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Just A Counterfeit James Dean

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After the Hellmouth collapses, Faith thinks she’ll go anywhere, except with B.

She asks Robin, even. Asks him straight up, like she actually cares about spending time with him. “So, you, me, a motorcycle, the world. How’s that sound?”

“Great,” Robin says. “Or, it would, if I didn’t suspect you had other duties.” He nods over to where Buffy’s standing, glaring at the two of them.

Faith can’t even figure out what Buffy’s deal is anymore. She can’t be jealous of Faith - she said she wasn’t, anyway. But then, what’s her deal?

“Yeah, all right,” she says. “It was a stupid idea, anyway.”

“Take care, Faith,” Robin says. He leaves the next day.

They’re staying at a Super 8 maybe twenty miles outside of what used to be Sunnydale. People have come and gone, Potentials riding off into the sunset and twitchy-looking conspiracy theorists showing up to ask them if they know about the seismic event of blah blah blah. Faith’s not interested in the whackjobs. She’s always gone from job to job, stint in a women’s prison aside; she wants to know what’s next.

“So,” she says one night, after letting herself into Buffy’s room (those key card locks, so easy to jimmy). “Where are you headed?”

“Oh my God,” Buffy says. She clutches a towel to her chest. Her hair’s wet, water running down her legs.

Faith rolls her eyes. “Yeah, whatever. Get dressed in the bathroom. I’m getting itchy waiting on you or Giles or someone to make a decision about what the hell we’re doing here.”

“We’re not doing anything,” Buffy says. “I’m going to Cleveland. You can go - wherever. I don’t care.”

“Cleveland’s nice, I hear.”

Buffy keeps staring at her, still in that towel. “Okay, that’s a lie,” Faith says. “But it’s pretty far from Sunnydale. I can keep a low profile there.”

“It’s more efficient if we spread out.”

“Screw efficiency. You just made every Potential in the world a Slayer. We can afford to have a two-Slayer cluster, don’t you think? Plus, it’ll make training the brats up a lot easier.”

Buffy shakes her head. “I’m not making this decision now. I have to get dressed.” She scurries to the bed, grabs her clothes, and then goes back into the bathroom.

“You know I’m right,” Faith yells after her.

And as it turns out, she is. That’s exactly what they do.

“Check it out,” Faith says, sitting down at the kitchen table. “I found this strip club that’ll send out dancers your age. You know, to make you feel more comfortable.”

“Um, I’m only in town for a few days,” Willow says. “And I think I’ll pass on the whole - thirty-three-year-old Cleveland stripper thing.”

“Aw, come on,” Faith says. “I’m not talking about for you, Red. Obviously. I’m talking about Buffy. She’s turning thirty-three, we’ve been here ten years - cause for celebration, don’t you think?”

“I think that depends on how you define celebration,” Willow says. “Didn’t she just break up with - um, what was her name?”

“Carol,” Faith says, rolling her eyes. “Lesbian experiment numero dos, and not a tear was shed.”

“I wouldn’t call it experimentation at this point. Buffy’s allowed to be bi.”

“Whatever. Maybe if she didn’t have such terrible taste in women.”

Willow looks hard at Faith. “When was the last time you had a vacation?”

“You think I’m turning Buffy’s crank because I need time off?”

“Just generally.”

“Awhile,” Faith says. “And it’s gonna be awhile more. Remember why you’re here?”

Willow sighs. “Unfortunately.”

The hellmouth in Cleveland’s activity has been - Buffy calls it escalating. Faith calls it doubling down on the wackadoo. Either way, there’s a vamp on the outskirts of town who’s amassing followers fast, and he’s almost as tough as an ubervamp, with the important exception of being surrounded by an army of vamps. It should be a pretty straightforward kill, only right now, Buffy and Faith are alone. No trainees, no other full Slayers. It’s kind of like old times, and it’s wigging them both out.

Hence calling in the big guns. Also known as Willow.

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Faith says. “You firebomb the place, we sneak in and kill the big boss. Easy-peasy.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but when has anything ever been that easy for us?”

“Point,” Faith says. “Still. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yep,” Faith says. “Wouldn’t say it if I wasn’t.”

“I see.”

Faith thumps her shoulder. “Buck up, Red. It’s Buffy’s night to cook, which means we’re eating tacos.” Tacos and meat loaf is pretty much all Buffy knows how to make. Faith can follow a recipe, but then, it was Buffy’s credit history - meaning, the fact that she had one - that made it so they could put a down payment on this place. Courtesy of the Watchers, who are really terrified of Slayers who’ve made it past thirty.

Point being, Faith doesn’t mind cooking most of the time. But they haven’t seen Willow in almost a year, and Buffy needs the busy work of cooking. So tacos for dinner it is.

“I can’t believe you guys are living together,” Willow says. She takes another sip of tea - they stocked up on it, since Willow’s been living in England and it’s become her poison of choice - and looks around the living room. “It just seems so surreal.”

“Yeah, well, there are usually a couple brats we have to watch,” Faith says. “It’s easier to be good cop, bad cop, if it’s all under one roof.”

“Is that what you call it?”

Something about Willow’s tone makes Faith feel defensive. “Yeah, that’s exactly what I call it. Problem?”

“Oh, no,” Willow says. “Definitely not.”

“I didn’t think so,” Faith says, and goes back to drinking her Diet Pepsi.

She and willow are just finishing their drinks when Buffy blows through the front door, juggling a million bags. “What, did you buy half the Safeway?” Faith says, going to grab some bags from her.

“Something like that,” Buffy says. “Faith, I need to talk to you.”

“What’s up?”

“Hi, Buffy!” Willow says. “Need a put-away spell?”

“What? Oh. Hi! Oh my god, Will, it’s been so long!” Buffy drops the groceries and pulls Willow into a hug. Faith rolls her eyes and starts lugging them out into the kitchen. Buffy’s started shopping like a survivalist. As though a nest of vamps is really going to make everyone leave Cleveland, when all the demons and vamps and near-apocalypses haven’t been enough.

She puts away the groceries while Buffy and Faith reminisce. They get more and more California the longer they talk to each other. When Faith comes back into the living room, Buffy’s actually twirling her hair.

“Ladies,” Faith says. “Buffy. You said you needed to talk to me?”

“Both of you, actually,” Buffy says. “We have a problem.”

“Oh?”

