DISCLAIMER: Buffy and Her Friends are owned by Joss Whedon and a bunch of suits. I'm altering their realities for fun, not profit, as I own nothing and have the credit report to prove it.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Season 7. Dialogue from End of Days by by Douglas Petrie & Jane Espenson. Dialogue from Chosen by Joss Whedon. Stand Back Up by Kristen Hall and Kristian Bush is from Sugarland's Twice the Speed of Life CD. If you haven't heard them, check them out, cause they're awesome. This song stayed in my head the entire time I wrote this and the lyrics are shown here without permission or profit.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Stand Back Up
Go ahead and take your best shot,
Let 'er rip, give it all you've got,
I'm laid out on the floor, but I've been here before,
I may stumble, yeah I might fall,
Only human aren't we all?
I might lose my way, but hear me when I say,
I will stand back up,
You'll know just the moment when I've have enough,
Sometimes I'm afraid, and I don't feel that tough,
But I'll stand back up,
I've been beaten up and bruised,
I've been kicked right off my shoes,
Been down on my knees more times than you'd believe,
When the darkness tries to get me,
There's a light that just won't let me,
It might take my pride, and my tears may fill my eyes,
But I'll stand back up,
I've weathered all these storms,
But I just turn them into wind, so I can fly,
What don't kill you makes you stronger,
When I take my last breath,
That's when I'll just give up,
So, go ahead to take your best shot,
Let 'er rip, give it all you've got,
You might win this round but you can't keep me down,
'Cause I'll stand back up,
And you'll know just the moment when I've had enough,
Sometimes I'm afraid and I don't feel that tough,
But I'll stand back up,
You'll know just the moment when I've had enough,
Sometimes I'm afraid and I don't feel that tough,
But I'll stand back up.
Buffy moved quietly, staying in the shadows. The Bringers were loud at least, and she could hear them coming, but there was nothing like that around her. Only graves and silence. And Faith. "Faith?"
"What are you doing here?"
"Got sprung, thought I'd see what's happenin' in the 'Dale. Looks like you got your hands full."
"What do you want?" Buffy asked impatiently. She had two more graves to get to before leaving this cemetery.
"I don't want nothin', B."
"Faith, you always want something." Buffy was losing her temper. "And I don't have time for your games. If you're here for revenge, bring it on."
Faith chuckled. "I don't wanna fight, B."
"That's a first."
"Gimme a break."
"I'd love to." Buffy smiled coldly. "Get to the point."
"C'mon, B, don'tcha miss me a little?"
"No." Buffy walked toward Faith. She meant to bang into her shoulder, but walked through her. "Shit," she said softly.
"What's a matter, B? Didn't know you have my blood on your perfect hands?"
"I really don't have time for this," Buffy answered over her shoulder and kept walking.
The thing that looked like Faith kept pace a few feet behind her.
Buffy found the fresh grave she was looking for. A hand broke through the dirt. She leaned over, grabbed it, and pulled its owner onto a stake.
Buffy ignored the familiar voice and broke into a jog. The other grave was at the far side of the cemetery. As she got there, the vampire freed itself. Buffy didn't give it a chance to react. She disabled it with a kick, and quickly staked it. She expected another comment in Faith's voice, but it appeared she was alone again, and spooked enough to call it an early night.
Willow was the last one awake in the house. She was still researching something Dawn had found earlier that evening.
Willow squeaked and jumped in her seat before turning to her left to see Faith lounging against the wall. She got up and started backing away, trying to think of a spell that wouldn't finish destroying Buffy's house.
"C'mon, Red, relax. If I was gonna hurt you, I'da done it all ready."
Willow cast a binding spell at Faith, flinging her hands forward with the final words.
Faith laughed and moved from the wall. "That's not gonna help ya, Red. None of your little tricks can help."
"I'm not afraid of you," Willow said defiantly.
Faith laughed again. "You should be," she said, and drew into a point of light before disappearing.
Willow took a deep breath to calm herself, and went back to work. A little later, the door opened, and Willow turned from her laptop to see Buffy come in.
"You won't believe who I saw." Buffy said.
"Faith," Willow answered flatly. "I all ready called Los Angeles. She's out of jail, but she's with them, so it wasn't really her."
"I didn't know she died," Buffy said.
"She said it was me."
"What was you?"
"She said I killed her."
"Buffy, she's alive. I swear. I talked to Cordelia half an hour ago. If you call now, you can talk to her. Faith, not Cordelia, but I guess if you want to talk to Cordy you can."
"That means there's another Slayer out there somewhere."
"That's what I'm working on now. I all ready left a message for Giles. I guess he'll get it whenever he can."
"Where is he now?"
"I'm not sure, but he said he'll be back on Thursday."
Buffy stood tiredly and thought. Her stomach had been in knots since the first syllable she heard in Faith's voice. She thought she had washed Faith's blood from her hands long ago, but looking at them again tonight, she could see it, feel the slick warmth and see the look on Faith's face. She had been surprised and grateful, and in her darker moments, Buffy completely understood that look.
"You haven't died have you?" Buffy asked.
"I don't think so. Not in this dimension anyway, and it's the only one that counts right now." Willow got up and took a tentative step toward Buffy. "You all right?"
Buffy choked out a laugh. "Peachy."
"I don't believe you."
"You weren't supposed to." Buffy took a deep breath. "I don't know what to do."
"Hot chocolate," Willow decided. "C'mon." She held her hand out to Buffy.
Buffy looked at Willow's hand for a few seconds before joining her own to it. She let Willow bring her to the kitchen. Buffy leaned against the counter while Willow made hot chocolate for them. "The brats ate the marshmallows," Willow apologized.
"It's all right."
"You all right about Faith?"
"I will be. I mean, I'm still one up on her," Buffy tried to joke.
"Not funny." Willow put her drink down.
"I never thought about it. The whole time she was in the hospital, nobody ever said anything."
"How do you know?"
"I visited," Buffy admitted quietly. "I felt so guilty. If I had done things different," her voice faded out.
"It wouldn't have mattered," Willow said firmly.
"How can you be so sure?"
"It's just another thing," Buffy said after a few seconds. "Thanks for the chocolate," she smiled, and left the kitchen. She went upstairs, to her room, and picked up her phone. She carried it to the bathroom and closed and locked all the doors before dialing Angel Investigations. Before Cordelia finished her greeting, Buffy cut her off. "Hey, Cordy, it's Buffy."
"I thought you'd call." Cordelia covered the mouthpiece, but Buffy heard her call Faith anyway. "She'll be here in a minute. How are you?"
"Not bad, I guess. How's everybody up there?"
"We're fine. You should come for a visit."
"Here she is." Cordelia handed off the phone.
"When did you die?"
"I dunno, B. I didn't stick around to check the charts or nothin', ya know."
"Just another day at the office," Buffy answered. "Later."
Buffy returned the phone and went back downstairs. She stood behind Willow's chair.
"I found her," Willow said.
"I'll call Giles. Where is she?"
"I'm not sure."
"You said you found her."
"I got her name from the Council records. I'm still trying to find out where she is. Their records are a mess."
"Getting blown up will do that to you."
"No, I think it's just an attempt at encryption or else they are truly technology impaired."
"Well, Giles is their finest graduate," Buffy said, and both women laughed. "I talked to Faith."
"How is she?"
"She didn't know she died."
The ringing telephone interrupted Buffy, and she hurried to answer it. "Hello."
"I died?" Faith asked.
"What's that mean?"
Buffy sighed. "You know about the First, right?"
"Big evil. Uses dead people to talk. I ran into you in a cemetery tonight, only it wasn't you. Only way that could happen is if you died."
"Does the Council know?"
"Damn," Faith repeated.
"Will's trying to find her now."
"You want me to come down?"
"No," Buffy said firmly.
"Yes. Last thing I need right now is two of you."
"I think I'm hurt."
"Whatever, Faith. I'll call if I need anything from you."
"Later, B." Faith handed the phone back to Cordelia, who returned it to the cradle without checking whether Buffy was still on the line.
"What was that about?" Cordelia asked.
"Slayer stuff," Faith answered, and turned away, struggling with the idea that she had died at some point years ago. Finally, she took a deep breath and crossed it off her short list of things to fear. That still left returning to Sunnydale in the number one spot.
Two months later
Buffy came in from patrol to a quiet house. She went upstairs and opened her bedroom door, and was surprised to see Willow on her bed, huddled over her laptop.
"You all right?" Buffy asked cautiously while closing the door.
Willow nodded without looking up from the screen.
"Then why are you here?"
"I'm hiding," Willow sighed.
"From," Buffy coaxed.
"What did she do now?" Buffy put her jacket on a hanger and bent over to unzip her boots.
"She scares me, Buffy."
Buffy stood up and and turned around. She did her best to calm herself before asking, "Did she hurt you?"
Willow looked at Buffy. She recognized the look on Buffy's face, but she hadn't seen it since Oz took off. "No, she didn't touch me," Willow said, and looked back to the screen. "Not for lack of trying," she muttered.
Buffy continued to undress. She dropped her clothes in the hamper and got a sleep shirt and flannel pants from under her pillow. "Are you gonna make me pull it outta you?"
"What? No, sorry." Willow closed the laptop and pushed it away. "She's all flirty but in a coming on too strong way. The way she looks at me is almost as bad as being groped." Willow shivered.
"Want me to talk to her?" Buffy sat on the bed.
"Would you? I mean, I've told her I'm not interested, but she won't take no for an answer and she's sleeping in my bed and I can't sleep with her because she'll think it means something else and"
"It's ok, Will," Buffy smiled. "I'll talk to her tomorrow. You can sleep with me tonight," she leered, teasing, but not.
Willow blushed and threw Buffy a dirty look. "Can I borrow some pajamas? I really don't want to got in there."
"Help yourself." Buffy yawned and stood up. She pulled the covers back and got into bed.
But she didn't go to sleep until Willow was tucked in beside her.
Buffy came home from work with a plan. She intended to act like an adult and explain carefully to Kennedy that Willow wasn't interested and it would be in Kennedy's best interests to leave the redhead alone.
Instead, as soon as she came in, she saw that Kennedy literally had Willow cornered. Buffy saw red and charged the younger Slayer. She grabbed Kennedy's shoulder and swung her around.
"Hey!" Kennedy protested.
"Shut up!" Buffy growled.
"Buffy," Willow said sharply.
Buffy looked at her. "I'll handle this, Willow." She maintained her grip on Kennedy and marched her through the house. Kennedy protested the entire way.
They would have had an audience except that once Buffy shoved Kennedy through the back door, Dawn barricaded it and stared down the potentials with Buffy's glare.
"What is your problem?" Kennedy demanded.
Buffy stepped into her space. They were separated by inches. "I'm going to use little words so you understand me," Buffy said in a threatening growl. "Willow is mine. You don't look at her. You don't talk to her. You don't touch her. Understand?"
"No," Kennedy answered defiantly.
"Which part isn't clear?"
"All of it. You don't act like her girlfriend. She didn't say anything about you being her girlfriend. Dawn said"
"I don't care what Dawn said. I don't even care what Willow said. This is a warning. Next time, I won't be nice. Am. I. Clear?"
Kennedy stared angrily at Buffy. She was used to getting her way, and she wanted Willow. She wondered what, exactly, Buffy would do if she crossed her.
As if reading her mind, Buffy grabbed Kennedy's arm and used it to spin the girl around. She jerked her arm up behind her back. Kennedy squawked at the unexpected pain and pressure. Buffy hissed into her ear, "Leave her alone."
"All right, all right," Kennedy conceded, and Buffy released her. She went back into the house and went upstairs, pointedly ignoring the girls she passed.
Buffy knocked on Willow's door, and opened it before she answered.
Willow was at the window, and turned to look at Buffy. "I thought you were gonna talk to her."
"That looked more like threatening."
Buffy shrugged. "I had to get her attention."
"And what did you say while you had it? I don't wanna hear it from the grapevine."
Buffy looked at the floor and mumbled "I told her you're my girlfriend."
Willow frowned and blinked. "I'm sorry?"
Buffy sighed and closed the door. She crossed the room. "I told her you're my girlfriend," she repeated.
"Why'd you do that?"
"Well, I didn't really say it. I kinda insinuated it."
"Begging the question much?"
"C'mon, Willow, you wanted her to leave you alone. I promise she'll do it."
"Because she's afraid of you."
"She should be afraid of me," Buffy said. "I'm the one keeping her skinny butt alive, and feeding her, and making sure she has a chance."
"Is that how you feel about me?"
Buffy's eyes widened. "No, that's not how I feel about you." She smiled and tried to lighten the situation. "Besides, you pay rent."
"Again, not the point."
Buffy sighed. After a few seconds, she said, "I guess you want me to apologize."
"That's up to you."
"Just tell me what you want me to do," Buffy asked.
"I'm not going to tell you what to do. You never listen anyway."
"Will, you know that's not true."
"Oh, right, I forgot, you listen when I tell you what you want to hear."
"No," Buffy said patiently. "I listen to everything you tell me. Then I ignore your advice. Some of the time anyway. 'Cause otherwise, they'd say I'm whipped," she muttered.
Willow laughed, despite herself. "What am I gonna do with you?"
Buffy had several ideas, but was too afraid to voice any of them. She knew how fragile and uncertain Willow still was. It was less than a year since Tara was taken from them, and a few short months since Willow returned from England. Buffy watched her every day, and saw that she struggled far more now than she had dealing with the twin problems of her magick addiction and Tara's separation. She smiled brightly at Willow. "You're gonna patrol with me tonight and buy me a double fudge mocha."
Willow laughed again. "It's a date."
Kennedy waited until Buffy was gone from the house to politely apologize to Willow. Willow accepted her apology without correcting the impression Buffy left with the younger girl.
Buffy rocked back on her heels. The demon was stronger than anything she'd faced before. She felt a moment of fear and wondered for a split second whether this was how Faith felt as she fell from the roof. Faith had been on her mind ever since Angel suggested she return to Sunnydale. Willow was on her way to Los Angeles, alone because they couldn't spare anyone to go with her. The ugly demon charged again, and she was able kick it and spin away. It reminded her of something she had seen in a movie at Lowell House with Riley, but she couldn't bring up the details.
The demon was on her again before she could fully recover, and backhanded her into a brick wall. Buffy lost her breath and saw stars, and those seconds cost her dearly. It covered the ground quickly and beat on her. She felt a rib crack, then another, and her vision went red on the right side. She shook the blood away and ducked under its next swing, running as quickly as she could. Along the way, she picked up a steel pipe, and turned, swinging it at the demon's knees. While it was down, she battered it until the pipe broke.
Buffy jumped on its back and pulled a large knife from her jacket. She yanked its head back and began sawing at its throat. In pain and enraged, it managed to shake her loose. Buffy pushed herself up from the concrete into an open handed slap that knocked her twenty feet into a pile of steel drums. They toppled over her, making a small cave where she tried to catch her breath. It was still coming for her, but slower, and she felt a brief surge of hope. She was ready when it lifted a barrel from over her head, and pushed three on it with her feet. While it struggled, she pushed herself away, looking everywhere for anything that could be used as a weapon.
She knew she didn't have much left in her, and when her eye found a splintered 4x4, she thought of Faith again, and how she had run Kakistos through with a beam. She tucked into a roll and came up next to the lumber. She heard footsteps and grabbed the wood, then turned. Buffy aimed as well as she could through one eye, and took off running toward the demon. The impact between Slayer and demon drove the wood half its length into the thing's chest, but it stayed up.
Buffy didn't care. She was exhausted and knew she had to get home before anything else happened. She left the warehouse as quickly as she could, limping on a knee and ankle that suddenly screamed, and pulled a cell phone from a pocket. She held down the 2 button until the ringing began. Fortunately, it was Giles who answered. "I need a ride," she said hoarsely.
"Where are you?"
"Warehouse about three blocks east of the Bronze," she panted, still moving. "I'll probably be there."
"Hurry." She flipped the phone shut and looked over her shoulder. It was coming, but moving slower than she was, so she began scouring the alley for anything else she could use as a weapon. Buffy didn't waste any breath voicing the stream of curses running through her head, and that, too, made her think of Faith. 'Then stay alive until you see her, damn it,' she ordered herself and moved just a little faster despite the grating of bone against bone inside her boot.
Somehow, she made it to the Bronze, and the doorman pulled her inside and put her on his stool. "You all right?" he asked uncertainly.
"Do I look all right?" she asked archly. "Keep an eye out for a red BMW. It's my ride."
"No problem. You need a drink or something?"
"Please. And thanks, Pete."
He keyed a radio and told the bartender to bring him two bottles of water immediately, in a tone that ensured they would be delivered quickly. "No problem, Buffy."
"Look, if you can, you should get outta town. Sooner the better."
"Nah, I trust you. After graduation, well, let's say that if you need me, all you gotta do is ask." He took the bottles from the bartender and opened one before handing it to her.
Buffy drained it in a few seconds, and he handed her the second bottle. "Thanks."
"No problem. And there's your ride."
Buffy slid down from the stool and grimaced at the impact reverberating through her injured leg. She managed to walk to the car and get in, moving much slower than normal. As soon as she closed the door, Giles clicked the electric locks into place and made a quick u-turn. "What happened?"
"Huge, ugly demon. Tough as nails. One of those turban thingies."
"Did you kill it?"
"No. I'm lucky it didn't kill me." Buffy reached between the seat and the door and laid the seat back. Her back was beginning to ache, and she had a knot on her head, as she found when she leaned into the headrest. "Have you heard from Willow?"
"She arrived in Los Angeles an hour ago. She and Faith will be here tomorrow afternoon."
Buffy turned to look at him. His profile was clear against the dash lights. "Why not tonight?"
"Willow said she needs to take care of a few things while she has the opportunity."
"You can call her, you know."
"Yeah, I know." Buffy sighed.
"Are you ever going to tell her?"
"No, Giles, I'm not, and neither are you," Buffy said firmly.
Willow sat alone at a table and watched women dance together. She felt lighter away from all the pressure and insanity of the Hellmouth. There was just so much, and Buffy looking at her oddly all the time, as if she were unsure just who Willow was. There were times when Willow understood the look.
Faith moved into the chair next to her and shed her leather jacket. "Didn't expect to see you here."
A waitress brought over a tray of drinks and set it on the table. Faith smiled charmingly at her and slipped her $10. She'd paid for the drinks at the bar.
"I figured you'd like at least one of 'em." Faith pulled two dark glasses from the tray and handed one to Willow.
"Why are you doing this?" Willow asked.
"Cause it's easier than telling you how sorry I am. And it's the last chance I'll have to have some fun for a while." Faith downed half the glass. "C'mon, Red, it's just a drink between old enemies."
"I'm not your enemy, Faith." Willow sipped cautiously and made a face. She put the drink in front of Faith and pulled another glass from the tray.
"Good." Faith finished the first drink. "I'm not your enemy either. Don't know what that makes us, though."
"A lot more alike than either of us ever thought." Willow slurped down the first of three red gelatin shooters.
"Can't blame you for what you did."
"C'mon, he murdered your girl. He got what he deserved."
"And if I ended the world that day, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
"True," Faith grinned. "But you can't go by ifs. Besides, I'm enjoyin' our conversation."
Willow smiled. "I am, too."
"Don't worry, I won't tell your Scooby pals." Faith finished off her second drink. "You're fallin' behind."
"Queen C took your car back to the hotel."
"I didn't hurt it. You should put your spare key somewhere a little harder to find."
"I don't believe you." Willow's tone was exasperated, but not hostile.
"C'mon, Red, relax. We'll catch a cab." Faith put the other two shooters in front of Willow and grabbed a shot glass for herself. "Drink your drinks and we'll dance a little."
Willow looked at her suspiciously. "Why?"
"Why not?" Faith tipped the shot glass and Willow watched her muscles contract and release.
"Why not?" she echoed and slurped down the shooters in a few seconds. Faith stood up and offered her hand, and Willow let Faith lead her to the dance floor.
