Title: Old Enemies, New Friends
Author: Erlynmyre
E-mail: Erlynmyre@webzone.net
Distribution: Take it. Just tell me where you put it, so I can come look.
Rating : Hard R, F/B angst, romance eventually
Disclaimer: Yeah, yeah, they all belong to Joss, I just snuck in to play with them while nobody was looking
Spoilers: Through season five.
Summary : Well, this is the first full-length story in my "Slayers, Inc. Saga," which looks to be a long running series, if I get any kind of positive feedback. (Hint, Hint) It takes place 5+ years from Season 5, post college. There are two prequel shorts for this, "Finding the Light" and "Slayers Inc. � The Beginning" both of which are available on my website, http://www.webzone.net/erlynmyre
Warning: There is (or, will be) some f/f romance in this, as well as (eventually) some graphically depicted sex. However, this is not a fluff piece, it is intended to be 'episodic' in nature. This is episode one.
Feedback: Hell, yes. I am a feedback whore.

| CH. 1-8 | CH. 9-16 | CH. 17 -End |

Chapter 17

Officer Greg Parks, one of the most junior members of the Sunnydale PD, was bored. He had been a patrolman for just over six months, and he had yet to make one arrest. Currently, he was vigilantly protecting the residents of Sunnydale from the dangers of drowsy truckers and intoxicated college students. And he hadn't seen any of them tonight, either.

He sighed, took another sip of his coffee, and wished, not for the first time, that he had been able to talk his wife into moving to Los Angeles. Or San Francisco. Or anywhere with more crime than Boringdale, California.

He had read all the statistics, and from what he had heard this town had been a hotbed of gang activity a few years ago. He couldn't believe it. He had lived here for a year, and been a patrolman for half that time, and he had yet to see a single gang-banger. He knew there was an unusually high death rate in the town, but since he had yet to be called to any of the crime scenes, he had no idea what was behind it. He suspected they were murder-suicides caused by boredom.

He took another drink of his coffee, and looked out the window of his patrol car. He was stationed about 10 miles outside of Sunnydale proper, in the theory that he would be able to detain any drunks or speeders before they reached the much more populous metro areas of downtown Sunnydale. It was a fine theory, except for the fact that there was almost no traffic.

Which is why he jumped in shock, spilling his coffee, when the black Ferrari roared past him a few minutes later. He immediately pulled out onto the road in pursuit, hitting his lights and siren and turning on his radar gun. He grinned in anticipation when it gave him a reading of 153 MPH. He might actually get to make an arrest for reckless driving. Not to mention the pleasure of pulling over what he could now make out as a black Ferrari F355. One of his dream cars from his high-school days. The driver had already hit the brakes and looked to be pulling over.

He was so excited by the break in routine that he forgot to call his dispatcher.

* * * * * * * * *

Marcus cursed as he saw the lights on the police car come on ahead of him. He looked at the vampire in his passenger seat for direction.

"Don't worry," Julius said. He casually flicked his cigarette out the window. "Turn off the headlights. Natasha will handle this. Just ease on up behind them."

* * * * * * * * *

Parks was grinning to himself as he brought his cruiser to a stop behind the black Ferrari. He took a moment to appreciate the sleek elegance of the vehicle in front of him. It was a gleaming black incarnation of speed and grace, and he had never expected to see one in Sunnydale. The town had its share of rich folks, but they were more of the Lexus and Jaguar set. Maybe this was someone's son, coming home from college for the weekend.

He stepped out of his car, grabbing his citation pad, and walked up to the driver's door. His first surprise, when he approached the convertible, was the long, dark brown hair he could see blowing in the gentle ocean breeze. The second was the youth and beauty of the face that looked up at him with a mischievous grin when he reached the driver's side door.

"Good evening, Officer," said the vision of loveliness behind the wheel of the Ferrari. "Was I going too fast?"

Parks recovered from his surprise, but couldn't keep his eyes from roving over what he could see of the slim beauty before him. Her dark hair was gathered into a long ponytail secured by two ebony rods, which the wind had whipping out behind her. She was long legged and slender, and she was clad in a form-hugging black bodysuit of some materiel he didn't recognize. He realized that she was looking at him expectantly and snapped back into focus.

"Yes, indeed, young lady, I believe that you and I both know you were going over 150 miles an hour. Have you been drinking this evening?"

Her eyes flickered to the passenger seat before coming back to him, and she answered coyly, "Well, I may have had a glass�"

Parks looked in the passenger seat and noticed an unlabeled wine bottle, and another, empty, in the floor board. He wondered suddenly if she was the daughter of some wealthy vineyard owner. That would explain a lot.

"Do you have any identification on you, young lady?"

"I'm afraid I must have left it at home."

"Uh-huh. Step out of the car please, ma'am." He took several steps back from the door, and admired the long, trim leg, encased in what looked like a cross between spandex and suede, as it emerged from the vehicle. The four-inch stiletto heels on her boots still left her a good four inches below his own 6' 2". His eyes tracked slowly up from her ankles, unable to resist admiring every curve, until he reached her face and realized she was grinning at him impishly again.

See that she had his attention, she slowly raised her hands and interlaced her fingers behind her head, an action that spread open the tight waist-length black leather jacket she wore, giving him a good view of her well rounded, if small, bosom, encased in the same strange black material as everything else she wore.

"Are you going to frisk me, Officer?" she said coyly.

"Uh, no ma'am." he said. He couldn't imagine her hiding a weapon in that form hugging outfit. He could clearly see her nipples through the material of her top, and he was cursing himself inwardly for letting himself get distracted. He was a married man, dammit!

"That's too bad," she said sadly. In the space of a heartbeat, she pulled one of the small ebony spikes, about the length of a chopstick, from its place in her hair, and plunged it through the right eye of Officer Greg Parks. It penetrated his brain instantly, so he was unaware when she grabbed both sides of his head and pulled his body close, her lips fastening greedily onto the wound and sucking noisily at the fluids gushing from his head.

* * * * * * * * *

Natasha looked up as Julius climbed out of the van, with Marcus following. He grimaced when she spit out a punctured eyeball, and then began sensuously licking her lips clean.

"What do you want us to do with�that, ma'am?" Julius asked respectfully, gesturing at the body.

"Take it in the van and strip it, and be sure not to get any blood on the uniform if you can avoid it. It will be useful."

Julius nodded and looked at Marcus, who licked his lips, obviously having trouble controlling himself with the scent of fresh blood hanging in the air. Julius cuffed him upside the head, and he gave a start, and then bent to follow orders.

Julius waited until Marcus had carried the body back to the van, and then turned to Natasha, who was busy re-applying her lipstick. Julius idly wondered if it was difficult to do that without a mirror, and then asked, "What about the cruiser, ma'am?"

Natasha looked at him, and said, "What about it?"

"Shouldn't we get rid of it?"

Natasha gave him a withering look. "What good is a police uniform without a police car? Once you have him stripped, put on the uniform, get in the car, and follow me. Do you have any more stupid questions?"

Julius looked at the ground in abject terror. "No, ma'am."

* * * * * * * * *

Leo Williams checked his watch, and keyed his mike. "All units, check in." He was currently sitting in the back of a black Suburban parked on the street in front of Rupert Giles' apartment building. He didn't mind pulling security duty for a Board member, but he wished, not for the first time, that Mr. Giles would stay in the secure apartments at the office, like everybody else. He listened to the men in his unit check-in by the numbers, and considered what he was doing here.

Williams had been with 'the company,' as he liked to think of it, for 3 years. That made him an old-timer, by any standards but the Board's. Before that, he had been a Secret Service agent. He had been good at his job, and well-decorated, but his last detail had been wiped out by an angry vampire that had been double-crossed on some shady deal by the Congressman he was protecting.

He had been the only survivor, and no one had believed the story he told. His superiors had tried to ignore it, passing it off as delusions caused by his injuries, but he had been adamant. He had seen the fangs. He had shot the bastard a half-dozen times, and seen the hits. This was no domestic terrorist on PCP. He knew what a vampire was, even if he had thought them fictional before that night.

His insistence had bought him a psych discharge, and a visit by an earnest young man named Riley Finn. Finn had been a Special Forces type, although he had never learned what branch, who knew about vampires. He had told Williams that he believed him, and that there was an organization that fought vampires. And other things. That had been all Williams needed to know.

He had lost friends on that detail, and he had been a career agent. He had no family to speak of, other than some distant cousins he had never met, so he had jumped at the chance for a new career, and some payback.

Three years later, he had had his fill of payback. Now he was committed to the 'cause.' He wasn't exactly sure when it had happened, but he thought it was shortly after he had finished his advanced training at the hands of Buffy Summers, just before he became a team leader. Now he was in for life. Not that that was likely to be a long time, since he was the only surviving member of his training class. He had been in one of the first ones, back in the early days, when they were still pretty local. He had been amazed at how fast the company had grown, and was proud to be a part of it. He mourned the loss of his comrades, but he believed that what they were doing was worth the risks.

Usually.

This time, however, they were taking a risk that he considered unnecessary, and he was seriously considering pointing that fact out to Mr. Giles in the morning. Giles was pretty good about listening to the advice of the field agents, but you never knew. It wouldn't do to irritate a Board member, even if they all did have an incredible history of being understanding bosses.

* * * * * * * * *

Natasha stepped out of the back of the van, and looked around at the warehouse they were using as a staging area. It was located over an access point to the utility tunnels that ran under Sunnydale, and was convenient to the lair the first recon team had made deep below. She didn't really care about that, since she intended to be back in LA by morning, but it was always good to consider contingencies. She checked both of the silenced Walther P99 pistols in her shoulder rig, making sure that they drew easily and that the silencers didn't snag.

"Is everything ready?" she asked Julius when he approached. She examined him thoroughly. "It fits well enough."

Julius looked down at the dead policeman's uniform he was wearing, and grimaced before he replied. "It fits fine. Everything is prepared."

"You understand you are not to move before I tell you? It would not do for you to make an appearance before I take out the sentries."

"I understand, ma'am. I will not approach the vehicle until you order it," he replied.

"Good. Load them up."

* * * * * * * * *

The three men on roving patrol, circling the block that Giles' apartment building was located on, were experienced field agents. Dressed in nondescript random jogging outfits, they looked like three young men taking an evening stroll together. They circled the block, checking on the three teams posted on the perimeter. They were alert, because they had patrolled in Sunnydale at night before, and knew that the chances of a vamp encounter were good, even if it wasn't an actual attack on the man they were protecting.

They were alert, but they were only human. Natasha leapt from her perch at the top of a telephone pole and landed silently behind them. Two of them died before they were even aware they were under attack, killed instantly by the silenced 9mm pistols in Natasha's hands. The third died a split second later, as he was turning to see what had happened to his companions. All three died without making a sound.

A minute later, and she was eliminating the three-man team posted at the south end of Giles's block. After that, it took her two minutes to creep up on the team located behind Giles' apartment, and then it was only another ninety seconds to kill the last three-man team, located at the north end of the street. She ran quickly back behind the building, and quietly climbed up the outside wall to the roof. To prevent a bullet accidentally penetrating the roof and alerting her target, she killed the sentry posted there with a garrote. The thin wire sliced most of the way through his neck to his spinal column. The rich smell of the blood pouring from his severed arteries was tempting, but she had work to do.

She picked up the night-vision binoculars the sentry had been using and examined the area, confirming that there weren't any sentries she had missed. She then looked at the black Suburban parked in front of the building. Seeing no signs of alarm, she crept quietly to the edge of the roof, over the entrance to her target's apartment. Keying the radio at her belt, she whispered quietly, "I'm in position. Go now," into the mike on her collar.

She watched their appropriated police cruiser turn the corner and pull up behind the black Suburban.

* * * * * * * * *

"Cops are behind us, Leo," stated Joe Evans, who was sitting in the driver's seat of the black Suburban. He had worked for Williams for just over a year, and was pretty solid, in Williams' estimation.

