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 9

Buffy awakened with a gasp, her fingers clenched in the sheets. She was soaked with sweat. As she caught her breath and recovered from the nightmare, she tried to focus on the memories of her dream. Its theme was familiar, running towards someone, trying to save them before it was too late. She didn't know who, or what, she was saving him from, she just knew she had to get to him before it was too late. She had had similar dreams about all her friends, at one time or another. Even more about the friends she had already failed to save.

She decided it probably wasn't a Slayer dream, but she dutifully sat up and logged the details she remembered on the laptop on the table next to her bed. It was routine procedure, and Giles and Willow would compare it to other recent dreams, looking for patterns. She had learned that she wasn't always right about judging which of her dreams were prophecy or not. The hard way.

As she finished, she heard Faith thrashing and crying out in the next room. She grabbed her cane and limped to the panel separating the bedrooms. Sliding it open quietly, she saw that Faith was having a nightmare of her own, and a bad one by the look of it. She limped to the bed and gently shook the other Slayer awake.

"I'M SORRY!" the dark hair girl shouted, just before she awaked, sobbing uncontrollably. Buffy pulled her into to a tight hug immediately, as the girl continued to sob. "I didn't mean it�I didn't mean it�" she sobbed over and over into Buffy's shoulder. Buffy could feel Faith's tears soaking through the silk of her nightshirt, and they prompted tears in her own eyes.

"Shhh�Shhh�" she soothed. "It's okay, Faith. It's just a dream. You're here with me, you're okay," she said quietly, stroking Faith's back. For once, Faith's touch didn't provoke immediate lust in the blonde slayer. It hurt her to see Faith in pain like this, a pain she could identify with all too readily these days. She had plenty of memories of nights where she awakened crying or screaming, these last few years. It was one of the many reasons she avoided letting the men she brought home spend the night.

Faith's tears began to slow, and after a few minutes she gently pulled away from Buffy. Buffy released her but captured the dark Slayer's hand with both her own, and quietly asked, "Are you okay?"

"Yeah," Faith replied with a sigh. "Thanks. I don't get that one so often anymore, but� It's a doozy."

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"It's no big, B. Just the residual guilt from a psychotic episode," Faith said quietly, with a hint of bitterness.

"I have them too, you know," Buffy said gently. "I'd like to hear about it. Then, maybe� you could listen to one of mine?" She tried not to sound pleading, but Faith heard the entreaty in her voice.

"Okay, B." She slid over, silently inviting Buffy to climb into bed. Buffy did so, and the two slayers lay next to each other in the huge bed, laying flat on their backs in the darkness. There was plenty of room, and Faith kept plenty of space between them, although she held onto Buffy's hand. Faith had noticed how uncomfortable Buffy had been when she had carried her earlier, and didn't want the blonde slayer to feel that discomfort now.

They lay there silently in the darkness, and Faith struggled with her reluctance to begin. She wanted to tell Buffy about it, but she didn't know how and was afraid to sound pathetic. She felt pathetic enough already.

"Was it about�Finch?" the blonde slayer prompted quietly. She didn't want to pressure Faith, but she didn't want the dark-haired Slayer to close herself off, either. She wanted the kind of friendship they had had the potential for, before. She wanted more than that, in truth, but she wanted that, at least.

"Yeah," Faith answered, relieved. "I'm in the ruins of the school, and he's there. He's dead, and all decayed and stuff, but he's yelling at me. How he was coming to us for help, because he knew what the Mayor was trying to do and wanted to stop it. He wanted to get out, but I killed him. If I hadn't, we could have killed the Mayor before he became invincible, and all those people wouldn't have died, the school wouldn't have been destroyed, all that stuff."

Faith pulled her hand out of Buffy's and turned to lay on her side, facing the other slayer, propping herself up on her elbow. "I failed, y'know?" she asked reflectively, then continued before Buffy could interrupt. "I failed my test. My calling. My big moment was him."

"Faith�" Buffy began, emulating her pose and facing Faith in the darkness. She could just make out the other Slayer's face.

"I thought a lot about it, while I was in prison. My big test. Yours was Angel," Faith continued, overriding Buffy. "You loved him, but you had to send him to hell, in spite of that. Even with his soul back. That was your big test, and you did it. It hurt, but you were strong enough. You sacrificed your love. That was your test.

Mine was control, and I blew it. I couldn't control myself. A part of me knew, even before you said anything, that he wasn't a vampire. The same part of me that told me to talk to you that time you came by after the fight with that phony Watcher. It told me to trust you, and I didn't listen. Just like I didn't listen that night. I never listened. I didn't listen when it told me to go with you to Giles, and be straight. I didn't listen when it told me to go with Wesley, even if he was a dork, and face the Council. Take my medicine."

She sighed. "And I didn't listen when it told me to come find you, talk to you, after I woke up from the coma. To apologize, and work it out. Ironically enough, it was Red who got me hearing it again. While I was you. I ran into her in the Bronze, and she spotted a vamp. That little voice that had been quietly screaming at me for quite a while by then told me to go kill it, but I suppressed it, like always. Then I remembered that I was pretending to be you, so I went ahead and went after it. And I saved this girl. It was no big deal to me, just an inconvenience of pretending to be you, but she was all grateful. She didn't know me, didn't know you, but I could tell she meant it. She was sincere. And it felt good. Real good. And I started wondering if maybe that voice was right, all along."

"By the time I broke down in LA, I knew I had failed. My whole life, everybody told me I was good-for-nothing, a waste. A failure. And I had gone out and proved them right. When� when you came, to LA, I had just killed a demon, there in Angel's apartment. When I saw the blood on my hands, it was just like the first time, with Finch. That was when I decided to turn myself in. I was a failure, and I deserved to be punished. I couldn't make up for what I had done, but I gradually learned to control myself. I got in fights, people came at me with shivs more than once in the yard, but I didn't kill any of them. I hurt some pretty bad, before I learned to pull my punches, but I didn't kill them. And I never hit a guard.

That was how I met Julissa. She had been ordered to stay out of my cell, because I was 'dangerous,' but she had noticed that I hadn't fought the guards. So she came down to talk to me. She helped me come back to myself, made me realized that I couldn't help myself or anyone else by killing myself, and helped me deal with some�problems�that had, uh, contributed to my inability to control myself. Eventually I got motivated, and then got out."

Faith took a deep breath, and said quietly, "I haven't been able to Slay, since. I tried, after I got out. I stayed with Angel for a few days, and I went out on a patrol with him. I wanted to contribute, to help him. But I couldn't. I could fight, some, but when the moment came, the chance for the kill, I froze. Everything came back, the blood on my hands, and I froze. Angel got hurt, the beast got away and killed a few more people, and I couldn't move."

She took another deep breath, and continued. "Angel didn't hold it against me, but I couldn't stay. I couldn't stand living there and not being able to help, so I called J and she hooked me up with the job upstate. I asked Angel not to mention anything about this to you, or Giles, and I split. I hid out upstate in a little town with no monsters, because I wouldn't have been able to fight them. I've failed my Calling."

She turned away from Buffy and curled up, and said, "I didn't say anything before, because I wanted to come here, and see you. And everybody. To apologize. But I won't be staying, because I wouldn't be any good to you. I'd like stick around for the weekend, to talk to the others, but I'll take off on Monday and get out of your way."

Tears were rolling down her face as she finished, and she waited for Buffy to berate her for wasting her time, for letting her drag her all the way down here for nothing.

Buffy didn't say any of those things. Instead, she slid over behind Faith and wrapped her arms gently around her fellow slayer and pulled her gently back against her, wrapping her arms comfortingly around the dark haired girl. Faith began to sob, and Buffy rocked her gently, stroking her hair. She had listened quietly and carefully to everything Faith had said, because she knew the other girl had had to say it, and she couldn't refute the girl's arguments until she knew what they were.

"You didn't fail your test," she said, when Faith's sobbing had quieted. "You made a mistake, several, but you didn't fail. We all make mistakes, but the test isn't over till you die, Faith. You haven't failed it yet. Don't give up until it's over. At the moment, I think you're doing pretty good, over all."

She shook the dark-haired slayer gently. "We all make mistakes. God knows I've made plenty. Yeah, I may have sent Angel to hell and saved the world, but I sure as hell don't consider that a victory. To me, that's one of my worst failures. He was already dead, he died the instant he lost his soul. Just like any other person who gets vamped. If I had killed him, Angelus wouldn't have been trying to awaken Acathla, and Angel's soul wouldn't have been summoned back from wherever it went and sent to hell. Not to mention the fact that before that occurred, Angelus had killed a lot of people, people close to me. He killed the woman Giles loved. She was trying to curse him again, for me, and he killed her.

I had a chance to kill him, several, before that. But I couldn't do it. I couldn't Slay the vampire that had killed my lover, and because of that I had to send my lover to hell. I don't consider that a victory. I have recurring dreams, a lot like yours, but about Ms. Calender, and others. We lost a team while I was on sick leave, because I wasn't there. It hurts. But I try to do better."

"But I won't be able to," Faith said. "I can't Slay, I can't make up for my mistakes."

"You don't have to Slay to do that," Buffy said. "I didn't want you here just because you could Slay. I just wanted you here."

"Why?" Faith asked quietly, trying not to get her hopes up.

"Because I care about you," Buffy replied. She resisted the impulse to tell her how much. She didn't need to complicate the situation by dragging romantic issues into it. "I still regret, I've ALWAYS regretted, losing the friendship that we could have had. I don't want to, anymore."

Faith sighed, but nestled tighter into Buffy's arms. It was enough.

* * * * * * * * *

Chapter 10

Faith awaked at 6 a.m. on the dot. She had not been a morning person by nature, but a few years in prison had changed that. She gradually became aware that she was laying on her side, and Buffy was nestled against her back with her arms around her. One of her hands was gently cupping Faith's breast. Faith tried not to enjoy the feeling too much, although her nipples hardened immediately. She told herself not to read anything into it, because Buffy had always been pretty cuddly-feely with everyone. A great one for hugs, was Buffy. Faith just wished she had realized how much she had wanted them, needed them, before it had been too late, before.

She gently disentangled herself without waking the blonde slayer, and took a guilty moment to admire the view of the beautiful woman curled up in her bed. She hadn't been in any state to notice Buffy's appearance last night. She was wearing an oversized peach nightshirt, made out of very sheer silk. Faith also observed that she wasn't wearing anything else. Buffy had the sheet between her legs, and Faith let her eyes follow the perfect lines of Buffy's calf, her smooth thighs, coming to rest on the curve of Buffy's enticing ass, uncovered, before guiltily pulling herself away from the view. But she couldn't help but wonder if Buffy normally slept bare, as she herself used to. Another habit broken in prison.

Faith looked consideringly at her bathroom, before shaking her head. She didn't want to wake Buffy. Instead she quietly walked into the blonde Slayer's bedroom, and performed her morning ablutions in Buffy's bathroom. She noted in passing that Buffy had improved her neatness with regards to organizing her cosmetics, which had been scattered everywhere the last time she had been in Buffy's old bathroom back at her Mom's. She had also increased her collection to rival a department store, to Faith's eyes. And she had thought the guest bathroom was overstocked.

She also noticed the condoms in the medicine cabinet, although there was a distinct lack of any other male personal paraphernalia. She took that as a hopeful sign that Buffy wasn't involved, at the moment. She showered quietly, then wrapped a towel around herself and quietly went back to her own bathroom to brush her hair. Buffy had not awaked, and she carefully tuned her sensitive Slayer hearing to the sound of Buffy's even breathing while she finished her morning routine in her own bathroom, and then put on a black silk robe she found hanging on the back of the door. It was her size, she noted.

