring the chill shiver that briefly swept through her. Then she saw the person in the driving seat, illuminated by the passing street lights and the glow from the dashboard she managed to make out a face ­– Ethan Rayne.

Now she remembered: she’d been moping at home alone, taking a much-needed time-out to beat herself over the whole Faith and Riley sitch. Then Xander and Willow had come by a friendly make-up chat. But Buffy’s general fed-up-ness had reared its head; she just hadn’t been in the mood to have a ‘reasonable talk’ and deal with her friend’s lack of support regarding Faith.

And in the middle of it all Rayne had invaded her home, hurt her friends and had used some magic what’s it to knock her out. She dimly remembered a hot flash of pain and a feeling like a hot wire was tugging at her insides, drawing something out of her, and then finally a cold falling sensation. The rest was blank.

Buffy watched as Rayne drove along for a few moments. Just long enough to assure herself that he wasn’t going to lose control and flip the van if she surprised him with the fact of her being suddenly conscious. That settled, she made with the surprising.

Leaning forward until she was a few inches away from his shoulder Buffy spoke up. “This has to be your worst plan yet Ethan. I mean, the uniform, the transport, and the home invasion. Daring, I’ll give you that, but oh-so-dumb.”

Surprisingly Ethan just glanced over his shoulder and smiled smarmily at her. “Oh, you’re awake, that’s inconvenient.”

“Inconvenient?” Buffy said the word slowly, “It’s gonna end up being alot more than that. Pull his thing over right now and you might not lose any limbs.”

Rayne acted like he hadn’t heard her. “We’ll stop soon but not just yet I think. It isn’t time.”

Buffy shook her head in exasperation and reached out to seize his arm. “Oh that’s it, you’re gonna be sorry you ever forced me behind the wheel of your lame Rayne-mobile.

She tugged hard at his arm and to her surprise nothing happened. Her muscles tightened and tensed and then she strained again, rocking back on her haunches but still nothing happened.

“Having problems in the bravado department, slayer?” Rayne gave a dry chuckle as Buffy heaved ineffectively.

“What the hell?” Buffy gritted her teeth, grunted and tugged harder. Her muscles felt fine but it was like there was no ‘extra’ strength there, no jolt of energy that made her...

“Maybe you were trying for something like this.” And with one arm Rayne reached back behind him, grabbed at a bunch of Buffy’s sweater and dragged her forward through the opening. He quickly and effortlessly twisted her and slammed her back against the dashboard next to the wheel.

Buffy cried out as pain lanced through her and her arms flailed to break Rayne’s grip. She dimly thought that this couldn’t be happening, that she must have been drugged or put under some spell. Something was very wrong.

Rayne was still driving one handed as he glanced across; he seemed amused at Buffy’s squirming. “You’ve been un-made, in case you were wondering. No strength. From slayer to damsel in no time at all.” He sighed as she tried to right herself in his grip, “Oh do stop it. I assure you I take no pleasure in hurting for the sake of it.” He released his hold but kept his hand pressed against her chest, fingers splayed against her collarbone. “Settle down.”

Buffy stopped struggling, as much from the shock of what Rayne had just said rather than his command. She strained and coughed as she spoke up, her voice sounding winded and hoarse. “Unmade? How is that even possible?”

“Some damn fine craftsmanship is how. Well, that and my sensing an opportunity. I’ve always been good at that.”

“I don’t...” Buffy gritted her teeth, “W-where are you taking me?” She asked finally.

Rayne chuckled again. “Spoken like a true hostage. If I’m honest I haven’t decided what to do with you. I took you only because I have the distinct impression it will delay any actions your idiot friends might take. It’s best if they attend to their panic and stay out of my way.”

“My friends.” Buffy thought of Xander with a knife at his throat and Willow on the floor, “I swear if you’ve hurt them–”

“Ah, ah, don’t be getting feisty my dear. After all I could simply open up you of your veins and drop you at a nearby vampire nest. I’m not much for violence myself but...” he trailed off and let the threat hang. Buffy just glared at him.

Rayne’s smiled face turned its attention back to the road and then a startled look crossed his face as he saw something up ahead. “That was...sooner than expected. Ah, well, no matter.” His foot eased down on the brake and he glanced towards Buffy again. “Like I said, I’m not one for violence. Having said that–”

In a blur of motion he backhanded Buffy hard across the face. Pain lanced through her jaw as her head was wrenched to one the side. Her mouth snapped open as she cried out. Rayne hit hard.

“Well, you were going to send me to prison for the rest of my life. Any attempt to escape and you’ll feel more of my displeasure.”

Buffy brought her hands up to her face, cupped it gingerly as she felt the pain throb in her head, pulsing and rolling around her skull, like it was echoing and rebounding on itself. Her body, still tired and weak, barely registered the van coming to a stop.

‘Unmade’.

No longer a slayer? How was that even possible? And was it reversible? The chill that had run through her earlier returned and Buffy shivered. She felt sick, shaken and feverish but without the heat. Buffy turned Rayne’s words over in her head. She had to escape, but the sick feeling and the painful throb of her cheek – with the promise of more to come – made her reluctant. It made her afraid.