"Anyone we know?" he asked from the bench seat he was laying on, behind Evans.

"No, must be one of the rookies," Evans answered.

"Sir, I've got what looks like encrypted radio traffic on the scanners," the electronics tech said from the back of the Suburban.

"Probably from the cruiser behind us," Williams reassured him.

* * * * * * * * *

Julius drew the flashlight from his belt as he got out of the stolen cruiser, and held it at his shoulder with his left hand like he remembered seeing on one of those police dramas on television as he approached the driver's window of the black Suburban. The driver rolled down the window respectfully, and Julius smiled at him before smoothly drawing the silenced Beretta 9mm from behind his back and shooting him in the forehead.

* * * * * * * * *

Williams was just sitting up when he was smacked in the face by blood and bone and brain fragments exploding out of the back of Joe Evan's head. He was just wiping his eyes when he heard the unforgettable sound of a pin being pulled from a grenade. His ears caught the sound of running feet, but was already climbing over the seat to grab the grenade out of the lap of Evan's corpse. He threw it back out the driver's window a split second before it exploded.

The explosion occurred inches below the window frame of the driver-side door, and sent shards of metal slicing through the interior of the vehicle as it flipped over onto the passenger side.

* * * * * * * * *

Natasha dropped silently to the ground in front of the door to the apartment. Her henchmen were already running into position from where they had hidden behind the building, after she had taken out the sentries. Her ears detected footsteps from inside the apartment, probably the ex-Watcher coming to investigate the source of the explosion.

She took one step forward and sent a snap-kick flashing towards the front door of the apartment. It was a heavy oak door, good and solid, but it was never built to withstand the likes of her. Her foot blasted the door out of the frame and sent it crashing into the apartment, narrowly missing Giles, who was coming to see what all the noise out front was. He stopped in shock, looking first at the door and then back at the slender young girl who had kicked it off its hinges. His eyes narrowed as he realized what she must be, and he reached for the cellphone in his pocket.

She didn't give him time to reach it. Pulling a taser from her belt, she shot him in the chest, and he dropped, twitching, to the floor.

"Well, that was fun," she said with a bright smile, dusting off her hands.

"How do we get him out?" asked Marcus, who was one of the vampires who had come running from behind the building to assist her.

"Did you bring my crossbow?" she asked.

"Of course. It's in the bag."

"Good." Taking the bag he indicated from the vampire who was carrying it, she opened it, and pulled out a large crossbow with an evil-looking barbed point on the bolt. Marcus noted the cable reel attached to the underside of the frame, and suddenly he understood. He smiled as she attached the end of the cable to an eye-hook underneath the point of the bolt, and she winked at him before taking aim and firing the bolt at the unconscious man laying on the floor a few feet away from them. The bolt struck his calf with a meaty THUNK! and she laughed delightedly before handing the crossbow to Marcus, who held it while she slowly reeled in the wire and pulled Giles' unconscious body across the floor of his apartment, and out the door to lie at their feet.

"That takes care of that. Bandage up his leg, and no tasting!" she told him, wagging a finger admonishingly. "We need him alive. For now."

* * * * * * * * *

Giles slowly crawled towards consciousness. The first thing he was aware of was voices. He couldn't quite comprehend what they were saying, but he knew they were voices, and he suspected they were talking about him. The second thing he was aware of was pain. Not the bright shooting pain of a hangover, more like the dull, throbbing ache of an impacted tooth. The third thing he was aware of was the realization of how muzzy his thinking was. He had been drugged. A sedative, he suspected.

"I don't understand why we don't simply turn him. It might take longer, but once he is changed he will tell us everything we want to know," said a deep male voice.

"Because, you fool, he was a very dedicated Watcher. And Watchers are trained to resist the impulse to drink. Many of them cannot be turned, just like Slayers. They must submit. He will not, and then he would be dead. This way is better. And more fun." It was a young woman's voice, he thought, and it sounded like she was pacing as she spoke.

"He's awake," he heard the soft, feminine voice say from just behind him. "I can hear his heart rate increasing." Giles could hear a faint accent, but it was too vague to identify.

"Should we sedate him again?" A male voice, this time. A vampire. He could tell by the lisp caused by the fangs.

"No, I think we're just about ready. Is the video-link set up?" The woman again. Giles thought maybe the accent was French, but he wasn't sure.

"Yeah. We have a live feed going out now."

"Good. Hit the lights."

Blinding light flooded the area, and Giles shut his eyes in pain. After a few moments, he cautiously squinted against the glare, and gradually he was able to make out his surroundings.

He was securely bound to an uncomfortable metal chair in the middle of an empty warehouse. He could see several vehicles parked inside with him, over by what he assumed was the entrance. Floodlights stood on poles around him, lighting up the entire area. He could hear people moving behind him, but all he could see in front of him was a folding table that had been set up with some kind of computer equipment and a video camera, pointing at him. That must be what they meant by 'live feed.'

He heard footsteps, and then the beautiful young woman he vaguely remembered kicking in his door walked into view from behind him. She circled him slowly, coming to a stop just in front of him, and cocked her left hand on her hip and cradled her chin with her right. It was an artfully struck pose, and Giles wondered blearily if she had ever been an actress, before he shook himself back to alertness.

"How are you feeling, Mr. Giles?" she asked, with obviously false concern in her voice.

"I could do with a spot of tea, actually," he replied gamely. Never let them see you sweat, as Buffy would say. He tried to ignore the beads of sweat rolling down his forehead.

"I'm sorry, but I seem to have misplaced my teapot. Perhaps we can send out for some later," she said with a smile. Giles was pretty sure it was a French accent, now. It was very faint, but he had been trained to pay attention to detail, and a small corner of his mind began digging for anything he knew about powerful, female, French vampires. There was something poking at his memory, but he couldn't quite seem to pull it out�

His reverie was ended by a sharp slap. "Now, now, stay with me. It's not polite to wander off in the middle of a conversation like that."

"I'm sorry, but do I know you?" Giles asked. Never hurts to try the upfront approach.

"You can call me Natasha." Giles eyes widened in alarm as several memories suddenly leapt into his forebrain, and Natasha nodded at the sudden look of fear in his eyes. "I see you recognize the name."

"You were Natasha Lyonne?"

"I was. I am. I always will be." She clapped her hands, and then gestured to someone behind Giles. "Now, back to business. I have some questions, and you have the answers." Another vampire came walking into view from behind Giles, this one pushing what appeared to be a room-service cart from a hotel. Resting on it was the usual assortment of implements Giles associated with torture, and he sighed inwardly. Maybe he should think about retirement, assuming he ever got out of this. He was really getting sick of being tortured.

* * * * * * * * *

Chapter 18

The TV droned away mindlessly, but Faith didn't hear it. She was completely occupied with her thoughts, and her thoughts at the moment centered on the strands of blonde hair she was running her fingers through, and the blonde they belonged to. The blonde in question at the moment was sleeping with her head pillowed on Faith's thigh on the couch, and Faith's head was spinning again at the confusing turns her life was taking.

Faith had returned from her cruise around town late in the afternoon, to find Buffy still absent. She had spent a few hours in the gym, thinking things over and burning off some of her frustration, and had almost decided to either have it out with Buffy, telling her how she felt and what she wanted, or say nothing and accept the fact that nothing would ever happen. It all depended on whether Buffy continued to avoid her, or was hostile to her, the only two scenarios she could see coming up.

So she had been shocked when she returned to Buffy's apartment to find the blonde Slayer waiting for her with dinner laid out. Buffy had given no indication of any awareness of discomfort between them, which had confused the hell out of Faith and left her nearly speechless for the duration of the meal. Buffy, on the other hand, had been chattering away about the mindless details of her day, completely unaware of the turmoil of Faith's thoughts.

Eventually, Faith put everything out of her mind and let herself simply enjoy Buffy's company. They had settled down on the couch together to watch a movie, but Buffy had complained of a headache and had lain down across the couch, resting her head on Faith's leg, and fallen asleep. Two hours later, and Faith was still lost in thought, contemplating the beauty and mystery of her sister Slayer.

The majority of her quandary stemmed from the fact that she herself was unsure what she really wanted. She knew she cared about the blonde slayer, but she was unsure about her ability to be a participant in any kind of long-term relationship. She had never had one before, and she was afraid that her inexperience would result in her screwing things up. And she wasn't sure she could handle that, again. Buffy and the Sunnydale gang had become the only really good things she had ever had in her life, and if she lost them again, she didn't think she would be able to go on.

And yet another part of her rebelled in fury at the weakness implicit in that need. It screamed at her that she shouldn't need anyone, that she should be strong enough to handle anything on her own, and that she should only have to accept things on her terms. She shouldn't be dependant on the approval and friendship of others, because that gave them license to destroy her any time they wanted. She had avoided putting herself in that situation most of her life, and she had ended up regretting every time she hadn't, one way or another. Including the last time she was here.

Faith sighed and stroked Buffy's hair, and tears began rolling silently down her cheeks as she considered the corner she was being backed into. She didn't want to leave, but she wasn't sure she could stay. She didn't know what Buffy wanted from her, and she really wasn't all that sure what she wanted from herself. She hadn't been aware of it until today, but she had basically lived the last few years in an emotional void. She hadn't been sad in Silver Lake, but she hadn't been happy, either. She had just gone through the motions. She didn't want to wind up like that again. But she didn't know which course of action would lead her to that. So she sat, and admired the slight pout Buffy's lips acquired in her sleep, and thought about how fucked up this whole situation was.

She had been happier over these last two days than she had ever been in her life, and yet all she could think about was what she didn't have. And she wasn't even really sure that she couldn't have what she wanted. Willow seemed to think there was potential for her to have a relationship with Buffy, or at least that was what she seemed to be implying to Faith. So why was she so determined to let her own impatience fuck things up? Why couldn't she just sit back and see what happened?

She closed her eyes, stroking Buffy's golden locks, and the tears continued to roll down her cheeks as the TV droned on.

* * * * * * * * *

Xander paced impatiently back and forth in the small confines of the elevator as it made its way up to the roof. He had known that Giles staying outside the building was a bad idea, but Giles had this inability to consider the possibility of personal risk. But Xander should have argued with him about it. He hadn't because he respected Giles, and didn't want to insult him by implying that he couldn't take care of himself.

And because he had tried to spare Giles' feelings, fifteen men were dead, and one was critically injured. Xander was trying not to think about how well he knew those men. Trying not to think about the blood on his hands. Trying not to remember the fact that Joe Evans had been a fanatical Yankees fan, or that Leo Williams had a tendency to dress like a Secret Service agent whenever he came in for meetings, and was fanatically loyal to Buffy. He was trying to forget that he was the one that had picked them for that assignment.

He couldn't. He hit the Stop button angrily, and leaned against the elevator doors as the tears began to flow, and his shoulders shook with the sobs he couldn't hold back. He cried for the friends he had lost, and he cried for the fear of the loss of the closest man to a father he had known. And he cried for the pain that he knew this would cause Buffy.

But crying didn't solve anything, even if the release did give him back some measure of control, so after a minute or two he pulled himself back together. He wiped his face carefully and then allowed the elevator to resume its interrupted journey to the penthouse. When it arrived, he trotted towards the glass doors leading into the penthouse proper, but stopped in shock, frozen with his hand on the door handle, at the scene laid out before him.

Faith sat on the couch, with Buffy sprawled out asleep with her head in the dark Slayer's lap. Faith was gently stroking Buffy's hair as she slept, and the inherent tenderness implied in that gesture rocked Xander to his core. He had honestly believed her incapable of such a display. The tears he could see rolling down her face were another surprise, and a source of concern. He may have had problems trusting her, but he honestly wanted things to work out for her, and he didn't know why she was unhappy. He suspected it had something to do with Buffy, and he suspected that Willow would be able to tell him. Whether she would or not was another story.