Faith danced the same way she had all those years ago, moving effortlessly with the music. Willow didn't try to match her. They stayed in the middle of the dance floor longer than she wanted to, and she was about to return to the table when the music slowed. Willow didn't have an opportunity to move away before Faith gathered her close. Willow followed her automatically. Her brain seized up for a few moments before launching into three separate babbles at the same time.
"You all right?" Faith asked softly.
"Need to go?"
"I don't know what I need," Willow answered absently.
"I know the feeling," Faith answered, and pulled Willow closer. Willow hummed with power, and it set Faith's Slayer sense at attention, not that she wasn't paying attention anyway.
Willow giggled as the alcohol finally engaged. "Last time we were this close, you had a knife to my throat."
"My technique's improved since then."
"I'm really sorry," Faith said softly.
"Me, too. Can we stop saying that now? I mean, it was a long time ago, and we were young and stupid."
The slow song ended, and Faith led Willow back to their table. They each picked another drink from the tray and clicked the glasses together before drinking.
"How bad is it, really?"
"Way worse than the mayor." Willow stared at the table for a few moments. "I'm not sure we can do it this time," she confessed.
"Damn," Faith swore softly.
"What else do I need to know?"
Willow shrugged. "The house is insanely crowded. Spike's in the basement, the potentials are everywhere. The First pops up wherever, whenever, looking like the person you most want to see, and tells lies. Bringers are everywhere, and they aren't worried about sunlight. Every night, Buffy sees some new demon we've never seen before. Everything in Sunnydale is falling apart, people leaving right and left."
"How's B?" Faith asked cautiously, and Willow shrugged again.
Before answering, she pulled the last shooter from the tray and sucked it down. "Stressed," she decided. "Buffy is definitely stressed."
"Huh." Faith finished the last shot and pushed the tray of empty glasses to the other side of the table. "Another round?" she asked.
"Nah, I'm good."
"You're always better than that."
"Remember that," Willow said.
"You up for patrol?"
"Sure. I just need to, um, use the bathroom first."
"No problem. I'll meet you at the door." As soon as Willow left, Faith went to the bar and bought two bottles of rum. She slipped them into interior pockets in her jacket and went to wait for Willow at the door.
Willow was there quicker than Faith would have thought possible. She'd paced the bathroom hallway a few times, trying to process her many thoughts. The alcohol, Willow noticed, helped her feel less frantic than her many frenetic chains of thought normally did, and she kept the promise she'd made herself months ago, sitting under a huge oak tree in England. "Where to?" she asked Faith, who offered her jacket.
"This way," Faith moved her head toward the right.
They prowled through alleys, talking occasionally and taking turns destroying vampires. Faith took care of the few human troublemakers they found, a pimp beating a girl and two muggers. They looked at each other sometimes, noting the differences of time and trouble, and looked away guiltily if caught.
After three hours, they were back at the bar, and took advantage of a recently deserted booth. Willow slid in, and Faith sat beside her. The waitress arrived promptly, and Faith ordered three rum and cokes for herself and half a dozen shooters for Willow, plus a soda and some water.
"The mojo's impressive."
"That's one way to put it."
"You never could take a compliment."
"Some things never change," Willow said.
Faith shrugged her jacket off. "Everything changes," she chuckled, and helped Willow with her coat.
"So what's next on your agenda tonight?"
"Few more drinks, a little dancing." Faith grinned easily at Willow. "You up for it?"
"Yeah," Willow said confidently.
"Cool." Faith saw their waitress coming and dug in her pocket. She handed her a fifty and waved her away before she could make change.
Willow's eyebrow went up and she asked, "You always tip like that?"
"When I can, so, you know, she'll be here to check on us later and we'll get what we want without waiting forever. And it's a suckass job. Plus, that guy, you know, volunteered his wallet." Faith chugged her first drink and pushed the empty glass away. "C'mon, Red, I wanna dance."
Willow nodded and did two shooters in quick succession. "I'm all yours."
"Now you're just teasin'," Faith said as she got up.
"Oh, please, you don't want me."
"You'd be surprised what I want," Faith answered, and took Willow's hand.
They again worked their way to the center of the dance floor. It made Willow feel faintly claustrophobic, but she pushed it away and danced with Faith. When the slow song came, she leaned against Faith, who smiled, and again when the slow music ended, they went back to their seats. This time, they finished all the drinks before getting up to dance. Willow was more relaxed this time, and moved easily with the music and in counterpoint to Faith. They left the dance floor before the music slowed again, and returned to their table to find fresh drinks in addition to the ones they left.
Willow slid in first again, and slurped two more shooters before emptying her water glass. Faith finished another rum and coke.
"What now?" Willow asked.
"Drinks." Faith nodded at the table.
They drank silently, and when the music turned quiet again, Faith asked, "You wanna?"
"Sure," Willow answered, and let Faith take her back to the dance floor.
Faith pulled Willow against her again, and they both sighed. At the end of the third song, they left the dance floor again. This time, the table was empty except for Faith's last drink and a fresh glass of water for Willow. They didn't bother to sit down, just grabbed the glasses and chugged. Faith leaned into the booth and came up with Willow's jacket. She helped her into it before getting her own. They left the bar again, and on the sidewalk, Faith put her arm around Willow. Willow leaned against Faith, her arm around Faith's waist, and wondered how they would find a cab in this neighborhood.
Faith led them four blocks away, to a well-lit, busy street, and after a few tries flagged down a taxi for them. She pushed Willow in first, and gave the driver the address as she closed the door. The cab lurched into motion immediately as the driver made an illegal u-turn across three lanes of traffic. Willow was thrown into Faith, who righted both of them. "You all right?" she asked Willow.
"Yeah. Thanks. It's been a much better evening than I thought it would be."
"Oh, we're not done yet." Faith grinned.
Willow raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"
"Trust me, Red, it'll be good."
"All right," Willow said and yawned. She leaned against Faith and dozed lightly.
When the cab finally stopped in front of the Hyperion, Faith paid the driver and woke Willow. She was obviously out on her feet, and Faith gave up her plan for company for the rest of the night. She walked Willow to her room, got her jacket and shoes off, and put her on the bed. The room temperature was comfortable, so she didn't bother to cover Willow. She took off her jacket and dropped it beside the only chair in the room. Then she got one of the bottles of rum from her jacket and sat back to watch Willow sleep.
Faith's thoughts unnerved her. It was bad enough she was going back to Sunnydale, back into Buffy's turf. Buffy was still angry with her, and the others always followed her lead. But Willow, who had been optimistic in the face of insurmountable odds before, even against the wall with Faith's huge knife at her throat, was genuinely frightened that they might not survive. Of course, living was frequently overrated, Faith believed. She sighed, thinking how very much she hated Sunnydale, and drank deeply from the bottle.
Willow sat up. "Come and lay down," she said, and slid over to make room for Faith.
"Thought you were sleepin'," Faith said while she screwed the cap back on the bottle.
"I don't sleep much," Willow said.
"Me neither." Faith stood and stretched before moving to the bed. She sat down and removed her boots before laying beside Willow. She was careful to leave space between them. "Night, Red."
After ten minutes, both were still awake. "You said we weren't finished," Willow said softly.
"I was gonna show you something."
Willow sat up. "So show me."
Faith swallowed hard at the challenge in Willow's tone. Then she sat up and pulled her boots on. Willow got out of bed and located her shoes. "You'll need your jacket," Faith said.
Willow nodded and picked it up. Faith got hers, too, and the open bottle of rum, before holding the door open for Willow.
They went up onto the roof. There were chairs and a table, and they sat, taking in the city.
"Great view," Willow said.
"I come up here to think," Faith said. She put both bottles on the table. Willow surprised her by taking the open one and taking a swallow.
"What are you thinking now?" Willow asked.
"Tryin' not to," Faith answered.
"Never works." Willow raised her bottle to Faith, who tapped the other against it. "Here's to the end of the world."
"Not gonna happen."
After a long silence and several sips, Willow said, "I wish I didn't have to go back."
"Me, too. Sunnydale's the last damn place I ever wanna see again."
"And yet we're going."
"Yeah." Faith took another swig. "You look good."
"What the fuck happened?"
"When?" Willow finished the bottle and laid it on its side.
"I dunno. Pick a time. Sorry, I'm just ramblin'."
"It's all right. I do it all the time."
"Yeah, but on you, it's cute."
"Faith, you've been flirting with me all night. Is there a reason or is it what you do now?"
"Some of both." Faith offered the second bottle to Willow and watched her drink. "You should be hammered."
Willow shrugged. "I don't get drunk anymore. Not since, uh, I tried so hard to forget everything, and it didn't work. Just made everything brighter." She sighed. "I miss Tara so bad."
"I wish everyone would stop saying that. I'm so tired of it, of everything. The people who know me best walk around me scared like they're afraid I'll go all Darth Willow again. I could, but I won't, but they don't see that."
"I know the feelin'," Faith said.
"Yeah, I guess you do." Willow took another swig and handed the bottle back to Faith.
She emptied it and laid it by its partner. "If it's any comfort, I'm not afraid of you."
"You should be."
"You threatenin' me, Witch?"
"No, Slayer, just stating a fact." Willow turned to Faith and let her eyes darken with magick.
Faith felt Willow calling power to her, but just looked at her until Willow let it go. "You done bein' badass?"
"Good." Faith slid her chair closer to Willow's and put her arm around her. Willow laid her head on Faith's shoulder, and Faith absently kissed the top of her head.
"What do you want?"
"Right now, just this," Faith answered softly.
"K." Willow answered, and looked up. She saw nothing except the reflected glow of millions of lights. "How do you live without seeing the stars?"
"I'm not in a cage."
"I wish they'd've done that to me. It would've been easier."
"Trust me, Red, it ain't easy. No privacy, never a moment to think, always lookin' behind you and hopin' that's not the moment that the one in front of you takes a shot. Power struggle all the time, and you can never be yourself, except maybe in the middle of the night for just a few seconds."
"I wanted to visit but Angel said not to."
"I got your letters."
"Why didn't you answer?"
"What was I gonna say?"
"You never give up, do you?"
"Only the one time, and that's why we're here enjoying all the pollution."
Faith chuckled. "I'm glad you came."
"I volunteered. Needed to get away for a few hours. Plus, you know, if you were still psycho bitch, I could do something about it. What's another black mark when your soul's all ready gone?"
"Your soul's just fine."
"When I die, the First gets it," Willow said softly. "That was the price for bringing Buffy back. A soul for a soul."
"Damn, girl, when you go over the edge, you go all the way."
"You say the sweetest things," Willow said. She raised her head from Faith's shoulder and kissed her.
Faith didn't hesitate. She moved her hand up Willow's back to the back of her head. When they stopped, she asked, "Why?"
"Why not? You're gorgeous, Faith, and you've been flirting with me all night. Isn't this what you want?"
"What do you want?" Faith asked, raising her free hand to stroke Willow's cheek.
"You," Willow answered, surprising both of them with her directness, and kissed Faith again.
Faith struggled with herself, then gave in. Willow was beautiful and strong enough now to choose to leave or take whatever Faith offered. They broke for air, and Willow moved from her seat to Faith's lap. She straddled Faith and kissed her again, reveling in the taste of rum and the smells surrounding Faith, leather, shampoo, vampire dust and something darker.
Faith stood up, and Willow locked her long legs around her waist. Faith navigated them downstairs to her room. She opened the door and kicked it closed, and laid Willow on the bed, holding her there with her weight. "You sure this is what you want?" she asked huskily.
"Yes," Willow answered firmly, and pulled Faith down.
"Where is she?" Buffy grumbled softly after leaving a fourth voice mail for Willow. She was propped against the headboard of her bed, debating taking more of the pills Giles left on the table for her. He stitched her up, wrapped her ribs, ankle, and knee, all of which had been iced three times. The heat of their healing made her uncomfortable, and Willow's silence made it worse.
Dawn came in. "You need anything?"
"Why aren't you in bed?"
"My night to play nurse. Anya's exhausted, Giles went home, and I know you don't want Andrew near you."
Buffy shuddered at the thought of being a captive audience to Andrew. "Is there any ice cream?" she asked hopefully.
"I'll see," Dawn said. A few minutes later, she came back with a carton, two spoons, and a glass of water. She handed the water to Buffy. "Giles said you should take two more pills if you were still awake."
"We'll see," Buffy answered, and took the water and a spoon from Dawn as she settled beside her sister. They ate ice cream without talking.
When the carton was empty, Dawn stood up and said, "Take the pills, Buffy. You need to sleep." She fixed her best glare on Buffy, who was torn between giggles and tears at the look on Dawn's face, so much like the one their mother had used in conjunction with her best mom voice, but she took the pills. Dawn nodded. "Yell if you need anything else," she said, and turned off the light on her way out of the room.
Buffy did relaxation exercises while she waited for the pills to kick in, and soon was asleep.
Faith woke with a start, causing Willow to make an unhappy noise. Faith looked at the nude redhead sprawled across her and grinned cockily. She'd wanted Willow since, well, forever, and here they were, and it had been Willow's idea. Neither of them had been drunk, despite the volume of alcohol involved, and Willow had shown Faith a few new tricks.
Faith looked at the clock on the far wall. It was nearly 11 a.m., and she began waking Willow with kisses and soft touches. It took a few minutes, but the smile on Willow's face when she looked up at her was worth it. Willow slid up Faith and kissed her. "Hey."
"Hey yourself. It's almost 11. We need to get goin' soon."
"Wish we didn't."
"Me, too," Faith answered, and sighed before looking at Willow again. "Shower?"
They showered together, and it turned into a quickie in the stall before they cleaned up and rinsed off. Willow, wrapped in a towel with another around her head, waited on the bed while Faith dressed and packed. Faith gathered Willow's clothes from the night before, and they set off for Willow's room. Willow dressed quickly and put her dirty clothes back in her bag before turning to Faith. "That's it," she said, her tone flat.
Faith came to her and pulled Willow into a hug. Willow wrapped her arms around Faith, and they stood in the room for a minute without speaking. When Willow pulled away, Faith let her go, but caught one hand. "You all right?"
Willow nodded. "We should go."
"All right," Faith said, but didn't move. After another minute, Willow pulled away. She picked up her jacket and bag, and Faith did the same. They left the room and took the stairs down to the lobby. It was empty, and they walked out to find Willow's car parked in front of the exit. They threw their things in the back seat and started off for Sunnydale. Willow stopped for a fast food meal and coffee before they got on the freeway.
The silence between them was comfortable. When she finished eating, Faith shifted in her seat so she could look at Willow. "Thanks for last night," she said.
"My pleasure," Willow answered.
"I hope we can do it again."
Willow glanced at Faith. "Talking or sex?" she asked, blushing and hating herself for it.
"Both. Maybe some more dancing."
Willow considered while switching lanes. "I'd like that," she said.
Faith smiled, relieved that they reached an understanding, and put her hand on Willow's shoulder. Willow turned her head and dropped a quick kiss on Faith's fingers. "Cool." With her free hand, Faith turned on the sound system. When she heard Aretha Franklin, she turned up the volume.
They didn't talk after that until they were closer to Sunnydale. "My phone's in my bag. Will you get it?"
"Sure." Faith unbuckled her seatbelt so she could stretch to reach the bag without getting choked.
"Outside pocket," Willow said.
Faith found it easily and moved back into her seat. She fastened her seatbelt and waited for Willow's next instruction.
"I need to check whether they need anything. The house is 2 on the speed dial."
Faith nodded and opened the phone. She powered it on, and before dialing, told Willow, "You have a buncha messages."
"I'll get 'em later," Willow answered, and took the exit that would lead them to Sunnydale.
Once the phone was ringing, Faith handed it to Willow. "Hey, Dawnie," she said after a few seconds.
"Where are you?!"
"About half an hour away. Should I stop at the grocery store?"
"Yes. The locusts cleaned us out. There isn't even any crappy cereal left."
Willow laughed. "All right, I'll get a box of Fruity Pebbles just for you." Then she slammed on the brakes. "Shit."
"I'll call you back." Willow closed the phone and put the car in park. Faith was all ready kneeling beside the girl who was bleeding from the abdomen.
"Caleb has a message for the Slayer," the girl whispered as Willow joined Faith.
Faith looked at Willow. "She's not gonna make it."
Willow ignored her. "What's the message?"
"Her turn's coming." The girl's eyes rolled back and she convulsed before dying.
Faith reached for her and Willow's voice stopped her. "Don't. Get in the car. I'll call CHP." Willow made the call before getting back in the car. She handed the phone to Faith and backed up so she could go around the body. "Call Dawn back," she instructed.
Dawn's voice was high and panicked when she answered. "Willow, what happened?"
"It's Faith, D. Some girl was on the road."
"Is she all right?"
"Are you guys all right?"
"Five by five, D. What else do you want us to get?"
"Everything. I'm serious, the cupboards are bare."
"All right, we'll be there as soon as we can."
"See ya," Dawn answered and hung up.
Faith closed the phone. "What the hell was that back there? Who's Caleb and why is he sending me messages?"
"Caleb is the First's chief emissary. The message wasn't for you, he doesn't know about you. I don't think he knows about you."
"What the fuck is goin' on?" Faith demanded softly, suddenly afraid.
"The world's ending, Faith," Willow said. "The First Evil is gathering its forces in the Hellmouth and all we have to fight it is you, Buffy, a brand new Slayer, a Watcher, a reformed Wicca, a one-eyed carpenter, an ex-vengeance demon, a souled vampire, and a bunch of potential Slayers. They all look like they're about 12 and they're all scared silly. All their lives, they've been hearing about Buffy and their sacred duty, and now they find out Buffy's just human, and the Hellmouth is worse than anything they could ever imagine. Their Watchers are dead, most of them barely got away themselves. The Council is gone. Giles is the only one left."
"I thought it was something bad," Faith answered sardonically. "Anything else I need to know?"
"I don't know," Willow answered, suddenly tired, and pulled onto the shoulder. She put the car in park before laying on the steering wheel.
"Red?" Faith asked cautiously. She unbuckled her seatbelt and moved onto the center console so she was closer to Willow. "Willow?"
"I don't want to die," Willow said softly.
"First rule of Slaying," Faith said.
Willow sat up and looked at her. "We're both out of our minds."
"Probably," Faith grinned, relieved that Willow was talking. "You want me to drive?"
"No, I'm all right. Just saying it makes it real, more real."
"This is real, too." Faith kissed Willow gently.
When they separated, Willow smiled at Faith. "Thank you."
Faith winked at her. "My pleasure." She stroked Willow's cheek gently. "We should get goin'. Gotta buncha hungry junior Slayers to feed."
"Yeah," Willow agreed, and Faith slid back into her seat.
The closer they got to Sunnydale, the more traffic they met going the other way. Neither of them said anything as they pulled into the parking lot of the grocery store. It was closed. "Go around back," Faith said.
Willow drove to the rear of the building and parked near the steps on the loading dock. It was open, and they went into the store. The power was still on, and they collected two carts each and began going through the aisles. They were only a third of the way through when the carts were full, and they took them to the car. Faith packed everything into the trunk, and they went back for two more trips. By the time they finished, the only empty space in the car was the front seats.
They hurried to Revello Drive. Dawn was on the porch waiting for them. She launched herself at Willow first and hugged her fiercely. "Is she all right?" Dawn asked quietly.
"She's good," Willow answered, and let Dawn go.
Dawn and Faith looked at each other for a few seconds. Finally, Faith said, "We better get the ice cream inside before it melts. I got extra Chunky Monkey for you."
Dawn grinned and grabbed her. Faith hesitated a moment before returning the hug. Willow watched them, and when they separated, she opened the trunk. Faith opened the back door, and everyone grabbed bags and trooped into the house. Dawn put her bag down and went to the back door. "We need help with the groceries," she called.
Faith was returning for another load when the stampede of potential Slayers buffeted her. "Damn," she said softly and returned to the kitchen. "What was that?"
Dawn laughed. "Welcome to my world," she answered while packing the freezer.
"Potentials," Willow told Faith. "Better stay out of the traffic for now."
"Sixteen," Willow said.
"Seventeen," Dawn contradicted. "Giles brought in one more this morning."
"Does she speak English?"
"Not one word."