For the first time in a long time, she began to feel helpless.

*****

Morley saw Rayne roll the van to a gentle stop before ambling out of the driver’s door. He smiled slyly in her direction and nodded in greeting as he came closer, putting up his hands in mock surrender. “Before you say anything I must tell you that you have my sincerest thanks for your efforts. I am truly touched by all your actions that benefitted me.” He placed a hand on his chest, feigning sincerity. “Just out of interest, how did you find me so quickly?”

“A slayer’s aura is easy to follow for one such as I, even at a distance and currently in possession by another. Speaking of which; you betrayed me.” She kept her voice low and icy with fury.

Let the arrogant man have his moment of triumph, she thought. It would be all the sweeter when she revealed the truth.

“Well, yes, but look on this way, every betrayal is a lesson learned. A pearl of wisdom gained at small cost. So pay it forward,” he smiled genially.

“Yes, cost,” she repeated shrewdly before asking lightly, “So tell me Ethan, what do you intend to do with your new found power?”

Rayne registered a moment of surprise. “I must say you’re taking this all rather well. No dire threats of vengeance?”

“Well, as you say, a lesson learned,” Morley replied humbly with a hint of mocking. “And of course there is no sense in threatening a dead man.”

Rayne tutted. “As I thought, you’re going to be bitter about it. You know, you’re not without talent yourself. If you could put aside your enmity –”

“It’s not enmity Ethan, merely fact. You have a day, two at most, before the power inside you becomes too much of a strain to bear and you die. Painfully.”

Rayne started. “What are you talking about? The device –”

Morley allowed a sneer to enter her voice. “Was merely a device, not the vessel. You simply transferred the power from the slayer into yourself. You surely didn’t expect that you, a mere man, could endure such magicks? The girl is chosen; just as they all were, from birth. Their blood, their line, makes them destined to be what they always were. And destiny, dear Ethan, is so much more powerful than chaos.” She stepped closer as she saw the doubt on his face. “Destiny is a symphony of strands stretching across out eons. Destiny is the plaything of Gods and ancients and Old ones – not little men who wish simply to create mess such as you.” She looked him up and down, her hood bobbing, “All you’ve assured is your demise, Ethan, then the power will dissipate, and then a new slayer will be called.”

She saw fear in his face now, because he knew she spoke the truth, or mostly the truth. But he valued his life too highly to question everything she said. “You expected this.”

“Not expected, but of course I entertained the possibility. The best plans always take into account an element of chaos.” She turned to go, calling over her shoulder, “Goodbye Ethan.”

“Wait.” Morley smiled at Rayne’s rattled tone. After a moment of hesitation, she turned back to face him.

Rayne put on his best winning smile. “You surely don’t expect me to believe that you’re just going to abandon your plans just to teach me a lesson? You said it yourself that you made allowances for this.” He put a hand on his chest, “Tell me how to keep hold of this power, how to contain it safely, and I can still be of great use to you. That’s what you want after all, the power of a slayer at your beck and call. It’s why you wanted the device made in the first place.”

“You were hardly the receptacle I had in mind,” Morley spat, although that was a lie. Rayne’s survival instinct was the most reliable thing about him. “You will simply betray me again, and I am beginning to find you tiresome.”

“I will not. As I have said, lesson learned.” His voice turned obsequious.

Morley pretended to think. “Very well then. I have two tasks I wish performed. You will undertake the first, immediately, and then, provided you succeed, I will tell you the rites to the Sacrament of Potency. That will temporarily abate the most debilitating side effects of your borrowed power. What happens after depends on your... compliance.”

She smiled and waited for him to agree, for he believed he had no choice.

Rayne thought for only a moment. “Very well. This task?”

Morley looked over his shoulder towards the form stirring in the front seat. “In a moment. You should keep the slayer close and unharmed if the sacrament is to be successful. Do not brutalize her again, she is still precious.”

Rayne nodded. “Of course, she’s just a girl now.”

You are a fool,’ Morley thought acidly but instead said. “There is a creature nesting near the coast, a Mavlak beast to be exact. The demon makes a habit of collecting and hording arcane objects. One in particular is of interest to me and you will acquire it. I will lead you to the nest; you will dispose of it and bring me the item.”

Rayne nodded warily and then grimaced at the thought. “I’ll need lots of weapons I take it?”

“Indeed. We must hurry, you haven’t got all night. I will meet you out on the coast road.” With that Morley left Rayne to equip himself and vanished, pleased that the final pieces were already falling into place.

*****

Faith sat back down on the couch, idly wondering about Red’s hysterics in wanting to locate Giles. After the hang-up she’d glanced around the desk and kitchen top but couldn’t see any sign of notes or post-its that could’ve been an address.

Still, if the witch wanted help that badly then she could go ask Buffy, Faith wasn’t really in the mood.

Lounging back on the couch, Faith let her food settle and her mind wander, moving back over the events of the past few days.

Faith prided herself in being able to read people pretty well; it was a skill that came with being lied to a whole bunch. But when it came to Buffy... Buffy had always been hard to suss out.