Xander backed slowly away from the door. This was an emergency, but there was no reason to humiliate Faith, and for the first time, he thought maybe she deserved a chance. So he trotted back to the elevator, and hit the button for the fourth floor as he pulled his phone out of his pocket and hit the speed-dial for Buffy.

* * * * * * * * *

Faith jumped a little when the phone rang suddenly, and she quickly wiped her eyes as Buffy stirred. Buffy opened her eyes to see a tender smile on Faith's beautiful face looking down at her, and her heart melted again. She lost herself in pleasant thoughts until the phone rang again, and then she grimaced and held up her hand.

"Willis, would you mind?" she called, and Faith watched as the phone came floating across the room to rest in Buffy's hand.

"Wow, that's handy," Faith said, and Buffy grinned roguishly up from her lap as she stretched like a cat before answering the phone. Faith couldn't keep her eyes from roving up and down Buffy's petite but curvy frame as she stretched, and she groaned inwardly.

"Hello?" Buffy said into the phone. "Slow down, Xander� What?!?" Faith stiffened at the shock and concern suddenly apparent in Buffy's expression, and she watched as the blonde Slayer said quietly, "Yeah, I know. I should have said something then, but� Yeah, we'll be right down." Buffy hit the disconnect button, and the phone dropped from her nerveless fingers. "They got Giles," she said softly, before bursting into tears.

Faith was stunned, both by the news and by Buffy's reaction. She felt the echoes of Buffy's pain within herself, but she hadn't realized the blonde Slayer was this close to the edge. The old Buffy would have held off on the crying until after she had killed everyone even remotely responsible. Now Faith wasn't even sure Buffy would be able to function. She pushed down her own pain and shock and pulled Buffy up into her lap, and held her tightly as she sobbed against her shoulder.

"It was my fault," Buffy was whispering quietly between sobs. Faith wasn't sure if she was talking to her or herself. "I shouldn't have let him go home. It was my fault."

"Shhh, it's okay, B," Faith said soothingly. "He wanted to go. Now, are you sure he's dead?"

Buffy pulled back to look at Faith, seeming to realize suddenly that she was sitting in the dark Slayer's lap. She shook her head and stood up, and began to pace back and forth as she related to Faith what Xander had told her on the phone. "They attacked just a little while ago. Took out a whole team, only one survivor, and he might not make it, Xander said. They got Giles out of his house, somehow. I don't know all the details. They're waiting for us downstairs."

"Okay. Let's go see what we can find out."

* * * * * * * * *

Buffy had pulled herself together by the time the elevator reached the fourth floor, and when Faith followed her off, she was surprised to find they were walking towards the laboratory where she had met Willow's fellow spell-workers, rather than the Library. She said nothing, however, and merely follow the blonde Slayer down the hall.

Buffy pushed through the outer doors, and Faith followed to find Xander sitting down on the couch in the waiting room. The red light was on over the door, and Xander appeared to be watching television. Faith took a closer look and realized it was a closed-circuit view of the lab, and Willow and several other people she recognized from the previous day were apparently in the middle of some major magical working.

"Hey," Xander said listlessly from the couch. Faith noticed the dejected slump of his shoulders and the slight redness of his eyes and nose, and wondered if he, too, had been crying.

"Hey," she said back. Buffy was lost in thought, staring at the TV monitor, so Faith sat down next to Xander on the couch. "What happened?"

Xander sighed, and Faith realized how little she understood about the changes he had undergone. She remembered him as being carefree and light-hearted. Now he looked like his cares were crushing him. "The team watching Giles' place got taken out. Fifteen field operatives and a support tech, and they were killed so smoothly that the backup team, two blocks away, didn't even know anything was happening until the 911 calls came in about explosions."

"Explosions?" Faith asked in surprise, and Buffy came out of her daze and turned around as well.

"Yeah," Xander said. "Whoever did this took out the roving patrol, then the perimeter teams, then the sentry on the roof, and then they apparently threw a grenade through the window of the CV out in front of the house."

"CV?" Faith said.

"Command Vehicle," Buffy told her. "It's just a big truck with a lot of communications and surveillance gear."

"Oh. Okay. So, how did they get Giles out? And why didn't he call for help?"

"Well," Xander said, sighing again, "apparently they took out the whole security detail in under ten minutes, which is the check-in interval. Giles probably didn't even know anything was going on until the truck blew up, which was the last thing they did, probably simultaneously with the attack on Giles himself. It looks like they kicked in his door, and then shot him or stabbed him, and dragged him out of the apartment. There was a lot of blood, and you could see where he had been dragged out the door. They were gone by the time we got there, and we were there within two minutes of the 911 call. The cops got there shortly after. According to our only surviving witness, the team leader-"

"Williams?" Buffy asked, and Xander nodded. Buffy sighed.

"-whoever blew the van rolled up on them in a police car. Leo said that much, before he lost consciousness. The cops found it dumped a few blocks away. They're pissed, because apparently whoever did this killed the cop whose car it was, too."

They all sat silently, Buffy and Faith absorbing what Xander had told them, and Xander went back to staring at the TV. After a minute, Faith said, "Forgive my ignorance, but what are they doing?"

"Tracking Giles," Buffy said. "If he's still alive, they'll tell us where he is. Probably even if he's dead, but that will take longer."

"Oh."

They all sat silently after that, watching Willow and her team work in the next room.

* * * * * * * * *

Fifteen minutes later, the red light blinked and turned green, and they all stood up and pushed through the doors into the lab, where Willow's people were cleaning up the mess made by the spell they had cast. Faith noted several strange combinations of herbal odors, including some she recognized, like sage, and something that smelled a lot like brimstone. Willow walked over to them, with the blonde girl Faith remembered being named Amy. Amy appeared to be nibbling on some small blocks of cheese, the kind you found on hors d'oeuvre trays.

"Well?" Buffy asked impatiently.

"He's in LA. Somewhere in the warehouse district."

Buffy nodded and pulled out her cell phone. While she was dialing, she spoke to Xander and Faith. "Xander, call the airport and have them send the chopper to pick us up. Faith, would you mind going upstairs and grabbing my bag? Just go in my closet and ask Willis for my field bag, he'll show you. You might want to pack something for yourself, too. There should be luggage in your closet."

Faith nodded and immediately headed out the door. She heard Xander dialing, and she heard Buffy speak into her phone just as she hit the door.

"Cordelia? It's me. I need�"

* * * * * * * * *

Chapter 19

Cordelia Chase sat in the offices of Angel Investigations, flipping through the pages of Variety and keenly aware that it was Saturday night. And she was in the office. Again. More than once she had tried to pin down exactly when it was that her social life had atrophied to the point of non-existence. She was fairly certain it was after the third time she had a vision while receiving a good night kiss after a date.

She sighed, and then groaned as she turned the page and saw Wesley, looking sophisticated and elegant, on the arm of another starlet, pictured at some opening or another. Three pictures, in three issues. She had been trying to get her picture in Variety for as long as she could remember, and Wesley shows up in it on the arm of three different starlets in as many months. There was no justice.

She had come to Los Angeles looking for a new beginning. She had thought to find her path through acting, because back then she had seen fame as the best route to success and happiness. Seven years, a few plays, two very small movie roles, and a small part on a TV series that was cancelled before her character was introduced had convinced her that acting for a living was not in the cards for her. But she still wanted to see her picture in Variety.

Two years ago, Angel Investigations had become a wholly owned subsidiary of WKV Inc., so at least she was getting regular paychecks these days. Even if it did mean that she worked for Buffy, and indirectly, Xander Harris.

Xander Harris. She sighed as she thought about him, again. Seven years ago she had moved to L.A. For a number of reasons, she had told herself, but the main one was Xander Harris. Sure, her family was broke, and had never really been all that stable to begin with. And she had needed an alterative to college, and the idea of living poor in a town where she had once been rich was too embarrassing to consider.

But the main reason was to leave Xander, and everything associated with him, behind her. He had been the first person in her life to really know her. To make her feel loved, for who she really was, not for what she had or how she looked. He had been the one that made her realize that maybe looks and popularity weren't everything.

And no matter how hard she had tried, she had never found anyone else that made her feel as good as he had. She thought maybe Doyle could have, but that door had closed before she had had an opportunity to do more than peek inside, and nobody else had even come close.

At least she didn't have to see him. They had managed to part friends, before she came to L.A., and in the seven years that had followed, he had never come near her again. Buffy and Willow both dropped in occasionally, but Xander never came to L.A. When she asked, Willow had told her it was because Angel and Gunn could run any operations in L.A., so Xander thought it best if he focused on events elsewhere. But she wouldn't meet Cordelia's eyes when she said it.

She looked up as Wesley walked in, and groaned inwardly. He was wearing a very nice Armani suit, and though she would never tell him so, he looked quite dashing. He was probably headed out for another night on the town with the bimbo of the week.

"Cordelia, is Angel in?" he asked, with his crisp English diction.

"No," she answered with a sigh, "he's out hunting down another Mohra demon."

"Again?" he asked in surprise, as he walked over to the coffee machine.

"Yeah. I think he's trying to make them extinct."

"Well, they are soldiers of darkness," he replied, "so I can't exactly say that I blame him. However, I fail to understand why he is so�fixated on this particular species."

"It's personal," she answered, standing up and moving to get a cup of coffee for herself. "They pissed him off."

"Really? How did they manage to do that?" he asked.

"It's kind of a long story," she began, as she poured her cup and took a small sip. "Back before you got here, when Angel was still in deep-" The cup fell from her suddenly nerveless fingers, and she stiffened as a bolt of agony shot through her skull.

"Cordelia?" Wesley said in alarm, and then dropped his own coffee mug and leapt to catch her as her eyes rolled back in her head, and she collapsed.

* * * * * * * * *

Images, sounds, smells, and sensations bombarded her. She had a sense of overwhelming dread, and pain. Light flashed in her eyes, and a beautiful young dark-haired woman crossed her line of sight. Somehow she knew this woman the source of her pain.

Her hands and feet were bound to the chair, and she could feel the dried blood that crusted her skin with every movement. She concentrated, trying to ignore the blazing pain in her skull, and the scene around her froze. With a thought, her viewpoint changed, and she moved up and forward, towards the dark girl she suddenly knew was a vampire.

She turned, examining the rest of her surroundings, and her concentration wavered as she recognized the blood covered form before her, tied to a chair. His hair was matted with blood, and it looked like parts of his arms had been skinned. Small needles had been inserted under his fingernails, and the blackened metal she could see told her they had been heated repeatedly.

She tore her focus away from the man in the chair and examined the rest of what she could see. It was a warehouse, and suddenly the address popped in her head, as they sometimes did. She also observed a small army of vampires milling around behind the chair, out of sight of its occupant. Several bodies had been hung from some rolling crane-like things that she thought were used for working on cars, obviously for the vamp's entertainment, judging from their unnatural stillness and the abundance of bite marks.

The vamps looked to be waiting on something, and she observed that while most of them were doing usual time-killing things, like playing cards, watching television, or just talking, a small group of them, separate from the others, were moving with a kind of grim precision, cleaning weapons, guns and other things she didn't recognize. She suddenly knew intuitively that they were the real danger here, them and the girl.

The pain in her skull redoubled, and she let go of the vision, which became a chaotic jumble of lights before fading out and leaving her in darkness.

* * * * * * * * *

"�Come back, Cordelia," a warm voice was saying gently, over and over. "You can do it. Just hold on and come back."

She gradually became aware of something besides the blinding pain in her skull. The first thing she noticed was that she was being held in a gentle but firm embrace, and her head was pillowed on a shoulder. She was being gently rocked, and someone was stroking her hair. She sighed and nuzzled gently at the neck before her, inhaling the warm, sensual smell of tobacco, green tea, and ginger. Creed, she thought. Taba-Rome.

She suddenly realized, all at once, that she was nuzzling Wesley's neck. Never mind how good he smelled, this was Wesley. She was also aware that he was kneeling on the floor in a puddle of spilled coffee and shattered porcelain mugs, cradling her gently to his chest.