Buffy nods. Her hand leaves her hair, and suddenly she looks grim, every bit thirty-three. “The vamps are holding someone in their stronghold.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I kind of assumed they’re holding a lot of people,” Faith says. “They seem like the type.”

“A Slayer. Well -” Buffy shakes her head. “A kid, really.”

“Shit.”

“We need to move on this, fast.”

“Your birthday’s tomorrow,” Faith says. “We could revive tradition, make it a bloody one.”

“Will you be ready by then?” Buffy asks Willow.

“Sure,” Willow says. “Bringing down fire on a nest of vampires requires power, but it’s not that complicated, once I get past their defenses.”

There’s a lot of caveats in that sentence that tell Faith what Willow’s doing is actually super complicated, but if Willow hasn’t learned to sell herself by now, it’s never gonna happen. “Great,” Faith says. “We’ll attack at nightfall tomorrow, then.”

She’d prefer daylight, but the shields are weakest at night, calibrated to let vamps come and go. If they wanted to bring down the nests’ daylight shields, they’d need at least one more witch of Willow’s caliber. And that person doesn’t exist.

“Yep,” Buffy says. “But for now - tacos.”

Faith goes to the training room in the basement while Buffy cooks and, presumably, catches up with Willow. She’s not jealous or anything. That ship has sailed, a long time ago. But all their fun times aren’t really things Faith was a part of, and she doubts they want to hear fun tales from the women’s prison.

She’s doing pull-ups at double time when Buffy says behind her, “Willow went to bed.”

“Living in England’s made her soft, huh?”

“More like jetlagged in a major way,” Buffy says. “She was falling asleep on me, all, ‘Oh, I forgot to tell you I’m in a threeway with members of the coven now.’” Buffy jumps up on the pommel horse, balancing on one hand. “Bet she’ll regret that tomorrow.”

“You’re not gonna let her pretend she didn’t say it?”

“No take-backsies,” Buffy says. “Who would I be if I didn’t get the juicy details of Will’s life out of her?”

“Someone pretty different, that’s for sure.” Faith pulls herself up again, then drops to the ground. “I’m wiped. I’m gonna head to bed. Big day tomorrow.”

“Aren’t they all,” Buffy says. “The usual wakeup call?”

“Sure.” They wake up at noon, generally. “Later, B.”

“Goodnight,” Buffy says. She stays in the practice room as Faith heads upstairs.

The house is nice, a four-bedroom that lets them foster two Slayers at a time. Kids are called around sixteen, now - Willow’s fiddled with the magic a little, made it so six-year-olds won’t suddenly be ripping door handles off their mom’s minivans. Right now, though, the two guest rooms are empty.

Faith has the smallest room. She insisted on it, back in the day. She doesn’t want to be a burden, and anyway, all she really needs is a bed and a place to stick her clothes. She’s let Buffy buy her a night stand and a desk, mostly because Buffy likes spending the Council’s money. But she doesn’t really use them.

She meditates in the middle of the bed for awhile, trying to find her center. After all this time, she’s still not totally sure what all that mumbo-jumbo means, and she’s sure as hell not gonna use a focusing crystal to try and find out. But when she finishes and falls asleep, she at least feels a little more level-headed.

Her room is pitch black when she wakes up, thanks to the - expensive - curtains Buffy bought her. She rolls out of bed and pulls them back, surveying the day.

“D-day,” she mutters, and goes to get dressed.

Buffy’s hair is wet when she comes down around one. It’s short again, and curling a little at the ends. It’s a cute style, even if it does reinforce the neighbors’ suspicion that they’re dykeing it up together. Faith hasn’t told Buffy about Florence the neighbor’s little pet theory.

“Okay,” Faith says as they eat Cheerios together. “We’ve got the building schematics memorized.”

“Right.”

“You’ve got the scythe, I’ve got a couple wicked knives and a mess of stakes.”

“Not on you right now, I hope.”

Faith spreads her arms. “Where would I hide them?” She’s wearing skinny jeans and a tank top.

Buffy eyes her darkly. “I don’t want to know,” she says. “But really, we’re copacetic. Prepared as we’ll ever be. Watch some TV or something.”

“I don’t watch TV,” Faith says. “You sure you don’t wanna spar, or something?”

“I’m not the young and blooming Slayer I once was,” Buffy says. “I’m resting up for the big event. Plus, you know our sparring wigs Will out in a major way.”

That’s true enough. Red’s a bit of a pacifist sometimes, and still hasn’t really forgiven Faith for the whole evil thing. But Faith feels like she’s going to scratch through her skin. “I’m gonna vacuum,” she says, hopping off the breakfast nook bench. She pretends she can’t hear Buffy laughing after her.

When the floor is spotless, Faith goes down to the gym and goes through a workout. Then she eats lunch and naps. She was apparently more tired than she realized, because when she wakes up, it’s to Buffy shaking her and saying, “What do you want for dinner?”

Faith blinks at her. Buffy blinks back, and for a second things are seriously wack - but then Buffy leans away and says, “I was just gonna order chili, but Will wants Thai.”

“Are there any good Thai places around here?”

Buffy shrugs.

“Make Red find one,” Faith says. “I’ll just have a double order of dumplings.”

“Weirdo,” Buffy says. “Okay. Cool.” She leaves abruptly.

That was weird. Faith stretches and shakes her arms out before dragging herself out of bed. They’ve got a long night ahead of them.

Willow wears a skirt to the copse of trees about a hundred yards from the vamps’ stronghold. Faith and Buffy are decked out in their badass best, and Willow looks kind of lame; but if it gets to where Willow’s having to run away, Faith figures they’ve pretty much failed anyway.

“Okay,” Buffy says. “Will, you ready?”

Willow sits cross-legged in the dirt. “By the time you get there, their shields will be down,” Willow says. “As soon as I feel you go into the building…”

“Ring of fire,” Faith says. “Okay, B. Let’s rock and roll.”

They’ve worked together long enough, fought enough battles in between the daily monotony of patrolling, that they don’t have to discuss their method of approach. They dart through the darkness, and Faith feels a thrill building in her - the old feeling of being ready to kill. It’s tempered by her no longer being crazy as a bag of cats, but by no means gone.

They pick the lock of one of the doors in the back, an old servant’s entrance; as they slip in, a circle of fire surrounds the house. It’s far enough away that the vamps won’t feel it, but it’ll leap up three stories high if one of them tries to escape.

Their priority is finding the captives; after that, Willow’s just going to bomb the place. So they slip through the hallways and down into the basement.