Groceries began to fill the counters as the potentials trooped in and out. Dawn and Willow put them away while Faith tried to stay out of the way. "Where's B?" she asked.
"In bed. She got beat up pretty bad last night," Dawn answered.
Willow turned to Dawn. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Just did." Dawn closed the freezer and started loading the refrigerator.
Willow left the kitchen. She went upstairs quickly, and opened Buffy's door cautiously. "Buffy?"
Willow looked carefully at Buffy as she crossed the room. "What happened?"
"Big, ugly demon kicked my ass."
"Will you let me help?"
"Heal you. No offense, but you look awful."
"Sure, as long as it doesn't hurt any more than I hurt now."
Willow frowned. Buffy rarely admitted pain. "It shouldn't," she said, and sat beside Buffy on the bed. Willow took one of Buffy's hands.
Buffy jerked it away. "You're different."
"Something's different," Buffy insisted.
"It's just me, Buffy," Willow said softly.
"In the kitchen, helping with the groceries. And don't change the subject."
Buffy looked out the window but didn't say anything.
"Do you want me to help you?" Willow asked.
Buffy couldn't think of a way to say no, and Willow took her silence as yes. She took Buffy's hand again and after a few moments began feeding energy to the Slayer. Buffy was rigid the entire time, hating the difference in how Willow felt to her, but knowing she had to be back on her feet as soon as possible. It seemed like hours before Willow let her go, although it was barely ten minutes. "Get some rest," Willow said softly.
"Send Faith up."
"No fighting," Willow said firmly from the door.
By the time she returned to the kitchen, most of the groceries were put away and the potentials had returned to the back yard. Faith stood at the door and watched them. She felt Willow coming, but let her approach. Willow put her hand on Faith's shoulder. "Buffy wants to see you."
"I'll be here," Willow said softly. Faith smiled at her and left the kitchen.
Dawn looked at her speculatively. "What's with you two?"
"Hmm? We made our peace."
"All you need to know."
"Buffy's gonna be really pissed when she figures it out."
"When there's something to tell her, I'll tell her," Willow said. "When is Giles coming back?"
"Around four. He took Xander to the doctor."
"She went with him, of course. Andrew's in the basement torturing Spike." Dawn giggled. "I keep expecting to hear screaming, but I'm not sure from who."
Willow smiled. "My money's on Spike." She pushed the last bit of packaging into the trashcan, then tied the bag and removed it. She went out the back door to the can, and paused to watch Kennedy lead the potentials in exercises.
Upstairs, Faith stood in the doorway. "Hey," she said.
"Hey," Buffy answered. "Come in and close the door."
Faith did as Buffy instructed.
"What did Wills tell you?"
"Some idiot's tryin' to end the world on your watch."
"Yeah, except this is the real thing, not some wannabe."
"What's the plan?"
"Stay alive." Buffy looked Faith up and down and glared as she realized what was different about Willow. "If you hurt her, if you make her cry, I will disembowel you and leave you for the vultures," she hissed at Faith.
Faith didn't answer right away. "Fair enough," she said finally. "But I think you'd try a different technique since that one didn't work so well last time."
Buffy sat up, ignoring her body's protest. "Don't push me, Faith."
Faith shrugged. "I was just sayin'." She smirked at Buffy. "You shoulda told her."
"Shut up," Buffy answered darkly, and Faith shrugged again. Buffy continued to stare angrily at Faith. Faith looked blandly back at Buffy while she remembered all the times Buffy directed that look at her.
"I'm here to help," Faith finally said.
"Just like last time?" Buffy asked mockingly.
Faith put her hands up. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry for every time I let you down, everything I did to mess up your life. I wanna make amends. Just tell me what you need me to do."
Buffy reined in her temper. "When Giles gets back, we'll sit down and figure out what to do next. Until then, leave me alone."
Faith nodded and left without saying anything. She closed the door, leaving Buffy to flop back in her bed and stare angrily at the ceiling. She wasn't sure with whom she was furious, and that made it worse. Gradually, she calmed and slipped into sleep.
Faith went downstairs, past Dawn who was preparing pans of chicken for the oven, and out into the back yard. She stood beside Willow and watched the girls. "Who's that?"
"Kennedy. Slayer." Willow smiled. "Reminds me of someone,"
Faith smiled. "I'm way hotter."
"Agreed," Willow answered softly. She waited a few seconds before asking, "What did Buffy say?"
"She didn't hit me or throw anything at me, so I figure we're off to a good start."
"What do we do next?"
"Wait for Giles, apparently," Faith answered.
Willow nodded. "Wanna go for a walk?"
"Sure. I'll tell D."
"Meet you out front."
Faith went in the back door while Willow walked around the house. They met at the sidewalk and turned left, and left again after two blocks. Neither of them talked, but Willow took Faith's hand as soon as they were out of sight of the Summers house. Willow asked, "What did Buffy really say?"
"Didja know she's in love with you?"
"Yeah, right," Willow said derisively.
"Seriously." Faith stopped and turned Willow toward her. "She said she'd gut me again if I hurt you and then she told me to get out."
"Crap. I owe Xander 50 bucks."
Faith laughed, then said gently, "You want her, Red, go get her. She's way better for you than I am anyway."
"How do you know what's better for me?"
Faith turned away and started them walking again.
"Well?" Willow demanded, and when Faith didn't answer, she went on. "You don't. So don't tell me what I need or what's best for me." She jerked her hand angrily from Faith's and pushed at the Slayer. "Go back to the house and take care of them. I'll be back for dinner." Willow crossed the street and continued to walk quickly.
Faith watched her until Willow was out of sight. She sighed and headed for the Summers house, dreading it more with each step.
Willow stalked to the cemetery, her thoughts disjointed. She knelt in the driveway to pick up a handful of small white pebbles and put them in her pocket before making her way to Joyce Summers' grave. She stood there thoughtfully for a few moments, then placed one of the pebbles beside those all ready on the marker. She turned to the grave next to it, Buffy's marker still in place. She knelt there for a long time, thinking about Buffy, but came to no conclusions. Willow put a stone on Buffy's marker in memory of the girl she had been before, and got to her feet. Tara's grave was nearby, and Willow went next to it. She knelt beside it and put her hand on the marker. Like the others, it was simple, and like the others, the emotions surrounding it were anything but.
Willow crouched there for a long time, lost in thought. She thought about Faith, and what she'd told her about Buffy. She thought about the unknown girl, caught in the crossfire and left to die on the highway. She wondered what awful thing would happen next, and whether there was truly any way to turn the tide. So much was lost in less than a year, and Willow pondered whether grief ever ended. She looked back at her life, punctuated by death, the three that nearly finished her, and wondered if she could ever stop grieving.
Her tears weren't unexpected, but she still saw them as a weakness. They stopped as quickly as they started, and Willow wiped her face. This wasn't a time for tears. They had a lot to do. A house full of people relied on her, even though she'd let most of them down. She wasn't going to do that again. Another promise to herself that she intended to keep.
She noticed the approaching dusk and got to her feet, ignoring as best she could the pins and needles that raced up her legs. She added another stone to Tara's marker, then kissed her fingers and pressed them to the marble beside the small cairn. She left the cemetery quickly, glad in a perverse way that it was close to her home.
Willow let herself in the front door and picked her way through the floor where many of the girls sat, eating from paper plates. She made her way to the kitchen, where Buffy, Giles, Dawn, Anya and Xander crowded around the small table eating their meals. Willow didn't say anything. She fixed herself a plate and stood at the counter near the refrigerator to eat.
"You all right, Willow?" Dawn asked.
"I'm fine, Dawn." Willow smiled at her.
"We'll meet when everyone finishes," Giles said.
Willow nodded, swallowed, and asked, "Xander, what did the doctor say?"
"He suggested I avoid getting hit in the head for a while," Xander answered.
"I've been telling you that for free for years," Willow teased.
"Yeah, well, I'm not gonna start payin' you now," he teased back.
Spike came up from the basement, Faith behind him with an empty plate. Spike went to the refrigerator, Faith to the stove and piled her plate again. Then she stood beside Willow at the counter. Willow gave her a small smile, and Faith let go of one of her worries. Spike microwaved a bag of blood, then put it in a mug and went out the back door. He sat on the step and smoked a cigarette while the others finished eating.
When all the food was gone, the group from the kitchen went to the living room. Furniture emptied quickly to make space for them. Willow took a chair and Faith stood behind her. Buffy sat in the other chair, and Giles, Xander, and Anya sat on the couch. A few moments later, they squeezed together to make room for Dawn.
They waited for the four girls who had clean up duty to finish their chores. When they returned to the living room with Spike on their heels, Giles cleared his throat, and all eyes turned to him.
"I suppose we should begin with introductions," he said, and pointed at his chest. "Giles, Watcher."
"Xander, pirate." A few of the girls giggled.
The others gave their names one by one until only Faith and Willow were left. "Willow."
"Faith, the other Slayer." To quell the sudden rush of words at her, she said, "Long story short, B died, X-man brought her back, bang, new Slayer."
"Succinct as usual," Giles said. "I found some additional information in one of the last books I removed from the remains of the Council library. It suggests that there is a clue at a monastery south of here, an old mission southeast of Carlsbad." He looked at Spike. "I'd appreciate it if you would check it out tonight."
"The First will not stop until it is defeated." He removed his glasses and polished them furiously. "Remember the rules. Don't go anywhere alone. If someone begins talking to you, touch him or her to ensure they are corporeal. If the First comes to you, do not engage it, do not listen. Sharpen your weapons and keep them nearby in case the Bringers decide to pay us a visit."
"I'm never gonna have windows again," Buffy sighed as she looked at the boarded up windows in the living room.
Giles ignored her. "Any questions?"
Kennedy spoke immediately. She looked at Buffy. "Didja get the number of the truck that hit you?"
"Too funny, Ken. It was one of those super-vamps Giles told you about the other night."
"Super vamps?" Faith asked.
"Turok-Han," Giles interjected. "The vampire in its original form, without a human vessel. Did you ever see Nosferatu?"
"That was it," Buffy mumbled.
Faith shook her head.
"They are far stronger than ordinary vampires. So far, we haven't been able to stop them, just slow them down."
Faith looked down and shook her head as she realized what she had been pulled back into.
"I suggest you all stay in and rest tonight," Giles said, and got to his feet. "I'll see you in the morning."
"Night, Giles," Buffy and Willow said at the same time.
He turned and looked sternly at Buffy. "Go to bed and get some sleep."
Buffy nodded, and Giles left. Buffy pushed out of the chair and waved Dawn away. She limped past Willow and Faith without saying anything. Willow got up, too, and smiled apologetically at Faith. "I need to talk to her."
Faith nodded and slid into the chair Willow vacated before one of the girls jumped into it. Willow followed Buffy upstairs, and closed the bedroom door quietly. Buffy sat on the bed and looked at Willow. Willow looked back, then took a deep breath. "What's your problem with Faith?"
"Gee, Willow, I thought you'd remember."
"Buffy, all that stuff was a long time ago. Let it go. She didn't have to come, but she did anyway. Give her a break."
Buffy worked her way into a comfortable position on the bed. "Go away, Willow."
"No, I'm not going away." Willow crossed the room and looked down at Buffy. "I thought we didn't keep secrets from each other."
Buffy looked toward the windows.
"What did you think would happen if you told me?"
"Told you what?"
"You know what, Buffy. Were you ever going to say it?"
"No." Buffy sat up. "Because you're safer this way."
"Safer than what? Cause last time I checked, we were living on the Hellmouth."
"Yeah, and they keep going after you."
"So? I have a big old target on me just because of all the vampires I've dusted over the years."
"No, that's because of me."
Willow laughed. "Earth to Buffy. News flash, the world doesn't revolve around you."
"Just the Hellmouth. Go away, Willow."
"So I don't get any say."
"Fine. Remember, this is your choice. Be mad at me all you want, but leave Faith out of it."
"Don't tell me how I feel."
"Somebody has to, cause you won't admit having any."
"Damn it, Willow, I thought you'd understand."
Buffy shook her head. "Forget it. And next time I die, let me stay dead."
Willow started to answer her and thought better of it. She turned and left, and the slamming of the door staggered both of them. Willow went to her room and sat cross-legged on the bed. A few minutes later, Faith came up. She closed and locked the door while asking, "You all right?"
"Yeah, just trying to calm down a little. She pushed all my buttons."
Faith sat on the bed. "She's good at that."
"I hate this. It used to be easy and simple. Good guys and bad guys and we could always tell who was who. Now sometimes we're the bad guys, and we never, ever talk about what happened or what's going to happen, and Goddess forbid we admit to having feelings. Especially Buffy. Ever since I brought her back, she's been, I don't know, distant. Mad at me, but she won't own up to it, just like she won't say what she feels. Just throws up her walls and refuses to peek out or open a window or anything, and why am I telling you all this?"
"Because I'm here, and I'll listen." Faith rested a hand on Willow's thigh.
"Thanks." Willow scooted closer to Faith, who moved her hand from Willow's thigh and put her arm around her.
"No big. Are we allowed out, or are we grounded?"
"We should probably stay here tonight. Buffy's in no shape to take on anything that might decide to attack."
"All right. I'm just, didn't get to do a lot today," Faith tried to explain.
"There's a punching bag and some other stuff in the basement."
Faith smiled. "Cool."
"C'mon, Slayer, I'll critique your technique."
"You weren't complainin' last night." Faith grinned.
"Neither were you," Willow smirked back, although her face was bright red.
"No complaints here." Faith kissed Willow, and after a few moments, all thoughts of her workout were forgotten. They fell back onto the bed, and Faith pulled Willow on top of her. They continued to kiss, neither making any effort to go further. A knock on the door disturbed them, and Faith held Willow securely against her while she said, "Go away."
"I will not go away. It's my house," Buffy answered.
"Shit," Faith and Willow said in stereo, and Faith let Willow up to open the door. She closed it again after Buffy came in, and stayed there.
Buffy stood between them and looked from one to the other. "You can't stay here," she said coldly.
"What?" Willow said.
Buffy turned to her and repeated slowly, "You can't stay here."
"You let me stay after Tara left, after I almost killed Dawnie, after I tried to end the world, and now you're putting me out?" Willow asked incredulously.
Buffy just stared at her.
"Fine," Willow said. "We'll be back tomorrow." She opened the door, and Buffy left without saying anything.
Willow was angry and hurt. Faith was stunned. Buffy had changed a lot, and not for the good, if she would put Willow out without any warning. Willow began shoving things into the small bag she carried to Los Angeles, mostly clothes, but a few photos and other small things. She zipped it and looked at Faith for the first time since Buffy separated them. "Let's go."
"Where?" Faith asked.
"My folks are out of town, as usual. We can go there."
"All right." Faith slipped her jacket on and got her bag. She took Willow's from her. "It'll be all right," she said, although she didn't believe it.
Willow nodded and opened the door. Faith followed her downstairs. Willow got her jacket, and she and Faith left the house without saying anything. Spike was on the sidewalk. "Red, I need a ride."
"No problem," Willow answered automatically.
They got into her car without talking, and Spike told Willow where he needed to go. He thanked her before getting out of the car. Willow turned around and headed back toward her parents. She saw the Bronze, and on impulse, parked across the street. She turned to Faith. "A few drinks, a little dancing," she said.
"Five by five," Faith drawled.
They got out of the car, and Willow waited for Faith to join her before crossing the street. "What does that mean, anyway?"
Faith shrugged. "S'all good."
"Huh. Couldn't you just say that?"
Pete was on the door again, and he waved them in without asking for the cover. The crowd was thin, and they found a couch to sit on. Faith stared at the bar for a few seconds, then got up. "I'll be right back," she said, and a few minutes later, returned with her hands full of drinks. They drank the first two without talking.
"What was that about at the house?" she asked.
"I'm not sure," Willow answered.
"She never treats you like that," Faith said.
"You just met the new and improved Buffy Summers," Willow said bitterly. She finished another drink. "Dance?"
"Sure." Faith got up, pulling Willow along.
They were the only couple on the floor, but neither cared. They danced until Willow had enough, and Faith followed her back to the couch. Willow didn't sit, though. "I'll get the next round," she said, and went to the bar. They stayed until closing time, drinking and dancing and playing the occasional game of pool.
The ride to the Rosenberg house was uneventful, although both were frequently aware of eyes watching them from the shadows. Willow used the garage to ensure their safety. They sat in the car for a few moments after the garage door closed behind them. "Need to redo the spells," Willow said to herself.
"Maybe. I haven't been here in a while." Willow opened her door.
Faith got their bags from the back seat and followed Willow into the house. They went through the kitchen and living room and down a hall. Willow led them to the master suite that her parents so rarely used. The bed was bigger and far more comfortable than the double in her old bedroom. Faith dropped the bags near the door and shrugged off her jacket. She looked at Willow, who stood motionless at the foot of the bed, before walking to her. "Let me have your coat," Faith said.
Willow nodded and let Faith help her remove it. Faith tossed it toward hers and wrapped her arms around Willow and rested her chin on her shoulder. Willow's hands covered Faith's, and she leaned against her. "Tired?"
"Me, either. Let's see if we can find what I need to do the spells."
"All right," Faith agreed, but neither of them moved until Faith kissed Willow's neck. She didn't want to let her go, but did.
Willow turned to face her. She kissed Faith gently once, quickly, and headed for the kitchen. Faith followed her, watching Willow go through the cabinets. She found salt and sage and left them on the table and went back to her bedroom. Faith watched her rear as Willow rummaged under her bed on her hands and knees. Willow found what she was looking for and pulled a box from under the bed. She got to her feet and picked it up. Ignoring the dust, she placed it on the bed and flipped the lid off.
Inside were the things she really needed, bundles of sage, holy water, and other things that she ignored. She pulled a lighter from the box and slipped it into a pocket and handed Faith two bottles of holy water. They returned to the kitchen for the salt, and Willow began at the back door. She lit the sage and chanted the words of the spell, and opened the door to lay a line of salt in the sill. Willow closed the door again. She traded salt for one of the bottles of holy water, poured some in her hand and flicked it at the door, which glowed blue for a second, then handed the holy water back to Faith. They went through the house counterclockwise, stopping at every door and window. After the first door, Faith took care of the holy water, waiting to see the brief flicker of blue that told them the spell was activated.
Nearly an hour later, they were back in the kitchen. Willow clipped the smoldering end of the sage bunch into the sink and left the other things on the table. "Tomorrow, we'll do outside," she said.
Faith nodded. "Got anything to eat?"
"Doubt it, but check the freezer."
Faith poked around in the freezer and refrigerator, and closed them with a sigh.
"Denny's is still open," Willow offered.
"I'll buy," Faith replied.
"How do you have money?"
"Wes and Angel double-teamed the Council to get me an allowance."
Willow laughed. "If Buffy finds out, she's gonna pop Giles."
"I'm not tellin'," Faith smiled. "I'll get our coats." She left the room, and returned a minute later with their jackets and Willow's keys. Faith held Willow's coat for her and handed her the keys before putting on her own.
Denny's was nearly empty, and they took a booth in a corner where Faith could watch all the traffic. She ordered an enormous amount of food, and Willow ordered coffee and a small breakfast. While they waited, Faith played with Willow's hand on the table, drawing patterns all over her hand and fingers. Willow smiled, and let out just enough magic that the Slayer's patterns remained visible for a few seconds. When Faith saw, she grinned and moved from Willow's hand to the air, leaving trails of sparkling mist.
"Cool," she smiled at Willow.
Willow smiled back. Faith's happiness at that one simple parlor trick reminded her how wounded they both were, and how fragile everything in their lives was. "I have a few more," she said huskily, and wiggled her eyebrows.
Faith laughed. "I remember." She lowered her voice. "I still have a thing or two to show you."
"You have to. Can't hit peak performance without fuel." Faith grinned again and decided that if this was a relationship, she liked it. She was comfortable with Willow, more than she had been with anyone since her Watcher long ago in Boston, and she pushed those thoughts away quickly.