Stepping back out into her room, she confirmed that Buffy was still dead to the world. She then submitted to her own naturally curious nature, and began casually snooping in Buffy's bedroom, listening to the blonde slayer breathe, all the while.

The first thing she did was look in Buffy's bedside table, and discovered that the once uptight Slayer had at least learned that you didn't need a man to enjoy yourself. She also observed another box of condoms, open this time, which told her the blonde was still straight as an arrow. She sighed wistfully and moved on to Buffy's closet. The size of the wardrobe within stunned her. She could have clothed the entire prison population with the contents of this closet! Of course, she reminded herself, as a Slayer you tended to run through your wardrobe pretty quickly. In the old days, she had dealt with that by wearing cheap, trashy disposable clothing or something durable enough to stand it, like her old favorite leather pants. Buffy had always seemed to wind up fighting evil in a prom dress or something.

She smiled as she remembered the Homecoming dance, her only "official" date with Buffy, although she knew Buffy hadn't seen it as one. Faith had given her the line about 'using a couple of studs,' but she had been half-hoping to get the blonde Slayer drunk and drag her home. It hadn't worked out that way, of course, but Buffy had looked incredibly sexy in her disheveled state after being hunted with Cordelia, and Faith had savored that memory later that night, alone. If only� No. Better not to dwell on things she couldn't change. She silently closed the closet door and left the room.

Her stomach reminded her of her duties to it, and she headed into the kitchen. It was separated from the living area by a freestanding counter, kind of like a bar, with stools and everything. Faith could imagine Xander and Red sitting there chatting with Buffy while they ate, and wished she had been able to share in those moments. Maybe now she could. But first she had to make breakfast. She started with coffee.

* * * * * * * * *

Buffy's sensitive nose woke her up, and she detected the delicious aromas of coffee, pancakes (or maybe waffles,) eggs, bacon, toast, and assorted other unidentifiable but savory smells. She stretched, and smiled when she realized she was in Faith's bed, although not under the circumstances she would have wished.

* * * * * * * * *

She smiled, her mind wistfully playing a few images of how THAT might have been, before guiltily shoving them out of her mind. Then she slid out of bed, stopped in her room to grab her favorite robe, a big blue fluffy one that always made her feel like a little girl in her daddy's robe. It was warm and soft, and thick enough to hide the embarrassing physical responses that being around Faith had been evoking in her lately.

She headed into the kitchen, and was stunned to see Faith in the midst of cooking a lavish breakfast. In addition to the things she had already smelled, which she was pleased to note included waffles, not pancakes, she also noticed fresh fruit, cleaned and sliced, and what looked like two bowls of her favorite cereal, Banana Nut Crunch, one of which Faith appeared to be eating while she cooked. That girl still had an appetite like a goat.

* * * * * * * * *

Faith looked up when her sensitive hearing alerted her to the sound of Buffy limping across the living room, and she smiled at how cute Buffy looked, her tiny frame swallowed up in that enormous robe. She couldn't help noticing Buffy's limp, which concerned her, or the fact that her limping walk allowed Faith to glimpse a long stretch of bare, beautiful leg slipping out of the robe every other step, which provoked an immediate physical response that she was going to have to learn to suppress, sooner or later.

Buffy sat down on one of the stools at the counter, and Faith finished the eggs and bacon, prepared two loaded plates, and placed one before Buffy before sitting down before her own. "Morning, sleepyhead," she greeted the blonde slayer, and Buffy smiled at her.

"Sorry," she said. "I normally set my alarm, but I turned it off when I woke up last night, and since, well, I didn't, uh, y'know, so I overslept. Sorry," she finished, and covered her embarrassment by digging into the heaping plate before her.

Faith smiled, and set to demolishing her own breakfast, as well.

"This is incredible, Faith," Buffy said with some surprise, after a few moments. "I had no idea you could cook." She looked up from her plate, and eyes caught the aroused nipples poking through the black silk of the dark haired Slayer's robe. Her breath caught, and she quickly shoved another forkful of waffles into her mouth, hoping Faith hadn't noticed.

"Well, I couldn't, not really, before. But when J talked me into getting some education in the Valley, I took a pretty wide variety of electives. It was something to fill the time, y'know? So, among other things, I discovered I had a talent for engines and recipes. It was kind of cool, finding out I had some other talent besides killing. Made me feel like maybe I wasn't completely worthless." She looked up from her own plate to catch Buffy trying not to stare at her still-hard nipples. Realizing she had been caught, Buffy began to blush, and Faith felt her own cheeks heating in response. To cover her embarrassment, she said evenly, "It's a little chilly in here, B. I couldn't find the thermostat."

"Oh!" Buffy said, covering her open mouth and going absolutely crimson. "I, uh, well, uh," she paused, took a deep breath, not looking at Faith, and said in a loud voice, "Willis, what have I told you about turning the thermostat up when we have guests?"

Faith notice the sudden quiet as the A/C kicked off. It was a good one, she observed, she hadn't even heard it until it was gone. "Willis? Should I reconsider my plan to walk around here naked all day? Who's Willis?" She suddenly considered the possibility that Buffy's large robe belonged to some large boyfriend that she simply hadn't seen yet. She tried not to let that bother her.

"Willis is," Buffy paused, considering, and Faith's heart plummeted to her knees, "well I guess you could call him my butler." She smiled and Faith jumped as a little silver bell on the breakfast bar counter rang once. "He's also a ghost."

"He's a ghost? What, like Casper?" Faith asked in shock.

"Not exactly, but close. Willis was one of those old school English butlers, like Alfred from Batman. He was brought over here in the twenties, by some rich guy who wanted to fit in to high society. I guess he was some kind of overnight millionaire, back in those days, and he was trying to put some polish on his image. From what we've been able to gather, he was a really nice guy, a blue-collar type who struck it rich, and Willis was very fond of him.

Anyway, Willis served his master and the family for a number of years. One night, the regular chauffer had gotten sick, and Willis was driving the master's family home from the theater, when they were attacked by vampires. Willis managed to escape, but the family was killed. His master killed himself out of grief, and Willis died of a heart attack when he found the body. He was cremated, and the ashes were returned to the estate, which was eventually sold. His ashes ended up in an attic for a number of years, and his ghost haunted the mansion, off and on. Apparently he only came out when the people who lived there had children. He wasn't mean or evil, but he scared everybody nonetheless, and the checkered history of the mansion eventually came to Angel's attention a few years back. He and Wesley, who had been through a similar situation with Cordelia, figured out what was going on and Cordelia managed to communicate with Willis, after a fashion. He showed them his history, and managed to get across that he was trying to atone for his guilt over abandoning his master's family through service. Cordelia already had a live-in ghost, however, so Angel thought of me. They passed the idea to Willis, along with what I do, and Willis was eager to serve a Slayer. He showed them where to find his ashes, which they sent to me, allowing him to come here.

So now, he's my butler. I feel guilty sometimes, having a butler, but he likes to do things for me, and it's another one of those perks that you get used to. He likes guests, too, although he usually won't reveal himself until and unless I talk about him, because he doesn't like to scare people. But he's always around, and apparently he's a little more sophisticated than the one that lives with Cordy. He can write little notes, if he has something important to say, and he rings that little bell whenever he has something to tell you, or to show his approval and agreement." Buffy smiled fondly at the little bell.

"Wow," Faith said. "That's wicked cool. But, and I mean no offense here Willis," she looked around apologetically, wondering where you talked when you talked to a ghost, "doesn't it make you uncomfortable sometimes, wondering if he's watching you, uh, y'know?" Faith finished with an embarrassed smile and shrug.

"You know, your speech patterns have really changed. You used to just say screw or shit or whatever. What's up with that? Not that I mind or anything, just wondering?"

"Well, among other things, J taught me a little about the value of not offending people with everything you say. I'm not great at it, but I'm trying to be polite, B, y'know?"

"Don't worry," Buffy replied. "I'm not easily offended, these days. At least not by my friends, among which I hope you know I count you." She smiled at Faith, and Faith gave her a relieved smile in return. "But," she continued, "I have to tell you that I've kind of missed your old habit of telling it like it is, and shooting from the hip."

"Okay, so back to the point, doesn't it bug you to have Willis watching when your using some stud, or taking a shower?" Faith jumped again as the little bell rang twice, sharply.

"Don't worry, Willis, she's doesn't know. That's why she's asking," Buffy said reassuringly towards the bell. "Willis is the soul, pardon my pun, of discretion," she said to Faith. "Just imagine how embarrassed Giles would be if he walked in on you in the shower. Willis is ten times worse. Or better, depending on how you look at it. He's a ghost, so it's not like he has hormones to deal with. Or a sex drive. He hangs out around here, mostly, and only shows himself in the bedrooms if you're not there, or you call for him. He goes in when I'm gone and picks up clothes and things for me, but it's not like he's a big gossip or something. He's very devoted. The one time I, uh, brought a bad guy, uh, here," Buffy was blushing again, and Faith adored the cute little way she tucked a stray lock of blonde hair behind her ear before she continued, "Willis wouldn't even let him in. I got off the elevator, and Willis shoved him back in and sent it down before I could do anything. Then he wrote me a note explaining that this guy was some kind of demon worshipper, here to drug me or something. He was kind of vague, but we tracked the guy down and he was definitely evil."

"Okay, I was just askin', Willis," Faith said. "It's not like it bothers me. I've let plenty of people watch me do all kinds of stuff, anyway. I just wondered how you felt about it, B."

Buffy stared at Faith, curious and sad both, noticing the bitterness in Faith's statement. She wanted to ask 'what kind of stuff,' but she sensed that now wasn't the time. Instead, she said, "Well, now you've met Willis. If you want it warmer or cooler, just ask him. He also cooks a surprisingly large variety, considering he's English, no offense, Willis. He'll get you the phone, or just about anything else, but you'd better be ready to catch, because sometimes he tries to be helpful and can catch you by surprise. He's also," Buffy lowered her voice and looked around, "a very good listener. He doesn't interrupt, doesn't tell your secrets, and brings you tissues at all the right times. If you ever, y'know, need somebody to talk to besides me. Or anybody else."

Faith smiled, and said, "Thanks. I just might take you up on that, Willis. From time to time."

Buffy smiled back at her, and said, "Good. Now, on with the day. I thought maybe I could give you a tour of the offices, introduce you to some of our key people, stuff like that? Plus that would give me an excuse to get some work done, since I'm supposed to be on vacation because of the leg. But we don't have to, if you wanted to do something else�"

"No," Faith said. "I'd like that. I'm wicked curious as to just what's going on here, I must admit."

"Good," Buffy said. "I'm just going to jump in the shower and get dressed. Did you find your clothes? Are they okay? I mean, I asked her for variety, because I could, but our offices are pretty casual, so it's not like you have to dress up or anything�" Buffy trailed off, realizing she was babbling.

"They're fine, B. Go take a shower, I already had one."

* * * * * * * * *

Buffy emerged from her bathroom in a cloud of steam, wrapped in a white terrycloth robe that was closer to her size than her favorite blue one, still toweling dry her hair. She smiled when she saw that Willis had laid out her workout clothes on the bed. She dressed quickly, idly wondering whether she could talk Faith into sparring with her later. At least it would give her the excuse to touch her fellow Slayer.

Her mind wandered back to the image of Faith's nipples poking through black silk, and she shook her head, disgusted with herself. Still, it hadn't seemed THAT cold to her�

She stopped in surprise in the act of opening the glass patio door, observing Faith out on the patio. The dark haired Slayer was performing a Tai Chi routine very similar to Buffy's own, and she paused for a moment to appreciate the beauty of the dark Slayer's lines, and her smooth, flowing movements, before silently joining her. She started her own routine just as Faith began hers again.