Sure enough, there’s a row of cages, holding three people per. One of them moans when they see them. “Please, no more.”

“Shh!” Buffy says. “We’re here to rescue you.”

A woman in the corner sobs. “Let me die.”

“Not just yet,” Faith says. “Kick the doors down?”

“Sure,” Buffy says, and they do just that.

At least, that’s the plan until they get to the last cage. The people they’ve freed have followed instructions and are standing in the middle of the room, but this cage…this cage has a girl chained up, thick iron wrapping around her middle, pinning her legs and arms together. “Jesus,” Faith says. “Looks like we found our Slayer.”

“She’s too young,” Buffy says flatly. “Twelve if she’s a day.” And unconscious.

“Did I say it made sense? But this is our girl. Come on, one of us can carry her.”

“No need for that,” Buffy says. She reaches over and snaps the girl’s chains. Faith whistles, low. Being an older Slayer has its perks.

“You could’ve done that too,” Buffy says. She’s kind of hilariously flustered.

Faith snorts and says, “Get her. Let’s go.”

Buffy slings the girl up into a fireman’s carry, which doesn’t look hard; she’s light as a feather. Faith motions for the others to go up the stairs, and they mill out, one by one.

Of course, they run into trouble. They’ve made it down the hall before a vampire sees them. He looks like a reject from an old Fall Out Boy video, and he snarls, saying, “What the fuck?”

“Hey there,” Faith says. She kicks him, making his head snap back.

Behind her, one of the captives screams. Damn it. “Get them out,” Faith says to Buffy, without looking back. “I’ve got this guy.”

Doors in the hallway open. Three more vampires come out.

“And those guys,” Faith says. “Go!”

Buffy doesn’t hesitate. “Everyone, with me. Through here, there’s an exit, come on. You stay, you die.” They file out.

The first vamp’s recovered by then. “Slayer,” he says, eyes glowing.

“Vamp,” Faith says, and kicks him again.

They can’t surround her in the hallway, and that’s to her advantage. She slams his head against a light fixture and stakes him in one smooth movement, then takes on another, and then another. There’s one left when Willow’s disembodied voice says, “Faith, we’ve gotta blow the place. Get out of there.”

So Faith does what she’s gotten really good at: she cuts and runs, leaping out a window and making a mad dash across the yard. There are vamps following, five or six, but she jumps over the line of fire, and has made it almost to the copse of trees when the place blows.

“Nice work, Red,” she says, wiping her brow as she watches the place burn.

“It was my pleasure,” Willow says grimly.

“Were they holding people anywhere else?” one of the captives says. She’s a young woman and sounds traumatized as shit. Luckily, Cleveland’s got a lot of therapists.

“Maybe,” Faith says. “But we did what we could.” She turns and looks back at Buffy. “Take the girl home, I’ll get these people to a hospital.”

Buffy nods. “Wait,” one of the captives says. “Can she do that?”

“We just saved your lives,” Faith says. “You really wanna argue with me on this?”

The woman shakes her head, eyes wide. “That’s what I thought,” Faith says. She pulls the roll of bills out of her bra; they're courtesy of the Council.

“Here are some bus passes,” Willow says, pulling them out of her purse. “The nearest hospital is about half an hour away, off 124th Street. Ask someone for directions. I'd say get a taxi, but a taxi wouldn't take you.”

“And here,” Faith says, “is something to help you get back on your feet.” She counts out $300 to each of the 12 people.

None of them argue. That makes sense; they’ve probably had it beaten, or drained, out of them.

“I’ll walk you to the bus station,” Faith says. “Follow me.”

It takes her almost an hour to get home. She could take a cab, but she’s feeling seriously hinky about the fact that the vamps somehow got ahold of a 12-year-old girl. That shouldn’t even be possible. So she walks and jogs home, tired and dirty by the time she lets herself in.

To cut to the chase, she is seriously not ready to walk in on the little Slayer menacing Buffy in the kitchen with a butcher knife.

“Okay,” Faith says. She’s pretty chill about it, because if there was any actual danger, Buffy would’ve taken Small Fry out already. As it is, she must have her reasons for holding her hands up and letting the girl put the knife to her throat. “Anyone want to explain to me what’s going on here?”

The girl whirls around. “You,” she says. “You - you kidnapped me!”

“Uh, yeah,” Faith says. “From a really lovely, cozy home of vampires who wanted to suck you dry.”

The girl’s lip peels back in a snarl, and for a second Faith feels like she’s been slapped. She knows that expression, knows it better than she knows almost anything. The whole 'kidnapped by vampires' thing isn’t the first time this girl’s been hurt.

“Let me go,” she says, “and I won’t hurt either of you. I’ll be on my way.”

Faith knows that if she tries to get the kid to open up by being nice to her, she’ll bolt. So she says, “Yeah? How you planning on doing that? I didn’t give you money.”

“I have my ways,” the girl says, jutting her chin out.

Faith’s stomach twists. “Look,” she says. “I know this is freaky, all right? I get it. But we’re decent people, I swear. You’re safe here.”

“We’re like you,” Buffy says quietly.

She’s calm as a cucumber, maybe because she’s realized that she’s basically dealing with mini-Faith. Faith’s a big enough person to admit that to herself, just like Buffy’s grown up enough to not flinch when the girl whirls and puts her knife against Buffy’s throat.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” the girl says.

“It means this,” Buffy says, and moves in a blur, knocking the knife away and lifting the girl up by one arm. She rises above Buffy’s head, and she holds herself up, arm stiff. She’s not even shaking with the effort.

Yeah. They’re two of a kind.

“Okay, children,” Faith says. “Enough. You, kid. What’s your name?”

“Cynthia.”

“Your actual name.”

The girl glares, but she says, “Isabelle.”

“Cool,” Faith says. “I’m Faith. This is Buffy. How much do you know about Slayers?”

“Put me down and I’ll tell you.”

She’s a sharp negotiator, Faith’s gotta give her that. “Buff?”

Buffy lowers her to the ground. The girl - Isabelle - doesn’t try to bolt, which Faith figures is a pretty good sign.

“Well?” Buffy says. She doesn’t say it that bitchily, but Isabelle still flinches. “What do you know about Slayers?”

“Umm,” Isabelle says. “What’s a Slayer?”

Man. Faith does not envy Watchers, at all.

She doesn’t miss the way Buffy flinches - that’s a question to ask later. Right now, she says, “Well, kid, the long and short of it is, those vampires we rescued you from? They’re the bad guys. And girls with superpowers, like me and you -”

“You’re not a girl,” Isabelle says accusingly. “You’re old.”