She opened her eyes to see him gazing at her with tenderness and concern apparent on his face, and she ignored the fact that she was sitting in spilled coffee and blurted out the first thing that came to her jumbled mind. "Are you wearing Taba-Rome?"

He blinked in surprise. "Why, yes. Are you all right?"

She sighed, suddenly remembering where she was. "I will be if I can get these coffee stains out of this skirt." She started to pull out of his arms, but he held her tight with one arm and reached into the pocket of his suit. He pulled out a clean white handkerchief and gently wiped her nose.

"What did you see?" he asked gently, folding the handkerchief, but she noticed the blood staining it, and then looked to see more blood on his suit where her head had rested.

"Oh, Wes! Your suit!" She started to get up, but he held on to her. Then, rising to one knee, his slid his free arm under her legs and picked her up. She stiffened for a moment, but her head was still throbbing, and she was starting to enjoy the feeling of being held, even if it was just platonic concern.

"Don't worry about the suit. Do you remember anything?" he asked as he set her on the couch gently, kneeling beside her.

She closed her eyes, trying to recall what she had seen, and then sat bolt upright in shock as it all came flooding back to her. "Ohmigod! Giles! Wesley, call Angel. Bad things are happening!" She reached for the phone on the coffee table beside the couch. It rang just before she touched it, and she picked it up automatically. "Angel Investigations, we help the hopeless!" Her brain was working on autopilot, and Wesley moved to take the phone out of her hand, but she waved him off as she recognized the voice on the other end.

"Cordelia? It's me," Buffy said. "I need to talk to-"

"Giles has been kidnapped!" Cordelia interrupted.

"Yes, I know. How did you?"

"What do you pay me for, exactly?" Cordelia asked, rolling her eyes at Wesley. She covered the mouthpiece with her free hand and said to Wesley, "Get Angel on the phone, now. And please get my pills out of my desk when you're done." Speaking to Buffy again, she said, "I've got Angel on the way back to the office, and I'll have a strike team ready by the time you get here. I assume you're on your way?"

"We will be in about 15 minutes," Buffy replied. "What do you know?"

"He's been kidnapped and tortured, it looks bad. We'll need some kind of medical backup on site. There's a whole lot of nasties just standing around, looked like they were waiting on something. And I've got the address. I'll give you a full briefing when you get here."

"Ok," Buffy said, with relief evident in her voice. "I'll be there as soon as I can. Tell Angel to get a preliminary strike plan going, we'll fine tune it when I get there."

"Got it. And Buffy? Hurry." She hung up the phone, and then picked it up and began dialing again.

Meanwhile, Wesley had gone to her desk and called Angel's cell phone. Angel picked up after a few rings, sounding somewhat out of breath. "Hello?"

"Angel," Wesley began, his accent crisp like it always was in a crisis. Cordelia suddenly remembered how sexy she had thought his voice was when she first met him. "Buffy called. She-"

"What does she want now? Tell her I can't leave town every time she finds a nest in some-"

"Angel, please," Wesley cut him off. "This is an emergency. Giles has been kidnapped and is here in Los Angeles. Buffy is on her way, and Cordelia is alerting the strike team. She had a vision."

Angel was silent for a moment, and then said, "I'm on my way."

Wesley hung up the phone and looked through Cordelia's top desk drawer until he found a prescription pill bottle. He noted with some concern that it was for Vicodin, but he said nothing, simply retrieving a glass of water from the cooler and carrying it and the pill bottle to Cordelia, who was on the phone.

"Look, Gunn," she was saying, "I don't care if you have plans. We have an emergency, so alert your team and get your ass in here! I'll give you the details in person, but it's going to be a tough one, so get in gear!" She slammed down the phone, and took the pills and water from Wesley with a relieved sigh. "I swear," she said as she popped two capsules and washed them down, "sometimes he argues just for the sake of arguing. I mean, we all know that fighting is his favorite thing in the world, so why does he gripe every time we tell him something's up?" She took another drink of water and then set the glass down on the table and leaned back into the couch with a sigh.

"Are you alright?" Wesley asked with concern.

"Yeah," she said in a weak voice. "It was a bad one, though."

Wesley was quiet for a moment, and then asked, "How often do you get the nosebleeds?"

Cordelia opened her eyes to glare at him for a moment, but her look softened when she saw his genuine concern. "Only when I have to hang on to it. Usually not even then, but this one was important, so I had to work harder, to get as much as I could."

"I was not aware that your increasing control over your visions was having such debilitating side effects. Why didn't you tell me?" he asked.

"Because I didn't want you to worry. It's not usually this bad."

"Does Angel know?"

"No. Relax, Wes, it's not like this all the time. This one just required more." She looked at him for a moment, taking in the coffee stains on his slacks where he had knelt on the floor, holding her, and the bloodstains on his shoulder where her head had rested. "Thanks for helping me."

He smiled and took her hand gently, and said, "Anytime."

* * * * * * * * *

Buffy hung up the phone, and turned to look enquiringly at Xander. He held up a finger to her, listening to someone speaking on the other end of his call, and then said, "Okay, if that's the best you can do. Make sure she's well fueled, cause we'll be in a big hurry." He hung up the phone.

"Well?"

"Chopper can't be ready in less than 25 minutes, probably half an hour," he said dejectedly.

"Dammit!" she screamed. Then she pulled her temper back under control. "Okay, well, if that's the best we can do, we'll work with it. Willow," she said, turning to the red-head, "Cordelia had a vision. We've got an address on Giles, but she said he's in bad shape. Get a paramedic unit ready to go with us, and anything else you can think of that will help. Cordy said he's got a lot of bad guys, looked like they were waiting for us to get there." She shot a significant look at Xander as she said that, and he nodded. "I'm going to go upstairs and get ready. You guys get what you need, talk to whoever, and meet me upstairs. 25 minutes."

They nodded, and Buffy looked at them both for a moment. Xander met her eyes grimly, his normally expressive face a mask as he tried not to think about Giles being hurt. Willow simply looked back at her with love and concern, but Buffy could see the distracted cast to her face that meant part of her brain was already organizing the things she'd need for this trip. She nodded to them both and then ran for the elevator.

* * * * * * * * *

Faith lugged the huge duffel bag out of the closet, and dumped it on the floor next to Buffy's bed. It was heavy enough that she doubted anyone who wasn't a slayer could have lifted it. She took a moment to catch her breath, and then sighed resignedly as she heard the closet door in her room opening.

"Okay, Willis, I'm coming," she said. She walked into her own room, as she was beginning to think of it, and walked into the huge closet. She grabbed the strap that Willis was holding out for her, to indicate the proper bag, which she had already spotted since it was identical to Buffy's, right down to being in the same place in the closet. She dragged it out where she could pick it up, and then walked out into her room. As she emerged from the closet, she heard Buffy coming into the penthouse.

"Faith!" Buffy called.

"Back here!" Faith answered, and Buffy walked through the bedroom door a moment later.

"Good, you found them," Buffy said. "We have about a half-hour to get ready."

"What-what's the plan?" Faith asked hesitantly.

Buffy picked her bag up off the floor and threw it on the bed, and then stopped and took a deep breath before answering. "I don't know yet. We'll have two strike teams available, about thirty guys total. We have a helicopter. We have an address. I'm still working on the details." She unzipped the bag and pulled out what looked to Faith like a wetsuit.

"No, I mean," Faith took a deep breath, and continued, "what's your plan for me?"

Buffy looked at her in surprise, and then hesitantly said, "I- uh, I guess I just assumed you'd come with me. I don't know, really. What do you want to do?"

Faith looked at the floor and shuffled her feet uncomfortably before answering. "I want to come. Giles was my Watcher, too, and my friend. I think. I know I don't want anything to happen to him, and I want to help." She looked up at Buffy, and the blonde Slayer was shocked by the fear, confusion, and pain that were revealed in the dark-haired girls eyes. "I'm just afraid I'll be in the way. I'd hate for anything bad to happen because of me. This is too important."

Buffy moved around the bed to grasp Faith by the arms, and looked straight into her eyes. "Listen to me, Faith. You can do this, if you really want to. But you don't have to start now. I'd like you there with me, but you could wait in the chopper or at Angel's. But don't ever worry about getting in the way. I want you with me."

Faith looked at the floor again, unable to meet Buffy's eyes. "I want to come," she said. "I'm afraid that if I don't try now, I won't ever be able to."

"Okay. Let's get ready, then." Buffy walked back around to the other side of the bed, and picked what Faith still thought looked like a wetsuit. "This is what I wear on strikes and patrols, these days. Look in your bag, you should have one, too."

Faith picked up the bag she had retrieved from the closet, and dropped it on her side of the bed. She opened it, and on top was an outfit identical to Buffy's. "It looks like a wetsuit," she said.

"I know. That's what I said, the first time Bear showed it to me. Actually, it's a kind of ballistic cloth, the next generation of Kevlar, the stuff they make bulletproof vests out of. To quote Bear, 'it's comfortable, stylish, and it will stop all penetrating weapons.' That includes but is not limited to knives, swords, bullets, claws, and fangs. However, it doesn't do much for blunt force trauma. So getting shot, stabbed, or sliced will still hurt like hell, but at least they can't cut you open." Buffy put down the suit, and Faith's eyes went wide as Buffy began casually undressing. Buffy stripped down to her panties, without so much as a glance at Faith, who was still frozen. Faith's eyes greedily drank in the view of the nearly naked blonde Slayer. Buffy turned and pulled a sports bra out of a dresser drawer, and Faith shook herself out of her stupor and began hurriedly removing her own clothes. She didn't see Buffy watching her, the blonde's eyes drinking in the sight of her revealed skin just as greedily as she had.

When they were both dressed in the skin-tight suits, Buffy reached into her bag and pulled out a pair of boots, holding them up so Faith could see the crosses inlaid into the soles. "Gives your kicks a little extra, uh, kick," Buffy said wryly. The slayers put on the knee-high boots, and Buffy pulled out the next item in the bag.

Faith's eyes immediately locked on the pistol, secure in a shoulder holster, that was attached to the web harness that Buffy drew from her bag. Faith slowly reached into the matching bag before her, and it felt like she was lifting an anvil as she pulled out the bundle of straps, pouches, and weapons. She noted that the knife Bear had made for her was attached, as well as the pistol and who-knew-what-else in the pouches.

Buffy glanced over and saw Faith sitting frozen, her expression stiff as she stared at the knife and gun. "Hey," she said, laying her hand gently on Faith's shoulder to get her attention. "You don't have to use them. But if you need them, at least you'll have them. Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it, right? Besides, you're mostly observing, this time out. Just stick close to me, until we get to Giles. Then stick close to him. I'll take care of the fighting. If anything DOES come after you, well, just beat the hell out of it, and I'll kill it later. Okay?"

Faith took a shuddering breath, then nodded and shrugged into the harness. She tried to ignore the pistol, snug in it's holster under her left arm, and the knife that hung on her right hip, but they felt like lead weights, dragging her into darkness. Her eyes stared off into nowhere, visions of the deaths she had already caused flashing before her eyes, and then she snapped back to awareness as she realized that Buffy's hand was on her cheek, and the blonde slayer was nose to nose with her, staring into her eyes.

"Hey," Buffy said in a voice that only Faith could hear. "If you're having second thoughts, it's okay. You can stay in the chopper, or whatever. I understand."

Faith was tempted, but deep down she knew that if she didn't at least TRY, she never would. "No," she said. "I have to go. I WANT to go. It's just, y'know, nerves."

Buffy smiled, and Faith's heart skipped a beat. Buffy pressed her forehead to Faith's and rubbed noses with her in a gentle Eskimo kiss, and said, "Don't worry, you'll be fine."

Faith swallowed the lump in her throat and nodded. Buffy stepped back and looked at her, then adjusted some of the straps on Faith's harness, adjusting the fit slightly. She stepped back again and then nodded, and said, "How's it feel? Can you move easily?"