Faith had observed the blonde Slayer's arrival on the huge patio, but said nothing. She was a little surprised when Buffy joined her, echoing her movements with only minor variations. She noted the differences in their routine, planning to discuss them with Buffy later. Buffy's moves had an older, almost archaic quality to them. Faith suspected they were much closer to the original than her own more modern teachings had been. She also admired Buffy's graceful style, which made her feel almost clunky. She wistfully remembered a time when she and Buffy had been very evenly matched. She suspected the blonde slayer could take her easily, these days.

The two Slayers finished their routines, and stood watching each other in a calm silence. Eventually Buffy asked, "Did you learn that inside, too?"

Faith nodded, and said, "J taught me, and a few others. She sold it to the warden as an anger management class, crossed with aerobics. The warden was pretty cool anyway, kind of a freethinker for someone in corrections. Valley State is sort of where they send you if they think you've got a chance, outside. Julissa got me up there."

Buffy nodded, and asked, "Do you still see her?"

"Not really. We talk on the phone, though. She called to check up on me a week or so back. She wanted me to go down to Florida when I got out, meet her family and stuff. I still want to, someday, but I told her I had things to do on this coast."

"Well, we travel all over, so I'm sure we can arrange to meet them, sooner or later. If you don't mind me taking you there."

"Not at all. I'd like you to meet Julissa, too. She's wicked cool. She was kind of like a big sister to me. She introduced me to the possibility of a normal family." Faith ran her fingers through her hair, pulling it back out of her face. "So," she asked, "who taught you?"

"Angel," Buffy replied. "When he came back from hell, he was really weak. That's part of why I kept him secret, because I was afraid that if the others decided to kill him without telling me, he wouldn't be able to stop them. And I wasn't sure he'd try, anyway. But I nursed him back to health, and along the way he taught me Tai Chi. I practiced it off and on, through high school and college, but now that I have time to do it everyday I find it helps me quite a bit."

"Yeah, it's a good way to start the day. Keeps you limber, wakes you up, and promotes that inner calm," Faith said with a grin.

"Now there's something I never thought I would hear, coming from you," Buffy grinned back. "Inner calm. Wow."

Faith playfully smacked Buffy on the arm as the two Slayers walked back inside to change. "Yeah, well, people DO change, B."

"Don't I know it," Buffy replied.

* * * * * * * * *

Fifteen minutes later, Buffy was having another cup of coffee, wondering what was keeping Faith. She herself had dressed in the clothes Willis had picked out for her, which consisted of dark green, knee-high suede boots with 3-inch heels, a matching wrap-around suede skirt that was considerably sexier than what she usually wore to the office, considering that it stopped well above mid-thigh and started below her naval, leaving a considerable amount of midriff exposed under her fitted green halter top, which snugly emphasized more cleavage than she could normally claim. To give the outfit some claim to modesty, over it she wore a lighter green semi-translucent cotton coat, that had long, tight sleeves, and hung to her ankles. It was buttoned once, just beneath her breasts. All in all, it was more like something she would wear clubbing, rather than to the office, but it suited her mood today, and besides, she was on vacation. (Author's note: to see this outfit, go to www.sarah-michelle-gellar.com. It's on the frontpage, and it's one of my favorites.)

For a conservative English butler, Willis could sure design a look. Buffy suspected that he spent at least some of his free time reading all of her fashion magazines. She knew she hadn't subscribed to ALL of them.

Behind her, she heard Faith emerge from her bedroom, finally, and she turned to look. Her jaw dropped in shock. Faith noticed her look, and stopped.

"Is this okay?" she asked, confused.

"Yes, yes," Buffy stammered, recovering from her stupor. "You look incredible!" And she did. Faith wore black open-toed high heels, and tight black pants that hugged her curves, flaring out at mid-calf and showing her trim ankles. A tight, black silk vest left her arms bare, and emphasized her firm, large breasts. A tight black choker, with a small silver cross dangling from it, completed the ensemble. Faith's dark hair was swept back, exposing one bare shoulder, and her dark red lipstick emphasized her creamy skin. Buffy thought she was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

Faith blushed, and smiled. "Thanks. Willis, uh, helped me pick it out."

Buffy smiled, and stood, gesturing to her own outfit. "He's good at that." Faith nodded, arching her eyebrow in agreement as she admired Buffy's appearance. Thankful that Buffy couldn't detect her arousal, this time.

"No cane?" she asked.

"I think I can get by without it, today. Besides, these boots offer almost as much support as my leg brace did."

"This ought to be a good day for the male help," she said. Buffy grinned back at her, and nodded.

* * * * * * * * *

Chapter 11

The vampires had arrived in Sunnydale around 4 a.m. One team had set up surveillance on the subject immediately, placing several cameras and laser mikes in positions to allow them to observe every room in the subject's residence. The rest of the vampires had set up HQ in a secure location deep beneath the city.

The vampires on surveillance duty were in the back of a small RV parked one street over from the subject's residence. The watched safely from its lightproof interior as the target admitted a young dark-haired man into his home, and listened to the sounds transmitted by the laser mikes to the receivers located in the RV.

"Good morning, Xander," said the target to the young man, as he opened the door. "I rather expected to see you here, sooner or later. What's on your mind?"

"Hey, G-man," Xander greeted his old friend, the closest thing to a father he had ever really known. He walked into the familiar confines of Giles' old apartment, or 'flat' as he referred to it, and sat down on the couch. Giles retrieved his tea set from the counter and poured a cup for Xander before settling back into his chair and picking up his own cup.

"So," he began, since Xander had not said anything. "You want to talk about Faith."

"Yeah," Xander sighed, his shoulders slumping. "I don't understand what's going on, and I don't really understand why I'm having such a problem with it. I mean, she didn't really hurt me that bad the first time around, and I barely interacted with her the second time. And she did her time, and hasn't been in trouble since she got out. So, why do I get so angry every time Buffy brings her up? Why do I distrust her so much? Why can't I give her a chance? Lord knows I've hurt Buffy enough, at one time or another, and she's always forgiven me. Why can't I forgive Faith?"

"Are you still attracted to her?" Giles asked, and Xander looked at him in surprise. Giles simply looked back at him blandly.

"Of course," Xander replied after a moment. "How could I not be? She's more beautiful than ever, and last time I checked I was still a man, so, yeah, I'm still attracted to her. But that doesn't mean I like her, or want her on the team."

"But you've already said that you don't understand why you feel this hostility for her. I think perhaps, subconsciously, you still wish for some kind of relationship with her. I don't wish to hurt your feelings, but you've always tried to make some sort of connection with the girl, which is only natural considering, uh, some of the experiences you've shared together." Giles cleared his throat in embarrassment and moved on. "Perhaps the fact that she has, unknowingly perhaps, spurned all your attempts to demonstrate said connection is the source of this hostility." Giles looked at the young man, expectantly.

"Huh?"

Giles gave an exasperated sigh. "She's hurt your feelings and insulted your pride by showing that you meant nothing to her, and the angry little boy inside you hasn't forgiven her yet," he said, explaining.

"Oh," Xander said, "why didn't you just say so." After a moment, of thought he looked at Giles with an injured expression. "Hey!"

"You know it's true. I'm not trying to insult you, Xander, after all you did come to me for help. I just think you should honestly consider the source of your hostility. If that isn't it, tell me what is. After all, you warmed up to Faith immediately, the first time. To the point where Cordelia had to reign you in, several times, as I recall. And you share, uh, similarly traumatic family histories, so you can probably empathize with her better than most. She simply wasn't ready to open up to us, last time. This time she is, and I think you should give her the chance."

"I know," Xander said, "and I intend to. I promised Buffy, after all. I WANT to forgive, her, and maybe you're right. I'll have to work on it."

"You had better," Giles warned. "Buffy needs this, and if your hostility drives her away I will be very cross."

"Okay, but that's another thing I don't understand. Why is this such a big deal to Buffy? I mean, yeah, I sure as hell don't plan on arguing against the value of two Slayers. Far from it. But we've been doing okay, and our whole system is designed to continue without the Slayer, if necessary. It's not like Buffy being out of action for a week is the potential disaster it was a few years ago."

"I don't think this has anything to do with getting another Slayer. I think Buffy needed Faith," Giles replied. "She had a connection with Faith, unlike anything she ever had with any of us. Even Angel, and Riley."

"What, like sexual?" Xander asked in surprise.

"I didn't say that!" Giles said sharply. "Although there might be some of that, as well. If that is the case, I trust you will hold your tongue! But I meant emotional, and spiritual. Buffy and Faith always had an incredible synchronicity when they fought together, like two halves of the same whole. But events, and probably our own actions, to some degree, spun that out of balance. Buffy has not felt a connection like that with anyone for some time, and she needs it. I will do anything to help her meet that need, and so will you. Won't you?"

"Yeah," Xander said with a sigh. "I can't argue that she looked happier last night than she had in a while. It felt good to see her like that, like the old Buffy. If Faith is what brings it out, I can definitely stand to have her around."

* * * * * * * * *

"The sixth floor is just apartments for the gang, and some guest apartments for executive level visitors. Which would have included you, if you hadn't been willing to stay with me. You can still have one, if you want. Although I like the company." Buffy smiled at Faith, and Faith felt her cheeks heating yet again. What had happened to her control? She had never used to blush. She felt like a high school virgin on her first date, which was odd, because she had lost her virginity long before high school, and hadn't had to suffer through that. She couldn't say that her way was any better� She shoved that thought aside. It was too early in the morning, on a day with too much good potential, to ruin it by thinking about her fucked up family. She tuned back into what Buffy was saying.

"So I thought we'd start on the fifth floor, and work our way down. You can see the sixth floor tonight, when you have dinner with Will. She lives there."

"What about the rest of the gang?" Faith asked.

"Well, they all have apartments up there, but Giles prefers to stay in his old place unless there's an impending apocalypse. Xander stays here most of the time, when he's in Sunnydale, but he has an apartment in town, also. He says he doesn't like to bring his conquests here, it makes them too hard to get rid of later." Buffy grinned, and Faith wondered anew at some of the changes the Scooby Gang had gone through. Casual sex in reference to her friends would have shocked the old Buffy, and Xander had been an attractive, but geeky, nobody when she had last known them. Now it sounded like he was getting all kinds of action. And Buffy found it amusing.

The elevator doors opened to reveal a hallway much like she had seen on the fourth floor, yesterday. The furnishings weren't quite as luxurious as those below, but they showed the same taste and style, which reminded Faith of a question she had forgotten to ask yesterday. "Who did the d�cor, B? Giles?"

"Yeah," Buffy answered, surprised. "Why?"

"Just curious."

Buffy led her down a hallway, and stopped before a set of large double doors. "This is my training room. There are others, on the third floor, for the field teams, but this is where I work out, and give special training to the field team leaders, and stuff like that. Xander said, when he built it, that if I worked out with the troops all the time, they'd spend all their time watching me and never work out themselves." She smirked at Faith. "I'm not sure exactly what he meant by that, but I like having my own gym."

She pushed open the doors and led Faith inside. Faith, after seeing what she already had of the facilities, had been prepared for a small, well equipped gym. She was surprised again, therefore, to find herself in a large, open room with enough space to train an Olympic team. The floor was wall-to-wall padded training mats, like she had seen in the martial-arts studio downstairs, but there was also a maze-like obstacle course like something from American Gladiators. Training weapons lined one wall, and another held a large collection of swords. Rings, a pommel horse, and all the things she would imagine you would find in a fully equipped gymnastics studio were present as well.

"This is really something, B," she said quietly.

"Thanks. I'll tell Xander you like it."

"Xander built this?" Faith asked in surprise.