“Whatever,” Faith says. Small Fry thinks she knows things. “Women, girls, we’re the ones who stop the evil. With our badass superpowers.”

“Who says I have superpowers?”

“You just held your body weight up on two fingers,” Faith says. “So either you’re some kind of freaky escaped science project, or -” She spreads her hands. “Superpowers.”

Isabelle shifts a little, so that she’s glaring at both of them at once. “And, what, this is my destiny? You’re gonna teach me how to be Batman?”

“Something like that,” Faith says. “We do have a spare room. Unless you really want to go back to picking pockets and sleeping on the streets.”

“Who says I was doing that?”

“You, just now,” Faith says. “I can teach you how to lie better, too.”

“Fine,” Isabelle says. “If there’s a spare room, I want to sleep in it.” She shifts a little, and Faith notices the way her knees bend. Kid’s gotta be exhausted. “Now.”

“I’ll show you up,” Buffy says. She jerks her head to the side, and Isabelle follows her out of the kitchen.

When Faith hears them going upstairs, she lets out a breath she didn’t even realize she was holding, sitting down at the breakfast bar. What the hell went wrong with Red’s spell that they’ve got a twelve-year-old Slayer on their hands? Faith knows they used to get called that young - hell, she knows. Her Watcher said they were only getting older in recent years. It’s cruel and fucked up, but that never stopped the Slayer magic. But Red was supposed to stop that.

She has more questions than answers, and Red’ll be passed out for a day at least after working anti-vamp mojo against the crazy protections they had on that mansion. Faith hates waiting.

It’s only a few minutes before Buffy comes back down. “Let me tell you,” she says, getting a glass of water, “that girl? A piece. Of. Work.”

“Like you weren’t,” Faith says, and there’s that flinch again. So she does her best to sound casual and says, “You never told me, you know.”

“Told you what?”

“How you got called.”

Buffy’s hand tightens around her water glass. Faith can’t help but wonder if Buffy thinks she actually sounds casual when she says, “Not much to tell. Watcher found me at school. Told me about vampires. I thought he was wacky. Then I killed one.”

Faith’s not going to push it, not tonight. Instead, she says, “Sucks, man.”

Buffy relaxes. “At least she has us now,” she says. “That’s a big up on -”

“Stealing wallets? You’re telling me.” Faith looks down at her hands. They’re rough and a little wrinkled now. They don’t look like a teenager’s hands. “Fuck, B, when’d we get so old?”

“I’m thirty-three!”

The laugh comes out of Faith without her permission. “Yeah, and you sound fifteen.”

“Oh, screw you,” Buffy says, but she doesn’t sound mad.

Faith snorts again and hops off her stool. “See you in the…afternoon, I guess. Fuck me.”

“Uh-huh,” Buffy says. “See you.”

She’s clearly not paying attention. Someday, Faith thinks, she’s gonna get the whole story out of Buffy. Forget that she could just ask Red; she wants Buffy to volunteer the information. Buffy knows all about Faith’s past, partly because Faith talks about it a lot when she gets a drink or two in. But she doesn’t really know about Buffy’s life before she moved to Sunnydale.

It’s been fifteen years. It shouldn’t rankle that Buffy doesn’t quite trust her, but Faith’s kind of eternally hung up on Buffy, so it does.

She doesn’t even jerk off when she gets to her room. She barely has the energy to take her clothes off. She crawls into bed in her underwear, and falls into a deep, dreamless sleep.

When she wakes up, it’s to the smell of coffee. It’s mid-afternoon, but Faith’s head is pounding like a motherfucker, so she tosses some PJs on and goes downstairs.

No one’s there, but there is the promised coffee, so she pours herself a mug and goes out to the living room. There’s a set of deck doors leading out to the back, and sure enough, Buffy and Small Fry are out there, going through some martial arts motions. Faith watches absently, waiting for her coffee to cool down.

They’re simpler moves, the kind of stuff Faith remembers practicing with Buffy back when - well. Back when Faith was sixteen, fucked up and starry-eyed for Buffy. To this day she’s not sure how much of that was a crush and how much of it was Faith just wanting to be Buffy, straight up. Hell, she knows she wanted to be Buffy - wanted a nice big home, a mom who cared. Maybe not Buffy’s clothes, but the rest of it? Sure. The Mayor knew it too, which, okay, that was a mistake. But - peel all that away, her poisoning Angel, the body swap, Faith killing the Mayor’s aide - get rid of all of that, and what’s left?

Faith jerking off in that shitty Sunnydale motel, thinking about Buffy touching her. Yeah, she had a thing for Buffy. But that’s long in the past. Now she and Buffy are just friends - and roommates - no matter what Florence from next door thinks.

She has to privately admit to herself, though, that Buffy looks good going through the basic forms with Isabelle. It’s been awhile since Faith fucked another woman, is all. She needs to go out on the town. As much as Cleveland has a town, anyway.

She’s almost finished her coffee and is way done with introspection when Buffy and Isabelle come inside. Despite the fact that it’s pretty chilly out, they’re both dripping sweat. “Christ, take showers, you guys,” Faith says. “Don’t sit on the couch, you’ll make it smell like stank.”

“Fine,” Isabelle snaps, and runs upstairs.

Faith blinks. “I was joking.”

“Might want to dial it down next time,” Buffy says. She’s as dry as can be, tone-wise. “Even I think you’re pissed when you talk like that.”

Faith looks at the bottom of her mug. Thinking about the past makes her cranky. “Tell the kid I say sorry,” she says. “But also, seriously, take a shower.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Buffy says. She throws Faith a smile and leaves.

Faith physically shakes herself, putting her mug in the sink and grabbing some leftovers from the fridge. She’s going out tonight. They just had a major bust, even B won’t rain on her parade. She’ll go out, get laid, and forget about their tiny Slayer problem. Their literal tiny Slayer problem, fuck Faith’s life.

Small Fry sleeps for the rest of the day. Faith’s not surprised. She and Buffy train downstairs for a couple hours, then Faith says, “What’re your plans for the rest of the night?”

Buffy shrugs. “Wine and a cozy blanket, probably. Why?”

“I’m going out.”

Faith can’t interpret what Buffy’s expression does, which is impressive, because Buffy’s a shitty liar and Faith’s known her for forever. “Have fun,” Buffy says, and whirls around, heading for the basement stairs.

