Prelude to a Wish

by Spiletta42

Prelude to a Wish by Spiletta42


BtVS Fuffy


Rating: M™©


M

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Warnings: violence, minor character death


Categories: Ship, Femslash, Angst, Action, Episode Tag, Wishverse


Pairings:  Buffy/Faith


Characters: Buffy Summers, Faith Lehane, Gwendolyn Post, Anyanka, minor OCs


Spoilers: Welcome to the Hellmouth; Faith, Hope & Trick; Revelations; The Wish. (No spoilers for any novels or the S8 comics.)


Summary: One version of how the Buffy Summers who in another timeline moved to Sunnydale in Welcome to the Hellmouth might have evolved instead into the hard-edged Buffy Summers of the Wishverse. Set in the summer before the events of The Wish.


A/N: Written for femslash_minis. Prompts: leather, angst, and the element of surprise, as requested by LJ User aaronlisa. Further influence came from prompt #74 at 100_women. Please remember that this is a fictional version of Cleveland, so while in some details, I've strived for meticulous accuracy, in others I've taken deliberate artistic liberties in the interest of sly humor, and also in the interest of not getting angry emails from the Chamber of Commerce.


Credits: When my first draft went sideways, I reached for my trusty copy of 20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias to figure out where I'd gone wrong, so this fic owes much to him, as well as to my handy dandy Watcher's Guide, The Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus: Volume 1 edited by Scott Allie, a Rand McNally Ohio State Road Map circa 1991, and Body Trauma: A Writer's Guide to Wounds and Injuries by David W. Page, M.D. Graphics work my own. Translation services courtesy of LJ User tgfkaa. Special thanks to LJ User settiai, for valuable research assistance. Credit is due for assorted beta efforts at various stages by LJ User snogged, LJ User campylobacter, LJ User ivanolix, LJ User annerose and LJ User qtheallpowerful.


Disclaimer: Since Mutant Enemy respects its own property, I will do the same. This universe belongs to the great and powerful Joss.


An accompanying soundtrack, arranged by the talented LJ User dance_the_dance, may be found here. (Link opens in a separate window or tab for your streaming convenience.)



Prelude to a Wish

Prologue

Sunnydale. December 8, 1998.


Anyanka had toppled a few dynasties in her day, but even the fall of the Romanovs paled in comparison to freeing the Hellmouth from the tyranny of the Vampire Slayer.

Thanks to her tireless extraction of one simple wish, she could now singlehandedly transform the Hellmouth, turning the sad little tourist trap the Slayer's reign had produced into the five star vacation destination of every demon with so much as a passing interest in the mortal coil.

The singlehandedly part made it twice as sweet. This time, she could avoid that dreadful Rasputin and lay claim to all of the credit. Manipulating a timeline was a bit more hands-on than afflicting some philanderer with your standard plague of boils or tampering with the genetic structure of shrimp, but the payoff was worth it. Temporal physics held power beyond the wish, and if these dominoes fell right, Anyanka could gift demonkind with freedom from the Slayer.

Cordelia Chase's wish for a brave new world definitely spelled promotion. Anyanka just needed to tug at the right threads -- tweed ones. Destiny ruled a slayer's life, but destiny had the Watcher's Council do the heavy lifting.


London. December 8, 1996.


"I can tell you where to find the Glove of Myhnegon. With that kind of power literally at your fingertips, the sky's the limit. Also literally."

"Why would you think I have use for such an object, Miss . . . "

"Jenkins. And no, I'm not some spy for the Council, sent to bust you for your interest in dark magicks. Quite the opposite. I like dark magicks, and I'm no friend of the Watcher's Council."

"Then what exactly are you -- "

"They're sending Rupert Giles to the States to train the new Slayer, you know. Unless you stop him. And that rumored Potential in Boston? Yeah, they plan to let Diana Dormer, of all people, train her. Since when do either of those blundering snobs rate over you?"

"So you're offering me the Glove of Myhnegon and the new Slayer?"

"You'll need the latter to get at the former. The glove's a shadow of your lost birthright, I realize, and this new Slayer falls short of your standards as well. I can't do much about the glove, it is what it is, but as for the Slayer, that's easy. Choose Boston. Wait for the upgrade, so to speak."

"You still haven't named your price."

"Price? This isn't some tawdry business deal, Mrs. Post. I'm just here to steer you in the right direction, so that you can take those things for yourself."

"Why?"

"Because granting wishes is what I do."


Los Angeles. January 16, 1997.


"But Mr. Summers isn't even seeking custody." The judge leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms over his chest. "I can't make a ruling on an argument I haven't even heard."

"The legalities are your concern. I'm all about the results." Anyanka nudged the manilla file folder across the desk. This part was a little dull; she didn't get humans and their endless fretting about money. But even a vague knowledge of certain campaign contributions had a way of opening doors. Of course, he had to comply -- the power of Cordelia's wish made it so -- but watching a powerful man crumble to her will? Definitely better from a front row seat.

"I'll find a solution." The judge took the empty folder and leafed through its imaginary pages. "I trust this is the only copy?"

Anyanka laughed.


Chicago. February 1, 1997.


"This is the man you want running your Cleveland office. Hank Summers."

This last little whisper didn't even need to fall from Anyanka's lips. She watched as the Council took care of it, now convinced, thanks to one Gwendolyn Post, that Ohio, rather than California, held the most need for the new Slayer's talents.

No Slayer on the Hellmouth. That fulfilled the wish. Rupert Giles stuck in California for no particular reason -- that was just funny.


Cleveland. May 10, 1998.


Buffy Summers looked up from carving wooden stakes to watch yet another limo drive down her street. This one stopped close, and a guy she recognized from school climbed out. She knew him well enough to know that he played lacrosse, but not quite well enough to remember his name. Not that it mattered. Nobody in the entire school district knew Buffy's name.

The tuxedo-clad lacrosse player -- or was it soccer -- disappeared into the house, and emerged a few minutes later with Meg Simmons, who Buffy only knew for her excellent tastes in shoes.

Apparently she knew so little of this girl that she'd never even realised they were neighbors, which Buffy counted as a new low, even in her socially starved life.

The Prom. Back at Hemery, she'd gotten expelled for starting a fire at the big event, but at least she'd had a date.

Sometimes she wished she'd been chosen to save the world from tax audits. Or anything but vampires, actually. Far too many rules, entirely too little shopping, and the night life sucked.

Like there were so many vampires in Cleveland that her watcher couldn't let her go to one lousy dance. But no. Everyone else was off to Party Central with their honeys, and Buffy, former star socialite of Hemery High, had to hike around the graveyard, alone.

She'd probably end up with mud on her shoes.

One of these days she was just going to hang up her stake, and the Council would have to find itself another slayer. And if the mystical forces didn't work that way, well too bad, they'd just have to deal.


Boston. June 14, 1998.


Faith knew super powers were a load of crap. Only fools believed in superstitious junk like vampires. But she also knew she could kick ass, so she humored the stuffy British woman about the whole Chosen riff. Besides, Mrs. Post fed her way better than her drunk mother ever had, and the training beat the hell out of school.

So she learned to use a crossbow and practiced throwing knives. And, whenever her watcher got a little too preachy about sacred duties or early birds scarfing down worms, she ditched her for a few days and had some fun. As lives went, a girl could do worse.

"We're going to Cleveland," Mrs. Post announced one morning. "Pack your things."

"I don't have any things."

"Splendid. We can leave immediately."

The drive bored Faith half to death, but Mrs. Post said they'd never get her favorite crossbow through airport security, and besides, with the hassle of unreliable airline schedules and connecting flights, driving would be faster anyway. Or maybe she was just a cheapskate, not that it mattered. Car or plane, either way it left Faith penned up in a seat with nothing to do.

"Must we have that rubbish?" Mrs. Post turned down the radio for the thousandth time, and Faith turned it back up again. "I do hope you'll conduct yourself with more decorum when we meet the Slayer."

Faith tuned out the rest. The Slayer, so what? Just another girl with some skills. The only thing special about her was that she'd conned these British nut-jobs into thinking she was the one with super strength. Faith could have made up some bull about dreams if she'd known the score going in. Like she even cared.. She was plenty strong enough to kick any ass that needed kicking, so who was to say that this Buffy had been called, while she was just waiting her turn?

One girl in all the world -- whatever.


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Part I: Potential

Cleveland. June 15, 1998.


"Buffy Summers, meet Faith Lehane."

Buffy turned from her watcher to the girl in the really great leather pants, who, at the entirely not subtle prodding of the sternly dressed woman beside her, offered her hand. Buffy shook it, surprised at this formal introduction in her secret training facility. Secret. As in, no visitors, not even pizza delivery people. Her watcher had always discouraged her from socializing -- friends are nothing but a distraction, slaying is a sacred duty, blah blah bliddy blah -- so why the sudden meet and greet?

"Faith is a potential slayer. The Council has decided that she will train with you for the summer."

A sparring partner? This did have potential. Buffy flashed on her life in LA, pre-slayage, and for one glorious hopeful moment, a musical montage of cheerleading practices gone by played in her head. She could definitely do with some fun in her life.

"You will also patrol together."

So less of a play date and more of a high stakes babysitting gig. She shot a look at her watcher -- no social life allowed, but this didn't count as a distraction? But her watcher was aiming her own disapproving scowl at the other watcher.

Showdown of the tweed-clad bookworms? Interesting. Or something resembling interesting. Not that her life set the bar very high as interesting went, what with the entire lack of a social life. She'd never claim that patrolling was dull -- okay, she would, but only when the vamps played scarce or she missed a sale at Macy's -- but she missed the days when her life included more traditionally interesting things, and less things that wanted her dead.

Buffy eyed Faith, sizing her up more for her shopping prowess -- the leather pants said formidable, the disco-esque top, less so -- than as any kind of a threat in mock combat. Hey, Slayer here, killing demons professionally for two years running. She tried not to think about the fact that the new girl's training really only mattered if she died. Buffy planned to do way less dying than previous slayers.

"Shall we begin?" The new watcher stared expectantly at Buffy's watcher.

"Buffy, fetch the quarter staffs."

Faith rolled her eyes at the weapon choice, which Buffy took as a good sign. She'd grown bored with quarter staffs the first time she'd knocked her watcher over with one. Which had been the first time she used one. From the look on Faith's face, she'd had a similar experience, and she didn't even have Slayer strength.

"I'd prefer a good crossbow," Buffy said. "But probably not for sparring. A little too fatal."

"I dunno." Faith spun the quarter staff with a show of casual boredom. "A pool cue can be pretty lethal in a bar fight. You just have to know how to swing it."

Buffy grinned and blocked Faith's 'surprise' attack. "Oh, I do." She let the blunt end of the quarter staff rest casually against Faith's throat, and smiled down at the girl where she lay flat on her back. "I also know how to not telegraph my next move."

Shock and anger flashed in Faith's eyes, and she braced to make a desperate move. Buffy let her, mostly because stabbing her new potential friend in the throat seemed like poor etiquette, and Faith kicked the quarter staff across the room.

"Cool move," Buffy said. "But if you want to disarm a bad guy without having your windpipe punctured, you should probably find a way to distract them first."

"Hey blondie, it looks like I'm the one who still has her weapon, so -- "

Buffy spun-kicked Faith backward into the nearest wall and snatched the quarter staff from her hands. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt. You were saying?"


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"She's arrogant," Mrs. Post said. "You can learn from her experience, but first you'll need to knock her down a peg."

Faith slumped back against the headboard and flipped through the television's available channels. Nothing but crap. "Oh, she's going down. Forget the stupid medieval weapons next time, she won't be so tough with bare fists."

"She is the Slayer. You need to outsmart her. You will fail to defeat her with brute strength."

"No way is that chick stronger than me. Did you see that manicure?"

"Yes, I most certainly did, and it tells me that she's accustomed to fighting without getting her hands dirty."

"That's what I just said. I make her use her hands, I win."

"Your attitude is admirable, Faith, but I must caution you against underestimating the Slayer."

Faith braced herself to endure another speech about chosen ones and super powers, but a knock on the door saved her the trouble. "Pizza's here."

Mrs. Post went to pay the delivery guy, and Faith's channel-surfing finally paid off. Violence and nudity -- maybe this one wouldn't suck. Things were looking up.


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"Slayer strength. I totally have the advantage." Buffy dodged Faith's attack and made an arrogant little show of studying her perfect fingernails. "At least try a little strategic thinking. I'll still win, but you could make me work for it. Maybe."

"No way you're stronger than me." Faster, though. Faith did have to give her that -- the girl was quick.

"In slaying, there's just one rule: don't die. Never be afraid to fight dirty."

"Careful what you wish for, B." Faith's gaze darted around the training room, and she spotted a carelessly placed broom. She feigned an attack that would have failed regardless, but put her within reach of her intended weapon. She threw a punch, rolled, and yanked the broom handle toward herself at ankle-height to Buffy.

Buffy fell for the trick, and landed on her ass with a satisfying thump.

Faith pounced her, knocked her backward, and pressed the broom handle against her windpipe.

Buffy grinned. "Now you're getting it!"

With a gulp, Faith found herself more interested in kissing that condescending smile off Buffy's face than she was in taking more direct action and punching her in the teeth. She pushed aside the impulse, but not before Buffy took advantage of her distraction and flipped her onto her back. Having a cute blonde straddle her ribcage did not improve her focus.

"If I were a vamp I'd be feasting on your throat right now."

"Help yourself." Faith slid a hand along Buffy's thigh and laughed when the other girl's eyes went wide. Then she flipped little miss super-strength onto her back and gave her a peck on the forehead.

"Okay, nice move."

Faith claimed the win by jumping to her feet and offering Buffy a hand up. "So when do we get to play with crossbows?"

"Perhaps next week." Buffy's watcher wandered into the training room with her nose in a book. "Fundamentals first. Then advanced weapons."

These bookish watcher types were all the same -- no concept of fun at all.


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The target quivered as yet another bolt found its mark. Buffy had to admit that Faith knew her way around a crossbow. "You're good."

"Don't I know it." Faith grinned. "You're not looking too shabby yourself."

Buffy raised an eyebrow as Faith's gaze took a leisurely wander from her tattered paper target to her great new boots. At least someone finally appreciated the effort she put into her wardrobe, which wasn't easy with Ms. All-Slay-All-The-Time always breathing down her neck. Buffy shrugged off the moment of weird as just a side effect of the general lack of girl time in her slayage heavy life, and fitted her crossbow with another bolt.

"You will both patrol tonight," Mrs. Post announced. "I expect you to eat a proper dinner and report to me at 2030 hours."

"And then do I get a cookie?" Buffy shot her brightest smile at the other girl's watcher, and was met with silent -- but glaring -- disapproval. "Right." She sighed. "No cookies for Buffy. Sometimes I don't even know why I bother making the world safe for humanity; I'd much rather go to the mall."

Faith snickered, but silently, and she kept her back to the watcher as she did it. "We could sneak off," Faith said, once they were alone. "Hit a club, have some fun."

"Maybe," Buffy found herself saying. A club. That sounded like heaven. "After we dust a few vampires."

"You don't seriously think we'll find any vampires?" Faith stared at her. "I mean, this gig is nice and all, but demons ain't real."

"Yeah, about that -- they're real. And they kind of suck." Buffy remembered that day out in front of her old school, before everything changed. It had all seemed so ridiculous until that first vamp exploded into dust. "Hey, I don't expect you to take my word for it. You'll see for yourself."

"Whatever," Faith said. "Let's get something to eat."


Buffy took Faith back to her house. The Watcher's Council wasn't big on expense accounts, and she wasn't keen on eating at the Doublemeat. Besides, she needed more slay-friendly footwear before they went on patrol. Demon blood had an annoying tendency to stain suede. So did wet cemetery grass. And, well, anything did really. Maybe, as the Slayer, it was time to give up on wearing suede.

Just another sad casualty of her calling.

"Nice." Faith looked around the kitchen and ran her fingertips over everything. "A girl could get used to this."

"It's a kitchen."

"Yeah, but it's clean. And it has food in it." She ogled the breakfast cereal for a moment, then hopped up on the counter top and let her heels swing dangerously close to the cabinet doors. "I pretty much lived on fast food before Mrs. Post came along. My ma never was much for cooking. Or anything else, really, not that it matters now."

The crack about why Faith's kitchen experience failed to include cleanliness died on Buffy's lips. "Let's see, there's this." She tossed a bag of premade salad on the part of the counter not occupied by Faith's butt. "And for the main course, hot pockets or frozen pizza?"

"Either," Faith shrugged. "Or both."

"Both is good." Buffy got to work extracting their gourmet meal from its cardboard.

"So tell me, B." Faith took the hot pockets from her and twisted around to stick them in the microwave without getting down off the counter. "What's with the name?"

"My mom had a sense of whimsy."

"Had?"

"I think her sense of whimsy pretty much died when my dad cheated, not that I really know. It's not like either of them bothered to tell me anything. My dad got custody, and my mom's back in LA."

"California to Cleveland? Sucks to be you."

Buffy shrugged. Visions of a high school gymnasium in flames popped up in her brain, followed by words like expelled and choices and consequences. "I'm the Slayer."


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Faith toyed with the wooden stake Buffy had given her. Mrs. Post had made her train with a whole mess of different weapons, but stakes had always been a low priority. Good thing she didn't believe in vampires, or she'd really miss her crossbow.

"A crossbow is not so much useful in hand-to-hand," Buffy said. "On regular patrols, mine usually stays in the bag. If I even bring the bag."

"Mrs. Post is big on swords," Faith said. "She has dozens of them."

"A sword's good for demons, but with vamps, staking is a lot easier than decapitating. The neck is pretty much bone. Not that it can't be done. One time I was fighting a football player -- well, ex-football player, vampires aren't really big on organized sports. Anyway, all I had was a tiny little Exact-O knife, but I managed."

Why were the hot ones always crazy?

Faith was trying to decide which was worse -- crazy chicks or drummers -- when Buffy froze and raised her stake. Then, before Faith could say anything sarcastic at all, a man leapt from the bushes and made a grab for Buffy. "Hey!" She jumped forward to yank this jerk away from her crazy chick, but the dude knocked her on her ass. He had to be pumped up on drugs; no way was any skinny loser like him that freakishly strong.

Crap.

She had to do something before Buffy got raped or killed or -- as she scrambled to her feet, she saw that Buffy was already doing something, and doing it really well.

Punching, kicking, dodging blows with those lightning-fast moves that had frustrated the hell out of Faith during their sparring sessions -- Buffy had this guy on the ropes. The dude went down like a ton of bricks. Buffy spun around, snatched the stake from Faith's hand, and before Faith could stop her, plunged it into the dude's chest.

"He was down!" Faith felt sick. "You didn't need -- "

Buffy's victim exploded in a cloud of dust.

"Okay, what the hell?"

"That," Buffy said. "Was a vampire." She handed back Faith's stake and grinned. "Thanks for the assist."

Faith stared at the ground where the body had disappeared.

"So now's when you talk about tricks of light, and look for trap doors and maybe hidden cameras." Buffy searched the grass for the stake she'd dropped. "Let me know when you're done."


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Buffy rarely had the opportunity to enjoy a good gloat, so she enjoyed watching Faith come to terms with the reality of vampires. She also found it something of a relief that Faith asked smart questions, instead of the silly ones she sometimes got from the more talkative of the almost victims.

Seriously, who almost died and then asked if this vampire thing meant that there were also real leprechauns.