"Xander's company built the whole building. He and Giles designed the training areas. And Riley," she finished quietly.

"Well, they did a hell of a job," Faith said, trying to keep Buffy from dwelling on painful memories.

"Yes, they did," Buffy said with a sad smile. Then she shook herself, moving away from the gloom that threatened to encompass her. "If you're up to it, maybe we could spar, later."

"I don't know that I'd be much challenge, right now, but I'm game," Faith replied with a grin, as they walked back out into the hallway. Buffy led her further down the hallway, to the next door. Opening it, she gestured Faith ahead of her.

Faith walked into the room, and stopped in shock. "What do you do in here, launch Space Shuttles?" she asked. Buffy laughed.

Before them was a room that would have looked right at home in the Houston Space Center, from what Faith had seen in the movies. The stood inside a small, glass-walled observation room that looked out into a larger room that was filled with people working quietly and efficiently at various tasks. The walls were lined with large display screens showing maps of the country, and several major cities. She noticed large red dots in various cities, amber dots in others, and a few green dots.

"This is our Computer & Communications center. These people manage the communications from all of our field teams. The red dots are where we have vamp activity that we haven't been able to pin down to a nest, the amber dots are where we have field teams preparing for a strike, and the green dots are cities that are, for the moment, clean."

Faith took in the view, beginning to realize that no matter what she had thought, she had no comprehension of just how vast Buffy's activities had grown. Buffy gave her another minute to absorb the view, then led her out. "C'mon, they get nervous when they know I'm watching them."

Back in the hallway, she explained to Faith. "I know a few of them, but I deal mostly with the field commanders, not the support teams. These people all work for Willow, really. But they think of me as the commander-in-chief, which I'm not really comfortable with, but Xander says if I try to put them at ease, it hurts morale. So I do it his way." She led Faith back the way they had come, past the elevator down the other hallway. "Most of the rest of this floor is storage, for various dangerous artifacts we have acquired over the years, like Acathla's statue. I can't even get into most of those rooms without Giles or Willow, and it's pretty boring, anyway. Kind of like a museum for things that can destroy the world. If you want to see it sometime, ask Willow. She loves to show it off, but personally, I find it a bit dull."

She led Faith to another door, and said, "However, there is one person you should meet. He's a little odd, so take him with a grain of salt." With that, she pushed open the door and led Faith into what appeared to be a machine shop. A large man was working at one of the benches scattered around the room, and he looked up with a pleased smile as they walked in.

"Buffy," he greeted the blonde Slayer. "Nice to see you walking around. Feeling better?"

"Yeah, the doc says I can go back on duty Monday," Buffy said.

"Good," he replied. Without warning, he hurled a weighted length of chain at the small blonde. Buffy spun to the side, dodging easily, and looked up to see that Faith had pinned the large man to the bench with her left hand, and her right was pulled back for a stiff-fingered throat strike.

"Faith!" she cried out. The dark haired Slayer did not respond, for a moment. Buffy noticed she had a fixed expression on her face, and she walked over and gently pulled the dark Slayer off of the larger man.

"It's okay," she said soothingly. "This is Bear, he's a friend of mine. He does that kind of stuff all the time."

Faith still had a frozen look on her face, then she shook herself, seeming to become aware of her surroundings again. "Some friend," she said.

Bear pulled himself upright, and said, "A Slayer must never let her guard down, especially when she's injured. I try to keep Buffy on her toes." He rubbed his throat for a moment, and looked at Faith appraisingly. "You've got good reflexes, girl." He turned to Buffy. "I like her."

Buffy laughed, and introduced the pair. "Faith, this is Bear. He is our weapons wizard. He comes up with all of our best toys, and he designed my equipment personally. If you ever need something special, come to Bear. You won't believe some of the things he's come up with." She turned to Bear. "Bear, this is Faith, my fellow Slayer. She's going to be staying with me, and joining the team, eventually. Be nice to her, she's not as easygoing as I am." Faith shot her a look, and Buffy laughed. "Well, you aren't," she said. Faith shrugged, and took a moment to look at Bear appraisingly.

She saw a large man, not overly tall, but very thickly built. His shoulders were twice the width of most men, and he was thickly muscled. He was also very hairy, with a full beard and long, dark brown hair swept back in a ponytail that ran almost to his waist. She noticed that his hands and forearms were covered with small burn scars. He also, she noticed, had beautiful, liquid brown puppy-dog eyes, that looked strangely soft in such a large man.

"So, you would be the infamous Faith," he said, with no trace of antagonism. "I understand you like knives."

Faith looked at him warily, wondering exactly what he had heard, but he gave no sign of noticing and turned to pull open a drawer. He removed a large, flat wooden box from inside and set it on the counter. "I have something for you," he said.

"For me?" she asked in surprise. She shot a look at Buffy, who nodded back at the table.

"Yeah," Bear said. "I made these as a matched set, for when you came back. Or, no offense, the next one came along." He opened the box, and stepped back, gesturing Faith to move closer.

She did so, and froze when she saw inside. The box was padded and velvet lined, and inside rested one of the most beautifully crafted blades she had ever seen. It was double edged, and dark wood inlays ran up both sides of the blade. She picked it up reverently. It fit her hand like it was made for her, and she looked at the big man in wonder.

"I've never seen anything like it," she said softly.

"I should hope not. There's only one other just like that, and I gave it to her." He pointed at Buffy. "The blade is titanium, plated with silver. The wooden inlays make it effective against vampires, as well. Much more elegant than a stake, if you ask me." He shot a look at Buffy, who stuck her tongue out at him, and then grinned.

"I can't take this," Faith said. "I wouldn't be able to use it, anyway."

"It's yours, and I won't hear any arguments. Whether or not you use it is up to you, but it's yours." He shot a puzzled glance at Buffy, who shook her head, warning him not to pursue the subject.

He reached into the box and pulled out the sheath for the knife, and handed it to Faith. She looked at him, then slid the knife into the sheath. She placed the sheathed dagger back in the box, then turned and walked from the room. Bear looked at Buffy.

"It's a long story. Just have it sent up to my place."

He nodded, and Buffy walked out after Faith.

* * * * * * * * *

Buffy found Faith in the hallway, waiting by the elevator. She said nothing, simply pressing the button to summon the elevator, and they stepped inside when it arrived. They rode down to the fourth floor.

Stepping out, Buffy said, "You've already seen the library, that's what we call the boardroom where we were yesterday. This floor also holds my office, which is down that way," she gestured, "along with offices for the rest of the board members. Not much to see, unless you like desks, so we'll skip them for now. But there is someone on this floor that I want you to meet."

She led Faith down a hallway away from her office, stopping before another unmarked set of double doors. She smiled at Faith, and Faith managed to smile back, although she was still a little shaken by the events upstairs. But she put them out of her mind and followed Buffy into a small room with couches against the wall, a small television in one corner, and another set of double doors, with a green light glowing above them.

"If this light is red, wait out here until it turns green before you come in," she said. Faith nodded, and Buffy pushed through the doors.

Inside was another large workroom, although this one was obviously dedicated to magic, not science. Racks of herbs lined the walls, and a large open space had a pentacle laid into the floor. Various chemical instruments burbled away on countertops, often sitting next to small cauldrons over unlit Bunsen burners. There didn't appear to be much going on at the moment, but a small group of women and a few men sat around a large conference table in one corner, obviously in the midst of a heated discussion. Faith spotted Willow sitting at one end of the table, watching with an amused smile. Faith was somewhat surprised with the easy dominance Willow demonstrated over the group. She held up her hand when she noticed Faith and Buffy watching them from just inside the door, and they all fell silent immediately. Willow didn't even look, she leapt up and hurried over to them immediately, with a big smile.

"Faith! Buffy! You girls look amazing!" she greeted them, giving them both hugs. Faith was surprised but didn't hesitate, and returned the hug gratefully. She didn't know why the redhead was so eager to be friendly to her, this time around, but she wasn't going to complain.

"Thanks, Will. Willis, again," Buffy said with a smile, and Willow nodded in understanding.

"He still reading your magazines on the sly?" she asked, with a knowing grin.

"He must be, or we should start one of our own and make him editor," Buffy replied with a laugh. Seeing Faith's puzzled look, she explained her own suspicions regarding Willis's reading habits.

"Come on over and meet the gang," Willow said to Faith, after Buffy finished her story. "They're all dying to meet you."

Faith followed Willow and Buffy over to the table, and Willow began introductions. "This is Amy," Willow said, and the pretty blonde girl seated at the other end of the table nodded at Faith, with a friendly yet wary look in her eye. Faith nodded back.

"She's the head of our magical support team. Meaning that she rides herd on this group of rugged individualists when I'm in the field. And this is Lisa, her assistant," another blonde, older, also pretty in a motherly sort of way. "And this is Michael, who is normally a field operative but is on the disabled list, at the moment." A nondescript dark haired young man, with his left arm in a cast. Willow continued the introductions, but Faith promptly forgot the rest of the names. They all smiled at her in a friendly way, and she suspected that they didn't know much of her history with the Sunnydale Slayerettes. She didn't intend to fill them in on all the sordid details.

"So, are we still on for dinner?" Willow asked after the introductions were complete.

"Sure, unless you need to�." Faith began hesitantly, offering the red-haired witch an out, if she wanted it.

"No, no, I already have all the groceries. You don't mind trying my cooking, do you?" Willow asked.

"Looking forward to it, Red," Faith replied with a relieved grin.

* * * * * * * * *

Buffy continued the tour of the building, and Faith made the appropriate noises in the appropriate places to express her genuine shock. The third floor contained larger training rooms, and Faith saw large groups of soldiers going through various exercises. She was impressed, and said so. She met some of the field commanders, who greeted her almost reverently when Buffy told them she was a Slayer.

The third floor also housed the main armory, and Faith saw a large array of modern firearms and other weaponry, in addition to the swords and crossbows and things she expected. She also saw a large number of things she couldn't identify, but decided she could wait to learn about them. While she had loved the beautiful dagger that Bear had shown her upstairs, these days weapons in general gave her a mild sense of panic. They were uncomfortable reminders of her past. Buffy told her there were also small weapons lockers on every floor, located behind the mirrors in the hallway. If she ever needed a weapon, Buffy told her, just pull on a mirror.

There was also a containment facility for vamps and other beasties, although Buffy told her it was usually empty. They only employed it when they found something or someone unusual but harmless, or needed to keep some creature alive for study or some other reason. Buffy explained that the Initiative, a government group that Riley had once belonged to, had taught them a lesson about trying to study or experiment on demons.

The second floor held apartments for the field teams, as well as several furnished for visitors and guests. The first floor held the service entrances for the shops she had seen, as well as another bank of elevators, located opposite the private one Buffy had been using. Buffy had explained that the elevator that they were using was the only one that went to the sixth floor and roof, and that everybody else used one of the other four elevators.

There was also a basement, which contained a parking garage, a heavy weapons firing range, and the Hellmouth. They had built a special room around it, heavily sealed and warded inside and out. Buffy told her that the walls were lined with weapons and sensors, both magical and electronic, in case anything ever tried to come out unannounced.

"So," Faith asked, as they boarded the elevator again, after finishing the tour in the basement, "what exactly does Xander do, besides build stuff? And what about Giles?"

"Xander is head of field operations. He handles the day-to-day management of all the teams, and leads most of the major strikes that I don't. He travels even more than I do, so we don't get to spend as much time together as we'd all like, but we all keep in contact by phone and computer every day. Especially in the field. Everybody's in town this weekend, but he'll probably be flying out Monday for another strike. And I will be, too, if I get back on active duty and no other crisis comes up.