So many times Faith had made a bad call with her; thought things were going one way with the blonde slayer when in reality Faith wasn’t getting anywhere close. It had turned out that Buffy was hiding something or lying, batting her eyelashes at Faith, giving her signals and then turning around and getting cosy with Angel.

Faith sighed; she hated all those old bitter thoughts coming up, especially since some of the newer ones she was experiencing were kinda nice. B was treating her kindly, putting herself out there when Faith hadn’t any right to expect or even deserve...

She shook her head and got back to what she did see; signals. They were really mixed up but at the same time seemed way stronger this time around. And as much as Faith tried to ignore them – she knew it wouldn’t lead anywhere good – she could swear that Buffy was really feeling something, some of the time.

The way she would get all blush-y and avoid eye contact, or flush with embarrassment at some comment that Faith had thrown out there to get a reaction (more often than not they had the right effect.)

Then there were the ‘I loved you!’ and the ‘you’re pretty’ slip-ups – if that’s what they were? – that got Faith’s brain thinking lots of impossible thoughts.

Because, in reality, Faith had spent a lot of effort last year trying to hurt Buffy in all the ways she could think of: harming her friends, stealing her boyfriend with nasty magic, hostage taking and shooting poison arrows, lotta punching. Really whacked out shit.

And then there was the fact that the ‘I loved you’ came out when Buffy had been clobbering Faith around the face because Faith had been holding her mom hostage.

Then Buffy was happily snuggled up with another very guy-shaped boyfriend and being worried about him, not really making eyes at anyone else, compliments or otherwise. That was the sitch in reality.

What did Buffy mean by love anyway? Buddies? Slay-pal? Maybe Buffy loved everyone who she let into her life whom she was close with; she probably loved her CD collection and plush toy and favourite stake as well. Drawing hearts on her notebooks and other girly stuff. So there’s that.

It wasn’t like Faith bought into the whole ‘love’ thing all that much anyway. Some people felt it, experienced it and believed in it, and some people just didn’t. They went through life not knowing what all that crap was about; free to not obsess over other people’s feelings and crazy family drama. It could be freeing. Faith had always been in the latter camp, believing that it was better to be a loner than simply unwanted. Make a choice out of it that way.

So there it was; the signals were mostly nothing. Buffy was probably mixed up in the head anyway with everything that was going on. And evenif they were something then Faith shouldn’t go acting because context; you hurt the girl; you don’t try it on with her as soon as she’s willing to give you a second shot.

And Faith thought that was too bad. Buffy always was (and still is) a stone fox and cute as a button to boot, a rare combo that got Faith’s attention. Add to that the whole ‘really sweet yet totally kick ass’ thing and Faith found that she wasn’t as focused on the hetero side of things as she usually was.

That shiny blonde hair, the beautiful, vibrant eyes, the pretty lips and wide smile... Hell, even Buffy’s angry, pouting frown-y face got Faith a little worked up. And then there was the body; pert and tight in all the right places, slender and shapely, powerful and delicate. Damn.

She closed her eyes and pictured Buffy, clad in one of Faith’s favourite slaying outfits – the clingy purple top and leather pants, hair shimmering in the moonlight and giving Faith one of those looks that she got right after a good slay; kinda out of breath and wound up, flushed and eager for more action.

Faith slowly moved her hands from her stomach down onto her thighs, tracing lines with her fingers down to the seam of her jeans. A smile played across her face; Giles was out of town, Buffy was gone for the evening and she’d been feeling frisky for a good few days now. Could be a good time to –

She stopped after a moment because she realized that she wasn’t feeling anything; none of that emerging heat or good down low tickle to go along with her Buffy fantasy. She had been in the mood before but now... big fizzle.

‘Great, so I can get all kinds of guilty but not get a teensy bit horny? Is this why Angel never gets worked up even when Buffy’s sucking his face? Too busy feeling sorry about all the evil crap he pulled. Shit.’

Faith fumed for a little while, sitting there and wondering what she hell to do to with herself if she couldn’t take the edge off right that minute.

So instead she got up and spent some time flicking through Giles’s record collection – soft old rock was better than no rock – and poked about a bit. His place was a bit less ‘old dude’ that she would’ve imaged. She even found an acoustic guitar so maybe the geezer had a hidden rock god in him somewhere. Or he was a folk singer. Faith shuddered.

She finally settled on pouring herself another generous glass of brandy, that would dull her urges some, and sat back down, drawing her boots up onto the table staring up at the ceiling.

That was the moment the super-friends burst in through the front door.

*****

Biff knelt on the rough ground, his buddies close by either side of him, looking on with glassy eyes. For the first time in his life he felt... drunk. Not hot and pumped with fresh blood or feeling sore-headed on too much sour mash but spiritually drunk, like those hallelujah-types in the revival tents he remembered back when he was a squirt.

Never before had he felt like he was part something bigger than himself, not even when he got sired – he couldn’t remember too much about that to be honest – or when he put together his own gang. This, right here, was some kind of sacred thing. He felt like he was being remade, and the guy in front of him was making the improvements.