Willow watched the emotions on Faith's face, and touched her hand gently to bring her back to the present. The waitress saved them from talking. She piled the table with food and left a pot of coffee for them. Faith ate methodically, neatly stacking the empty plates at the edge of the table. Willow finished her meal and had a second cup of coffee while Faith worked her way through the food she ordered. When the waitress came to remove some of the plates, Willow asked for the check, and she put it on the table before picking up the stack of dirty plates.
Faith took the bill before Willow had the chance. "Told you, this is on me."
Faith nodded and finished the last plate. She emptied her coffee cup and looked at the bill. She reached in her pocket and left $20 on the table. "You ready?" she asked Willow, who nodded and got out of the booth. Faith paid at the counter, and they got back into Willow's car and returned to the Rosenberg house. They held hands but didn't talk while they walked to the bedroom.
Xander waited half an hour after Willow and Faith left to go upstairs and talk to Buffy. He opened the door and entered her room without knocking.
"Go away, Xander."
"Not gonna happen."
"Fine." She rolled onto her side and turned her back to him.
"What's going on, Buff?"
She didn't answer.
"Well, here's what I see with my one eye. Willow would do anything for you. Faith, too. Anything. But I'm thinkin' you went bitch Buffy on them and told Willow, your supposed best friend, that you don't care if she's happy if it's not with you. You probably threatened Faith, too. Why? Cause you're in love with Willow. I can see it, even if you won't, even if she can't. You can keep lying to yourself about it and being afraid."
"No. I told you before, and I guess you didn't listen. Love is hard sometimes, and it's messy, and it's the scariest thing ever. Scarier than the mayor, maybe even scarier than the First."
"Shut up, Xander."
"What's the matter, Buff? Can't stand a little truth? Here's a little more. You have the hots for Faith, too."
Buffy got up from the bed and quickly crossed the room.
"What, you gonna hit me now? I never thought you were a coward, Buffy, but I guess I was wrong. If you're gonna be pissed off, make sure you point it at the right person, and I don't mean Willow or Faith or Giles or me."
"You don't know anything," Buffy answered through clenched teeth and whirled away from Xander. "Leave me alone."
"I love ya, Buff, even if you're an idiot sometimes." Xander left and Buffy pushed the door closed again.
She leaned against it for a few moments, then went back to her bed and flopped down. She pulled a pillow over her face and screamed. Xander was right about everything, she knew, but didn't like it any more than she liked being chained to the Hellmouth. Buffy wondered whether Willow would forgive her. Faith, well, she and Faith had a lot of other things to work through before they got back to their mutual attraction.
Buffy was suddenly exhausted, and rolled onto her side. She punched the pillow a few times and stared out the window until she fell asleep.
Faith was tired, worn out from another round of amazing sex with Willow, who laid half on her and snored softly. Faith held her and stroked her hair, and wished for sleep. She did one of the relaxation exercises she learned from Angel, and drifted off.
Faith sat up suddenly. She heard something outside, and kissed Willow's forehead before untangling herself from the redhead. Faith pulled on her pants and shirt, and rummaged in her bag for weapons. She took a sword and a stake and went into the hallway to listen. She heard the noise again, at the back door, and went to the kitchen, careful to stay in the shadows.
The wind blew the storm door open again. Faith knew it had been securely closed when they did the spell, and she carefully looked outside. She didn't say anything, but she knew something was wrong. She decided to trust Willow's magic and stay in the house. She went back to the bedroom and found Willow sitting up, the sheet pooled in her lap. "I heard somethin'," Faith told her.
"Is everything all right?"
"I dunno, but I'm not goin' out to look until morning."
"Then come back to bed."
Faith smiled. "Bossy little thing, aren't ya."
"I'll make it worth your while," Willow smiled.
Faith pulled her shirt over her head. "I bet you will," she answered, and pushed her pants carelessly to the floor and walked out of them. She kneeled on the bed and Willow pulled her into a kiss. Faith heard the noise from outside again, and they pulled apart at the same time.
"What is that?" Willow asked.
"Back door's blowing in the wind."
"It was latched."
"I know. But whatever it was you did seems to be keepin' it out, so I figure we're safe here."
"Do you mind if I check?"
Faith tried to move off her, but Willow held her in place. Willow extended her senses cautiously. She found something odd outside, but it couldn't get in or do more than make them feel uncomfortable. "All done," she said.
"The magic barrier is holding. I'll do it again later." Faith smirked at her, and Willow said, "Don't say it."
Faith didn't. She kissed Willow instead.
This time, they slept until mid-morning. They showered together and dressed before going to the kitchen to check the door. They didn't see anything, but both were uncomfortable. "What's that other spell you were talking about?" Faith asked.
"Same spell, bigger area," Willow answered.
"Well, if we're gonna be stayin' here, let's do it.'
They went back into the kitchen and gathered the supplies, and started in the southeast corner of the property. They worked counterclockwise until they were back where they started. When they got back inside, the phone was ringing. Willow answered it. "Hey, Xan."
"Just checking in on you. You guys all right?"
"Yeah, we're good. Gonna get something to eat and then we'll be there."
"I think Subway's still open. Bring me a large Italian, all right?"
"Where you gonna hide to eat it?"
"In your car," Xander answered, and Willow could hear him grinning.
"How about you come with us?"
"Sure. Bring Dawn, too. She's been working hard. We'll be there in ten."
Instead of Subway, they went back to Denny's. They sat in awkward silence for a few minutes. Dawn was the first to speak. "Buffy's in a really bad mood."
Xander raised his hand. "My bad. I talked at her after you guys left. Talked at, cause all she said was 'shut up' and 'leave me alone.'"
"She was mad at me before that," Willow said.
"Me too," Faith added.
"Whatever's goin' on with you two," Xander began.
Anya broke in. "They're orgasm friends, Xander."
Faith laughed while Willow looked uncomfortable and Dawn rolled her eyes.
"Like I was saying," Xander continued, "you need to get things fixed with Buffy. I don't care how or who's with who, but she needs to be focused on the First."
"Buffy's the one with the problem," Willow said.
"Yeah, but if you guys don't do something, Buffy won't," Dawn said. "You know how she is."
Willow sighed. "I'm tired of being the one to fix everything," she said softly.
Faith put her hand on top of Willow's on the table and squeezed gently. Willow leaned against her. Dawn looked at them for a few seconds. "You look good together," she said.
Buffy stretched before dressing in light workout clothes. She was still stiff and sore, but knew she had to get moving. She headed to the basement, expecting to find Spike, but the potentials were there instead. She lined them up and had them follow her through her warm-up routine. Then she paired them up, taking Kennedy for her partner.
Kennedy surprised Buffy, even as she beat back every one of the girl's attacks. Buffy welcomed the challenge. She was glad to see the girl's improvement, although her style reminded Buffy of Faith's, overly reliant on brute force. After she put her on the ground six times, she let Kennedy off the hook, and went from pair to pair, adjusting arms and showing the correct stances for attack and defense. Then she sent them all up into the back yard to practice. She was still furious about everything that happened yesterday, and needed to get some of it out of her system.
Buffy wrapped her hands and went to work on the heavy bag. She pretended it was Faith, then Willow, but finally admitted to herself that she wasn't really mad at them, just surprised that they would get together. She thought she was giving Willow time to grieve for Tara; instead, she had missed another opportunity to try a relationship with Willow. No one knew her better, or understood her life like Willow. Buffy pounded the bag, and was still beating it energetically when she heard Willow, Faith, and the others enter the house.
Buffy could tell from the footsteps that Willow was at her computer, and the others were in the living room. Faith came downstairs. "You wanna take a shot at me now, here's your chance," Faith said.
"Why? We both know I can take you." Buffy stopped the bag and turned to face Faith. She began to unwrap her hands. "I don't understand why you make me feel the way I do."
"Because I'm the only other person in the world who knows exactly what it feels like to do your job."
"All I ever wanted was for us to get along."
"If that's what you want, you can start by apologizin' to Willow." Faith lowered her voice. "You're a moron, ya know. You need her to beat this thing. Plus, I'm thinkin' it's not a real good idea to piss off anybody with that much power."
"I'm not afraid of Willow."
"Didn't say you were."
"Then say whatever it is you're gonna say," Buffy demanded.
"You need to decide what you want. You need to be settled so we can do our job. Right now, you're like one of those superballs, bouncin' everywhere at top speed without accomplishin' anything."
"What do I want, oh enlightened one?"
"That's for you to decide. I'm gonna check on the baby Slayers. Unless you wanna come with and show 'em how it's done."
Buffy smiled tightly. "You're on."
Dawn tore through the kitchen. "Willow!"
Willow looked up from the computer. "What?"
"Buffy and Faith are trying to kill each other!"
"Are they using weapons?" Willow asked while she got up.
"Then they're just sparring."
"I don't think so," Dawn said.
Willow followed her outside. When she saw Buffy and Faith seriously fighting, she grumbled, "Only thing worse than one Slayer is two."
Blood dripped from the reopened cut over Buffy's eye and Faith's nose and lip. Both of them had black eyes, and Buffy was limping. Willow got between them at just the wrong moment. "Break" was all she got out before Buffy roundhoused her. Faith caught her before she hit the ground. Dawn went back into the house and returned with three damp towels, a bag of frozen vegetables, and a glass of water. She threw one towel at Buffy and slapped the other over Faith's shoulder before kneeling beside Willow.
Willow came to a few minutes later, and opened her eyes cautiously. She closed them again, and tried just one. That was better, seeing one of everything. "If I have a black eye, I'm so gonna hurt whoever gave it to me."
"I'm so sorry, Wills," Buffy said.
"It was B," Faith said at the same time, and they glared at each other.
Willow's voice stopped them from going another round. "Cut it out." She sat up slowly with Faith's support. Dawn held the frozen bag against Willow's face.
For the first time, they noticed the potentials, bunched in the shade and staring. Dawn looked at them. "Go get your lunch or something," she told them, and they streamed around the four of them.
"Faith, Dawn, go with them," Willow ordered, and added, "Now," when they protested.
When they were alone, Buffy looked anywhere but at the rapidly forming bruise on Willow's cheek. Willow got up, and Buffy put her arm around her waist. They went to the picnic table and sat on the bench. Buffy wrapped one towel around the bag of vegetables and handed it to Willow.
"You going to tell me what that was about?" Willow asked, and set the compress aside.
Buffy looked at her lap, and Willow wanted to laugh. Except for the blood dripping from her forehead, she looked like a child afraid of her coming punishment. "We were sparring and it got out of hand."
"I'm so sorry, Willow. I didn't mean to hit you."
"Only cause I can kick your butt."
"That was only once," Buffy protested.
"Uh huh. Now, will you please talk to me?"
"Why her?" Buffy asked softly after ten long seconds.
"Why her or why her instead of you?"
"Both." Buffy continued to look at her lap.
While Willow tried to decide how to begin to answer Buffy's questions, she took the towel from Buffy and folded it into a small rectangle. She put it on Buffy's forehead and put the Slayer's hand there to hold it. "I don't have to explain things to her," Willow said. "She understands the things you guys don't, the things that make you look at me like, like, I don't know exactly, but when you look at me sometimes, it's like you don't see me, you only see who I used to be, or like you're afraid of me. I don't read minds, Buffy. How was I supposed to know? You told Faith but you still haven't told me how you feel. And then last night you got all whatever and told me to leave, like this isn't my home anymore. If that's how you want it, fine, I'll deal. But if that's how it is, you can't expect me to jump every time you call, like I'm your personal magical backup." Willow stopped for a breath.
"I'm sorry about last night, Will." Buffy continued to look at her lap, as if her hand was extremely interesting. "I don't want you to leave. I was just," Buffy faded out.
"I don't know. When you first came up to see me when you got back, you were different, you felt different, you weren't my, you, she was all over you. And I never felt like that before, well maybe a little with Tara, but that was different, she's family."
"I don't know."
Willow glanced over at Buffy. "I don't feel any different about you. You're still my best friend ever. And if you had told me, maybe we wouldn't be going through all this right now."
"I didn't want to push. Tara," Buffy faltered, "Tara hasn't been gone that long, and I wanted you to have space or time or whatever you needed to get better."
"You didn't want to push? Buffy, you've barely talked to me since I got back from England. Every time you look at me, it feels like you're just waiting for me to go off again so you can put me down like a rabid dog."
"That's not," Buffy protested.
"You won't even stay in the room with me most of the time. The only reason I've stayed is Dawn. I don't feel welcome in your home, I don't even feel like you want me in your life."
"No," Buffy interrupted loudly, "Willow, please, that's not true." Buffy looked at her for the first time, and flinched at the bruise on Willow's cheek.
"That's what it feels like," Willow said.
"Please don't leave, Wills. I'm, I don't know how to live without you. The whole time you were gone, I worried you wouldn't come back to me. I mean, why would you want to come back to the house I let Tara die in? It was my fault, and I'm so, so, sorry. I'd give anything to change it. I kept messing everything up, and you left and," Buffy stopped again.
"And I came back because Giles said you needed me."
"I do. Not because of the First."
"Are you ever going to just say it?" Willow demanded.
"I'm in love with you," Buffy whispered.
Willow slid next to her and put her arm around Buffy's waist. "Why is that so hard?"
"Everybody I love turns evil or leaves."
"Yet here I am."
"Is there any chance for us?" Buffy asked, not certain that she wanted to know the answer.
Willow stared past Buffy at the fence and struggled to find a response. "Right now, I don't know and we don't really have time to find out. Saving the world and everything. Ask me if we win."
"When we win."
"Whatever." Willow stood up. "Go get cleaned up."
"Please come back. I don't want you to leave."
Willow turned to look at her. "That wouldn't have anything to do with the houseful of teenagers, would it?"
"Maybe a little," Buffy said. "But mostly I missed you this morning." She stood up went into the house and Willow watched her walk away.
Faith went directly to the basement. She was mad at Buffy and mad at herself for letting the blonde get under her skin. Now she was out there making up with Willow, and Faith figured that left her out in the cold again. She took advantage of the mats on the floor to launch kicks at the heavy bag.
"That's my girl, always working to improve her skills," Mayor Richard Wilkins said.
"Go away," Faith said in a flat tone.
"Faithy, is that any way to talk to me?"
"They told me about you. Just go away."
"You can have the little redhead. She's mine, but I'll be happy to let you have her."
Faith turned and looked at the shape of her former father figure. "Now I know you're not the Mayor. He hated that about me. I got enough on my plate without you givin' me a line." She walked through it and up the stairs, and waded through the mob of girls in the kitchen. Xander sat in the living room, and Faith tried to get by him.
"You could at least say hello," he said.
Faith sighed and sat on the couch. "Hello, Xander."
"Hi, Faith. Thanks for lunch. It was nice to have a meal that I didn't have to fight for."
"Me and B were sparrin'."
"That's now how I heard it."
Faith shrugged. "What happened to your eye?"
"He sounds like a barrel of fun."
"Yeah, sorta like Angelus on a bad day."
"Huh." Faith paused. "So tell me, what are the odds?"
"Same as usual, about even until the last minute."
"So there's no plan or anything?"
"Not yet. We're still looking for whatever it is."
"Achilles heel," Faith said.
"Yeah, that. Cause the bad guys always have one."
"The good guys, too."
"Apparently, it's me."
"Then we're in good shape." Faith looked at him and tried to smile. "I'm sorry for before."
"Water under the bridge. Unless you try to hurt my girls. Then I'll have to kick you back to Boston."
"I'm not here to hurt anybody."
Xander grinned at her. "Then we're good."
Buffy walked through the house without speaking to anyone. Willow stopped in the kitchen to let Dawn know everything was fine. She looked through the dining room to see Faith and Xander talking, and smiled before joining them. She sat beside Faith and looked at her face. The bruise around her eye wasn't bad, and her nose and lip had stopped bleeding, although the lip was still swollen.
Faith turned to look at her and struggled with her temper. "Damn, Red, your face looks bad."
"That's what I get for getting between you and Buffy."
"She all right?"
"Yeah, but I gotta put some stitches in. It won't take long." Willow rubbed Faith's shoulder before she stood up. "Don't go anywhere."
Xander and Faith watched her go upstairs. Willow got what she needed from the bathroom first aid box and went into Buffy's room. "You ready?"
"Yeah. Where do you want me?"
Both of them blushed at Buffy's question, and Willow blushed deeper at her reply. "Bed's fine."
They didn't talk while Willow pulled the torn skin together with five tiny stitches. "All done."
"No problem. See you later."
"Where are you going?"
"I have some stuff to do."
"You're coming back, right?"
"Yeah, later." Willow went back to the bathroom before Buffy could say anything more. She cleaned up and restrung the needle before putting the first aid kit away.
Willow went to her room and piled a few more things on the bed. She went in the closet and found another small bag and her laptop bag, and took them to the bed. She put more clothes and the rest of the things in the one bag, then went downstairs. She put the bag by the door and went to tear down her laptop.
Xander watched her without saying anything. Faith went and stood behind her. "You sure this is what you want?"
Willow nodded. She was struggling not to cry and didn't trust her voice. When the computer was packed, she secured the bag.
Faith took it from her. "You better talk to Dawn," she said.
"I'll put these in the car."
Willow looked at her and smiled. "Thank you," she said softly.
Willow worked her way through the potentials to the back door. Dawn sat on the steps.
"You and Buffy all right?"
"I don't know. Things are too weird. Me and Faith are gonna stay at my parents."
"Please don't leave me alone here with them."
"It's not up to me."
"Willow," Dawn whined, for the first time in months.
"I'm sorry, Dawnie. You can call me, you can come any time Buffy says it's all right."
"Like that'll ever happen."
Willow shrugged. "We'll be back to help with stuff, and all you have to do is call if you need me, all right?" She put her arm around Dawn's shoulders and squeezed. "I love you, Dawn."
Dawn laid her head on Willow's shoulder. "Love you, too."
Buffy spent the afternoon training the potentials. She worked hard to keep her frustration to herself, and was glad to let Giles take over when he arrived. She went in and got a drink before picking up the phone and punching in Willow's cell phone number. She picked up after two rings. "Yeah?"
"Willow, I'm sorry. Please come home."
"I can't right now, Buffy."
Willow closed her eyes and felt her head throb and repeated, "I can't. We'll be over later so you and Faith can patrol."
"All right." Buffy hung up the phone. When she turned around, Dawn was looking at her.
"I want to stay with Willow," Dawn said.
"I'm not really asking, you, Buffy. It's too crowded here, and you know she'll take care of me."
"No," Buffy repeated firmly.
"You don't need me here. I'm in the way. I can research and stuff over there. And use the bathroom without standing in line."
"Dawn, I said no and that's final." They stood and glared at each other. Buffy said, in a gentler tone, "You can't leave, too."
"You're just mad at Willow."
"I'm not mad at Will, I just, I need you here. I love you, Dawn, I need you to be at home."
Dawn looked at Buffy, looking in her eyes for the truth behind her words, and gave in. "All right."
"Thank you." Buffy gave her sister a quick hug and almost ran from the kitchen.
Willow, followed by Faith, went through the wreckage of the Magic Box, looking for anything that might be useful. Anything she found, she handed to Faith, who put it in the box she carried.
Willow avoided the training room and went to the basement to look at what was left of the inventory. Except for a few herbs, there was nothing there she wanted. They went back upstairs, and Faith asked, "What's that?"
Willow looked at the training room door. "Giles put a training room in so Buffy could work out while we researched."
"Cool." Faith put the box down and opened the door. "Oooo, weapons."
Willow waited while Faith gathered what she wanted from the walls. Faith added the weapons to the box. "That it?" she asked.
"Yeah." They walked to the door. Willow locked it magically.
"Grocery store next?"
"Tired of eating out?"
"It's fine, but sometimes I just want something quick." Faith slid the box on the back seat.
"I warn you, I only do the basics."
"I can cook." Willow looked at Faith skeptically. "I can," Faith insisted. "I took a class."
"You can't be any worse than Dawn."
"That sounds like an insult."
"Peanut butter and banana quesadillas. I rest my case."
Faith laughed. "I can do better than that."
At the grocery store, they stocked up for their house. Faith cleared out the junk food and snack aisles and loaded them in the trunk. They headed back to the Rosenberg house. They carried the groceries in and put them away. While Willow set up her laptop, Faith put together a meatloaf and put it in the oven with two potatoes and a casserole dish of mixed vegetables. She found Willow in the living room and looked over her shoulder. "What's that?"