“Whoa, B, hang on,” Faith says. “You clearly don’t want me to go.”

“I want you to be responsible,” Buffy says, “but we don’t always get what we want.”

“Damn. Come on, I’m just gonna go out for a few hours. Small Fry’ll be passed out till morning anyway. I’ll have a couple drinks, maybe make out with a guy, and be home by two. Promise.”

Buffy hesitates. “I know you won’t do anything stupid,” she says. “It’s just -”

“I get it,” Faith says. “Things are weird. But you’ll blow off steam by watching The Notebook. You know I don’t deal like that.”

Buffy nods, stiffly. “Okay,” she says. “I’ll see you in the morning, then.” She goes upstairs, but - thankfully - doesn’t stomp in that Buffy-patented way that means Faith’s going to catch hell later.

Faith’s too old for backless pleather halter tops and she knows it, so she goes with a nice, plain tank top and some tight jeans. Cleveland has a lot of clubs for people who want to pretend they live in a big city, but Faith goes to a run-down dive bar west of her and Buffy’s house. “Jim Beam on the rocks,” she tells the bartender, hoisting herself up on the stool.

She’s gotten two sips into her when someone says, in a thick Canadian accent, “Bit of a nippy night out there, eh?”

She knocks the bourbon back and says, “Nah, not unless you’ve got thin blood.” She expects to see some mess of a lumberjack type when she turns around, but instead it’s a guy with floppy hair and tight jeans. “Let me guess: you’re in a band.”

“You could say that,” he says. He leans against the bar and motions at the bartender. “Two Sam Adams.”

“Whoa, Sparky, I’m not drinkin’ beer tonight.”

“Who said one was for you?”

She smiles slightly. He’s fucking with her, and it’s kind of cute. Mind, she’s pretty sure she could break him with her thighs, but that’s the case with most guys who aren’t vamps. And unlike B, Faith never had a vamp-fucking phase.

And she’s gonna stop thinking about Buffy. “I’m Faith,” she says. “And I changed my mind. I’ll take that beer.”

“Good, because one of them is definitely for you.” He hops up on a stool and smiles at her. “I am in a band. The Brokedown Wheels. You heard of us?”

“I’m not a groupie, man,” Faith says. “But get a couple beers in me and I’ll see about giving you a good send-off.”

“We play tomorrow.”

“Don’t ruin the moment,” Faith says, and accepts her beer from the bartender, taking a long pull of it.

They fuck in the guy’s motel room, which is a step up from the back of his van. He’s not even sharing it, so maybe Broken Wheel or whatever is a good band. Faith doesn’t really care. What she cares about is shoving him on the bed and riding him, holding him down and thrusting her hips, playing with her tits until he gets the hint and gets his hand on her clit. He’s a good lay, and after they’ve fucked and fucked around, she says, “I’ll see you around,” and rolls out of bed.

“Wow,” Adam - Dan? - Faith doesn’t know - says. “It’s like I’m in New York, or something.”

“Sorry, Da - pal,” Faith says. “I hit ‘em and quit ‘em. You know how it is.”

“In the wild, bad streets of Cleveland?”

“You know it.” She puts her bra on. “Sorry, man. It’s not you, it’s me. I’ve just got shit I gotta do.”

“Can I at least get your number?”

“Nah,” Faith says. “Good luck with your show, though.” She grabs her wallet and chain, and leaves.

She walks a couple streets south before the itch builds. Two vamps, maybe a block away, and Faith is nowhere close to feeling done for the night. She breaks a tree branch and goes after them.

They’re gnarly-looking guys, clothes and hair straight out of the original 90210. “Hey there,” Faith says.

“Oh my God,” the girl they’ve been menacing says. “Help me, please.”

“Run,” Faith says. “You two. Don’t chase her.”

“Why would we, when we’ve got you?” Thing One says, leering at her.

The girl runs. Faith holds up her makeshift stake. “You know why I don’t bother carrying one of these when I go out to get laid?”

“You’re gonna tell us before we kill you,” Thing Two says. Then he laughs. It’s a creepy laugh.

“Close, but no dice,” Faith says. “It’s because this is my town. Me and Buffy’s.”

Thing Two laughs again, but Thing One’s eyes widen. “Dude,” he says. “They’re Slayers. The Slayers.”

“And flattered though I am that I finally get my spot in the Slayer Hall of Fame along with Little Miss Died Twice, this is boring,” Faith says. She throws the stake at Thing One, burying it in his chest before he can move. As he crumbles to dust, she dives forward, catches the stake before it hits the ground, and rolls back upright, kicking Thing Two’s punch aside and driving the branch into his heart.

“Suckers,” she says, dusting her hands off.

She still feels like she needs to get laid. If B was there - but she’s not, Faith tells herself, and she doesn’t need to be. They don’t have that kind of relationship, and even if they did, Faith wouldn’t - she wouldn’t -

She looks up at the sky, which is mostly orange, God bless light pollution. “Quit being a fucking sap,” she tells herself, and starts walking home.

Waking up the next morning is a trip, because it’s almost noon and Small Fry is staring at her.

“Christ,” Faith says, recoiling. “You realize I’m a trained killer, right?”

“You wouldn’t kill me,” Small Fry says.

A stake sticking out of a bleeding chest. Faith blinks and says, “Don’t be so sure,” rolling out of bed on the opposite side as Small Fry. “Did you make yourself breakfast, or have you just been watching me like a little creep?”

“I ate toast.”

“Toast isn’t enough for what we’re going to be doing,” Faith says. She leads Small Fry down the hall, thumping on Buffy’s door and yelling, “Wake up, I’m making eggs.”

Faith is not the more domestic of the two of them. She’s not. But when Buffy tries to cook things she tends to set off every smoke alarm in the neighborhood, so for breakfast and lunch and stuff, Faith’s the one with the frying pan and the eggs, or the grilled cheese, or whatever.

“Here,” she says, dishing out half a massive omelet to Small Fry. “Eat up, you’re skin and bones.”

“Gimme,” Buffy says, coming in and making grabby hands at the other half of the omelet.

Faith sighs, but she hands it over and cracks some more eggs into the pan, whisking them around. “And here I get fed last, as usual.”

“Only ‘cause you won’t let me use Watcher money to have a service deliver,” Buffy says.

“I’d let you, if you wanna eat food that tastes like crap,” Faith says. “But one of us actually lived on the run, and ate from dumpsters. I don’t want some frozen shit that tastes like bad diner food.”