Giles is head of Research, as well as chief of intelligence. Owning a magic store helped him build back up contacts to replace the ones he lost when we quit the council. He is working from home today, like he usually does on Fridays when nothing major is happening, although he usually stops by later in the day." Buffy stopped and looked around, even though they were alone in the elevator, heading back upstairs.

"He also," she continued quietly, "supervises our search and recruitment for potential Slayers."

"What?" Faith said in surprise. "What about the Watcher's council?"

"Well," Buffy answered, "our own, uh, mutual experiences with them showed us that they were pretty out of touch with things out here in the big bad real world. They have become too rigid, too locked into the history and tradition to deal with changing times and circumstances. When we started getting really big, we tried to get them to come on board, to join with us. They refused, and we realized that we couldn't really trust them to cooperate with us in the future, either. So we staged a commando raid on council headquarters, with stun guns, and seized all their files and records. They're pretty much out of business, these days, although quite a number of younger Watchers and trainees enlisted with us, later."

"Wow. You really are planning ahead, these days," Faith said. Buffy looked at her seriously.

"We have to," she said. "Big things are coming. Giles says that a large percentage of the major prophecies on record have already been fulfilled. He also pointed out that I have faced more major apocalypse prophecies in the last few years than any other slayer ever has in her lifetime. He thinks we are in the Last Days, the beginning of a new era."

"What do you mean by that? What kind of era?"

"No one knows," Buffy said. The elevator arrived at the penthouse, and she continued as they walked inside. "Giles says that a large number of seers and prophets, whose coming has been foretold, have been born over the last few years. We don't really know what it means, or what's going to happen, but he thinks some kind of war is ahead, and probably a new age of prophecy. What form the war will take, or how the prophets will interact and change the world, is the topic of many of our late night weekend discussions."

* * * * * * * * *

Chapter 12

Faith stood looking at herself in the mirror, tugging at the dress unconsciously. She had never really worn anything like it, unless you counted the time she had tried on the one the mayor bought her. This one was a deep blue silk, and while she knew it showed off her figure, it was much more modest and elegant than anything she had ever worn before. She suspected it had cost more than her entire previous wardrobe. Willis had picked it out for her.

She had spent the remainder of the day hanging out with Buffy, mostly in the fifth floor training room. Buffy had walked her through the obstacle course, and she had made Faith do several timed runs. Faith had known she was still in good shape. She hadn't quit exercising, just Slaying. But she was surprised at how excited Buffy had been about her times, until Buffy told her that they were better than her own early times had been. She had been pleasantly gratified by that.

She had come back upstairs to shower and change for her dinner with Willow, and she had been trying to get her nerve up to go downstairs for the last ten minutes. The red-haired witch had told her she would be waiting in the sixth floor lobby at six. Faith had about ten more minutes to kill, but she decided to go down early before she chickened out.

She stepped off the elevator on the sixth floor, and looked around. This lobby was decorated differently than the others she'd seen. This one was more like a living room in someone's house. If that someone were very wealthy and owned every piece of home theater equipment that money could buy. She guessed that the Scooby gang watched movies together here.

Willow was not in sight, but she noticed an open doorway down the hall. As she walked toward it, she heard the redhead's voice calling out from inside. "Faith! C'mon in!"

"You're early," Willow said, as Faith walked through the door. She was standing in the doorway to what appeared to be the kitchen, holding a drink out to Faith. "You look beautiful," she said as Faith walked toward her, and her gaze was openly admiring. Faith suddenly remembered that Willow had been 'playing the other side of the field' during their last encounter, and wondered if the redhead was coming on to her. She was half-hoping that she was, because God knew she could use the release.

"Thanks," she said, taking the glass and sipping. Jack and Coke, her old favorite. Much better mixed than the one Xander had made the night before, she noted.

Willow nodded, and said, "I knew you would look good in blue. Are you happy with the rest of your wardrobe? I did my best, but now that you're here, you can shop for yourself downstairs if you want something different. Or we could hit the mall tomorrow."

"You picked out my wardrobe?" Faith asked in surprise.

"Uh-huh," Willow nodded. "I hacked into the prison records for your last sizes, and shopped for you while Buffy was flying up to get you. Is it okay?"

"It's wonderful. I don't think I'll ever find time to wear it all, but I'll never lack for a choice, that's for sure. Thanks, Red," Faith said with a genuine smile. And meant it. It was one of the nicest things anyone had ever done for her.

"It was my pleasure," Willow replied with a bright smile. "Now, dinner won't be ready for about a half an hour," she gestured to the stove, and Faith suddenly noticed that the utensils and ingredients laid out appeared to be preparing and cooking themselves, and she turned back to stare at Willow, who winked at her. Faith closed her mouth with an audible snap. "So I had some things I wanted to talk to you about, before we eat."

Faith turned to look at the animated cooking utensils flying around the counter again, then looked back at Willow warily, and nodded.

"Good. You see," Willow began, "I wanted to apologize."

"No, Willow, you don't have to-"

"Yes, I do," Willow said, unknowingly echoing Buffy's words from yesterday. "So let me finish, please."

"Okay," Faith said, surrendering. She sat back and waited.

"You have to understand, Buffy was my first close girl friend," Willow began. "I had been best friends with Xander and Jesse since I was a little girl, but they were boys. I had known other girls in school, but we didn't really hang out or anything. I never had a girl I could, like, tell my secrets to, and ask for advice. Y'know?" she asked, arching an eyebrow at Faith enquiringly. Faith nodded back.

"So, when Buffy showed up and wanted to get to know me, chose me, it was all kind of new, you know? Suddenly I had someone I could talk about all the embarrassing things that girls like to talk about with, and it was a heady experience, let me tell you. I worshipped Buffy. Not because she was the Slayer, you understand, but because she was cool, and wanted to be friends with me.

So she became my best friend, ever. I told her my secrets, she told me hers, and she started pulling me out of the shell I had crawled into. I even started dating a musician!" she laughed, and Faith couldn't help but chuckle as well, remembering Oz. "Then, she ran away. I understand why she needed to, now, but it was a bad time back then. Not only did she leave us all worrying about whether or not she was okay, the vampire activity didn't slack off that summer like it had the year before. And I was dating, which was new and VERY scary territory for me, and Buffy wasn't there to help. It was hard." She looked steadily at Faith. "Like I said, I understand why she needed to do it, now, but I didn't back then.

And then she came back. We were happy, of course, but there were some initial bumps and lingering resentments to smooth over. But it passed, and I got to talk to her about all the personal things that had been bothering me, and we picked up right where we had left off. I was even more grateful than ever, in fact, because I had REALLY missed her. And then you came along.

I liked you just fine, at first. Hell, any new Slayer was welcome reinforcement. But you intimidated the hell out of me. You were beautiful, and confident, and openly sexual. All the things I wasn't. It didn't bother me, at first, because Buffy didn't exactly warm up to you." She shot an apologetic look at Faith, who was trying not to squirm in embarrassment. "But later you guys got real close, and I started to get jealous. Now, understand, I am not trying to excuse my actions, just explain them. Okay?" She looked at Faith, who nodded. "I didn't really understand that friendship is not a finite thing. I thought that you and Buffy's closeness took away from what we had. I felt excluded. Then you slept with Xander, who I had already had emotionally unbalanced relations with at the time, not to mention a lifelong crush, and sent me off the deep end. I became very bitter, and I did pretty near every thing I could to poison your friendship with Buffy." She took a deep breath.

"I am deeply sorry, and I hope that you can forgive me," she finished. She couldn't meet Faith's eyes.

After a moment, Faith said, "You know, I'm getting a little tired of people apologizing to me." Willow looked up, hurt, but relaxed when she saw the amused smile on Faith's face. "I had all these nice apologetic speeches worked out in my head, and you guys just jump in and apologize to ME, upsetting all my plans. What the hell am I supposed to say now?" she asked rhetorically, then continued. "I forgive you, Willow, and I understand all too well where you're coming from. My own mistakes and motivations were strikingly similar. But I do thank you for the apology, because it makes me feel better. So let's just forget all that junk in the past and start over, okay? I liked you when I first met you, and I like you even better this time around. I don't think you need to worry about your beauty, confidence, or sexuality anymore."

Willow laughed. "Well, I like to think I've grown up a bit. These days, everyone calls me the office slut, behind my back."

"What?" Faith asked in surprise.

"Well, let's just say I've learned to appreciate sex. And love, but I've learned you can have either one with or without the other and it's still good. These days, I have an on-and-off thing with Xander, whom I love but have no particular urge to commit to. I also know the pleasures that only another woman can provide, and have a few not-too-secret open relationships with a some female acquaintances around the country. Not to mention the occasional one night stand." She laughed at Faith's shocked expression.

"Oh, come on!" she said. "You were the one that introduced us all to the 'get some, get gone' concept. I wouldn't say I was that cavalier about it, but I've definitely learned that a filled bed is much better than an empty one."

"Way to go, Red!" Faith said finally, once she had regained the power of speech. The old gang had definitely grown up a bit. "You know, it's funny. You guys have all gotten casual about sex, and I've been celibate for five years."

"What!?" Willow said, surprised. "I mean, I wasn't going to ask about prison, unless you brought it up, but you've been out for two years, surely you must have�"

"Nope."

"Huh," Willow said. "Well, I'm certainly not criticizing, but why not? If you don't mind me asking."

Conversation paused as Willow held up her hand, and loaded plates came wafting over to serve themselves to Faith and Willow. They settled in and began eating, and Willow looked at Faith. "Well?" she asked. "If you want me to mind my own business, just say so, but don't leave me hanging. Please."

Faith swallowed, and considered her answer. "While I was being B, I, uh, slept with Riley." Faith blushed but continued. "I was just looking for a good time, because I was intending to skip town in the morning. But it was different than I expected. I went over there and threw myself at him, just like I was used to. But he wouldn't let it be casual. He was gentle, and tender, and caring. I had never been with anyone like that." She took a deep breath. "And then, he told me he loved me. Actually, he thought he was saying it to Buffy, but it was me. And it kind of freaked me out. Nobody had ever been like that with me, and nobody had EVER said anything to me like that. I could tell that he meant it, y'know? He wasn't just saying it to get something from me. And it made everything I had done before seem kind of empty. I realized that there was this huge cavern inside me that I hadn't even known I was trying to fill, and I was trying the wrong way. I haven't been with anyone since then. I, uh, realized that there was someone that I cared about, and I wanted to be with them. Anyone else would have just been a sad substitute."

They ate in silence for a few minutes. Willow was studying Faith intently. She was pretty sure she knew who Faith was talking about. She wasn't blind, she had seen how Faith had acted around Buffy, and having been there herself made her keenly aware that both Buffy and Faith were in deep denial. She considered what to say, and whether it was her place to say anything. But Buffy was her best friend, and her happiness was very important to the red-haired witch. So she looked at Faith until she caught her eye, and began to speak.

"There's something you should know," she said. "I'm only telling you this so it doesn't catch you by surprise, later. It's not really a secret, but we don't talk about it, much." She took a deep breath, and then continued. "Buffy has been very�unhappy since Riley died. And lonely. They hadn't been a couple for a while, but she hadn't really moved on to anyone else, either. After he was killed, she was very depressed. She didn't let it affect the Slaying, but she was�withdrawn, around here. She didn't socialize, even with us. Now, this is not criticism." She looked at Faith steadily, to make sure she was understood, then continued. "What we do here is very stressful, and we all deal with it in our own ways. I'm sure you've noticed some of the changes. But this was different. Buffy started going out, wherever she was, and hitting the local singles bars. Picking up men. Letting them-" she stopped, took a deep breath, and continued. "Letting them use her. Now, like I said, I have nothing against a one night stand. They can be fun, and sometimes you need that kind of freedom. But for a while, Buffy was going out every free night she had. Getting drunk, coming home, or going home, with whatever random guy happened into her line of sight at the right time."