Adam strode back and forth before them, his voice strong, resonating power and purpose. Biff had never heard anything like all his fancy speechifying, the way the words washed over him, sweeping him away and painting a glorious picture in the vampires mind; purpose.

He’d been speaking for a long time now, sometimes to him alone, sometimes taking one of the others to one side, but right now he was like a preacher on the stump, sermonizing to the congregation.

“I have been blessed. I have a gift no man has, no demon has ever had. I know why I am here. I was created to kill. To extinguish life wherever I find it and I have accepted that responsibility. You have lived in fear and desperation because you didn’t have that gift. But its time to face your fear.”

Adam stepped closer, his gaze seemed to see right into Biff’s centre, seeing all that he was and all he was capable of being; the biggest badass this town had ever seen.

“You are here to be my first. To let them know that I am coming. I am the end of all life, of all magic. I am the war between man and demon, the war that no one can win. You are a part of that now. You have to show me that you are ready.”

“We’re ready. Damn sure of that.” The others murmured their agreement, like they were all dreaming. Maybe they all had until now. But now it was time to wake up.

Adam looked to each of them in turn. “Then ask yourself; What is it? More than man, more than anything else. What is the thing you fear?”

Biff thought about it. Thought about the thing that he avoided above everything, not the slayer, not danger or pain, but something else. He looked at Adam and then it seemed like a light came on inside him; the memories of those revival tents and the shouting and wailing from within that he’d always shied away from.

He nodded in understanding; he knew where he wanted to go, where he could make himself whole and show that he was remade, without fear.

*****

“Are you sure about this?” Willow asked again, her face was contorted in concern and hesitation. She was in the process of escorting her to Mr. Giles’ house. The man lived in a very nice neighbourhood, but apparently had a not-so-nice tenant in his apartment. The way Willow had talked about Faith made Tara feel no small amount of trepidation about meeting her, but she had put that to one side. Buffy was in trouble and Willow was really worried about her.

“I mean, if you’re not sure, I understand. It’s really late and maybe we could try and do this without –”

“Yes.” Tara met Willow’s gaze and repeated softly, “Yes again, and I mean it. I want to help. If this is important, and I can, then I’ll help.”

“Okay, so... all you need to do is stand behind me – us, and look mysterious and powerful. I’ll say that, y’know, you’re an experienced witch, which is true, and Xander and I can do all the intense talky-stuff.”

“O-okay. I can do that. We’re meeting Xander there?” Tara was bizarrely nervous about that on top of all this other stuff. She really wasn’t at her best when meeting strangers for the first time, always worried about that bad first impression she always gave off.

Still, from what Willow had told her, and from the fact that the guy was friends with Willow since kindergarten, Tara believed that he must be nice.

“Uh-huh. He has to pick up a piece of equipment from his place. It’s... well, technically it’s an Initiative weapon – a blaster. But it’s broken,” she explained hurriedly. “Or malfunctioned or maybe never even worked. Buffy brought it back from... Well, that doesn’t matter. The point is it’s just for show, so Faith doesn’t get any ideas.”

“Like the spell we did, the ‘Baccus’ enchantment?” Tara asked, thinking to the treated coil of tallow in her bag. The one that Willow had insisted that she bring ‘just in case’.

“Absolutely. All we want to find out is where Giles is. He probably left a note or message that Faith doesn’t know about. Then we can call him and tell him about Ethan Rayne and he’ll come running.” Willow paused and then started again, “Ethan –”

“He was the one who turned Giles into a demon. You mentioned that. He, um, sounds really powerful.”

Willow wrinkled her nose. “Yeah. When he’s in town there’s always bad news a-brewin’. But don’t worry we’ve stopped him before.” She reached over and patted Tara’s hand shyly, “And now we’re here.”

Tara peeked down the steps into the courtyard. Even in the shadows of the evening she could clearly see a man standing by one of the apartments, peeping in through a window. He seemed like he was trying (and failing) to look inconspicuous, easily visible in the light spilling out from the room within.

Willow smiled. “There’s Xander, come on.” Tara carefully followed the redhead down the steps and found herself doing her usual thing; hanging back to smooth out her skirt and pluck ineffectually at her unflattering blouse, wondering (not for the first time) what this Xander would think of her. Willow spoke up. “Hey, you made it. Do you bring the thing?”

“The thing is brought.” Xander kept his voice low and conspiratorial as he patted a bulky, rifle-shaped object under his arm. After one last look indoors he stepped away from the door, “Have to say that she doesn’t seem to be doing anything y’know, fiendish, just sitting on the couch.” He glanced in Tara’s direction and then back at Willow, raising his eyebrows.

Willow stepped to one side and gestured towards her. “Xander this is Tara, from my Wicca group.”

“Okay.” Xander drew the word out slowly, “Uh, hey there. Does she...“

Willow’s hand gestures became more assured. “She knows everything mostly, and I trust her. And she’s a really powerful witch.”

Tara felt almost compelled to blurt out. “Not really.”

“No really, she can help. She’s already been helping. Plus Faith doesn’t know her and... I thought strength in numbers,” Willow said. She sounded the most confident Tara had heard her this evening.