Faith stepped away from Buffy and performed a few of the limbering moves from her Tai Chi routine, surprised at how little the 'wetsuit' encumbered her movement. It looked like neoprene, but it felt and wore like very soft cotton, and it fit like spandex. She looked back up at Buffy, who was adjusting her own harness, and said, "It feels like a second skin."

"That's the idea." Buffy took a few grenades from her bag, and hung them from catches on her harness. Faith also noted the presence of an expanding baton, like the guards had used back in prison, on Buffy's hip, opposite the knife that matched the one Faith wore.

All in all, the dark Slayer thought to herself, Buffy looked sexy and dangerous as hell.

* * * * * * * * *

The two Slayers emerged from the bedrooms to find Willow sitting calmly on the sofa, and Xander pacing back and forth in front of the doors to the patio. Xander looked up at them as they walked in, and Faith's hackles reared up at the roaring fury and violence she saw in his eyes, before he shuttered them and went back to pacing. Faith sensed that Xander's rage wasn't directed at her, but she still felt it blazing over her skin as he paced.

Xander's gear consisted of a bodysuit similar to the one Faith and Buffy wore, but over it he wore a hard, black, clamshell armor that looked to Faith like something from one of her old moto-cross games on her Playstation. He also carried a lot more weaponry, several pistols and a submachine gun. Pouches attached to the armor bulged with additional ammo, and he wore a headset attached to a small radio mounted on his right shoulder. A camera lens peeked at her from his left shoulder.

Xander noticed her examining him, so he walked over to her, smiling grimly, and began describing the various pieces of equipment he wore. "The bodysuit is basically the same as yours and Buff's, but since the team members try to avoid hand-to-hand combat, we sacrifice some mobility for the extra protection the clamshell armor gives us. It's basically like football pads, but bullet- and sword-proof, since we can't take the same amount of punishment as you two. In strikes, we follow Buffy in, and she takes out whoever is closest while we try to pick off everyone else."

"What's in the guns, wooden bullets?" Faith asked.

Xander grinned. "No, we tried that, but the only wood that works is this stuff called 'lignum vitae,' and it's really rare and expensive. So Bear came up with the idea of magnesium cores. Basically, they're incendiary bullets. They have relatively low penetration, which has its good and bad points, but generally if you hit a vamp in the heart or head, he'll burn to dust in a few seconds."

Faith grinned, surprised again by this confident, professional Xander. She could see the boy she had known in him, but his goofy, shy insecurity had been ground away, and she liked the man he had become. She hoped they would be able to work past whatever prevented him from forgiving her, because she thought he would be a good friend.

"So," she asked, "what's the usual success rate for a strike like this?"

His grin vanished, to be replaced by grim acceptance, and he glanced at Buffy, who was talking with Willow, before he answered. "To be honest, not very good. We haven't done very many hostage rescues, especially with so little to go on. The few we have done, have been costly. Normally, even on an urban strike like this, we'd hit during the day, and go in with flamethrowers and grenade-launchers."

"Grenade-launchers?" Faith asked in surprise, and Xander nodded.

"Yeah. Not high-explosive, though. Willy-petes." At Faith's baffled look, he explained. "It's a nickname. Stands for 'white phosphorus. Burns hot enough to melt steel, and will really ruin a vamp's day. On an ideal strike, we don't even have to fight, because they're all dead by the time we walk in the door after the grenades. But that almost never happens.

This time, though, since according to Will's spell Giles is still alive, we can't go in hot. We've got to try to secure him, which mean we have to fight with some precision. Personally, I prefer massive overkill, but the mission objective defines the force levels."

Faith smirked at him. "I almost understood that."

Xander grinned back at her, and said, "Since we want Giles alive, we can't just go in and fry everything that moves." He looked up as Buffy moved back over to them.

"Chopper's on the way," she said. "It's time to go."

* * * * * * * * *

Buffy led the group outside, and then past the patio opposite the elevator. On the other side of the penthouse, Faith now observed a good sized helipad. Faith had ridden with Buffy in a large executive model helicopter outside of Silver Lake, and she had expected something similar, this time. She was surprised, therefore, when a large military troop transport came roaring in for a landing on the roof. She said nothing, however, merely following Buffy on board and finding a seat.

Once they were in the air, Faith was surprised again at how quiet it was inside the chopper. She looked at Xander, who was seated across from her, inquiringly.

"What?" he asked.

"I expected it to be noisier in here," she said.

"Ah. Well, we have some, uh, good connections for things like equipment and vehicles. This is one of the newer Special Forces transports. It's sound insulated, and it also has surprisingly effective stealth capabilities. It's hell on the fuel consumption, but this thing can fly quiet as a whisper when it has to."

Faith nodded her understanding, and looked around the interior of the troop bay. Willow was also sitting across from her, one seat over from Xander with a large book across her lap, which she was studying intently. She appeared to be muttering under her breath, as well. Faith guessed she was preparing a spell.

Movement caught her eye, and she looked away from Willow just as Buffy plopped down in the seat next to her. Buffy had been up front, speaking to the pilots. Faith realized that she really didn't know where they were going, other than Los Angeles.

"So, B, where are we headed? And is it just going to be us?" she asked, gesturing at the empty troop compartment.

"We're going to Angel's hotel in LA. He should have two strike teams ready for us by the time we get there."

"Any ideas about enemy numbers?" Xander asked.

"No. Cordelia just said 'a lot.'" Buffy replied. Faith noticed the way Xander's face froze momentarily when Buffy mentioned Queen C, and she wondered if he still had a thing for his old flame.

"How many on our side?" Faith asked.

"Thirty," Xander said. "Both field teams in L.A. Angel put them on alert immediately, and they should be on site when we get there."

"Angel works for you?" Faith asked in surprise.

"Well," Buffy began hesitantly, and Xander snickered. Buffy glared at him, and he went from snickering to choked coughing.

"It's kind of complicated," Buffy said to Faith, ignoring Xander, who had tears in his eyes and both hands over his mouth.

* * * * * * * * *

Chapter 20

Faith stood at the back of the room, watching Buffy and Angel brief the team leaders. She had caught several looks as she came in, which hadn't really surprised her since she was basically dressed in spandex. Or at least, that's what she had thought at the time. Now she was starting to think it was because she was dressed identically to Buffy.

Angel looked the same as always, dark and broody. He had given her a casual, but friendly, nod when she had stepped out of the helicopter in the parking lot. After that he had been all business, but Faith had noticed that his greeting to Xander had been warmer than his greeting to Buffy. She guessed that the whole employee-employer thing was making things tougher than ever between them.

The hotel looked basically like she remembered it from her brief stay after getting out of prison, but several interior rooms had been drastically remodeled. This room, once a suite for rich out-of-towners, was now a well equipped briefing room, and, by the look of it, had seen a lot of use. Surveillance photos from various vamp and demon hangouts were tacked to the walls, as well as a list of high-fatality areas in town, which she assumed were vamp feeding grounds.

They had landed the helicopter in the empty parking lot of Angel's hotel, and come straight here. No one had bothered to introduce Faith to the six men she didn't know, and she hadn't tried to introduce herself. She had simply faded into the background and watched as Cordelia described all the details she could remember from her vision, and then Willow had pulled up maps and schematics of the warehouse and the surrounding area, and Buffy and Angel, along with Xander and the six men she assumed were from the strike team, had begun planning the strike. Wesley stood to the side, taking notes.

They had only been at it for about fifteen minutes, and already she was bored.

She didn't want to be bored. She wanted Giles back safe, just as much as the rest of them. Possibly more, because she thought of him as a friend, and she didn't have enough of them to spare. But now that she had made the decision to go, she wanted to go. The plan seemed simple enough to her, so she didn't know why they kept debating insignificant details.

Apparently Xander felt the same way, because a few seconds later she tuned back into the conversation in time to hear him say, "Okay, so that's it. The strike teams will surround the building and begin an attack on the loading doors. Forty-five seconds after they begin, we'll blow the roof here," Faith saw him indicate a spot about ten feet from where they estimated Giles to be, "and go in. Once we've secured Giles, the flame units can open up and clean the place out. Any questions?"

"How do you plan on evacuating Mr. Giles?" asked one of the men Faith didn't know.

"Depends on his medical condition. If he's not too injured, we'll take him up in a basket stretcher to the chopper. Otherwise, we'll fight our way out the nearest exit. We have a paramedic unit which will be waiting outside." Xander looked at Buffy, who nodded, and then said, "Ok. Let's go."

The group split up, and Buffy headed over to Faith. "I'm going to have to go after anything close as soon as we drop in. If you can, I'd like you to stay with Xander and Willow, help them protect Giles. Can you do it?" the blonde Slayer asked.

Faith took a deep breath. "Yeah, I can do it. Just watch your back."

* * * * * * * * *

Willow sat in the helicopter, checking her various pockets and pouches one more time. It was her job to create the hole in the roof through which they would enter the building. After that, she just had to keep Giles alive. But she'd been on enough strikes with Buffy to know that nothing ever worked according to plan, so she had the components for several nasty little spells tucked away here and there, just in case.

After she had reassured herself that she hadn't forgotten anything, she watched Faith watch Buffy. The helicopter was in the air, taking a long, slow, leisurely route to the warehouse they would be attacking shortly, to give the strike teams time to drive across town and get into position. Willow knew that this was always the worst time for Buffy, when they were just waiting for things to begin. The blonde Slayer was a bundle of nervous energy, pacing up and down the narrow aisle of the transport, talking on her radio to the strike teams, checking on their status.

Faith, on the other hand, was sprawled casually across two of the seats, looking like she didn't have a care in the world. But Willow could see her eyes, and they gave the dark Slayer away. Faith's eyes were wide and fixed, and Willow doubted she was seeing the interior of the helicopter. She moved to sit next to the dark-haired girl, and gently reached out to touch her shoulder. Faith flinched away from the touch, and turned to look at Willow with wide eyes.

"What if I can't handle it?" she asked in a whisper only Willow could hear. "What if I freeze up again, and Giles dies because of me?"

"You can do this. I know you can," Willow whispered back fiercely. "Just remember, you're going in there to protect, to rescue, not to kill. All you have to do is help us protect Giles. You can do that."

"I can do that," Faith said, and reached up to squeeze Willow's hand where it rested on her shoulder.

* * * * * * * * *

Natasha glanced up as she heard the nearly silent helicopter pass by overhead. She was unhappy about leaving the warehouse before the Slayer arrived, but she contented herself with the knowledge that they would meet soon enough. Her Master had been most insistent that she be gone before the Slayer came to rescue her pet Watcher.

The black Ferrari flew through the nearly empty streets of early morning Los Angeles, headed toward the airport.

* * * * * * * * *

Angel surveyed the small groups of men in the alleys outside the warehouse, waiting for the word to move in. Thirty men were twice as many as a normal strike, but for once he found himself wishing they had a few more to take in with them. He had a feeling this one would be rough.

He noticed Gunn exiting the small RV they used as a field headquarters, and heading his way. He nodded a greeting to one of the only humans he had ever met who could go toe-to-toe with a vamp and win.

"Angel," Gunn said quietly.

"What did Wesley say?" Angel asked his second in command. Wesley would be coordinating communications from the RV.

"We're as ready as we're gonna get."

"What do you think?"

"I think that if there's half as many vamps in there as Cordelia said there was, we're all gonna die. Are you sure it's worth it, for one old man?"

Angel grimaced before replying. Gunn was blunt, but he didn't know Giles' real value to the organization. "Yeah, it's worth it. I can't tell you why, but we need Giles."

Gunn shook his head, but he didn't argue the point. "Then I guess we're ready, unless I can talk you into waiting for daylight. It's only two hours from now."

"We can't wait. Giles could be dying right now, and we need him alive."

* * * * * * * * *

Up in the helicopter, Buffy looked at Faith. "Are you ready?" she asked quietly.

Faith nodded.

Buffy nodded to Xander, and he keyed his mike. "Go."