"You really do have super powers," Faith said. She almost sounded impressed. Or maybe just surprised. Then she turned away and kicked a rock up the sidewalk. "Isn't that cheating?"

"Vampires are -- "

"Screw the vampires; I meant us -- the sparring."

"Hey, I told you -- not my fault if you didn't believe me."

"Fair enough. So, you bagged a vampire, let's go find a club."

"I need to at least try to make quota," Buffy said. "Let's head over to Woodland. I read an obit yesterday that looked pretty fangy."

"So you do this what, all night?"

"If that's what it takes."

"Every night?"

"It's the job."

"So when's the last time you've been to a club?"

Buffy shrugged. "LA?"

"Damn, girl, you really need to find the fun."

"Faith! Lookout!" Buffy yanked Faith out of the way and dropped a stake down out of her sleeve.

The vampire showed its teeth. "Slayer."

"Is me," Buffy agreed.

The second vampire edged stealthily around behind them; Buffy maintained eye contact with the first. Let them think they had surprise on their side -- she could use that against them. She needed to work fast, though. Faith had some moves, but she was so not ready for prime time, three against two. And a flicker of movement told Buffy that she'd been right about a third.

Eyes locked with the vampire in front of her, Buffy attacked, spinning around to kick Stealth Boy back against a tree. She had him staked before he even managed to make that stupid surprised face they always made, and she turned to find Faith facing off with vampire number one.

"That makes you the one she left for me," Faith said, bravado so strong her voice didn't even shake. "Sucks for you."

"Totally sucks for you." Buffy aimed her back at the third vampire, ears tuned to his footsteps, and crossed her arms in a show of casual observiness. "This kind of thing can be a little hard to watch, but I think I can manage."

The vampire, confused by the bluff, took a step back from Faith.

Buffy, not confused at all, plunged her stake backwards into the vampire sneaking up behind her.

The sneaking vampire, probably confused, ceased to be a vampire.

Faith, obviously confused, ignored Buffy's cue and apparently her own survival instincts. She lunged at vampire number one.

The vampire batted the stake out of Faith's hand and punched her in the jaw. The sound of the blow made Buffy wince. Faith held her ground, at least until he grabbed her by the throat and lifted her up in the air.

Buffy dove at the vampire, and prayed that the crack she heard was her own shoulder, not Faith's neck. As pain shot down her arm, she thought maybe hoping it was the vampire's parts doing the snapping might have been wiser, but then she was too busy fighting for her life to fret about misspent wishes. When she finally dusted him -- with a random twig because she'd lost her stake -- she scrambled over to where Faith lay, her heart pounding.

"Faith?" She reached for the other girl's wrist and tried to remember how to find a pulse, but then she saw Faith blink. "Are you okay?"

"Five by five." Faith propped herself up and poked at her jaw. "Or I will be. Damn, vampires hit hard."

"What were you thinking?" Buffy demanded, fear collapsing into anger. "You could have been killed!"

"You had my back. Besides, isn't that what we came out here to do? Fight vampires?"

"That's my job," Buffy said. "Yours is to wait for me to die, and then fight vampires."

Faith raised her eyebrows. "You know that's a stupid system, right?"

"Hey, I didn't make the rules." Buffy rolled her shoulder, winced, and then decided it was fine.

"All the more reason to break them, B. Now how about we find a club?"

"One more stop first," Buffy said. "There's still a former car salesman in the next cemetery that needs to be dust."


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Two vampires later, Faith pulled a crumpled ad out of her pocket and showed it to Buffy. "This club in the Warehouse District looks like it could be interesting. Heard of it?"

"Yeah, I know it. Kids at school talk about it sometimes. I've always wanted to stop by, you know, to prove I'm capable of having a social life." Buffy sighed. "Not that my watcher would hear of it, of course. She's all about responsibility and sacred duty and not so much into the fun."

"So blow her off when you need a break," Faith said. "You're the one with the power."

Buffy looked at her like she'd said something crazy, instead of something obvious.

"Where would these watchers be without us? Nowhere, that's where. Mrs. Post has nothing without me, and I'm not even the one with the super powers."

"People's lives depend on what I do."

"I get that. Well, now anyway. Those guys are wicked dangerous. I'm not saying you don't do your job, I'm just saying you've got the right to live a little."

"I remember having a life." Buffy smiled. "I liked it."

Faith decided that Buffy needed to smile a lot more often, because damn. That kind of thing could make a girl willing to give up drummers entirely.

"Do I have fight hair?" Buffy stopped walking and felt her head for stray twigs.

"I'll fix it." Faith stepped close enough to feel her body heat, and ran her fingers through Buffy's soft blonde hair. "Just one leaf. Gone now."

"Wait," Buffy said, when she started to move away. Then Buffy's nimble fingers were removing a bit of something from Faith's own hair. Her palm brushed Faith's ear, and a gentle tug brought up goosebumps on the back of Faith's neck.

Usually Faith went with her impulses, but she passed on pulling Buffy in for a kiss. With Buffy, rejection mattered; Faith wondered when the hell that had happened, but asked about the distance to the club instead.

"I've got bus passes," Buffy said. "What I don't have is a fake I.D."

"Don't sweat it, B. I've got it covered."

"Really? You have a fake I.D.?"

"Nah." Faith grinned. "Better: I've got boobs."

The power of suggestion nudged Buffy's gaze to Faith's chest, and the blush that spread across her cheeks when she got caught kept Faith grinning all the way to the club.


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The loud pulse of the music made casual conversation a big don't bother inside the club, a problem which Faith solved by dragging Buffy straight onto the dance floor. Buffy had found herself seriously dance deprived since she'd left LA, but her body remembered the rhythm. Funny how she felt more free here, in this crush of slightly booze-scented humanity, than she did alone in a cemetery's many acres of fresh air and open space.

Dancing with Faith felt different than dancing with her old friends back in LA. Good different. Maybe it was a slayer thing, because she felt connected to Faith, like she could anticipate the other girl's moves on the dance floor as well as she could when they sparred. And it paid off by making Buffy look like she really knew how to dance.

Not that her usual style was all that shabby, but it usually wasn't especially spectator worthy.

Buffy could feel the eyes on them. Guys and girls alike watched with frank admiration, and for more than just their moves. Not that Buffy could blame them. The way Faith used her gorgeous body deserved an audience. She rolled her hips in a way that turned club dancing into an art form. A damn sexy art form, and one that could keep Buffy on the floor all night.

Faith ran her hands through her own hair, adding an alluring wildness to it as she moved. She stepped closer as the music changed, the two girls sharing one space but never quite touching, at least until they were, because Faith reached out and wrapped a hand around Buffy's hip. The contact struck with an electric jolt, then melted into a feeling of . . . rightness. Like Faith's warm fingers had always belonged exactly there.

Their dance grew more risqué when the music slowed, their bodies bumping softly against each other, and Faith's quick breath heated Buffy's ear when she whispered about a pair of leering guys over by the bar. Cute guys, even, but they had nothing on Faith.

"Meh," Buffy answered. "I'm good here."


Later, when the band took a break, they collapsed into a booth with a couple of overpriced soft drinks. "You know," Buffy said. "If my watcher had any sense, she'd send me here on patrol. This many people, all the noise and confusion, people drinking and not paying attention -- it's like a vampire buffet." She paused. "A buffet for vampires, not the other kind of vampire buffet, which would be gross."

"Is that shop talk or are you angling for a repeat visit?"

"I don't know, maybe both?" Buffy took a sip of her soda. "Does it matter?"

"If it's the second, I approve." Faith squeezed her knee and grinned.

Buffy smiled, but then a flash of poor fashion sense caught her attention. "Hold that thought."

The vampire -- and it was, nobody that young would wear anything that old -- was leading a freshman girl toward a back door.

Buffy followed.


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Faith considered getting offended. She rarely got the brush-off, let alone half way into a move that came on the heels of that kind of dancing. But she could see the purpose in Buffy's march across the club, and got up to follow. The girl obviously had a nose for trouble, and the least Faith could do was watch her back.

She got half way to the door, and then she spotted a cross-looking Mrs. Post rising from a table near the dance floor. Crap.

"Your first patrol, and I find you on a pub crawl, entertaining teenage boys with a faux lesbian dance."

"Foe? Buffy and I are buds."

"Faux. It means imitation. Fake. Honestly, Faith, sometimes I wonder why I allowed you to drop out of school."

Not for the first time, Faith wondered if they even had humor in England. "So, you were following us?"

"Obviously with good reason," Mrs. Post said. "Just what were you thinking, coming to such a place?"

"We were looking for vampires," Faith said. "Buffy's out slaying one now."

Her watcher looked doubtful, so Faith just pushed past her and headed for the door.

Mrs. Post grabbed her arm. "Faith. Let the Slayer handle it."

"Screw that."

The sounds of a freaking battle filled the alley, and since just an hour ago Buffy had taken out three vampires without breaking a sweat --

Damn.

Faith sprinted around a dumpster and froze.

Buffy bounced backward against a chain link fence, three vampires closing in on her even as the one she'd just knocked on his ass climbed to his feet. Another lurked behind the fence.

"Buffy! Behind you!" Faith charged forward. She grabbed a vampire by his shirt collar and yanked.

The vampire stumbled.

Buffy sidestepped out of immediate danger and engaged a different opponent, but then Faith lost track of her, because the vampire she'd grabbed had regained his footing. And he was pissed.

Faith put everything she had into her next punch. Every bone in her hand felt it, but so did the vampire, so she counted it as a win. Then his roundhouse punch connected with her ear and everything went starry. Faith swung a fist anyway. It connected with something. Painfully. And his counter blow landed Faith on the pavement.

Pinned on her back, a dead guy's stinking non-breath in her face, Faith heard a scream. Her own. She brought a knee up, desperate to slam it into something, desperate not to die.

A cloud of dust exploded in her face, choking her, and it took a moment to realize that the dust was a good thing, because it was vampire dust, and Buffy was reaching down to pull her to her feet.

"Thanks, B," she said. "You saved my life."

"Later," Buffy said. "Now we run."

Faith glanced over Buffy's shoulder, where a half-dozen more vampires were coming their way. Running seemed like plan. "Wait. Where's Mrs. Post?"

"Huh?"

Faith looked around, but she didn't see her watcher anywhere. Then Buffy had her by the arm and they were running.


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Buffy dragged Faith out to the street. She hoped the vampires didn't head into the club and start snacking, but right now she and Faith needed to get gone. She'd had too many close calls for one night, and the pain coming from the bloody wound in her side told her to avoid another. She couldn't save anyone dead.

Not a choice she ever wanted to make, but -- oh good, no choice involved. The vampires skipped two perfectly good bystander-shaped munchies and kept chasing them. Buffy kept running. And bleeding.

Faith noticed. "Hey, you okay?"

"Close enough," Buffy said. "Escape now, first aid later."

"Right." Faith looked around wildly. "Is it true about vampires having to be invited?"

"Yes, but it only works on homes. Public places not so much, and I really don't think anyone lives around here. At least not anyone likely to invite us in for tea."

"Think you can hold them off for a minute or two?" Faith tried the nearest car door.

"Faith -- "

"One minute, B. I promise."

Buffy missed her crossbow; she so wasn't up for another round of hand-to-hand tonight. She raised her stake as they surrounded her.

"Scared, Slayer?"

One of her watcher's core lessons kept her from replying with her ego. Stay alive, everything else is just baggage.

"Should I be?" she asked. "Are you the vampire who's going to kill me?" She feigned thoughtfulness. "Or maybe it'll be your friend there. You know, whoever kills me, you should probably make him your leader. Bringing down the Slayer, that's quality bragging rights."

It worked. She now had seven vampires focused on bickering among themselves, instead of on killing her. Not that it would last. It did sort out their relative intelligence, though. The brightest one broke away from the squabble and lunged at Buffy in full vamp face.

She dodged.

His blow slammed her elbow back against the car. He went for her throat.

"Buffy! Let's go!"

She struggled against the grip on her throat, and slammed her knee upward. A moment gained. She tried to stake him, missed, and threw a punch which she knew lacked power. Then she gasped in relief when he stumbled backward.

Something metal clattered to the sidewalk. A wrench?

Buffy twisted away and spotted Faith looking over the roof of the now-running car, aiming a tire iron like a spear. She dove into the car. "Drive!"

The tires squealed as Faith dropped back into the seat and floored it. "Don't bleed on the seats."

"Gee, Faith, thanks for your concern." Buffy pressed her hand firmly against the wound. "What do you care, anyway?"

"Never leave your blood in a stolen car."

"We're already leaving fingerprints." She nodded toward Faith's hands on the wheel.

"Trust me, B. The cops ain't gonna bother dusting for prints in a stolen car found a couple of miles from where it disappeared. They have better things to do. But leave a puddle of blood in it, and you might get their attention."

"How do you know so much about cops?"

"I've dated a lot of losers."


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Faith ditched the car after a few miles. "Sure you're okay to walk?"

"Home? Doubtful. But a bus stop I can make." Buffy leaned on Faith's shoulder, probably more for balance than support. Her other hand clutched her side.

She might have worried about attracting attention on the bus, but Faith had been on enough city buses late at night to know that nobody would give a damn -- or even notice -- if Buffy laid down in the aisle and bled to death. "Maybe we should take you to the hospital."

"No need. The slayer gig comes complete with extra speedy healing. I just need to get home and bandage it properly."

"What do you plan on telling your dad?"

"Nothing. He's in Spain."

"Oh."

"He thinks I'm at some entirely fictional summer camp that my watcher made up to keep him from sending me to an actual summer camp. I doubt I'll see him before September." She shifted in her seat and looked down at her bloody fingers. "Not that I see him all that much when he's not in Spain."

"I never knew mine," Faith said. "Ma never did bother to give it to me straight when I was a kid. Said he died. Not that it matters. Just some loser who ran out on us."

"Faith -- "

"Save it. It's no big." She stared out the window at the streetlights. "Parents suck anyway."

"Oh yeah."


By the time they got back to the house, Buffy seemed a little better. At least until she peeled away her torn shirt and her wound started oozing blood again.

"Seriously, B, I'm not big on doctors either, but -- "

"It's not as bad as it looks." Buffy started to clean away the blood. "See? Ribs. Nothing got kabobed."

"Is that bone?" Faith peered at the slice mark. "Not sure that's a good thing."

"You see bone?" Buffy tossed the now bloody washcloth in the sink and frowned down at her wound. "That shiny part? I think that's just -- "

"No clue, but you said -- "

"Oh. I just meant he got me in the ribs, instead of, you know, gutting me." Buffy winced. "Here, you do it."

Faith took the bottle handed to her. "Do what?"

"Irrigate the wound. Just make sure there aren't any splinters or bits of pavement hiding in it. Then we can tape it closed and stop worrying about it."

"You're going to have a nasty scar." Faith felt a little bad about that, because Buffy had really great abs. A shame if she started covering them up.

"Nah," Buffy said. "Slayer healing. In a few weeks, you'll barely see it. You know what bothers me?"

"Obviously not the sight of blood." Faith, thankful for her own strong stomach, rinsed out the gash in Buffy's side.

"The girl who tried to get eaten. She goes to my school. She's a couple years behind me, so we're not buds or anything, but shouldn't she have been surprised to see me fighting vampires?" Buffy opened a box of butterfly bandages. "And she didn't run off right away either."

"People are strange." Faith held the sides of the wound closed so Buffy could apply a bunch of the little white adhesives. They held, to her relief. She'd had her doubts about this tape plan. She'd needed stitches for smaller cuts than that.

"She didn't seem scared or surprised." Buffy handed over the gauze so Faith could finish the job. "It doesn't add up. And neither does getting jumped by a dozen vampires outside a club."

"You'd never been there before. Maybe we just discovered the secret vampire hangout."

"Or maybe your watcher was sloppy enough to lead them right to us. What was she doing there, anyway?"

"She was following us," Faith said. "I guess she didn't trust me on my first patrol after all. I'd be pissed, if I didn't feel bad about leaving her behind."

"I think she left first. I never even saw her."

"What if she got nabbed by vampires or something?"

"She wasn't in any more danger than anyone else in that club." Buffy headed into the next room and pulled a clean top out of her dresser. "Less, probably, since she knew the risks."

"Yeah." Faith watched her first look at Buffy in a bra disappear before she even remembered to enjoy it. Not that the giant bandage was much of a turn-on anyway. "She probably just went back inside. Figured you could handle things."

"Only I couldn't," Buffy said. "You saved my butt out there. Twice."

"Glad to help, B, but if you're keeping score, I'd say we're even."

"Not really," Buffy said, brushing off Faith's gratitude. "It's my job."

Faith rolled her eyes and followed Buffy to the kitchen.

"You said your watcher was following us." Buffy tossed Faith an icepack, and then pressed a second one to her own elbow. "But I never saw her, and I would have. I mean, not in the club obviously, but during patrol -- "

"You calling me a liar?"

"What? No. I'm just saying that nobody's stealthy enough to tail me on patrol. She must have been waiting at the club, like she had a reason to think we might show up. Where did you get that ad?"

"The motel left some brochures and junk next to the phone. Pizza coupons, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ad, other touristy crap."

Buffy's frown grew.

"What?"

"Something's hinky. Tomorrow we'll take a look around your motel. If some vampire left that ad for you to find, we'd better shine a little sunlight on the situation. Remember to ask your watcher if anyone might have known where she was going -- like if she asked directions or anything. And speaking of the watchers of us, we should report in before it gets any later."


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"Watcher's retreat?" Buffy demanded. "In England? Please be kidding."

"As Watcher to the active Slayer, I am quite fortunate to even have the opportunity. It would be foolish to squander it. Mrs. Post has graciously agreed to look after you in my absence."

Fortunate, right. Buffy's annoyance level rose a notch, because a substitute watcher -- one who spied on her own potential slayer and apparently also got followed by vampires -- was so not what Buffy needed, but questions about the whole club fiasco took priority. Starting with the one Faith was so frantically pantomiming. "When's the last time you heard from Mrs. Post?"

"She left here a few minutes ago. She has some intriguing ideas for your training, and I encourage you to take full advantage of her expertise in ancient relics."

History. Goodie. Buffy gave Faith the all-clear sign, and tested the waters regarding the next pressing question. "Here's an interesting factoid. The Warehouse District? Crawling with vampires."

No reaction. Her watcher often failed to ask about her general well being, but this was taking not caring to whole new levels. Unless she knew nothing about the fight in the alley. Which clearly she did not, because she was asking about the used car salesman buried at Woodland.

"Vampire. Dusted. Easiest fight of the night." She answered more questions, waiting for one about the not successfully clandestine club visit. Certainly Mrs. Post had mentioned it.

Nothing. Zilch. Nada.

Buffy promised to be on time for morning calisthenics, just like she did at the end of any other post-patrol phone call, and hung up, edgier than ever. Either her watcher planned to read her the riot act in person, or she really knew nothing. Both options spelled not a happy Buffy.

With a heavy sigh, Buffy went to fetch clean sheets for the guest room. The threat of a watcher sponsored grounding, a wannabe watcher who covered her tracks when she screwed up, and a potential evil plan afoot. Just another summer night in Cleveland.


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"I must say I'm quite disappointed, Miss Summers." Mrs. Post crossed her arms over her chest and scowled at Buffy. "I will not brook laziness. Running from a fight is unacceptable, and if you do it on my watch, the Council will hear of it."

"Dude, you want us dead or something?" Faith rolled her eyes. "Buffy was hurt. Plus we were outnumbered."

"Faith. I am not a dude and you will refrain from referring to me as such. Now kindly allow me to speak with the Slayer without further interruption."