Xander nodded and gave her a friendly smile. “Well hey, then that’s great. Awkward meeting aside, you’re very welcome.”

Tara smiled and nodded in return, looked at Willow for reassurance to see the other girl smiling her ‘I’m so pleased!’ grin. Tara smiled; of course Xander was nice.

Willow turned back to Xander who was eyeballing the door, his features pensive. “We should get in there,” he said, but didn’t make a move.

“Yeah, game faces on. We have a job to do. A job of bluffing, very good bluffing.”

Tara swallowed and then, after a moment’s hesitation. “A-are you going to tell Faith about Buffy? That she’s in danger?”

Willow and Xander exchanged a look. Willow shook her head a she thought it out. “I’m not sure. If Faith knows that Buffy’s out of commission...”

Xander seemed more certain. “Uh-huh, Buffy’s really the only one with a hope of kicking Faith’s can if she gets out of line.”

Tara flinched at the mention of violence, even euphemistically, and so simply nodded. No doubt they both knew best, having dealt with the woman before.

Willow looked like she was about to take the lead when Xander strode forward and quickly went through the door. Willow made her way in just behind, taking Tara’s hand as she did so.

Tara barely had time to take in the details of the apartment before Xander’s actions caught all her attention. She saw him slowly raised the... blaster thing and point it towards the couch at the far end of the room. Tara saw a dark haired girl raise herself up and turn her head and stare at them, her intense gaze taking them all in and studying them.

Xander shot a bright smile. “Hey there Faith, don’t bother getting up.” He made a show of looking the place over. “Whatcha doing?” he asked the girl.

Tara saw the girl turn side on and brace herself on the couch. She also found herself reddening slightly as she realised that this Faith was very beautiful in that dark, sultry, dangerous sort of way. She also had a certain presence about her, an energy that Tara had never seen before.

At the moment the girl’s face held curious expression, like she was trying to hold in a smile. “Oh, y’know Xander, the usual evil stuff. Got my feet up on the table, and I’m not using a coaster.” She wiggled her eyebrows for emphasis as she raised a glass of amber liquid.

“Is that... that’s Giles alcohol stash?” Xander sounded aggrieved.

Faith’s eyes widened in alarm. “Gosh, that’s theft right? I guess that’s the triple then. So, are ya gonna shoot me now? Mess up Giles’ retro bachelor chic with your blaster there?” She battered her eyelids at him.

Despite what she’d been told about her and the tension of this situation Tara found herself having to suppress a smile at the last comment.

“Just stay where you are.” Willow spoke up confidently, and then to Xander “I’ll look around for anything left by Giles.”

She cast a smile at Tara which the blonde girl immediately returned. Then she remembered she was trying to look formidable and experienced and so she stopped. She looked back over at Faith.

The dark haired girl was frowning at all of them now and then after a moment she stood up from the couch to face them full on. “What’s goin’ on?”

Xander shook the blaster in the girl’s direction. “Stay down.” He warned.

“Nope. So I guess you should shoot me, even though all I’m doin’ is just standing about here.” She shrugged and cast a glance at Willow, “Something’s up. Where’s B?”

Willow turned away from the kitchen area and hesitated. “What makes you think this has anything to do with Buffy?”

“Wild guess; you all show up, pumped up and armed, acting twitchy. Don’t see B anywhere and she was just fine when she left me a while ago. So what happened?”

Willow swallowed nervously. “Before you go getting any ideas,” She gestured towards Tara, “This is Tara and she’s a really power –”

Faith’s expression hardened quickly as she cut in. “So something is wrong.”

Xander glanced at Willow and then reluctantly lowered the gun slightly. “Ethan Rayne took her, using magic. We’re trying to figure out where Giles went so he can help.” He paused and then added feelingly, “We need help.”

Willow shook her head. “Xander –”

Xander threw his arms up. “Ah, to hell with it. This thing doesn’t even work.” He shook the blaster limply. “I might as well be pointing a toaster at you. Truth is: Buffy’s been taken by the bad guys. If you really say that you’ve changed then you might be wanting to help get her back.”

Tara tensed and she saw Willow do the same, no more bluffing. She glanced at the dark-haired girl expectantly as she slowly reached into her bag and felt for the tallow with her fingers.

She hoped, almost willed, that Faith wouldn’t anything that would force Tara to use it. Tara thought that Xander’s show of trust was a good thing, but it was also a risk.

Faith looked at the floor for a moment before slowly making her way around the couch. She finally met their eyes, leaning back on the edge of the furniture as she gave them a curt nod. “Alright. So what’s with this creep who took B?”

“Ethan Rayne,” Willow repeated as she stepped forward and reached into her pocket. “We were at Buffy’s house when Rayne came in and took her using some device thing.” Willow shook her head. “And then he just left. It doesn’t make any sense.” She pulled out a lump of strange looking metal and held it up. “Our one and only clue.”

Faith stared at Willow’s hand: in an instant Tara saw that the girl recognised the remnants, and the genuine surprise and then guilt that crossed the girl’s face in a flash before it disappeared.

Faith took the mechanism from Willow’s hands. Willow blinked in surprise but allowed her to have it. She exchanged a confused and wary look with Xander.