"Part of the Watcher's Council archive. What's left of it anyway."
"How's your face?"
"I don't have a concussion, Faith."
Willow leaned back to look up at her. "Thank you."
Faith leaned down and kissed her lightly. "No problem."
"How are you?"
"Five by five."
"How are you really?"
Faith sighed and stepped back. Willow got out of the chair and turned to look at her. "I'm worried about B. And you. And Xander. You didn't tell me what a mess everything is."
"Why are you worried about us?"
"B looks awful. Not just beat up, but her eyes, I don't know how to explain it. And Xander, look at him. He lost an eye. And all those kids." Faith shook her head.
"Now you understand why I volunteered to go get you."
Faith ignored her comment. "You look as bad as B."
"Don't go there, Faith."
"What, I can't tell you what I see?"
"I don't have time for it right now."
"You need to take some time," Faith said firmly.
"There isn't any. Don't you hear the clock ticking? Can't you feel what's happening?"
Faith pulled Willow into a hug. "I know what's happenin'. Yes, I can feel it. But you know, makin' yourself crazy isn't gonna help. You're allowed to stop for a few minutes."
Willow leaned against Faith. "If I stop, we might lose."
Faith kissed her cheek. "First, we aren't going to lose. Second, whatever happens won't be because of anything you didn't do."
"Buffy wants me back at the house."
"What do you want?"
Willow didn't answer. She rested against Faith, her fingers moving restlessly on her back. "I don't know," she said finally. "I used to, but I lost it somewhere."
They returned to the Summers house just before dark. Willow opened the trunk, and Faith filled her arms with junk food. Faith was mobbed as soon as the girls saw what she had. She told them, "More in the car," and stood on the porch and watched them empty the trunk in less than 20 seconds. Once they were all back inside, Faith closed the door and headed up to Buffy's room.
Buffy was pulling on her boots. Faith lounged in the doorway. "What's the plan for tonight?"
"Same as always, sweep the cemeteries, check the town." Buffy stood up. "You ready?"
They went downstairs and out the door without saying anything to anyone, and headed to the closest cemetery.
"Why won't she come back?" Buffy asked.
"You hurt her feelings," Faith answered.
"It's just words, B," Faith reminded her.
Buffy shut up, remembering when she said that to Faith.
They didn't talk for the rest of the patrol.
When they returned to the house, Spike was there. He, Willow, and Giles were at the kitchen table, trying to figure out the meaning of the message Spike brought back with him.
Faith leaned against the counter and waited for Willow. When she finished talking with the men, she got up and said, "Good night." Faith followed her from the kitchen, very aware of Buffy's eyes on her back.
Willow drove carefully. Faith watched her, uncertain how to take Willow's silence. She admired the woman's appearance and tried to rein in her post-patrol hungers. Willow parked in the garage, and Faith followed her to the bedroom. Willow dropped her coat on a chair and sat on the bed to remove her shoes. Faith stood in the doorway and watched her. Willow looked up at her and instructed, "Come here."
Faith smiled and approached the bed. Willow stood up and put her arms around Faith's neck. "Kiss me."
Faith did as Willow asked. They could talk later, when they lay awake through the darkest part of the new day. She let her hands roam Willow's clothes in search of closures, and Willow did the same until they were both naked.
Faith pushed them back onto the bed and Willow wrapped herself around Faith while they moved to the center of the bed.
Buffy walked carefully through the house. Spike was back in the basement smoking and sulking, so she could rest for a few hours. Buffy took a shower. There was usually hot water at this time of night, and she stood in the water for a few minutes before beginning to clean herself.
Her body went on autopilot while she thought about Willow. Willow walking out with Faith behind her, Willow leaving without acknowledging Buffy at all. 'Groveling, lots of groveling,' she realized.
Buffy stepped over Dawn to get to her dresser. They refused to let anyone else share this space with them, until there was no other alternative. She put on sleeping clothes, boxers and a tank shirt, and got into bed without disturbing her sister.
Buffy was relieved to find Dawn there. She had meant what she said to Dawn, and even more, what she hadn't: If Dawn left, there would be no reason for this to be her home. Buffy still hated the living room, where her mother left them, and the back bedroom where Tara died was close behind. Everywhere she looked in the house, she saw death and failure, but she stayed for Dawn. And Willow, whose absence she keenly felt, because that was what was left of her family, those two and Xander and Giles.
She stared at the ceiling, watching the familiar play of branches in the streetlight until she fell asleep.
"What did Spike find out?" Faith asked.
"There's some kind of super duper weapon in the vineyard."
"So, we'll go get it."
"Our last trip didn't gone so well," Willow said, frowning.
"Oh. Guess we need to plan a little better for this time."
"Something like that." Willow rolled on her side to face Faith and trailed her fingers lazily around the Slayer's shoulder. "How was patrol?"
"Busy. Just, lots of vampires and weird stuff. Given how many people are gone, maybe we should pick up some generators. At least we could have the refrigerator and a couple lights."
Willow smiled. "Good idea. Xander can help. He knows all about that stuff."
"Nope. He runs a construction crew. Or he did. Mostly he patches Buffy's house back together. The Bringers made a real mess last time."
"Huh. Good for him." Faith stretched. "I'm hungry."
"The fridge is full. Go have at it."
"You want some?"
"You should eat more."
"Thanks. Uh, I think."
Faith smiled at her and sat up.
"I put a robe on the door for you. So you don't burn anything important."
"I'll be there in a minute."
Faith leaned over and kissed Willow before getting out of bed. Willow watched her walk across the room, smiling and enjoying the view, but when Faith left, she stared at the ceiling.
"I'm glad you're ha-happy, Willow," Tara said from the foot of the bed.
Willow inhaled deeply and bit her lip. She closed her eyes, knowing that if she saw Tara's face, she would be lost. "You're not her," Willow said dully, and moved to the edge of the bed. She walked past it without looking, wondering how it so easily penetrated the barriers she had erected.
"You can't run, you know. You're mine."
Willow was reaching for her robe, and paused. "I know," she answered, hating for the first time the complete cost of bringing Buffy back. Tara paid the blood sacrifice months afterward, leaving Willow hoping, still, that there would be a way around the last part of that deal.
Willow jerked back into action. She pulled the robe on while moving quickly through the hallway. The kitchen was bright and smelled good and she slid into a chair and waited for Faith to acknowledge her.
"You all right?"
"The First just paid a visit."
"That's so weird."
"So it's been to you, too."
"Yeah, as the mayor." Faith looked at Willow with a twisted smile. "Guess it was Tara."
"That's better than when it's Buffy," Willow answered, avoiding Faith's question.
Faith removed a plate from the microwave. "You want some?"
Faith sat near Willow at the table. "It said I could have you."
Willow laughed hollowly. "Little late for that."
"I didn't tell him." Faith dug into her plate.
Willow got up and got two glasses from the cabinet. She poured milk for both of them and returned to the table. Faith winked at her, and Willow smiled back.
When Faith finished eating, she washed the dish, fork, and glasses. They went back to the bedroom and made themselves comfortable. Faith lay on her back, Willow on her side with her head on Faith's shoulder and Faith's arm around her.
Buffy sat up, listening for the noise to repeat. She left her bedroom and went downstairs, carefully avoiding the squeaky step that stayed on Xander's to do list. She saw Spike in the kitchen, listening as hard as she was for something past the soft noises of the sleeping girls. Spike nodded toward the back door and made a circling motion with his finger.
"You're going to lose, little girl."
Buffy turned to see herself. "I told you about using my body."
It morphed into her mother. "Is this better? Can I convince you to give up now?"
"Go back to hell," Buffy said through clenched teeth.
"You'll be there with me soon enough, you and your little friends." The First winked away seconds before Spike came back into the house.
Buffy said quietly, "It's gone." Spike nodded, and they went to their respective ends of the house.
Willow watched Faith sleep. Being her was easy. They understood things about each other that the others just didn't get. Not that Faith was the one, or anything. Eventually one of them would want something else, and they would be friends of a different kind. After Buffy's admission, Willow was pretty sure that when she and Buffy got done being mad at each other, if they lived long enough to have that talk, they'd try to make another life together. She'd wondered for a long time how Buffy felt about her. Tara had voiced her suspicions early in their relationship, when she saw the way Buffy glared at her when she approached Willow. Although Willow hadn't denied it, she never gave Tara any reason to think she was interested in Buffy as anything more than friends.
They would have to work on that again first, understanding each other, even if there was nothing more to it. That or walk completely away. Either way, it had to wait until Buffy saved the world again. Willow was under no illusion that she was anything more than a diversion. It still made her uneasy, to think that she would use magic and not be used by it, but it would be what Buffy asked of her, and she had yet to truly refuse Buffy anything.
Faith shifted in her sleep and pulled Willow closer. Willow smiled at the sweetness of the unconscious gesture and the warmth of Faith's calloused hands. For now, this was good. Faith made her feel wanted and oh so alive. It was the best she'd felt in months.
When she woke alone, it was raining, heavy and steady. Willow got up and used the bathroom and put her robe on before looking for Faith. She found a note on the refrigerator, and went to the phone.
"Willow! How are you?"
"I'm good. Is Buffy around?"
"Yeah, let me get her." Dawn put the phone down and Willow heard her on the stairs before Buffy answered.
"Hey, Will," Buffy said.
"Hi. Can you come over? Faith can stay with the girls."
"Sure. See ya in a few." Buffy hung up and headed for the closet to get her rain jacket.
Willow glanced at Faith's note before returning to the bedroom to dress. She was brushing her hair when Buffy knocked and let herself in. She met the Slayer in the hallway.
"Can we talk?" Buffy asked.
"Sure. We can talk about all sorts of things." Willow pushed Buffy gently back. Buffy took the hint and turned around.
"I brought mochas," she offered before sitting on the sofa. Willow took the chair. "I'm sorry if I made you think I don't want you around."
"Buffy, one of us is always sorry about something she's done. Why is that?"
"I don't know."
"I don't know, either. It just makes everything so hard. Can we just draw a line and say from now, we won't keep doing that."
"I can't promise you that, Willow."
"Why not? I can."
"There's just so much."
"Let it go, Buffy. Nobody will hold it against you." Willow caught the Slayer's gaze. "Treat it like it was another life," she said, smiling a little.
"Wonder how many more I get?"
"At least one," Willow decided arbitrarily.
Buffy smiled at Willow's playfulness. It gave her hope. "Do I get any say in it?"
"I don't know yet."
Buffy smiled and sipped her mocha. "So what'cha want?"
"Just checking in with you. Thought you might like some quiet."
"It is novel."
"See, change is good."
"It suits you," Buffy said, trying not to sound jealous.
"Thank you," Willow answered, and let her off the hook.
"What did Spike find?"
"You're right, there's something at the vineyard. Some big weapon. I'm just having a hard time figuring out how to get us in and out since our last trip went so well."
"Long weapons, this time," Buffy thought out loud. "Keep the Bringers at bay, don't give them a chance to hurt anyone."
"Still leaves Caleb."
"Faith and I can handle him." Buffy smirked. "Faith can probably keep him talking for 20 minutes before he thinks to hit her."
Willow laughed. "And who's looking for the shiny new toy?"
"That would be you."
"I'm betting it's a Slayer thing. Faith and I can keep Caleb busy, you go hunt down this thing. It's some kind of mystical ax or something."
"Did you run this by Xander yet?"
"Nope. Just you."
"What about Giles? He can look."
"We need to hold him in reserve until the end, Buffy." Willow wondered how she knew that, just like she knew that Buffy was going to destroy Sunnydale High again.
"Willow, you all right?"
"Yeah." Willow shook her head. "Just thinking ahead."
"That's good, right?"
"One of us has to. And let's face it, Action Buffy lives in the moment."
"You're the only one who can change that."
"Is that what you did, Willow?"
"Yes," Willow replied in a matter of fact tone. "Tara's gone, I'm still here, and I need to feel like I'm alive."
"Me, too." Buffy smiled tightly.
Willow moved from the chair to the sofa and put her arm around Buffy. Buffy rested her head on Willow's shoulder. They sat like that while their mochas got cold.
Faith schooled the potentials, and tried to learn each one's name. She remembered feeling like she was disposable, and didn't want them thinking that. The basement was crowded, with Spike, Dawn, and Andrew watching from the closed lids of the washer and dryer. Faith ignored them and worked with each of the girls in turn. When she had spoken with every one, she let them go.
They streamed up the stairs. Faith looked at Dawn. "Where's Xander?"
"He's at his place. Anya took him to get some things."
"Huh. Guess I'll wait for him to get back."
Andrew hopped down from the dryer and sidled past Faith. He was afraid of both Slayers, Buffy with reason, Faith on general principles. When he was gone, Faith asked again, "He's here why?"
"To annoy me, the bloody git," Spike answered.
Dawn giggled. "Buffy won't put him out and he won't leave."
Faith nodded. She looked at Spike. "What exactly did you find the other night?"
"Bleedin' mess. Preacher boy'd all ready been there, so it's a foot race now. Whoever gets the weapon first gets to use it."
Spike shrugged. "You know those things are never clear. Best I could tell, it's an axe or something."
"So how do we get it?"
"That's Red's job, figuring all that stuff out." Spike slid off the washer and stretched. "When she and Buffy decide it's go time, we'll go," he said calmly.
"I hate sittin' around doin' nothin'." Faith said.
"You're not doing nothing," Dawn said. "You're training them."
Faith waved her hand dismissively.
"If you guys weren't doing that, most of them would be dead all ready," Dawn told her.
"Whatever." A noise like a herd of large animals came from the ceiling, and all of them looked up. "Not big on stealth, are they?"
Spike chuckled. "They're little girls. Until now, they never had to be quiet." Dawn glared at him, and Spike added, "Present company excepted, of course, Niblet."
Faith smirked. Spike was still dangerous, she knew, but seeing him whipped, and by a 15-year-old girl, at that, amused her.
Spike looked at her as if he knew what she was thinking, but didn't say it. "I imagine Buffy gave you the big talk about Red," he said.
"Somethin' like that," Faith answered cautiously.
"Double from me," he said.
Faith laughed, and Spike let his vampire features take over. "Down, sparky," Faith told him. "It's just that people keep threatenin' me if I do somethin' to her, and I'm thinkin' you guys are warnin' the wrong person."
"You weren't here," Spike said.
"Neither were you," Dawn told him. "And it's none of your business anyway."
"You'd do well to remember who you're talking to."
Faith stepped between them. "You," she pointed at Spike, "play nice. And you," she turned and pointed at Dawn, "stop antagonizing the nice vampire."
"I am *not* nice," Spike growled, but slid back into his own face.
"Right," Faith said, and tried to suppress the laughter in her voice. She heard a car stop in front of the house and headed upstairs. She picked her way across the bodies in front of the television.
Xander and Anya entered the front door, bickering about something. Faith interrupted them. "Xan, I need some help."
"What?" he said, thrown by the question.
Anya rolled her eyes and went into the kitchen.
"I was talking to Willow, and she said you could help. I was thinking we should get a generator or two, so we're ready when the lights go out."
"That's what Willow said. And she said you'd know what we would need, so I figured we could go check 'em out."
"Home Depot's still open."
"You wanna go now?"
"Yes." He handed her his keys.
"Thank you," Buffy said softly without moving.
"You're welcome," Willow answered automatically. After a pause, she asked, "What for?"
"Letting me be a big poopy head."
Willow laughed. "I'm not touching that one."
"This is nice. Why did we stop?"
Willow thought for a moment. "I don't know."
Buffy watched Willow's face, wondering what she was thinking. Her free hand floated to Willow's cheek, and she turned to look at Buffy.
"Where is Will anyway?" Xander asked.
"Makin' up with B, I hope. The way B tore outta here, I can't think of much makes her move that fast outside of a fight."
"What're you gonna do if Buffy gets what she wants?"
Faith smiled cynically. "Buffy always gets what she wants."
"She will this time." Faith looked around the empty intersection. "Willow's always been hers. Knew it the first time I saw 'em together."
"I dunno," Xander said. "Willow's really mad at her."
"So? They'll make up."
"If Will's just convenient for you, you need to stop messing with her," Xander said firmly.
"Xander, don't tell me how to live my life. Or hers."
"You don't know what went on here."
"Yeah, I do. I get it. But it's not any of your business. You need to worry about something besides Red's love life, all right? Makes you sound like a big perv."
"I am a big perv," Xander said, smiling easily for a moment before getting serious again. "Lay off Buffy, too."
"I didn't do anything to B," Faith answered defensively, and pulled into the Home Depot lot. It was nearly empty. She turned to Xander. "I'm here to help. That's all."
Xander nodded, and they got out of the car.
"So beautiful," Buffy whispered.
Willow froze as her thoughts flew apart. There were her feelings for Buffy, and the memory of Tara, and Faith, who didn't need explanations. It felt like she could feel each ridge of Buffy's fingertips on her face. Buffy's familiar scent surrounded her, and Willow closed her eyes for a moment to try to sort out her emotions.
Buffy watched Willow's feelings flit across her face while she moved closer. She couldn't stop her infinitesimally slow drift toward Willow, and didn't want to. She knew she needed Willow with her to win this fight, but more than that, needed Willow beside her. She wanted Willow for so long, she couldn't remember feeling otherwise. Their timing was always off, and Buffy was afraid that Willow didn't feel the same, so she pretended to everyone, even herself, that they were just friends. Seeing Willow with Faith, and knowing that Faith received from Willow what Buffy always wanted, hurt her.
Their lips met, and Buffy forgot for several seconds to breathe as Willow kissed her back. For a few moments, Buffy was just herself, a young woman deeply in love with her best friend, not the Slayer all ready a legend.
Willow kissed her back, taking from Buffy all the emotion she poured into that slight contact and sending it back to her with everything she felt.
They separated, and looked at each other, Buffy's fingers still stroking Willow's cheek, and they came together again. Willow raised her hand to Buffy's face, and their free hands joined between them. For the minutes they kissed, neither had any thought apart from how good it felt.
When they separated the second time, they sat forehead to forehead. "Please come home, Will," Buffy whispered.
Willow hesitated before answering. "Soon," she said.
"I need you."
Willow smiled a small, sad smile at Buffy's admission. "I know. But I need her right now."
"I know. I'll wait for you. But I need you near me."
"Soon," Willow repeated.
"All right," Buffy said after a long time, and pulled back.
The Home Depot was virtually deserted, and Xander led Faith through the aisles. In the back corner of the store, they found half a dozen generators, and Xander showed Faith the one they would need for Buffy's house. She looked at the price tag and let out a low whistle.
"The Council will cover it," Xander said confidently.
"So how do we get the money?"
"Giles has it."
"Who knows? We'll hit him up next time we see him."
"Good deal. Anything you need while we're here?" Faith asked.
"Nope. Not supposed to be doing anything anyway."
"All right. Guess we should head back then."
Buffy was in a better mood during their patrol that night. She and Faith were out until nearly sunrise, and returned to Revello Drive filthy and exhausted. Willow took one look at them and sent Buffy upstairs before she and Faith went to her parents' house.
While the Slayers slept, things proceeded around them. The potentials trained in the back yard under Kennedy's supervision. Willow continued her research on the list of things Giles gave her, a list that never grew shorter.
It was late afternoon when Faith came out of the bedroom, fully dressed. She paused on the way to the kitchen to kiss Willow briefly. She answered the phone when it rang, and summoned Willow to the kitchen to talk with Giles. When she finished the conversation, Willow turned to Faith. "We need to get over there."
"No, Giles wants a powwow. He said he found something important."
"Can I finish eating?"
Willow smiled. "Of course." She sat at the table with Faith.
"Did you eat?"
Willow frowned, trying to remember. "No."
Faith pushed her plate to Willow and got up to fix herself another.
"You don't have to do this."
"Apparently, I do." Faith pulled things from the refrigerator again. "You and B make up?"
"How's that?" Faith piled leftovers onto the plate and put it in the microwave. While the food heated, she returned containers to the refrigerator.