"Whatever dude." Faith muttered.

Buffy couldn't help herself. She giggled. But just a tiny bit. It was more of a snicker, really. A muffled snicker.

Mrs. Post glowered. "This is no laughing matter, Miss Summers, and I will take no more of your insolence. As for including unseemly establishments such as that club on your nightly patrol -- it is inappropriate and I expressly forbid it. I will not hesitate to contact the Council if it happens again."

"Just to be clear, you're saying that I should have risked my life to kill every last vampire at the club, while also never tracking them there in the first place?" Buffy tried for wide-eyed innocence. From Faith's snickering, she guessed failure. Damn her powers of sarcasm.

"Miss Summers -- "

"I just go where the vampires go," Buffy said. Very, very reasonably, she thought. "I can't really control where they choose to hang. I wish I could. Hey! Maybe there's a whistle, like a dog whistle, but for demons?"

The glower transformed into a sickly-sweet smile. "We will need to work on our attitude, won't we, Miss Summers? Perhaps a more stringent regimen will make you consider the error of your ways."


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"I'm so not loving your watcher's idea of a pre-slayage workout," Buffy whispered to Faith during an all too brief water break. "God knows I could use a little wakeup action after having my mind thoroughly numbed by that history lecture, but I'd rather start patrol not bone tired."

"You're just sore because she's been on your case all week." Faith stretched, her tank riding up and making for a drastic crankiness reduction in Buffy's now distracted brain.

"Well yeah." Buffy scrambled to recapture her derailed train of thought. "But don't tell me you're cool with all this rule making. Defending the world from unspeakable evil should not come with a dress code. And she gave us a curfew."

Faith shrugged. "So let's break it."

"Easy for you to say," Buffy said. "She'll blame me."

"What do you care? She'll ride you either way; might as well have some fun."

"I do like your logic. Maybe -- "

"Ladies! Stop piddling about and get back to work."

Buffy shot a glare in the general direction of the nagging and slammed her water bottle down on the table, fingers curling into the weak plastic and sending a small geyser ceiling-ward, but Faith just grinned.

"Be back in a minute. Cover for me."

"Hey, where -- "

"Miss Summers, I'm waiting."

Buffy sighed and went to face this relentless new threat to humanity -- the red heavy bag. Maybe if she killed it, Mrs. Post would let her take a real break.


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Faith returned from her secret mission to find Mrs. Post sweeping up sand and Buffy slacking off. The sight made her pause in the doorway, because she liked how Buffy slacked off -- flat on her back with her arms stretched over her head. That kind of thing gave a girl ideas.

Not that Faith needed help in the idea department.

Mrs. Post's stopwatch beeped.

"Oops." Buffy jumped to her feet with liquid grace. "Time for patrol. We'll totally do that thing with the blindfold later. You know, if the bag recovers."

They grabbed their weapons and hurried out of the building before the watcher could object. Not that she had any reason to object, but Mrs. Post didn't seem to need a reason to throw orders at Buffy. Faith had to admit that she got a kick out of being a teacher's pet for the first time ever, but she still preferred real fun.

"So," Buffy said. "What's the plan?"

"We hit the town," Faith said. "I stashed a change of clothes in the bushes down the street."

"Not a fan of Workout Chic?" Buffy rolled her eyes at their matching gray sweatpants. "Watcher approved attire for the active Slayer -- Mrs. Post should market it. Wait." Buffy paused as Faith stepped off the sidewalk. "What clothes?"

"Trust me." Faith reached into the shrubbery and extracted her duffel. "You'll look great."

"That's a given," Buffy said. "But in what, exactly?"

"You'll see." Faith grinned. "Wanna slay something first?"

"I'd better." Buffy kicked a rock and sighed. "What with the quota and Mrs. Post already on my case."

"Hey, cheer up B. There's nothing like a little quality violence to really get the juices flowing."


divider

A few dozen streets, three graveyards, and one measly vampire later, Buffy spotted a good -- well, reasonable (mostly) -- place to change clothes. Time to face the piper, or however the expression went, and find out what Faith had for her to wear. They slipped into the old mausoleum. "Superman has a phone booth, and the Slayer has this."

"It's roomier," Faith said.

Buffy turned on a flashlight and looked for any signs of recent occupation. "And dustier."

Faith plopped down her duffel bag and pulled out some leather pants.

"Those are great." Buffy propped the light up on a sarcophagus. "But -- "

"These are for me," Faith said. "This is for you."

Buffy took the little black dress. Really little. She couldn't imagine what, if anything, it kept covered on the taller girl. Or she could imagine all too well. She held it up to herself and tried to see where the hem fell.

"Nice." Faith grinned at her and shimmied out of her watcher issued sweats.

Hopefully the dim lighting did more to hide Buffy's reddening cheeks than it did to conceal Faith's shapely legs. Slayer training sure kept a girl toned. Better late than never, Buffy stopped embarrassing herself with the gawking and turned around to slip off her tank top.

"What's the matter, B -- you're not shy, are you?"

She could have sworn she felt the heat of Faith's breath against her bare shoulder, and for a moment, words escaped Buffy entirely. Then she shrugged off the half-formed fantasy, and pulled on the dress.

"I'll get that." Faith's nimble fingers landed on Buffy's lower back, where the zipper began. "Watch your hair."

Buffy gathered her hair and held it clear. Goosebumps rose as the thwip of the rising zipper echoed off the stone walls, and she jumped when Faith's fingertips brushed the nape of her neck.

"Looks like it fits," Faith said, her mouth beside Buffy's ear. "Turn around."

"It feels a little short." Buffy tugged at the hem.

"You say that like it's a bad thing. You've got great legs, girl! Show them off."

"I'm good with showing leg," Buffy said. "Really, I am. It's other things I'm not anxious to show."

"Other things can be fun too." Faith grinned wickedly. "In the right company."

Buffy met Faith's gaze, and for a long moment they stared at each other in the dim light. Then Faith's hand came up to tangle in her hair, and Buffy closed the distance between their lips. The soft, slow kiss set Buffy's head spinning, the world fading as she pressed closer to Faith, her seeking hands finding the warm hollow of Faith's lower back, and the silky skin of her shoulder.

Faith backed her up against a tomb, their bare legs tangling as they stumbled against the cold, hard stone.

Then a crash broke through the stillness. Harsh laughter yanked Buffy back to reality and sent her scrambling for the stake she'd dropped along with her workout clothes.

"Having fun, Slayer?" The female vampire laughed again. "How thoughtful of you to bring along a snack. Now I won't mind sharing."


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Faith scrambled for her pants -- either pair would do -- while Buffy and the leering blonde vampire squared off. Not that she needed pants to get into the fight. But she had time; it took like two seconds to step into sweats, and Buffy had things under control.

The sight of Buffy kicking ass in that short little skirt almost made up for the interrupted kiss. Or would have, if the lighting was good enough to freaking see anything. She hunted for the flashlight, which had rolled off somewhere and gotten itself either turned off or broken. Hopefully not broken. Probably broken.

"Faith!" Buffy shouted. "We need to get out of here. Now!"

She gave up on the flashlight -- probably broken anyway -- and jumped up to squint at whatever had Buffy so rattled. "Where's the vamp?"

"She's dust, but more are coming." Buffy gestured at the door, but all Faith heard were crickets.

"Does the slaying gig come with super-powered hearing, too?"

"No, I don't think so anyway, but we really need -- "

Faith shucked off her newly-donned sweatpants in favor of leather.

"What the hell are you doing? We need to go!"

"What, without pants?"

"You were wearing pants!"

"A girl can't sweet talk a bouncer in sweats, B."

Buffy grabbed her arm and dragged her out into the night, leather pants still unzipped. "We're not going to a club."

"Hey, you know someplace better I'm all ears."

"We're going back to your watcher while we can still make curfew."

"I'm not sure we're clear on the definition of better."

"We were being completely irresponsible," Buffy snapped. "We're lucky we didn't end up dead."

"Hey, the vampire's dust and we're still here, so I don't see what you're so worked up about."

"I am not worked up."

"Beg to differ." Faith yanked her wrist out of Buffy's grasp. "And what makes you the boss of me?"

"I'm the Slayer," Buffy said, as if that made her the boss of the whole freaking world.

The pieces fell into place in Faith's mind, and even as she rolled her eyes at Buffy, she scolded herself. She knew better. She was not going to fall for some girl and end up moping in the kind of bar that featured whiny hippie chicks singing about irony. Faith didn't do broken hearted and she sure as hell didn't do love.


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Faith brought her A game to the next day's training session. Slayer -- who cared? Just because some magic destiny crap gave Buffy an edge, the girl thought she was better than anyone else. Bullshit. Faith had saved her ass without super powers -- twice -- so she could kick it without super powers, too.

Mrs. Post was right -- she just had to fight smarter. And maybe just a little bit dirty.

Buffy yelped in actual pain as Faith knocked her to the mat and landed her knee just south of her collarbone. Since nothing cracked, Faith counted it as fair, and silently dared the mighty Slayer to complain.

Nothing.

"Well done, Faith." Mrs. Post almost smiled. "Miss Summers, I trust you've learned a long overdue lesson about leaving blind spots open?"

Buffy sulked visibly at the criticism.

"Perhaps not," the watcher said. "Sloppy fighting is the hallmark of a lazy slayer."

Faith snickered at the blazing fury in Buffy's eyes, and ignored the fact that Buffy looked damn sexy when pissed off.

That got easier after dark, when the two girls were alone on patrol, because getting the silent treatment was never sexy. The added misery of a summer rain kept the vampires cowering in their crypts, or so Buffy claimed when she missed her quota.

"You'll make a better slayer," Mrs. Post said later. "Miss Summers lacks both your drive and your raw talent."

The praise was nice, Faith had to admit, but she wanted something more. Something that made her heart pound. She watched Buffy, all graceful power as she took out her frustrations on the duct tape encrusted heavy bag.

Something more. That was definitely what Faith needed.


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"Tonight you will patrol exactly where you're told." Mrs. Post handed her a map. "Is that clear?"

"Crystal." Buffy stared at the map. Controlling much? "Come on Faith, we -- "

"No," Mrs. Post said. "Tonight you patrol alone. I'm not risking my slayer to your sloppiness."

Potential slayer, Buffy corrected silently. Like the opinions of Mrs. Bossy McClueless even mattered -- didn't they cover vampire behavior in watcher school? Everyone knew that vampires stayed underground when it rained. Not that they so much minded the rain itself -- Buffy wondered if they even felt cold, what with not having body heat -- but predators tended not to hunt where the prey was scarce, and people hated rain. They didn't go out in it to wander around parks and tempt the appetites of vampires.

This map? Absurd. Vampires never went near West Park. No sewer access. Plus, it was way the heck across town, well beyond reasonable rainy day hiking distance, so Buffy considered skipping it. But Mrs. Control Freak would probably know, and she didn't need the lecture. Or the headache. How long did watchers do the retreat thing anyway? Mrs. Post's reign of obsessive-yet-incompetent micromanaging had to be nearing its end.

The bus was packed, and almost everyone had luggage -- that's what a lazy slayer got for taking airport-bound public transportation. Then again, it didn't stop every ten feet like the locals. She should have walked, only then she'd never cover the assigned route and still make curfew. Curfew. Buffy climbed over the luggage blocking the door -- there had to be regulations against that -- and slogged back out into the steady drizzle.

Buffy hiked dutifully along the ordered route, arms tucked inside her watcher-approved -- make that wannabe-watcher-approved -- and annoyingly pocketless track suit jacket. It was freezing, especially for a summer night, and her fingers were going numb around the stake clutched in her hand. Not that she'd need it, out here in the vampire free boonies.

If she had pockets, she could --

A vampire stepped out from under an awning and blocked her path.

"What?" She pulled out her stake. "No entirely non-witty opening line? Nothing about drinking deep of my blood, or maybe sucking the marrow from my cracked bones?"

It stood there, eerily silent.

Buffy froze, not liking this picture. She felt, rather than heard, the approach from behind. So not good. Heart thumping, she spun to attack. Three vampires. She could take three vampires.

Or six . . . seven?

She launched at the nearest vampire, kicked him hard, and used the momentum for a surprise staking off to her left. Now it was six. Six was just three, twice in a row. Buffy could handle three against one.

A blow to the ribs knocked her backward, but she ducked another blow and landed one of her own. Win for Buffy. She tackled a vampire. Staked him. Rolled away from danger. Kicked with both feet. Surprised another vamp with the old stake-above-your-own-heart trick. Four against one.

Until it was seven again. Or nine.

Higher ground. She needed higher ground.

She spared a glance up the street, elbowed a vamp in the nose, and bolted toward a nearby porch.

A vampire tackled her from the side.

Her sneakers slid on wet grass, and her head bounced painfully against cement steps. She fought the starry vision, and scrambled forward.

Teeth scraped her shoulder.

She rolled. Kicked. Broke another nose.

Landed another stake.

But it wasn't enough. It wasn't going to be enough.

Oh God --


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Part II: Betrayal


Faith spun the knife's point against the cheap tabletop and watched the little curls of plastic rise from the growing hole. Sharpening stakes bored her to death. "Buffy's got a stick up her ass, but I'd still rather patrol with her than sit here doing nothing."

"You'll be patrolling soon enough," Mrs. Post said. Something about her tone of voice made Faith look up, but Mrs. Post had her back turned as she slid a book back onto its shelf. "Tonight's hike should remind Miss Summers to apply herself, and once I'm convinced she is exercising proper vigilance, you may join her once again. That is, if you finish your own assignment."

With a sigh, Faith picked up the next stake in the pile. Her eyes strayed to the city map at the other end of the table. Mrs. Post had marked all the cemeteries in blue, and the parks in green. But what were the red marks? Faith took a closer look. One was up by the club where she and Buffy had danced after their first patrol together. She remembered the name of the street, because she'd checked the newspaper for any mention of their unplanned grand theft auto. The other --

"Faith!"

She sighed again, and returned to the stakes. If Mrs. Post was so down on Buffy, why was she the one getting splinters, while Buffy got to have all the fun.

The map. It was glowing.

Faith jumped up, staring at it. The second red mark was definitely glowing.

Mrs. Post snatched the map from the table.

"What the hell?" Faith demanded.

"Nothing which concerns you." Mrs. Post snapped her fingers in the direction of the stakes. "Now get on with your work."

Faith grabbed for the map. Something knocked her hand away.

"Sit down Faith." Mrs. Post waved her hand, and a chair slid out from under the table.

"Magic?" Faith sat. Then she wondered why, because she was pretty sure she hadn't meant to sit. She stared at the glow coming from the rolled up map in Mrs. Post's hand. The red marks, the vampire attack in the alley, Buffy's suspicion about the ad from the motel . . . "You're setting up Buffy!"

"Don't be so dramatic, Faith. It's simply a test, and if she falls short, you'll be called as the next Slayer. I would think you would show a little gratitude."

"Screw that." Faith grabbed her weapons bag and bolted for the door.

It slammed in her face.

She spun around to find her watcher glaring at her. Or was she trying to smile?

"You're behaving impulsively, Faith. Imagine what it would be like, to be the Slayer. All that power. It's not as if Buffy deserves it."

Faith swallowed.

"Come sit down," Mrs. Post said. "Interfering will only put your life at risk, and for what? To make that insolent brat look good? If Buffy is to remain the Slayer, let her earn it. Let her prove herself. If she can."


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Buffy always knew she'd die young. She'd just never believed it before. A vampire slammed her into someone's front door. Glass crunched behind her. With her aim obstructed by the arm currently strangling her, Buffy knew she'd miss the heart. She rammed the stake into an eye instead.

The vampire shouted in agony and stumbled backwards.

Another took his place, unfazed by the kick Buffy landed as she gasped for breath. No, she'd never really believed she'd die in battle. Buffy had always taken pride in her positive attitude on that topic. But she'd never expected to fight the entire undead population of Ohio. Well, actually she had hoped to someday. Body slam. Just not -- a nose got crunchy. You know -- she staked the vamp behind her -- just not all at once.

She feigned right, but met with a solid fist as she went left. The problem with fighting a gang was that every trick in the bag only worked once. A big enough gang made the whole bag pretty much useless.

Her stake clattered to the ground. She told herself it didn't matter.

A half-dozen stakings had barely made a dent anyway, so after a couple of too close for comfort moments, Buffy just concentrated on staying alive. Playing defense sucked as a long term strategy, but all avenues of retreat were closed. A joke about Cleveland's perpetual road construction floated ignored in the back of her brain. God she needed a life. Only first, she needed a miracle.

The problem with that was that she didn't believe in miracles. Okay, then. She needed a lucky break. Those she believed in, because those she could make for herself. Her watcher called it observing the field of play. Buffy called it having eyes, and right now her eyes were noticing a patch of rotting wood, just barely visible in the yellow glow of the porch light.

Buffy dove past the vampire she'd just punched in the throat, and tackled another just below the knees. He crashed into the porch railing. Make that through the porch railing. Score for Buffy. She scrambled over the stunned vampire and made a run for it.

A vampire stepped into her path.

She dodged to avoid it.

A hand wrapped around her ankle.

Buffy fell to the pavement. She kicked with every ounce of slayer strength she could summon, but she was pinned. Surrounded. Overpowered.


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Faith ran.

Guilt over knocking her watcher unconscious bothered her less than the fear that she hadn't knocked her unconscious enough. Every noise on the street sounded like Mrs. Post flinging open the door to magically hurl chairs at her head. She found an unlocked Ford Taurus at the end of the block, and ducked under the dashboard to work a more conventional kind of magic.

So it turned out that even freaking magic was real.

Damn.

The car started. It didn't seem to have enough gas to make it very far, but Faith counted any distance between herself and Mrs. Post as a win. She kept her arm looped through her weapons bag, and forced herself to drive the speed limit. Talking her way out of a ticket would be impossible in a stolen car, not that she had the time to waste.

Or a driver's license.

The map still glowed, and she wondered if that meant anything. Since the spot near the club still had some glow to it, Faith guessed it marked something, rather than doing anything as useful as tracking Buffy herself. Unfortunately, she'd never paid much attention when Mrs. Post had rambled on about magic. A test, the watcher had said. Faith stopped trying to guess what anything meant, and glanced at the dash.

Empty.

But the car kept running, so Faith kept driving. She kept a lookout for a better ride. Nothing flashy, but something nice enough that the owner probably kept gas in it. There. Good enough. She dumped the Taurus, twisted her crappiest practice arrow into a slim jim, and scored herself a minivan. She knew better than to leave a trail, but getting to Buffy in time mattered a hell of a lot more.

Her stomach twisted. She ignored it, and fought the urge to run stop signs. Buffy had skills. She could take care of herself. Buffy had freaking super strength. As she left the comfortably empty side streets for a real highway, Faith told herself that Buffy would be fine. She would probably look like a fool for rushing after her.

Damn.

Maybe she shouldn't even -- no, she'd just make sure. She could always drive away before Buffy spotted her. Probably. It started to rain again as she got off 71 and headed for the glowing red area. Too bad it just glowed vaguely, instead of doing anything as useful as real tracking, because now she had to waste time criss-crossing random streets looking for Buffy. How the hell was she supposed to find one girl in a whole freaking -- oh.

That was how.

Crap.

Faith quelled her impulse to crash the minivan straight through the melee, and instead slipped into a driveway half way up the block. She had to play this smart. Weapons bag swinging from her arm, she scrambled up onto the roof of the van, and from there onto a porch roof. Then she pulled out her crossbow, and took aim.