“Okay,” Buffy says, tone deceptively mild. They’ve had this argument before; Buffy has weird-ass ideas about how much Faith actually enjoys making food. Meaning, she doesn’t.

“So you guys are like, gay,” Isabelle says.

Buffy chokes on her eggs. “I’m sorry, what?”

“You two,” Isabelle says. “It’s fine, my best friend - my old best -” She sticks her chin out and glares. “A girl I used to know had two dads.”

“No,” Buffy says. “So, so not. We’re just friends.”

“Roommates,” Faith says. “But not roommates-roommates, if you catch my meaning.”

“No,” Small Fry says.

“She’s saying we’re not doing the nasty,” Buffy says. “Which, we’re not, and we never will. Faith’s a friend of mine. We’re just not like that.”

Faith pokes her eggs in the frying pan. “And we’re happy like that,” she adds, giving Small Fry as much of a thousand-yard stare as she can manage.

“Okay,” Small Fry says slowly. “Thanks?”

Buffy nods, like that’s an answer she’s perfectly satisfied with. “You’re welcome,” she says, and takes another bite of her eggs.

“Okay,” Faith says when they’re done and have gone down to the basement. “How many vamps have you killed, kid?”

“Don’t you want to know why I’m a Slayer?”

“Red’ll be up tomorrow,” Faith says, “and we’ll figure it out with her then. The mojo’s not my business, and it’s not where I’m an expert, either. So: vamps. How many have you dusted?”

“None. I’m just a kid.”

“So was I,” Faith says.

“The vampires at the house.” Isabelle takes a deep breath, like saying even this is a huge deal. Faith feels something twist in the pit of her stomach, and she’s suddenly very worried about what, exactly, the kid is going to say. “They said it used to be different. Just one Slayer, a young one.”

“That’s true enough.” Faith tries to keep her voice neutral so she won’t scare the kid. “Is that all they said?”

“They didn’t touch me,” Isabelle says. “They told me - about Watchers, and how they’d kill me and mail the pices. But they didn’t touch me.”

Well, that’s a relief. Faith says, “So you’ve never killed one.”

“I didn’t realize I could,” she says. “One day I was just stronger.”

They have a tracking system in place, witches as lodestones all over the world, exactly so this kind of shit won’t happen. “Right,” Faith says. “Well, do you want to?”

Isabelle’s expression gets very still. Then she says, “They almost killed me. I want to hurt them.”

“Okay,” Faith says. “Then let’s get you ready to fight.”

They go downstairs. Isabelle looks around. The basement is top notch for training Slayers - meaning, there’s a pommel horse and a bunch of knives, but not a whole lot else. Some Watchers still do full theater, an entire gym, and Buffy and Faith still don’t have the clout to stop them. But when they get to train a girl, they emphasize improv. It’s why they’re still alive. “What am I supposed to do here?”

Faith grabs a couple stakes off the wall and tosses one to Isabelle. “Ever fought with a knife?”

Isabelle glares.

“Come on, kid, I don’t care how you grew up. Just answer the question.”

“No,” Isabelle says.

She doesn’t say ‘unfortunately’, but it’s in her voice, so Faith says, “Right, well, it’s the same basic principle. Only, scratching a vampire with wood doesn’t do much except make him wicked cranky. You wanna hit the heart, every time. If you’ve got four or five of ‘em coming at you, you don’t have much time to be picky, know what I’m saying?”

“I get it,” Isabelle says. “So show me how to do it already.”

“Simmer down, Small Fry,” Faith says. “I’m getting there.”

They train for most of the afternoon. The kid’s stubborn as hell. She doesn’t have much in the way of stamina - well, more than a normal person, but not nearly as much as Faith. But for all that, she’s determined to keep up, and it’s not until five that she’s gasping and leaning on her knees. “Okay,” she says. “I’m done.”

“For now,” Faith says, and they go upstairs.

Buffy’s in the living room, watching The Bachelor. “How was training?”

“Fine,” Small Fry says. “I’m taking a shower.” She leaves.

“I’m good,” Faith says when Buffy looks at her inquisitively. They have two showers, but - “Shockingly, I can keep up with a twelve year old.”

“Will came down earlier,” Buffy says. She keeps her tone low; the better for kids not to overhear, Faith thinks. “She has no idea how this girl would’ve been chosen. This could be the start of something big.”

“Or it could just be a blip on the radar.” But Faith knows she doesn’t sound convincing. Hell, she’s not even convincing herself.

“Sure,” Buffy says. “But if it’s not…”

“We train the kid,” Faith says. “That’s all we can do. We get her ready for whatever’s coming.”

“Yeah.” Buffy sighs. “Oh, by the way. I ordered burritos.”

“Buffy. We have food.”

“I wanted a burrito.”

Faith flashes back to earlier that day, to Isabelle thinking they were - whatever. “Okay,” she says. She sits down on the couch, on the opposite end from Buffy. “Change the channel, I don’t want to watch this crap.”

For once, Buffy doesn’t argue. She just flips to TLC. “This crap better?”

“Hell yeah,” Faith says, and settles in to watch a bunch of fashion designers duke it out.

The next day, they run into trouble of the small, pre-teen variety.

The thing is, Faith knows she’s not the world’s greatest teacher. For that matter, neither is Buffy. The only reason they’re a baby Slayer halfway house is because they’re so good at staying alive that they can’t not at least try to pass on some of that knowledge, imperfect though it is. Faith knows that, and so she takes a lot of shit from people she tries to teach, because she knows she’s really shitty at the actual teaching part. When Small Fry gets frustrated, Faith does her best to just ride the bitch wave, because she’s just a kid. She’s miles younger than anyone else Faith’s ever taught.

But when Small Fry starts making snarky comments about Faith’s fighting style, well. Then it’s fucking on.

“I’m just saying,” she says. “Maybe more organization is the way to go. The vampires -”

“The vampires you were imprisoned by?” Faith leans on the staff she’s been using, pinning Isabelle with a look. “The ones you couldn’t even fight, because you’re a fu - because you’re a kid, who doesn’t know how to use her power? Those vampires?”

“How about you just -”

But Small Fry doesn’t get a chance to finish, because Buffy’s snuck downstairs without anyone hearing her - because of course she has - and cuts through the argument, saying, “Excuse me, is there something I need to be involved with?”

“Lay off, B, we’re fine,” Faith says.

