Summer Friendship Series 5-8 by Pat Kelly
bandits@erols.com

5
TOGETHERNESS

Christmas in California. A time when the streets are filled with decorations, lights, and pounds of fake snow. In Sunnydale, it was basically the same, only the holiday meant something a little more to the slayers. Vampires didn't come out much for that week leading up to it, and especially not on the day. It was because of this, that the slayers could go solo, each patrolling a different night. For an all-important reason.

Christmas shopping.

Buffy was out shopping tonight, Cordelia assisting her. She had gone with Willow one night, and Xander another. She was trying to patch up her friends' relationships. She had spoken to Oz, but he was dealing in his own way. Willow had been trying to catch him, but Buffy knew that if he was given time, Oz would come around. Xander and Cordelia were a whole different story. He had to grovel, and she had to get Cordelia to listen to him.

She and the brunette were now walking along the sidewalk, and the blonde already had several bags in her hands.

"Why should I?"

"Because he loves you, Cordy." Buffy said.

"I told you I wanted to find out if it was real between him and me. Well, I found out. It wasn't."

"It was a clothes fluke."

"That was their excuse?" Cordelia asked with a laugh of disbelief. That was the best they could do?

"Uh�yeah�but they're not together. They don't want that."

They were silent for awhile after that, going in different stores. Buffy knew Xander would never, ever get back together with Cordelia if she returned to the popular circle, and that was the one thing Buffy hadn't asked her about yet. She had been wondering what the ex-May Queen was going to do for the past few weeks.

"You're not�gonna�go back, are you?"

Cordelia sighed. "I've been gone too long. Harmony took my place! Can you believe that? Plus, once they heard that we were friends�"

"Oh." Maybe she shouldn't have asked. "Hey�if�"

"No! I don't want to." She was quick to shake her head. "I've been watching them. It's different looking in from the outside. They're morons. They were never were my friends." She shrugged. "You are."

Buffy smiled, and then cleared her throat. "Willow could be too, you know. If you just gave her a chance."

As they walked, they started passing by a restaurant and saw a bench out in front of it. Cordelia sat to rest her feet, and Buffy followed.

"She's not someone I want to be real friendly with right now. And especially not him. I've never been cheated on before, you know? Dealing with it...I'm not sure how."

"I get that, but I also remember you telling me you loved Xander. Are you just gonna throw that away without giving him a chance to�fix things?"

"I don't know, Buffy. Can we please not?"

"Okay." Buffy sighed.

"Why are you getting gifts for Willow anyway? She's Jewish, isn't she?" Cordelia asked bitterly, looking at the bags.

"Christmas, Chanukah�it's still the holidays. The time of forgiveness and good will towards your fellow man�stuff like that." She stared at Cordelia. "And everybody gets gifts."

"Including me?" Faith asked, walking up to them. Buffy quickly squeezed the bags to her chest. "I'll take that as a yes. Lemme see."

"No. We promised each other we wouldn't snoop or follow each other while one of us is shopping." Buffy reminded her.

"I wasn't following you. I finished my sweep early, and spotted ya."

"Well go away! There must be vampires somewhere."

"It's dead out there, B. Literally. All the corpses are stayin' six feet under."

"Fine. But you still can't see. I have to wrap."

"I've been done with the buying for days now."

"Aren't you special?" Buffy rose from the bench, leaving the bags by Cordelia.

"I like to think so." Faith answered, cockily.

"Do you?" Buffy grinned.

Faith nodded, and Cordelia watched as the slayers shared a kiss. She remembered when she and Xander used to do the same thing. Playfully bicker, fling retorts back and forth, and then end it on a very pleasurable note. She missed that, and as much as she didn't like to, she had to admit that to herself. Faith stopped the contact after a few seconds, and then tried to rush by Buffy to get at the bags. Cordelia gathered them up into her hands.

"You're acting like you're five." Cordelia said to Faith.

The brunette slayer stuck her tongue out.

Buffy shook her head. "Let's go. Next thing you know, she'll start drooling and want a bib."

"If I drool, it's just because you're so damn hot, B." Faith retorted.

"Talk like that -"

"Please spare me?" Buffy stopped. "Thank you." Cordelia said with a smile, walking ahead of them.

None of the three girls saw Angel across the street. He seemed to be shaken up, and was staring off into space. After a second, he ran off the streets, desperate to get back to the mansion.

***

"You're evil." Faith said to Buffy as the blonde got off the phone. "I hope you know that."

"Take that back." Buffy said with a grin, as she kissed her girlfriend. "It'll result in goodness when it's all over. I hope."

It was the night after Buffy and Cordelia had gone on the final present-getting trip, and Faith had done the final patrol until after Christmas. She had gotten Cordelia to come to her house to watch a night of Christmas TV. It had taken some prodding, but since her parents were out of town at some bigwig, rich people party, she had agreed. Unbeknownst to her, other people had agreed as well. One way or another.

"You have another dream last night?" Faith asked.

"The flashback to Angel's past, kind?" Buffy asked. "Yeah. I told Giles. I didn't know what else to do. Angel won't talk to me when I go over there." She sighed. "How about you? Still having the same one?"

"It's weird. I get here, and you're not. Willow and Xander have joined the fang forces�some bald vamp�and I end up working for a redheaded guy with cleanliness issues."

Buffy's brow furrowed. "Huh. That *is* weird."

"Hey! The Grinch Who Stole Christmas is on in fifteen minutes!" Cordelia called from the living room.

"Coming!"

"Oh�uh�your mom said to eat the cookies in the fridge. She baked." Faith said. She said the next part a little quieter. "And so did I."

The blonde went to the fridge and pulled out a large plate of chocolate chip cookies.

"You made these?"

"She wanted help." Faith shrugged.

"Hey Cordelia! Guess what Faith did! She made cook -" Buffy ran from the kitchen with the brunette on her heels. She plopped on the couch, and Faith was giving her a warning look. "Cookies." She gave Faith an innocent smile. "Payback's a bitch, isn't it? Guess you won't be telling stories anymore."

"I don't know about that."

"Faith bakes?" Cordelia was on the floor, and she knelt up to grab a cookie off the plate. "I'm trying to picture a chef's hat�"

"Shut it, Cor." Faith hissed.

"You don't scare me, Slayer."

"Oh yeah?" She shook her finger in the cheerleader's direction, menacingly.

Buffy laughed. "She's a little testy. If it's any consolation, these are really good." She coughed. "Martha."

"That's it!"

As Faith exclaimed that, she jumped up and was planning to stomp for a few minutes, but the doorbell rang.

"Could you get the door, sweetie?" Buffy asked politely, trying very hard not to laugh.

Her partner wordlessly went to get it. Cordelia shook her head at Buffy's boldness.

"She's pissed at you, and you don't seem to care."

"No she's not." Buffy smiled.

"Were you somewhere else just now?"

Faith came back in, Willow walking behind her. Cordelia and the redhead then eyed Buffy.

"You set me up." They said together.

"I did no such thing." Buffy defended herself.

"You expect us to believe that?" Willow asked.

"No�but hey! You already agree on something."

Cordelia huffed. "I feel so�manipulated."

"So what if I did?" Buffy looked at Willow first. "You wanted to watch the Grinch and Snoopy, because you can't watch it at home," She looked at Cordelia next, "and you, what were you going to do? Sit home alone?"

They had no response.

"And the scary thing is," Faith said as she curled up next to Buffy and the blonde began to stroke her hair, "she's just gettin' started."

"Told you." Buffy said to Cordelia.

It was quiet until the Grinch finally appeared on screen, and then all their attention was focused on the television.

***

Giles was at home cooking himself a late dinner. It was the holiday season, and even though he didn't go out of his way to decorate or make a big fuss about it, he still felt just a little more cheerful than usual. And that was something he didn't mind, considering where he had to live. As he tasted his homemade spaghetti sauce, he hoped Buffy's plan to reconcile her friends with their partners was going well.

She had been very psyched about getting them all together, and having them work out their problems. If anyone could do it, well, she could.

Buffy had come to him earlier in the day, and told him about how she was viewing scenes from Angel's past in her dreams. Only they didn't feel like hers. They felt like Angel's, she had said. Frankly, since it didn't seem life threatening to Buffy's health, it was a puzzle that he was in no hurry to try and solve. Angel wasn't a top priority for him. For obvious reasons.

There was a knock on his door, and he quickly took the pot of sauce off the stove.

"Just a minute!" He hurried to open the door, to find Angel standing outside. He looked at the vampire with surprise and contempt. "Hello."

"Um...I'm sorry to bother you." Angel somewhat nervously responded.

Giles laughed at him. "Sorry. Coming from you that phrase strikes me as rather funny. 'Sorry to bother me.'"

"I need your help." The vampire said softly.

He couldn't believe it. "And the funny keeps on coming."

"I understand I have no right to ask for it." He said, knowing full well what he did to the man standing before him. "But there's no one else."

"All right." Giles agreed after a moment.

Angel watched as he disappeared into the hall of his home.

"I... I can't come in unless you invite me."

Giles came back with a crossbow, which he aimed at his visitor's chest.

"I'm aware of that." Angel was surprised, but didn't blame him at all. "Come in."

Angel was having second thoughts, but eventually did enter, slowly and cautiously, not meeting Giles' eyes. They were both quiet for awhile.

"For what it's worth�I'm sorry."

Giles studied Angel's face. "I'm sure you are, but frankly, an apology from you isn't worth much to me at the moment."

"Words aren't enough, I know -"

"You couldn't possibly know." Giles said sharply, which caused the vampire to flinch. He closed his eyes, and rubbed his temples. "But words are a start."

"How is she?" He asked, trying another area.

Giles sat on the arm of his sofa, and set the crossbow down behind him, no longer believing he was in any danger of harm.

"Wonderful, as far as I can tell. Your recent indiscretion almost jeopardized that for her, however."

"It was a mistake. She was the only thing I thought about there. The only memory I had to hang onto. Then I'm returned�and it's not the same. A part of me had�" He sighed. "It doesn't matter now."

"Certainly you couldn't have expected it to be. She was devastated for a very long time, Angel, and she's finally found contentment with someone. I hope you'll let her have it."

"If she's happy, that's�something she deserves. Of course I won't stand in the way. Maybe if things were different�" He trailed off, sadly.

"She still cares about you, you must know that. Even though it's not in the exact same way. I'd consider yourself lucky, in that respect. In fact," Giles cleared his throat, "she approached me with concerns about dreams she's been experiencing. Of your earlier days."

Angel's eyes went wide. "I've been seeing...I've...I've had dreams lately about the past. It's...it's like I'm living it again. It's�it's so vivid, I...I need to know." There was a pleading edge to his voice. "I need to know why I'm here."

"Here? Back on Earth?"

"I should be in a demon dimension suffering an eternity of torture."

"I don't feel particularly inclined to argue with that." Giles said, coldly.

"But I'm not. I was freed, and I don't understand why."

"Knowing why you were back would give you peace of mind?"

"It might." Angel answered with a slight nod.

He started to look over Giles shoulder at something. Almost in fear. The watcher didn't notice.

"You think that's something you ought to have?" Angel was beginning to shake. "Because, ah, to be blunt, the last time you became complacent about your existence, it turned out rather badly." He saw Angel's far-away, frightened look. "What?"

"Don't you see her?" Angel asked, his voice wavering.

"Who?" He looked around, seeing nothing.

"I can't!"

The vampire ran out, leaving Giles completely stunned.

***

By the time Dr. Seuss' Christmas offering was over, the entire gang was in Buffy's house. Xander and Oz were both suckered into coming there by the blonde, and now that the program was over, the tension was increasing. Buffy hit record on the remote, and stared at her friends, who were all on the floor.

"How about those Whos, huh?" Xander asked.

"What about them?" Cordelia asked sharply.

"Well�just that even though he did some things he shouldn't have, they still forgave him."

"The Whos trusted him too much at the end. The Grinch is a jerk. I bet if they made a sequel, he'd just try to ruin it and take all the presents again."

Buffy shook her head, and turned off the TV.

"Snoopy's coming on!" Willow exclaimed.

"Relax, Red. It's being taped." Faith assured her, nodding toward the VCR.

"Now," Buffy spoke, "while you were all absorbed, Faith went around and locked all the doors and windows. From the inside. We have the only keys, escape is impossible, and that means no one can leave until they at least try to talk. You can go to different rooms if you want, and when everyone's finished, we'll all watch Snoopy." She stated clearly, in a tone that wouldn't accept argument.

"Couple off, pick a place, and discuss. We'll be here." Faith said.

"What'll you two be doing?" Xander asked.

Cordelia saw the smiles on the slayers' faces. "You really need to ask that?"

Willow turned to Oz. "Do you wanna�."

"Yeah."

The hacker and werewolf went upstairs. Buffy stared at Cordelia and Xander.

"What could it hurt, Cordy?" She asked.

"Fine." Cordelia gave in. "Come on, Xander."

Xander followed his girlfriend, they hadn't *officially* broken up yet, up the stairs. Buffy looked at Faith, already exhausted. She slid down further on the couch, and laid her head on the brunette's lap. After a few minutes, they both heard an engine. Faith glanced back, seeing headlights shining in the window.

"Your mom's home. Sure you wanna do this now?"

Buffy took a deep breath. "Let's hope she's got the Christmas Spirit."

Joyce turned the knob on the front door from the outside, it opened, and she came in carrying groceries. Buffy sat up as her mother poked her head into the living room.

"Hi girls." The older Summers greeted.

"Hi mom."

"Hey, Mrs. S."

"Is it working?" Joyce asked.

"We'll see." Buffy said with a shrug. "Need help storing?"

"I wouldn't mind."

Faith and Buffy followed Joyce into the kitchen, but first, the younger slayer gently shut the door.

"Think they'll figure out they're not really locked in?"

"They'll be too wrapped up." Buffy grinned. "Besides, I was pretty damn convincing, if I do say so myself."

They made their way to the kitchen.

"You think you can act, huh?"

The blonde nodded. "One of those hour-long dramas would be perfect for me."

Faith smirked. "Like anybody would sit and watch you for an hour."

"Hey, it could happen!" Buffy insisted, unpacking a bag.

***

Willow and Oz sat on Buffy's bed for several minutes. She looked around the room and didn't see blankets on the floor, or a sleeping bag for Faith. She knew the brunette was sleeping in the room, so what did that mean? She flushed then. Oh. They were�bed�together�back to her boyfriend. Yeah, that was a good idea.

She didn't know what to say to him. She had already apologized, but beyond that, she didn't know what else to say. He hadn't said much of anything then. It was Oz. She couldn't tell if he was happy, sad�so when he started speaking, revealing his thoughts and feelings to her as he was doing now, she was shocked.

"Okay. The thing is...seeing you with Xander, it was...well, I never felt that way before...when it wasn't a full moon...but I know you guys have a history."

"But it's a history that's in the past." She assured him. "Well, I�I guess most history is in the past. But it's over."

"Well, I don't know. I don't know that it...ever will be between you two." He said softly.

She was desperate. This was the most they had talked in weeks.

"Oz, please believe me."

"This is what I do know:" He reached for her hand, and put it in his. "I miss you. Like, every second. Almost like I lost an arm, or worse, a torso. So, I think I'd be willing to...give it a shot."

She beamed. "Really?"

He gave her a half-smile. "Yeah."

"Do you want us to...to hug now?" She started opening her arms for an embrace.

"Yeah, I'm good for that."

***

Faith put the last of the groceries in the cabinet, and then she and Buffy looked at Joyce. She looked right back at them, and got a little suspicious.

"Is there something you want to talk about?"

"Talk about?" Buffy asked nervously. "Uh�no. No." She moved to leave the kitchen.

Faith reached out and grabbed her arm. "This was your idea."

"But -" Buffy sighed, and then nodded. Faith freed her arm, and she leaned over the counter, looking at her nails. "Mom�"

"Yes?" Joyce raised her eyebrows.

"We're�involved." She said, moving her finger in between her and Faith.

Joyce looked at her daughter for a second, and then at Faith, for confirmation of the fact.

"Uh huh." The other slayer said softly.

"How involved?"

Faith coughed, and Buffy's eyes bugged out.

"We haven't�not yet." Her daughter answered.

Joyce sighed. "I was wondering when you were going to tell me. I was beginning to doubt myself."

"You knew?" The slayers asked simultaneously.

"How often do you remember to set your alarm?" She asked Buffy.

"Almost never�" Buffy told her mother.

"Yet it always manages to wake you up in the morning." Joyce said. "Strange."

Buffy and Faith exchanged a "DUH" look. Joyce must have been coming into the room in the middle of the night, and setting the alarm so her daughter wouldn't be late for school. And of course, she must have seen them sleeping next to each other, in the same bed, close and cuddly. Closer than friends normally were, or should probably be.

The elder blonde was leaving the kitchen, and they didn't even realize it at first.

"Wait." Buffy said, and Joyce stopped. "Does this mean your okay�with us?"

"I've known, haven't I?"

When she left, the girls burst into a fit of giggles.

***

"Why'd you have to pick the bathroom?" Xander asked Cordelia, as she had chosen the spot for their talk.

He felt closed in, cramped, cold, basically�

"Because I knew it would make you uncomfortable." She answered him. "You don't think that I know guys can't stand it in bathrooms for more than five minutes?"

"Hey, we just do our business, and skidaddle."

"Gross." Cordelia said in disgust.

Xander made sure the toilet lid was in the down position, and took a seat.

"So what do you want me to do, Cordy? You know I'm sorry already. I think I got that across with the four-hundred messages I left on your machine."

"Say it again. Say, 'I apologize, Cordelia. For everything I put you through. The pain, the hurt�I beg you to forgive me.'" His expression was one of disbelief, and she simply tapped her foot on the tile. "Anytime now."

He took a deep breath, and said what she asked. Every single word, and she could tell he meant it.

"Do you love me?" She asked him next.

"What?" He asked. That had never ever been brought up between them. Ever. "Do you love me?"

"I asked first. Buffy and Faith, Willow and Oz�I can see it with them. But not with us. Maybe it's because I'm too close, or maybe I'm looking for something that isn't there. Either way, I want to hear it from you. So Xander Harris, do you love me?"

He thought a second. "Cordy, why do you think when we were first going out, I always brought up telling our friends in the middle of making out? I interrupted some very high quality kissing, you know. Or said that I wanted to go out together in public? It's because, as much fun as broom closet sessions were, I wanted more."

"And you're saying�what?"

"I'm saying, I wanted to get past hormones and do date stuff, because I wanted you to give me a chance to love you. To show you that I wasn't such an idiot, and could be the boyfriend-type. So, yeah, I do."

Cordelia cleared her throat to try and get rid of the lump that had just formed there.

"I gave you that chance. You blew it." She said coldly. "Why?"

"Been trying to figure that out." He shrugged. "I don't know. One minute she was just Willow, and the next, she was *Willow*. Then it happened. But it doesn't happen anymore. We've been friends for so long, and we know that's what we're best at. We just got�sidetracked."

"Sidetracked?" The brunette asked incredulously.

He sighed. "It sounds bad putting it that way, but�we did it, it's over, and it didn't mean anything." Xander was struggling to explain. "Did you ever know somebody your whole life, then something changes, and�it just�feels like your eyes just opened?"