The vampire that most urgently needed killing had his back to her, but Faith could almost picture a bulls eye behind his heart. Still, the bolt seemed to move in slow motion before the vampire exploded to dust, freeing Buffy from beneath him.

Faith sent another bolt flying, dusting a vamp just behind Buffy, who jumped to her feet and staked a third. They fell into a steady rhythm, Buffy fighting on the ground, while Faith sent a crossbow bolt through the heart of anything that tried circling behind her. Between them, they managed a dozen slayings.

This rocked.

Something slammed into Faith from behind, just as Buffy screamed her name from below. She felt a knee bruising her kidney. Her face scraped against the abrasive tiles of the roof. It smelled like wet tar. Hands closed on her throat. She struggled, but she couldn't get enough leverage to throw off her attacker. The slant of the roof made rolling a bad idea. She decided to try anyway.

Spots formed behind her eyes.

Darkness.


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"Faith!" Buffy shouted a warning, but too late. She staked the last two vampires in rapid succession and sprinted for the house. The flimsy trellis snapped under her feet, holding just long enough for her to scramble onto the roof, stake ready. "What the hell?"

Mrs. Post glared at her over Faith's unconscious body.

An evil watcher. What a perfect way to end a vampire attack in the rain.

"At least make some excuse." Buffy edged closer, eyes sharp for weapons.

The watcher remained silent. And still.

Faith was breathing, at least, so that was something.

"It's my fault, really." Buffy tugged at her watcher-issued -- and thoroughly drenched -- polyester blend. "I should have figured you for evil the minute I saw your fashion sense."

"Don't be so dramatic, Miss Summers. I'm merely trying to stop you from getting Faith killed."

"By strangling her? Good strategy." Buffy kept inching along the slippery-wet, sloping roof. "You know what I find works for protecting people? Not knocking them unconscious while surrounded by vampires."

Mrs. Post smirked at her.

Buffy staked the vampire behind her without breaking eye contact. "I'm not so easy to -- "

Mrs. Post tossed a small glowing thing at her.

The blast of power knocked Buffy off her feet. She dug her nails into anything she could grab, scraping her fingers bloody on the harsh tiles as she fought to stop sliding backward down the roof. A second blast sent scorched roof tiles skyward. That changed Buffy's priorities. She let the momentum take her, rolling away from the sudden fire to gracefully slam her spine into the hood of a parked car.

She slid to the ground and struggled to catch her breath. An evil watcher with grenades? Perfect. Oh, and more vampires. Of course. She dove into the bushes and edged around the house to gather up pieces of trellis. Hopefully enough of it was still attached to the house to get her onto the roof again. She needed to reach Faith before --

"Slayer!"

Before that.

The vampire had Faith by the hair, dangerously close to the edge of the roof. Impossible to tell if she was conscious or not -- this rain made seeing into something of a challenge.

"Let her go." Buffy raised her hands in surrender, the trellis bits dropping down the sleeve of her track suit in new and uncomfortable ways. "You came for me."

Mrs. Post rose behind the vampire, Faith's crossbow in her hand. Maybe she wasn't completely evil after all. One could hope. One could even settle for half-hearted redemption, provided the watcher had decent aim.

"You care about this girl?" The vampire asked. "On the ground, or she's an appetizer."

Shoot him, shoot him now. Buffy dropped to her knees, hands still over her head.

"All the way down, Slayer."

She followed the order. Shoot him already.

"Buffy! Move!"

She rolled sideways just before a crossbow bolt embedded itself in the grass beside her, and jumped to her feet in time to see Faith tackle Mrs. Post, while the vampire closed on them both. She looked for a way to join the battle, but fate suddenly went her way and the battle in question landed at her feet. At least, Mrs. Post and the vampire landed at her feet. She staked the vamp, but a cry from Faith tore her attention away from the now unconscious watcher before she could check for a pulse.

Faith dangled from the edge of the higher side of the roof, about two stories up, while a vampire stomped on her fingers.

"Hang on!" Buffy retrieved the crossbow and put an end to the threat. Then she dashed forward, ready to break Faith's fall, but the other girl had it under control. "You okay?"

"Five by five," Faith said. "You?"

Buffy looked around, expecting the next wave of attack, but any remaining vampires had run off, Mrs. Post had disappeared, and they were finally alone. "I think I'm good."

Faith stepped forward and brushed the wet hair away from her eyes, warm fingertips sliding across Buffy's cool cheek. "Yeah?"

"Make that great." She kissed Faith, a rush of warmth chasing the chill from her bones. Now this was the perfect ending to a vampire attack in the rain.


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"Did you know that magic's real?" Faith asked as they fled in the minivan. They'd found no sign of Mrs. Post, not that they'd spent much time looking. With all the commotion of the fight, Faith couldn't believe the cops hadn't shown up, and she figured they'd better get gone before that changed.

"Magic." Buffy slumped back in her seat and pressed a hand to her face. "That explains a few things. Except I'm not getting why Mrs. Post wants me dead."

"Beats me," Faith said. "When I saw the map, she made up some bull about a test. Then she went psycho." At Buffy's prompting, she shared the details.

Buffy sighed when she finished. "I suppose we should find her."

"I was thinking more along the lines of hiding from her. Or did you forget the part where the psycho magic lady wants you dead?"

"Good point. I'm not really up for a round three tonight. Thank you, by the way. For not wanting me dead."

Faith grinned. "That's a no brainer, B. I definitely want you alive."

They ditched the van in a tourist lot clear up by the lake and hiked down the beach. Buffy knew of a picnic lodge with a fireplace and flimsy locks. It was abandoned, thanks to the weather.

"We'll sneak back to my house after sunrise." Buffy busted the lock. "When we do meet up with her, we need a little more fire power than none, and all of my emergency weapons live there."

"Nice digs," Faith said, kicking Mrs. Post's traitor ass the hell out of her thoughts. The place looked pretty good. No electricity, at least not that worked, but it had a bathroom, and Buffy found another flimsy lock, this time on a cabinet full of supplies.

"My watcher brought me here once," Buffy said. "It was almost like fun. There was this fire demon nest under the Turnpike, where it's closest to the lake, and after the slaughter, we had a picnic."

Faith caught the towel that Buffy tossed at her, and started scrubbing her hair dry. "I'd kill for some dry clothes."

"You'll have to settle for this." Buffy handed over a scratchy blanket. "It's for drowning victims. Tonight I think we technically qualify."

"Thanks."

"I'll attempt the fire thing."

"Fire's good." Faith draped the towel over a bench, and started shucking off wet clothes. "But I'm sure we can think of other ways to warm up."

Buffy struck a match and ignored her quip.

Damn. Faith thought that deserved a smile, at least. Or maybe she was out of line. Crappy circumstances and all. She had plenty of time to fret about it, because it took Buffy a few tries before the fire really caught. Not like she was barking up the wrong tree, though; Buffy had kissed her, not the other way around. So if Little Miss Perfect wanted to go back to the cold shoulder routine, that was her bad. Faith wasn't getting all worked up about it.

Buffy stripped off her soggy track suit and invited herself into the blanket. They sat there in their skivvies, cold and damp, and Faith wondered why the movies always made freezing to death look so damn sexy. Clammy skin wasn't really a turn-on, even when it belonged to a hot chick with super powers.

"Man, this really bites," Faith said. She stared into the fire, her eyes drawn to the glowing orange edges of the newspapers Buffy had burned for kindling. As the glow faded to black, the pieces fell in little flakes, and burst to ash as they struck the ground. Like vampires. "Mrs. Post always seemed so . . . proper or whatever. Even when I thought she was totally nuts, I never figured her for evil."

Buffy gave her a look. "I have two words for you. Dress code."

"Well yeah, but not murderer-evil. I don't think I really believed it until she tried to shoot you with my crossbow."

"I'm sorry," Buffy said. "It totally sucks."

"People suck," Faith said. "It's not like I don't know that already. It's just, she was the only person to ever give a rip about me."

"The first, maybe, but not the only."

Faith's eyes snapped to Buffy's. Suddenly it mattered that Buffy gave a damn. Not that Faith stopped to think about it; not when a hot chick who freaking gave a damn needed kissing. Her whole world faded to soft, warm lips, and the press of bodies. Maybe clammy skin was sexy after all, because Faith couldn't get enough of the way the cool spots on Buffy's skin turned hot under her wandering hands.


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Buffy returned Faith's kiss, heart pounding, oblivious to everything beyond the warm press of skin. At least until the blanket slid away from her shoulders and a nasty blast of cold air spoiled the moment. She pulled back from Faith and grabbed for the blanket.

"Hey," Faith said, an edge in her voice. "Don't be like that. If you're not into this -- "

"Oh, I'm in with the smoochies," Buffy said. "Just not so much with the bitter cold."

Faith laughed. "It's barely below sixty, B. You act like it's the dead of winter."

"I'm from California," Buffy said stubbornly.

The smile Faith gave her made the cold a sudden non-issue, and they got back to the very important kissing.

When Faith's hand skimmed along her thigh and up her side, Buffy shifted closer to signal that she was totally up for a bit of second base fun, only to wince at the hard edge of the bench against one of her more obnoxious fresh bruises. She tried straightening her leg a bit, but that made the angle awkward, plus the stupid picnic table kept banging into her elbow. Impatiently, she scooted sideways, only to have the stupid blanket take another unwelcome tumble, and when she bent to snatch it up again, her sore back cried out in surprise protest.

"I'm so not loving this stupid bench." Buffy looked around the dimly lit lodge. "Maybe we should move closer to the fire."

"You and me, on the floor in front of a roaring fire? Sounds great, B. Only that floor is concrete, and I don't see any bearskin rugs laying around anywhere."

"Movie people never have this problem," Buffy complained. "Hunted by killer robots, riddled with gunshot wounds, stranded miles from civilization -- they still always stumble right into a comfy make out spot."

"Our spot's gonna get even less comfy if we don't put more wood on the fire."

Buffy followed Faith's gaze to the dwindling flamey goodness in the fireplace. Somehow the cheerful flickering had already gobbled up all of her carefully placed wood, turning it to dying embers. "I suppose I'd better deal with that."

"I'll get it," Faith said. "If you leave the blanket you might die of exposure."

"Ha, ha. Very funny." Buffy tightened the blanket around herself as Faith left. Watching Faith curse at the non-fire did have its advantages. Like, an excellent view of almost-naked Faith backlit by a steadily increasing glow. Definitely something worth a closer look, and maybe it wasn't quite so bitter cold outside of the blanket after all.

Almost Naked Faith turned around and grinned. "Like what you see?"

"Well duh," Buffy said. "Now get over here so I can see more of it."

"I know what I like after a hard day." Faith swaggered back to the table. "How 'bout you, B -- kinks . . . or vanilla?"

Two could play at this game. Buffy let the blanket fall to her waist and employed her sexiest half smile. "First one, and then the other?"

"I can work with that." Faith hopped up onto the tabletop and invited Buffy to join her.

The fire crackled cheerfully, bathing them in soft orange light if not actual warmth, and Buffy's night improved considerably.


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Faith's arm had gone numb, but most of her other parts ached something wicked, so it didn't exactly seem worth the effort to wake it up. Wasn't worth disturbing the half-naked girl currently using her as a pillow. Most girls snuck off in the night. Or Faith did; she wasn't much for the whole sharing thing. Waking up next to someone -- that was new, but it didn't suck.

She wondered what Buffy would say when she woke up. Faith couldn't really see her acting all shy and embarrassed, like some girls, but if she acted like nothing had happened, Faith decided to get pissed. Not that screwing around was a high priority this morning. They had evil magic lady to hide from, or track down. Whichever. Either way, getting caught snoozing half naked on a picnic table seemed like a bad plan. "Hey, B. Time to motorvate"

Buffy made a grumbly don't-wake-me-up noise, then propped herself up on her elbow and smiled sleepily. "Do I have bed hair?"

Shy and embarrassed -- screw that. Faith started to grumble her disappointment, but then Buffy pressed a sloppy kiss just below her collarbone and muttered something about having toothpaste and a softer bed at home. "Sounds like a plan."

They dressed in the vile sweatsuits they'd left drying by the fire, and trudged down the beach to find a bus stop. Lake Erie smelled like dead fish, the only relief coming from the faint aroma of diesel exhaust wafting in from the Turnpike, and the air was cold and damp. Everything pretty much sucked. But Faith caught herself smiling. A hot chick with super powers, dragging her home for breakfast -- a girl could do worse.


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"Factoid number one." Buffy pointed her fork at a very specific bit of nothing. "That map thing proves that Mrs. Post arranged both vampire attacks. Factoid number two: if she made a deal with the vampires, it didn't stick, because one of them tossed her off a roof last night. Factoid number three: Mrs. Post can wield the wicked mojo."

Faith finished her juice and leaned the dining room chair back on two legs. "So is she luring you to the vampires, or luring the vampires to you?"

Buffy shrugged. "Either way, it gets me dead. Or would have, without you."

"Don't sweat it, B. I've got your back."

"Thanks." Buffy smiled, but kept poking listlessly at the last bit of scrambled egg on her plate. "Question is, what's our next move?"

"Find her and kick her ass."

"We need a plan."

"That's where the ass kicking comes in, B."

"No. A plan. As in the 'how' part." Buffy got up and started pacing around. "There's something I'm missing. Something that doesn't fit." She ticked off the clues on her fingers, and paused to stare at the map.

"We could go check out the club."

"The secret vampire hangout where your secretly evil watcher was also seen hanging? Could get hairy. If we're going there, we need more of a plan than leaping in blind."

"Again with the planning? Screw it. I don't know what's there, but I say we find out." Faith let her chair hit the floor with a thud. "It's daylight. No vampires. The edge is ours."

Buffy stared at her for a second, then shrugged. "Good enough for me."


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Buffy and Faith headed out into the entire lack of darkness, dressed to impress and armed for bear. It felt strange, doing the slayage thing with the sun still up. Just another bit of false normalcy getting stripped from her life by her calling. At least she no longer had to face it all friendless and alone.

Faith seemed pretty cheerful for a person recently on the receiving end of a magically enhanced betrayal. She jumped off the bus without touching the steps, and turned around to grin at Buffy. "Whatever happens, B, promise me one thing -- save a dance for me."

"Count on it," Buffy said. Her memories of their previous dance sent her mind spinning off into dangerous territory, and she scolded herself. They had evil to thwart. Her shiny new love life would have to wait.

The bouncer didn't even pretend to care about legal drinking ages and IDs, let alone notice any concealed weapons. It was still afternoon, and except for two college-aged guys playing cards at a table near the stage, the place was deserted. No bartender. No band. No music, even.

Buffy sighed, frustrated by the lack of potential witnesses to question, although now that she gave it actual thought, she wasn't really sure what she wanted to ask. Generally speaking, she attacked things with violence, not pop quizzes. As for the vagueness that was their plan, it mostly focused on showing up and getting ambushed, so by now she'd carefully planned to be fighting for her life and shouting witty I told you so's at Faith. Instead, she scowled at the empty stage, as if live music was the key to clue discovery.

Faith returned from an aimless saunter around the perimeter of the dance floor, and slung an arm around Buffy's shoulder. "So what's the plan?"

"Oh, so now you want a plan." Buffy tried for maximum crankiness. "An hour ago you were all about the blind leaping."

"Whatever, B. I was just asking."

"I guess we look for clueage, but unless you see any big neon signs that say 'Vampires Party Here' I'm at a loss."

They wandered out a back door and into the alley, where a torn bit of Buffy's shirt still clung to a chain link fence. If these mythical clue things existed, this was definitely the place to look. She was just lucky that some vampire-turned-detective hadn't already taken that fabric swatch to the mall and tracked her home via her Macy's account.

"Speaking of a sign . . . hey B, check it."

Buffy followed Faith's gaze to the almost vampire chow freshman from the night in question, loitering just up the alley. "Neon. Definitely."

As they pretended not to watch, the girl fussed with her purse and checked her watch repeatedly. Then she turned and headed out of sight.

"Come on!" Faith grabbed her arm, and Buffy didn't argue. They followed the girl to a dilapidated wreck of a house six blocks -- and a universe -- away from the trendy club.

"She can't live there," Buffy said.

"I'm thinking nobody lives there, B. Betcha it's a crack house."

"So much for our so-called clue. I guess getting high makes you too stupid to run away from vampires." Buffy started to turn back toward the club. Then her ear caught the word slayer, barked angrily by someone inside. She froze, and grabbed Faith's arm.

A brick crash-landed at their feet in a shower of broken glass.

Buffy took that as an invitation. She vaulted over the broken porch railing, kicked open the front door, and demanded a full explanation for the past twenty-four hours as succinctly as possible. "What the hell?"

This last was inspired not by the large vampire snarling at her -- that she understood -- but by the freshman girl who had planted herself in front of him, her arms spread wide, forming a very willing human shield. She glared with true brick-hurling menace at Buffy. "Don't hurt him."


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Faith recognized the manic look on the girl's face. It said, this loser is mine and you'd better back the hell off and stop trying to ruin our perfect love. In Faith's experience, it was a dangerous look for all involved. Well, all except the loser. That type generally found the codependent bullshit useful, at least until it got between them and their next beer.

They needed to avoid a fight. Faith decided this as the only person in the room who had their priorities screwed on straight. When violence broke out, Buffy would protect the girl -- fine in theory, but the girl in question didn't value her own life one-tenth as much as Buffy valued it on her behalf. So Faith took a stab in the dark. "Hey, chill. We don't want trouble. You selling, or what?"

The girl looked baffled, but she fell into her role fast enough. "Depends on what you're buying."

"The Slayer's not here to buy anything," the vampire said. "It's a trick."

Faith shrugged, and turned to go. "Suit yourself. Come on, B. We'll find -- "

"I'm staying," Buffy said, her voice like ice.

Oh well, it wasn't like they'd had a prayer in hell of that working anyway. Faith turned back and leaned against the door frame. "Whatever."

"So do you tell me what I want to know," Buffy asked. "Or do I use violence?"

Silence.

"Not that I mind using violence," Buffy continued. "Only I just did my nails this morning."

A pale, skinny guy in a stained white tee shirt stumbled down the rickety staircase and wobbled into the group, spoiling the casual standoff. "Hey Anabel," he whispered hoarsely as he landed against the manic girlfriend's shoulder. "Dang air conditioner's busted."

"My god." Buffy stared at the new arrival. "You mean this really is a crack house?"

"Don't play stupid," Anabel snapped. She reached out to steady the pale guy before he toppled over. "Now why don't you mind your own business for once, and go."

"He doesn't look so good," Buffy said -- completely unnecessarily in Faith's opinion -- before ignoring the perfect opportunity to stake the vampire in favor of taking a closer look at the pale crackhead. Specifically his neck.

That's when Faith noticed what she'd missed before -- the stains on the tee shirt were bloodstains, and the dude was currently adding to their number thanks to a pair of fresh-looking puncture wounds in his already scarred neck. Yet for a dude with a fresh vampire bite, he seemed remarkably unconcerned to find a large, snarling vampire in his living room. Assuming it was his living room, of course.

It probably wasn't.

"Let's make a deal," Buffy said. "You let me get your friend here to a hospital -- "

"Calvin just needs some juice," Anabel said against all logic. "Sweetie . . . "

The vampire grunted, and started backing out of the room.

Buffy let him go. "Faith, get these two to safety, I'll -- "

Anabel laughed. "We're safe right here, Slayer. Unlike you, the lonely ones don't want to hurt anyone."

"The who don't want to what now?"