“Faith doesn’t know how to fight,” Isabelle says. “She’s disorganized. Even I can hit her. What’s the point of being a Slayer if you can’t avoid getting hit?”

“Faith is reckless,” Buffy says. She’s ambling closer, dressed in yoga pants and a tank top. It’s pretty hot, and Faith feels a moment of quiet depression over it. Buffy’s always unattainable.

“Hey,” she says, belatedly.

Buffy smiles a little. “You know it’s true.”

“It still hurts.” Faith puts her hand over her heart. “Right here, B. Right here.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Buffy says. She turns to Isabelle. “I’m a lot more careful than Faith,” she says. “I still improvise - that’s how we’ve stayed alive - but I’m not as creative. And you know what?” Buffy stabs her finger at Faith. “She’s still alive. I’m still alive. There’s more than one way to get the job done.”

“But -”

“But nothing,” Buffy says. “Faith might end up with more bruises, but in a fight against ten vamps, I like her chances better than my own. I don’t go in unprepared if I can avoid it, but that means I don’t handle surprises as well. You don’t have to be exactly like either of us, but don’t dismiss Faith’s teaching just because you don’t want to be exactly like her.”

Isabelle shuts her mouth, looking sullen. “I still don’t want to get hit,” she mumbles.

For Faith’s part - she can barely talk. She’s never heard Buffy defend her like that, and they’ve lived together for ten years.

“I need to cool down,” she says finally. “Buffy, you want to keep going? I’ll make dinner.”

Buffy nods, like she expected this, and says, “It’s covered.”

Faith runs upstairs. Not literally, but that’s what it feels like.

She doesn’t have time for this crush to be resurfacing, is the thing. So she puts her focus into making pasta that’s maybe more complex than it needs to be, cutting up tomatoes for the sauce, chopping vegetables, obsessing over pasta cooking times, until she’s less in her head, less surrounded by Buffy.

That means, though, that she jumps when Willow comes downstairs and says, “Ooh, red sauce!”

“Marinara,” Faith says. “I wasn’t raised by wolves.”

“Smells yummy.” Willow hops onto a stool. “That explains the projection, though.”

“You’re not psychic.”

“No, but it’s like hearing waves during a storm, you know?” Willow taps her head. “Only, in here.”

Faith doesn’t know how to respond to that, so she says, “B’s down with the kid.”

“Isabelle.” Willow sounds thoughtful. They’d only met briefly at brunch, but Faith knows it doesn’t take Red long to get a read on someone. “She’s interesting.”

“She’s not a science project.”

“She’s not a Slayer project, either, but Buffy says she’ll be going on patrols soon.”

Faith stabs a pepper a little harder than she needs to. “Buffy’s not happy about it.”

“That was the context, yep.” Willow kicks her legs against the stool. “You and she are a lot alike.”

“Me and Buffy?” Faith laughs harshly. “Come on.”

“No - well, yes. But I meant you and Isabelle. That’s what I told Buffy, you know. If you try to keep her from patrolling with you, she’ll just go on her own.”

Buffy wouldn’t have, Faith thinks. Not at that age. She still doesn’t really want to be a Slayer. It’s a job for her. She doesn’t love the fight, the kill, like Faith does.

“You’re wrong,” Willow says. When Faith opens her mouth to tear her a new one, Willow holds up her hands. “Still not psychic, but it’s all over your face. Buffy enjoys it, too. But she fought it when she was younger, even though she liked it. That’s Buffy. She’ll never just go for what she loves.”

Faith looks at Willow. The magic’s kept her from aging; she still looks like she’s in her early 20s. It’s kind of creepy. “And you’re saying I would.”

“I’m saying you embrace your power, and Buffy does too - but she’s scared of it, a little. Not like you.”

Scared. Like she was when Faith shot Angel, carried too far on the promise of having someone who loved her. “I don’t know,” Faith says.

“Well,” Willow says. “Either way, she’ll sneak out if you don’t let her out, once she thinks she can kill a vampire.”

“And then she’ll get her little neck snapped.” Peppers into strips, then into the frying pan. “I know how this works.”

“Of course you do,” Willow says. “That’s why you and Buffy are so good together. As teachers,” she adds when Faith eyes her.

“Uh-huh,” Faith says, and goes to get another pepper.

Their dinner that night is kind of stilted. Isabelle won’t talk to Faith, and Buffy is doing her cheerful Stepford thing to make up for it. They send Isabelle to bed early, and then Faith and Buffy grab their coats and go on patrol.

“I don’t think she’s ready,” Buffy says.

They’ve barely made it down the walk. “Damn,” Faith says, huffing a cynical laugh. “I thought it’d take you at least a kill before you brought it up.”

“Slaying a vampire, or not, won’t change how I feel,” Buffy says. “She’s so young. She doesn’t deserve to be thrown into the war like this.”

“It’s not a war,” Faith says. “It’s a resistance.” The First taught her that, more than anything else. Evil will always be around. The Slayers are just tools to try and fight for a little more balance.

“Semantics,” Buffy says. “Don’t you think we’re a little too old for the dramatic speeches?”

Faith, still looking straight ahead, smirks. “We were too old for it when you were trying to kill the First with speeches, B.”

“Whatever,” Buffy says. “This isn’t about that. It’s about Isabelle.”

“Small Fry will be fine,” Faith says. “She’ll have us. She won’t be in any real danger. Unlike if she sneaks off when we’re both sleeping, and tries to kill vamps on her own.”

“We don’t know she’ll do that. Willow can ward the house.”

“Okay, one, she fucking hates vamps. They kept her prisoner. She’ll do it. And two, we don’t even know how she ended up a Slayer. She should be impossible, full stop. You really think Red’s magic can for sure keep her from getting out?”

“Nothing can keep you from getting out,” a vamp snarls, jumping in front of them.

“Yeah, yeah,” Buffy says, and stakes him.

“You’re probably right,” Buffy says a few minutes later. Faith’s been keeping her trap shut, a lesson she guesses it’s better she learned lately than never. “She’ll go after them, and Will isn’t perfect. None of us are.”

“And Small Fry is one determined little brat, I gotta give her that.”

Buffy huffs a laugh. “Yeah, that’s definitely an exciting new thing for me to deal with.”

“Hey,” Faith says - mild, but getting her point across. She doesn’t need Buffy’s judgement.

“Okay, did you hear my tone? Fond tone, Faith. Happy Buffy, affection, the whole nine yards.”