Cordelia let out a dry laugh. "It happened to me when we were in the basement hiding from that Bug guy, and I looked at you. But it didn't go both ways, huh? I guess Willow's the only one who can open your eyes *that* way."

She made a move for the door, and Xander jumped up and got in front of her, blocking her exit.

"I wasn't talking about Willow." He said softly.

"What�?" She trailed off, confused.

"Haven't you been listening to me? Yeah, okay, when I looked at Willow then, it was like I was seeing her on a whole new level."

"This isn't helping you, Xander." She crossed her arms over her chest.

"Let me finish, will ya? But in the basement, right before *we* kissed," He was referring to himself and the girl standing before him, "I felt the same thing you did."

"Did you? How do you know what I felt? All I see is a guy whose hormones get the better of him, and someone who likes kissing girls he's known for a long time. And that's sick."

He shook his head. "It wasn't the same thing. With Willow, it was hormones. It was different with you because�I loved you. I still love you. In a girlfriend way."

"And Willow?"

"In a friend way." He paused. "So�did you feel the same way? Do you love me too?"

She looked him in the eyes. "Yes."

They stared at each other for a couple seconds, and then Cordelia walked out of the bathroom, leaving him there. He didn't know what to think.

***

Giles had asked the gang, the following morning, to come to the library. There was some research he needed help with, and they all grudgingly agreed. Vacation had begun, but they were going back to school. Well, it wasn't like they had anything better to do. The previous night had ended abruptly, and on a sour note, anyhow.

Cordelia had come downstairs and then left the house without a word. After that, Willow and Oz, who had reconciled, decided it was better to go. And Xander was too confused to do anything else but think of what went wrong, so he left as well. Snoopy was never viewed.

Willow, Xander, Buffy, and Faith came to the library to help Giles. Oz was practicing, because Dingoes was playing at the Bronze's party on Christmas, which happened to be tomorrow. Cordelia hadn't come either, and everyone knew it was because of Xander.

Buffy was depressed that her planned night hadn't gone the way she had wanted.

"One outta two isn't bad, B." Faith said as they sat at the table.

"Yes it is. That's fifty percent. That's failing. I failed." Buffy muttered. "So�Giles, why are we here?"

The librarian and watcher walked over to the table.

"Angel came to see me last night." Giles said. "He appeared to be very frightened, and somewhat unstable."

"What did he come to you for?" Xander asked.

"He wanted to know why he was back."

"Can we find that out?" Willow asked.

"Wait." Buffy said, cutting off Giles before he could answer. "You want to help him?"

Giles pushed his glasses tighter onto his nose. "As long as Angel is 'alive' and has his soul, he owes the world," He was thinking 'me', "for all the carnage his demon-half caused. Whether it's destroying evil, or whatever fate asks of him, he won't be able to do anything in his current state. I want to find the cause of what's troubling him, because -"

"You're not letting him off the hook." The blonde said softly, understanding.

"What if he does have a few screws loose? Permanently?" Faith asked.

Buffy closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and then looked her watcher in the eye.

"Then I kill him."

Xander clapped his hands together, and grabbed a book out of the pile that was on the table. He loved distractions. They let him forget his problems.

"Let's get crackin'."

***

Hours and hours passed as they researched. Pizza was ordered, eaten, and ordered again. The gang was dispersed throughout the library, and only Willow and Buffy were still at the table. They sat with books, searching pages that had references to beets and enchanted carrots, but nothing that appeared useful to Angel.

"Bugs Bunny may get a kick out of this, but it isn't gonna help us." Buffy stated, slamming the book shut.

"Did you ever see the one where he ate those super carrots and it was this whole Superman -" Buffy started giggling. "What?"

Buffy shook her head. "I just�found that funny."

"I segued right, didn't I? I mean, you mentioned Bugs, and I remembered one of his cartoons and -" Willow was close to hyperventilating.

The blonde put her hand on her friend's back. "Breathe. Your segueing was perfect. I needed to laugh, and you made me. Feel good."

"Oh. Okay. I will." Willow said with a smile of relief. "I'm just extra nervous today. Oz and I are gonna watch videos tonight. Just the two of us."

"Don't be nervous. Be you. That's what he loves. He already forgave you, so you don't have to worry about that hurdle."

"We just have to rebuild." The redhead told herself, trying to sound confident that they could do it.

"You'll be fine." Buffy reassured her friend. "Are we okay?" She asked cautiously then.

"With -? Oh. Telling Faith about�and not me." Willow sighed. "I won't lie, cause you'd know. I was�hurt, but you had your reasons."

"It had nothing to do with not trusting, or�you're my best friend. I just told -"

"Don't explain. I didn't tell anybody about Xander and I for a long time too."

"But you did tell me. And I feel bad. I should grovel or�something."

"If you have to do something, you could�give me a hug?" Willow asked hesitantly. Buffy stood up, as did Willow, and they embraced. "Consider us officially okay now."

Faith walked over to the two friends, open book in her hands.

"Hey, B, Giles and I -" She cut herself off when she felt herself being hugged by Willow. "Uh�thanks?"

"She's not out of hugging mode yet." Buffy said with a grin.

"All done." Willow said, backing away. Faith had a disbelieving, half-smile on her face. "You were going to say something?"

"Uh, yeah." The brunette laid the book she had been holding on the table. She pointed to an illustration. "Look familiar?"

Buffy looked at the picture, which depicted eyeless priests.

"They're the guys from my dream."

"I knew it. Ha! Told ya, Giles." She pointed her finger at him as he came down the steps.

"Care to explain?" Buffy asked.

"Right." Giles said. "Uh, those gentlemen are High Priests of the First."

"First?"

"Evil." Xander chipped in as he walked over to join the group.

"Thank you, Xander." Giles said with a sigh. "The First Evil is not a physical being. It is absolute evil, and older than anything on this earth."

"But here's the kicker." Faith said. "The priests can make people see things. Spirits and stuff. Drive 'em insane."

"So they're the reason Angel�" Willow trailed off.

"Most likely." Giles said, nodding.

"We find them, right?" Xander asked.

"Where?" Willow inquired.

"Faith," Buffy pointed to the picture of the priests, "what's the caption under that say?"

"For they are the Harbingers of death. Nothing shall grow above or below them. No seed shall flower, neither in man nor�" Faith looked up with questioning eyes.

"Nothing grow above or below�" Buffy repeated to herself as she went to the library counter and snatched the phone. She dialed and waited, tapping her fingers. "Mom, hey. Where'd we get the tree? I forget�oh yeah�no, I'll be home soon�thanks."

"Buff?" Xander asked.

"Xand, we're going to take out these priest guys. Faith, can you and Will go get Angel? If he is on the brink -"

"Got it covered, B. I love it when you have a plan." Buffy grinned. Faith turned to Willow. "You and me, Red?"

"Oh�uh�I have to�Oz." Willow remembered, though she really wanted to help Angel.

"It's all right, Will. Just remember to be yourself." Buffy said, smiling. "Giles?"

He looked at the brunette slayer, and she grinned at him.

"Time's a wastin', G."

She led Giles out the library doors. Buffy stared after them, wondering what she had done to her poor watcher.

"Where we going?" Xander asked.

"Tell you on the way." They started walking out. "Hey, do you know where to get shovels?"

***

Buffy kicked in the gate that gave her and Xander access to the Christmas Tree lot. They were each carrying shovels as they walked through the trees, heading for the spot where Buffy said they were going to dig. The two friends were discussing Xander's relationship woes, which Buffy was glad for, because that was why she had asked him along.

"Walk me through what happened." Buffy told him.

"I let her to humiliate me," He began.

She looked around at the trees as she spoke.

"Good start. Next."

"I told her I loved her,"

"Also a good thing."

"Explained the whole Willow and me thing,"

Buffy stopped, and looked him in the eye. "You said it didn't mean anything. Didn't you?" He nodded, and she sighed deeply. "What else?"

"Asked her if she loved me, then she said yes. There was silence, then she walked out."

They started walking again as Buffy thought quietly. Humiliation, the 'I love you', explained the fluke, which ended with an affirmative return of the 'I love you'�yet, she left. It was a puzzle.

"Wait!" She exclaimed after a few seconds. "You said there was a period of silence right before."

"So?"

"So?" She asked back, hitting his arm. "That was your window!"

"My�window?" He said dumbly, rubbing his arm.

"Your kissing window! Always end long talks with your girlfriend with a kiss. Especially the 'just saved the relationship' talk. It seals everything!"

"It was a really small window." Xander insisted.

"Cordelia's not patient, you know that. Now she's doubting. She told you she loved you back, and you did nothing!"

"Oh man." He breathed.

"You better fix it." About ten steps later, Buffy halted and drove her shovel into the ground. "This is it."

"I still don't get it."

"Look around. What do you see?"

"Green Christmas Trees."

"And what about where we're standing?"

He studied them closely. They didn't look very green. Or very alive.

"Trees with dead leaves and bare branch - oh."

"Dig, you window miss-er, you." She instructed with a glare.

***

Faith and Giles were coming up on the mansion.

"How do you want to handle this?" She asked him.

"I'm leaving that entirely up to you."

"Why me?"

"Because you are a slayer."

"And you just watch? I know you have personal issues with him, and I'm tryin' to give you a say, so don't pull out the handbook on me, okay? I know what it says."

"You do?" Giles asked, somewhat surprised.

"It wasn't something I *wanted* to do. My watcher made me." She said quietly. "'Sides, I don't follow the rules anyway."

"Maybe it was a wise decision on my part to not make Buffy read it, after all. I doubt she would follow the rules either."

"This is why you're cool. You don't force anything. And you can hold your own in a fight. If mine had�"

She trailed off, deciding that exploring the 'what ifs' of her past wasn't a good idea.

"Faith? Are you all right?" He stopped, wondering if he should approach her.

This was a rare moment. He had never seen her as open as she appeared to be right now. That was something he assumed she shared only with Buffy.

'I really don't want another watcher.' She thought.

"Fine. Just zoned for a sec. Thanks. My imagination gets out of control sometimes." She flashed him a grin.

And apparently, it was going to stay that way for now. That was fine to him, as long as she had someone to talk with. He couldn't think of anyone better than Buffy. Hopefully, at some point, she would feel comfortable enough with him to realize he would listen if she needed it, though.

Generally, she certainly kept him on his toes. A sudden rush of images involving two slayers flashed through his mind at her last remark, proving that fact beyond question. It took some getting used to, but it was that playfulness that he found to be a very good quality. It was something that was very unique to slayers and Faith had it perfected.

Some might call it a defense mechanism, and that might have been true, but it was really just a part of her personality. And it was that playfulness that had brought light back into Buffy's eyes. Loosened her up some and Giles didn't see that as a bad thing. They had the weight of the world on their shoulders. It was good to be able to have fun, and to remember that they were still teenagers.

It reminded him that he didn't have to be serious every second, too. Faith started moving, and he had to hurry to catch up.

"So�you got any ideas or what?"

"Not really." He admitted.

"Let's think."

"In all likelihood, he's suicidal. The mental stress he's enduring would be powerful enough."

"Couldn't he be snapping? Like wacko?"

"His soul is in control, and I know that side of him as well as his darker half. If Angel's the kind of man I believe he is, he'd destroy himself before it came to that."

"Okay. We talk him out of it."

"I suppose -"

"But we're not shrinks, and I sure as hell don't know what to say."

"That's a problem." He agreed.

"Ah, screw it. We got nothing." She shrugged. "Who cares? I'm a play it by ear type of girl, anyway."

"Somehow I knew that." Giles said with a smile as they entered the mansion.

***

Buffy dropped into the hole they had created, Xander right behind her. He held his shovel so tightly, his knuckles turned white. He wasn't fond of dark, cramped areas. Especially dark, cramped areas that had guys who worked for the evilest thing on the planet. They walked slowly, deeper into the cave. Sure enough, there were three chanting priests sitting around a table littered with candles and ancient artifacts.

"All right," She addressed them, "ten more minutes of chanting and then you guys have to go to bed."

Buffy and Xander began to engage the now angry, eyeless men.

"Ya know, Buff, as slayerisms go, that was pretty -"

"Can we realize how lame my words were later?"

She swung her shovel into one's stomach, and he went down. Xander hit another one, who doubled over, and then he elbowed the priest to the ground. The third one quickly ran away.

"Yeah! Run! You're not that tough!" He called after the retreating priest.

Buffy then used her shovel to smash all the artifacts on the table. Feeling pretty good about themselves, they almost didn't see Jenny Calendar there in the cave with them. Their breaths caught in their throats.

"Hmm. I'm impressed." Jenny said to them.

"You seein' what I'm seein'?" Xander asked Buffy quietly.

"Yeah." She answered. "But it's not really her."

"Pretty damn good make up job then."

"You won't get Angel." She said, speaking to the form of her deceased teacher and friend.

"You think you can fight me?" The First Evil challenged. "I'm not a demon, little girl. I am something that you can't even conceive. The First Evil. Beyond sin, beyond death. I am the thing the darkness fears. You'll never see me, but I am everywhere. Every being, every thought, every drop of hate."

Xander started making snoring noises, and Buffy was losing her patience.

"All right, we get it. You're evil. Do we have to chat about it all day?"

"Angel will be dead by sunrise. Your Christmas...will be his wake."

"No."

"You have no idea what you're dealing with."

"Ooh! I know!" Xander said, waving his hand in the air. "Evil, right?"

"Don't leave us hanging," Buffy said sarcastically, "are we dealing with evil or not?"

Jenny's image disappeared, and a large, red-eyed, horned-looking creature, was in her place. It appeared to lunge at them and roar, but it was gone within the blink of an eye. The First Evil's final words rang through the cave, however.

"Dead by sunrise!"

"Mansion?" Xander asked after a moment.

"Mansion." Buffy confirmed.

***

Unable to find Angel inside the mansion, Faith and Giles went to the only other place he could be. Outside behind the building. And that wasn't a good thing, because the sun was going to be up in about ten minutes. They climbed the slight hill, and found the vampire staring down at the town below.

"Let me be." Angel said immediately, without turning around. The two people behind him were at a loss for words. "I bet half the kids down there are already awake. Lying in their beds...sneaking downstairs...waiting for day."

"Probably a good bet." Faith said. "Speaking of day, you know, the sun's comin' up."

"I can smell it."

"I�knew that." Faith said slowly.

"You don't care, do you?" Giles asked.

"I deserve to die, Giles. I know you don't disagree."

"Your vampire half does, yes. But the person standing here, does not."

"There's no difference. All those people I killed�nothing I could ever do, would be enough. I'm a vampire, always will be. My soul just lets me pretend that I'm not."

"You're a man trapped in demon's body, Angel. That's your curse. But you do have the power to overcome it, and do real good."

"And that thing working the mojo on you is being taken care of." Faith added. "B and Xander are on it."

"It doesn't matter. It showed me what I am. And I don't know if I can keep control anymore. I'm not going to take the risk."

"You're a real piece of work, ya know that?" Faith said, approaching him. "You survive, what? Hundreds of years in Hell, fight to get back here, and then when some big evil dredges up some ghosts of Christmas Past, you get all scared and weak. What the hell is your deal?"

"I only held on to�"

She stepped up right behind him. She knew where he was going. "Hey, I'm not going to apologize for being with her. Or for pounding on you."

He turned around to face her. "I'm not asking you to. If I was in your position, I would have done the same thing." Angel said.

"Damn right you would have."

"She loves you, I can see it in her eyes. And I can see you love her back."

"I do."

"I'm not saying -"

"What are you saying?"

"That she was the reason I fought there. I wanted to help her, but I know what brought me back now, and it wants me to do things I *won't* do again."

"You must be pretty important for it to spend so much time on you. Pushing you to its side and all. Sounds like it's scared of you. So fight it. Cause even if you combust, it still wins."

"Good needs all the fighters it can get, Angel." Giles interjected. "And because Buffy and Faith are on the front lines, so to speak, they could use your help too. What if, because you're not there, Buffy were to die in battle?"

"That's low." The vampire said.

"Yeah, it is. But you don't get how much your needed. We need help. I'll admit it." Faith said. "Funny. I had you figured as bein' smarter than this. But right now, all I see is a pathetic, thickheaded, guy. Not a vampire, a guy."

"The world wants me gone."

"You are thick, aren't ya?" Faith shook her head. "That major, huge First Evil thing wants you gone. Most of the world doesn't even know you exist. But we do. We want you here."

"Buffy asked you to come here. That's the only reason why -"

"She did, yeah. But she's not the boss of me. Or Giles. If we didn't wanna be doing this, we wouldn't be here." She stared into his eyes.

"You can't even imagine the horror I've caused."

Faith threw up her hands, and started walking away. "You know what? Burn. I give up. You just don't get it."

"I can. I can imagine it all too well." Giles spoke, entering back into it.

He walked up to Angel, glared, and punched him in the face.

"Now you listen to me. The only way I'll ever stop having nightmares," He saw the vampire grimace, "and the only way I could ever even think about forgiving you for what you've done, is if you start saving lives instead of taking them and trying to redeem yourself. I know you feel that you don't deserve forgiveness, but you want it. Don't you?"

"Yes." Angel admitted, his eyes to the ground.

"If you die now, I'll hate you until my last breath. I promise you that."

"Why?" He looked at Giles again.

"I'd take no comfort in your death because you took the easy way out. You chose not to fight, chose the peace of oblivion, over the pain of living. Something you don't deserve right now. You have to earn peace, Angel. It may take several lifetimes, but it will be the more rewarding, as well as the harder, path. But it'll also gain you respect.

"Jenny wanted you to find those things."

"I know. I remember."

"Then will you honor her last wish?"

Angel took a deep breath. Faith, shocked, waited along with Giles. Time was running out. The brooding, exhausted vampire started to take a step towards the mansion, and then the strangest thing happened. It began to snow. The three of them looked up into the sky, amazed. Angel had a smile on his face and then caught sight of Buffy, who had made her way up the hill. She smiled at him.

It didn't snow in California. Somebody was trying to tell him that it wasn't his time to die, and he was finally getting the message.

***

Buffy, Faith, Xander, Giles, and Angel all made their way back to Buffy's house, even though they had to walk through snow. On the way, Xander had wanted to make a detour, and they ended up bringing Cordelia along as well. The five of them found Oz and Willow on the porch, watching the snow flakes fall.

"What are you two doing here?" Buffy asked.

"Well, we were watching videos, and then I remembered that we still haven't watched A Charlie Brown Christmas. And I need to see the Snoopy Dance." Willow said.

"The beagle's definitely got some moves." Oz said.

Joyce opened the door from the inside.

"Oh, good! You're all here. I made hot chocolate." She said. "Now get inside before you all catch colds. You know, I never thought I'd say that."

They all scrambled in. Buffy and Faith, and Xander and Cordelia took the couch; Angel and Giles took chairs, and Willow and Oz sat on the floor. Joyce passed out mugs of hot chocolate, which were gratefully accepted by all in the room.

Angel sat, getting used to the heat from the drink, and mulled over the past few days. He was lucky he had so many people who cared that he continued to remain "living". He hadn't realized it before. It was time he started to move forward, to get himself together. Start patrolling the streets again. After Christmas, of course.

"Thank you." He said, directing it to everyone in the room, but mainly to the watcher sitting in the chair next to him, and to the Bostonian on the couch.