"I think she means the vampires, B."

"Vampires are all about hurting anyone." Buffy pointed at Calvin's neck. "See that? Vampire bite. Usually fatal. Vampires kill people."

"That's racist!" Anabel's angry move toward Buffy was hindered by the anemic man hanging from her shoulder. The irony was lost on the girl.

Buffy, on the other hand, let the irony shatter her last bit of patience. "Faith. We're leaving."

As they headed out the door, the vampire returned with a big glass of juice, and the last thing they heard was Calvin's polite thank you as the vampire handed him the drink.


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"What just happened?" Buffy pantomimed pinching her own arm, then decided it probably was a logical next step, and tried it for real. It hurt.

"Friendly vampires?" Faith shrugged, and at Buffy's scowl, she amended her guess with even less conviction. "Semi-friendly vampires?"

"Idiots volunteering to get bit, that's what it looked like. Did you see the scars on that guy?"

"Sure did. I'm guessing he likes it."

"Likes getting bitten?"

Faith shrugged again. "Maybe she's hot."

"Okay." Buffy shuddered at the resulting mental image. "Ick."

"Hey, whatever gets his motor running." Faith grinned wickedly, clearly enjoying Buffy's reaction. "I don't mind a little nibble from a hot chick myself."

"It needs to stop before it gets him dead. I've got enough work without people feeding themselves to vampires on purpose."

"You can't help people who don't want help. I've had enough losers in my life to know." Faith shoved her hands in her pockets and kicked a bit of trash up the sidewalk. "Take my ma. When I was little, the neighbor was always fixing the sink, or setting her up with job interviews, or dragging her to some support group. That damned AA booklet laid around for years. Didn't matter. She still stayed drunk all day."

Buffy had no idea what to say. Sure, her own mom had knocked back a few during the divorce, but when she got her shot at that damn promotion, it became of the past before the habit even got off the ground, while her dad's addictions wore spandex and spelled their names with too many i's and sometimes dragged him to Spain on business -- spelled with italics, air quotes implied.

It was all steeped in suckiness, sure, but Faith had it worse.

"Once they figured her out, everyone stopped bothering to try," Faith continued. "Just let her sit in the dark and poison herself in peace. If Mrs. Post hadn't come along . . . " Her words trailed off.

"I'm sorry," Buffy said. "I know how much it must suck."

"Hey, evil or not, at least she gave me three squares a day and someplace to crash for a while. Beats shacking up with some loser, it just happened to come with a different twist on the standard crappy ending."


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That night's patrol dragged along without even a hint of vampire hijinks. Aside from startling a disappointingly human mugger, Buffy found herself woefully deprived of action. She started to wish that Mrs. Post would make her move already, and said as much to Faith.

"Maybe she doesn't have a next move," Faith said. "She wanted her very own slayer, and now she knows I won't play ball. Might take her a while to cook up a whole new plan."

"And in the meantime she's moveless." Buffy sighed. "The waiting is brutal."

"What we need is a distraction. Two hot chicks like us? I'm sure we could find some way to pass the time." Faith's wicked grin returned. "Maybe we could check the club again -- interrogate the dance floor."

"I'm not sure that kind of distraction is the safest plan." Buffy tried for responsible, but faced with Faith's entire lack of both subtlety and restraint, she failed. "Unless we find someplace private and be distracted there."

"I'm liking that plan." Faith slid an arm around her waist and took a step, but Buffy froze in her tracks and raised a stake. A general feeling of badness chased all sexy thoughts from her brain.

"Faith." Mrs. Post stepped out from behind a tree. "You're an idiot."

"You track me down just to say that?" Faith demanded.

"No. I came to thank you for getting me killed." Her face contorted into the snarl of a vampire.

Faith made a breathless choked sound, like someone shouting, "No!" immediately after getting punched in the gut.

Buffy stepped in front of her new girlfriend and locked eyes with the vamp. "If you want to see who got you killed, look in a mirror. Oh, wait, you can't. Bet you'll miss that reflection -- hair styling is about to get a whole lot harder."

"You're a dreadfully sloppy fighter, Miss Summers. After all my teachings, you still leave blind sides open."

"That's okay." Buffy dodged the attack. "You telegraph punches like . . . who invented the telegraph?"

"Samuel Morse. Honestly, the state of education in this country -- "

Buffy punched her in the jaw. "Morris? Like the cat?"

A vampire's personality was only loosely based on the dead person involved, but getting a handle on it often slowed down a newbie demon. This one's instinct was to belittle a foe, and flaunt an allegedly superior intellect -- not the most effective strategy in a fight to the death. While the vampire grappled for the most cutting reply to her silly quip about cat food, Buffy slammed her backwards into a tree.

"I have questions." Buffy held her stake to the vampire's heart. "You have answers. Start talking."


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Faith shook all over. Her watcher was dead. No. Not dead. Worse. A vampire. Her watcher was a vampire.

Her watcher was a goddamn vampire and it was her fault.

Bile burned her throat. When? How had she missed it? How did you spot a vampire? Faith had no freaking clue. All those lessons about vampires, lessons she'd half-ignored because she didn't believe in vampires, rampaged around in her mind. How long did it take to change? Sure made things make a whole hell of a lot more sense, though. Mrs. Post must have already been a vampire when she tried to kill Buffy. Probably happened at the club that night. Damn. Faith had run off with Buffy and just left her to freaking die. Maybe --

Buffy had a stake to Mrs. Post's chest.

Faith lunged forward and grabbed her wrist. "Wait!"

Mrs. Post threw a punch.

Buffy's ass hit dirt.

"Thank you Faith." Mrs. Post kicked away the stake. Leaped at Buffy.

A crack echoed through the cemetery.

"No!" Faith threw herself at the vampire. Got slammed into a tree.

For a minute, Faith mostly worked on breathing, a thing which proved a hell of a lot harder than it sounded. At least Buffy wasn't dead. Faith knew that because she could hear the fighting -- to see the fighting, she needed her head to stop spinning.

Damn. Vampires hit hard.

"I got mascara in my eye once," she heard Buffy say, and tried to make sense of it.

Damn.

She would not pass out. It couldn't happen.

Faith struggled to her feet, and swayed against the tombstone that had helped her manage. She'd cared about exactly two people in her whole damn life, no way did she let them fight to the death while she snoozed.

"It hurt way more than this." Crack. "But you get the idea."

"Can we just talk about this?" Faith didn't know which of them she was shouting at, specifically, but neither listened.

"Mrs. Post, this isn't you! Think about it." Faith tried to move between them. "Remember back in Boston, how you'd go on and on about the Slayer? You said you'd give your freaking life for her!"

"Faith." Buffy's voice was gentle, but she didn't lower her fists. Didn't stop circling back to her prey. "It's too late."

"The Slayer protects the world from demons," Faith kept on. "You don't want to kill her."

Mrs. Post barked out a laugh. "Faith. Are you blind as well as stupid? I am a demon."

"Not always," Faith said. Lame. She knew that. But if there was anything left of the woman who'd taught her to use a crossbow and took her for barbequed ribs and -- stuffy or not -- never batted an eye when she brought home that cute blonde with the belly button ring . . . she needed to know.

Buffy dodged in front of her when she tried to step closer and look her watcher in the eye, so she tried to circle around from the other side.

"Tell me," Buffy said. "Those vampires at the club -- did you send them?"

"Honestly, Miss Summers, your watcher has done an appalling job with your training." Mrs. Post stepped behind a tombstone. "Any potential with six weeks of lessons could have figured it about by now. The exception being my Faith, of course."

Faith winced. No, she'd never taken all those lectures on demons all that seriously, but she'd thought she'd done a passable job of faking it.

"Evasion by insult. Original." Buffy leaped the tombstone and knocked Mrs. Post backwards with a flying kick.

"Don't kill her," Faith pleaded. "There has to be a cure or something, right?"

"I'm sorry," Buffy said, with a glance her direction. "There's really not."

Two seconds later, it was Buffy flat on the grass, and Mrs. Post kneeling on her ribcage.

"Slayer blood has special properties," Mrs. Post said, leaning closer. "It's really a shame I must drink it all at once."

Buffy struggled ineffectively, and Faith had no choice. She grabbed a stake and plunged it into her former watcher's back. The body exploded into dust, and Faith sank to the ground, shaking, struggling to stop her stomach heaving at what she'd done. The world seemed to tilt worse now than when she'd slammed her head on the tree. She leaned back against a tombstone, and the last thing she remembered was nodding when Buffy asked if she was okay.


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Carrying Faith home wasn't quite in the realm of the possible, even with slayer strength, but Buffy did carry her as far as the Drake family crypt, where she promptly regained consciousness the very moment Buffy finished barricading the door.

"I killed her," Faith said, her voice flat. She dragged herself into a sitting position and leaned her head back against the wall.

"No," Buffy answered, too loudly, her voice echoing in the tiny crypt. She sank down next to Faith. "Mrs. Post was already dead. The thing you killed was evil, and it would have killed me."

Faith nodded, and grabbed at her head. "Man, this is one hell of a wicked headache."

"We should get home; that's where the aspirin lives."

"Good call."

They took their time walking to the bus stop. Buffy had suffered enough concussions to know how Faith felt. She winced in sympathy as the streetlights did their strobe light thing through the bus windows, and kept conversation to a bare minimum. Whatever needed saying about the demise of Gwendolyn Post, it could wait until morning, and once they got home, Buffy kept her voice low while she played nurse.

"Aspirin, icepack, hot tea. You'll be feeling like yourself in no time." Buffy flopped down onto the couch beside Faith. "You're not supposed to sleep for a while after you hit your head. We could turn the sound off and attempt to comprehend a Bollywood plotline."

Faith shrugged, so Buffy dug the remote out from between the cushions, hit mute, and started flipping. Tonight they'd do the whole not talking about it thing. Tomorrow they'd deal with reality and the future.

Buffy just hoped that her watcher, whenever she bothered to come back, would let her keep the one part of her crazy Slayer life that actually made sense. She squeezed Faith's hand. Keeping this -- so not up for negotiation. The Council could make a choice -- Buffy had made hers.


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Part III: Love


Buffy awoke to the sound of a garbage truck, endlessly backing up for no adequately explained reason. She very seriously considered waking up grumpy, a plan which gained steam as she noticed the remote control wedged into her spine, but then she looked at Faith, curled into her side, her dark hair alluringly wild in its sleep-mussed state.

Not too shabby a wake-up after all.

With crankiness off the table, Buffy found herself doing some quality basking. Evil defeated. Shiny new love life in full swing. Days of watcher-free summer slacking ahead of them. Things were definitely of the good.

Faith groaned.

Well, except for Faith's lingering concussion. Potentials should at least get the accelerated healing part of the slayer package up front. It seemed only fair. Too bad the mystical forces that chose girls to fight their battles didn't have a suggestion box. "Good morning?"

"Hey." Faith scrubbed her face with her hands, and stretched. "What's that noise?"

"Trash day. Are you still concussed?"

"Hey, as long as that beeping is coming from a truck and not the inside of my head, I'm five by five."

"I could attempt to make breakfast."

"Sounds good. Mind if I hit the shower?"

"Help yourself. There's more of the good shampoo in the cabinet with the towels."

It all seemed so normal, so comfortable. Buffy hoped that this was her life now. The Watcher's Council wouldn't send Faith back to Boston, would they? Seemed pointless, when they'd have to find her a whole new watcher and everything. There was a perfectly good watcher right here in Cleveland. Or would be, when Buffy's got back from England.

The scrambled eggs came out a little fluffier than the day before, and the toast didn't burn even a little bit. Score one for Buffy the Chef, chosen to defend against vampires, demons, and the forces of starting the day on an empty stomach.

Later, freshly showered, fed, and without anyone to demand timely calisthenics or an epic duel with a heavy bag -- which Buffy had always pointed out was essentially sand, and therefore unlikely to qualify as a force of darkness -- the two girls sprawled across Buffy's bed and listened to music.

"So, what do we do now?" Faith asked. "Braid each other's hair and talk about boy bands?"

"We could go to the beach," Buffy offered, sans enthusiasm. "Or we could glory in the doing nothing. That's fun too."

"Sounds like a plan, at least until my head gives it a rest." Faith sighed, and the silence stretched for a bit. "I still can't believe it, you know? Mrs. Post dead."

"Go ahead and ask," Buffy said cautiously. "It'll bug you until you do."

"Could she, you know . . . "

"No," Buffy said, once she was reasonably sure that Faith wasn't going to put it into words after all. "There's no going back from being a vampire. The soul's gone, and it's a demon behind the wheel. No cures, no magic spells. I asked my watcher once, after this little girl -- well, I asked once."

"How long?" Faith asked. "I mean, when she tried to kill you, was she . . . "

"One hundred percent walking around in the sunlight human." Buffy hated this part, but she couldn't leave Faith with questions. She had to prove it for her. "I can usually sense vampires, they have this evil vibe type of deal -- okay, so maybe it's not my greatest talent and sometimes it's the no body heat I notice first -- but still, I saw her go out to her car that day without so much as an extra dollop of SPF-30, and if she'd burst into flames, I would have noticed."

Faith rolled onto her back and stared up at the ceiling with a sigh.

"Does that make things suck more, or less?"

"Damned if I know."

Buffy scooted closer, and wrapped an arm around Faith.

"Hey," Faith said. "I've got you, so it ain't all bad."

They did nothing for a while.


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Faith's headache disappeared within a day. Not that she would have admitted otherwise, after Buffy skipped out on a night's patrol just to stay with her. Lives depended on what Buffy did. If she got stuck home babysitting, someone could die.

"There are nights when I don't patrol," Buffy had insisted. "And sometimes, I patrol, but the vamps are clear across town and I come up dry. It's a big city and I'm only one Buffy."

One night, fine. Twice -- not happening.

They headed out just before dusk, Buffy tossing a stake in the air with casual grace, Faith kicking stones down the sidewalk and trying to look inconspicuous with a crossbow over her shoulder.

"This cemetery's my favorite," Buffy said, like having a favorite cemetery made perfect sense. "If you climb up on the roof of the big mausoleum, there's a not entirely terrible view of the lake. Watching the sunset is almost like fun. It doesn't actually set over the lake or anything, but if I squint a little, I can pretend it reminds me of home."

They climbed a convenient tree, and from there hopped down onto the roof. It turned out they had to squeeze pretty close together to spot slivers of the lake between the trees. Faith wrapped her arm around Buffy. "Sweet spot, B. You bring all the girls here?"

"Just the hot ones," Buffy said. "By which I mean you."

"Don't sweat it," Faith told her, even as she felt the little twinge that said otherwise. "I'm not the jealous type."

"No, really, there's just you. Slaying's a lonely gig."

"Guess you don't meet many people hanging out in graveyards."

"It's not that. It's the whole slayer thing. Getting involved with someone means I either lie to them, or I trust them enough to let them in on the secret. Which is technically against the rules, by the way. It's hard to build toward any trust when I kick it off with all the lying."

"Sounds like it sucks."

"It makes dating someone into this whole big decision." She turned to Faith and flashed that irresistible little half-smile, her voice softening. "I have to be extra sure they're hassle worthy."

Faith leaned in and kissed her. The half-smile demanded it. "Glad I made the cut."

"A big check in the box marked yes," Buffy said. "That's why I wigged a little, that night in the crypt. I got used to being Miss Chronically Single Slaygal and all of the sudden there I was, all spontaneous and irresponsible, acting on my feelings instead of following the rules."

Somehow, coming from Buffy, the word "feelings" didn't scare the crap out of her. Faith wondered when that had happened. Was she going soft? Then she shrugged to herself, and decided kissing her smoking hot girlfriend -- girlfriend sounded damn good, even inside her own head -- was a better use of her time.

The light grew dimmer as the sun dropped lower in the sky. Like Buffy had said, the sun didn't really set over the water, but the sky above it was streaked with shades of orange and pink. Plus, from the right angle, they could see a reflection of the sun on the water. It was nice. Even nicer to share it with someone.

Once the last bits of direct sunlight ceased to be an issue for Cleveland's undead population, they climbed down off the roof and went hunting.

"Just after sunset is the best time to catch newbie vamps," Buffy said, all business now. "Some of them have no patience at all, especially if they're still hungry."

They heard a scream, and Buffy bolted in the direction of the sound. Faith followed.

Two vampires had a tall blonde in running shorts backed up against a tree.

"Hey!" Buffy shouted. "Why don't you pick on someone my own size?"

One of the vamps glanced their way. "Du kannst die hier haben. Da kommen noch zwei leckere Häppchen."

The jogger kneed him where it counted, but as he stumbled backward, the other one grabbed the girl's shirt, stopping her escape.

Faith raised her crossbow. She could probably hit the heart, but the jogger was in the shot, which made the cost of missing a little too high for comfort. She shot him in the leg instead.

He dropped the jogger and spun around shouting what Faith guessed was an impressive string of curses in whatever language he spoke.

The jogger bolted.

Buffy and the second vamp were scuffling just beyond the tree, so Faith circled around the one with her crossbow bolt in the back of his thigh, hoping to get off another shot before he got too close. She swallowed hard and fitted another bolt in the channel.

The vampire drew a sword.

Faith fired.

The bolt struck the vampire in the chest, and he paused mid-charge to stare down at his chest.

For a moment, Faith thought she'd won, but several very long seconds passed, and she was still staring at a vampire instead of dust. She swore, blocked his sword with her crossbow, and reached to give the bolt a desperate shove. Then she fell straight through a cloud of dust.

The clatter of sword hitting stone echoed through the graveyard.

Buffy had disarmed her own opponent, and Faith looked just in time to see her decapitate the vampire with his own sword. She jogged over, panting a little, but grinning.

Faith high-fived her. "Nice!"

"Those were not newbies. They knew how to fight. Plus, with the swords." Buffy studied the sword in her hand. "I don't think they were from around here."

"They sure didn't dress like local boys."

"Not to mention the language barrier."

"Was that Russian?"

"Beats me. I can barely speak French."

An hour or so later, they snuck up behind three vampires in an alley downtown. These ones fit in a little better, at least clothing-wise, but the leader kept reminding the others to speak English, which they managed with only limited success. Faith guessed they were speaking Spanish from the frequent use of the word 'puta' but she couldn't make out much else. They held off with the slaying until Buffy decided they weren't learning anything worth knowing.

Faith managed to pick off two of them with the crossbow before Buffy staked the third.

When they drifted toward the club -- entirely by accident of course -- they discovered yet a third gathering of non-local vampires. These ones sounded British, and dressed like extras from a war reenactment. Which war Faith couldn't say.

"You head up on the roof next door," Buffy said. "See if you can thin the herd a little. I'll cut them off if they head for the street."

"Sounds like a plan."

Faith crept around the side of the building, and jumped for the fire escape. She grunted, her muscles straining as she swung herself up, but the rest of the climb was gravy. Good thing she never was scared of heights. The fire escape was rickety as hell. The rust-stained steps rattled under her feet and bits of peeling black paint came off on her hands.

Once on the roof, she stayed low. It wouldn't do for the vamps to see her coming. She kept her ears peeled, a little worried that the fight might start before she got into position, but the plan seemed to be on track. The dead boys were still running their yaps, and she couldn't even see Buffy's hiding place, at least at first.

She figured that the vamp with the stones to stand around running his mouth without even trying to pass as human deserved to die first. She took her shot, and watched him explode to dust.

His pals looked around all panicked, but Faith had put a bolt in a second one before they spotted her. She picked off a third when he tried to get over the chain link fence.

The last two headed Buffy's direction.