Willow sighed, and looked at Faith to make sure that Faith was following the story. Faith looked back at her with sad understanding in her eyes. "She wasn't any happier than she had been, but she didn't want to talk about it with any of us, and we didn't know what to do. I still don't know. It's gotten better, she doesn't do it as often, but, well, she hasn't really been any happier, either. We've all been worried.

Yesterday, when she came back with you, she smiled more than she has in the last month. It made us all feel good to see her like that. That alone gives me all the reason I need to apologize to you, and hope that you will stay around here with us. Hopefully, we will maybe be able to help you, as well. But I warn you right now. If you hurt her, I will destroy you. I will rip your soul from your still living body and cast it into a place of eternal darkness and torment. You will never die, and you will never find peace. Just so you know." She smiled at Faith. "A vague disclaimer is nobody's friend."

Faith stared at the redhead in shock, surprised to feel�apprehension? This was not the meek little nerd she had known. This wasn't even the ballsy wicca-wannabe who had confronted her in the Mayor's office. This was a full-blown, bad-ass witch who she was suddenly quite sure could follow through on that threat. She swallowed, and then smiled when she realized just how much she liked this young woman. "I understand," she said.

"Good," Willow said with an answering smile, and dusted off her hands like she had just finished an unpleasant chore. "So, how's the fish? I'm experimenting with some new spices�."

* * * * * * * * *

Chapter 13

Rupert Giles hummed softly to himself as he walked home. He didn't normally venture out after dark on foot, this was still Sunnydale no matter how many patrols they ran, but it was still early, and his grocer was right down the street. He had been reading prophecy in his apartment all day, and had suddenly felt an urgent need to stretch his legs. So, a visit to the grocer. That way, he wasn't wasting time, he was accomplishing a necessary and productive task. The fact that it also let him take an evening stroll was an unavoidable by-product, not an indulgence.

He smiled to himself, knowing that his mind would continue to make excuses if he let it. He had played the 'stuffy librarian' role for so long that he was unable to stop, even with himself. He decided that tomorrow night, he would go out and sing a few songs. It had been a few weeks, and he felt himself getting stodgy again. Besides, he had to admit that he liked the way Willow looked when she listened to him sing. It made him feel young, again.

He sighed, his smile forgotten, as he considered that last thought. It wasn't as if he were decrepit. It was just that he was surrounded by people who were twenty-years his junior. They were his friends, his family, even, but nonetheless they could make him feel incredibly old, some days. They all had lives, eccentric though they were. All he had was his work, and them. He often wondered exactly when that had happened.

He was definitely going to have to get a gig for tomorrow night. He was getting positively maudlin. Maybe there would be a pretty young thing in the audience. He had been propositioned more than a few times, after one of his performances, but his sense of propriety and responsibility had always caused him to turn them down. Maybe that was his problem. Nothing like a good shag to make you feel young, recharge the batteries.

He was a block away from his flat when a rustle in the foliage behind him caused him to snap out of his wandering thoughts. He gave no sign of his awareness, but his instincts were telling him that he was being hunted. He casually slipped the cross that he never went without these days out of the waistband of his trousers, and into his left hand, which was carrying the groceries. His right hand then slipped into his pocket, pressing a well-remembered sequence of buttons on his cell phone.

His call for help sent, Giles considered how best to survive until backup arrived. He didn't know who was out there, or how many there were. He seriously doubted they would let him make it to his apartment unmolested. His doubts were confirmed a moment later as a vampire stepped out of the darkness ahead of him.

Without hesitation, Giles turned and threw his bag of groceries at the vampire he knew had appeared behind him. It struck the charging vamp in the face, and it stumbled. Meanwhile, Giles turned back to the vamp ahead of him. In one smooth, well-practiced motion, he drew a small revolver from it's holster at his back. He took aim with a grace at odds with his fumbling public persona, and his first shot struck the surprised vamp in the middle of the forehead. The magnesium cored bullet ignited immediately, and the amused expression on the vamp's face, which had appeared at the sight of the gun, vanished as it's head burst into flame. Giles didn't wait, he was already running past as it collapsed into ashes.

He took five running steps, and then turned and dropped to one knee. The vampire he had thrown his groceries at was four steps behind him, and it tried to dodge as he brought the revolver up again. He fired two swift shots, the first catching the vamp in the stomach and the second in the heart. It was just a little too close, however, and it collided with him before bursting into flame and dusting, sending him sprawling through its ashes. He rolled along the ground, losing his cross in the process, and gasped as a pair of hands latched onto his biceps and pulled him to his feet. He was spun around to face his attacker, and hoisted into the air. Giles found himself looking down into the face of another vampire. This one was larger than his previous two foes, with a square jaw and brush-cut blonde hair. Giles thought he looked like a poster boy for the Third Reich. His Aryan features were distorted by his demon, at the moment. Giles tried to bring the pistol up, but the vampire increased the pressure on Giles' biceps, causing him to cry out in agony and drop the pistol.

The vampire smiled at Giles, his yellow eyes glinting cruelly. He began to pull Giles' arms in opposite directions. Giles quickly brought both his knees up to his chest, hanging from the vampire's grip. He planted both feet in the vamp's face, and it screamed as the crosses laid into the soles of Giles's shoes began to burn into it's face. Giles pushed off with both feet, pulling out of the distracted vamp's grasp and landing on his back on the sidewalk. He scrambled to his feet and, not seeing his pistol, took off towards his home. As he ran he listened to the wounded vampire screaming behind him.

"You'll die for this, you limey bastard!" it screamed. "I don't care what the Master says, I'll rip out your heart before I feast on your blood! You'll pay for this-" The screaming stopped suddenly, and Giles heard a muffled report behind him. Recognizing the sound of the submachine guns used by the emergency response teams, he slowed and waited for them.

"Sir, sir, are you all right?" asked the team leader, running up to him from the direction of his house. "We got your emergency code, and came as fast as we could. Are you injured? Here, sit down-"

"No, no thank you, I'm fine," Giles assured the earnest young man. "Although I must say your timing is excellent. Do a quick sweep, and see if you can locate my revolver, I dropped it back there somewhere. Send it to the office, if you find it. I am going home. Oh, and see if they can find my groceries, as well."

* * * * * * * * *

The surveillance team watched the failed attack from several blocks away. They had been surprised by the ferocity of the target, once engaged. They had been even more surprised by the arrival of well-armed men less than two minutes after the attack began. Obviously this was going to be tougher than they thought.

The senior of the two vamps picked up his cell phone and dialed. "Tell Lucius that we will need some reinforcements," he said.

* * * * * * * * *

Chapter 14

Faith stepped back from the heavy bag, and wiped the sweat from her brow. She was in Buffy's training room, on the fourth floor. She had had an excellent dinner, thanks to Willow, and after the uncomfortable stuff was out of the way, the redhead had been an entertaining dinner companion. She had even been mildly flirtatious. Faith had enjoyed it immensely, and had gone back upstairs with a mild buzz on. Twenty minutes alone in Buffy's apartment, however, had sent her mind down paths she preferred to avoid, so she had changed clothes and decided to work off her buzz down here. She had been at it for an hour, and wondered if she should head back upstairs to find Buffy.

She spun around when she heard the door open, to see the blonde Slayer walk through the door wearing her own workout clothes. Faith greedily drank in the sight of the beautiful young woman in spandex and a sports bra, then swallowed and averted her eyes. "Hey, B," she greeted her host. "Your meeting run a little long?"

"Boy, did it ever," Buffy replied. "Seems like every time I'm out of it for a week, everybody decides that they need to review all of our standard operating procedures, and go over them with me when I get back to make sure I still want things done like that. Xander says it's normal, people just want to be reassured that I'm back on top of things, but sometimes it drives me up the wall. Part of the reason we set this place up the way we did, is so that when, uh, y'know, I die, there won't be a big period of confusion and reorganization. The idea is that the next Slayer will just pick up where I left off, although Giles or Xander and Willow will be guiding them. I hope."

"You're not planning on kicking the bucket any time soon, are ya, B?" Faith asked, half-seriously but with her old devil-may-care smirk on her face. Buffy had always been a little too tied up in the permanent retirement aspects of this job, but Faith didn't like the beaten expression in Buffy's eyes right now.

"Not today. But you never know."

"True. But then again, nobody ever does, as a rule. You could get hit by a truck walking across the parking lot, B. Just because we're Slayers is no reason do get all doom and gloom about how we die. Everybody dies. It's how you live that matters."

Buffy was looking at her strangely. "Didn't Mel Gibson say that in Braveheart?"

Faith looked at her. "Don't know, never saw it. Now, did you come down here to be depressed, or to blow off some steam? I don't know about you, but I must admit to being curious as to what new tricks you've learned in the past few years. You up for it?"

Buffy studied her for a few seconds, then tossed the towel she had carried down with her over a weight bench, and said, "You're on."

Faith was moving before Buffy finished talking, and her foot flashed out in a spinning back kick before the towel had landed. She knew she was rusty, but the old reflexes were coming back to her, and she didn't want Buffy to win too easily.

Buffy blocked the kick easily, using her left forearm, and Faith blocked her counterstrike. The two Slayers circled each other warily on the mat, slipping back into familiar patterns. Buffy had definitely picked up a few new moves, as well as apparently being both slightly stronger and faster than Faith. She fought with more edge than Faith remembered from the old days.

But Faith had learned a few tricks, too. She got in her own licks against the blonde Slayer, and she tried to avoid taking advantage of Buffy's weak leg, even though it didn't appear to be bothering her at the moment. After several minutes, both girls stepped back to catch their breaths.

"Leg okay?" Faith asked.

Buffy nodded, and then smiled and said, "Looks like you're not as rusty as you thought. Ready to go again?"

Faith nodded, and then ducked and rolled as Buffy sent a flying kick at her head. She countered with a leg sweep which brought Buffy down, but the blonde rolled easily away and back to her feet before Faith could take advantage. The fight continued, fast and furious, for several more minutes, until Buffy saw her opening. She feinted a left jab at Faith's chin, and slid in a right to Faith's ribs under her guard. She heard the breath whoosh out of the dark Slayer, and she slid in close, her left leg sliding between Faith's to hook behind her ankle and pull her feet out from under her. Faith began to topple backwards, but she reached out and wrapped her arms around Buffy as she fell, pulling the blonde Slayer with her. Their bodies slammed into the mat, Buffy on top of Faith, with Faith's arms around the blonde.

They both froze, breathing heavily, and Faith was achingly aware of the intimate contact of their skin. She was entranced by Buffy's beautiful green eyes staring down into hers. Her blood pounded through her veins, and for that moment, her entire universe was those two eyes. The only thing she could feel was the electric touch of Buffy's skin pressed against her own, and every breath she took seemed to sear into her like fire. She wanted to spend the rest of eternity like this.

Buffy's blood was boiling through her, as well. For the first time in longer than she could remember, her worries, her fears, her pain, were all gone. At this moment, she felt like she could do anything. The feel of Faith's skin beneath her was charging her up like a battery, and she half expected the lights in the room to short out in reaction. She could see the same fire burning in the dark Slayer's eyes, and for the first time Buffy thought perhaps it wasn't the fight that had evoked it. She stared into Faith's eyes, felt the intensity of her arms around her, and realized it was an embrace, not a hold. Not a grip, or a defensive posture. An embrace.

The furnace heat between them grew hotter than she could resist, and almost against her will, she began to lower her lips to meet Faith's. The other girl's lips parted slightly in expectation, and the fire in her eyes blazed anew.