He didn't expect replies, but he got one, anyway.

"Good luck." Giles said, and meant it.

On the couch, Xander looked over at his girlfriend.

"Thanks for coming with." He said.

"Didn't have anything else to do." She shrugged. "Thanks for thinking of me."

Xander smiled. "Listen, I didn't know about the window."

Cordelia grinned at Buffy, and then returned her gaze to her boyfriend.

"How could you not know about the window?"

"I'm slow." He said. "If I did, believe me, I would have done this in the bathroom yesterday." He leaned forward, and kissed her. "Are we -?"

"Shut up." Cordelia said, smiling. She returned his kiss.

"Yes." Buffy whispered, watching them and feeling victorious. "Gotta love Christmas."

"And Chanukah." Willow called, from her sitting position in Oz's arms.

"And Chanukah." The blonde added.

"I know I do." Faith said, following the couple on the other end of the couch's example, and kissing her partner. "Love ya, B." She breathed into the blonde's mouth.

"Love you too, F." She smiled.

"The tape's in." Joyce said, coming to squeeze in.

"Thanks." Her daughter said, clearing her throat, then grabbing the remote from the coffee table and hitting play. "You're really okay with us, huh?"

"Are you happy?"

Buffy smiled at Faith. "Very much."

"Then that's all that matters to me."

As the show began, the slayer had nothing but happy feelings flowing through her. She was with people she loved, on a perfect, white Christmas day. What more could she ask for?

"Merry Christmas," Buffy said, "and happy, belated Chanukah, guys."

They all looked at her, and smiled. That said it all. They didn't need to use any words.

"When do we get presents?" Xander asked after a minute.

"After this is over." Willow hissed. "Now ssh!"

No one else spoke until the final credit rolled off screen.

 

6
TRADITIONS

"Where's my favorite slayer duo?" Xander asked.

Cordelia was sitting beside him, and Willow was across from the two of them, watching Oz play on stage. They were occupying couches at the Bronze, awaiting the arrival of Buffy and Faith. It had been almost three weeks since Christmas, and besides a demon disguised as two kids, that got their parents to try and burn them at the stake, it had been fairly quiet.

Willow's mother, along with Buffy's, had tried to kill her, Amy, Buffy, and Faith by carrying out a "witch trial"-esque punishment. That wasn't the way Willow envisioned her mother getting involved in her life, and she would have been traumatized by it, if she hadn't known it was a demon that had caused it all.

There were negative and positive outcomes to the whole experience. The bad thing was, Amy had turned herself into a rat. Her fellow witch had escaped, but Willow couldn't make her human again. The good thing was, she and Cordelia were on speaking terms again. At least, she was pretty sure that was a good thing.

The brunette had used the fire hose in City Hall to put out the fire. After the flames were doused, she had sprayed Willow with water for an excessively, long amount of time, and had enjoyed it immensely. Cordelia had gotten back at her in a completely immature and childish way, but it had apparently been enough. And that was fine by Willow, because she really didn't want the cheerleader glaring at her, hating her, for the rest of senior year.

She looked at Xander now, a smirk on her face.

"They're the only slayers you know. Meaning they're the only duo you know, too."

"And that's why they're my favorite. Duh." He replied with a shake of his head.

Cordelia sighed. "They're patrolling. Maybe it's just taking a little longer tonight."

"But it shouldn't really take long�should it?" Willow asked, not liking the feeling bubbling up in the pit of her stomach. "There's two of them. What if something's wrong?"

"See what you started? Now she's all panicky." Cordelia admonished her boyfriend.

"I'm sure they're fine, Will. You know how they are. They probably slayed every pointy-toothed bad guy that was stupid enough to try and take them on, and now they're probably battling tongues somewhere." He explained; trying not to drool at the image he just created.

"Battling tongues? I've never heard of demon tong -" The redhead flushed. "Right. You're right. About the 'being fine' part, I mean."

Xander and Cordelia looked around the club anyway, fighting that same uneasy feeling in the pit of their stomachs that Willow had been.

***

"Faith!" Buffy screamed, as she got shoved up against a wall.

The blonde wished they were making out somewhere, she really did, but the fact of the matter was, they were currently in trouble. And she didn't know why. One minute, they were taking a shortcut through the alley behind the Bronze after a successful, routine slaying to meet up with their friends, and the next, they saw the bouncer in the alley being snacked upon.

So, of course, they went to stop the two vampires.

Neither of them was tired or fatigued, and they assumed it was going to be a quick dusting. It had started out that way, then all of the sudden; they had both begun to feel dizzy and...weak. The vampires got the upper hand once they realized there was something wrong with the slayers, and had it still.

After her vampire got tired of slamming her head against the wall, he threw her up onto a dumpster. Buffy saw half of a wooden table leg sticking out of the dumpster, and used all her energy to break it off and make a stake. When the vampire picked her up and held her in mid air, he smiled at having Buffy Summers in his grasp. She thrust her stake-holding arm however, and as his ashes fell to the pavement, so did she.

Faith had been knocked hard to the ground, and was wrestling with one of them. They were never this strong, and she knew he wasn't. He couldn't be. Something else was going on. There was a broken piece of glass on the ground, and when they rolled near it, she grabbed it and shoved it into the vampire's back. He growled in pain, and she finally was able to get on top of him.

Her partner tossed her the table leg; she punched him hard in the face, and then ended his existence. Now that the danger was gone, she came out of slayer mode, and felt an intense pain. She looked down, and realized that it was her hand. The one she had just punched the vampire with. It was bleeding, and it felt...broken.

"Goddamn it!" She hissed.

Buffy made her way over, and crouched next to Faith. She drew in a breath when she saw the hand. That wasn't right.

"Let me look at it."

"It hurts...a whole mother fu - a lot." Faith bit back the stream of expletives that wanted to come out of her mouth.

She let Buffy inspect it.

"It's just sprained. That's good." Faith scowled, and Buffy cringed. "Sorry...just meant that -"

The dazed and grateful bouncer made his way over to the two girls that had saved his life.

"She okay?"

Buffy looked up at him. "She will be. You got any towels? And some ice?"

"Yeah. Inside."

"Faith can you -?"

"I can walk." Faith answered before the question was finished.

The bouncer led them through the back door. The people inside saw them enter, and looked extremely annoyed.

"Hey! How come they don't have to come in the front and pay the cover?" One girl asked, as she nodded towards the entrance and the temporary bouncer who was filling in at the moment. "You're not doing some sort of bum outreach thing, are you?"

Faith, holding her wrist, got in the girl's face, and glared. She was not in the mood for a stupid girl who knew absolutely nothing.

"Shut the hell up you little, upper class -"

Buffy quickly pulled Faith back.

"Going now. See us? We're going. Away."

Their friends had been looking on, and made their way back. Buffy acknowledged them with a weary smile, but Faith, angry and in pain, did nothing. They followed the slayers as they were led out of the main club area to a storage room, leaving a very appalled girl in a frightened shock.

***

"Show him." Buffy said to Faith, the next day in the library.

Giles looked at Faith's bandaged hand when she held it out, and then looked at the slayer's eyes, waiting for further information.

"Vampire. I punched him, something I like to think I'm pretty good at, and I busted my hand up pretty bad. Wicked painful still."

"Hmm..." Giles said. "Is it healing?"

"Yeah. I should be five by five when -"

"But they were just normal vampires, Giles." Buffy interrupted. "And they were really...difficult to kill. It felt like somebody took my strength away." She looked to Faith for confirmation, and she got a nod. "A punch almost broke her hand. Why would that happen?"

Giles removed his glasses. "I...haven't got the slightest idea." He rubbed the glasses on his shirt, cleaning them. "But I'll look into it. I wouldn't worry."

"If you...say so." She had hoped for a little more, concern.

"On a happier note," He said, rapidly changing the subject, "have you made plans for your birthday?"

"That's a happier note?" She asked sarcastically.

Faith put her arm around Buffy's neck.

"You sure can be an old lady sometimes, B. You're turning eighteen. Adulthood. Sure, you can't drink yet, legally, but now you can get arrested for having sex with minors."

"As bright sides go, that's kind of a stretch, Faith. A big stretch."

"Cheer up. Giles here is gonna figure our little problem out, and your dad's comin' to take you to that ice show."

"Oh, your father is visiting?" Giles asked. "You must be looking forward to that."

"Yeah." Buffy smiled. "It should be fun."

"Atta girl." Faith said, turning Buffy toward the library doors. "He needs quiet to do his thing, so we're going." They started walking. "Later." She called to Giles.

"You're in a good mood considering that last night, you were in major pain, and that girl was -" Buffy started.

"Last night was last night. It's forgotten."

"But -"

"It's forgotten." She repeated, trying not to remember that girl.

Oh, she had *so* been asking for a reality check. But Faith wasn't going to go there, because the girl was a moron, and really not worth thinking about. Even though she thought she was 'Miss High Society'�

'You're better than her. You know that.'

"So...what were we not talking about again?" The blonde tried a smirk, knowing to drop it.

Giles watched them go, and then went into his office to grab his coat. He had to pay a visit to someone.

***

About a half an hour later, Giles was sitting on a couch, talking with the head of the Council, Quentin Travers. They were in an old boardinghouse. Quentin's two assistants were "customizing" the building, for the upcoming test. In the adjoining room, a locked crate was upright, and shaking.

"We've always followed the traditions, Rupert, and Cruciamentum is the oldest and most respected one we have." Quentin explained

"Respected? By whom?" Giles asked sharply.

"When a slayer turns eighteen -" Came the calm reply, which was cut off.

"You don't have to explain it to me. It's bad enough you're unleashing that," He looked to the crate, "on Buffy, but why Faith? She doesn't meet the requirements yet. Two disabled slayers -"

"I'm aware of that. But because of the unique situation, we felt some, modification, was necessary." Quentin took a sip of tea. "Since it has been decided that Faith's stay on the Hellmouth will be permanent, and that she and your slayer have become a team, we wish to see how they function in that capacity. This situation is completely new to us, and we are very interested in seeing the results."

"I can say, from personal, first-hand knowledge, that their slayings are extremely well-coordinated, and executed."

"Don't get me wrong, I see the confidence you have in them from your reports, and I believe they are very capable. However, you know as well as I do, slayers sometimes become too reliant on their physical superiority. Along with that, they must be able to rely on their cunning, creativity and each other, in battle. We have to make sure they have those qualities."

"All the while endangering their lives in an ancient, barbaric contest."

"If they don't survive, then that would be unfortunate," Quentin said slowly, "but hopefully, given everything I've heard about them, that will not be the case."

Giles sighed. "It's...what you've been asking me to do..."

"Is your duty. I realize it's hard, but it's also necessary." The out of touch Englishman stood, and led Giles to the door. "This will all be over soon, one way or the other. The way I see it, given their attachment to one another, they'll have an extra factor working for them. The heart is a very motivating force, my friend."

"Yes. Yes it is." Giles agreed softly. "Is everything on schedule?"

"All the preparations are nearly complete. Administer the final injections tonight."

***

It was lunchtime, and the whole gang was off-campus, sitting on the grass across the street. Buffy still couldn't get her mind off the loss of her strength. She had tried to help a girl earlier, who was being harassed by a guy, and he just tossed her away like a rag doll. When she questioned Giles again, all she got was another calm reassurance. And Faith didn't seem bothered by the situation, which Buffy found strange.

They were coupled up, sitting nice and close.

"Don't get any ideas about me feeding you grapes or nothin' like that, B." Faith told her.

"Funny. You're funny." Buffy said dryly. "Anyway, I'm not hungry."

"Me either." Five sets of eyes widened at her admission. "Yeah, I know I'm the one with a bottomless pit for a stomach, okay?"

"Not to mention the one that's always in a twenty-four hour state of -"

"Buff, I beg you not to finish that sentence." Xander said, taking a bite of his Twinkie, noticing the grins of the slayers, and almost choking. "Look, at least you get some days off, right? Maybe it's the cosmic forces way of telling you to take a vacation."

"But what if it's permanent?" She countered.

"If it is...then isn't that what you both want?" Willow asked. "To be -"

"Normal?" Faith asked with a half-smile.

"Well...I wouldn't have put it�not that you two are...a-abnormal...then again...you kind of are...b-but not in a bad way..." Oz started rubbing her shoulders, which stopped her babble, and then Willow began studying her bologna and cheese sandwich. "Yeah."

"I don't know about Faith," Buffy said, "but I don't know if I can...go back. I wanted to at one point, but now..." She just trailed off.

If she had looked up at the brunette slayer, Buffy would have seen a look of sadness flash across her features.

"You like being world-saving Wonder Women." Cordelia said, boiling it down.

"Something like that, C." Faith said, her voice devoid of its usual playful tone. Or any tone, for that matter.

There was quiet for what seemed like an awful long time, as everyone got sucked into the slayers' unhappiness. They had never seen Faith look so down, either, and that threw them a little. Her mood had definitely changed since the morning. Maybe Buffy had been wrong. Maybe Faith was more bothered than she let on.

"You know what I just realized?" Oz said to the group. "Black clouds are very depressing."

"He's right. We have a birthday girl in our midst, and there should be celebrating going on." Xander tried to lift the gloom. "And party planning."

"I think it's time to put a moratorium on parties in my honor, Xand. Things tend to go badly." The blonde sighed. "I just want to let this pass me by, and everything to be back to..." She smirked. "Normal."

"Don't forget about your dad." Willow reminded her.

"I haven't, Will. He might just salvage the whole thing." Buffy said, smiling genuinely for the first time.

"Hope he does, B." Faith added.

Even though they had lost their appetites, just to have something to do, they ate their lunches, trying to distract themselves from the gloominess they were all in.

***

"Hey mom."

"What's up, Mrs. S?"

Returning home after school let out, Buffy and Faith went into the kitchen and saw two things. Joyce doing dishes, and a basket full of flowers on the counter. Buffy let out a giddy "ooh", immediately going to them. Faith was amused at the sight until she saw the expression on Joyce's face.

Buffy saw a card attached to the handle, and also a pair of tickets. Reading the front of the envelope and seeing the words 'From Dad' on it, she frowned, and knew what its contents said. She also knew that the tickets were to the ice show. She didn't even have to look.

"His...quarterly projections are unraveling and he can't afford to take off right now. He promises to make it up to you. It's all right there in the letter." Joyce explained.

"He's good at promising. Right, mom?" Buffy said sarcastically.

"Buffy..." Her daughter pushed the basket off the counter and into the trash, then walked out of the kitchen in silence. Joyce sighed, and looked at Faith. "Why does he always do this to her?"

"Cause he's an asshole?" Faith growled, not even realizing she had said it at first. "I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize. Why do you think I divorced him?" The brunette couldn't stop the laugh that came out. "Would you...talk to her?"

Faith smiled. "Just what I was about to do."

She started to leave the kitchen.

"Faith?"

"Yeah?" The slayer turned back around.

"I'm glad she's got you."

***

The younger Summers was lying on her bed, holding Mr. Gordo up in the air, just looking at him blankly, when Faith came into the room. The other slayer gently shut the door, and sat on the edge of the bed. She planned on talking to Buffy, but really, she had no idea what to say. So, being a girl of action instead of words, she laid down on her side, beside the blonde.

Buffy then rolled on her side to face Faith, and then the brunette draped her arm over her, pulling her close.

"I should've expected him to pull out at the last minute." She spoke finally.

"It's his loss, Buffy."

"Maybe he just doesn't like me."

"Then he really is an ass...a really stupid person. If he actually *knew* you, like I do..." Even talking about him was getting her pissed off. "None of it's your fault, and I'm sure he loves you."

"I know that." Buffy sighed. "I do."

"And if you wanna go to that show still, I'd -"

"Sure. That'd be nice." She smiled. "But it's not missing the ice show that...it was just the one thing he and I still did together. The one tradition we had left. I'm fine though. Really."

"I wish I could make him not hurt you so much."

"This is helping."

Faith smiled. "I was gonna wait, but," She sat up and reached underneath the bed. A bright colored, 'HAPPY BIRTHDAY' bag was in her almost completely healed hand, when she revealed it again. Buffy shot up.

"You hid *my* present under *my* bed, and I didn't even know?"

"Guess that means you're pretty -"

"Dumb?"

"I was gonna clean it up and say 'dense', but hey, have it your way." Buffy hugged her and rummaged through the bag. The first thing she pulled out was a game. Resident Evil 2 for PlayStation, to be specific. She quirked an eyebrow at Faith. "It's the newest thing. You should see the graphics."

"Let's see, I bought you that system for Christmas...which you mostly play..."

"I've caught you with a controller in your hand. Just think of this as...something we can share."

"Thank you. I'm sure I'll...learn to love it." She smirked as she inspected the case. "Zombies. Great. I can escape my life by playing a game that's based on it."

"Well...if we're weaklings for good, you won't have to deal with the bastards again. For real." Faith said quietly.

"Yeah. You're right." She paused. "Are you *really* okay with this?"

"Hell no." The younger girl took a deep breath. "I figured it would blow over, so I didn't let it bug me. But Giles hasn't found jack, and seeing you get swatted, kinda got me freaked. When it happened to me, I could just...push it away. Then I actually saw...do you get me?"

"Uh huh." She smiled weakly. "Gotta love denial. Besides the not being able to fight evil part, I don't like who I was when I wasn't a slayer."

"Who were ya? Mabel Hickenson?"

"Cordelia on steroids."

"Ouch." Faith grinned.

"I don't want to go back to that."

"Why would you? You weren't like that when -"

"Not our summer. Just freshman year at Hemry."

"All freshman become morons. That's the way it always works in high school. Least that's what I remember from my brief visit." She paused, reflecting. "But it's been three years since then."

"But some people don't ever grow past the moronic stage."

"You have. You've got friends and your priorities straight. You're on track."

"Have I? Really? Maybe it's just the duty thing keeping me mature. I could, devolve, or something."

"You wouldn't. Trust me." Buffy didn't challenge her. "And if the slayer thing doesn't work out, you have something to fall back on. Finishing high school, college, you can get yourself an education. Then comes a good job, and you're set. Me? I got zip."

"You could have that all too." Buffy told her softly.

"I..." She sighed. "Maybe that girl was right. If I'm not a slayer, then I'm just another, no-name bum."

"You are *not* a bum. You're Faith, and I love you." She took her partner's hand, and squeezed.

"What can I do?"

"You could enroll again, or -"

"And be a twenty-two year old high school graduate? And that's only if I don't fail and have to repeat." She shook her head. "No thanks."

"Maybe you should think about it. You've got it in you, I know you do. I'd support you, the gang would, and...you've survived worse things than high school."

Faith didn't know why she chuckled when Buffy said that, but she did. Probably because comparing her life with what she feared about high school, when she thought about it, it was true. She had survived far worse things. Being frightened of education seemed pointless, but -

"Still got another present in there."

Buffy pointed her finger. "Okay, fine. But don't think that just cause you changed the subject -"

"Just see what the damn thing is." The birthday girl reached in, and pulled out a stuffed pig. It had a bow on its head. "Thought it was time Mr. Gordo settled down and left the bachelor life behind."

"Awww! Faith!" She squealed, hugging her tightly, and giving her a long kiss. "She's perfect!" She started talking to the new arrival. "You're perfect, Mrs. Gorda."

She brought the two pigs together.