Faith handled the device for a moment, seeming to weigh up what to say. “I... I know what happened. Some of it anyways.”

“What? How?” Willow asked. Tara saw her look at Xander, who mirrored her perplexed expression.

“This,” she held up the object, “I know this. Mayor left it for me as a post-coma present. One of his contacts just showed up and handed it to me, plus a last message from y’know, the Mayor, giving instructions on how to use it.”

Xander took that in as his eyes went cold in realization. “On Buffy,” he growled. “I don’t care; now I’m gonna brain you with a toaster.”

Faith seemed to ignore him as she thought back. “Last time I had it was at the meetin’ at Angel’s old place. Lost it after that.”

Xander snarled. “I knew it! You haven’t changed. Buffy gave you another chance and you were gonna screw her over anyway before Riley tazered your ass into next week.”

Faith grimaced in frustration. “I wasn’t gonna use it. I dunno... I took it as insurance, like a backup. Hear her out and then –“

“Betray her again,” Xander finished lightly but with an undercurrent of anger. “Well good, now that that’s straightened out and we all know what a piece of work you are –”

Faith threw the device onto the floor in anger and jabbed a finger in Xander’s direction. “Screw you, you little creep. B and I were coming to an understanding until the Wild Bunch you sent came bustin’ in. Don’t go acting like handin’ me over to that piece of work Walsh and her creepy experiments was a good thing.”

“Hey, it’s all relative. Bad guys taking out bad guys sounds like some sort of instant karma to me. Maybe they would’ve stuck a chip in your head and neutered you like they did with Spike.” Xander threw his arms out theatrically, “Hell, why don’t we get our cash together and go and hire Spike to help us. He’s gotta more trustworthy.”

Faith took a step back. “Spike?” She sounded confused.

Willow shook her head. She seemed to be staring at the floor where Faith had thrown down the device; her voice seemed oddly distant, like she was distracted. “Rayne’s a person, Xander. Spike wouldn’t be able to do anything against him.”

Xander gave a frustrated grunt. “Right.” Then he snapped his fingers, “But Rayne doesn’t know that. He’s pretty much a quivering pile of –”

Tara stepped forward. “Uh, it’s F-Faith right?”

Faith gave her a wary look. “Yeah, who the hell are you?”

Willow raised her head sharply. “Don’t talk to her like that.”

Tara nervously pushed her hair behind her ear and looked at Faith. “What does it do, t-the device? If we know what it did we could maybe, um, r-reverse it.”

Faith scowled at Tara, but Tara guessed that it was more about of what she was thinking. “It’s a... body-switching device,” she muttered.

Xander turned away. “I’m gonna throw up.” Then he almost immediately turned back, “And that doesn’t even make sense, Rayne was super-strong not... he didn’t jump into Buffy’s body. Thank god.”

Faith glowered at Xander. “Yeah well, lotsa puzzling things I guess. See, what I don’t understand is why William the Bloody is runnin’ around town and you’re going on about turning to him for help.”

“The Initiative put a chip in his head so he can’t hurt humans,” Willow replied, her tone sounding somewhat distant. Tara tried to catch Willow’s eye but her mind was clearly elsewhere.

Faith nodded her head. “Uh-huh. Well, that’d probably make him a lot easier to stake then right? Even you could’ve managed that one Xand, try pulling your weight on Buffy’s crew?”

Xander scoffed. “He was informant guy; it’s why we kept him around. Which I was not in favour of, for the record.”

Faith narrowed her eyes in thought. “But now you all know about the government boys and their freaky horror of a secret, ‘cause it’s out loose somewhere.” She paused for a second, “And this chip thing, how long does it last?”

Now it was Xander’s turn to frown. “I’m not following?”

Faith gave a sly smile. “I mean, you guys all know how it works right? This mind-probe or whatever? I mean, since you’re willing to risk keeping some infamous killer around just ‘cause. I’m sure that the both of you, real suspicious types that you are, would know everything about some head scrambling tech that’s keepin’ evil at bay.”

“Well...” Xander hesitated and looked to Willow for support, but Willow unexpectedly knelt down on the floor.

Faith shook her head in contempt. “You’re a goddamn hypocrite, the both of you are. Stressing B out with your bitching and whining when you’re totally chill with some demon being held in check by tech you know nothin’ about. How many times has Spike tried to off you all one way or another?”

Xander shook his head. “That’s not the point, Spike’s a joke now –”

Faith cut in. “Right, only ‘cause of something they jammed in his head, otherwise without a slayer you’d be so much meat. See me, on the other hand,” Faith paused a moment, “no chip and I ain’t laid a finger on you yet. So how about you shut the hell up, back the hell off, and try doing something useful.”

Xander visibly bristled and was about to answer back.

“Xander don’t.” Willow said and then looked up at him, “This is my fault too.” She picked up something off the ground that Tara couldn’t see and clenched her fist. The next time she spoke Willow’s voice quivered with emotion.

“It’s the bloodstone Morley took from me; it was inside the Mayor’s device, so Rayne must’ve changed it somehow, adapted it to do what... one of them wanted.”