"Buffy! Faith!" Both girls rolled away from each other instantly as the doors slammed open, and Willow charged into the room. "Oh! There you are!" Willow stopped suddenly, sensing the charged atmosphere in the room and seeing the two panting, sweat-slicked Slayers. She kicked herself as she realized what she had probably interrupted, and her train of thought was suddenly derailed. "Oh, uh�"

"What is it, Red?" Faith asked. "What's happened?"

"Oh!" Willow gasped, suddenly remembering why she had been searching for the Slayers. "Giles was attacked, outside his house!"

Both Slayers were instantly on their feet and standing before Willow. Buffy had a sick look of fear and pain on her face, but it was Faith who grasped Willow carefully by the elbows and said, "What happened? Is he okay!?"

"He's fine. He's at home. He killed a couple of vamps, and held off the rest until the nearest team got there. Luckily there was a sweeper team only three blocks away, on their way to Restfield Cemetery when his emergency signal went out." Willow paused for breath, and ran her fingers through her red hair before continuing. "Giles said that these vamps seemed pretty determined to get him, not like they were on a random prowl. He's called a meeting, said he'd be here in an hour."

Buffy nodded, but didn't look at Faith. "I need a shower," she said. "I'll see you in the Library, Will." Without another word to either young woman, the blonde Slayer walked out of the gym.

Willow looked at Faith to see the dark-haired girl looking after her fellow Slayer with a shuttered gaze, but Willow could see the confused pain in her eyes. Willow silently kicked herself again for not starting her search in Buffy's office. She could have come in just a few minutes later� She shook herself and considered what needed doing to salvage this situation. When Faith's eyes finally snapped back to awareness and she looked at Willow, the red haired witch looked back at her with amused curiosity and said, "Well?"

"Well, what?" Faith asked, wondering just what Willow knew.

Willow merely arched her eyebrow at Faith, and waited. After a moment Faith blushed and looked at the floor, which Willow found strangely endearing. Faith had definitely lowered her walls some since the old days. After a second she looked back up from the floor to meet Willow's expectant gaze, and shook her head.

"Damn," Willow said, stamping her foot. Then she shook her finger at Faith. "Don't give up. She let her guard down once, and she will again. Till then you just keep your eyes open." She smiled at the expression of shock on Faith's face. "What, do you think I'm blind or something? Now hurry up, you should probably change before you attend your first official Scooby meeting." With that, Willow turned and left the gym.

Faith stood in silence for a moment, trying to absorb everything that had happened in the last few minutes. Then she shook her head and thrust it into the back of her mind. She didn't have time right now. She'd deal with all this later, if she had to. Right now she needed a shower. Cold.

* * * * * * * * *

Chapter 15

Faith checked her appearance in the mirror one more time. She knew she was being silly, but this was a big moment, sort of, and she was willing to admit, to herself at least, that she was nervous. They had all been polite and friendly to her so far, but she had sensed some wariness, from Xander at least, and she was pretty sure they hadn't envisioned her leaping into crisis meetings on her second day back. Willow had expected her to come, but Buffy hadn't said anything to her. She had heard the blonde slayer in the shower when she came into the apartment, but Buffy had been dressed and out of the bedroom by the time Faith emerged from her own cold shower. She had dressed in tight black jeans and a royal blue halter, slipping into her old defensive patterns automatically, but she had pulled her hair back into a pony-tail that J had told her made her look fifteen years old. She didn't want to be confrontational tonight, so she would go for cute and young. That ought to disarm Xander somewhat, if he had any problems with her.

She sighed, knowing that Xander wasn't really her problem. Her problem was the blonde slayer waiting for her in the living room, and whether or not Buffy expected her to come with her. Willow may have more or less invited her, but Buffy ran the show around here, just like always, and after what had�almost happened in the gym, Faith wasn't sure what was going through her head. So she sighed again, and reluctantly decided not to mention coming to the meeting unless Buffy said something. She squared her shoulders, and marched out into the living room.

Buffy was waiting for her on the couch, restlessly flipping channels on the television. She looked up as Faith walked into the room, an irritated look on her face. "C'mon, Faith, you're going to make us late."

Faith couldn't stop the relieved smile that burst across her face, and she said, "You want me to come with you?"

Buffy looked at her in surprise, her irritation forgotten. "Of course I do," she said. "You're part of the team now, even if we haven't quite figured out in what capacity. Unless you don't want to come?"

"No, no," Faith answered quickly. "I just-" She stopped and shook her head, and then looked at Buffy happily. "Well, get off the couch, lazybones. They'll be waiting on us."

Buffy laughed, and the two Slayers walked to the elevator.

* * * * * * * * *

Willow smiled and waved at the Slayers as they walked through the door, but Faith noticed that Xander had a slight scowl on his face as he looked up at them. It vanished as he saw how cheerful Buffy looked, and he looked at Faith with a slightly stiff smile and nodded a greeting. She nodded back carefully, waved at the redhead, and looked at Giles.

He was seated in his usual chair, and she noted with some surprise that he wore jeans and a blue denim shirt. He looked damn good for a Watcher, she noted again. She was also surprised to see him working away industriously on a laptop computer, which was before him on the desk. He had several books on the table around him, as well, but she suspected they were there for comfort more than anything else. She walked over to him and saw that he appeared to be examining pictures of vampires, paging through dossier after dossier.

"How ya doin', G-man?" she asked concernedly as she neared him, laying her hand gently on his shoulder. She pulled it away immediately when he winced at the contact.

"Ahh," he said, and looked up at her. "Faith. Sorry, the beast dislocated my shoulder, apparently, and it's still very tender. Otherwise, I'm fine. However, I am a bit concerned."

He quickly relayed the details of the attack to the group, now that they were all here. The others settled around the table and listened quietly, greatly disturbed by what they heard. When Giles was done, they looked at one another quietly, and Faith rose to make a round of drinks as everyone else turned to their laptops.

Willow looked up with a smile as Faith handed her a beer, and Xander even managed to sound sincere when he thanked her. Faith sat back down in a chair next to Buffy as Willow looked up from her laptop at the group.

"Nothing. We have nothing to indicate who's behind this, what they wanted, nothing. There haven't even been rumors of anything big going down elsewhere in California, much less here in Sunnydale." She sighed in disappointment, and looked at Xander expectantly.

"Field teams haven't reported any upswings in local vamp activity, and there haven't been any unusual deaths lately, either. If we have new vamps in town, they brought lunch with them. That would indicate this is a carefully planned op by somebody from out of town. Nobody local these days has the organization or the balls to try something like this against us."

"No new masters in town?" Buffy asked.

"If there are," Willow answered grimly, "we haven't heard a peep about it. And, like Xander said, they must be feeding out of town, because there haven't been any unusual deaths or disappearances reported lately. Nor has there been an upswing in the number of fledglings."

Faith sat quietly, listening to the group discuss the various possibilities and actions they could take to prepare. She marveled at how organized, and ruthlessly, they went about it. This wasn't the old carefree group she remembered. The humor was still there, occasionally, but the rambling, casual, almost accidental methods the group had once relied on were gone. They planned, they plotted, and they acted. Just another day. Faith discovered, somewhat to her surprise, that she liked it better like this. In the old days, the group had often been just a bit too careless, for her. It had mystified her, while she worked for the Mayor, how they had continued to come out on top. But this was more her style. Not boring, but focused. Do the job, and move on. She tuned back in as Buffy began to wrap up the meeting.

"Okay," said the blonde slayer, "here's what I want, for now. Giles, I assume you are going to insist on going back to your place?" Giles nodded, and Buffy continued, "Then I want a full team on site, watching the perimeter, and I want another one near by, on standby. I want increased sweeps through town, and shake down the local snitches about any activity in the sewers. That's always been our biggest blind spot."

She looked around at the others, seeing their understanding of her intentions. "I don't want to overreact, but after the dream I had about you last night, Giles, I'd really like you to keep your eyes open. They may be trying for any of us, not just Giles, so I'd like increased security here in the building, as well. They'd be fools to try anything, but we might be overestimating their intelligence, so let's be alert."

* * * * * * * * *

Alistair Caine sat quietly in his chair, listening to Lucius report the details of the failed attempt to seize the Slayer's ex-Watcher. His displeasure did not show, but Lucius could feel it, coiling around the room like invisible smoke. Lucius knew that his master would not take it out on him, but that did not mean he wasn't nervous. Failure was not something that his master accepted. Never mind that the target's defenses had been much stronger than anticipated, or that this was a reconnaissance mission in the first place. The target had been alerted to their interest in him, which was going to make everything harder next time. Lucius wished there had been some survivors from the retrieval team. They could have been used to blunt his master's displeasure.

"Well," said Caine quietly, once Lucius had finished his report. "I suppose I should not be surprised. If it were going to be easy, this group would not be such trouble in the first place. Nonetheless, I think much stronger measures are in order. Have we heard from Natasha?"

Lucius swallowed the lump that immediately formed whenever HER name was mentioned. "Yes, sir. She is in Kazakhstan, but she received your summons and will be here sometime tomorrow. She is flying back on the plane you prepared for her. Her quarters and, uh, 'refreshments' are all prepared."

"Good, good," said Caine. He smiled evilly in anticipation. "Natasha will enjoy this one. It is right up her alley. Let me know when she arrives. Make sure to have a car waiting for her at the airport. That will be all, Lucius."

"Yes, sir."

Caine sat back in his plush leather chair as Lucius departed from his office, considering his favorite killer. Natasha was unlike other vampires. She had certain 'unique' qualities that he found especially endearing. Not the least of which was the fear her very name evoked in all of his other minions. She had been apart from him too long. It would be good to bring her back into the fold.

* * * * * * * * *

Faith sprawled out on the couch and sighed. Buffy had gone to bed as soon as they got back to her apartment, pleading exhaustion. Faith knew that what had happened in the gym was bothering her, but she couldn't figure out how to bring it up. She was afraid that she had pushed the blonde slayer, made her uncomfortable. She wasn't going to give up, not this time, but she kicked herself for taking advantage of the situation like that. She knew Buffy was straight, so why did she keep trying to seduce her?

She picked up the remote and began flipping channels. Maybe she should just go talk to Buffy. Maybe she should take Buffy up on the offer of one of the apartments downstairs. But she really didn't want to. She liked being close to her. It let her imagine that someday, they might have the kind of relationship she wanted. She snorted to herself. That was the problem. She needed to be happy with what she had. If she kept pushing, she would probably drive Buffy away again.

Willow seemed to think there was a chance. That had kind of freaked Faith out. She had never figured on Red being her ally. Hell, she had never figured on Red being her 'friend,' let alone co-conspirator in seduction. If that's what it was. Willow seemed to think that Buffy might want her. She just wished she could believe it.

Faith shook herself out of her funk and got up to make a drink. She was a fool, she told herself. Giles had been attacked tonight, could have been killed, and all she could think of was how she had nearly kissed B. Five years of celibacy, and now her hormones were driving her insane. Must be some kind of Slayer thing.

* * * * * * * * *

Buffy lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. Her sensitive ears could hear Faith out in the living room, watching TV. It sounded like she was flipping channels. She silently cursed herself for losing control. Things had been going good, and she just had to push it. She hoped she hadn't made Faith too uncomfortable. She knew the dark Slayer had problems with emotional involvement, and here she was trying to push her into a relationship that she herself didn't know how to handle.

She had never felt this way about another woman. Truth to be told, she had never felt this way about ANYONE. Not even Angel had awakened this kind of aching passion in her. It wasn't just lust, though. There was a connection, some kind of spiritual bond. She had known that, even in the old days. Back then, the physical responses had been buried in all of the other fucked up issues in her life. She had known that Faith affected her, but she had convinced herself it was a natural response to the fact that Faith had talked about sex all the time. But this time, she couldn't deny what she felt.