"I think we should let them get acquainted, B. Newlyweds and all." She grinned. "And Giles wants us to do that crystal thing again, remember?"

Buffy nodded. "Okay. But I have to say something first." She whispered to the female pig. "Be good to him. He may not look it, but he's a lot more sensitive than other guy pigs. Oh, and don't make too much noise."

The slayers got up, and walked out of the room.

"Thank you, Faith. For the gifts, and..."

"Happy Birthday, Buffy."

***

"Tell me something, Giles." Buffy said as she and Faith sat down at the table in the library. "How is looking at crystals gonna help us get our strength back? Cause that's what I really care more about right now."

"This is a vibratory stone, and it's a necessary training exercise." He said, setting two large, blue crystals in front of the slayers. "For both of you. Just because you're experiencing...some physical setbacks, doesn't mean you shouldn't strengthen your other abilities."

"Meaning?"

"Your mental ones."

"Are you insinuating somethin', G?" Faith asked playfully.

"No...we'll just continue this until...your strength problem sorts itself out." He promised, then regretted the words as soon as he had said them.

"Sorts itself out?" The blonde repeated, feeling angry.

"I'm sorry. I don't mean to sound -"

"It's okay." Faith said, interrupting him and looking at Buffy, silently telling her to back off. "Let's get this done."

Buffy let out a long breath, and stared at her crystal along with the brunette.

"Okay, these are grounding crystals. I want you both to look for the tiny flaw in the center of them."

In the next few seconds, both slayers had glazed over looks on their faces. They were hypnotized. Giles made sure, and then proceeded to do the injections. He felt horrible, disgusting, betraying their trust in him like this. But he had to do it. As Quentin had said, it was his duty. And he had no doubt in his mind that they wouldn't be triumphant. There was still the guilt, however.

After he finished, he brought them out of their trances. They didn't realize anything had happened, and he told them they could take the rest of the night off. Shaking his head once the girls had left; he sighed and figured he had better go tell Quentin that the slayers were ready for the test.

***

Giles opened the door to the boarding house and looked cautiously inside. There was no sound of any kind. Complete silence.

"Quentin?" He called out, stepping inside.

He received no answer. Shutting the door, he walked into the room where they had sat earlier, finding nothing out of place. He left the room, and walked down the hall a ways to the staircase. Everything still seemed fine, but something was giving him chills. Something was wrong.

"Quentin? Hob..." He tried again, but trailed off as he began saying one of the assistants' names.

The reason for that was because when he touched the railing, it felt slick. Looking at his palm, he found it covered in blood. Without thinking, he turned his attention to the crate in the other room, broke one of the supports attached to the railing, and headed quickly for the crate, afraid. He opened it, horrified when he found it empty, except for a discarded prescription pill bottle. For combating crippling migraine headaches.

Shifting his gaze to the floor, he saw tracks of blood that led to the kitchen. Preparing the stake he had crated, he followed them, opening the door and switching on the light. What he saw made him want to vomit. There were body parts lying on the table, and together, they had once made up the man known as Hobson. Giles dropped his weapon, and quickly backed out, leaving the house feeling sick and panicked.

The test had been altered, and something needed to be done. He needed to contact Quentin, because a course of action had to be decided upon. Quickly. Then he went rigid. Buffy and Faith were walking the streets, and the creature that had been in the crate, knew all about them.

***

Buffy and Faith decided to head to the Bronze. It was now a little tradition for them, after slaying or training, so they could burn off energy. But that wasn't their reason this time. The night was still young, and if they went home, they'd just end up thinking. That led to deeper thinking, then to...bad thoughts. In the club, the music was so loud, that the noise would be all their brains could handle. Then they'd get headaches, and could concentrate on the pain the pounding would cause.

"Oh, forgot to mention. Nice jacket, B."

She smirked at the petite slayer's "Red Riding Hood"-esque coat. She had seen Buffy get it before they left the house, and had tried very hard to hold back a comment, but she just couldn't. Her partner lightly punched her arm.

"I happen to like this jacket. It's bright." She defended.

"Just don't want the big bad wolf to come after you, that's all."

Buffy grinned. "Oz doesn't get hairy until next week."

"Speakin' of, you sure we shouldn't pick up Daphne, Shaggy, Scooby and Velma?" Faith asked.

"And suck them further into our black hole of depression? I can't do that to them." Buffy said. "Wait. If the rest of the gang is...who are we?"

"Easy. I'm Fred, and you're...Scrappy." She grinned.

"Hey! How come I'm the dog?"

"Cause I'm more butch than you. You're the cute, short, never give up, thickheaded type."

"Thickheaded? Short?" Buffy made a 'grrr' sound. "I may be just a girly, normal chick now, but I can still whoop your ass in a cat fight." She made a grab for her girlfriend.

"Take it easy, Josie." Faith dodged the attack. "Did you happen to notice I called you cute, too?"

"I seem to recall something like that being said." The blonde wrapped her arms around the wary Bostonian's waist, and leaned in for a kiss. "K, you're forgiven."

Just before their lips connected, they heard the sound of humming. They looked around, not seeing the source, and still it continued. Separating, annoyed and a little scared, they were on guard.

"Hummers. Big turn off. I like guys who can remember the lyrics. Don't you, Faith?" Buffy said.

"Yeah. Especially if they're on key."

As Buffy was peering down one end of the sidewalk, she felt someone tap her on the shoulder. She turned around fast, and ended up in the grip of a smiling vampire.

"You know, I wish I could. Remember them. But my mind just isn't what it used to be." He said.

Faith was looking at him now, frozen, as Buffy started to struggle.

"Let me go."

"Can't. You didn't say please." There was a psychotic, teasing tone to his voice.

"Please?" Her voice was shaking.

He appeared to think about it, and then shook his head.

"Didn't sound very sincere. You have to sell it. Wanna try again?"

***

"Let her go." Faith said, mustering up all her courage and strength.

"Now, now. You'll have to wait your turn just like everybody else." The vampire told her, paying her no attention.

He began to squeeze Buffy's wrists harder, and she cried out from the pain. Faith got behind him then, her fear being replaced with rage.

"I don't think you understood what I said. Let her, the hell, go."

She kicked the back of his right leg, causing his knee to buckle. That was all Buffy needed to get her left arm loose. He quickly grabbed onto the back of her jacket though.

Completely scared out of her mind, she slipped her right arm out of her jacket, and then her left. It was in his grasp, but she was free. Faith took her hand, and they started running. Out of nowhere, another vampire appeared and cut off their escape. Taking a deep breath, they barreled through him and kept going. When they looked behind them, he was still following.

"Somebody help us, please!" Buffy yelled into the night.

Nobody answered the plea, and they eventually found themselves in alley behind some houses, with a fence at the far end. Seeing the lackey not giving up, Faith wordlessly bent down, and Buffy got onto her shoulders. Standing, her chest was already above the top of the fence. She grabbed it, and swung herself over.

Faith got her feet in between the gaps, and tried to ascend, but wasn't making it. He was getting closer. Buffy was still high up on the other side, shakily leaning over the top, while trying hard not to fall. She reached her hands down, and Faith reached her hands up to meet them.

"Reach, Faith! Come on!"

The brunette needed to just get a little higher. And the vampire was about seven seconds away from lunging and grabbing her legs. She did, the slayers' hands connected, and Buffy used all her strength to pull Faith up. She lost her footing just as Faith reached the top. She lost her footing just as Faith reached the top, and fell down, bringing Faith over the side with her. They got up off the ground just as their pursuer crashed into the fence.

Cars. There were cars going by that could get them far away. Around the time the second car sped by, ignoring them, they recognized the next one. It was Giles'. He screeched to a halt, and they hurriedly got in the back.

"Drive!" Faith screamed, and they took off.

***

Joyce was doing her bills at the dining room table when she heard a noise outside. She went to investigate, opening the front door and stepping outside. Looking around, at first, she saw nothing. Then she looked to the left side of the porch, and saw someone lying there, covered in what looked like her daughter's red coat.

"Buffy?" She asked, fearing the younger girl might've been hurt.

The figure rolled over, revealing itself. It wasn't Buffy, it was a vampire. The one the slayers had left behind earlier. The hummer. He grinned at Joyce, who backed away in fright.

"Mother."

***

Back at the library, Faith and Buffy sunk into chairs, trying to ignore the aching and bruising all over their bodies. They had come real close to dying, and were very much in a state of shock. Giles went into the office once he was sure they were going to be okay, and that they didn't have any major injuries.

"Giles, we can't wait for this 'whatever' to fix itself anymore." Buffy said once she found her voice. Though she couldn't get it to stop shaking.

"I saw my life flash before my eyes." Faith said. "And the sad part is, I didn't see much."

When he emerged, he had a case in his hand. He opened it and showed it to the girls. It contained a syringe, some gauze, and a small bottle filled with a chemical of some kind.

"It's an organic compound...of muscle relaxants and adrenal suppressers. The effect is temporary. You'll both be yourselves again in a few days." He explained, hardly able to get the words out.

Once it sunk in for Faith, her eyes went wide, and she stood from her chair. After studying the watcher's face for a few seconds, she went to sit on the steps, and stared at her hands. He could plainly see her crushed expression. Buffy didn't move. She just picked up the case, and kept turning it around in her hands.

"You?" The blonde asked hollowly.

"It's a test. It's given to the Slayer once she...well, if she reaches her eighteenth birthday. Though it had to be adjusted to include you as well, Faith. Because of your presence here, and your involvement with Buffy."

Giles swallowed, and decided to pace before continuing.

"A slayer...slayers in this case, are disabled and then entrapped with a vampire foe whom they must defeat in order to pass the test. The vampire you two were to face... has escaped."

He stopped.

"His name is Zachary Kralik. As a mortal, he murdered and tortured more than a dozen women before he was committed to an asylum for the criminally insane. When a vamp -"

Buffy heard enough of his explanation. She threw the case at him, but it missed and hit the wall behind him.

"You bastard." That caused Faith to look up. "All this time, you saw what it was doing to us? All this time, and you didn't say a word?" Buffy said angrily, sobbing.

"I wanted to."

"Liar."

The brunette got up then, and walked over to him.

"Who the hell are you?" She said through clenched teeth. "I trusted you, liked you. It's really hard for me to warm up to authority figures, and you and me seemed to be on our way. No chance of that now, though. Cause you shot it to hell. And for what? Some goddamn test that's set up just to see how long we can last before we die? I thought you were different than the rest of 'em. That you cared. But you don't give a damn about us, do you?"

"In matters of tradition and protocol, I must answer to the Council." Giles tried to explain.

"Bullshit."

"My role in this...was very specific. I was to administer the injections and to direct you to the old boardinghouse on Prescott Lane."

Buffy grabbed her head with both hands, and shook it.

"I can't...I can't hear this."

"Buffy, please." He reached out for her arm to try and comfort her, but she pulled it away.

Faith grabbed his arm instead. "Touch her and I kill you."

"How could you do this to me?" Buffy asked.

"I am deeply sorry, Buffy, and you have to understand..." He sighed. "Because I've told you this, the test is invalidated. You will be safe now, I promise you. Now whatever I have to do to deal with Kralik...and to win back your trust..."

He looked at Faith as he said that too, but her stone-faced expression remained in place.

"You poisoned us!"

She stood now too, and faced toward the library doors, away from him. Faith came over and stood behind her. Cordelia walked in then, seeing the tears on Buffy's face, and feeling the tension in the air.

"Oh, God. Is the world ending? I have to research a paper on Bosnia for tomorrow, but if the world's ending, I'm not gonna bother."

Buffy started to leave, and Faith followed silently.

"You can't walk home alone. It isn't safe." Giles told them.

"I don't know you." Came the destroyed blonde's response. Cordelia was going to comment, but Faith's shaking head stopped her. "Cordelia, could you please drive us home?"

"Of course." The cheerleader said.

She and Buffy were moving out and away from the library, and Faith stayed behind for a moment, turning around to look at Giles.

"Like a daughter to you, huh?" She spat, and then went to catch up.

***

"Mother." Kralik said to a bound and gagged Joyce in the basement of the boarding house.

She was tied to a chair, and he was taking pictures of her with a Polaroid camera. One after the other, on all sides, letting the developing photos fall to the floor. She looked for him, following the sound of his voice. He was behind her, making his way to the front.

"May I call you Mother? My own mother was a person with no self-respect of her own, so she tried to take mine."

Joyce turned away from him, but he still took pictures. Straining against the ropes around her arms, did nothing. He had tied them tightly.

"Ten years old, she had the scissors. You wouldn't believe what she took with those. But she's dead to me now. Mostly," Kralik chuckled, "because I killed and ate her, but also because I know I won't be alone much longer."

He knelt down and got in his captive's face.

"I'll have your daughter. I won't kill her; I'll just make her like me. Different. Her, and her tough, foolish partner. They'll go to sleep, and when they wake up, your face will be the first thing they eat."

Joyce's eyes clearly showed the terror she felt. Kralik paused to think over his plans.

"I have a problem with mothers." He chuckled again. "I'm aware of that."

***

When Cordelia was gone, they trudged numbly up the walk, and to the porch. It had been a rough night for both of them, but it was harder for Buffy. Her world, everything she knew, was falling down around her. Giles. Of all the people she ever thought would betray her, he was at the bottom of the list. But it had happened. That's all she could think about.

Well, that, and what would be next.

She looked at Faith. They hadn't talked since the library, and weren't going to now. They didn't know what there was to say, because words didn't help make what had just occurred, any better. Especially when they both were still trying to get their bearings. But how could words help? Also, they just didn't feel like it. It would waste the little energy they had left.

Buffy reached the door first, and drew in a breath when she saw what was taped to the door. It was a picture of her mother, afraid, in the grip of Kralik. She turned the photo over, and it had the word 'COME' written on it. She showed it to Faith, who became just as freaked as she was. They ran into the house to gather up all the weapons they could find.

Apparently, her world wasn't done disintegrating yet.

***

In his office, Giles was trying to call Quentin, but all he got on the other end was continuous ringing. In the next instant, the man he had been trying to contact walked in and stood just inside the doorway. Giles put the phone back on the hook, and faced his visitor, greeting him with glaring eyes.

"I was just trying to reach you."

"I was on watch over by the boardinghouse."

"Then you know what's happened."

"Yes." Quentin acknowledged with no emotion.

"He's killed Hobson and made Blair one of his own. Your perfectly controlled test seems to have spun rather impressively out of control, don't you think?" Giles snapped at his employer.

Quentin walked over to the teapot on the desk and lifted the lid to peer into its contents.

"It changes nothing."

"Well, then, allow me. I've told them everything."

The older man looked up from the pot sharply, and set the lid back into place.

"That is in direct opposition to the Council's orders."

"Yes." Giles crossed his arms over his chest. "Interestingly, I don't give a rat's ass about the Council's orders. There will be no test."

He watched as Quentin poured a cup of tea.

"The test has already begun. The slayers entered the field of play about ten minutes ago."

"Why?"

"I don't know. I returned there just as they were entering."

Giles snatched his keys off the desk, and ran toward the door. His boss tried to get in his way.

"Now Giles, we've no business..."

All he got for his efforts was a very angry watcher shoving him up against the doorframe.

"This is *not* business!"

***

Buffy and Faith made their way out of the sitting room of the boardinghouse, and went back into the foyer. They had searched the room and found nothing. Now at the front door, they found it shut and locked. Buffy could have sworn she put a stake there to keep it propped open.

She looked at Faith, as she adjusted the strap of the bag of weapons they had brought, on her shoulder. The brunette shrugged, checking the sight on the crossbow she was holding. Buffy was getting nervous.

"Hey, remember when we went in that house outside of Boston that all the kids thought was haunted?"

"Uh...yeah?" Faith answered, wondering where the blonde was going.

"It was really haunted, right?"

"Chandeliers don't normally fly across the room, smash into a wall, and then come back together. I don't think that's normal, anyway. One of Casper's mean cousins was definitely there."

"That's what I thought. Good."

There was quiet.

"B? Did you have a reason for bringing that up?"

"I'm just kinda scared right now, so I figured if I remembered something else scary, traumatizing even, that I wouldn't be so scared of what we're doing now. Since that was a mean ghost, and these are just vampires that are...hunting us."

"Okay." Faith said slowly, a little confused. She processed the words. "So...did it work?"

"Nope."

Blair growled then, coming up behind them. Faith whipped around and fired the bow, but it flew past his face. He started to choke her, and she dropped the weapon. Stomping on his foot caused him to loosen the hold he had, and Buffy grabbed a cross out of the bag, which made him back off of Faith completely.

They ran back into the sitting room, and Blair came after them. Buffy tried to get another weapon, but he took the bag from her, threw it across the room, and backhanded her hard to the ground. Faith was standing by a bookcase that was up against the wall, and was using all her strength to push on it, to knock it over.

"When I tell you to roll, do it." She told Buffy.

Faith waited until Blair was standing right in front of the bookcase, and at Buffy's feet. She gave it a hard shove, and as the case started shaking, she yelled.

"Roll!"

Buffy did as she was told, and rolled out of the way as the books and shelf came crashing down on Blair, trapping him.

Faith helped her to her feet, and looked at her eye. "You're gonna have a pretty wicked shiner tomorrow."

The blonde touched her eye, seeing andirons leaning up against the fireplace. She grabbed one, and began jabbing Blair's right eye with it, letting out her frustrations. Faith let her go for a few seconds, understanding, but then calmly reminded her that they had to get a move on.

The slayers headed for the steps, the only thing they had as defense, a single cross. They couldn't find the bag.

***

"Hide and seek..." Kralik taunted them from somewhere before they could reach the staircase. They began searching. "Hide and seek!"

Buffy pointed to the crate in the adjacent room, and Faith nodded. It appeared locked, but appearances were deceiving. They cautiously crept up to it, each getting on a side of the crate. Buffy was by the handle. Sure they had no obvious way to take him out, but they had to do something. Surprising them both, the door flew open. It connected with Faith's head, and because there was so much force, she dropped.

Kralik stepped out, holding their bag. He and Buffy stared at one another.

"Why did you come to the dark of the woods?" He asked, dropping the bag on the floor and stepping on it. "To bring all these sweets to grandmother's house?"

He grabbed her shirt, and pulled her close to him. Buffy held up the cross, her arm shaking. Kralik used his other arm, and pulled the cross to his chest. Buffy could see smoke coming off of him, but he seemed to be enjoying it. He even started moving it around, laughing.

"Oh...oh, no, no. Just a little lower. Right...oh, yes. Yes. Oh." He gasped. "Ooh! Thank you very much."

Unbeknownst to him, and to Buffy, Faith had gotten up. She jumped onto Kralik's back, and wrapped her arms around his neck, squeezing. Growling, he freed Buffy, and she used the opportunity to bring her hands together and drive her elbows into Kralik's chest. He stumbled, but quickly kicked her in the stomach, which sent her flying. He then flipped Faith over his head, and onto her back.

Buffy dragged herself over to Faith, and Kralik just watched. They got up slowly, leaning on each other for support, as they stumbled and limped their way to, and up, the steps. The vampire just grinned, making no move to pursue. As far as he was concerned, the game was just beginning.