“Oh, Willow.” Tara crouched and gently put a hand on Willow’s back in a show of comfort. Now she understood why Buffy got so angry with Willow. Resorting to, or even considering dark magic, was a bad path to start down.

“I’m sorry.” Willow mumbled.

“Rayne and Morley are working together?” Xander seemed to deflate at the news, “That’s a new bit of bad.”

Faith straightened up, her body was now tense, and her aura was becoming darker and more torrid. “So what’s the upshot of all this.”

“Bloodstones are powerful channelling crystals.” Willow sniffed, “Very good at draining life essence and health from someone. That’s what Rayne did to Buffy, took her power.”

“And then punted me into the end zone.” Xander finished.

Faith shook her head as she tried to follow. “So Rayne’s has Buffy’s... slayer-ness? Is that it?”

Willow nodded. “I don’t know what makes Buffy... Buffy but an energy drain? That would explain it.”

“We can fix this,” Tara offered softly. She wanted desperately to give Willow some sort of proper comfort but it felt awkward in front of an audience.

Willow nodded like she’d heard Tara and then stood up. She looked determinedly at Faith. “This, right here, this is on both of us; both of us making the mistake of not trusting Buffy when we should’ve. And I don’t want Buffy paying for that any more than she already has. Tara’s right, we can fix this but,” she paused a moment, “we need a slayer. We need you to find Buffy, find Rayne, and stop whatever he’s planning while we find a way to reverse it.”

Faith was obviously in a similar frame of mind and nodded. “Alright. I’ll track Rayne down. Chaos guy running on B’s juice ain’t gonna to be low profile for long. You work your stuff from wherever and we’ll meet back here in the morning.”

With that, Faith moved past the two of them and over to an old-fashioned chest against one wall. She opened it and took out a few objects; weapons. Tara blanched at the stakes and knives that Faith handled so expertly.

Xander moved to stand next to her. “I’m coming with you.”

Faith straightened up as she stuffed a stake in her belt, a large knife held in her other hand. “Like Hell, I’ve got no use for you.”

Xander held her gaze. “This isn’t about you, it’s about Buffy and I’m helping her with or without you. Also, I still don’t trust you.”

Faith gritted her teeth and then blew out a frustrated breath. “Grab a weapon and stay out of my way. And I ain’t slowing down for you so try and keep up.”

Moving swiftly, Faith and Xander headed out the front door, intent on their mission. Willow watched them go and then shook her head, distraught. “This is... my entire fault. I started all this.”

Tara squeezed her hand. “Even if that’s true then we still have time to fix it, the two of us. Stronger together, right?”

Willow gave Tara a brave smile and then nodded in agreement. “Together.”

*****

Buffy tested her bonds for what felt like the hundredth time, her wrists chaffing painfully against the rope. She gritted her teeth and kept on tugging, watching the thick cord that bound her to the steering wheel twist and stretch taut.

The van was empty at the moment. The driver’s side window was wound down and Buffy could smell salt air nearby. Wherever Rayne had driven them to – after his mystery meeting with Morley and another meet-up behind some sort of warehouse – was near the beach. He had been gone for about an hour so far, tethering Buffy’s hands to the front wheel and wagging his finger at her. She’d badly wanted to snap it off and shove it up his priggish English nose.

She was so over her self-pity funk. She wasn’t going to sit here and play hostage anymore. She would escape, drive the van back to town, and then she’d get her ex-girlfriend from another timeline who was also her former enemy to kick Ethan all over the place before taking back her powers somehow. It was a simple plan that hinged on the first step of being able to escape this rope.

The untying was turning out to be a stumbling block, although Buffy wasn’t entirely sure she could drive the van either. But all that was immaterial as long as she was trussed up like this, and since Rayne had taken a course in advanced knot-tying for dastardly evil-doers, it looked like she’d have to come up with something else.

Her teeth hurt from tugging on the ropes and her wrists felt only a few moments away from starting to bleed. Maybe she could dislocate a thumb, like they did in the movies to get out of handcuffs?

At that thought the back doors to the van opened and Rayne, cursing loudly, threw something heavy and metal into the back.

“Bloody, bastard demon refused to die! Set it on fire, whacked at it and it didn’t even have the grace to expire quickly.” Then he hacked something out of his throat and spat on the ground. “Damned wizards and their damned magical trinkets.”

Buffy allowed a small smile at Rayne’s complaining; having slayer-powers and using slayer powers were two very different things. But her smile faded as the back doors slammed and, another moment after, Rayne got into the front seat.

“No cheek from you,” he said, pointing a warning finger at her as he got behind the wheel. She could see that he was covered in various colours of slime but didn’t seem to have any injuries beyond mild bruising. Buffy would’ve liked to see some claw marks at the very least. Rayne quickly unfastened Buffy’s hands from the wheel and looked her in the eye. “Now listen darling, I’ve had a very dire evening so far so it would be very wise for you to shut up, get in the back, and not do anything to annoy me. Also take note that you talking would qualify as annoying.”

With that he effortlessly tossed her towards the back of the van. Buffy scrambled to stay upright and fell on her knees.