"She kissed me."
"Huh," Faith said noncommittally, and kept her back to Willow. "We goin' back there?"
"Should I put my shit in the guest room?"
At the question, Faith turned around. Willow looked genuinely puzzled. "She kissed you, I'm outta the picture."
"No, you aren't." Willow got up and went to Faith. "I just wanted you to know. It doesn't change anything between us."
"I told you before, you want her, go for it."
"And I told you, you don't get to make those decisions for me."
They looked at each other while the microwave ran. When it beeped, Faith got the plate and gently pushed Willow toward the table.
They gathered in the kitchen again, Giles, Buffy, Willow, and Faith at the table, Dawn, Xander and Spike on stools behind them. Giles looked exhausted. He had arrived hours before, dragging two more frightened potential Slayers with him. "They are the last ones," he told them. "I can't find any evidence that any of the others survived the Bringers."
"We need to go back to the vineyard," Buffy told him.
Giles removed his glasses and massaged his forehead. "I'm not sure that's wise."
"Caleb's guarding something there, Giles, and we need to get it," Buffy said firmly.
"At what cost?" Giles asked.
"I'm with Giles on this," Xander said.
"You're not going," Buffy said firmly, and turned to Giles. "Neither are you."
"Buffy," Giles began.
"Buffy's right," Willow and Faith said at the same time.
"So we don't get any say in this?" Xander asked angrily.
"No," Faith said. "Nobody gets a vote. This isn't a democracy. It's an army."
Xander laughed hollowly.
"What's the plan?" Spike asked calmly.
Buffy took a deep breath. "When we finish here, Faith and I will go look around there and see if we can find anything new. Tomorrow afternoon, we'll go in fast, get what we're going for, and get out. We'll need long weapons this time, to give the girls a chance to keep the Bringers away."
"Buffy, are you sure this is a good idea?" Dawn asked cautiously.
"It's that or just wait for them to pick us off."
Dawn looked to Willow. "Please tell me you helped with this."
"All right," Dawn agreed reluctantly.
"Anything else?" Buffy asked.
Giles shook his head, and Buffy and Faith got to their feet. "Don't wait up," Buffy said before they left.
Willow was waiting when they returned. They were uninjured, and the three of them went to the kitchen so the Slayers could eat while they told Willow what they found.
They firmed up their plan for later that day before separating. Buffy went up to her room. Faith stretched out on the couch, and Willow returned to her research.
After only a few hours, both Slayers were in the kitchen eating again. When they finished, they went outside and called the potentials to them. They explained slowly and clearly their plan, and when they finished, told the girls to get their weapons.
Kennedy lagged behind. She waited until the others were gone to say, "This idea sucks."
"Didn't ask you, Junior," Faith answered. "Go get your stuff. Daylight's burnin'."
"Fine," Buffy said. "Stay here." She turned for the door, Faith at her heels.
"Are you both insane?" Kennedy yelled, but Buffy and Faith kept walking.
Everyone was hyped up when they returned. Minor injuries were the only price they paid for the raid. Buffy led them home with the weapon in question on her shoulder. Faith stayed at the rear, alert for Bringers and stragglers.
The potentials exuberantly discussed their outing while Willow, Buffy, Faith, Giles, and Dawn examined the weapon. No matter how much the others tinkered with it, it remained unchanged. When Buffy and Faith began to experiment, the weapon's true nature revealed itself, and they moved their confab to the back yard.
Buffy and Faith sparred, taking turns with the weapon, and being extra careful to maintain control. Willow's bruised face reminded both of them to stay on their best behavior. When they finished, they stood shoulder to shoulder and smiled broadly at their audience, which included everyone in the house. The Slayers' enthusiasm and hope spread to the potentials. Even Giles looked optimistic.
Before they followed the others back inside, Faith pulled Buffy aside. "We should celebrate," she said.
"What do you mean?" Buffy asked cautiously.
"They did good. Let's give 'em the night off and hit the Bronze."
Buffy looked doubtful, so Faith continued.
"Boost morale an' all that shit, B. C'mon, they been here working their asses off and expecting to die. Let's remind 'em why they do it."
"That's not why," Buffy began.
Faith cut her off. "Yeah, I know, but everybody needs a little fun sometimes. Even you," Faith finished pointedly.
"All right," Buffy acquiesced. "But we aren't staying late and we'll patrol on the way home."
"Deal." Faith offered her hand, and Buffy shook it.
There were only a few people other than the group of teenagers in the Bronze. Buffy watched to make sure no one got in trouble. Periodically, her eyes met Faith's. Before returning to watch, they nodded at each other.
Buffy felt Willow's intention long before she arrived with a cold drink.
"I don't remember us ever being like that," Buffy said.
"The first time," Willow said. "And look where it got us." She tried to laugh but couldn't.
"I'm sorry," Buffy said.
"Buffy," Willow reproved.
"I am." Buffy took a long drink from the glass. "So what's next?"
"I think we keep stalling."
"Like with Glory."
Willow worked to keep her face neutral. "I hope not."
Buffy didn't answer. She scanned the room again, ending on Willow. She didn't know what to say. Willow looked to the other side of the room, to Faith, and Buffy knew she'd said the wrong thing. Again. "Thanks for the drink," she said finally.
"You're welcome," Willow automatically replied as she drifted away.
At 10 pm, Buffy and Faith began the round-up. It was nearly 10:30 before the group erupted onto the sidewalk. They were noisy, but settled down quickly. The abbreviated patrol further boosted the potentials' confidence when they were able to swarm over and dispose of a pack of bringers and three vampires.
When they returned to Revello Drive, Buffy waited on the porch while everyone except she, Faith, and Willow went into the house. "It was a good idea, Faith," Buffy said.
"Thanks." Faith said, pleased to receive approval from Buffy.
"We'll see you tomorrow, " Willow said to break the silence. The tension between the three of them was suffocating, and she wanted to be away from it.
"G'night, B," Faith said, taking the hint.
Buffy didn't answer. She watched them walk down the sidewalk and get into the car, and remained there after they drove away. She leaned against the door and listened to the girls settle down while she wondered how to make things right with Willow. Finally, she entered the house and went directly to her room.
Buffy closed the door carefully. Dawn sat up from her makeshift bed. "I'm awake."
"Sorry," Buffy said automatically and cringed internally.
"Tonight was good."
"I told Faith."
"Good. You guys need to get along."
"I'm trying, Dawn." Buffy stuffed her clothing in the hamper and went to the bed. She pulled her pajamas from under her pillow.
"Didja make up with Willow?"
"I'm trying," Buffy repeated while stepping into her pajama pants. She put on the top, then pulled down the covers. The sheets were cool and soft, and Buffy shifted a few times before finding a good position. "Good night, Dawn."
Dawn yawned. "Night, Buffy."
In the car, Faith grinned hugely. "She said I did good."
"You did," Willow affirmed.
"But she never says that."
"Never say never." Willow glanced around the intersection before blowing through a stop sign.
"I'm not sure," Willow answered. "Do you feel something weird?"
"Just regular Hellmouth weirdness."
"What's that?" Willow pointed, but Faith saw only shadows.
"Dunno." Faith began to pay attention. "Doors locked?"
Willow removed one hand from the wheel and pushed the lock button.
"Bringers," Faith decided. "Those are Bringers. What are they doing here?"
Willow saw figures at the garage door and drove past her house. Her jaw went rigid when she realized Caleb was in the center of the group of Bringers in her driveway. "Call Buffy and tell her we're on our way back there. Tell her to get everybody up." Willow's tone was urgent.
Faith reached without looking into Willow's bag and pulled out her phone. She flipped it open and pressed 2. Buffy answered immediately. "B, get 'em up. Somethin's goin' on."
"We're on our way back. There were a buncha Bringers in Willow's driveway."
Buffy sat up. "Hurry." She hung up the phone and began to dress. "Dawn, go get the others up."
Dawn didn't say anything as she scrambled up and left. Buffy jammed her feet into her boots and zipped them. She flew downstairs, flipping the bank of light switches on as she passed. Xander and Andrew sat up. "Xander, downstairs," Buffy ordered. "Andrew, if anything happens to him, you're in more trouble. And tell Spike to get up here."
"What's up?" Xander asked groggily.
"Dunno. Willow and Faith are coming back here. I want you downstairs until we know what's going on."
"All right," Xander yawned, and stood up. Andrew followed him silently. Seconds later, Buffy heard Spike's boots on the basement steps. She stood up and tossed one of the two swords she removed from the weapons chest at him. Spike caught it easily and stood at the back door, watching.
Buffy heard Willow's car pull up and opened the front door. She didn't see or hear anything out of the ordinary, and Willow and Faith reached the porch without incident. As Buffy followed them in, a knife landed in the doorjamb by her head. She pushed Faith aside and slammed the door shut. Buffy turned the locks into position.
"Bringers in the front yard," Dawn called down from Buffy's room. Seconds later, they heard two potentials move into position and begin to pick off the invaders.
"You all right?" Buffy asked Willow.
"Yeah, just spooked. Caleb was standing in my driveway. He shouldn't be able to do that, Buffy."
"We'll figure it out later."
"Bringers are gone," Dawn reported from the top of the steps.
"Thanks," Buffy answered, her eyes still on Willow, who chewed on the inside of her lip while working at the current problem. Faith put her arm around Willow's waist, and Buffy forced her eyes away as Willow leaned against her.
"Where can we crash?"
"Will's room. If that's all right," Buffy added quickly.
"Umm hmm," Willow replied, not really paying attention.
"I'll be up for a while," Faith said.
"Me, too." Buffy nodded her head slowly. "Spike's got the back door," she told Faith.
"I'll be up soon," Faith told Willow softly and kissed her temple. Willow moved toward the stairs, still deep in thought. Faith watched her before turning to Buffy. "Guess we're back."
"Guess so." Buffy smiled slowly. "Best time to get a shower is 4 a.m." She left suddenly, leaving Faith looking after her uncertainly. After a moment, Faith shrugged and checked the locks on the front door. Two were new; all were engaged. Where the windows had been was securely boarded up. Faith would have preferred to see what was coming, but it would take a chainsaw to get into the front of the house.
Faith waited for Buffy, who returned just ahead of Xander and Andrew. "What's the plan?"
"No plan. Just sit tight. Spike said he'll stay up." Buffy yawned. "I'm going to bed."
Faith nodded and headed upstairs. Willow was sitting up against the headboard. Five sleeping bags were on the floor, their occupants watching out the windows. "Take turns," Faith told them and sat beside Willow on the bed.
While the potentials huddled up to work out a schedule, Faith pulled Willow from her thoughts. "It must be safe," Faith said softly. "B's goin' back to bed."
"All right," Willow said. She smiled tightly at Faith. "Want me to move over?"
"Nope." Faith bent over and removed her boots. She crawled over Willow, pausing for a kiss, which brought giggles from the girls. Willow turned off the light. Kennedy had the first watch, and conspicuously did not look at the couple in the bed.
Willow pushed herself into sleep to the even rhythm of Faith's easy breathing.
Willow and Faith were alone when Willow woke. Faith smiled at her, and they kissed quickly. They each took a quick turn in the bathroom. After, they made the bed silently, and met at the door. "What's the plan?"
"I don't know yet," Willow answered.
"I need some coffee."
The house was nearly empty. Buffy was in the kitchen, and they all exchanged greetings. Faith went to the fresh pot of coffee and got two mugs down from the cabinet over it. "Thanks."
"You're welcome," Buffy said.
Willow looked in the refrigerator and sighed. "Shopping again." She closed the door and sat down.
Faith put a mug in front of her and took the seat across from Buffy. "Where is everybody?"
"Anya took Xander to the doctor again, Giles took the potentials to the university gym to work out, and Dawn and Andrew are checking the houses next door," Buffy reported.
"Any particular reason?" Faith tried to keep her tone casual.
"Last night," Buffy said flatly.
"No fighting," Willow said firmly.
"I don't want to fight," both Slayers said quickly.
"Good." Willow sipped coffee, then looked at Buffy. "You said Dawn and Andrew were looking at the houses next door?" Willow asked.
"Yeah, we're way too crowded here. Spike can take one, you two can take the other, and we'll split up the potentials."
"Maybe we won't have to listen to the peanut gallery all night," Faith said.
"I think we're all safer in one place," Willow said cautiously.
Buffy carefully kept her face neutral, although she mentally pumped her fist in victory. "Should we look for someplace bigger?"
"Maybe," Faith said slowly. She looked at Willow. "We need to get our stuff anyway, so we can ride around and see what's available."
"I'll go with you," Buffy volunteered.
Willow didn't give Faith an opportunity to disagree. "Good idea. I'll get my keys and we can get moving."
They were cautious as they approached Willow's house, but no one detected anything dangerous. Faith insisted on going inside first, but quickly came out and gave the all clear.
While Willow and Faith gathered their things, Buffy carefully tore down Willow's laptop. By the time the other two joined her in the living room, the computer was safely stowed in its carrying bag.
They drove through Sunnydale, debating the merits of hotels, dorms, apartment buildings, and warehouses as places to stay. The city was nearly deserted. After two hours, they gave up the search and decided to stay in Buffy's house. Although it was crowded, they knew they wouldn't be there much longer.
They returned to Revello Drive, and found the potentials waiting in the living room. Faith took their clothes upstairs while Willow set her laptop on the dining room table, where Giles was researching. Faith and Buffy came through a few minutes later, shooing the potentials into the back yard for another training session.
The weapon leaned against the wall where they could all see it.
"Ok," Willow began, "before the vineyard was just, you know, a vineyard, it was a monastery. Could've been put there then. Some creepy monks messing with powers they don't understand."
"No, it's older than that. It's pre-Christian," Giles said, and scratched his head.
"OK. Well, I found reference to stories the monks used to tell about something older. Uh, like, some kind of pagan temple."
"Native American?" Giles suggested.
"No. I don't know. Ugh. OK, maybe we're just going about this the wrong way. Maybe we should research the weapon itself. Like," she pointed at the screen of her laptop. A website titled History of the Axe was on the screen. "Look. Maybe it's the Axe of Dekeron, said to have been forged in hell itself. Lost since the Children's Crusade, where it was said to have killed," she stopped, leaned back, and made a face. "Oh. Children. I hope that's not it."
"Well, I have reference to the Sword of Moskva, the, uh, Reaper of the Tigris. How are we supposed to narrow this down? The illustrations are never clear enough." He closed the book in his hand and put it down. "Oh, damn. We're running out of time. We really haven't got anything useful."
Willow got up and picked up the weapon.
"Do you sense any of the power that Buffy spoke about?" Giles asked.
"Gotta say no. Must be a slayer thing."
Giles joined her at the edge of the room. "Tapping into magicks might help with that."
"Maybe. But, I mean, if Caleb is scared of this thing, it must be pretty dangerous. And tapping into that," she trailed off, and set the weapon down.
"Willow, you could do it without endangering yourself."
"If I tried something big, I'd change. And then it's all black hair and veins and lightning bolts. I can hardly do a locator spell without getting dark roots." Willow looked at the floor and tried to calm herself.
"And if it was necessary?"
"Honestly? I don't know." Willow returned to her seat.
Giles sighed. "All right. Do what you can. That's all any of us can do."
"I guess so. Ugh. Man, none of these sound right." She scrolled down the page. "I mean, look. Here's one that's just 'm question mark. What the heck is that?"
Giles moved behind her. "Let me see." He looked at the screen until he saw what she was looking at. "It's not a question mark. It's the international phonetics alphabet symbol for glottal stop."
"It's sort of a gulping noise. I'm, remembering something here. Um. Ah. Hieroglyphs. Hieroglyphs stand for sets of consonants, as you know."
Giles began pacing. "'M' plus glottal stop is represented by a picture that's commonly thought to symbolize a sickle or a scythe. It's in thousands of carvings. In Egypt, throughout the ancient world."
"Carvings like you'd have on a pagan temple?"
"Go back. See what else we can find out about this temple." He turned from her and picked up the weapon. "The scythe is a symbol of death. Let's see where these pagans buried their dead."
After a few hours, Buffy and Faith released the potentials. Faith headed to the basement. Buffy retrieved the weapon before joining her. At the foot of the stairs, Buffy tossed it toward her. "You feel it too, don't you?"
"Damn. And damn, that's something."
"It's old. It's strong, and it feels like, like it's mine." She tossed it back to Buffy. "I guess that means it's yours."
"It belongs to the slayer," Buffy answered, and caught it.
"Slayer in charge, which, I'm guessing, is you."
"I honestly don't know. Does it matter?" Buffy looked at Faith for the first time in hours. "People die. You lead them into battle, they're gonna die. It doesn't matter how ready you are or how smart you are. War is about death. Needless, stupid death."
"So, here's the laugh riot. My whole life I've been a loner."
"That's the funny part? Did I miss something?"
"I'm trying to," Faith began.
"Sorry. Sorry. Go."
"No ties, no buddies, no relationships that lasted longer than, um, let's just say that Willow sets a new record."
"Was that the funny part?"
"OK. The point. Me, by myself all the time. I'm looking at you, everything you have, and, I don't know, jealous. And I could be you, ya know? I could stand there and let them trust me to lead them, and just thinking about it makes me feel more alone that I have ever felt."
"Yeah." Buffy looked down.
"And that's you every day, isn't it?"
"I love my friends. I'm very grateful for them. But that's the price. Being a slayer."
"There's only supposed to be one. Maybe that's why you and I can never get along. We're not supposed to exist together."
"Also, you went evil and were killing people."
Faith nodded. "Good point. Also a factor."
"But you're right. I mean, I, I guess everyone's alone. But being a slayer? There's a burden we can't share."
"And no one else can feel it." She paused. "Thank God we're hot chicks with superpowers."
"Takes the edge off."
"So what's the plan?" Faith asked.
"I'm gonna patrol tonight," Buffy said.
"Be careful. That preacher was wicked pissed when we left there with that thing."
"Yeah, I'm taking it with. One weapon to rule them all," Buffy smirked.
"Long as it works. You want me to take the baby Slayers out?"
"Yeah, take 'em around the neighborhood. Anything we can do to build their confidence is a big plus right now."
"Nah," Buffy said, and stood up. "I won't be late."
"Good. Willow worries."
Buffy left the room without answering.
In the wine cellar, Caleb threw a barrel across the room. It split open, and a small wave of red wine spread across the floor.
"Not that I care personally, but you are wasting a lot of robust, full-bodied merlot." The First Evil, in Buffy's form, watched Caleb's tantrum.
"Why did you let her go? You know I can take her in a fight."
"We'll get her. Calm down."
"I'm calm. You should see me when I get angry."
"She's powerful right now. And you're weak."
"You know, all of a sudden, I'm getting less calm."
"Face it. Your strength is waning. It has been quite some time since we've merged," it said seductively.
"Maybe you're right. OK, let's do it." He sniffed.
"Boy, you sure know how to romance a girl. No flowers, no dinner, no tour of the rectory. Just, "OK, I'm ready. Let's do it." Help me. My knees are weak." It rolled its eyes.
"Watch what you say now. You're starting to sound like her. This is a sacred experience for me."
"And for me as well. Look, when this is all over, and our armies spring forth, and our will sweeps the world, I will be able to enter every man, woman, and child on this Earth, just as I enter you."
"Are you trying to make me jealous?"
"I'm trying to make you a God."
Caleb and the First Evil, still in Buffy's form, stood facing each other. Caleb held out his hands and leaned his head back. The First did the same, then changed into its demonic form. It lunged toward Caleb, growling, a glow around its huge figure.
"I am thy humble servant," Caleb said.
The First's energy shrank into a beach-ball sized glowing light and entered Caleb's chest. He wobbled unsteadily for several seconds, then rolled his head further back and fell to the ground. When he sat up, his eyes were black. In a voice deeper than his regular one, with a different inflection, Caleb said, "And I am ready to serve thee."
Buffy held the axe loosely in her right hand while she walked through yet another cemetery. She opened a gate and walked up to a pyramid shaped tomb, then kicked down the door.
Buffy entered the tomb. Torches burned on the walls, and Buffy looked around cautiously.