Faith had to lean well over the edge of the roof to see the fight. Her girl sure had mastered the spinning kick, and she handled the two against one situation well. Good thing, too, because at this angle, Faith didn't want to risk firing a bolt at a moving target. She headed back to the fire escape.

When she turned the corner, Buffy was dusting off her hands dramatically. "My work here is done."

"I'm wicked buzzed." Faith nodded at the club. "Wanna?"

Buffy grinned. "I think we've earned it."


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"The vampire population is seriously on the rise," Buffy said. Having mastered scrambled eggs, she was now attempting omelets while Faith made the toast. "Three in one night used to be rare. Now it's ten on a semi-regular basis. Something's hinky."

"Talk about hinky -- how often do the vamps dress up in funky outfits?" Faith asked.

"My watcher is always blathering about old vampire sects that follow time honored traditions . . . " Buffy's attempt at air quotes while holding a spatula did not go well, and she paused to wipe egg off the wall, " . . . but before last night I'd barely seen evidence of one. Maybe that's what we're seeing now, with the swords and the fancy dress -- and my watcher's missing it, she'll be so disappointed."

Faith made an 'I'm listening' sound and carried the plates over to the table.

"That doesn't jive with that second group, though." Buffy frowned, doubting. "Or the third, really. None of them had swords, plus, three different languages."

"Maybe there's a convention in town. We should check the hotels."

Buffy grinned. "And ask if Fang Fest '98 is in town?"

"Beats me, you're the expert."

"Or maybe there was a plain old regular convention, like for dentists or something, only it went really badly." Buffy cringed as she remembered the vamps she'd let get away near the airport. "I think we'd better check the paper."

After breakfast, Buffy sat at the dining room table and poured over the obits while Faith paced around juggling random objects.

"Why don't we just nab a vampire, get the scoop that way?"

Buffy looked up from the newspaper to answer, but barely managed to stammer something about the uncooperative nature of vampires before all ability to say words escaped her brain.

Faith leaned in close, palms flat on the tabletop as she swayed closer still, grinning, hair wild, top sliding down to reveal, or rather highlight, her assets. "Betcha we can find something fun to do while we wait for the sun to set."


"We should get dressed." Buffy injected exactly zero enthusiasm into her statement. Enthusiasm in the amount of zero. Her enthusiasm had other interests. She traced the tattoo on Faith's arm with her fingertips. "Maybe we should get me one of these."

"Dunno, B. Don't think it's you."

"I could be tattoo-having. Hey, I kill stuff -- almost nightly even -- why not accessorize my not-so-inner macho chick?"

"Nah, I meant yours should be in color. And somewhere more interesting." Faith's hand slid down along Buffy's spine, and came to rest on her lower back. "Like here. Maybe a nice bright red heart."

"Sounds potentially sexy. Would it have one of those ribbony things wrapping around it, perhaps with a certain name on it?"

"God, B," Faith said, her voice soft. "That would be sexy as hell. I mean, if you really think -- "

"I really think," Buffy said firmly. Her casual whim became a sudden yet very important plan, and she kissed Faith with the full force of her resolve.


They finally did get dressed, but only because sacred duty required it. Well, not so much the getting dressed part, the going on patrol part. And naked patrol seemed like a really bad idea.

The night proved as action-packed as the one before, but only after they struck out at two graveyards in a row and headed out into the streets instead. Buffy's spider-sense seemed to be tingling full time as she noticed the pattern -- the club was definitely the new hot spot for undead hijinks. She and Faith took out a half-dozen in the alley, only to interrupt yet another meeting of the fangs in the same spot less than an hour later.

"It must be that nest Anabel's protecting, in that crackhouse looking dive." Buffy tucked a stake into her back pocket. "It's bringing in the tourist crowd."

"Makes sense."

"God, that gives me the creeps. What are they thinking?"

"Pretty sure 'thinking' doesn't factor into it, B."

"Clearly," Buffy said. "Well it stops tonight, before the whole city is overrun with vampires looking for an easy meal."

A scream pierced the air.

"Hold that thought."

They sprinted in the direction of the scuffle. Buffy grabbed the attacker's shoulder and yanked him away from his potential victim. The owner of the shoulder glared at Buffy with red glowing eyes, and hissed at her through the rings of sharp little teeth in its round, foamy mouth.

"You're new." Buffy punched the not-a-vampire in the jaw. "Here's a tip. Don't attack girls unless you want the pointy end of my stake."

The demon made a noise that might have been laughing.

"I guess that's kind of funny." She kicked it in the stomach, and yanked the stake from her pocket. "That is, if you're a demon with a death wish." She dodged the counterattack and slammed her foe into the side of the building. "Or maybe if you're me." She plunged the stake into his chest.

More laughing. Had she missed the heart?

Buffy swung around with a roundhouse kick, then drove the stake a little deeper.

The demon stared down at its chest, and crumpled slowly to the ground. He bled green foamy goo, but he didn't go poof.

"Great," Buffy muttered. "Burial detail." She turned to Faith, who had escorted the almost victim out of the line of fire. Correction -- recurring almost-victim. "Anabel?"

"What was it?" The vampire lover looked pale and shaken. So she did understand the concept of danger.

"I thought you liked demons," Faith said. "Or do you just go for the pale brooding type?"

"The lonely ones aren't demons like that . . . that thing." She cast a disdainful look at the oozing body. "They don't attack people in alleys."

"What alleys have you been hanging out in?" Buffy asked. "Because this alley is generally chock-full of attacking vampires. Wait five minutes; I'm sure you'll find it educational."

"I don't talk to racists." Anabel marched past the dead demon, scooped up the purse and flashlight she must have dropped in the attack, and disappeared around the corner.

"I suppose we should make sure she doesn't get killed." Buffy sighed and started off after her.


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"Yeah, the substitute watcher? Evil." Buffy plopped down at the table and gave her own just-returned watcher a pointed glare. "And also now dead."

"Why do you never start at the beginning?"

"Seriously, that's all you can say? You're giving me flack for my narrative style, after abandoning me with a psycho? She made me wear a cheesy track suit and also tried to kill me!" At the watcher's entirely unsatisfactory reaction -- a raised eyebrow, that was all the outward concern she could muster -- Buffy told the story in timeline form. Like this was a history report, and not her life in repeated dire peril.

"It's just lucky I had Faith, or I'd be dead right now."

"Hmm."

"Hmm? Really?" Buffy sighed. "Feeling the love in this room."

"Clearly I was in error to leave you in her care, but I do expect a certain level of vigilance, Buffy, you are the Slayer."

"Okay, granted, I should have known something was fishy as soon as she started in about the dress code thing -- I know there's not some slayer handbook complete with fashion dos and don'ts, but -- "

"Actually there are some fairly specific suggestions, but in your case I felt it best to be lenient."

Buffy checked all sarcastic replies. She so didn't want to end up in polyester for the rest of her life. "Plus, the vampire population is completely out of hand," she said. "We're getting fangy tourists now. Some don't even speak English, and one group had swords."

Finally, the watcher exhibited something almost like interest. "Swords? Show me."

"Right."

After entirely too much humming over some little squiggly on the sword hilt, they finally got back to the more important issue. Namely that of whether Faith could stay. Not that Buffy planned to give her up regardless, but watcher approval would make things a whole lot easier.

"I suppose she may as well stay. Officially, she's under the Council's care already, and she has proven herself valuable in the field."

Buffy grinned, and jumped up to call Faith in from the training room, where she'd been avoiding the whole Mrs. Post rehash by spending quality time with the leaky heavy bag.

"We cool?" Faith asked.

"We are entirely of the cool." Buffy stepped up and slid her arms around Faith's waist, tugging her closer and angling for a kiss. "I get to keep you."

"Are we gonna get flack for this?" Faith illustrated her 'this' with a well placed thigh, and a playful nip.

"Let's not find out," Buffy said. "Or rather, let's not find out today. She'll deal -- or not, doesn't really matter in my big picture -- but let's play for minimum drama and face one question at a time."

"Works for me."

They probably could have gotten away with some quality slacking, judging from the watcher's lack of interest when they returned. The woman had a magnifying glass in one hand, and a sword in the other. The book population on the surrounding table had multiplied exponentially. Wild horses could have galloped through without attracting her notice.

"We need a plan," Buffy said.

Nothing.

"Vampires on the rise. Me with a sacred duty to stop them. Any of this ring a bell?"

"This vampire sect, while tiny, proved particularly deadly in Austria during the Thirty Years War. They've been in hiding for centuries. You killed them both?"

"I killed one," Buffy said. "Faith took out the other."

"Then they cannot be responsible for the population increase, at least not directly. They only kill to feed. Only when one of the pair is lost does the remaining one sire another, and then only through a complex ritual which they consider sacred. They claim it ensures that the specific demon lost to them is restored to the new body."

"Demon reincarnation? Nifty. What does it mean for us?"

"It's quite simple. You've wiped them out."

"Okay, go us. Then what's with the fangy Woodstock in the Warehouse District?"

"Honestly I haven't a clue. What can you tell me about the others you've slain? Manner of dress, weapons, distinguishing tattoos . . . "

"The British ones wore some kind of military uniform. Tan, with high boots. Oh, and one from last night had a Grateful Dead tattoo. Not very clue-like, granted, but you've gotta love the irony."

"There must be something you're overlooking. So far, I fail to see a pattern."

"I think the lack of a pattern is a total clue," Buffy said. "Vampires from all over the world are hearing about this house where people line up to get bitten, and poof, they're on the phone with their travel agents."

"I doubt it has much to do with that at all," the watcher said. "Every major city with a vampire population has at least one such residence. It's hardly -- "

"So this is a thing?" Buffy demanded. "A thing that actually happens -- why didn't I know about it, and also, can I just say yuck?"

"It's hardly relevant, Buffy. Your job is to protect the innocent, stand between the world and its destruction, not to take unnecessary risks protecting individuals that would openly oppose that protection."

"Hey, I'm all for not risking my life, but that ship has sailed. I'm the Slayer."

"She's right though," Faith said. "You saw those people. They don't want help."

"That's for sure, last night Anabel went straight back -- " Buffy slammed her fist down on the table as things suddenly made sense. "Anabel! That's it. She's a clue, I'm sure of it. Last night, in the alley. She had a flashlight. Who brings a flashlight to a dance club?"

"I dunno, B -- "

"No, think about it. She must have been looking for something, and if there's something there to look for, maybe the vamps are looking, too. Maybe that's even why that demon attacked her."

"Very well," the watcher said. "Find out what this girl knows, but do be careful. Your first duty is to the larger population, and especially under these circumstances, patrol must be your priority."

"Gee, for a moment there I actually thought you cared." Buffy headed for the weapon's cabinet. "Come on, Faith, evil's not going to defeat itself."


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"Stakeouts always look so sexy in the movies," Buffy said. "Two people all alone in a car or a closet or . . . " She gestured at their current location. "You know, on a roof, with nothing to do. Only what they don't bother to mention is that making out isn't actually an option, at least not if you care about not missing your target."

"Tough call," Faith said. "Sex versus duty."

"Fortunately, I can do both." Buffy shifted her binoculars to one hand, and slowly worked the other one up the back of Faith's shirt, her teasing fingers sending shivers up Faith's spine. "Just, not at the same time." The hand disappeared. "There she is."

Faith scooched forward and squinted. Someone was headed their direction. Beyond that, she could see squat.

"Yep," Buffy said. "Broad daylight, and Little Miss Vampires Are Peace Loving Fluffy Bunnies has a flashlight. Score one for my hunches."

"What's she doing?"

"So far, just walking." They watched for a few minutes, and just as Anabel turned into the alley, Buffy grabbed Faith's arm. "We have flashlight usage."

"Yep," Faith said. "You were right. She's looking for something."

"Okay, let's go before she finds it and takes off." Buffy handed over the binoculars. "You wait here and keep an eye on her. When I get into position at the fence, get ready to head her off at the end of the alley. When she sees me, she might make a run for it."

"You got it, B."


As it turned out, Anabel spotted Faith before she noticed Buffy. She turned off her flashlight and headed for the club's back door.

"Hey!" Faith jogged up the alley. "Looking for something?"

The girl stared at her for a moment with trapped, guilty eyes. "My aunt lost her necklace."

Faith snorted.

"Seems like a lot of trouble for jewelry." Buffy dropped over the fence and joined them. "Hope it's worth getting attacked. Oh, by the way, vampires can't go out in sunlight, but a whole lot of other nasties can."

"Yeah," Anabel said. "Like you."

"Ungrateful much?" Buffy rolled her eyes. "I saved your life yesterday."

"I don't have to talk to you."

Buffy blocked her path. "I think you do. You know what else I think? I think there's something in this alley that's attracting demons, and I think you know something about it. So unless you want a whole lot of people to die, I think you'd better start talking."

"You're crazy," Anabel said. "I'm just looking -- "

"Save it," Buffy said. "The time to play the 'I don't believe in demons' card is definitely of the past. Now spill, unless you want to earn your boyfriend a special place on my to-do list."

"Okay," Anabel said. "So maybe it's not a necklace, I'm not really sure. But my aunt really did leave something out here, and that's what I'm trying to find."

"Better, but I'm still needing backstory."

"She found out about my boyfriend, and we made a deal, but now she's disappeared . . . " Anabel turned on the flashlight and ran the beam unsteadily along the side of the building. "She promised she'd take the new slayer to California, but you're still here and it's getting harder to keep Pete from going out and last night Charlie came here and nobody could stop him and you killed him just like all those others you killed!"

"Whoa, back up a sec," Faith said, when she could jam a word in edgewise. "Mrs. Post -- she's your aunt?"

The girl's open-mouthed silence answered that question.

"Oh good," Buffy said. "Then you can clear up a few more things, like why exactly she wanted me dead."

"That part I get," Faith said bitterly. "She wanted a slayer she could use for something, and obviously that's me. What's in California?"

"Some metal glove thing," Anabel said. "She said it could never replace the one my mom took from her, but since my dad had that stupid piece of junk destroyed after the accident . . . "

Faith recognized the way the girl said 'the accident' -- whispered, yet with real weight behind the words. It meant they weren't likely to get much more information out of Anabel, at least not at the moment, and it also meant that whatever the glove thing did, it was a damn good thing Mrs. Post would never find it.


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"There's always a talisman," Buffy's watcher said, when they gave up searching and returned for orders. Or, more accurately, for something to eat. "While you were out, I did some research. According to Hume's Paranormal Encyclopedia, the spell Mrs. Post cast would have required placing a charmed object in the immediate vicinity of the intended ambush."

"You say that." Buffy passed Faith a drink, and opened one herself. "But do you think we could find this magical whatsit? And we looked, believe me. I got dumpster rust on my top and everything."

"Yes, but you only looked with your eyes, Buffy. With magic it's not always that simple. The most ordinary looking objects can hold the power necessary to cause a great deal of damage. It would have been different if this girl had known what sort of object was used, but I'm not surprised that blind searching failed."

"Great, so how -- "

"The map," Faith said. "It's tied to the talisman things. Betcha it helps us find them."

"Faith is correct," the watcher said. "I trust that you kept it?"

Buffy jumped up and rummaged through one of the filing cabinets. "One glowy map, coming right up."

The watcher peered at the thing for several minutes. "Yes, there are several books I must consult. The two of you should patrol. Unless Faith would prefer to stay behind and give me a hand?"

"No offense lady, but books ain't really my thing, and besides, somebody's gotta watch B's back."

"Very well." The woman turned back to the map without acknowledging them again.

"She always like that?" Faith asked as they left.

"I think she's just excited that she finally gets to consult that massive library about something."

"You're saying that this is her when she's excited?" Faith laughed. "Talk about needing to find the fun."

"I was too busy not having a social life to notice her lack of same. Maybe I should have fixed her up?" She wrinkled her nose adorably. "Now there's a mental image I so did not need. Smoochies and old people are unmixy things."

Faith laughed. "You should have seen some of the guys my ma dragged home back in the day. There was one who had this nose hair thing going on -- first time I saw it, I thought it was a mustache."

"Yikes."

"Tell me about it."

"My dad goes for women who qualify as walking billboards for Bimbos-R-Us. You know the type -- tight clothes, lots of giggling, into guys twice their age. That one pony tail sticking out of the side of their head like the whole world is an aerobics class in the eighties. Not only does it look ridiculous, but it's just not safe to show that much neck cleavage. How am I supposed to defend humanity against unspeakable demons when humanity makes those kinds of fashion choices?"

"Whoa, B, you been bottling that up for long?"

"Probably," she said. "But at least the bimbo patrol's out of town for another month. This latest one insists on calling him 'Hanky' like that's something I need to hear at the dinner table. It's only through sheer force of will that I haven't slayed her yet."

"Speaking of people who could use slaying, what about Anabel?" Faith asked. "She helped set you up."

Buffy shrugged. "The girl's dating a vampire. Clearly she's not right in the head."


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Patrol dragged on until almost sunrise, a steady stream of vampires menacing a six block radius in the Warehouse District. The slaying gig came with a decreased need for sleep, but Buffy still wasn't a fan of all-nighters, and Faith looked a little frayed around the edges.

"Tell me you found something," Buffy demanded when her watcher finally answered the phone. "It's hairy out there."

"I've contacted the Council. They're coordinating a probe into Gwendolyn Post's affairs, and if it proves necessary, they are prepared to send someone qualified to perform the proper spell -- "

Buffy's eyes landed on the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer as Faith walked back in the front door. "Send? As in, from England? We so don't have time for that. We need this thing shut down now. Today."

She hung up the phone without waiting for an answer, and slumped onto couch with the newspaper. Bar-B-Q Fork Killer: Five More Dead of Neck Puncture. The newspaper thought it was a serial killer. Local police were scouring the area surrounding the airport, searching for a murderer with a kitchen utensil.

So not good.

"Hey," Faith said, her voice soft. "There weren't any murders at all in the Warehouse District. That's something, right?"

True. Totally true, for all the good it did to the five victims in the paper. She nodded, for Faith's benefit. "It's good that we were out there last night. Tonight I plan to be less needed. How hard can it be to cast a spell?"

Hard, it turned out. First she had to waste an entire hour on the telephone with a stuffed suit from the Council, just to get permission to even try the spell, because her own watcher wouldn't budge on the issue.

"I'm the Slayer," she reminded Quentin Travers. "Not some random girl. Mystical forces chose me once, they can do it again. Yes, this is totally different than being chosen to slay vampires. Slaying vampires involves hand-to-hand combat and mortal danger; this spell thing involves reading out loud and kitchen spices."

"Take care not to trivialize the danger of magic, Miss Summers. It's a powerful force, and in the wrong hands -- "

"First of all, as I mentioned, I'm the Slayer. Wrong hands not really an issue. And also, this locator spell -- it either locates, or, if I somehow use too much oregano or whatever, it might fail to locate. Either way, I'm pretty sure the spell that filled Cleveland chock full of pointy-toothed tourists is the bigger issue, so how about you let me deal with it?"

Travers sighed. "Very well."

"Here's hoping that I just have to read the Latin," Buffy whispered to Faith when she arrived. "Because understanding it? Totally not an option."

They laid the still-glowing map out on the floor, together with the spell ingredients that her watcher had reluctantly fetched from the store. Buffy poured the allegedly sacred sand on the floor, forming a circle, while Faith lit the candles.

"Ready?" Buffy waited for Faith's nod, and then plunged into the Latin.

The map glowed brighter. Then a small fire broke out.

Buffy hoped that was supposed to happen, and blew on her handful of oregano.