* * * * * * * * *

The assault plan was elegant in its simplicity. Two five-man teams were in position on the north and south side of the building, securing the side doors. The other twenty men would begin the assault by blasting through the loading dock doors on the west side of the building. The east side had no entrances besides a few windows, so Buffy and Angel had decided it would be better to let any vamps who tried to escape that way go free. Once the vamps had focused on the loading dock doors, Buffy's team would drop through the roof, hopefully within a few feet of Giles. After that, they just had to get him out.

It began well. Three men set shaped charges on the loading dock doors, and they blew inwards with a satisfying blast. The assault team was moving before the smoke cleared, splitting into two ten-man groups inside the doors and moving up the north and south walls, to catch the vamps in a cross-fire. Angel could here the muffled reports from their silenced weapons as he moved through the smoke, heading straight for the center of the building. Gunn was just behind and to the left of him, watching his flank.

Angel could see about ten vamps, moving individually from approximately where they thought Giles should be towards the men shooting at them from behind cover along the walls. It was nowhere near as many as Cordelia had led them to expect, so he crouched down behind a nearby crate, trying to spot the rest. He couldn't smell them over the smoke and gunpowder residue in the air, but he knew they were here, somewhere. He could feel them.

"It's a trap," he said quietly to Gunn. "Tell everybody to watch their asses."

* * * * * * * * *

Thirty seconds after the assault team blew the doors, Buffy's helicopter swept in to hover twenty feet over the roof. The rear loading door opened, and Buffy and Faith leapt out gracefully, landing easily on the roof, making sure it was clear as Xander and Willow rappelled down behind them.

Willow landed and began casting a spell that turned a ten foot circle of the roof into sand, which immediately fell to the floor of the warehouse below. Buffy and Faith were dropping through the hole before it hit the ground, with Xander not far behind. Willow took a deep breath to center herself, and followed her friends down.

* * * * * * * * *

Buffy had a split second to take in the interior of the warehouse as she and Faith dropped to the floor below. It was a big, cavernous room, with no interior partitions, just support pillars for the roof and 4x4 wooden crates scattered everywhere. She could see about 10 vampires moving towards the strike teams against the walls, but no other signs of resistance.

She landed in a crouch, steadying herself with her hands in the thin layer of sand created by Willow's spell. Faith landed beside her, and Buffy glanced at her before turning to look at the one thing her eyes had avoided since entering the warehouse.

Giles was strapped to a chair about fifteen feet from her, unmoving. Once she looked at him, she could see nothing else. Her ears brought the sound of combat to her, but all her eyes could see was his still form, the blood dripping from the arms of the chair, the matted look of his hair. His face was battered nearly beyond recognition, eyes swollen shut, nose smashed, obviously broken. His arms were bloody lumps of flesh, with large sections of skin removed, revealing the muscle beneath. Pieces of copper wire were still protruding from beneath his fingernails. His legs�

Faith gasped, and Buffy's paralysis broke. Awareness rushed back in on her, and she looked away from Giles, cursing herself for her weakness, but unable to see her Watcher, her friend, reduced to a broken shell of a man. Instead she listened to the combat going on around her, and she became aware of something that Angel already knew.

"There's not enough of them," she muttered to herself. "Where are the rest of them?"

"What?" Faith asked, as Xander and Willow reached the ground behind her.

"There's not enough vamps in here. Cordelia said she saw an army of vamps, but there's only like ten of them in here."

"Gunn said the same thing on the com a few seconds ago," Xander said, as Willow moved to Giles. He was carefully not looking at his old friend. His eyes darted around the room, looking for threats as he spoke. "Angel thinks it's a trap."

Faith shut out their conversation as she looked around the room. Only a minute had passed since the strike team blew their way in here, but smoke and the cordite smell of gunfire hung thick on the air. She heard screaming, undoubtedly from an injured team member, and gunfire, short staccato bursts from all around her.

She could sense vampires. Everywhere.

It was an unusual realization for her. Buffy and Giles had both tried to help her, back in the old days, but she had never really had the same abilities in those areas as Buffy. She had just figured it wasn't one of her skills, but now she could feel it. It was like all those years of avoiding vamps had heightened her sensitivity to them, because now she could feel them, like static electricity making the small hairs on her skin stand on end.

They were everywhere, all around her.

"Buffy!" Willow shouted. She had knelt down to examine Giles. "He's alive, but not for long like this!"

"What can you do?" the blond Slayer asked. "Can we take him up in a basket to the chopper?"

"We can't move him at all, right now. The shock would kill him. I can put him in stasis, if you think we have time. Just cover us."

Buffy nodded, then looked at Xander and Faith. The three moved to stand in a ring around Willow and Giles, watching the rest of the room as Willow knelt and began to cast her spell.

Faith took a closer look at her surroundings, trying not to think about the bloody hunk of meat that had once been a kind British librarian. Crates surrounded them, blocking her line of sight to the loading doors, but she could see the walls and hear shouts, screaming, and gunfire. It was strangely surreal. Her little group was alone, but at the same time they were surrounded by chaos.

There was a flash, and she glanced at Giles and Willow. Giles was still unmoving, but his body looked strange, like a plastic imitation. Willow was staggering to her feet, breathing heavily.

"You okay?" Buffy asked her friend.

"Yeah," Willow replied. "Just need to catch my breath. That one takes a lot out of you."

"Can we move him now?" Xander asked. "I don't know how much longer it'll be this quiet."

Willow was opening her mouth to reply, when the world exploded.

* * * * * * * * *

Angel staggered to his feet, brushing bits of flaming wood from his coat, and tried to orient himself. He picked Gunn's unconscious body up from the floor and looked around the warehouse.

All he could see was smoke. But he could hear screaming, and gunfire. And the sound of feeding. A vampire rushed at him from a cloud of smoke, knocking Angel to the floor as it yanked Gunn from his arms and fastened its lips to his throat.

* * * * * * * * *

Faith opened her eyes to silence. She was lying on her back. Above her, she could see clouds of smoke, slowly drifting towards the hole Willow had made in the roof.

Remembering Willow brought her back to where she was, and she sat up suddenly, ignoring the protests of her apparently battered body and the sharp spike of pain in her head. In the strange silence she looked around, not understanding her strange surroundings.

It appeared as if she were in a fogbank. A haze of smoke surrounded her, reducing visibility to less than ten feet. Willow lay on the ground near her, next to a still-stiff and plastic-like Giles, whose chair had been toppled over on its side with him still bound to it.

Xander was a few feet away, slowly sitting up and brushing what Faith recognized as burning pieces of the wooden crates off of himself as he got up. He looked at Faith, and when she saw his mouth moving she understood the silence. She was deaf.

She looked at him and shook her head, pointing at her ears to indicated that she couldn't hear him. He looked at her strangely for a moment, then his eyes widened and he nodded, gesturing behind her.

She turned to see a vampire rushing at her from the smoke.

* * * * * * * * *

Angel was reaching for the vamp on top of Gunn when it suddenly dusted, and he nearly fell onto the stake Gunn was holding defensively before him. He caught himself, and helped Gunn to his feet.

"What happened?" Gunn shouted.

"The crates exploded!" Angel shouted back, wondering if Gunn could hear him. Angel's own hearing was intact, but the shockwave from the explosions would have deafened most normal humans, at least temporarily.

"What?" Gunn shouted again.

Angel shook his head and pointed at a still intact crate at the limit of his visibility, which was about fifteen feet in all this smoke. Just as Gunn turned to look, a vamp burst out of the crate and disappeared into the smoke. Gunn turned back to Angel and said exactly what Angel was thinking.

"Oh, shit."

* * * * * * * * *

Faith flinched. She couldn't help it. A vampire was flying at her, and she flinched. She waited for the death she knew she deserved.

It didn't come. Buffy hit the vamp in mid-air, coming from the side and knocking the vamp away from Faith and the others. She staked it in mid-roll, and came to her feet as its dust was settling.

"Willow, can you hear me?" she asked.

"Yeah. My mouth was open, I think that saved my hearing," Willow replied.

"Xander?"

"I can't hear shit," Xander replied, staring at her, "but if you talk slow while I'm looking at you, I can read your lips."

Buffy looked at Faith. The dark slayer was still crouched where she had been when the vampire attacked her. Her eyes were wide, and Buffy could see the blood running from one of her ears. "Faith?" she said.

"I don't think she can hear, either," Xander said. Buffy nodded, but she was still looking at Faith.

Faith's eyes were open wide, and they darted around, never focusing on anything for more than a second. She looked like a coiled spring, but she was frozen, unmoving. Buffy shook off thinking about her for the moment. She had to find a way to get the rest of them out alive.

"Giles is still in stasis," Willow said. She was pulling his frozen form back to an upright position. "I don't know how much longer I can keep him like this, though. Frankly, I'm surprised I didn't lose it when the crates exploded."

"Is that what happened?" Buffy asked in surprise. "I didn't see."

"I was looking right at one when it blew up," Willow replied.

"Must have been set up for concussion and smoke," Xander said. "Otherwise, we'd all be dead."

Buffy was about to reply when Xander raised his gun and began shooting at something behind her. She turned to see vampires, at least seven or eight, coming out of the smoke towards them. Xander hit one, and it dusted, but the others took cover behind still-intact crates.

* * * * * * * * *

Wesley sat in the mobile home they were using as a command center, listening to the radio chatter descend into chaos. At least eight members of the strike team were down, dead or unconscious, and there had been no word from Buffy's rescue team. The helicopter had reported an explosion and a large cloud of smoke from the warehouse. Since then no one had been able to figure out what was going on. There was no word from Angel or any of the team leaders, and all the radio chatter was about smoke, and vampires coming out of nowhere.

* * * * * * * * *

Angel was fighting. Vampires had come from everywhere, hiding in the crates. He had killed a few, but there were too many of them, and he couldn't take the time to go for the kill. He was beginning to wonder, in an idle way, whether or not he would make it out of this one.

He had become separated from Gunn in the smoke, but he could hear him cursing as he fought, so he knew his friend was still alive. Other humans fought on as well, judging by the gunshots he heard around the warehouse, but communications had broken down, and he had no idea whether Buffy had managed to rescue Giles. He rather doubted it. The trap had been too well laid for that.

* * * * * * * * *

"We have to get out of here!" Willow shouted. She was kneeling next to Giles, with Xander standing over them.

Buffy nodded, but Xander was still shooting at the vamps. More had come out of the smoke, and she was fairly certain they were surrounded. She could make it, but it would be a long walk to the exits in this smoke if she had to shepherd Xander, Willow and Giles. And Faith.

She shook her head clear of that distraction and pointed. "I think the loading doors are that way. If Xander can cover our back, keep them from rushing us, maybe you and Faith can carry Giles out."

Willow nodded, but her expression was dubious as she glanced at Faith, who was still crouched on the floor. She had not moved since the appearance of the first vamp, although her eyes were open and still darting around.

Buffy was still talking. "I'll go scout ahead, make sure we're headed the right way. Stay here." She was moving before Willow could protest.

"BUFFY!" Willow screamed.

Buffy turned back, but at the corner of her vision she saw a vamp standing from behind a crate off to her right. She had just enough time to realize he was holding a gun before stars exploded behind her eyes, and she was engulfed in warm darkness.

* * * * * * * * *

Faith had seen the vampire coming. She had seen it, and had flinched anyway. If Buffy hadn't saved her, she would be dead.

She couldn't move. Every muscle in her body was screaming for release, but she couldn't move. She saw what happened around her, her hearing had returned enough for her to listen to Buffy's conversation with Willow, but still, she was frozen. Everything was distant, remote.

The only thing she really saw was blood on her hands. Again. A part of her knew that it was her blood, not someone else's, but she still couldn't move.

She felt like there was a battle raging in her skull. The animal side, her passion, her fury, screamed for movement, for release. For the kill. But she had built a wall of rigid control up against that part of herself, and she was afraid to let it back out. Afraid that if she let go of the monster again, even for a moment, she would fall back into the darkness.