They got to the top, hurried as quickly as they could down the hallway before them, and went through the first unlocked door they came across. Faith shut the door, bathing them in darkness. Buffy groped the wall until she found the light switch, and flipped it, allowing them to see. She rather wished she hadn't, because then she saw what was on the walls.

Polaroids of her frightened, restrained mother. Faith took one off.

"Christ. He's -"

"A sick bastard?" Buffy continued, trying very hard to keep her composure.

"That's the clean version of what I was thinking, but yeah." Faith tried to calm her breathing. "We'll get to her."

"Oh, damn right we will."

Kralik punched through the door they had just come through, making them jump.

"Doesn't he rest?" The brunette asked.

They went out the door on the other side of the room, and ended up in another hallway. Not caring which direction, they just moved. Before they got to the end, Kralik stepped out in front of them, and grabbed Buffy's throat. He pushed on her head, revealing her neck. He challenged Faith with his eyes. He wanted her to try something.

When she didn't, he looked at the flesh, the veins, that were exposed to him and licked his lips.

"I won't take it all. I won't take it all." He said soothingly.

Buffy was helpless no matter what she tried. Squeezing her eyes shut, she waited...but the fangs never made contact. Kralik shoved her into the wall, and she saw his face contorted in pain. Then he started moaning, reaching for something in his pocket. When he retrieved the pill bottle, Faith saw it, and took it right out of his hands. Buffy realized they had an advantage now, and took off back down the hallway with Faith, as the hurting vampire screamed.

"No, no, no!"

Passing the room with the pictures, the girls saw a laundry chute, gave one another a look, and dove in.

***

In the basement, Joyce watched as Buffy landed on a table, exiting the chute. It broke, and then Faith came out, landing on her daughter.

"Never thought I'd ever say what I'm gonna say, but cause of this damn test, I may hate this position for the rest of my life." Faith remarked, laying atop Buffy and coughing from the dust.

The blonde whispered. "Faith! My mom's over there! She may be immobile, but...glare power." She and her cringing partner got up and walked over to Joyce.

Buffy removed the gag, much to her mother's relief, and Faith tried to work on the ropes.

"Oh thank God!"

"You okay, mom?" Joyce nodded. "Are you sure?"

"I'm fine, Buffy, but we have to get out of -"

She stopped when they all heard pounding on the basement door. It swung open, and Kralik stumbled down the stairs, enraged.

"Where are they?"

He didn't see the girls exchange items. Faith went over to the wine rack, as Buffy tried to run past him. Kralik saw that she had the bottle in her hand, and took his pills back, popping a few. He walked back to where Faith was, and she held out a glass of water to him. He gulped the liquid down, swallowing his medication.

"You don't seem to understand your place in all of this." Kralik pointed at Faith, and then turned and pointed at Buffy. "Do you have any idea..."

His eyes bugged out suddenly, and he ceased his lecture. He was having pains again, but in his chest this time. It was strange.

"Oh, my! What have you..." He was shaking now, realizing what had been in the glass. "My pills!"

Faith held up an empty bottle of holywater for him to see as his body smoked from within.

"You like that you son of a bitch?" Kralik shook his head as he combusted. "Good. You weren't supposed to."

Before they could relax, Blair came out from the wine racks and lunged for them. But Giles was also there, and he staked the vampire. Once they all started breathing again, Giles and Buffy looked at one another for what seemed like a really tense, forever. Eventually, he came over and helped to untie a disturbed Joyce.

"We did it." Buffy sighed.

"Gee, I hope the Council's pleased." Faith said sarcastically, pretending to care. She said it just to see the guilt on the watcher's face.

When Joyce was free, she thanked Giles, and the slayers hugged, glad to be alive.

"I have a question, Faith." The older Summers said on the way out. "What exactly did you mean by 'position'?"

"Uh..."

The stuttering continued all the way back to the house.

***

When they reached their destination, Quentin was standing on the porch waiting. They all went inside and sat in the living room. Despite the awkwardness, and intense dislike directed at him, he spoke to the two girls with a smile on his face.

"Congratulations, you passed. You both exhibited -"

"Do we get gold stars?" Buffy deadpanned, interrupting him.

"Or even brownie points?" Faith asked, matching her girlfriend's tone.

"I understand that you're upset..."

"You understand *nothing*." She was struggling to keep her temper in check. "You set that monster loose, and he came after my mother."

"You think the test was unfair?"

"I think you better stop, before you really piss her off. And me." Faith advised.

"We're not in the business of fair, ladies. We're fighting a war."

"You're *waging* a war. They're fighting it. There is a difference." Giles spoke up.

"Mr. Giles, if you don't mind..."

"The test is done. We're finished."

"Not quite. They passed. You didn't. I've recommended to the Council, and they've agreed, that you be relieved of your duties as Watcher immediately. You're fired."

Everyone was taken aback.

"On what grounds?"

"Your affection for your charge has rendered you incapable of clear and impartial judgment." Buffy looked at Giles. "You have a father's love for the child, and that is useless to the cause. Also, you show signs of developing that same affection for your temporary one as well."

"'Temporary one'? What? You don't know my name? Or you just don't care what it is?" Faith asked. Quentin didn't respond. "Okay, now I'm pissed off."

She didn't move, though. She just stared at Giles along with Buffy.

"We were even considering giving you the responsibility of both girls, but obviously, because of your performance this evening, that can no longer be. We think it would be best if you had no further contact with the slayers."

"I'm not going anywhere." Giles said adamantly.

"No, well, I didn't expect you would adhere to that. However, if you interfere with the new Watcher, or countermand his authority in any way, you will be dealt with. Are we clear?"

"Oh, we're very clear." Shades of 'Ripper' shone in his eyes at that statement.

"Excuse me, sir," Joyce was speaking finally, "but I'm afraid you've overstayed your welcome. Get the hell out of my house."

Quentin nodded to the room, and quietly made his exit.

"All right, mom!" Buffy cheered.

"I'm in awe." Faith said.

"Mr. Giles, would you...like some coffee?" Joyce asked sympathetically.

He smiled sadly. "No thank you. It's late, and I should be getting home. You all make sure to get lots of rest. Goodnight." He took a step, but then turned back around and looked at Buffy and Faith. "I knew you could do it."

Then he left, leaving the girls to do what they had tried to avoid earlier that night. Think.

***

"Least I kept up my birthday tradition of gut-wrenching misery and horror." Buffy said the next day in the presence of the gang. And her mother, who was making lunch.

They were all gathered in the kitchen, standing around the counter. Faith and Buffy were the only ones sitting. Their legs were weary, after all.

"*We* kept it up." Faith corrected with a grin.

"Kralik drank holywater, huh?" Oz asked.

"Yep."

"Impressive."

"Thanks." The slayers' echoed, cockily.

"I can't believe Giles was fired. How could Giles get fired?" Willow exclaimed.

"He's still librarian, Will. Giles isn't going anywhere." Buffy assured the redhead.

There was quite a bit of healing left to do where he was concerned, but she and Faith had begun to see his side. How much pressure he had been under, and how much he really *didn't* want to, but the fact was that he still had. They'd slowly, but surely, get back to full trust again.

"So how long before the chemical wears off?" Xander asked.

"Two or three days."

"No strength?

"Beyond lifting pom-poms? Nope." Buffy smirked.

"Hey!" Cordelia said defensively.

Her boyfriend started to grin, and then Faith got off her seat and walked up to him.

"Shoe's untied." She said.

Xander reached down, and she gave him a little push, which caused him to lose his balance and fall flat on his rear end.

"Don't get any ideas of pulling any macho superiority crap, cause I can still kick your ass. Got it?" Faith instructed him with her sweetest, fake smile.

"Yes ma'am." He quivered.

The gang had to hold in the laughter that wanted to burst out of their mouths.

7
FEAR

"Look!" Faith said, panicked.

"Where?" Buffy asked, feeling her heart race and her adrenaline go into overdrive.

"Don't you hear the moaning?"

"Of course I hear the moaning!" The blonde snapped. "But it's coming from everywhere!"

"He's gaining on you!"

"I can't see him!"

"Turn around! He's behind you!"

"Oh God! Oh God!"

"Fire! Fire!"

The sound of a pistol going off, emanated from the television in Buffy's room. She, well, the character she was controlling, had just shot a zombie square in the head. Seeing the mindless creature thump to the pavement, she sighed in relief, and hit pause.

"Always be alert. They're slow, but they're also tough as shit." Faith coached her. "Nice aim though."

"Thanks." Buffy was breathing heavily, but smiled. "You're up. You get the next street."

The slayers were lying on Buffy's bed, playing video games, and showed no signs of tiring. Even though it was three a.m., and during the school week, no less. Last week they had stopped another attempted opening of the Hellmouth. That entitled them to some serious downtime as far as they were concerned, and were now occupying themselves doing mindless things. Like playing video games.

"But you're doin' so well, B."

"Chicken." Buffy grinned. "Hey, what time..." She checked her clock. "Three in the morning? Why didn't you tell me?"

"You were focused. I didn't wanna ruin that for ya."

Buffy ran her hands through her hair. "I'm going to be...zombie-like tomorrow. Like them." She pointed to the TV.

"Yeah, but at least your flesh won't be all rotted." Faith pointed out.

"I can always count on you for the upside."

"That's cause I'm so damn positive." She gave a thumbs up. "'Miss Sunshine'. That's me."

"Uh huh." Buffy chuckled, pulling down the covers.

Faith grabbed her by the waist, stopping her, and pressed their bodies together. She started kissing the back of her neck.

"Skip. Play hooky tomorrow. Stay here."

"Oh...you have no idea how much I want to do that right now." Buffy was totally relaxed, her eyes closed. "Wow...you're...good at this. Love you."

Faith smiled. "Love you too."

She reluctantly got out of the brunette's grasp, and turned, so they were face to face.

"But as much as I do, that still doesn't change the fact that I have to go to school, and need sleep."

"You're not tired."

"I will be."

Buffy got under the covers, and Faith followed.

"If you *really* loved me -" The younger slayer tried.

"Not going to work."

"What if I...?" She and Buffy began to kiss passionately, tongues included, and then she pulled back abruptly, leaving the blonde whimpering.

"Goodnight, Faith." Buffy said with a smile, after recovering.

"Damn." Her partner cursed. "Fine. Goodni...oh. We left the machine on."

"Leave it. Until we get to a save point, that stays on. Gotten too far to have to start over again."

"It probably...won't take that long to reach one, you know." Faith said softly.

They looked at each other for a second, and then threw off the sheets.

***

"You've been sluggish all day, Buffy. Are you feeling okay?" Willow asked her friend the next day as they left class.

She got a yawn as an answer.

"Yeah, just tired, Will. Faith kept me up all night."

The redhead coughed. "Oh."

"But those zombies were asking for it, so..."

She was now confused. "Oh." After a second, she understood. "Oh...oh! The game."

"Then I tried to tell her I needed to sleep, but when we actually got *in* bed..." Buffy sighed, and Willow blushed. "She convinced me to continue playing."

"Well that's...oh look! The lunch menu!" They walked up to the menu that was taped to one of the walls, and Willow began to look at the day's offering. "Spaghetti. Yum."

"They say it's spaghetti, but it's probably demon liver that looks like spaghetti."

"K...won't be eating that."

"So how are you and Oz doing?" Buffy leaned against the wall as her friend continued to read.

"Good. Great. He's great." She smiled. "We're not as far along as you and Faith are, but...it's really nice."

"As far as..." Buffy gave her a sheepish grin. "Did you think I meant...that Faith and I...?"

"Um...didn't you?" Willow asked in a whisper.

The blonde laughed. "Nope. We're really close, though. I don't know how I've lasted this long without...I don't know how *she's* lasted this long."

"Embarrassed now. My mind was in a gutter-type place...and it shouldn't have been...and...sorry."

"Don't be. It's my fault. No, it's Faith fault. I've been around her so much that everything I say has sounded like sexual innuendoes lately. But -"

"You really don't care and love her anyway?" Willow finished, smirking.

"Mm hmm." They continued walking down the hallway. "I hope she'll try to go back to school. I got her thinking about it, but I can't force her."

"She stay home?"

Buffy nodded. "As much as it may not seem like it, she does want to do more than play games all day. I think she's just scared."

"Maybe we could...talk to her? Do the 'friendly encouraging' thing?"

Xander ran up and got between his two friends.

"Encourage who?" He asked.

"Faith." Buffy answered.

"To do what?"

"Go to school."

"Why would she want to do...?" Both girls looked at him. "Go education!"

"Good boy." Willow praised him.

"Who wants to bug Giles?" Buffy asked.

"Me!" Xander and Willow echoed.

***

Angel had on a white muscle shirt, and was working out in the mansion. First, he did one hundred push-ups. In thirty seconds. Next, he stood and did a combination of a pair of punches and a spinning heel kick, fifteen times. Then, ten jabs with each hand. After that, five front kicks with the right leg, five with the left. Preparing to finish the routine, he backed up to the curtain that hid the light from the garden, and closed his eyes.

Then, he started to run towards the far the far wall. Continuing to pick up speed, he vaulted himself into the air, and did a jump kick. His foot smashed against the wall, leaving a crack, and he flipped backwards, landing on his feet. Before he could relax, he felt someone coming up behind him.

Instinctively, he brought up his forearm for a backhand shot, hard and fast. A hand gripped it.

"Take it easy, Big Guy." The person said, letting go.

Angel turned around. "Faith."

"What was that?"

"Morning warm up."

Her mouth formed an 'O', as she ran her fingers over the very visible crack.

"I feel wicked sorry for the wall." She quirked an eyebrow, a thought popping into her head. "Shouldn't you be asleep?"

The slayer watched as he shook his head in frustration.

"I *hate* myths." He sat down on his couch, and waited for the heat he was feeling from the workout to fade, and to be replaced by his normal coldness. "Do you need something?"

"Was just walkin', and realized I never thanked ya for pulling me out of the way of that three-headed snake thing a couple weeks ago. Almost lost a leg."

He gave her a half-smile, but didn't speak.

"Library? Hellmouth? Psycho demon chicks?"

"Why are you here?" He asked.

"Can't a girl visit her girlfriend's ex just to say 'hey'?"

"No." She sat on the arm of the couch that was farthest from Angel. "Buffy's at school, and you're not."

She looked at him. "I can go see her if I want."

"You know that's not what I meant."

"How'd -?"

"I've been around a long time. You start to notice things after awhile."

Something occurred to her then. What she felt was a valid excuse not to have the discussion that was bound to happen, because she was having second thoughts. She hopped off the arm.

"Wait. You tried to see a sunrise."

"That's true."

"You're not all there. Nuthouse material. Why did I even think I could...?" Faith started to make her exit. "Sorry I bugged ya. I'm gonna go."

"I'm not proud of what I almost did, but I've moved past it." She stopped and turned around "You came here to talk, Faith. And I can listen."

"I've changed my mind. Okay?"

"Okay." He didn't want to push.

They stood there for a second or two, and just as she was about to leave again, he recalled something.

"I was tracking a vampire last night. The way he was dressed...I think he was part of a larger group. I recognized it, but I can't remember..." He trailed off.

"And?"

"He had two swords. One long, one short. I was going to confront him, but another vampire came in, staked him and took the swords. I've seen the other one around town lately. Black, well-dressed."

"Trick." Faith muttered.

"You know him?"

"Old friend." She said sarcastically. "Better go pass along the info. Thanks."

She started to walk again.

"You have nothing to fear, but fear itself." He said to her.

"That's real original, Angel." She called over her shoulder.

"I may not have come up with it, but it's still the truth. Occasionally, humans can be pretty smart."

"Am I supposed to take that as a compliment for my race?" She asked, now at the door.

"My point is, don't let it hold you back. Fear's only powerful when you give it power."

"And Yoda says fear leads to the Dark Side. Do I listen to you, or a Muppet? Hmm. Tough choice."

"You can do anything you want."

"Yeah, well...later."

***

Instead of bugging Giles like they had planned, the three friends ended up being the ones who were bugged. And bored. When they got to the library, they met someone new. Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. A young British, watcher. He didn't seem as snooty and "better than you" as Post was, but he was very green. That much was obvious.

And Giles assured them that the man wasn't evil. Which was comforting, but he loved to talk. About his rules, laid out his schedule, what he expected...he never shut up. For once, they couldn't stand to be in the library. Giles included. The new guy also wanted to meet Faith, and Buffy grinned, going over the other slayer's possible reactions in her head.

She also wanted Faith there so she could concentrate her, something she would enjoy more than listening to Wesley.

"Now that the preliminaries are taken care of, how about we get right on with it? What can you tell me about last night's patrol?" He got out a pad.

"Patrol?" Buffy asked.

"You *did* slay vampires last night, correct?"

"Uh, see, we stopped the Hellmouth from opening a few weeks ago, and vampires and demons don't come out for awhile after something big like that. We've been taking a break."

"Well deserved one." Xander came to her defense.

"Abso-darn-lutely." Willow added with a nod.

"I see." Wesley said with a slight glare.

"But I did kill zombies!" The blonde said quickly, not realizing what she saying.

"Zombies? Really?"

"Yeah...kinda. And kinda...no." She said sheepishly. "Hold on. Why am I talking to you like I care what you think?"

The young watcher looked at the older, ex one.

"You condone the slayers taking 'time off' from their duty?"

"I was informed some time ago, that I am no longer a Watcher. Which means, they aren't under my supervision. What they choose to do or not to do, is their choice, and I have no right to interfere."

Giles had too happy a smile, which caused Wesley to shrink back.

"You tell 'em, G-Man." Xander said, throwing his fist in the air. The librarian looked at him. "You tell 'em, Mr. Giles, sir?"

"But they have always consistently performed their duties, better than any slayers the Council has had, and if you want my unofficial answer, they're good at what they do because they have freedom to do their job as they please. My advice to you, is to allow them to continue to have that freedom." Giles continued.

"I'll...I'll take that under advisement."

"I'm sure you will."

That's when Faith entered the library, and an excited Buffy jumped out of her chair, and ran to her. She hugged the brunette tightly, as the other girl looked over her shoulder at Wesley.

"New watcher?" Faith whispered.

"New watcher." Buffy confirmed. "Thank God you're here."

"Great. He's a dork, isn't he?" She sighed, as Buffy nodded. "Look, I got some news."

Wesley had walked up to them.

"You are Faith, I presume?" He asked. She didn't answer him. "My name is -"

"This is slayer stuff, okay pal?"

"If you have information regarding vampires or any other demonic creatures, you're obligated to share it with me as well as Buffy."

"Am I?"

Buffy felt sorry for the watcher, but also knew she was going enjoy sitting back and watching. She was really going to enjoy it.

***

"He cowers too easily." Faith said at night as they came up on the Gleaves Family crypt.

Eventually, Faith had informed them all about what Angel had told her. That turned on a light bulb for Wesley, who went into a long tale of a demon called Balthazar and his vampire groupies known as the Eliminati. According to Wesley, the remaining vampires were trying to get an amulet that belonged to Balthazar, who was supposedly dead, for sentimental value.

So they were "assigned" to retrieve the amulet.

"I was disappointed." Buffy admitted. "How come you went to see Angel?"

"To find out if you were a screamer or a purrer in bed." Faith leered.

"You should have just asked me. Or found out for yourself." Buffy came back, keeping the banter going.

"Don't say anything you don't mean, B."