Purple glitter swirled through the air like a demented art project, and mixed with a spark from the flaming map. With a puff, the map and the glitter disappeared, and for a moment Buffy thought she'd managed to get it wrong.

Then a tiny glowing ball appeared in the air, and seemed to urgently beckon them in the direction of the door.

"Excellent." Buffy grabbed her weapon's bag. "Lead on, Tinkerbell."


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The light moved at a comfortable walking pace, and led them back to the alley behind the club. Fortunately, sunset was still a while off, so they were spared any violent interruptions. Buffy experienced a brief moment of doubt when the light seemed to lose direction and just bounce around, but it did seem to bounce around with a pattern.

She took a closer look at the brick that the magic glowball found so interesting. The mortar looked a little spotty. She gave it a poke, and it crumbled in a wet, squishy sort of way. "Faith, give me a hand!"

Together they pried the brick out of place, and Buffy reached into the hole to retrieve a stinky bundle of sticks.

Faith covered her nose and stepped back. "Dude, what is that?"

Buffy snapped it in half. It sizzled, there was a puff of greenish steam, and the pieces disappeared with a pop. "Dunno, but it's dead now."

"I think it was dead before," Faith said. "Ugh."

The whole alley had taken on a rotten egg kind of smell. Leaving seemed like a plan. "Hey, where's Tinkerbell?"

"Probably high tailed it for the airport," Faith said. "We'd better catch up."

One cramped bus ride later, the next bundle of stinky spell stuff met the same fate, and they focused patrol on the neighborhood where the killings had taken place the night before.

"Now let's find ourselves some fangy playmates." Buffy opened her weapon's bag and passed Faith a crossbow. "I'm spoiling for a fight."

"Those vamps are toast." Faith grinned, and tucked a stake into her waistband.

The last dregs of sunlight had just begun to fade from the sky when Buffy spotted her first target. Two vampires who could not have been more obvious strolled out of a walk-out cellar and headed across the street.

Buffy signaled to Faith, and they slipped into the bushes beside the porch just as the first vampire knocked on some unsuspecting citizen's front door. At the sound of a deadbolt chain rattling against the door, Buffy launched herself over the railing and slammed the vampire backward with a flying kick. "Sorry, but dinner's canceled."

Behind her, the other vampire exploded into dust. Faith and a crossbow made a deadly combination.

Her own sparring partner started to climb to his feet. Buffy put an end to that with a second kick, and spun to drive a stake home. "Faith -- across the street!"

She sprinted toward the open cellar door, and took the stairs three at a time. A vampire jumped into her path in full game face, so she grabbed him and flung him at another three.

They went down like bowling pins.

"I'm here about your fifteen minutes of fame," she announced. "When I read this morning's paper I just knew we had to meet."

"Hey, that wasn't us," the one bright enough to lie claimed, but his less clever friends were already laughing.

"I'm changing my name to Prongs," one of them said. "Like on a fork."

Buffy snorted. "Can we say lame?"

The vampire snarled and puffed out his chest. "I'm gonna be legendary."

"You're gonna be dust." Buffy let loose on the vamp nest. Her blood pounded in her ears as she slammed vampires into walls and drove stakes into hearts. One of them -- probably the clever liar -- broke and ran.

Faith put a crossbow bolt through his heart.

Buffy knocked her final opponent to the ground, and leaned close to let the cross around her neck dangle near his face. "Tell me. Where else does the fang gang like to hang around here?"

"I don't know!"

She leaned closer, letting the cross rest against his cheek. Undead flesh sizzled. As smells went, it ranked high on the repulsive meter, but it got results. The vampire spit out an address. Buffy recognized it as Anabel's, and therefore an honest answer, if not a useful one, so she sat up a bit. "Anything else I might want to know?"

He stuttered a bit, eyes wild, clearly desperate to think of something to tell, but not clever enough to invent anything. Buffy put him out of his misery and jumped to her feet.

"Damn girl," Faith said. "That's some quality rage you're channeling."

"Think of something badass, pretend I said it." Buffy dusted off her hands. "I've earned my treat. Let's get me that tattoo."


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Faith thought it took a special girl to count enduring three hours of needlework as a treat. Then again, compared to nights spent getting slammed into tombstones or punched in the jaw, it pretty much qualified as restful. Getting ink was somewhat less demanding than slaying -- no heavy lifting, no long hikes, no need to throw the tattoo artist into a chain link fence and kick him in the throat.

Well, usually.

They patrolled the neighborhoods surrounding the airport until Faith's eyes stung from squinting into the dark on no sleep, but Buffy stayed wired long past sunrise. Once home, Faith crashed on the couch while Buffy flipped through the yellow pages and meticulously applied colored chalk to her driver's license.

"You know," Faith said between yawns. "Buying a real fake ID might be easier."

"I like a challenge," Buffy said. "Plus, in an emergency, all the evidence disappears with a swipe of my thumb."

Faith had to admire the logic. And to think she'd almost written Buffy off as a ruling-abiding stick-in-the-mud only a few weeks back. Now she grinned at just how naughty Buffy could get, and grinned even more at the ideas that conjured up.

When Faith woke up, Buffy had already showered and changed. "I made an appointment for three o'clock. Oh, and whatever you do, don't answer the phone. I skipped calisthenics and my watcher's pissed."

"Won't that just make her show up?" Faith asked. "When I skipped out on Mrs. Post, I always, you know, skipped out."

"Good point."

Faith ran a brush through her hair, and they bolted for the nearest burger joint.

"So," Faith said, false casual. "Your tat -- have you made up your mind about what to get?"

"Definitely," Buffy said. "A heart, just like we talked about the other night."

"Cool." Faith couldn't help but grin.

"Should I get the name in a loopy cursive?" Buffy asked. "I mean, that would be pretty, but maybe I should choose something easier to read."

Faith shrugged, but kept grinning. "Dunno, B. It's hot either way."

The tattoo artist, when they arrived, had more useful input. He sketched out a few options, and both girls pointed to the same one at the same time. They exchanged a smile.

"Guess it's unanimous," Buffy said. Then she went about proving that slayers really were built different -- she dozed off about half way through the needlework.

Faith had seen plenty of evidence already, regarding Buffy's super strength, but that really took the cake.

"Remember," the artist said as Buffy paid the bill. "Keep that bandage on for the next six hours, and don't forget to wash it." He handed Faith a pamphlet. "Make sure your girlfriend follows all of my instructions. It's the tough ones who need the most care, am I right?"

Faith laughed. "I'll take care of her, you can count on it."


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"Slaying vampires is a sacred duty," Buffy argued into the telephone. "Jumping up and down on a little plastic step, not so much."

She rolled her eyes at Faith as another tirade erupted from the earpiece.

"Look, if jumping up and down on a little plastic step was the key to eliminating vampires, I'd totally be there. But it's not, and last night's patrol -- "

A third tirade.

Buffy settled the phone down on the table and walked away. "Where were we?"

Faith grinned and patted the couch. "Right about here."

Mindful of her fresh tattoo, Buffy perched one knee on the edge of the couch, and kept her other foot on the ground as she leaned into a kiss. Then Faith's warm hand settled on her thigh, stroking softly until Buffy couldn't help but swing herself into Faith's lap.

"Hello, B."

"Hi," Buffy said coyly. Then, with an entire lack of coy, she pressed Faith back against the couch, and traced her tongue along the other girl's throat.

Faith gasped. "God, B, take it easy."

"Why should I do that?" Buffy squirmed slightly, but with very deliberate purpose.

"Fresh tattoo," Faith said, all calm and rational like she was suddenly the responsible one and also oblivious to Buffy's charms. "Only so much time before sunset. Take your pick, really."

"Plenty of time before sunset," Buffy argued, adding a little roll of her hips. "And my tattoo is probably healed by now. Slayer here, remember?"

Faith's hands slid down from her waist and made a token effort at holding her still, which lasted up until Buffy nipped a path down Faith's neck, and slipped a hand up her shirt. Then those hands surrendered, and tugged Buffy closer still.

And right at that sweet moment of victory, the stupid phone started in with the obnoxious off-the-hook noise that meant the Watcher's lecture had ended.

Oops.

Buffy jumped up and yanked the phone cord right out of the jack. "Upstairs is better anyway."

"Damn straight."

She took the steps two at a time, and once Faith joined her, she shoved her dresser in front of the door. "No lock, but this works."

Faith tugged her close for a kiss; her hands avoided the still-bandaged tattoo by sliding even lower. Then lower still. And tighter.

Buffy's heart pounded in her ears, almost drowning out the small sound she made in the back of her throat. She definitely wanted more than a grope and a cuddle right now. They could make the time. She tried to maneuver Faith in the direction of the nice soft bed, but instead found herself up against the dresser, not that the results were too shabby for Buffy.

Faith could work magic with those hands.

The dresser mirror thumped against the wall. A hairbrush and some jewelry scattered across the floor. Buffy's feet weren't so much on the floor any longer, and she pulled away just enough to shrug out of her disheveled top.

Faith's hot mouth took full advantage. "Damn, girl."

Buffy set her sights on Faith's need for less clothing.

Then Faith was just staring, swallowing, maybe even a little misty.

Buffy twisted around to follow her gaze. Oh. The mirror, and the tattoo. Her bandage had come loose, caught by an errant bra strap on its way to the floor. The bright red heart did look damn good.

"God B, I still can't believe . . . "

"Oh yeah. It's like, forever." She turned from the mirror to stare at Faith, and reached up to touch her girlfriend's face. "Forever's good, right?"

"Damn straight." Faith said it like a challenge, but when she leaned in for another kiss, it was soft and slow.

They took their time undressing. Or tried, anyway. Faith's jeans required a little bit of frantic tugging, and then they tumbled back onto the bed.

Buffy tangled her fingers through Faith's hair -- god she loved Faith's hair -- and gasped at the quick breath puffing along her shivering skin.

Then Faith really gave her something to gasp about, clever fingers erasing all thoughts of vampires and sacred duty and the constant, relentless monotony of violence. She gave herself to the sharp pleasure of the moment, arching into the soft mattress and digging her fingers into Faith's shoulders.

And when she could breathe again, and also when Faith could breathe again, she mustered the will to look at the clock. "We'd better go."

"Yeah." Faith kissed her shoulder, and squeezed in one last strategic caress. "That's for later."

Buffy rolled to her feet, and cringed as she noticed one very red heart-shaped stain on her sheets. Enhanced healing took care of the pain, but the drying speed of actual ink, not so much.

Faith noticed it, too. "Will your dad freak?"

"He might," Buffy said. "But that would require noticing, so I'm guessing a distinct lack of freaking."

Once Buffy had let Faith wash her tattoo as per the artist's instructions, they got dressed and headed out into the warm summer evening.


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"I've gotta say," Buffy said. "I like missing my quota. Less vampires is definitely of the good."

"We're still bagging plenty," Faith said. "Your watcher should be happy."

"My watcher and happy -- those are what I call unmixy things. But she's not on my case, so that's good enough for me."

"Think we should hit the club after this?"

"Should? No. Will? Yes."

They circled the cemetery's west lawn once more, and then headed downtown. Buffy tucked her stake away, and took Faith's hand, lacing their fingers together. For the last three nights, every vamp she'd staked had been within a stone's throw of a graveyard.

How long was a stone's throw, anyway? Buffy figured she could throw one pretty far. But vamps staying where they belonged, more or less, that was the thing that mattered.

Their vigilant hike turned into a leisurely stroll, at least until the anticipation of a little fun put the hurry back into their step.

"Live music tonight," Buffy said.

"What, you see a poster or something?" Faith gave her a look. "Don't tell me you can read in the dark, from half a block away."

"No, but I can see that van, parked all sideways, with . . . " She cocked her head a bit. What kind of careless roadie left a valuable amp sitting in the street just waiting for thieves? It was a little late to be just setting up now.

"What?" Faith asked.

A vampire dropped off a fire escape and punched her in the jaw.

She dodged a second blow, but got slammed into the building by another vampire. A low kick got her out of a tight spot, and she spun around with a quick series of jabs. The first vamp stumbled, and she found her stake in time to dust him before he recovered.

Then her heart seemed to freeze in her chest.

"Forget the Slayer," one of them said. "Kill the girlfriend."

Faith laughed. "You wish."

"Faith!" Buffy flung the nearest vamp aside and dove forward, but not before Faith's attack on the speaker turned her away from the one that had held back in silence.

Not before the pipe hit Faith's skull with a thud.

Not before Faith crumpled to the pavement, two vampires closing in for the kill.

Everything turned to rage and terror. Buffy had three of them staked in seconds, but they were the long kind of seconds, the kind where her lungs sucked molasses instead of air, and everything took too damn long, because Faith was down, and it was only the last vampire that mattered.

She dusted him too, her stake clattering away as she reached to check Faith's pulse. Her hand came away sticky with blood, and she shouted for help in the empty street, her voice lost beneath the heavy bass rhythm of the nearby club.


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Part IV: Duty


Buffy slumped against the emergency room wall, numb, yet twitchy. Like everything around her was moving slower than her brain, only any second something would go whoosh, making the world catch up with all its badness and reality.

The ambulance people had used words like 'lateralizing symptoms' and 'localized' something-or-another in crisp, professional voices, and when one of them remembered Buffy and took a stab at kindness, she managed the comforting thing only in the vaguest sense. Then came this hallway and the excruciatingness of waiting.

The door opened and she jumped to her feet. She had to block the doctor's path just to get him to look up from his clipboard. "Is she -- "

"I've ordered a CT scan. We'll know more then." He walked away without acknowledging her further.

She headed for the door, only to get stopped by a nurse. "Can I see her?"

"She's heading upstairs for some tests now. You can help by answering some questions."

Buffy nodded.

"Can you tell me what happened?"

"This guy came out of nowhere," Buffy said, grateful she'd thought to stash the crossbow. "I think he wanted money. He had a . . . it looked like a pipe, or a tire thingie?"

The nurse nodded, and took notes.

Buffy hated how tiny and helpless she sounded, and she especially hated the fact that while she'd embellished her lack of knowledge, not all of the waver in her voice was an act.

At least the nurse looked a tad bit sympathetic. "The doctors have reason to be hopeful. Now why don't you get yourself something to drink while we wait for those tests?"

She nodded obediently, then obediently went to the soda machine, and obediently drank a diet cola. It seemed like ages before the nurse came back.

"We've found her a room," the nurse said. "You can see her now."

"How is she?"

"We'll know more when she wakes up, but there is reason to be positive."

Faith looked as pale as any vampire. This shouldn't have happened. She'd destroyed the talisman. She'd slayed dozens. Why couldn't the stupid vampires go suck on some other town?

Oh, right. Because vampires were creeps.

Buffy took Faith's hand, and brushed a stray bit of hair away from her face. "Hey. They said you can wake up any time now. Sooner would be good, okay?"

It took a few minutes, but eventually Faith groaned. "Buffy? What the hell happened?"

Air and light and making sense whooshed back into Buffy's life. "Vampire."

"Damn." Faith's free hand discovered the bandage on her head.

"I'll get a doctor," Buffy said. "They told me to get a doctor when you woke up."

Faith nodded, grimaced. "I'll never make that mistake again."

"It wasn't your fault," Buffy said. "He snuck up -- "

"Not that," Faith said. "I meant the nodding."

"Ah, right." Buffy stood up. "I'll be getting the doctor."

One of the nurses in the hallway agreed to have him paged, and Buffy went back to wait with Faith.

The doctor strolled into the room a few minutes later. "And how are you feeling, young lady?"

"Five by five."

"Sometimes head injuries cause a little confusion," the doctor said to Buffy. "Her CT was clear, so . . . "

"But she's not," Buffy said. "Confused, I mean."

"Hmm."

"She says that," she explained. "It's a thing."

The doctor pulled a mini flashlight from his pocket and shone it in Faith's eyes.

"She's okay, right?"

"I see," he said, without really acknowledging anything Buffy had said. "She's lost a considerable amount of blood for the size of the laceration, but we found no signs of internal bleeding. She does have a concussion, so I'd like to keep her overnight for observation."

"Hey," Faith said. "Her is me, so how about noticing that I exist?"

"Try to relax and get some rest. The nurse will be in shortly." The doctor returned the bulk of his attention to his clipboard, and left.

"So B," Faith said. "You got the SOB who did this, right?"

"I got him, and his little friends too." She took Faith's hand again. "I'm sure the nurse will chase me out of here any minute. When she does, I'm going hunting. I am so done with vampires in my town."


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Buffy flung the door open and interrupted Anabel's undead make-out session. "Vampires. Where are they?"

"Huh?" The vampire blinked stupidly.

Anabel climbed to her feet and glared. "What the hell?"

"Faith and I got jumped outside the club earlier. I thought I should tell you, since if any of your friends were there tonight, they're dust."

"Then why are you looking for them?"

Anabel had a point, Buffy realized. Not a good sign for her own mental state.

"Well?"

"It's like this," Buffy said. "I'm the Slayer. And that means I can't ignore a nest of vampires right under my nose, because once he's killed you, it's pretty much too late, and I don't need that on my conscience."

"Pete would never kill me."

"Uh huh. He just drinks your blood and gets you to fight his battles for him. I'm sure he's a really swell guy, except for being dead and also a demon." She nodded in the direction of the moaning and giggling coming from upstairs. "And also possibly a pimp."

"I'm getting really sick of your racist crap." Anabel's gaze flicked to the stake in Buffy's hand. "But I'll cut you a deal. You want to fight vampires so bad, I'll tell you were to find one. If you stop harassing my friends."

"I'm looking at one right now, so you'd better sweeten that pot."

"Modellae -- he's up to something big. One of the girls here heard that he's planning something."

"Could you vague that up for me?"

"Something big," Anabel said. "He says it's time to take Cleveland from the humans."

"Okay, so he's a motivational speaker for the undead. Where do I find him?"

"He's got a place over by the stadium." Anabel gave her the address.

Buffy hiked down Third Street, and mentally calculated the hours until sunrise. If she timed things right, these vamps would have nowhere to run. It would be like staking fish in a bucket. Only less messy.


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Buffy crouched in the darkness and listened to this Modellae character speechify. He had plans. Ugly ones. And plenty of vamps hanging on his every word, too.

"We'll confine the humans in cages," Modellae said, his visuals taking things up yet another notch. "On the high holidays, we'll ride them through the streets, like ponies!"

The crowd applauded.

"With these new arrivals streaming into our fair city, we have a chance as never before. More arrive every day, and I say, let them come! Let them come, my friends, and welcome them. Let them feast!"

New arrivals, still? So much for all the fuss about Mrs. Post's spell. Note to self, Buffy thought, never trust a talisman. Nothing got the job done like a good old-fashioned stake through the heart.

"Soon these guests shall be the cannon fodder in our new army, and with them, we shall take all of Ohio!"

The applause thundered through the room. Vampires stamped their feet, and shouted about their victory.

In the din, Buffy managed to put crossbow bolts through a half-dozen before any of them spotted her. Then she threw the nearest heavy object -- a cinder block -- through a high, narrow window blocked by a hefty bag. Eastern exposure. A stream of the fresh new day burst through the opening and incinerated half the meeting.

"Good thing you've got that whole new army thing happening," Buffy said. "Because this one's toast."

Maybe it was the adrenaline, or maybe the vamps were just bloated on pep talks and pipe dreams, but everything just clicked for Buffy. The fight blurred into one long dance. Stake, spin kick, duck, and stake. In minutes, it was down to just one silver tongued daddy vampire, trapped between the sunlight and the Slayer.