From behind a drape, a woman's voice said, "I'd forgotten. I'd forgotten how young you would be."
When the drape opened, Buffy saw an ancient woman with long white hair. "Comes from the waiting. Mind plays tricks. I see you've found our weapon."
"Who are you?" Buffy demanded.
"One of many. Well, time was. Now I'm alone in the world."
"So what are you? Some kind of ghost?"
The woman chuckled and shook her head. "Nope. I'm as real as you are. Just, well, let me put it this way: I look good for my age. I've been waiting." She held out her hands and Buffy gave her the weapon. You pulled it out of the rock. I was one of those who put it in there."
"What is it?"
"A weapon. A scythe." She admired it. "Forged in secrecy for one like you who. I'm sorry. What's your name?"
Buffy shrugged. "We forged it in secrecy and kept it hidden from the Shadow Men, who"
"Yeah," Buffy interrupted. "Met those guys. Didn't really care too much for 'em."
"Ahh, yes. Then you know. And they became the watchers. And the watchers watched the slayers. But we were watching them."
"Oh! So you're like, what are you?"
"Guardians. Women who want to help and protect you. We forged this centuries ago, halfway around the world."
"Hence, the Luxor Casino theme."
"Forged there, it was put to use right here, to kill the last pure demon that walked upon the Earth. The rest were already driven under. And then there were men here, and then there were monks. And then there was a town, and now there was you. And the scythe remained hidden."
"I don't understand. How is it possible that we didn't know any of this?"
"We hid, too. We had to until now. We're the last surprise."
"Does this mean I can win?"
"That is really up to you. This is a powerful weapon." She returned the scythe to Buffy.
"But you already have weapons."
"Use it wisely and perhaps you can beat back the rising dark. One way or another, it can only mean an end is truly near." Her head cocked slightly to the side.
Buffy heard a cracking noise and the woman fell to the ground. When Buffy looked up, Caleb was standing there.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't catch that last part on account of her neck snapping and all. Did she say the end is near. Or here?"
Buffy swung the scythe at Caleb, but he grabbed it and used it to effortlessly push her away. They fought, trading punches and kicks. One of Caleb's punches missed when Buffy ducked, and his fist went through a stone pillar.
Caleb laughed. "You're not slipping out of this fight, girl. Can't you see? You can't stop me. I can just keep going back for more. It's like being reborn."
Buffy swung the scythe at Caleb's head. He ducked and threw her against the wall. He kicked her into the air and punched her in the stomach while she came down. When she landed, he kicked her in the head and grabbed the scythe. Buffy kicked it from his hands into the air. She caught it and kicked Caleb to the floor. She tried to stake him with the spear end of the scythe, but he stopped her, laughing. He pushed her away again, holding onto the scythe as he got to his feet. Caleb laughed while her punched Buffy repeatedly. She fell to her knees.
"You know, I gave you ample warning. Told you not to interfere, but you chose not to heed."
Buffy got up and charged Caleb, but he threw her onto a sarcophagus. She kicked him, but it had no effect, and he picked her up by the lapels and spun her into a stone pillar. The impact displaced one of the stones, and Buffy hit the ground again.
Caleb picked up the scythe. "I was kind of hoping it'd go this way." He raised the scythe.
"Hey!" a man yelled, and punched Caleb, knocking him down.
Buffy took the hand Angel offered, and got to her feet.
"I was never much for preachers," Angel said casually.
"You look good," he said.
"You look timely. And also good," she smiled.
"Heard maybe you needed a hand."
Caleb got up again. Angel took a step toward him, but Buffy stopped him.
"Ah, one of those things you have to finish yourself."
"Really kinda is," Buffy said, and Angel backed toward a pillar so would be out of Buffy's way but still see what happened.
Angel crossed his arms and licked his lips. "You are so gonna lose," he said while Caleb advanced toward Buffy again.
Buffy and Caleb continued their battle. Caleb took the scythe away from Buffy and punched her, sending her stumbling across the room. She slammed into a wall, and Caleb charged her again, leading with the spear end of the scythe. He missed her, and the scythe stuck in the stone wall. Buffy removed it easily and kicked Caleb away from her.
"God, I missed watching this," Angel said.
Buffy sliced the scythe across Caleb's stomach. He stumbled back, laughing, and wagged his finger at her before falling to the floor.
"See?" Buffy said to Angel. "Under control."
"Well, at least you could tell me you're glad to see me," Angel answered, and walked toward her.
Buffy met him halfway, dropped the scythe, and hugged him. He kissed the top of her head.
"Well, I guess that qualifies as 'happy to see me'," he said uncertainly.
Buffy smiled up at him. "What are you doing here?"
"Not saving the damsel in distress, that's for sure."
"Oh, you know me," Buffy answered while picking up her weapon. "Not much with the damseling."
"Got your share of distress, though," Angel answered while walking to a wall.
Angel picked up a file folder from a bench. "I got coverage on the whole thing. It's very gripping. It needs a third act."
Buffy shook her head. "You have to leave."
"It's the First, right? The First Evil. The power that tried to convince me to kill myself."
"Yeah. It's gotten a little more ambitious since then. It's raising an army."
"Yeah, well, it failed once, and I'm here to tell you," he said, and was interrupted by Caleb knocking him across the floor with a cat statute. He landed in an unconscious heap.
Black blood streamed from his eyes and nose as he advanced on Buffy. "Are you ready to finish this, bitch?" he asked rhetorically, swinging the statue at Buffy.
She blocked him with the scythe and dropped to her knees before swinging at him. He used the statue to block the weapon, knocking her further down, then threw it at her.
Buffy dodged it and got to her feet again, breathing hard. "OK, how many times do I have to kill you? Ballpark figure."
"You understand nothing," Caleb spat, and grabbed the scythe with one hand when Buffy swung at him again. With the other, he punched her twice in the face. He let go of the scythe and picked Buffy up. He raised her over his head, her back against the crypt's ceiling. She struggled to free herself, and he dropped her. Caleb advanced slowly, and picked her up, one hand on either side of her jacket. "You think you have power over me?" he said through gritted teeth.
Buffy broke free and kicked Caleb, putting him on the floor again.
"Stupid girl." Caleb stood. "You'll never stop me. You don't have the ba "
While Caleb got to his feet, Buffy twirled the scythe. She brought it up between his legs. Caleb's eyes bulged open.
"Who does nowadays?" Buffy asked.
Caleb looked down, unbelieving, at the scythe's entry into his body between his legs. Buffy quickly raised it through the rest of his body.
Angel regained consciousness and scrambled to his feet. "OK, now I'm pissed," he said. "Where is he?"
Buffy looked to her right, then to her left, before looking at Angel. "He had to split," she giggled.
Angel picked up the folder again and gave it to Buffy.
"I'll have the guys go through that. See if there's anything new. Reliable source?"
"Mm, any port in an apocalypse."
"I, uh, brought something else as well." He pulled an amulet from his pocket and held it out for Buffy's inspection.
Buffy looked at the large pendant, a two-inch crystal set in a silver starburst on a heavy silver chain, and shook her head. "I can already tell you, I have nothing that goes with that."
"It's not for you."
"I don't know everything. It's very powerful and probably very dangerous. It has a purifying power, a cleansing power, possibly scrubbing bubbles. The translation is, uhanyway, it bestows strength to the right person who wears it."
"And the right person is?"
"Someone ensouled, but stronger than human. A champion. As in me."
"No. I don't know nearly enough about this to risk you wearing it. Besides, you got that real cool axe-thing going for you."
"So you're gonna be with me in this."
"Shoulder to shoulder. I'm yours."
"No. You're not gonna be in this fight." Buffy walked away.
Angel cut off her exit. "Why the hell not?"
"'Cause I can't risk you."
"You need me in this."
"No, I need you gone."
"If I lose, if this thing gets past Sunnydale, then it's days, maybe hours, before the rest of the world goes. I need a second front, and I need you to run it."
"Ok." Angel crossed his arms. "That's one reason. What's the other?"
Buffy walked out of the tomb. "There is no other."
Angel sat on a tombstone and looked at her.
"What was the highlight of our relationship? When you broke up with me or when I killed you? I'm well aware of my stellar history with guys," Buffy sighed and leaned beside Angel. "And, no, I don't see fat grandchildren in the future, but I don't think that really matters right now." She chuckled. "You know, in the midst of all this insanity, a couple things are actually starting to make sense. And the guy thing," she sighed. "I always feared there was something wrong with me, you know, because I couldn't make it work. But maybe I'm not supposed to."
"Because you're the slayer?"
Buffy looked at him. "Because every guy I've ever had any kind of relationship with has made me doubt myself. I'm tired of it. I need one thing in my life that I feel secure about, besides Slaying. And guys aren't it."
Buffy shrugged. "You asked."
Angel handed the amulet to Buffy. "I'll go start working on the second front. Make sure I don't have to use it." He walked away from her.
Faith and the potentials were still out when Buffy returned. She went to the dining room, and all the members of the research party looked up at her.
"Did you find out anything about the scythe?" Willow asked.
"It slices, dices, and makes julienne preacher," Buffy grinned.
"Caleb?" Giles asked.
"I cut him in half," Buffy answered in a satisfied tone.
"All right!" Willow cheered.
"He had that coming," Anya said.
"Hey, party in my eye socket and everyone's invited," Xander said, drawing everyone's attention. "Sometimes I shouldn't say words," he said resignedly.
The house was quiet, but Buffy was restless. She slipped out of bed and went downstairs. She passed through the house, past Xander sleeping on the sofa and Andrew on the floor, to the kitchen. Buffy quietly went into the back yard, only a few steps from the door, and looked at the sky.
"Pretty, ain't it?" the First asked in Caleb's voice.
"You're not him," she answered coldly.
"No, you killed him right and proper. Terrible loss. This man was my good right arm. 'Course, it don't pain me too much. Don't need an arm. Got an army."
"An army of vampires. However will I fight"
The First Evil interrupted her. "Every day our numbers swell. But then you do have an army of your own. Some thirty-odd pimply-faced girls, don't know the pointy end of a stake," he said with false concern. "Maybe I should call this off."
"Have you ever considered a cool name? I mean, since you're incorporeal and basically powerless. How about "The Taunter?" Strikes fear in the heart"
He interrupted her again. "I will overrun this Earth. And when my army outnumbers the humans on this Earth, the scales will tip and I will be made flesh."
"Talk on. I'm not afraid of you."
The First Evil rolled its eyes. "Then why aren't you asleep? 'Cause you're afraid. 'Cause nobody can help you. Not Faith, nor your friends, certainly not your wanna-slay brigade. None of those girlies will ever know real power unless you're dead. You know the drill," it mocked, and morphed into Buffy. "Into every generation, a slayer is born. One girl in all the world. She alone will have the strength and skill to. There's that word again. What you are. How you'll die. Alone. Where's your snappy comeback?"
"Hmm. Not your best."
Buffy shrugged, and the First winked away as the door opened.
"Buffy?" Faith asked. "You all right?"
"No. Yeah. I just realized something. Something that really never occurred to me before. We're gonna win."
Faith grinned at her. "You just figure that out?"
"Yeah." Buffy turned for the door. They went into the house, and Buffy locked the door. "I have something to give you."
Faith looked at her suspiciously. Buffy ignored her and went to the cabinet under the sink. She knelt and pulled the amulet from the back of the cabinet and returned to Faith, standing by the refrigerator.
"Angel brought this," Buffy said, holding it out.
"You've got to be kidding."
"No, he really brought it."
"It's so ugly, it's got to do something."
"Yeah, he wasn't real clear on that, except that it'll make the wearer powerful. Or clean. Or something. Take it."
"Why don't you keep it?"
"I'm pretty sure it's for you. He said it was for someone with a soul, but more than human."
"Aw, man," Faith groaned, and took the chain from Buffy's fingers. "Can't I have the axe instead?"
Buffy smirked. "Nope. Finders keepers. I pulled it outta the rock, it's mine."
"Next time, you get to play with the whack job while I get the goodies."
"Deal." Buffy yawned. "G'night."
"Night," Faith answered, distracted.
After breakfast the next morning, Buffy sent the potentials into the yard to train and gathered the Scoobies in the living room. She outlined her plan, and when she finished, asked, "What do you think?"
"That depends," Xander said. "Are you in any way kidding?"
"You don't think it's a good idea?"
"It's pretty radical, B."
"It's a lot more than that," Giles said, and got to his feet "Buffy, what you said, itit flies in the face of everything we've ever, every generation has ever done in the fight against evil." He smiled. "I think it's bloody brilliant."
"You mean that?" Buffy asked.
"If you want my opinion," Giles answered.
"I really do."
"Whoa, hey. Not to poop on the party here," Willow said, "but I'm the guy that's gonna have to pull this thing off."
"It is beaucoup d'mojo," Faith said.
"This goes beyond anything I've ever done. It's a total loss of control, and not in a nice, wholesome, sex kind of way," Willow babbled.
"I wouldn't ask if I didn't think you could do it," Buffy reassured her.
"I, I'm not sure that I'm stable enough," Willow protested.
"You can do this, Willow," Giles said firmly. "We'll get the coven on the line, and we'll find out how they can help. I'll go dig up my sources. Quite literally, actually," he added, and left the room.
Anya turned to Xander and said, "Come on, let's go assemble the cannon fodder."
"That's not what we're calling them, sweetie," he said, and followed her.
"Not to their faces. What, am I insensitive?"
Buffy hand the scythe to Willow without saying anything.
Minutes later, the entire household was squeezed into the living room. Buffy began without fanfare. "I hate this. I hate being here. I hate that you have to be here. I hate that there's evil, and that I was chosen to fight it. I wish, a whole lot of the time, that I hadn't been. I know a lot of you wish I hadn't been either. But this isn't about wishes. This is about choices. I believe we can beat this evil. Not when it comes, not when its army is ready, now. Tomorrow morning I'm opening the seal. I'm going down into the Hellmouth, and I'm finishing this once and for all. Right now you're asking yourself, 'What makes this different? What makes us anything more than a bunch of girls being picked off one by one?' It's true none of you have the power that Faith and I do. So here's the part where you make a choice.
"What if you could have that power now? In every generation, one slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. They were powerful men. This woman," Buffy pointed at Willow, "is more powerful than all of them combined."
Willow whimpered, but Buffy didn't stop.
"So I say we change the rule. I say my power should be our power. Tomorrow, Willow will use the essence of the scythe to change our destiny." Buffy looked around the room, making certain to make eye contact with every potential. "You with me?"
"I'm in," Faith said immediately.
"Me, too," Kennedy said.
The potentials, who found Kennedy a more realistic role model than either of the older Slayers, followed her lead, until every girl in the room agreed. Even Willow, despite her trepidation, agreed.
Buffy nodded at them. "We've got a lot to do today. And tomorrow, we end this. Let's go, people."
Faith told the potentials to get their weapons and gather in the front yard with Xander so they could go to Sunnydale High. She caught Buffy's eye and jerked her head slightly toward the back yard. Buffy nodded and followed her out.
Faith paced impatiently. Buffy watched for a few seconds, then walked to her.
"What?" Buffy asked.
"I need to get some stuff off my chest, and there won't be time later."
Buffy waited silently for her to begin.
"I, uh, I want you to promise me that you'll take care of Willow. She'll need you."
"You're not going anywhere," Buffy said.
"Yeah, I am. When we're finished here, I'm gone. I can't keep doin' this. I'm no hero."
Buffy grabbed Faith's bicep. "Did you not listen to me when you came back?" she growled. "You're just gonna leave Will. Do you have any idea how freaked out she's gonna be?"
"I'm not just leavin'," Faith said defensively, and glared at Buffy. "But I'm getting' outta your way. She's your girl, and you won't do a damn thing to make sure she stays that way as long as I'm around."
"Damn it, Faith."
"No, B. You listen to me. She doesn't love me. She loves you. Damn if I know why, but she does. So you take good care of her, 'cause if I ever hear otherwise, you'll be the one waitin' on the vultures. We clear?"
Buffy released her. "Yeah."
"Now you go in there and you make sure she knows you believe in her. And don't do anything stupid tomorrow." Faith turned and walked toward the front yard.
Buffy watched her back until Faith turned the corner of the house. She wanted to follow her, but Faith's instruction rang in her ears. The other Slayer was right. Willow needed her today, and would need her if the world didn't end tomorrow, so Buffy went back into the house and re-took her seat on Willow's left. Without saying anything, she found Willow's hand and held it. Willow didn't look at her, but she briefly squeezed Buffy's hand.
On the walk to Sunnydale High, Xander explained to Faith what they needed to do. The sewer entrances needed to be blocked, the halls cleared of debris, and the path to the Hellmouth reclaimed. Faith broke the potentials into teams and sent them to perform their tasks. She and Xander went to the principal's office, and he watched while she moved everything to the walls.
"You know this is way past crazy, right?" Xander said.
Faith grunted as she dragged a bookcase away from a window. "Yeah. So?"
"What if it doesn't work?"
"What if it does?" Faith looked at him and grinned. "If anybody can do it, Willow can. And if it doesn't work, we're going to lose no matter what, so it doesn't make a lot of difference whether it's tomorrow or next week."
"You're awful cheerful for a woman who's probably gonna die tomorrow."
"It doesn't make that much of a difference in the long run, ya know?"
"Never took you to be quitter."
"I ain't quittin'. I'll come out here tomorrow, and I'll do my job." Faith shoved the desk aside, then started picking up loose papers from the floor.
"I'm not talkin' about tomorrow."
Faith stood up. "Xander, I told you, that's not your business."
"Willow is my business," he answered firmly. "And that makes you, by extension, my business, too."
"Then listen to me. She and Buffy are the real deal. I know Willow's heart broke when Buffy died. I know it broke again when Tara died. Me an' her, we aren't any kinda forever thing, an' the longer I hang around, the longer it'll take her to go after that. I want her to be happy, even if it isn't with me. I just don't wanna watch."
"You're just gonna go back to 'get some and get gone'?"
Faith shrugged and started picking up papers again. Xander watched her for a few seconds, then left. He recognized the tone of her voice and the set of her jaw, having seen it on Buffy, Willow, and Anya. There was no sense in talking to her because her mind was made up.
When Faith returned, Buffy grabbed her for a few seconds. "Tonight, I want you to take Will next door. She needs someplace quiet."
"She needs you," Faith said pointedly.
"Not tonight," Buffy said, and walked away. Faith let her.
Faith went upstairs and packed her bag. She found Willow's in the closet and put it beside hers on the bed. Then she sat, sighing. The decision being made didn't make her thoughts of what was to come any easier. Still, she wanted to do this one thing, to make the right decision on her own, without guilt or coercion or concern for her own self-interest.
She knew she would take Willow out of the house tonight, because Buffy asked, and because Willow would need the time alone to go over everything obsessively. Faith could feel Willow's anxiety without having to see her.
Her own voice startled her. "I told you, she's yours."
"Just go away," Faith said flatly without looking up.
"I'm going to kill them, and you're going to watch. Everything you thought was good and pure and noble is gonna be washed away in an ocean of blood. You better make sure you're not caught in the undertow."
The door opened, and the First Evil disappeared before Willow entered the room.
"There you are."
Faith looked up and smiled. "I was gettin' my stuff."
"Yeah, I need to do that, too."
"I'da done it all ready, but," Faith shrugged. "Anyway, it's gonna be crazy here tonight. You wanna slip out, go someplace quiet?"
"Where?" Willow asked cautiously.
"Next door. Houses are empty. Unless you want an audience," Faith teased.
Willow blushed. "No, uh, I'm not big on exhibitionism." She went to her dresser and removed a handful of underwear and bras. Faith held her bag open so she could drop them in easily.
They didn't talk while Willow gathered the things she wanted to take. Faith watched while she carefully rolled a large crystal in a blue shirt and placed it in the center of her bag. Willow added other clothing around it, then went around her room and removed photos from their frames and put them in the bag. She disappeared into the bathroom and came back with her shower kit. She closed the bag and looked at Faith. "Just need my computer."