"Come on, Faith. You know me. I mean *everything* I say." She ran her hand down Faith's chest. "Do you know how badly I want to touch you?"

"Think I'm gettin' it." The brunette's voice was hoarse.

"Now, why were you really visiting Angel?" Buffy slipped out of 'seductive mode' immediately.

"Damn you're a tease! I thought that was my area." She was now very; very...aware...of the heat she was feeling.

"Meant it, though."

"You mean *everything* you say, right?" Faith smirked, copying the blonde's earlier words.

"Right."

"I'm holdin' you to that. Hey, I see the crypt."

Faith ran ahead, and Buffy sped up to keep pace with her.

"How come you can weasel out of answering my questions all the time?"

"I'm good at it, that's why."

They went inside the crypt and saw three stone coffins inside. Opening the first one they came to, all they saw was a skeleton. No amulet.

"Strike one." Buffy said.

"She lines up for the next pitch..." Faith said, pushing the lid aside to open the second one. The amulet sat around the neck of the skeleton. "And she connects."

Buffy smiled as she came up behind the other slayer, and brought her arms around Faith's waist.

"It looks like it could go all the way."

"Her feet hit first,"

The slayers began to kiss, and it briefly occurred to them just how twisted they were. Surrounded by dead people and cobwebs, they were getting intimate. It was disturbing, but there was also the fact that they were so "excited", that they didn't care.

"The first base coach waves her on,"

"The ball goes outta the park as she flies by second. She's gonna score,"

Hands began to wander, but then there came voices from outside. Which sounded like they were getting closer.

"But fans rush the field delaying the game." Buffy cursed.

Pushing the lid closed on the coffin that contained the amulet, they both jumped into the first one, and slid that lid closed as well. The blonde was lying on top of the brunette, and the brunette was lying on top of a dead guy. But they didn't notice that. They noticed each other's heavy breathing, and the footsteps now in the crypt.

After a minute, all they heard was their breathing. Short, quick breaths. The visitors were gone, and they both knew it had been members of the Eliminati, and that the vampires had taken the amulet. But moving wasn't a priority.

"I take it back. I still like this position. I feel so submissive being on the bottom." Faith said with a grin. "You know, if we stay like this a little longer, it might just cure my claustrophobia."

"You were never claustrophobic." Buffy pointed out.

"That's funny. Could have sworn I was. Guess this means we can't stay here, huh?"

"Nope. Got vampires to chase. Unfortunately."

Buffy pushed the lid off, and climbed out, helping Faith.

"Well, three's a crowd anyway." She looked back at the skeleton. "Sorry bout that, buddy."

"Don't think he minded."

"What male would? Dead or alive?"

They rushed out, back into the cemetery, and saw two of the Eliminati jump down a nearby manhole. The girls halted, thinking for a second.

"Odds?" Buffy asked.

"Depends how many are down there."

"Estimation?"

"Sounded like a lot of footsteps. Pretty bad, I'd figure."

"Possible fighting space?"

"Tight. It could get ugly."

"Do we really want to get the amulet?"

"No. But if we don't, Wes'll probably go into a lecture."

"And do we wanna hear it?" They shook their heads. "Confidence level?"

"Damn high."

"I feel lucky. Why don't we just go for it?"

"Got energy to burn, B?" Faith smiled wickedly.

"Oh yeah."

In the next second, they were heading to the manhole.

***

Down in the sewer, the two slayers had their hands full of Eliminati. Buffy kicked one of them on the ground and threw a second out of the way, as Faith backhanded another.

"We're surrounded!" The petite one screamed.

"You noticed that, too?" Her partner asked sarcastically, as she backhanded one again.

Buffy ducked a vampire's swing and round-housed his knee, making him fall. Faith grabbed her current opponent's arm, and threw him into a wall. The blonde then did a spinning kick to a new, charging arrival, sending him flying, just as a second one came in to try and hit her with his sword. She backed up, and the sword hit the floor instead.

Faith kicked another Eliminatus that was behind her, and he fell onto a raised area. A vampire that was already on the high area tried to leap at Faith, but she sent him to join his friend. Buffy elbow jabbed one, who fell over his comrade. Her fellow slayer turned around to meet the leader's fist. They could tell, because he had the amulet on him.

She retaliated with a roundhouse to his head, but was then grabbed by a vampire and shoved into a wall.

"Lemme go!" She yelled.

Buffy saw Faith's situation, and quickly threw her stake into the vampire's back, dusting him and freeing the brunette. They exchanged small smiles, but then she found herself in the same predicament Faith had just been in. The leader stood in front of her as she was being held, and pointed his sword at her chest

"Let's settle this honorably." He said.

She didn't want to. Buffy kicked the sword out of his hands, into the nearby pool of water. She shrugged off the one who had been gripping her, only to have the leader try to stab her with his smaller sword. She barely dodged, and he pinned her against the edge of the pool.

"Well, then, let's just settle it."

He dunked her head into the water. And held it there. Buffy tried to get out, but after a few seconds of getting nowhere, she stopped moving all together. Faith watched, wide-eyed and helpless, as a vampire had gotten her into a full nelson. That she couldn't get out of.

"Buffy! You son of a bitch!" Faith growled angrily at the leader, as he grinned at her in victory.

Surprising them both, Buffy then leapt up, long sword in hand.

"I hate it when they drown me." The wet-haired slayer said, eerily focused.

She swung at him, but he somersaulted away, and got back to his feet. He tried to ward her off with his less than impressive shorter sword, which she knocked from his grip easily. Trying yet again to hit him, he moved just in time to avoid her. Faith broke the hold her vampire had on her finally, and swung him up onto to the raised area.

"B! Gotta go!"

"We came for the amulet." Buffy told the leader determinedly.

She jabbed the sword at him, getting the blade tip right in between the chain holding the amulet to his waist. She then lifted the sword, and the chain came with it, sliding down to the hilt. The leader was now visibly frightened, and wasted no time in running off. Faith walked over to her, a look of admiration on her face.

"You kick ass." Buffy allowed herself a sly grin. "But if you ever, *ever* scare me like that again, I will kick your ass." She pushed her finger into Buffy's chest several times for emphasis.

"Never again."

"You look good wet, anybody ever tell you that?"

Buffy swallowed. "Race you home."

***

They got in the front door, out of breath, three minutes later, and slammed it shut.

"Mom! You home?" Buffy called. Silence. "I'll take that as a 'no'."

"We're alone?" Faith wanted to make sure.

"Uh huh. I can't wait anymore."

"Me either."

The Bostonian backed Buffy up against the door, and started to slip both their jackets off, all the while touching and kissing anywhere she could reach. Buffy was returning the favor. They dropped to the floor, never stopping. All the emotion, jokes, innuendoes, a lot of which had been exchanged tonight, overwhelmed them. Words didn't do it, slaying didn't help. Buffy, and Faith, had never needed physical contact as much as they did right at that moment.

There were a lot of forces driving their need. Lust, attraction, and more sexual tension than they could shake a stake at. But the most important force behind the act they were going to perform, was love. They had expressed it in almost every way except one.

Faith had held out so long, because she wanted to build up the other areas of their relationship first. She had never wanted to do that with anyone. But because they had, she didn't have any fear about what would happen if she slept with Buffy. They were on solid ground, and she knew she wasn't going anywhere in the morning.

Wasn't going to get up and run off. It was a good feeling, knowing that it was going to mean something. There was no questioning what they felt. She wanted Buffy, and Buffy wanted her back. Body, mind, soul, personality, good, bad, happy, bitchy, all of it. It were those thoughts, their feelings for one another, that made them both stop abruptly. They wanted their first time to be done right.

"Bedroom." They echoed.

***

Faith was in the library the following day, along with Cordelia, Wesley, and Giles. Buffy, Willow and Xander were in Chemistry Class getting ready to take a test. The cheerleader would have been there as well, but she took a personal day yesterday. She had had a gift certificate from Xander for the local health spa (Christmas present that wasn't cheap), and had to take the test after school. So now, she was filing her nails.

Wesley was studying the amulet, and Giles was trying to mask his annoyance. He was also trying to avoid having to talk to the other man. Faith knew all that was going on, but she really wasn't paying attention to any of it. She knew she was glowing because of what had happened last night. She had never glowed before, after sex.

But it was so much more than that, more than she expected. Every single detail was still clear to her, and every single moment was amazing. All the touches, the way they moved together, the sounds...but there was one moment that stood out from the rest. It was right before, no, during, Buffy's release. It had been building and building. As Faith watched her body shake, and the waves wash over her, she listened to her voice too.

Buffy repeated three words over and over. Again and again. Like a mantra.

I love you.

Sure, she had said that lots of times, but Faith had never heard anyone say them in that situation. It had always been dirty talk, insults that she let the guys think she got off on. Besides her and Buffy's first kiss, it was the most beautiful thing she had ever experienced. As Buffy came down off the pleasure high, and collapsed down onto her body, Faith cried silent tears. It was mind blowing physically and an overload emotionally.

She still wasn't grounded, and still couldn't focus, but damn it, she was happier than hell. There was a clarity to her thoughts too, after they were lying in bed, resting. Her life was on such an upswing, friends, a place to stay, a steady and great relationship, that she went back to what Angel had said earlier. Fear was something she fueled, gave life to, and she could kill it.

What did she have to lose by going back to school? Nothing. She could only gain, and even if she hit a few potholes along the way, she had a support system. And she wanted to learn, wanted to do well. Screw fear. Faith decided she would give it a shot. It was too late this year, but maybe she could get into summer school or just start next fall.

Cordelia scooted her chair closer to the slayer, then.

"It was good, wasn't it?"

"You have no idea, C. No idea."

She stared at Faith for a few seconds.

"Now I'm jealous. I'm going back over there."

Wesley came over to the table with a smile on his face.

"Good work. The amulet will have to be authenticated, obviously..."

"It's real." Faith said. He moved to speak, but she cut him off. "For followers of a dead demon, there sure were a lot of 'em. And they fought hard to try and hold on to that thing. It was for more than sentimental crap. Buffy almost died for it, so you better figure out why it's so damn important. Get me?"

Objecting wasn't a good idea, as he had found out.

"Y-yes."

"Smarter than you look." She looked at Giles, who had made his way over. "We want him involved, too, or you're gonna find us impossible to work with."

Wesley looked at Giles. "Let's...um...get to work, shall we?"

"An excellent suggestion."

Faith rose. "I'm gonna pay Buffy a visit. You boys play nice. Keep 'em in line, Cor."

"Will do." Cordelia said.

***

In Chemistry Class, Buffy was sitting at a lab table in the back, by a window, and Xander and Willow were sitting at the one behind her. They were waiting for the teacher to finish double checking the tests for any mistakes. The redhead had noticed her friend's unusually cheery mood ever since they walked in the front doors that morning, and now she saw the faraway look.

It all clicked, and her face went red. Buffy turned around on her stool to face them, and that confirmed it.

"Wow. Big wow."

The blonde smiled. She was in the same state of euphoria that Faith was in, and already missed being near her.

"Wow what?" Xander asked, never able to figure out female facial expressions or attitudes.

Willow whispered to him. First his eyes went wide, then he made a repetitive sound like "da da da", and then his eyes closed as he fainted, falling off the stool and to the ground, his seat landing on top of him. Everyone noticed, and the teacher came running. Buffy and Willow tried not to laugh, knowing it wasn't serious. Water would wake him right up.

That's when Buffy glanced at the window, and saw Faith standing there, grinning. The brunette started drawing something with her finger, courtesy of the dust that had gathered on the glass. First she drew the shape of an eye, and next to it, she drew a heart with a letter 'B' inside of it.

The teacher was trying to get her attention, and when Buffy realized it, she quickly looked away.

"Buffy, can you go get some water from the bathroom?"

"Sure, Miss Taggert."

She hurried out of the room and down the hall, going into the bathroom. The school had made a wise decision putting a Dixie Cup Dispenser in there with the paper towels. Faith was in there already, leaning against one of the sinks. She had heard the teacher's request. They kissed as Buffy filled the cup, and when they stopped, water was flowing over the edges.

"What were you doing, peeking in the window?" She asked Faith playfully.

"I dunno...looking at you...and I figured that since I'm gonna have to sit in one of those classrooms eventually, I should check one out."

"You mean...?" The brunette nodded, and she got a hug. "I'm so glad."

"Thought you would be. It'll be something new to tackle, anyway." She looked toward the door. "You got people waiting."

"I do, don't I?" She sighed. "Good luck kiss?"

After she got all the good luck she could stand, she ran back into the classroom and splashed Xander's face. He choked as his eyes shot open.

"BuffyFaithSkinFingersTongueOrgasmicJoinInPlease." He ran all his words together, speaking rapidly. Thankfully, only the slayer and hacker could decipher it.

Miss Taggert checked the clock on the wall, and sighed.

"There won't be enough time for all of you to finish today. I guess I'll have to delay the test until tomorrow. Study hall for the rest of the period."

The class cheered, clapping and whistling.

***

Later at night, the two slayers were gyrating their bodies on the Bronze's dance floor. Wild abandon was the only way to describe it. The music got faster, and they sped up right along with it, getting closer and closer. Of course, several guys were trying to get in on the fun, but they were warded off. Their hips continued to go left and right and their hands ran down each other's chests.

Then Buffy noticed Angel standing under the stairs that led to the second level of the club. She cocked her head in his direction, and Faith saw him too. She let Buffy lead her over to him by the hand, but turned her head to look back at the disappointed guys' faces.

"Sorry, boys! Show's over!" Faith said to them, and then turned to the vampire as she sat down and Buffy sat on her lap. "Why'd you kill our fun, Big Guy?"

"Yeah." Buffy added. "Party pooper."

Angel knew immediately what they had done, could see the new level of closeness. The small sting he felt, caused him to hesitate before answering, but he was also glad that with Faith, Buffy didn't have to face any consequences. Like she had to with him.

"It's important." He said.

"What's the what?"

"Balthazar."

"We know all about it. He's dead." Faith said.

"Not as dead as you think. Word on the street puts him in the packing warehouse on Devereau. He's looking for..."

"Amulet. Restore strength. Right?" The blonde continued.

Angel nodded. "From what I'm hearing, that's not something we'd like to see happen."

"No prob. We got it." The brunette assured him.

"I know. I spoke to Giles, but he said you gave it to someone."

Wesley then chose to make an appearance, poking his head around the corner, looking at his charges with narrowed eyes.

"Ah. There you are." The watcher spoke.

"And here's Captain Misinformation now." Buffy muttered.

"You're both certainly giving me a run for my money. I think we ought to establish that if you're going to go out slaying, you leave me a number where I can contact you."

"You mean we didn't? Oh damn. My brain must be slippin'." Faith said sarcastically.

"Where's the amulet?" Angel asked, annoyed at the new guy.

Wesley turned his head sharply, just now aware of Angel's presence.

"Who are you?"

"A friend. Do you have it?"

"It's somewhere safe." Faith reached into Wesley's jacket, retrieved the amulet, and handed it over to Angel. "How did you know?"

"Pooches your jacket." Buffy explained.

"Now, hang on a minute..."

"Walking around with this thing is like wearing a target." Angel told him.

"You'll take care of it?" Faith asked.

"Yeah."

The slayers stood, along with the vampire.

"We'll do recon on Balthazar." Buffy said.

"If I may...Balthazar is dead. Am I the only one that remembers that?" Wesley said, angry at being cut out.

"Be careful." Angel addressed the girls, smirking.

They winked at him, and left the club.

***

Walking the streets searching for the packing warehouse, Buffy drifted back to first thing in the morning. The whole gang had been sitting in the lounge, and Willow was displaying all the early admission packets she had received. To really good, expensive, far-away colleges. It was the thought that her friend might leave Sunnydale, go out of her life, that was putting a damper on her good mood.

And it was a very real possibility. Something she couldn't make herself face, even though she wanted Willow out of danger and showing the world her talent. The fear of losing the redhead was making her sick to her stomach, and she was doing the only thing she could at that moment to make herself feel better. Talking with Faith about it.

"She isn't going anywhere, B. She's just excited right now. It'll pass."

"You think?"

"Red's attached to you and Xander like...super glue. There's her magick deal..."

"But I don't want her to give her opportunities up for me. I want her to -"

"Buffy, it's her decision. She'll do whatever she wants to do."

"I know, I know." The blonde sighed.

They reached the warehouse, and stood on either side of a dirty window, so they could look in. What they saw was Balthazar, a very pale, extremely overweight, pig looking demon, sitting immobile in a tank of water. His minions surrounded him, and one of them was moistening him with water.

Buffy and Faith gave one another appalled looks as they listened in.

"I see fear...and remorse...and the pitiful look of faces that cry out for mercy! But what I *don't* see is what I *want* to see, AND THAT'S...MY...AMULET!"

"Lord Balthazar, we found it! We had it! But the Slayers..." Said one of the vampires.

"Already I'm bored."

The demon held out his hands, and somehow, he made the vampire float to him. The girls grimaced outside, as Balthazar squeezed his victim's throat, snapping his neck and dropping him to the ground.

"Vincent...come here."

A vampire they recognized as the leader from the previous night, stepped forward.

"Closer."

Vincent leaned down some.

"Closer."

Balthazar put his "hands" on Vincent's shoulders.

"Let me tell you...what I want to see."

They backed off from the window, and started to whisper.

"Okay, we got ten, maybe twelve bad guys and one big demon in desperate need of a Stairmaster." Buffy said.

"I was gonna go with Babe's fat, 'spent-too-much-time-walking-around-atom-bomb-testing-sites', trailer park, uncle."

"You get descriptive bonus points for tonight's slayage."

"I try."

"We need better firepower."

"And being the place that this is, we go to the high school librarian for it. Twisted." Faith snuck a glance back in the window. "Some of the vamps are leavin' around the other side."

"Three stakes. How many you got?"

"Uh...four."

"We gotta follow."

Faith nodded. "Right behind ya."

***

At the library, Wesley and Giles were in the office. The official watcher was looking at pictures on the wall, and the unofficial one, was sitting at his desk, cleaning his glasses. They were arguing. Wesley's "know it all" attitude was showing itself again.

"I didn't say you had emotional problems." He faced Giles. "I said you had *an* emotional problem. It's quite different."

"My 'attachment' to the slayers is not a problem. In point of fact, it's been a very -"

He was interrupted.

"The way you've handled this assignment is something of an embarrassment to the Council."

Giles was ready to snap. "If you want to criticize my methods, fine. But you can keep your snide remarks to yourself. And while you're at it, don't criticize my methods." He put his glasses on.

"The fact is, you're no longer qualified to act as Watcher. It's not your fault. You've done...well. It's simply time for somebody else to take the field."

Wesley realized that the older man was no longer looking at him. Instead Giles' eyes were focused on the window, and he turned as well, to see three Eliminati staring at them.

"Now's a good time to start."

***

"How did they know?" Buffy asked as a vampire came at her, and she tossed him into a truck.

They were in alley, where Eliminati had been waiting to keep them busy, while others had gone on ahead. Buffy had a bad feeling that they had gone where she and Faith had been headed. Her opponent came at her again, trying to kick her, but she blocked him, and round-housed his gut, which made him collapse. She jumped on him, and they began to struggle on the ground.

"Beats me. But they're still gonna die."