The indecision was what kept her frozen.

Until Willow screamed Buffy's name.

Concern, concern for the only person she truly loved, broke the paralysis enough for her to turn her head. She saw the vamp rising from behind the crate like it was in slow motion. He was different from the other vamps they had seen in the warehouse. He was dressed in something like a uniform. And he had a gun. He was pointing it as he rose, and as Buffy turned and caught sight of him, he fired.

For Faith, time almost stopped. She saw Buffy's head snap back in a spray of blood, but it happened so slowly. She thought she might have time to count all of the drops of blood before they hit the ground, everything was so slow. Buffy flew backwards, and it took forever for her to hit the ground. Faith thought she would grow old and die, or be trapped in this slowtime forever.

Buffy hit the ground with a boneless thud, and the bubble burst.

* * * * * * * * *

Xander turned, and what he saw he would never forget. He saw Buffy while she was still falling, and he was instinctively bringing his weapon around. He saw the vamp that shot her, and more like him coming up behind the first. Unlike the other vamps in the warehouse, they carried firearms.

And then Faith moved.

She uncoiled like a spring, and she moved. Xander would never be sure of what he saw after that. He had seen Buffy fight, but he had never seen anything like this.

The first vamp, the one that had shot Buffy, was turning to dust before he realized what was happening. Xander had a still-frame glimpse of Faith, with the long blade in her hands, and then the head was flying off of another vamp.

The next one tried to fight, swinging his rifle like a club, but the dark Slayer had blocked his swing before it had even begun, her titanium blade, with it's oh-so-decorative looking wooden inlays, was sliding between his ribs to burst his heart.

Faith moved through the dust to get the next one.

* * * * * * * * *

"Smoke," Wesley muttered to himself. "The damned smoke is killing us."

Overhead, Buffy's helicopter circled around again, and suddenly he had an idea. He grabbed a portable radio off the counter and headed for the door.

* * * * * * * * *

Angel fought on. He was wounded, but he still fought. He had killed a few more vamps, and was dusting another when he realized he could feel a breeze.

The smoke was clearing.

Suddenly, the vamps around him began bursting into dust. He turned to see several of the strike team members sniping from the blown loading doors. Behind them, he could just make out Wesley shouting into a radio and waving his arms.

Angel looked around and spotted Gunn, sitting on the floor about twenty feet away. He was surrounded by piles of dust, which began blowing away in the strengthening breeze coming from the door. Angel moved to help Gunn to his feet, then they both turned towards the doors.

As they approached, Angel discovered the source of the breeze. Buffy's helicopter was hovering a foot or two off the ground outside the blown doors, so close to the building that Angel decided it might be safer to stay inside. The downdraft from the rotors was blowing through the loading doors, clearing out the smoke. Wesley saw him coming and ran up to him.

"We've lost contact with the rescue team. Have you seen them?" he shouted over the roar of the wind in the doorway.

Angel shook his head in reply, and turned to move back into the warehouse. Wesley gestured to the men in the doorway, and they all followed him back into the steadily clearing smoke.

* * * * * * * * *

There was still fighting going on, but the clearing smoke gave the advantage back to the humans, and Angel's group found individual survivors still fighting as they moved through the warehouse. As they approached the area where Buffy's team had dropped in, they found fewer survivors, and more signs of damage. Angel could now see where a ring of explosives had gone off, creating a wall of smoke and flaming debris between the area where Giles had been and the rest of the warehouse. Silence fell as he and the others found their way through to a small cleared area.

* * * * * * * * *

Xander looked up as motion drew his eye. He started to reach for his weapon, but then his tired eyes recognized Angel and the others, so he relaxed. He held up his hand before any of them could speak.

"I can't hear, so don't bother talking. We need paramedics and two, make that three, stretchers in here, now. Angel, don't come any closer just yet."

Angel nodded wordlessly as Wesley passed the orders on through the radio. He was still shocked by what he saw before him.

Giles was still strapped to the chair. The damage that had been done to him was no shock to Angel, who had done far worse, but it still disturbed him to see a friend in that shape. But other things disturbed him more. Willow knelt beside Giles, her head hung low. Her hair shielded her face from view, but she had one hand stretched out to rest gently on one of Giles' legs, and Angel guessed that the plastic, almost statue-like appearance of the old librarian was a result of some spell she was working. Willow's left hand was stretched out to rest on Buffy's shoulder. The blonde slayer lay in a pool of her own blood, and she, too, had a plastic, statue-like stillness to her.

Xander stood behind Willow, and in front of the small group, between them and Angel, stood Faith.

Angel almost didn't recognize her. Her hair hung wild in her face, and her posture was feral. She looked like a cat getting ready to pounce. The long blade was resting blade-out against her thigh in her right hand, with blood coating it and her arm, up to her elbow.  She was panting, but otherwise perfectly still.

Angel could hear the wheels on the stretchers approaching, but they stopped when they entered the cleared area and saw the little tableau before them. He gestured, and Xander looked at him. "See if you can get her to put down the knife," he mouthed.

Xander slowly moved from behind Willow, and approached Faith from behind. "Faith?" he called, "Faith, can you hear me? We need to let the stretchers in. Faith?"

She didn't react, and Angel watched as Xander stepped wide around her. As he moved into her view, her head slowly rose until they could see her eyes. They were wide, staring, and Xander could see the fires of pain and rage burning deep within.

"Faith?" he said again, hesitantly reaching towards her.

She moved. Angel was the only one who even saw it, and he was moving forward, already knowing it was too late, when she stopped with the knife millimeters from Xander's throat. She froze, and Xander, who was staring into her face, saw the fire slowly dim from her eyes, and awareness return.

"Faith?" he said again.

"Xander?" she said huskily, and cleared her throat. She suddenly became aware that she was holding a knife to his throat, and lowered her arm, not looking at the blood coating it. "Are you alright? Did I hurt you?" she asked.

"I'm fine," he said. "You saved me. You saved all of us." He gestured to where Willow still knelt, between Buffy and Giles.

The moment passed, and Faith rushed to Buffy's side as the paramedics ran in with the stretchers. She reached out, but was unable to touch Buffy's skin. "Is she alive?" she asked, her voice trembling.

"Yeah," Xander replied. He knelt in front of Willow, and gently reached out to cup her face gently in his hands. "Will, it's okay. You can let go now." He stroked her hair back, and lifted her chin. Her eyes were solid white, and as she drew her hands from the two bodies next to her, power crackled in the air like lightning, making everyone's skin tingle. Slowly, ever so slowly, she reigned it in, and her eyes closed as she collapsed.

Faith's hand touched the now warm skin of her fellow slayer. She could sense the life still within. The paramedics rushed in, and Faith sat back on her heels and let the tears roll down her face.

* * * * * * * * *

Chapter 21

Faith looked up as Xander moved down the hospital corridor towards her. Four hours had passed since their hectic arrival, and her head was still spinning.

Faith had ridden to the hospital with Xander and Willow, third in a parade of ambulances and large black SUV's. They had blown through the doors of the ER in a chaotic whirl of shouted orders and scrambling doctors. Xander had sent some of the more able survivors from the strike team to stand watch outside the trauma rooms, and the docs had taken one look at the grim face of a heavily armed young man, and decided not to argue. Shortly after, a parade of police officers had shown up with a lot of questions, but Faith had watched as Xander pulled a couple of them aside and showed them something that made them all go away.

Xander sat down on the bench beside her with a weary sigh. He had found a black leather duster somewhere, and was wearing it over his blood-stained armor. Faith couldn't help but notice, in some back corner of her weary brain, that he didn't really look like a goofy kid any more. He looked a lot like what he was, a battle-worn soldier.

He grinned at her, and suddenly he was the old Xander again. "Looks like they're both gonna be OK. Buffy has a concussion. The bullet glanced off her skull, just above her right ear. Head wounds bleed a lot, which made it look worse than it was. Some stitches and rest, she'll be fine, as long as she wakes up in the next few hours." He took a deep breath, and continued. "Giles is more serious. They've stabilized him, but he's going to need more work than the Six-Million-Dollar Man before he gets out of here. Skin grafts, splints� It looks like he may be in a wheelchair for a while."

Faith nodded, biting her lip. Relief washed over her in waves. She tried to smile reassuringly at Xander, but her traitorous bottom lip started trembling, and the next thing she knew she was crying again. Tears of relief this time, but still tears. Xander looked at her for a moment, and then slowly put his arms around her and pulled her to his chest. She clutched him gratefully, needing that reassurance as she sobbed into his neck.

After a few minutes, she pulled herself together and pushed away from him. He looked her up and down, and said, "You look like you could use a shower. C'mon, you can use the one in Willow's room."

"Is she okay?" Faith asked as they stood up.

"Yeah, just exhausted, mostly. They've admitted her for observation, but she just needs rest, really. I didn't feel like arguing. Cordelia should be here in a little while with your bag, so you can change. Until then you can put on one of these swingin' hospital robes!"

Faith laughed, she couldn't help herself. Xander had always been good at lightening the mood.

* * * * * * * * *

Xander was sitting by Willow's bed, holding her hand as she slept, when Faith stepped out of the bathroom, still toweling her hair dry. She paused for a moment, feeling strangely self-conscious wearing nothing but the thin, damp hospital robe, but then she thought about how ridiculous that was, considering her personal history with Xander. The thought was so silly, it made her chuckle under her breath.

Xander looked up at the sound. "Feeling better?" he asked quietly.

Faith nodded in reply, but inwardly, she considered the question. She did feel better. In fact, she felt a LOT better. Not the same kind of wild energy she used to get in the old days, but better than she had felt in a long time. She felt� peaceful. A kind of warm satisfaction filled her, and she wondered if this was how Buffy had felt after a hunt, back in the old days.

"Faith," Xander said quietly, drawing her out of her musings. "There's something I have to tell you."

Fear filled her instantly. "Is it-?"

"Buffy's fine!" he said quickly, seeing the pain already blossoming on her face. "So's Giles, so far. No, this is about me."

"You don't have to say anything, Xander."

"Yeah, I kinda do. It's important to me, okay?" he said, the determination to get this settled was plain on his face. Faith sighed in surrender, and sat down in the chair across from him.

"Okay," she said.

"I didn't want you to come back."

Faith blinked. She had assumed he wanted to apologize to her, like everybody else had. She was a little shocked by what he had said, but part of her was relieved. The continual forgiveness parade had been making her cry all too often of late, and she had an image to maintain. "Okay�" she said, inviting him to continue.

He sighed, and ran his hand through his hair wearily. She noticed that he had taken off the clamshell armor, but still wore the bodysuit under the long black leather coat he had got from somewhere. The trim figure she remembered from years ago had become the hard, well shaped body of a soldier, and she felt the once-familiar stirrings of heat, low down in her belly. What she had once called the 'down-low tickle.' Apparently some things never changed. She squirmed slightly in her chair and covered her legs a little better with the thin robe, suddenly wishing that Cordelia would hurry up with those clothes. She really wanted a pair of underwear.

"I'm not really sure why I had so much lingering hostility, but I think it had something to do with trust," he began again, and she tried to concentrate on what he was saying, instead of how tight that bodysuit was. Where was her self-control when she needed it? "I trusted you with something very intimate, and you tried to kill me. That hurt me, a lot. I've figured out that it takes me a long time to forgive someone who violates my trust. Hell, it took Angel and I years to learn to be civil to each other, and I still think about staking his ass from time to time. And I KNOW he's good now." He looked up at her earnestly. "I wasn't so sure about you, and I was pretty hesitant to risk it."

He looked at the floor for a moment and took a deep breath. Then he looked her in the eye with as much earnestness as he could muster, and said, "I was wrong. I'm sorry. You saved my life tonight, along with the lives of virtually everyone who matters to me. I'll never forget that."