"Okay, let's hear it." Buffy twirled her stake. "One more sick fantasy before you fit in an ashtray. What can I say -- I'm feeling generous."

"When I'm finished with you, little girl, there won't be enough -- "

Buffy slammed him into the wall with a spin kick and plunged her stake home. "Or maybe not."

He stared at her for a long moment, astonished at his own demise, and then fell to dust almost in slow motion.

After retrieving her crossbow, Buffy went off to find breakfast.


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"And let me make this very clear, because I know how you Americans get when you think you're being oppressed. This has nothing to do with orientation. This is about your duties as a Slayer, the sacrifices you are honor bound to make. The Slayer does not involve herself in romantic entanglements."

"So your plan is to what? Ship Faith off to Boston, fresh out of the hospital, and let her fend for herself? She's a potential slayer. Isn't the council honor-bound to give a damn what happens to her?"

"Miss Lehane is eighteen and therefore an adult. Not only is she legally responsible for her own welfare, but also the likelihood of her receiving the calling at this point is negligible. Her continued presence here will merely serve as a distraction -- "

"And you don't think I'll find it distracting when my lover dies of a brain hemorrhage on a bus out of town?"

"Don't be so dramatic, Buffy." The watcher turned a page in her book. She was really paying so little attention to Faith's situation that she was reading a book. "Her injuries are far from life threatening."

"She has a concussion and vampires want her dead. If the Council -- "

"Those vampires only wish her harm because of her relationship to the Slayer."

"Good. That's a problem I can solve." Buffy slammed her stake down on the table. She had more, of course, but the moment demanded some sort of dramatic gesture. "You can find another Slayer. I quit."


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All the way home from the hospital, Buffy clutched Faith's hand and glared out the cab window. Faith tried to ask what had her so worked up, but she just shook her head. When they got back to the house, Buffy marched straight over to the ringing telephone, snatched it off the cradle, hung up on the caller, and dumped the telephone in the nearest trash can.

"You live here now," Buffy announced. "And if my dad raises a fuss about it, then we can just . . . go live with my mom in California."

"California's cool," Faith said cautiously. "Mind telling me what's rattling your cage?"

"The Watcher's Council wants to send you back to Boston."

"Screw that."

"Big time," Buffy said. "I told Miss No Human Emotions to take her sacred duty and shove it. I'm done."

"Buffy, I'm all for the rebellion thing, but there are still vampires -- "

"Oh I'll still slay vampires," Buffy said. "If I happen to see one around, he's dust. But it's a hobby now. I'm no longer working for those heartless, tight-assed bureaucrats who just sit around England drinking tea and making up fascist rules to shove in my face. Who are they to tell me what I can and can't do? I don't see them slaying any vampires. How about they pick up a stake for once?"

"Can't say I disagree, but you might want to sneak a breath in there before you pass out."

"Maybe passing out isn't such a bad idea. It's been a while since I've had actual sleep."

"I'm gonna catch a shower." Faith sighed at the wasted opportunity, but she was just too damn tired herself to ask for company. "I'll join you in a while."


divider

"I know that the recently concussed prefer to avoid dance clubs." Buffy pulled on her suede boots, loving her new lack of slay-friendly wardrobe decisions -- there would be no tromping around wet cemetery grass tonight. "But we have to do something to celebrate my shiny new lack of responsibility."

"You're really serious," Faith said. "I mean, about quitting?"

"Completely. The Council ruling my life is so of the past. I turned in my stake and everything."

Faith raised an eyebrow at her.

"Okay, I turned in a stake. I'm not stupid, I'm not roaming the streets all defenseless and unarmed or anything."

"So let's go out and have some fun."

They went to the mall, bought some clothes, and settled down in the food court to watch Buffy's classmates -- and also a fair number of moms pushing strollers -- pass in and out of the Dillard's.

Faith stirred some ketchup around with a French fry. "I get to pick next, right?"

"Okay," Buffy said. "So this is hardly the wild life promised in the brochure, but I haven't been shopping in forever."

"No, it's been cool. And those red leather pants -- Yum."

"They are fairly ogle-some." Buffy twirled the straw in her soda. "So what kind of fun were you thinking for next?"

"Shopping."

"Um, Faith?" Buffy gestured at the mall around them.

"Different kind of shopping." Faith grinned wickedly, with a special emphasis on the wicked. "You never wiped that chalk off your license, right?"

Other than insisting that booze played no part in the equation, Faith refused to elaborate on her plan as they hiked downtown. "Sorry, B. But if I tell you, then you won't do it."

"Well that's comforting."

"What's the matter -- don't you trust me?" Now she tried for doe-eyed innocence, which worked especially poorly when topped off with another wicked laugh.

"I did," Buffy said. "Then that look in your eye happened."

"You'll thank me. I'm guessing pretty loudly."

When they reached the destination in question, she froze. "Faith -- "

"Don't make me go in alone." Faith grinned, and walked backwards toward the door that read, 'No Underage, No Checks, No Prudes!' A heaping pile of legalese in squinty print followed. Faith bumped the door open with her shoulder blades. "It's fine, come on!"

Buffy made a sound half way between exasperated sigh and nervous giggle, then followed. No vampire had ever scared her more.


divider

Faith's purchases kept them housebound and repeatedly exhausted for two solid days. Buffy approved. Like, really approved, often and with much exuberance.

"Wow," Buffy said between rounds. "I always thought my shopping mojo a thing to behold, but yours kicks ass."

"What did I tell you?" Faith kissed her again and rolled off the bed. "I'm gonna hit the shower. We're going out tonight, right?"

"As long as I get to wear my new leather pants. And also as long as I regain the feeling in my legs."

Hitting the club without rolling around in graveyard dirt first -- what a novel idea. Buffy reveled in the not needing to pick leaves out of her hair, or strategically tuck in her shirt to hide a bloodstain.

"The band's pretty good," Faith said. "Let's dance."


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The rock shattered the living room window at precisely 4:23am, five days after Buffy stormed out on the Council. Buffy trudged down the stairs to investigate the noise, crossbow in hand, and discovered her watcher's favorite necklace anchoring a note to the rock in question.

It demanded, in a childish scrawl, that the Slayer come to the railroad tracks near the stadium at midnight. And, to complete a tired cliché, it said to come alone.

"It's a trap," Faith said.

"Of course it's a trap. Question is," Buffy tapped her finger against the note. "Who set it?"

"Not to go out on a limb or anything, but I'm guessing vampires."

"I'm not." Buffy frowned at the ridiculous handwriting. "Think my watcher could bring herself to write such a sloppy ransom note?"

"You thinking she kidnapped herself?"

"I'm thinking she wants me back in the game. Why would a real enemy give me so much investigation time before the showdown?" Buffy started pacing. "Plus, if it's vampires, it's pretty much advantage me for most of it. The sun rises in less than two hours."

"So don't fall for it."

"That's the thing. I have to fall for it, because what if they kill her? It's not like I can have a normal life with that on my conscience." She flopped down on the couch. "Okay, so I'm the most selfish human ever."

"No, I got what you meant."

Buffy stretched out across the couch, and rested her head in Faith's lap. "I like that you get me."

"That works out." Faith laughed and ran her fingers through Buffy's hair. "I like that I've got you."


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"I've got jack squat here, B." Faith looked up from her list of crossed out local hotels. If the watcher was playing them, at least she was covering her tracks. "What's the word on the street?"

"Anabel gave me the address of a demon bar. So if you're up for a goat's blood martini . . . "

"Pass. But I am up for watching your back tonight. I've got an idea."

"I don't know . . . "

"Listen, B. You can't expect me to just sit on my ass while you risk your neck. I can handle myself."

"I know you can, I've seen you handle yourse-- crossbow. Your crossbow."

Faith snorted. "Distract me all you want, I'm coming tonight."

"Yeah, okay. Just, try to be careful?"

"Hey, there's tons of daylight now, so is it okay if I go scout the area?" Faith treated Buffy to her most innocent doe eyes, dripping sarcasm all the while. "I'll even promise to stay outdoors in the nice, safe sunlight."

"You do that, and I'll check out this demon bar." Buffy ignored the doe-eyes in favor of her watch. No skin off Faith's nose -- B's all business Slayer mode was hot, and besides, she'd backed off the mother hen routine. That counted as a win. "It opens pretty soon now. I'll meet you at the Chinese place on Third."


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Buffy's plan for Operation Demon Bar basically involved striking out completely while the menu scored new heights on her repulse-o-meter. Possibly there'd be slaying, depending on the clientele's manners -- or lack of same.

The fact that she met a loose skinned demon with a tongue to match caught her off guard. He was friendly, yet clearly terrified of her, so she believed most of what he had to say. Although he claimed to have missed any specific gossip, he seemed pretty sure that if anyone was holding hostages near the railroad tracks, they were holed up in a disused boxcar with the phrase 'Kiss Rocks' graffitied on the side.

"The Big M -- that's Modellae -- he used to use it sometimes," he said. "It's perfect for hostages -- no blind approach. Anyone trying to grab power in this neighborhood would start there, especially after the tragedy at the warehouse."

"Tragedy?"

"Oh, I guess you'd see that a little differently."

"I guess I might. Now if you're wrong -- "

"Hey, if I'm wrong, then maybe check the old fire demon caves under I-90 before you come blaming me." He raised his floppy-skinned hands in a half-surrender half-shrug kind of gesture. All the flopping made it hard to tell. There was a lot of skin. "I'm playing straight with you."

Buffy collected Faith, along with a generous helping of cashew chicken, and they went to check out the alleged boxcar from the entirely stealthy vantage point Faith had discovered on the roof of the Amtrak station.

"It sure doesn't look like a hotbed of demon intrigue," Buffy said. "You think smashing the door down might help?"

Faith shrugged. "Sounds like fun."

"It does have potential." Buffy scanned the surrounding area. "Only charging in cowboy style might just get her killed. This hostage thing sucks."

Once Buffy gave up on trying to use the advantage of sunlight in her plan, the obvious answer clicked in her brain. "I've got it," she said. "We do the cowboy thing, only backwards."

"Huh?"

She explained.


An hour later, Buffy flung aside a manhole cover with exaggerated force, and dropped into the sewer as noisily as possible. "Shh," she whispered frantically to nobody in particular. "We have to be quiet."

It took about ten minutes of similar theatrics before she attracted any vampires, but five minutes later she found herself face-to-face with her bound and gagged watcher. Score one for Buffy.

Score minus one for the vampires, who not only fell for the whole Trojan thing, but also thought rope would hold a Slayer.

"Slayer." The vampire leader smirked in premature victory, and flipped her long blonde hair with a deliberate flourish. "What took you so long?"

"The other one got away," a groveling minion stuttered. "They were together, but -- "

"Then go find her! It doesn't do us any good if we kill this one just to have the other one take her place, does it?"

Half the vampires in the room scrambled off for a fruitless round of sewer hide and seek. Buffy had to fight the urge to laugh -- obviously this chick had gained followers for something other than her battle strategies.

She waited for the inevitable rambling gloat, and scanned the dark room for something to use. The vampires -- either these ones, or the previous occupants, if her wrinkly new friend was right -- had wallpapered the place with train tickets. Trophies, she realized with a shudder. They all represented passengers who had made Browns Stadium their last stop, intentionally or otherwise.

Giant foam fingers, beer hats, glittered up poster board -- hello. Now that was the ticket. Only not literally. Buffy edged toward her intended new weapon, and struggled with exaggerated futility against the entirely lame ropes around her wrists.

"What Modellae lacked was ambition," the vampire said.

Buffy had met Modellae exactly once, but she recognized that statement as completely the opposite of true.

The vampire flipped her hair.

Buffy dropped to her knees, yanked her hands free of the rope, and rolled into the pile of foam fingers. "So you're not Big M's number one fan?"

"What?"

Foam finger held high, Buffy jumped to her feet and threw a stadium seat cushion at the bloodsucking hair flipper. She hated hair flippers.

The flight of the cushion bought her exactly two seconds worth of distraction, but it was enough. She plunged the posterboard's wooden handle -- now concealed within the foam finger -- straight into the vampires back.

And missed the heart.

Pain exploded across her face as a beer bottle slammed into her teeth. She tasted blood. In pure defensive mode, she dove for cover behind a towering stack of Tim Couch bobbleheads.

"Now now, Slayer, we can't have this kind of behavior, can we?" The vampire girl strolled casually over to the watcher. "However will I teach you the error of your ways . . . perhaps I'll think of something over dinner?"

"Wait!" Buffy jumped to her feet, and impatiently brushed at the blood on her face.

"You're right, of course. Why fill up on this when I have Slayer on the menu?" With a sickening thud, the vampire tossed aside the chair, her intended victim still tied to it.

Buffy threw herself forward. And this time she didn't miss the heart.


"This is going to scar, isn't it?" Buffy tried to focus on the day's smallest loss as an ER doctor stitched her lip. "Not exactly an area that lends itself to bandaging."

"Probably," the doctor agreed. "Perhaps you should avoid bar fights in the future."

Buffy tried to muster up the energy to hate that cover story, but she found it hard to care. She'd forced her watcher to resort to coma to teach it, but Buffy had learned her lesson.

Slaying required certain sacrifices, and tomorrow, Buffy needed to make hers.


divider

The next afternoon had the nerve to be all bright and sunny, with hardly any humidity at all. Didn't this kind of thing pretty much demand rain? Buffy stood in her bedroom doorway and watched Faith sleep in, all blissful ignorance and sexy tousled hair.

Faith had proved the real hero the night before, dragging the injured woman out of harm's way during the final stages of the battle. She'd found them a cab, told the hospital all the right lies -- well, almost -- and held Buffy's hand all the way through the explanations of depressed skull fractures and Glasgow scores.

That made two CT scans in a week's time. That's what really drove it home for Buffy.

"Hey B." Faith smiled as she woke up, and then froze. "Oh god, your watcher -- "

"The same." Buffy swallowed. She couldn't drag this out, obviously Faith could read her tragedy mask. "What I'm about to say, you need to know how much I hate it. I'd give almost anything to just not. But I wouldn't give the world, and thanks to the epic suckage that is my life, the world is what I'd have to give."

Faith had it already. "Why can't -- "

"The thing is, at the end of the day, I'm not just a girl. I'm the Slayer."

"And I'm a Potential," Faith said. "I can watch your back. Haven't I proven that?"

"Yes," Buffy agreed. "You totally have." She swallowed. "And not just in the literal sense. Either literal sense, actually. But the thing is, I'm safer with you here, but the world isn't. As long as you stay, demons can use you against me."

"Hey, I'm willing to take the risk -- "

"No, I mean yeah, if it was just your life on the line, maybe that would be your choice to make, but them having a weapon against me -- that's not just bad for the weapon, it's bad for the world. Because I'll make the wrong choice. I'll leave you on the roof of a train station when I need you breaking open a boxcar door, or I'll untie you from the train tracks while fire demons barbecue tourists outside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."

"Wow, you've been planning this speech for a while."

Buffy shook her head and choked back tears. "I've been up for hours, trying to . . . to rationalize you staying. Like how two fighting is safer than one. But that's wrong. I'm the Slayer. I'll die, that's the deal. But you can live."

"Lucky me." Faith's voice was flat.

"No, it's good." Buffy dropped down onto the bed and took both of Faith's hands in hers. "Okay, it sucks, but I need it to be good. Because I'm stuck here with the duty and the violence and the complete lack of anything resembling a future or a social life, but if I know you're out there somewhere, happy, maybe it'll all be worth something. Okay, that sounded less corny in my head, but this is the right thing, and I have to do it."

"And I just go off and leave you here alone?"

"I've got my watcher," Buffy said. "Sure she's cold and she's distant -- well, less so now that she's comatose and can't ignore me quite so actively -- but she's still human, and she's my responsibility."

Faith reached out and ran her fingertips over the least injured portion of Buffy's lips.

Buffy's bark of entirely unfunny laughter was lost beneath tears. "God this is unfair. I don't even get a proper goodbye kiss."

"I've gotcha covered, B." And Faith leaned forward to press a slow, wet kiss just below her jaw.


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Epilogue

Chicago. October 14, 1998.


Three things surprised Faith. First off, love was real. That was the real kicker. Even more than the vampire thing, or even how one day in late August she had found herself sitting in a stuffy office, filling out paperwork for a GED prep class.

Maybe Faith could have argued more, two months ago, when the first person she'd ever loved had basically kicked her out of town. If she pushed hard enough, Buffy might have caved. But the Slayer gig, it was serious, and if she stayed, if she got Buffy killed -- that couldn't happen.

Buffy Summers loved her. She wasn't a drummer, a loser, or even, as it turned out, a crazy chick. So the world sucked, Faith still had that, and the world couldn't take it away. Even if it sort of did.

So she put in some quality time sulking on the bus out of town and listened to hippy chicks sing in some suitably dingy bars, but then she did what Buffy asked. She found herself a life, a job, and -- sooner than she would have guessed -- even a girlfriend. She tried not to think about vampires and slayers and the Watcher's Council. When someone with the absurd name of Wesley left messages on her machine, she ignored them. If she got chosen or called or whatever, she'd find the thing that took out Buffy and kick its ass. But she decided to hope for the best -- a thing she'd probably never done in her life -- because with Buffy slaying vampires, the world had a shot, and maybe she had a shot at a decent life, too.


Cleveland. October 14, 1998.


Buffy hurried to make her bed. Well, make wasn't entirely accurate. This was more of an unmaking, really. She tucked a pillow under the blankets, so that if her dad looked in before she got in from patrol, he'd see what he wanted to see -- his daughter making curfew on a school night. Not that she intended to actually go to school, of course. She gave her handiwork a critical eye, and then carefully rumpled the blankets for added realism.

Her eyes fell on an exposed bit of the bottom sheet, where -- despite gallons of bleach -- the only slightly faded smear of tattoo ink formed the shape of a broken heart, a well placed wrinkle widening the divide where Faith's name belonged.

In her daydreams, Faith was back in Boston -- or maybe Chicago or LA, it depended on the daydream, really -- getting on with a life chock full of love and friendship and really great leather pants. She hoped her imagination was at least somewhat accurate, and hoped that Faith's was less so.

She glanced at her own entire lack of fashion. Her post-coma Watcher was all about following the handbook, right down to the utilitarian military dress code and the mandatory diary keeping. At least the handbook was free of the sorts of lame group activities that plagued her school life when she bothered to show up; Buffy didn't play well with others these days.

In fact, if her watcher kept after her about the calisthenics and other assorted methods of wasting her time, their relationship would really see a drastic togetherness reduction.

As she climbed out the window, she caught a glimpse of a lonely star peeking out between the clouds. For a moment, she stared up at it, and wished her clandestine plans involved less slaying of demons, and more sneaking off to a club with her hot girlfriend, or even just some good friends. Hell, with cool enough friends, she'd settle for a group mope about romantic failure over mochachinos and homework.

Maybe in a better world, but Buffy Summers had to live in this one.


Sunnydale. December 8, 1998.


Anyanka popped back to show Cordelia her true face -- she always loved that part -- and exited stage center in a dramatic puff of smoke. A good fairy, Cordelia called her, as she watched the altered timeline catch up to the present. Maybe she should put that on her business cards. So many people shied away from vengeance lately, but maybe with the right spin and a little marketing . . .






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This transformative work constitutes a fair use of any copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. Buffy the Vampire Slayer™© and related properties exist as Registered Trademarks of Mutant Enemy. No copyright infringement intended. No profits made here. © Spiletta42, March 2011.