Faith was battling Vincent, who had hung back to correct his failure from last night. But she planned on dusting him before he could do that. She ducked his kick, and gave him a hard uppercut, which landed him on his back. She kicked him in the side for good measure, and then commenced with the staking.

Her partner dusted hers as well, and stood.

"He was too easy." Faith said with a scowl.

"Giles. We have to get to him." Buffy told her. "And ...the other..."

"Wesley."

"Right. Him."

They sped up, and as soon as they turned a corner, the brunette froze.

"I think we got more comin'."

Suddenly, another Eliminatus landed in front of them from above, and thrust at Faith with his short sword. She caught his arm, shoved him into a crate, and then swung him into a pile of wood. Buffy came up and staked him, and they continued toward their destination.

As they reached the end of the building they had been going past, a hand reached out and grabbed Buffy by the shoulder. She grabbed the man by the arm roughly, and swung him against a dumpster, thinking he was a vampire. Before either of them could realize that he wasn't, Faith plunged her stake into his heart.

He grabbed his chest with surprise, his eyes wide. The slayers' eyes were too, and when they saw the blood coming, it finally hit them. Faith dropped her stake to the ground, and sank to her knees.

"I...didn't know...I didn't know..."

Buffy got beside him, and tried to push her hands to his chest to stop the blood.

"Don't move." She told him, and then called back to Faith. "We need to call 911!" But Faith was paralyzed. "It'll be okay...it'll..."

Her words of comfort to the man were pointless, because as soon as blood came out of his mouth, he was dead. They sat there, both numb. How could this happen? How could they make this mistake? Things were going so well, and then...Buffy knew they had to go.

She grabbed Faith's stake off the ground, and pulled the brunette up.

"We have to get out of here." She said shakily. The other slayer's response was a nod, but she couldn't take her eyes off the man she...killed. "I don't know what...what to do."

"You're...right. We have to...go." Faith spoke quietly.

They started running, and a couple streets over, they collided right into Angel. He looked at them, worried.

"Are you all right?"

"Yeah." Buffy said, hiding her blood-covered hand.

Faith wasn't looking at him at all, but he didn't have time to wonder what was wrong.

"I've just been to the warehouse. I was waiting for you. They got Giles."

***

"The front! The front! Moisten the front!" Balthazar said as Giles and Wesley watched, disgusted.

"Oh, God! Oh, God!" Wesley whimpered.

"It doesn't seem too promising, does it?" Giles said calmly.

"Stay calm, Mr. Giles. We have to stay calm."

"Well thank God you're here. I was planning to panic."

Wesley looked at Balthazar. "What *is* that thing?"

"That would be your demon. You know, the dead one?"

"There's no need to get snippy."

The demon turned his attention to them.

"Bring them closer." They got shoved. "You know what I want."

"If it's for me to scrub those hard-to-reach areas, I'd like to request you kill me now." Giles said sarcastically. He got hit in the back for his tone. "Ow."

"Are you out of your mind?" Wesley asked. "This is hardly the time for games!"

"Why not? They're going to torture us to death anyway."

Balthazar snickered. "You're not wrong about that."

"Now, hold on. We...we can deal with this rationally. We have something you want. You have something we want." Wesley sniveled.

"Hmm...a trade. Intriguing." He was quiet. "No. Wait. Boring. Pull off his kneecaps!"

"No, no, no! The Slayers gave it to someone. A tall man, a friend. I can tell you everything."

"Quiet, you twerp! They'll kill us both." Giles spat.

"But I'd like to have my kneecaps."
"You will tell us everything!" Balthazar yelled.

"Yes! Sir."

"What is this friend's name?"

"I didn't actually catch it."

"Look, um, tell you what, let Captain Courageous here go, and I'll tell you what you need to know. How's that deal?" Giles tried to reason with the demon.

"There is one deal! You will die quickly, or you will die slowly! The man who has my amulet! What is his name?"

"His name is Angel." Angel said, rushing in, vampire visage in place.

***

He immediately grabbed the two Eliminati holding Giles and Wesley, pulled them away, and slammed one of them into a wall. The other, into some metal shelves. Another one tried to take their place, but Giles head-butted him, and he fell. Buffy and Faith came in, punching the two vampires that moved to attack. Buffy wrenched a sword out of one's hand, and sliced the ropes confining Giles. He pushed Wesley out of the way.

Buffy swung the sword back at the Eliminatus, who Faith was holding for her, and cut his head off. They both had to jump out of the way of a lunge of another vampire though, and she dropped the sword. Angel ducked a swing from an Eliminatus and then did a right hook to his face and then gave him a shot to the gut. He turned around and backhanded one behind him, blocked a second swing, and punched him again.

"Un...acceptable!" Balthazar screamed.

Giles untied Wesley's hands, away from the fight. He checked behind him just in time to duck a sword coming for his head. He grabbed the blade, and elbowed the vampire, taking the weapon. Instinctively, he dueled with him, rather expertly, then the vampire kicked him in the stomach, getting away and grabbing Wesley from behind.

"Giles!" The watcher squealed.

"Down!"

Wesley ducked, and Giles swung the sword, beheading the vampire.

Buffy went to a raised area, a catwalk, while Faith helped Angel below. As she tossed a vampire into a stack of oil barrels, she glanced over the edge to see how they were doing. Angel side-kicked an attacker, and drove him back, right into Faith, who dusted him. She looked back up to see another one coming, and threw him off the catwalk.

Balthazar could watch no longer, so he held out his hands in Angel's direction, used his ability to pull the vampire to him, and began crushing his head. Both Buffy and Faith watched this, and then the blonde spied an electrical cable hanging down near her, that was connected to lamp directly above Balthazar's pool. Faith saw what she was planning, and pulled Angel out of the demon's grip just as Buffy pulled on the cable, and the lamp fell.

Sparks flew, and electricity cooked Balthazar. His skin became red and burned, as he had no choice but to sit there and die in agony. Buffy jumped down to watch with everyone, and it appeared as if he was gone. Then his eyes opened, surprising them all.

"You think you've won." He chuckled and wheezed. "When he rises...you'll wish I'd killed you all."

He finally did die, and they were left frightened and confused.

***

Returning home exhausted, with their world turned upside down, Buffy gently shut the door. There was a dead man on the streets. A person who had had warm blood, and a heartbeat. They cut his life short. They had broken a cardinal rule of slaying. But it wasn't premeditated. They didn't mean to. Buffy kept thinking 'they' because she was just as responsible. She had practically given him to Faith, and was equally to blame.

In one second, everything ceased to make sense. She wondered if...of course Faith was trying to take all the blame on herself. And that had to stop. Faith collapsed to the living room floor, and started to shake.

"Oh God...oh God...oh God...oh God..."

Buffy wrapped her arms around her.

"It'll be okay...it'll be okay...it was an accident..."

"I killed a guy, Buffy. Jesus...I...I murdered him."

"And I helped. We're both in this, and we'll both get through it. Figure out something."

"But...but...you didn't *do* it. The look on his face...the...blood..."

They rocked together.

"I'm here with you...I'm not going anywhere...I'm not going to let you deal with this alone."

"I feel so...disgusting. I'm not a bad person, am I?"

"No. Absolutely not."

She had never seen Faith like this. Her friend, her lover now, was falling apart. Buffy wasn't doing much better, but she had to hold it together for her. She had to.

"How can I...? I'm scared...he didn't even have a chance to..."

"I know...I know..."

"I can't fix it...I'm screwed."

"Everything will be fine. I promise."

"How?"

"I don't...know yet, but somehow. I mean everything I say, remember?" Faith nodded into her chest. "And I love you. That hasn't changed. At all. And it won't." There was a knock at the door, and they both looked. "Be right back."

Buffy went to answer it. Willow was standing there.

"Hey." The redhead said. "I went by Giles', and he told me what happened." She held up a couple videos. "I thought you two could wind down with a movie fest."

"That's...thanks...but -"

Cordelia appeared next to Willow.

"And makeovers. It'll cover up the bruises."

"We'd love to...like any other time..."

They finally noticed Buffy's less than cheery attitude. It was bad, whatever was bothering her.

"What's wrong, Buffy?" Willow asked.

Before she could answer, the two girls standing outside saw Faith run by, and up the stairs. Buffy whirled around, and ran after her.

"Faith!"

Cordelia and Willow exchanged concerned looks, and followed the blonde. When they got up there, they made their way to the bathroom. Buffy was kneeling beside her girlfriend, rubbing her back, as she vomited into the toilet. When Faith was finished, she sucked in deep breaths, and started crying into Buffy's shoulder.

The hacker and the cheerleader were too shocked to say anything. They just watched in silence, as Buffy tried to comfort a broken Faith.

 

8
DEALING

Buffy trudged down the stairs, her legs feeling like logs. Why did this have to happen? Were the cosmic forces testing them? She was sick and tired, literally, of all the crap. Faith didn't deserve to have a nervous breakdown. They were stuck now, with problems she had no clue how to deal with. Besides coping with what they did, there was the police. And sooner or later, they'd find out his name.

She walked into the living room and Cordelia and Willow rose from the couch.

"She's finally asleep." The slayer said wearily

"I've never seen her like that." Willow said. "And uh...you don't look much better."

Her emotions were so screwy, that she started to giggle uncontrollably. They were quiet until she ran out of laughter.

"You've got something on your hand." Cordelia noticed.

Buffy looked at her hand. The man's blood had dried on it. Her skin started to itch. It increased, she tried scratching, but then it just felt dirty. She ran into the kitchen, turned on the faucet, and stuck her hands underneath the stream of water. She grabbed the bar of soap and started scrubbing. Harder and harder. Faster and faster. She watched the blood mix in with the water and swirl down the drain.

There was no trace of red anywhere on her hands anymore, but it still wasn't enough. She kept scrubbing. She may not have done it, but she was an accomplice. She had touched him, had watched him take his last breath. Both her hands started to shake, and she kept scrubbing.

Willow and Cordelia were standing at her sides. The redhead reached under the water, and pulled her friend's hands out.

"Buffy, look."

Her skin was irritated. She had scrubbed some of it right off. She couldn't be strong any longer. It took energy she had run out of. Willow touched her hands, and that�s when she let it all out. Her legs gave out, and they both went to catch her, and eased her to floor. She sobbed, and then quickly covered her mouth so she wouldn't wake Faith up.

"Talk to us." The hacker said softly. "Please."

"Yeah. We can help."

"I don't know." Buffy choked with a shuddering breath. "I don't know how you can."

***

Willow sat on the porch seat outside Buffy's house, with Giles. She called him, and asked him to come over. She didn't know what else to do. Once she heard the whole story, she knew he was the only one Buffy would let her tell. The blonde slayer was inside, fallen asleep on the couch, after much coaxing. They had to do something, and neither slayer was in any condition to do anything.

"Giles...they're both...it's horrible."

"I can imagine." The older man said. "You've been a good friend, Willow. Sleep is the best thing for them at the moment. They could have, for lack of a better term, 'burnt out'."

"What do we do?"

"There is procedure in situations like this, but I doubt it would help either of them. Most importantly, they need all the support they can get."

"They will."

"I know." He smiled. "The best I can think to do right now, is wait until morning to make any decisions. We've all had a long night."

"What if the cops...?"

"It'll be fine, I promise you. Why don't you let me drive you and Cordelia home?"

"But...we can't leave them alone."

"I'll stay." Angel said, stepping out of the shadows.

Giles stood, as Willow went inside to get Cordelia. He looked at the vampire sadly.

"I never expected them to have to deal with this. It's not like it hasn't happened before, but you never think it'll happen to your slayers." He sighed. "What am I saying? I don't work for the Council any longer."

"It'll be difficult. Especially because of their age. I know about remorse and guilt when it comes to killing. I'm almost two-hundred and fifty years old, and it's still there."

"The psychological damage they could suffer could be irreparable "

"If they weren't as close as are, I'd say it could be a harder road, and they might have trouble walking the line, but they'll survive it. Cope. It'll still be hard, but they've got each other, and a group of friends willing to be there for them."

"So what's your advice?"

"Keep their environment as positive as you can. They'll need it. And be ready for the police."

***

Faith awoke at around four-thirty in the morning, sweating, and screaming Buffy's name. She had come out of a nightmare where she was forced to watch herself murder that man over and over again. Except, when she dropped the stake in the dream, it never hit the ground. It turned, the sharp end pointing in Buffy's direction, and then it killed her. And Faith couldn't stop it.

She looked around for her girlfriend, not able to find her. Angel was the one who was at her side. Her eyes were frightened, tear-stained, and confused.

"Angel? Where is she?"

"She's fine. She fell asleep downstairs, and they didn't want to move her."

Buffy ran in the bedroom.

"I'm here." She said soothingly, getting on the bed. They embraced. "And we're both alive."

"How'd you know I was -?"

"I was dreaming that...you got staked, then I heard you scream. It woke me. I figured you were dreaming...well, you know."

Faith sighed in relief. "I didn't mean to..." She looked at the vampire. "I didn't mean to, Angel. I swear."

"Nobody thinks you did. Either of you." He assured her. "Why don't you try to go back to sleep? I'll leave."

"I can't. It hurts."

"I don't want to either." Buffy said. "Sleep is bad."

"I'll make tea then." Angel said, going out the door.

"You know what?" The blonde said once he was gone. "I don't like tea. Add to that the fact that Angel's downstairs making it...scary."

That got them laughing softly.

"We should probably drink it though. To be polite." Faith said.

"Okay. But you're drinking it first."

"Deal." The brunette swung her legs over the side of bed. "I hit rock bottom last night, didn't I? I think I'm still there. Everyone saw..."

"No one thinks any less of you. I did the same thing. At least I think I did. It's all a blur."

"I...I need a shower." Faith stood up, and then turned around. "In this together?"

"Whatever happens. The gang's behind us too." The younger slayer didn't move, so Buffy got up, walked to her, and gave her a small kiss, meant to comfort. "K?"

Faith nodded, the beginnings of a smile appearing, but when she realized it, she wouldn't let herself. She headed to the bathroom.

***

"Faith, are you okay in there?" Buffy asked, knocking, after the girl had been in the bathroom for forty-five minutes.

Twenty minutes before, Buffy had heard the water turn off, so she wasn't showering anymore. The tea had long since gotten cold. She remembered then, that it was a school day. Going to school would be too normal, and she couldn't handle that just yet. Plus, if someone even looked at her, she would think they knew. Paranoia was also something she wanted to avoid.

There were those people who would say that locking yourself in a house, where the thoughts would fester, wouldn't help jumpstart the healing process. That getting back into the daily routine as quickly as possible, and dealing with the event in small doses, was the best thing to do.

She had thought about that, and then she knew Faith would be here. She could come with her, but eventually, she'd be questioned. They'd find out she wasn't a student and Snyder would kick her out. For good. Well, Buffy wasn't going to leave her, not for a second. And the truth of it was, she didn't want to be separated from her.

In a couple hours, she'd call Giles, and tell him she wasn't coming in today. No, she'd have Angel call.

"You can come in." Faith called from the other side of the door.

Buffy walked in to see her, in a bathrobe, standing in front of the sink and looking into the mirror on the wall.

"I don't feel clean. I tried, but I don't."

Buffy remembered what she done to her hands. "You didn't hurt yourself, did you?" Faith shook her head. "Whatcha doin'?" She asked next, as gently as she could.

"Tryin' to figure out if I look any different. I can't tell."

"You look the same to me."

She joined Faith, standing beside her. Looking at herself in the mirror, she knew what the other slayer meant. She could see herself, but she couldn't. Her face appeared distorted. The only thing she could really make out was her eyes. But they weren't hers. They were his. Staring back at her, dead, lifeless...

Faith grabbed her hand as she looked away.

"And thinkin'."

"About?"

"School. If I...if we get busted, that's not in the cards anymore."

"But how would they...?"

"Witnesses? Anything we touched has our prints..."

"I touched his shirt..."

"You said the men in blue weren't too bright here, right? Maybe they'll just stick it in the 'unsolved' category. But then, we...I don't pay."

"You're not one of those...people. The sick, demented...it was a mistake. That *we* made and shouldn't have to go to jail for."

"There's no such thing as 'accidental murder', B. We can't just tell them, 'We're vampire slayers and we thought he was one of 'em. Oops. Sorry.' And you can't tell me you don't think you need to be punished."

Buffy couldn't argue.

"Who was he?"

It had just occurred to her that they hadn't asked that question yet. Faith raised her eyebrows. That *was* a good question. But did she want the answer? Wouldn't it help if he remained a nobody? Without a life and a history? But maybe it would help if she could put a name to the face. It would be harder for her to forget then. It wouldn't make it easier to move on. She wanted that. To torture herself.

"Giles is here." Angel said, standing in the doorway. They both turned their heads sharply, hating his stealth prowess just then. "He's got news."

***

"I know it's early." Giles said as they sat down on the sofa.

"We were up." Buffy answered as she and Faith snuggled together.

"How are you feeling?"

"Been better." Faith said quietly. "What's...?" She didn't even feel like finishing the question.

"I had trouble sleeping myself, and so I turned on my television..."

"You have a TV?" A shocked Buffy asked.

"Um...yes."

"As if my world wasn't messed up enough." She made a 'go on' gesture.

"I was watching one of those less than stellar psychic infomercials...well, it was pre-empted, and it cut to a reporter outside of City Hall. They found a body propped up in an alleyway."

That got Faith's attention. She sat straight up.

"Who was he?" The brunette asked. Giles hesitated. "You came here to tell us. So tell."

"The Deputy Mayor. Allan Finch."

"Allan Finch..." She kept saying the name over and over in her mind. Not only did she kill someone; he was high profile too. She got up and started to pace. "That's great. Just...wonderful."

"Faith, Buffy, you need to understand something. It's not the first time like something like this has happened."

Faith halted her pacing. "What?

"Slayers are on the front lines of a nightly war. Now, it's, it's tragic, but accidents have happened."

"Don't tell me I can balance it out, Giles. Okay? It doesn't matter if we've saved a million people by doing this. I'm not just gonna say that the good outweighs the bad and forget the guy who got in the way one time."

"I'm not asking you to forget. Not at all. But you do save lives, have saved them countless times. There are risks that come with any job. Only slaying's risks are somewhat...higher."

"I took somebody's life, Giles."

"Faith..." Buffy tried to interject.

"Do you know how that feels?"

"Yes." He said flatly. "And it eats away at you, I know. Believe me."

"I know too." Angel added. "Remember what you said to me? I could say the same to you now."

"I didn't know how much it hurt then." Faith said.

"We all have a purpose. Yours has been laid out for you. And you're good at it."

"Until I screw up again."

"If you think you will, then you will."

"You won't. We won't." Buffy insisted.

"You don't know that." The brunette countered.

"No, I don't. But I believe it."

Faith sighed. "What about him?"

"Mourn, grieve, pray...whatever it is you feel you need to do. But he is gone, and there's nothing more we can do." Giles advised.

"There should be."

"Let me make this clear. I hold no malice toward you or Buffy, and neither does anyone else. You're only human, even with your higher station in life. It's a heavy burden to carry the survival of the world on your shoulders, and sadly, innocents may get caught in the fight. However, people still count on you, whether they know it or not, and they need you."

The slayers digested that, being quiet.

"You said...it's happened before. What does the Council do?" Buffy asked.