She wanted the dark-haired girl. She could try to convince herself that she loved her like a sister, or like she loved Willow. And she did. But she also LUSTED for her. It was an uncomfortable feeling. She had gotten used to the idea that sex was just a physical need, like eating. She accommodated that need as necessary. She wasn't some na�ve high-school girl anymore, to believe that love conquers all and sex and love were inextricably linked. She knew better, and these days she tried to avoid combining the two. It hurt less, that way.

But Faith was different. She wanted�no, she NEEDED Faith in her life. Faith made her feel better than she had in a long time. She didn't really know why, it wasn't like she didn't have good friendships with Xander and Willow. But it was different with Faith. Faith seemed to make her smile, without even trying. Her mere presence made her happier than she had been since Riley died.

But she didn't know what to do about the lust. Faith had always, ALWAYS been very clear about her 'get some, get gone' attitude. Not to mention that she had been a guy magnet. She hadn't given Buffy any indication that she felt the same things that Buffy felt. And Buffy was determined not to drive Faith away, this time. Not to LET her get away. What if she did just that by trying to seduce her?

She cursed silently. She was never going to get to sleep. Just thinking about Faith was getting her all twisted up, among other things. She listened to the dark Slayer flipping channels, making sure she wasn't heading towards bed. The thin Japanese panels between the bedrooms wouldn't stop Slayer hearing, and Buffy would be mortified if Faith heard her.

She opened her bedside table, and pulled out her 'friend.' As she headed into the bathroom to try to relax enough to get some sleep, she reflected that whoever said 'diamonds are a girl's best friend' had probably been a man.

* * * * * * * * *

Chapter 16

The next morning, Faith checked out her bike in the underground garage. Buffy had told her she had staff meetings in the morning, but since it was Saturday, Faith suspected she had used it as an excuse for some time alone. Faith didn't really mind, she had a lot of things to think about, and she wanted to look over the old 'Dale, anyway. Once she had ensured that no fumble-fingered cargo-handlers had damaged her bike, she climbed on board, pulled on her helmet with a grimace, (it's the law in California, and she tried to stay on the right side of the law, these days) and roared out of the garage. She flew past several people working on an assortment of vehicles on her way out, but she hadn't met them yet and wasn't feeling particularly sociable right now. They stared after her in wonder, but she ignored them.

Once she was out on the streets, she drove around Sunnydale more or less at random. She thought about driving by her old apartment, but decided that was probably more bad associations than she could handle at the moment. She drove by Giles's apartment, taking notice of the black Suburban parked out front and the poorly camouflaged sentry on the roof. She thought about stopping, but realized that she didn't really know what to say to Giles just now. He had been friendly to her, and she liked him, but he wasn't who she really wanted to talk to.

She drove through the UC Sunnydale campus, wondering what it would have been like to have a normal life. Would she still have been herself if she had had normal parents? Would she have gone to high school, and college? Growing up in Southie, she had never even thought about college. When she had awakened from her coma, and gone after Buffy, she had been envious of her life. She had been jealous that Buffy had been able to pretend to have a normal life, with high school, and college, and friends. Her own Watcher had never even mentioned it. She had saved Faith from a slow death on the streets, only to introduce her to the possibility of a quick death fighting evil. Faith hadn't minded, then. Slaying had been the first thing that had ever made her feel good about herself. It had made her feel special. She had never felt special before.

It hadn't lasted, of course. When her Watcher had been killed, Faith had known she had screwed up again. It had seemed to her that the only real talent she had was screwing up. She had run, and eventually hit Sunnydale. Buffy had helped, had started to make her believe that she might be worth something after all. But her own insecurities had come back to haunt her, and she had screwed up again. Buffy thought it was her fault, but Faith knew that really wasn't true. Faith had been unwilling to admit her mistakes, something she had always had problems with, and had screwed up again.

This time, she wanted it to be different. She wasn't going to leave, no matter what. Willow had talked to her about the problems the group had had the first year of college, which had made her aware that even 'perfect' friendships had problems. She knew that sooner or later she would piss Buffy off, or Buffy would piss her off, but she wasn't going to leave. If and when it happened, they would work it out. Just like they would work out whatever was going on now. If she could get Buffy to talk to her. If she could get herself to talk to Buffy.

Eventually, she wound up in front of Westhaven cemetery. She had half-known she was coming here. She parked her bike, and wandered through the rows of headstones until she found one of the ones she was looking for.

"Hey, Mr. Finch," she said, squatting down next to the headstone. "I hope you don't mind me coming by. I know I really should have, before now, but I wasn't really ready. I am now." She took a deep breath, and continued. "I know it's kind of pointless, now, but I wanted to tell you I'm sorry. It was an accident. You were coming to us for help, and I killed you. I have to say, your choice of meeting places left a lot to be desired, man. I mean, here we were, going down a dark alley, getting attacked by vamps left and right. And then you come out of nowhere. Why didn't you call out, or something?"

She sighed. "I'm sorry. I'm trying to avoid the issue again. I shouldn't have been so quick off the trigger. Buffy tried to warn me, but control wasn't my strong point in those days. I hope I'm better at it now."

She looked at the plain marble tombstone, wondering who had chosen it for him. She hoped that when her time came, she had something a little more significant than the generic white marble job that Allen Finch had been stuck with. She ignored the tears rolling slowly down her cheeks and caressed the top of the headstone gently. "I hope you wound up someplace good. I suppose I could ask Willis, maybe he knows. Everybody sort of forgot about you once it turned out the Mayor was a bad guy, but I didn't. I used you as an excuse. I told myself that since the only thing I had ever been really good at was hurting people, I might as well make a career of it. Basically I was trying to justify what I did to you."

She stood up, and wiped the tears from her face. "I hope you can forgive me. I tend to doubt it, and I wouldn't blame you, but I had to come ask."

She turned, and walked on, until she found the next one she was looking for. It was another plain white marble marker, that read simply 'Professor Lester Worth' and listed his birthday, and the date that Faith had killed him. She could still see the shocked expression on his face as she rammed the knife home, again and again. The tears were flowing again, and she closed her eyes, but that didn't make the image go away. She hadn't really known why the Boss had wanted him dead, and she hadn't cared. She had been so far around the bend at that point that she had been glad for anything to keep busy. It had seemed like anytime she had too much time to herself, all the things she had been doing had started coming back to her, and the little voice she had suppressed for so long would start screaming at her again.

"Hey, Lester," she said, sitting down on the grass and wiping her eyes. "I'm sure you remember me. I know it won't mean much, but I came by to tell you I'm sorry. If it makes you feel any better, you pretty much helped save the world, because when I killed you, it alerted Buffy and the gang and they used your stuff to figure out how to kill the Mayor. I wish I could say that that was why I did it the way I did, but the truth is I was just using you to express the rage that I couldn't deal with any other way. It wasn't personal, not that that's going to make you feel any better. But I'm sorry that I did it."

She sighed, and sat in silence for a while, contemplating. She wondered if she would ever be able to make up for the evil she had done. Not the big evil, like helping the Mayor. Strangely enough, that didn't really bother her. It was the little evils, like Lester and Allan, and the people she had robbed in LA, that really bothered her. They were personal. They were the people she had been called to protect, and she had killed them. Ordinary people.

Eventually she pulled out the cell phone that Buffy had given her, and called Julissa. It had been a couple of weeks since they talked last, and she knew that J would be worried about her when she heard she had quit her job. After a few moments, she heard one of her few true friends answer the phone.

"Hello?"

"J? It's me."

"Faith? Where are you? Bonnie called to tell me you quit working at the station. Are you all right?"

"I'm fine, relax. I'm, uh, back in Sunnydale." Faith couldn't suppress the smile that blossomed on her face as she said that. She knew what was coming next.

"Faith, honey, are you sure that's a good idea? I mean, I know you wanted to talk to her, but it's been two years, almost. If you stir it up now-"

"She came looking for me." She listened to the surprised silence that followed that tidbit of information, and tried not to gloat. Julissa had always been incredibly supportive of her, but she had formed a less than glowing image of Buffy, and Faith had been bitter enough at the time not to go out of her way to change it, much. She felt a little guilty about it, now, but she couldn't deny the fact that she relished having one friend that was HERS, not Buffy's first. It had been one of the things that had helped her come out of the dark, in prison. But she was past that.

"Are you okay?" Julissa asked after a moment. Faith could here the confused hesitancy in her voice, and decided that it was time to let her off the hook.

"She decided it was time for us to put the past behind us. She came to ask me to come back with her. She even apologized to me, for not being a better friend, before."

"Faith, that's great! Isn't it? I mean, from what you've told me, this is pretty much all you ever wanted, right?"

"Yeah," Faith said with a sigh.

"Okay, so what's wrong?"

"I don't know. Maybe I'm just freaking. I mean, I came back with her, and it's BETTER than a dream come true. She's got more money than I can believe, most of the old gang has been really accepting, even apologetic. She's been honest and supportive, and I guess that's part of the problem."

"Do you still have feelings for her?" Julissa asked quietly.

Faith hesitated, but then told herself that there wasn't much point in calling for help if you weren't going to talk about what you needed help with. "More than ever. And I guess that's part of why I'm freaking. I thought I'd be able to handle it, but I very nearly molested her last night, and she's been kind of distant ever since. One of her friends, who's been surprisingly supportive of me this time around, is even encouraging me. But I don't know what I'm doing. I mean, the longest relationship I ever had lasted three whole weeks. And the last two were miserable. That's not what I want."

"There's no rush, Faith. You've only been there two days. Give it a little time."

"That's what I keep telling myself," Faith responded bitterly. "But, there's this part of me that keeps saying it's not going to last. That I shouldn't get my hopes up because it's all too good to be true. Not to mention that the whole reason Buffy came looking for me was for help, and I can't do it. I told her, and she said she didn't care, but I can't believe that they need a useless former Slayer following them around."

"You're not a former Slayer. From what you've told me, you're a Slayer till you die."

"Maybe they should just bury me then."

"Knock that self-pity shit off. You know you're just being silly now. I know why you have problems with it, but you can do it if you want to. You have a lot more control than you give yourself credit for. That's one of the things that caught my attention when I first met you. If you would only believe in yourself a little bit, you could do damn near anything."

"But-"

"But nothing," Julissa cut her off. "Remember what you said when I suggested you take cooking classes?"

Faith sighed in defeat. "I said that I didn't know jack about kitchens, and didn't really care."

"And what did I tell you?"

Faith smiled at the memory. "You said that anybody who liked knives as much as I did ought to feel right at home in a kitchen."

"And did you learn to cook?"

"Okay, okay, point made. I guess I just needed a little reinforcement."

"That's what I'm here for, girlfriend. Do you want me to come and visit? Maybe meet your friends?"

Faith was touched. Julissa had basically two full-time jobs, one as a guard in a women's correctional facility, and one as a self-employed crisis counselor for the women she helped get back on track in their lives. She had virtually no life outside of work, and she hoarded her vacation time. For her to offer to use some of it for Faith really meant a lot.

"Thanks, J," she said sincerely. "But no. You've got plenty of reasons to stay up there, and one of the perks to hanging with this crowd, apparently, is lots of travel. B mentioned that we might even be able to visit your family in Florida. So you just hang there, and if I need to see you, I'll come to you. I kind of want you to meet Buffy."

"Okay. Well, I'm glad to hear that you didn't just hit the road, but next time don't wait so long to call me after making sudden major changes in your life. Call me if you need me, Faith."

* * * * * * * * *

Continue to Ch. 17-End

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