Propped upright against one side of the van was a strange looking object; a circular polished metal disc with an ornate metal lattice rim, made up of gold and some off-green substance. Buffy could also see some sort of writing etched into a pattern that ran across its surface. In the shadows, she couldn’t make it out, but it almost seemed like it would shift and move when her eye wasn’t directly focused on it.

Rayne started the van, Buffy was concentrating so hard on whatever this thing – shield? – was that she was caught unaware and lurched forward. She rolled back onto the floor and her head caught the edge of something hard.

She craned her neck and her eyes froze. The metal clang that Rayne had made in the back had been caused by an axe. She saw it: the head was half-broken off by some impact, and the whole thing was thickly coated with yellow slime. But she saw a glint of metal sharpness where the blade had sheared off against something.

Buffy glanced towards the front of the van and saw that Rayne was intent on the road ahead, looking for the sign back to Sunnydale.

She didn’t sit up or roll, didn’t move her head away from the front, but instead slowly brought her hands up above her head and found the haft of the axe. She cringed at the cold feel of the icor on her fingers but steadily kept feeling along until she found the jagged metal.

Without taking her eyes off Rayne she got to work.

*****

Riley tested his footing on the cold hospital floor as he slowly got out of bed. He could feel the muscles in his torso twitch and tremble slightly in response, but he felt little pain. The area around his wound still felt tight and sore, but otherwise he felt steady. The detox shakes from the drugs had left him completely, meaning that he was more clear-headed than he been in days.

In short, he felt better and he felt like leaving. He kept on playing feverish memories over in his mind. The way he’d talked to Buffy, the way he’d acted and threatened her, shooting his gun at the other slayer; every time he winced at the thoughts of how close he’d come to doing some permanent harm, or even hurting Buffy.

It was those thoughts as much as anything that pushed him to overcome the last of his weakness and discomfort. He needed to see Buffy, to apologise and explain.

He made his way to the doorway. A guard stationed there suddenly turned, sensing his movement, and swiftly came to attention, half-blocking the doorway.

Riley started laboriously buttoning up his shirt. He nodded easily to the guard. “Stand down soldier.”

The guard didn’t relax any or attempt to move out of his way, just stayed there. Riley suddenly wondered what his orders were, to protect the infirmary, or guard the prisoner.

Riley put a forceful edge into his voice. “Stand down before I put you down.”

Forrest appeared from the side and addressed the guard. “You heard the man. At ease.” The guard nodded and stepped back.

Riley walked past them and down the corridor, still attempting to dress himself. His fingers felt a little uncoordinated but his strength was slowly coming back. He concentrated on short, deliberate steps and ignoring the pangs of pain that had started running up his side. He had to see Buffy – the pain could wait.

“The shish-kabob that walks like a man,” Forrest called from behind angrily. “Looks like you’re doing better. Walking around and threatening people and such.”

Riley focused on putting one foot in front of the other. “Man was in my way. I got places to be.”

“Man was doing his job, like the rest of us.” Forrest caught up with Riley and looked at him pointedly. “And where exactly were you thinkin’ of taking off to?”

Riley glanced at Forrest, not really in the mood to get into things with his friend but unwilling to hide his intentions either. “You know where I’m going,” he stated evenly.

Forrest made a disgusted sound with his throat. “Don’t even tell me you’re headed for that girlfriend of yours.” He turned and stepped in Riley’s way, looking him up and down and gesturing at the bandages half-concealed by his shirt. “Look at you, man. One good conjugal visit and you’ll be back in intensive care to stay.”

Riley just looked at him steadily. “You wouldn’t understand.”

Forrest folded his arms in front of him. “How about you explain it to me then?”

Graham walked up next to the both of them, ever the peacemaker. “We all friends here, fellas?”

Forrest’s eyes never left Riley. “Yeah absolutely. Riley here’s just about to explain why he’s leaving us so very quickly.”

Riley felt himself bristle. He was leaving because they had kicked Buffy out, maybe even stopped her from seeing him all together. “I don’t explain, because I don’t have to. I’m the one in charge.”

Forrest’s voice came out cold and flat; a challenge that matched his expression. “Things change.”

Riley stared him down. “Do they?”

Forrest’s jaw unclenched as he snapped, “Hey, in case you failed to notice, we are in a world of hurt around here, and now is the time for us to band together, not going flying off our separate ways.”

Graham rubbed his chin uneasily. “Forrest has a point, Rye.”

Forrest continued on heatedly. “We have a problem, we deal with that problem, and you know the most important thing about the equation right now is that we keep said problem within the family.”

Riley looked between the both of them, his voice guarded. “Family? Is that what we are?”

Graham sighed. “C’mon man, you know we’re in bad shape here. First with Walsh, now Angleman and this –”

Riley looked at him sharply. “You don’t have to remind me about what’s been going on around here. I saw it all up-close.” He looked from Graham to Forrest, his gaze steady and even. “Now step aside.”

Forrest shook his head in exasperation and then let him pass.

Riley finished buttoning his shirt as he took a deep breath, preparing himself for discomfort as he lengthened his stride, eager to get out of there and find Buffy.

...to be continued...

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