"I'll get it," Faith volunteered, and picked up their bags. Willow followed her downstairs. Faith put their bags by the door and went to get Willow's laptop.
Dinner was the usual madhouse. Faith stood beside Willow at the counter and quietly urged her to eat, but Willow picked at her food. Faith finished eating, and went into the refrigerator. She pulled out sandwich fixings and made half a dozen sandwiches. They went into a plastic bag, and she searched the cupboards, grinning when she found one unopened bag of chips. She grabbed them and the bag of sandwiches and slipped out the back door.
Faith checked the houses on either side of Buffy's and chose the one with the most comfortable bed. She put the chips on the counter in the kitchen and the sandwiches in the refrigerator, which was empty except for canned drinks, before going in search of the bed linens. Then she stripped the bed and remade it with fresh sheets.
That done, she slipped out and got their bags from Buffy's porch. She put them in the bedroom before leaving again.
Willow was still in the kitchen, pushing food around her plate. Buffy was beside her, talking in a low voice. Faith saw Willow nod as she neared, and watched Buffy kiss her cheek before turning away.
Buffy nodded at Faith, and Faith nodded back, before Buffy stepped away. Faith slid in beside Willow. "You're not done?"
Willow sighed. "I'm done."
"All right. C'mon, we'll get outta here."
Willow nodded and let Faith leave her away.
Faith let Willow go over the spell for two hours before she closed the laptop.
"You know it."
"But what if I miss a word or something?"
"You won't," Faith said firmly. She took the computer and put it on one of the bedside tables, then scooted behind Willow. She massaged Willow's shoulders, working her way toward her neck, then back out and down. Willow sighed as the tension left, and when Faith finished, leaned back against her.
"You're welcome." Faith moved Willow's hair and began kissing her neck.
Willow sighed again, then turned to catch Faith's lips. They shared several kisses before Willow pulled away. "Promise me you'll be careful tomorrow."
"I'll be careful," Faith murmured, and leaned in again.
Faith stopped and looked Willow in the eye. "I promise. You too. Do your thing and get outside."
"Good," Faith said decisively. "No more heavy talk. Only thing I wanna hear from you is 'don't stop.'"
Willow giggled, then shifted again and straddled Faith's thighs. As she moved to kiss Faith, she made a conscious decision to focus on the moment. For once, the little voice in her head let her.
Buffy lay in her bed and stared at the ceiling. She listened as the voices throughout the house faded into silence, leaving her the last one awake. She tried not to think about Willow and Faith, or what might happen tomorrow.
She'd done what she told the others to do: pack a bag and prepare weapons. She'd gone upstairs early, and sat at the desk she hadn't used in months, and wrote letters she hoped would never be read. They were on the top of her bag, just in case. Their plans were set. There was nothing to do now except sleep.
Giles sat in his favorite chair, his second glass of scotch on the table beside him. A stack of old albums was on his stereo, replaying his life as they dropped onto the turntable.
This life wasn't at all what he'd planned. It wasn't even what his father planned, although he'd followed the old man into the family business. His father had been thrilled when he was assigned a Slayer. His mother warned him, obliquely, of the heartache ahead, but Giles brushed her warnings aside. He was sorry when he couldn't go back and apologize to her for his disregard.
Giles was proud of his Slayer, and prouder of her friends. Her family. His family. The children would make anyone proud. Buffy, unwavering in her duty; Willow, who found a way to become a power to balance the Slayer's own; Xander, who had nothing except the heart of a champion and unshakeable belief in Buffy. The three of them found a way to keep the world spinning on its axis, and asked for nothing in return.
In the morning, they would set out once more, returning to the place where they first joined forces. There was a welcome sort of symmetry in that. The older he got, the more Giles appreciated the cosmic irony that seemed to rule his life.
He'd seen this coming for months, and his bookshelves were bare. The few volumes that hadn't been shipped far away for storage were on Buffy's dining room table. He planned to pick them up in his last sweep of that place.
Another album fell onto the turntable, followed by the quiet scratch of the needle into the grooves. Giles drank his scotch and stared into space and tried to not think about what they would face tomorrow.
Buffy took one last look around the first floor. It looked nothing like the house her mother moved them into almost eight years ago. It barely looked like a house. Still, it was full of memories.
A loud horn got her attention, and Buffy turned for the door. She didn't bother to lock it this time. Win or lose, there was nothing of any real value in there. Everything she treasured was on the school bus she walked toward. Scythe in hand, she smiled while boarding.
The drive was only a few minutes. They disembarked and entered the school quietly. When everyone was inside, Buffy started giving orders. "OK, potentials, in the basement. Follow Faith and Spike. Kennedy, you too."
As they went by, Xander said, "If you have to go to the bathroom, it's to your left. If you don't have to go to the bathroom, picture what you're about to face. Better to go now."
Buffy ignored him and turned to Willow. She pointed at a door. "Principal's office is through there. It's right over the seal." She nodded at Xander.
"We got all the entrances blocked yesterday, so don't mind the explosions," he grinned. "They're on timers," he added, and checked his watch. "We got half an hour left, so we should get moving."
"Xander, I want you and Dawn with Willow."
Dawn nodded and took Willow's bag. She headed for the office without saying anything.
"I want you three here in case anything decides to come in," Buffy told Giles, Anya, and Andrew.
"We will defend it with our very lives," Andrew said solemnly.
"Yes," Anya agreed, "we will defend it with his very life."
"And don't be afraid to use him as a human shield," Xander told her.
"Good, yes," she nodded. "Thanks."
"I just want to say how proud I am to die for this very special cause with you guys," Andrew said. He pulled a folded piece of paper from his pocket and began to read. "There's some, um, there's people I'd like to thank, both good and evil. Um, a shout out to my brother Tucker, who gave me the inspiration to summon demons and also"
Anya poked him. "Nobody cares, you little monkey," she said, and pulled him away.
Buffy looked from Giles to Xander to Willow. The silence between them stretched into half a minute before Buffy broke it. "So, what do you guys want to do tomorrow?"
"Nothing strenuous," Willow said.
"Well, mini-golf is always the first thing that comes to mind," Xander opined.
"I think we can do better than that," Giles said.
"I was thinking about shopping," Buffy told them, then grinned. "As per usual."
"Oh! There's an Arden B. in the new mall!" Willow said.
"I could use a few items," Xander added.
"Well, now aren't we gonna discuss this? Save the world to go to the mall?" Giles asked.
"I'm having a wicked shoe craving," Buffy shrugged.
"Aren't you on the patch?" Xander asked.
"Those never work," Willow told him.
"Here I am, invisible to the eye," Giles said.
Xander, Willow, and Buffy turned toward the office without Giles.
"See, I need a new look," Xander said. "It's this whole eye patch thing."
"Oh, you could go with full black secret agent look," Buffy suggested.
"Or the puffy shirt, pirate slash," Willow began.
Giles looked at them and sighed. "The earth is definitely doomed."
Buffy, Xander and Willow entered the principal's office. "Dawn," Buffy said softly.
Dawn looked up at her. "No," she said firmly. "Anything you say is gonna sound like goodbye." She returned to her task.
Willow and Xander looked at her, and Buffy nodded. "See you later," she told them, and walked out, pulling the door closed behind her.
She walked quickly through the empty halls. The others were waiting for her around the Seal of Danzalthar. Buffy stepped into the only open space, beside Faith. Faith handed her a knife. "You first, B."
Buffy took a deep breath and took the knife. She drew it across her palm and handed the knife, keeping her cut palm up for the moment. Faith sliced her palm and handed the knife to Kennedy. They passed it until the knife was returned to Buffy's hand, then turned their bleeding palms toward the seal.
After a few seconds, it glowed and began changing. When it finished, they looked at the stairway into the Hellmouth. Buffy started down it without hesitation, and the others fell in behind her.
Xander watched intently as Dawn finished lighting candles. Willow sat cross-legged in the circle Dawn drew around her, the scythe on the floor in front of her.
"They should be in place," Willow said nervously. She placed her sweaty palms on her knees and looked at Dawn and Xander. "OK, magic time."
"You can do it," Xander reassured her.
"You know what to do if I go dark?" she asked him.
"Good. Fun. Great. Brace yourself." She wiped her palms down her thighs one more time and began the spell.
Faith looked down at the amulet, then to Buffy. "Are you sure this thing works?" she asked. "Cause right now, it's just bein' ugly."
"I'm not worried," Buffy answered casually.
"I'm getting zero juice here, and I look like Elizabeth Taylor," Faith complained.
"Cheer up, Liz," Kennedy said. "Willow's big spell doesn't work, it won't matter what you wear."
They walked to the edge of the cliff at the far edge of the cavern and looked down. Thousands of Turok-Han were mobbing, growling, spitting, and howling.
"I'm not worried," Buffy said, but Kennedy and Faith backed up. "I'm not worried," she repeated calmly.
"Really? 'Cause I'm flashing back to Xander's whole bathroom speech," Rona said.
"I'm not worried," Buffy repeated for the third time, then added, "as long as Willow can work her spell before they see us."
The Turok-Han rushed toward the cliff, but no one moved.
"Willow," Buffy said quietly, placing all her hope in that one word.
Willow held the scythe loosely in her hands while she recited the spell. Power rushed through her as the scythe began to glow. That glow spread up her arms and through her body, suffusing her with white light.
"Oh. My. Goddess," Willow breathed. It was like coming up from the deep end of the pool and taking a long-needed breath. It was like waking up from her darkest nightmare. It was being reborn and coming alive and feeling every good thing, every beginning, every sunrise ever. The stains on her psyche and the fear of going evil were gone. That would never happen. Her soul was her own again, and her cobbled-together heart was whole.
Dawn and Xander watched silently, recognizing that they were in the presence of good every bit as old and strong as the First Evil that strained to rise from the Hellmouth. That power leaked outside the circle and suffused them, as well.
Willow remained with her head thrown back, breathing heavily as she struggled to remain in control of the feedback she received from the universe. Much of it came from this world, her world, as girls woke up and shook off the heavy covering over their Slayerness. They became something more than they had ever imagined, and the wonder and awe and sheer joy of it made them giddy, and Willow shone brighter for it.
The Turok-Han believed they would massacre the girls in their way.
They were wrong.
Every demon that came over the cliff met a Slayer. They fought without thinking, their bodies reflexively moving them through the motions of combat. A few seconds into it, they began to smile, understanding for the first time Buffy's steely confidence and Faith's self-assured swagger. Dust filled the air. There was too much motion for it to begin to settle, and the battle went on.
The light faded and Willow offered the scythe to Dawn. "Take this to Buffy."
Dawn took it and raced out of the office. Xander raised his eyepatch and with both eyes watched Willow, a huge smile on her face, slump onto her side.
"That," she laughed, "was nifty," and gave up, for the moment, trying to catch her breath.
"Buffy!" Dawn yelled from the bottom step. "Catch!" She tossed the scythe.
Without looking, Buffy reached up and pulled it from the air. She twisted it, and the axe blade appeared from the body. With her first swing, she took down half a dozen Turok-Han.
Dawn knew better than to wait and watch. She turned and scrambled back up the stairs. She ran into Bringers in the hall, but they turned away from her, covering their blind eyes, and she was able to herd them away from her friends.
Anya, Giles, and Andrew blocked the hallway. The growing pile of bodies around them made it more difficult for anything to get near them. There were no sounds, apart from metal hitting metal, the occasional grunt, bodies bonelessly hitting the floor, and the hiss of Turok-Han turning to dust.
Dawn made her way around them and back to the office. Willow was still dazed, but Xander was reading from a piece of paper, and properly extinguishing the candles so he could open the circle. Dawn waited impatiently for him to finish. When he did, she told him, "Go help Giles."
"On it," he answered, and picked up the sword he left by the door on the way out.
Dawn knelt beside Willow. "C'mon, we need to get out of here."
Willow smiled hugely at her. "Dawnie!" she said delightedly.
"Yeah, it's me. C'mon, Willow, we need to move." She slung Willow's arm across her shoulder and dragged the witch up. "Little help would be nice."
Willow didn't say anything as she concentrated on getting her feet to work properly.
In the hallway, the battle still raged. Bringers continued to come from places unknown, and the Turok-Han that slipped past the Slayers came up from the Hellmouth. Willow took one look down the corridor and raised her palm. The same light that flowed through her earlier illuminated every place in her line of sight. The Bringers dropped, and the demons turned to dust.
Faith felt something odd, and stepped back from the fight. She touched the amulet, and hissed when it burned her hand. "Buffy! Whatever this thing does, I think it's oooo," she moaned, then somehow recovered and returned to the fight.
"Keep the line together!" Buffy ordered the girls while moving toward Faith. "We can't let them." She stopped suddenly, and looked down in surprise at the sword sticking out her stomach. She looked over her shoulder at the Turok-Han, its hand still on the sword hilt, and took one more step before face planting.
Kennedy saw her land and hurried to her. "Buffy!"
Buffy leaned up on her elbows and handed the scythe to Kennedy. "Hold the line," she said as firmly as she could.
Kennedy nodded and returned to the fight. She directed her anger onto the demons around her, and destroyed them by the dozen. When she was swarmed and could no longer use the scythe efficiently, she called to the nearest Slayer, and once she had her attention, tossed her the scythe.
The First Evil, in Buffy's form stood over Buffy. "Oh no," it mocked. "Ow! Mommy, this mortal wound is all itchy. You pulled a nice trick. You came pretty close to smacking me down. What more do you want?"
Buffy set her jaw. "I want you," she began, and sat up, "to get out of my face." By the time she finished the words, she was on her feet, and pulled the scythe from the air.
Seeing their leader upright gave the Slayers renewed hope. They redoubled their efforts, driving back or killing three demons for every one they battled before.
The burning intensified, and Faith instinctively grabbed for the amulet on her chest, injuring her hand again. "Oh, shit," she yelped.
A bright blue light shot up from the amulet. It blew through the top of the cavern and the floor Willow recently vacated. It destroyed the ceiling, too, and sunlight entered the Hellmouth for the first time ever.
"Buffy!" Faith called.
"Faith!" Buffy answered, and tried to make her way toward her.
The sunlight refracted from the amulet and spread throughout the dim cavern, turning the Turok-Han to dust. The ground began to shake.
"Everybody out," Kennedy bellowed. "Now!" she added unnecessarily as the girls scrambled for the stairs.
Giles threw Willow's other arm across his shoulder and put his arm under Dawn's around the redhead's waist. They carried her out of the building as it began to shudder. Anya, Andrew, and Xander followed them, Xander walking backwards to ensure that no one snuck up behind them.
Dawn deposited Willow in the first seat and stayed there with her while Xander slid into the driver's seat and started the engine. Giles waved Andrew and Anya into the bus and stood by the door, watching the school entrance.
"I can feel it, Buffy," Faith said, wonder showing on her face.
"My soul. Damn, that stings. Must be getting clean." She struggled to smile as the girls streamed around them.
The ground shook harder, and Giles had to hold on to the bus for support. When the school doors burst open, he stuck two fingers in his mouth and let out a deafening whistle. The Slayers instinctively headed toward it.
The Hellmouth became brighter as Buffy watched Faith. She stood in front of her, the scythe on her shoulder, and they were the last two people in the Hellmouth.
"Get outta here," Faith urged her.
"No. No, you've done enough. You could still"
Faith cut her off. "No, you've beat them back. It's for me to do the cleanup."
Around them, the walls began to crumble.
Kennedy screamed down, "Buffy, come on!"
"You gotta move, B. I gotta do this."
Another earthquake rumbled around them, and Faith yelled, "Go! Now!" She grinned at Buffy one last time. "I wanna see how it ends." She shooed her toward the steps, her hand in flames.
Buffy nodded and began running.
The school exploded. Xander, watching it in the mirrors, smirked, thinking how much better the explosion was the first time. Kennedy ran from the cloud of smoke and jumped on the bus. Giles stepped on behind her as it began to move.
Bodies blocked the hallway to the main exit. Buffy ignored the constant rumbling from below and skipped around debris. At the first staircase she came across, she started heading up. It would get her clear of falling ceilings.
Dawn left Willow and headed to the back of the bus. She stared out the back window, hoping to see something besides the ground collapsing behind them.
Faith laughed as the light intensified. The flame that began in her hand was spreading, destroying her body. It was cleansing. Comforting, even, for all that it hurt, and she watched in amazement as her body disintegrated.
When there was nothing left, the Hellmouth collapsed into itself.
Buffy ran along the rooftops of the shopping mall, chasing the bus. She looked forward, always forward, as behind her buildings crumbled. She carried the scythe loosely in one hand as she leaped from building to building.
She finally got as near the bus as she could. There was one roof remaining, and Buffy pushed herself harder. She flew across the space between the buildings and kept moving without breaking stride. At the last possible moment, she threw herself toward the street.
Buffy landed on top of the bus with thump, slid several feet forward before she could grab hold. The bus rattled and shook, and Buffy finally spared a glance over her shoulder.
She watched in horrified fascination as Sunnydale fell into the earth. The collapsing ground seemed to chase them, but the bus continued to accelerate and finally pulled away.
Just past the city limits, the bus slowed, then shuddered to a halt. Buffy jumped down and looked around. Dawn opened the emergency exit and hopped down. She ran to Buffy and hugged her while the others climbed out.
"I don't understand," Giles said, looking at the destruction. "Who did this?"
"Faith," Buffy answered, and walked toward the 'Welcome to Sunnydale' that stood precariously at the edge of the enormous sinkhole that used to be the town. While she watched, it fell, the last victim of the Hellmouth.
Buffy walked toward the edge of the hole and Giles followed her. A few moments later, Xander joined them. Willow was seconds behind.
"Looks like the Hellmouth is officially closed for business," Xander said, grinning.
"There is another one in Cleveland," Giles said. "Not to spoil the moment." He picked up a rock and threw it into the hole.
"We saved the world," Dawn said.
"We changed the world," Willow corrected her, and moved to Buffy's side. "I can feel them, Buffy. All over. Slayers are awakening everywhere."
"We'll have to find them," Dawn said.
"We will," Willow agreed.
Behind them, Giles paced. "Yes, because the mall was actually in Sunnydale, so there's no hope of going there tomorrow."
"We destroyed the mall?" Dawn asked. "I fought on the wrong side."
"All those shops gone," Xander said. "The Gap, Starbucks, Toys "R" Us. Who will remember all those landmarks unless we tell the world about them?"
"We have a lot of work ahead of us," Giles said soberly.
"Can I push him in?" Xander asked.
"You've got my vote," Willow replied, and smiled. "The First is scrunched, so what do you think we should do, Buffy?"
"Yeah, Buffy. What are we gonna do now?" Dawn chimed in.
Buffy didn't answer. She stared at the wasteland that held seven years of her life, and after a bit began to smile. She turned to Willow. "You wanna go out Friday night?"
Willow didn't stop to think. "I'd like that."
"Awesome," Buffy grinned. "I'll pick you up at 6:30."
While Xander drove them down the coast, Buffy counted heads. They got off a lot easier than she thought they would. Spike was an unintended victim of the amulet, and Faith was lost. A few of the new Slayers were killed. Only two were seriously injured, and Willow, still full of power from the spell, healed them.
The rest of them had an assortment of minor injuries that would heal overnight. Xander's eye was back in place. Buffy was fine, despite being run through with a sword. Her shirt was trashed, but there wasn't even a scratch to show where the blade entered or exited.
Buffy made her way to the front of the bus and dropped in the first seat beside Giles. She looked at Xander, then to Dawn and Willow sitting across the aisle. She clearly saw the glow around them. Willow was far brighter than the other two, and if Buffy hadn't know better, she would have thought her friend to be drunk.
"So, Cleveland, huh?" Buffy asked Giles.
"Eventually," he said. "I think we can take a little time off." He paused, then looked at Buffy. "You may retire, as it were."
Buffy shrugged. "I don't think I should be making any major decisions right now."
"It's your choice."
"Yeah. It's nice to have one for a change."
"I suppose it is. When you're ready, I need to know what happened down there. For the record."
"You're just gonna put it in fancy language," she teased, "when all it has to say is we came, we saw, we kicked evil butt."
Giles smiled at her. "We did indeed."
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