She smiled at him, genuinely touched. She no longer had to fight the urge to jump his bones, thankfully, and it looked like he wasn't going to make her get all teary, either. "It's okay, Xander. I wouldn't have trusted me, either. Hell, I didn't trust myself, really. I did it for B." She stopped, and looked at the floor. Her eyes were suddenly burning. Dammit! She was becoming worse than a leaky faucet. "Can I see her now?" she asked, wishing her voice didn't sound so thick.

He looked at her with understanding eyes. "Sure. C'mon, they should have put her in her room now. It's just a little ways down the hall."

As she walked beside him down the hall, a question that had been bouncing around in the back of her brain since they arrived at the hospital popped out. "How did you get rid of the cops?"

He grinned his sheepish Xander grin at her, and winked. She chuckled, she couldn't help it. It was amazing how he could flip from hard-bitten combat stud to goofy-old-Xander without her even seeing it.

He pulled his wallet out of a coat pocket, and flipped it open to show her a strange ID card. She took the wallet out of his hand and examined it closely. The card was about the same size as a credit card, but it was flat black, with only his picture in one corner on the front, and a ten digit number in the other corner. "What the hell is this?" she asked.

He looked at her, totally serious again. "Top secret, very hush-hush, don't-fuck-with-me ID. If the cops run that ID number through NCIC, the National Criminal Information Center, that's basically what comes back."

She handed the wallet back to him. "And you acquired this little gem how, exactly?"

He took it back from her and put it away. "We have much better connections these days. Before Riley died, he got in touch with certain�government elements who are aware of how unreal reality can be." He stopped speaking as they passed a nurses station, and then continued once they were alone in the hall again. "He basically got us set up as an autonomous secret government agency. We take care of our own funding, and we help them out whenever they stumble on to something that falls into our area. Otherwise, they pretend we don't exist, but they give us all kinds of perks. Like this ID. It'll get me into any government building, anywhere, from the deepest levels of the Pentagon, to the White House. Although there would be some explaining to do, if I tried anything so foolish. I'm honestly not sure if the Pentagon or the President actually know we exist."

"You've got to be kidding me," she said.

"You're right, I am; the President actually sent me a box of cigars last week," he said conversationally, and flashed the old Xander grin again. She found herself chuckling as he gestured at a doorway.

"Who would've thought that Clinton bitch would actually win?" she said, and walked through the door.

The sight of Buffy lying unconscious in a hospital bed ended Faith's good mood instantly. In fact, she had to suppress an urge to hit something. Instead she pulled a chair to Buffy's bedside and sat down, gently clasping the blonde Slayer's hand.

Xander was strongly reminded of his own position in Willow's room when Faith had come out of the shower, and he told himself firmly that it wasn't his business, not at the moment anyway. He quietly sat down in a chair by the wall.

They sat in silence, waiting for the blonde Slayer to return to them.

* * * * * * * * *

Natasha licked the blood from her fingers as she paced angrily. Her latest plaything had only amplified her frustration with having left the old Watcher alive. "I don't understand why you didn't let me stay. Then we wouldn't have anything more to worry about."

"I wouldn't be too sure of that, my childe," replied the ancient vampire in the chair behind the desk. "In my time, I have seen empires rise and fall, and if there is one thing I have learned, it is the virtue of information. In my youth, wars would be over for years before we even knew who won. Today, we can watch battles in real-time." He gestured to the large array of flat-panel display screens hanging on the wall. Infrared videos of the fight in the warehouse were playing from several different angles and locations. "For instance, we had no idea there was another Slayer helping them."

"Another Slayer," fumed Natasha. "Whoever heard of such a thing? It is an abomination."

"Now, now, my dear, there were rumors several years ago�"

"In my time, when you died, you stayed dead," she raged on. She stopped, blushing suddenly and looking shyly at her master, the very image of an innocent schoolgirl. "Unless, of course, you were killed by a powerful master who saw a use for you�"

Alistair Caine smiled kindly at his favorite, most dangerous childe. "Don't worry, my dear. I'm sure you will have an opportunity, soon enough, to show them how death is supposed to work."

* * * * * * * * *

Faith awoke with a start when Wesley walked into the room. A glance at the clock told her she had been dozing for an hour. She rubbed sleep from her eyes and glanced at the empty chair Xander had been sitting in. He had probably gone back to sit with Willow.

"Sorry to wake you, Faith, but I wanted to see how Buffy was doing. Has she awaked?"

"No, she hasn't," the dark Slayer replied.

"Yes, she has," said Buffy quietly.

"Buffy!" Faith said, turning back to look at her fellow Slayer. "How are you feeling? Do you need a doctor?"

"I feel like I got kicked in the head by a Fyarl demon, but I don't think I need a doctor. What happened?"

"You got shot in the head by a vamp," Faith told the blonde Slayer, as she reached out to take her hand. "I thought you were dead."

"Is Giles�" Buffy began slowly.

"It appears that he will be fine, after some work," answered Wesley quickly. "I have just been speaking to him.  He had some rather, ah, disturbing things to tell me, before he was rushed off for another surgery."

"Like what?" Faith asked.

"I thought I would wait until we were ready to meet as a group. I need to run back to the office for some background materials, anyway, and the last time I checked, Willow was still asleep. Xander and Cordelia are with her now."

"Cordelia? Did she bring-?" Faith stopped as she spotted the bags sitting by the restroom door. "Never mind. Okay, Wes, go do what you've gotta do. I'm gonna change, and then, if Willow's awake, we can all meet in here and you can share the good news."

Wesley was looking at her strangely, and Faith stopped, realizing what she had just done. Wesley looked at Buffy, and Faith turned to look at her fellow Slayer, as well.

"Well? You heard what she said. Tell the others," Buffy said. Then she winked at Faith.

Faith winked back, and continued on to the bathroom.

* * * * * * * * *

Cordelia paused in the doorway, surprised by how nervous she was. She inwardly berated herself. She had been saving souls, having visions, and fighting demons full-time for five years, now, so facing up to an ex shouldn't be that big a trauma. But it was.

The room was dim, with the curtains pulled and the overheads off to facilitate the sleep of the small redhead lying very still under the covers. Cordelia couldn't help but feel a pang of concern for her friend lying sleeping on the bed. She and Willow had become good, if long-distance, friends over the last few years, and Cordelia was not happy to see her in a hospital, even if it was just so she could get some sleep.

Xander sat in a chair against the wall across from Willow's bed. His head was tilted back, and he was gently snoring. His feet were stretched out before him, and Cordelia found herself examining his lean muscularity with an eye sharpened by half a decade of life in the City of Beautiful People. He was handsome in a way that many of the men in LA were not, with a kind of 'weathered reality' to his features that was missing from most of Tinseltown's pretty-boys. Years of construction and vampire slaying had developed his muscular frame in deceptive ways. He wore a long black leather coat that bore a remarkable resemblance to the one Angel often wore, a fact that would no doubt irritate Xander if it was pointed out to him, and underneath it he still wore the bulletproof combat suit worn by all strike team members. It fit like a second skin, and Cordelia couldn't resist taking a long look at his sharply defined muscles.

He shifted slightly, and whimpered in his sleep. She moved closer, close enough to see his eyes shifting behind his closed lids. He was dreaming. She knelt down quietly beside him, watching him dream. He shifted again, and then his body shuddered, like he was wracked with some emotion. His hair fell down across his forehead, and without thinking, she reached up with one hand to push it back. Her fingertips brushed lightly across his skin, then without thinking about it, she laid her hand gently over his eyes.

* * * * * * * * *

Pain. Not physical pain, but the gut wrenching, soul churning pain of spiritual agony. She opened her eyes with a gasp. She was standing in a cemetery, and after a moment, she recognized it. She had spent more time than she cared to remember roaming the cemeteries, her last few years in Sunnydale, and this was one of them. Shady Vale, she thought it was called.

It was raining. She hadn't noticed it at first, but as soon as she did she became aware that she was drenched, that it was pouring rain. It didn't rain often in Sunnydale, but when it did, it was like the skies opened up floodgates, and dumped an endless deluge on the small town.

She saw Xander. He was on his knees, and the pain she felt emanated from him in waves. His head was thrown back, allowing her to see his blood drenched face turned up to the clouds. His eyes were closed, and although the rain somehow didn't wash the blood from his face, she could see streaks where the tears had made channels through the blood. He was sobbing, the deep, ugly sobs that you can only do when you are alone.

It was night, and there was something huddled on the ground a few feet in front of him. She began to move closer, trying to see what had caused this agony she could feel pouring from him. But, as she took a step nearer, he collapsed into a ball, and she snapped back to awareness.

* * * * * * * * *

She came back to herself with a start, pulling her hand from where it had come to rest on Xander's cheek as he, too, awakened. She felt a faint throbbing in her skull, but it wasn't nearly as bad as the headaches that accompanied her normal, unprovoked visions.

"Cordy?" he asked quietly, blinking up at her in the dim light. "Is that you, or am I still dreaming?"

She stepped back suddenly, caught off guard by his remark and hoping the dim light prevented him from seeing her blush. "You were dreaming about me?"

He gave her an odd look. "I don't actually remember what I was dreaming about. Why?"

"Not important. Here, I brought you some clothes." She held out the bag he had left at the hotel, and his hand brushed hers briefly as he took it. She tried to ignore the urge to shiver at the tingle the contact gave her.

"Any word on the others?" he asked, as he opened the bag and began pulling clothes out of it. "Is Buffy awake yet?"

"Not when I was in there just a minute ago. Wesley was going to speak to Faith, though, so who knows. I just came down here to drop off you guys' bags." She started to tell him that she wasn't a delivery service, but the worry and care on his face when she mentioned Willow's name shut her up. "Is she okay?" she asked instead.

"Yeah, she just needs to sleep to recover her energy. I just don't want her to wake up alone." He picked up the stack of clothes he had drawn from the bag, and stood up. "Will you hang out in here while I go take a shower, and change? I'll only be a few minutes." When she nodded, he gave her the old Xander grin, briefly, and then turned and went into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him.

Cordelia sank down in the chair, trying not to imagine water running down his naked body, and instead thought about second chances.

* * * * * * * * *

A few hours later, a freshly awakened Willow had gathered with the others in Buffy's hospital room. To Faith, it felt almost like one of the old-time Scooby Meetings, except for the absence of Giles. They all chatted comfortably for a while, with the Sunnydale gang exchanging gossip and stories with Cordelia and Wesley. But after a few minutes, Buffy brought them all back on track.

"As much fun as this is, my head is starting to hurt again, so let's get this show on the road. Wesley, what did Giles have to say?"

Wesley cleared his throat nervously. "Hmm, ah, well. Giles was in rather a lot of, ahh, discomfort, when we spoke together, so he was somewhat brief. He told me that he had been kidnapped by vampires, in particular one vampire."

"Well, don't keep us all in suspense. Who was he?" Faith asked.

"Actually, it's a she. I went back to the office, and retrieved these from the old Council database. Here is a picture." He pulled out a folder and began handing out printouts of a lovely young dark-haired girl. It was a hand-drawn sketch, and was very detailed and obviously very old. "Her name is, or was, Natasha Lyonne."

They all studied the picture for a minute, and then Xander spoke up. "She doesn't look so tough. What's her deal?"

Wesley looked at him for a moment, and then at Buffy and Faith. He looked at the floor before he continued speaking. "Natasha Lyonne is somewhat unique. You see�" he trailed off uncomfortably. He looked back up at Buffy and Faith for a moment, and back at the floor.

"C'mon, Wes, over-dramatize much? What's with the suspense? Just spit it out, already," Cordelia said with exasperation.

Wesley cleared his throat again, and then looked back up at Buffy and Faith. "What makes Natasha unique among vampires is that four hundred years ago, she was the Slayer. In point of fact, she is the only Slayer in history to be successfully turned."

"Oh," Cordelia said. The room was silent while everyone digested this.

"Well," Xander drawled after a moment. "Looks like we've got a new Big Bad."

End of Episode One.


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