"Well, the Council investigates, um, metes out punishment if punishment is due. But I...I have no plans to involve them. They are cut off from everything, and could only hinder -"

"Gettin' away with murder. That's what we're doing." Faith still couldn't get off it. It seemed so wrong. "I just -"

"Hold up a sec." Buffy said, getting a thought. "What's a question we're not asking?" They all waited. "What was the Deputy Mayor of Sunnydale, doing in a dark alley, late at night? Why was he out there?"

***

Angel left just before sun-up, and most of the slayers' day was spent sitting up against the couch together in complete silence. Occasionally, Giles did call to check up on them, and they took turns going to answer the phone. They just kept replaying the event over and over, trying to come to terms with it, but to no avail. They accepted the fact that they had to move forward, but that didn't work too well considering they had nothing else to think about. Or do. Buffy thought maybe she *should* have gone to school. Or somewhere they could both go, where they could be together at all times, anyway.

They never felt like getting up, though.

At around the time school let out hours later, the gang came over, and Willow wouldn't stop giving Faith hugs. They watched TV, movies, played board games...anything to try and get the slayers cheery. Xander had even brought Faith fast food, which she ate quickly. She didn't know whether it was because she was hungry (she hadn't eaten in two days), or if it was just a distraction. They didn't talk about what had happened, because that was the last thing their two friends needed to hear about.

Buffy and Faith had decided to check out City Hall after dark. Once Buffy had brought up that question, Faith, Giles and Angel got suspicious. The likelihood that something was going on with the town's government was pretty good; once they had all started thinking about it. Maybe by going there, it would help them, Faith especially, heal.

At least they would be doing something...in his memory.

"Six! I got a six, I go first." Xander said happily.

"No, I go first." Cordelia said.

"Cordy, I know how Trouble works. The rules say that the first person to get a six, goes first."

"Did I say I cared about the rules? I go first, Xander." She told him forcefully.

"Right. Please go first. I want you to."

"You are totally whipped." Faith commented.

"Is that something I should be ashamed of?"

"Yes."

"I don't know why guys feel like submission is such a bad thing. It may be a tad demeaning -"

"Go. It's your turn." Cordelia instructed.

He hit the dice bubble quickly. "Popping, see? Moving piece now."

Buffy walked back to the kitchen after silently watching the exchange in the living room. Willow and Oz were standing over the counter, making more sandwiches.

"She was semi-sarcastic." The blonde smiled.

"I knew we could help." Willow said.

"You are. Really. Thanks."

"How you holding up?" Oz asked.

"I'll..." The doorbell rang. "Get the door."

She walked back into the living room, and going to the door, her and Faith's eyes met. Standing outside, was a man in a suit. Who flashed a badge.

"Buffy Summers?" She nodded. "I'm Detective Stein. I'd like to ask you a few questions."

"Sure." He came in and shut the door behind him. He looked around. Xander and Cordelia got off the floor, and Faith got off the sofa and sat on the steps. "Have...have a seat."

Stein focused on Faith, as he sat on the couch. "And your name?"

"Faith."

"I'll get right to the point. I got a couple of witnesses who put girls matching your descriptions, near the alley where the Deputy Mayor was found murdered last night. You hear about that?"

"Yeah. Really sad." Buffy said genuinely. "We were here watching movies with our friends."

"They were, officer." Cordelia chipped in.

"You two," He pointed to the brunette, "live here together?"

"Uh huh." Faith answered.

"And you didn't leave the house at all?"

"We were at the Bronze for a little." Buffy said.

"I see." He cleared his throat. "Somebody stabbed this guy through the heart. Strange thing is, the weapon, it was made out of wood. Any of this mean anything to you?"

"Nope." She answered. "Sorry."

Faith shook her head.

"I have enough for now." He got up.

"Do they have any idea why he might have been killed?" Faith asked.

"It's still an ongoing investigation, and I can't really comment. But these days, it seems like murderers kill...for no good reason at all."

"Sick."

He sighed. "Call me if you remember anything."

When he was gone, Buffy came and sat next to Faith on the step, and Cordelia and Willow sat on the one below. Faith wrapped her arms around her partner.

"I'm not like them. I'm not. I'm one of the good guys."

"I sure think so." Buffy agreed.

"Me too." Willow agreed.

"Me three." Cordelia added.

"Me four." Xander said, coming over with Oz.

"Me five." The guitarist said.

"We're figurin' out what's goin' on, tonight, then we're gonna find some vampires," Faith spoke, the fire coming back, "and I'm gonna do my job."

***

The slayers entered Allan's office quietly, and started to look around the dark room. The immorality of breaking and entering crossed their minds, especially because they had already committed a major immoral act already, but they were both positive something not so good was going on in City Hall. And that made what they were doing easier.

"You brought this up," Faith said, "so you're thinkin', what? Conspiracy?"

"I don't know if it's X-Files-esque in bigness, but yeah."

"So no Smoking Man." Faith sighed.

As Buffy went over to the file cabinets, Faith went over to his desk and searched his inbox. Just interoffice envelopes. Her eyes traveled to a picture of him and the Mayor, Richard Wilkins III. She picked up the picture, and after a few moments, had to close her eyes. The pain hit her again, as well as the guilt.

She felt Buffy's eyes on her, and held up the picture. The blonde frowned, and they both just stood there for a minute, until Buffy remembered the file cabinets she had been opening. Crooking her finger, she beckoned the other slayer over. Faith set the picture down, and Buffy began showing her the cabinets' contents.

"Empty." The brunette said.

"Completely."

Faith went back to the desk, and began looking through the drawers. They were empty too. She went to shut the top one, disappointed. Then, on a hunch, she reached in and felt the top of the drawer. Her fingers touched something. She yanked, and whatever it was, came loose. It was a day planner.

Before they could look through it, they heard voices coming from the hallway. The slayers crept to the door, and Buffy opened it just enough so they could look without being seen. They weren't expecting what they saw. Trick and the Mayor were walking down the hallway, talking.

"Get as many men on it as you can. We don't have near enough evidence to put 'em away, so plans will have to change." The Mayor said to the vampire.

"Yeah. We'll be wanting to turn up the heat."

"Holy -" Faith whispered.

"Crap." Buffy finished.

***

"The Mayor of Sunnydale's a black hat, and Trick's workin' for him. I should've known he'd go for the top guy." Faith seethed, as they walked to Restfield. "What's it say?"

Buffy was reading Allan's planner. "Something called 'Hundred Days' happened yesterday, he was supposed to call somebody about a delivery, and in like a month, he has 'Ascension' written down. Why's that date sound familiar?"

"How much you wanna bet he was tryin' to give us a heads up? He wasn't in that alley just for the sights, and that book wasn't taped in that drawer for nothin'."

"Then this planner was his back up in case something happened to him. He must've expected -"

"He expected the Mayor to get to 'em. Not someone he was comin' to for help." The brunette spat.

They walked past the gates and into the cemetery. After a few feet, Buffy grabbed Faith's arm, and turned her around.

"Tell me."

"Tell you what?"

"What I can do." She sighed. "You're beating yourself up over this. I know I didn't actually do...but I was there. I'm feeling sick, and dirty, and pretty low, too. Maybe not in the same way you are, but I am. I don't know what to say, how to help..."

"You are, Buffy. Don't you know that? If I need you, I know you're there. And you're not leavin' me out to dry. No matter how much I want all the blame. Really isn't anything to say. We've done that. I'll be okay...eventually. Just keep stickin' by me."

"Can do." They grasped hands, and started looking for vampires. "I should go to school and tell Giles what we found out tomorrow. Do you wanna -?"

A branch snapped somewhere, and their sensitive hearing picked it up right away. They stealthily moved down the rows of graves, searching for the source. Faith was glancing at the names on the headstones as they went by, and one made her stop. The Deputy Mayor's. The Mayor had hurried the funeral, and they had had it just after noon that day.

Without thinking, she just knelt down in front of it. Buffy was a couple steps ahead, and when she realized she was alone, she backtracked. She thought about telling Faith that they might be in danger, but she didn't want to interrupt her. She just stood behind the brunette, and looked as well.

"You were lookin' for us, and when we figure out what's goin' down, we'll stop it. I get the feelin' that's what you wanted, and that's what will do. Promise. And I never meant to...I'm...sorry. We're sorry." Faith sighed. "Rest in peace."

She looked up at Buffy, and they smiled at each other. Then the next thing they knew, a net was falling down over them. Wesley had come out from behind a mausoleum, flanked by three other men, who had thrown the net.

"By the order of the Watcher's Council of Britain, I am exercising my authority and removing you to England, where you will accept the judgment of the disciplinary committee."

"How did you find out?" Buffy asked, struggling to get free.

"As a Watcher, it is my job to know everything that happens with my charges at all times."

"You idiot!" Faith yelled. "You're shippin' two slayers off, away from the Council's biggest trouble spot?"

He didn't say anything, and they started to be dragged off.

"Look out! Vampires!" Buffy screamed. The four men scattered immediately, fleeing like the wusses she knew they were. It allowed her and Faith to get free. When their "abductors" stood up from behind the graves they were using to hide, they were very confused. She looked at the lackeys. "Beat it."

Wesley cowered as his friends ran off, and the blonde pushed him onto the ground. She crouched, gripped his tie, and yanked. She really hated the Council. Did they even hear of the words "human being" and "delicate situation"? You didn't abduct your employees. They were so out of touch with the world it wasn't even funny.

Faith watched Buffy glare at the watcher, and could see how frightened he was. He was still a person, and seeing the anger in her partner, was scaring her. Images of the alley came to her, and she didn't even want that to be a possibility. Ever again.

She put her hand on Buffy's shoulder. "Let 'em up, B. As much as he deserves a hit, he's not worth the energy." The blonde nodded in hesitant agreement, and Wesley scrambled to his feet. "Get the hell out of here, Wes. We're not goin' anywhere."

When he was gone, they headed home.

***

"You were just acting on instinct, you know." Buffy said to Faith as they lied in bed. "I know you think you should've seen that he wasn't a vampire, and known not to..."

Faith sighed. They had been lying there awhile, feeling slightly better than they had. It wasn't worth bringing up Wesley, or the Council, because that was just stupid. It was over and done with, and they knew he wasn't going to try again. Even he wasn't *that* stubborn. But Buffy had a reason for bringing this up, and she hoped it would work.

"Those killer whales we saw on that boat tour acted on instinct. I'm human. I'm supposed to be able to have higher thought processes or whatever."

"But you're a human who's also a Slayer. We have to listen to our instincts. It's what keeps us alive. We both were in survival mode cause Balthazar's cronies were coming out of nowhere."

"So that makes us like those whales? Animals?"

Buffy shook her head. "Animals don't care."

"Maybe that'd be easier. Not being able to care."

"Angel didn't care during his killing spree days. He could just do it, and forget. But then it caught up with him. Be glad you care, cause if you didn't, bad stuff would catch up with you eventually."

"Where'd this come from, B?"

"I've just been thinking. I grabbed him on instinct. Then you..."

"Instinct. Yeah, you said."

"But what if we were on different sides? Then you would've given him to me, and I would've...done it. It would've happened no matter what. Some things we can't stop. There's nothing wrong with you, and even if there was, then there'd be something wrong with me too."

Faith didn't speak, and Buffy took that to mean she had said something wrong.

"I just wanted to help. I know you said...but I needed to say something...and I should have kept my big mou -"

Her explanation was cut short, as the brunette leaned over and brought their lips together. What the blonde said made an awful lot of sense. Giles had been motivational, Angel had been reassuring, Willow had been comforting, and the gang had tried to keep her positive as a whole. That had all helped her, but not as much as Buffy just had.

She did think there was something wrong with her. That if it had been anyone else in that alley, Allan would still be alive. And that was the one thing she knew that she'd never be able to cope with. A flaw within herself. If her slaying abilities were less than perfect, if she couldn't tell the difference between a vampire and a person, she'd have to stop. And she loved slaying. It made her feel useful, a part of something good.

But Buffy's whole explanation on instinct and switching places clicked with her. Made her feel better. She was perfectly fine. Though it was depressing to think that Allan was destined to die now. Of course, they'd never be able to test it out. (She wouldn't want Buffy to go through the pain anyway.) They couldn't prevent it. The only way it might not have happened was if the Eliminati hadn't been after them, or they had a time machine to go back and stop their doubles. Neither of those was possible though. They didn't have any control over those things.

It also reminded her why Buffy was still the only one she could really talk to. Because the older slayer *got* her. Who knew what was going on in her head. It may take Buffy awhile to get her thoughts together, but she knew exactly what to say. Faith remembered then, what she had forgotten to say lately. Sure it had only been a day, but when the minutes seemed like hours and the hours seemed like years, it had been a long time.

Faith spoke as she was attacking the blonde's mouth.

"I. Ove. Ou. O. Uch." Her words weren't very clear. For obvious reasons. She pulled away. "What I meant to say -"

"Was, 'I love you so much'? Ditto."

Buffy understood her when she couldn't even get actual words out?

"I do, ya know. And I know you've been hurting too. I haven't really been there for ya. You've been -"

"Don't worry about it. If I need you, I know you're there, and that's enough."

The brunette smiled as the blonde was echoing her earlier words.

"When I wasn't thinkin' about...'the badness'...I was thinkin' about you, and what we did before this all happened. It kept the dark thoughts away for a little while. How did we get from That, to the Night and the Day from Hell?"

"Life likes to throw slayers curves. I have experience."

"And in an attempt to try and be positive, I say again, we should be glad it doesn't throw us high ones. Then we'd be on our asses, and be really screwed."

"Hey, Miss Sunshine's back!" Faith smirked. "We could, um, get back to That, you know. I always feel close to you, but when we did That, I felt like we were one person. I need to feel that again."

"You read my mind, B."

"And it's so..."

"Come 'ere." Faith said with a grin, as she leaned down to kiss her again, all the while slipping the nightshirt the blonde was wearing, off.

Angel moved away from the window with a smile, and gave them their privacy.

***

Crack. Crack. Dodge. Spin. Thrust. Crack.

The gang looked on, in the library, as Faith and Buffy trained with staffs. It was about two in the afternoon. As soon as the slayers had come in, in the morning, they noticed immediately that the brightness had returned. Especially with Faith. It was a very nice thing to see. Buffy had given Giles Allan's planner, and he started off into research mode. The slayers also told him what Wesley did, and he was not very happy. Not one bit.

Crack. Thrust. Crack. Swipe. Parry. Thrust. Crack.

Buffy had made up her Chemistry test, and training was a way for her to get her mind off her nervousness and possible failure. Faith was happy to oblige her, as she needed to get back into the groove.

Get back to be being a slayer. She was ready. Nothing was going to get in her way. Not Wesley or anyone. She had made her peace with Allan. Now, there were people out there, who were in danger. She would be there for them.

Thud.

"Somebody's on their game." Buffy said, flat back on the mat.

"Thanks." Faith flashed her a smile.

She helped the blonde to her feet, and they went to sit.

"You two are...good?" Cordelia asked.

"Yeah. I've dealt. It's not gone, it'll never be, totally, but I've dealt." Faith said, as Buffy was nodding. "That goes for both of us."

"Very entertaining." Xander said throatily, his mind still on the training. He saw Cordelia's glare. "You had...good staff control."

"Good staff control?" Willow asked, trying not to laugh.

"You need to work on your recoveries, man."

"Thanks for the tip, Oz." Xander shrank in his seat.

"Anytime."

"Despite his phrasing, Xander is correct. You're very proficient with the quarter-staffs." Wesley said, having watched from out in the hall.

"How dare you come back here." Buffy snapped at him.

He flinched. "I called the Council back, and explained to them my mishandling of the Balthazar situation, and my hastiness and uncalled for approach last night. They were not...pleased. You'll not be sent to England. I spoke with Mr. Giles earlier today, and after he was done...reprimanding me, he explained the circumstances in which the Deputy Mayor's death occurred. I ask for your forgiveness."

"You've got some brass ones. I'm surprised." Faith said.

"Yes, well, the Council also asked me to tell you this. Because of my mistakes, they're offering you a choice. If you wish, a new watcher can replace me, and I shall return to England. I would not blame you, if you did."

The slayers looked at each other, and then at the gang. He was so pathetic and sniveling, that they felt sorry for him. They couldn't send him off to the Mother Country.

"You can stay." Buffy sighed. Sometimes, she was just too damn nice for her own good.

Wesley smiled. "Thank you. I promise that from now on -"

"Yeah, yeah. Just go help Giles." Faith said.

"Yes. Right away."

He disappeared into Giles' office, and they all just kind of sat there for a minute with smirks on their faces, before Xander spoke.

"See? He thinks you have good staff control too. So there."

***

Back in Restfield that night, there were vampires. Four of them to be exact. And one of them was Trick. As he stood back and watched his boys get dusted, Faith hoped that this wasn't what he meant when he talked to the Mayor about "turning up the heat", because this was just ridiculous. But by the shock on his face, she could tell it was.

As she and Buffy finished off the remaining two, attacking vampires, with their patented synchronized slaying routine, Trick walked up to them. He made it seem like it was with no fear, but his eyes betrayed him. Faith silently told Buffy to hang back, and went to meet him.

"I underestimated you, girl. I thought you'd still be in denial. Vulnerable. Past experience shows me that's how you work."

"Not anymore. I don't hide, I don't run. Your timin' is off, Trick."

"She get you to open up? Well, she'll just have to be taken out."

"Over my dead body."

"That's the idea." Trick smiled. "Poor Mr. Finch, huh? I figured when I threatened him he'd find you, but -"

"You sent him out there?"

"When you threaten someone's life, they tend to panic. He was becoming a liability. Too much of a conscience. We needed to get rid of him, and I convinced the Honorable Mayor of that, but he didn't want to 'soil the office.' Know what I'm sayin'?"

"You wanted him dead? The Mayor wanted him dead?"

"I thought for sure one of those Eliminati chumps would do it before he could get to you, but imagine my surprise when I found out you did it. The one he came to for protection."

Faith's blood was boiling. It had been planned all along. If it wasn't for Trick...

"Aren't you forgetting who has the power here? Say hi to Kakistos for me."

She shoved her stake into his chest.

"Oh no. No, this is no good at all." Trick said, just before he crumbled into ashes.

"Bastard." She hissed.

Buffy came over then. "He definitely was."

"And now he's dead. For good this time around."

'That was for you, Allan.'

They started to make their way out.

"So...what do ya wanna do now?" Faith asked.

"Hmm...PlayStation?"

"Do we have any non-violent games? I'm not in the mood for violence right now."

Buffy thought. "Don't think so...but we could rent one."

"All PlayStation games are pretty much...unless you count...driving ones and Crash Bandicoot."

"Nah." They both said.

"Oh. You can rent systems too." Buffy remembered. "How about Nintendo 64?"

"Mario! Damn I used to love that. Remember we could never get the second whistle in the 3rd one?"

"And Big World?"

"That was too damn hard." Faith smiled. "Forget the new one, you still got the original system?"

"You know...I think I do. And Xander's got some games. His machine is broken, so he can't play them, though."

"Guess where we're stoppin' at?"

"We might as well call everybody. They all grew up on Nintendo. Even Cordelia, but she won't admit it."

"Let's get a move on then."

Faith grinned, and ran ahead.

"Hey! Wait up!"

Continue to Parts 9-12

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