Faith relaxes. “Yeah,” she says. “Good point. Should we stake the vamps who’ve been following us?”

“Might as well,” Buffy says, and they turn around together.

-

Small Fry isn’t overjoyed to find out they’re going to let her play with the big kids. She bares her teeth in a way Faith guesses she thinks looks badass, then says, “Let’s go, then.”

Willow makes a point to see them off, curled around a mug of tea, looking comfortable and harmless. Looks really are deceiving, Faith thinks. “You guys have fun,” she says. “Be careful!”

“No protective spells, Will,” Buffy says, pinning her with a stern look. “Isabelle’s trained. She can do this herself.”

“Protective spells, me? Pssh.” A pressure Faith didn’t even notice releases. Isabelle lets out a quiet breath. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” Willow says, and goes back to her book. Being A Compendium Of Magicks, Volume 5. Very scholarly.

“Right,” Faith says. “Well. Let’s go.”

She and Buffy have a rhythm, is the thing, and it’s not until they’re walking on either side of Isabelle that Faith realizes she’s really gotten used to slaying with Buffy, and only Buffy. They can’t banter like they usually do; they can’t even talk about the kid like they’ve been doing lately, because she’s right there. Faith feels off balance. Not dangerously, but it’s still a pretty wacky feeling, and Faith’s not digging it.

“Okay,” she says. “We vary our patrol patterns; wanna tell me why?”

“Duh,” Isabelle says. “Vampires are demons, not morons. They’ll know to avoid you if you go the same places all the time.”

“Right,” Buffy says, her voice annoyingly perky even for her. “Which means we’re going to be hitting up Woodland Cemetery today.”

“Do vampires really still hang out in cemeteries?”

“Sure they do,” Buffy said. “They never met a cliché they didn’t want to embrace. Demons: not so hot with the creativity.”

Isabelle doesn’t respond. They hang a left and keep walking towards the cemetery.

“If we get lucky,” Faith says, “we’ll come across a couple of ‘em just hanging out, eating people. That’s always fun.”

“Spontaneity,” Buffy says.

“You guys do this a lot,” Isabelle says.

“Every night there’s not an apocalypse,” Faith says.

Once again, Isabelle doesn’t reply. Buffy’s totally wrong, Faith thinks. She, Faith, was never this sullen.

They walk in silence, until they get to the cemetery. A few times people spot them and then turn and walk in the opposite direction. Vamps, Faith thinks, as sure as anything. Normally she and Buffy would give chase, but not tonight, with the kid along. Those vamps’ll go on to kill other people. Faith tries not to let it bother her. Moral gray areas are for people who don’t pummel demons to death every night.

“Here we are,” Buffy says, pushing the gate aside. “Welcome to the lovely Woodland Cemetery. Please note the historic -”

“Oh, it’s you bitches,” says a vamp.

He comes striding out of the trees, with two friends. He lifts his lips when he sees Small Fry. “And a friend. I’ll bet she tastes like candy.”

Faith opens her mouth to retort, but Small Fry says, voice shaking, “Why don’t you come find out,” and launches herself at the lead vamp.

Not the smartest move in the world. Faith jumps into the fray immediately, knocking one vamp away as Buffy gets the other. Staking him would be quick work, except they’ve gotta dance where Faith can keep an eye on the main vamp. But she gets the demon against a tree and dusts him, nice and easy - to turn around and watch Small Fry take the main guy on.

She fights like an angry cat, quicker than Faith thinks even she or Buffy can be, in their old age. The vamp is taller and stronger, but Small Fry - shit, she’s got a knife, and Faith has no idea where she got it, but she’s using it with the stake, drawing small cuts all over the vamp’s arms and neck even as she presses him back. She slashes with the knife, severing one of his fingers - he screams - and she plunges the stake into his chest.

He explodes into dust, and Faith looks over at Buffy. Buffy looks as stunned as Faith feels.

Isabelle takes a deep breath, then squares her shoulders. She wipes the knife on the grass, makes a face, then wipes it on her jeans. When she faces Faith, it’s with a defiant look on her face.

Faith knows this is a test, and she knows exactly what she’s gonna do. The munchkin needs to learn that there are rules, and one of those rules is no swiping weapons from the practice room.

“Knife,” Faith says, holding out her hand.

Small Fry glares, but she hands it over.

“I’ll let B do the breakdown,” Faith says. “We’ve gotta keep moving. If there were three just wandering around, there’ll be more. And hey.” She tucks the sheathed knife in her belt and spreads her arms wide, smiling deliberately. “The night is young.”

Small Fry doesn’t say anything, just turns to Buffy with narrowed eyes. B smiles like she’s going to murder Faith later and says, “That was well done. Where did you get the idea for the knife?”

Because they both know where she got the knife itself. Smooth, B.

“The -” Isabelle swallows. “The vampire, the one who kept me locked up -”

“There were a lot of vampires in that house.”

Buffy’s eyes look sharp. Faith really does not want to be Isabelle right now.

“I know,” Isabelle says. “But this one liked me. He came down a lot to watch me.”

Shit.

“He never touched me, but. He had two knives. And he was good at killing.”

Faith doesn’t need someone to tell her what the kid’s implying. She saw a lot of deaths, and wanted to be as efficient as her jailer. The logic works, in a twisted way.

“It’s a good idea,” Buffy says, “but that knife’s not made for someone your size. We’ll need to get you a better blade.”

“In the meantime,” Faith says, “here.” She pulls the knife out and hands it back to Small Fry. “Call it a rule,” she says. “If you can explain why you need the weapon, or wanna use it -”

“It’s yours,” Buffy says. She offers Small Fry her hand. “C’mon. Let’s go kill some vampires.”

-

Faith’s tired the next day, and not really in the mood for any hijinks, magical or otherwise. So of course Red corners her in the kitchen as she’s drinking her heart-healthy orange juice.

“We need to talk,” she says.

Faith raises her eyebrows. “Just you and me, huh?”

Willow’s mouth is pressed into that line that means she’s not going to be moved. She nods.

“Okay,” Faith says. “Well, you’re the one who put the wards up on my room. C’mon.”

They go upstairs. Faith closes her door, and a shimmer of magic moves over the room. Soundproof, magic-proof, almost anything-proof. Buffy-proof. “What’s going on?”

“Isabelle staked how many vampires last night?”

“Four,” Faith says. “More than there should be, but it’s April. You know what that means.” The power always peaks around May. Funny how that works.

“I can feel it,” Willow says. “The Slayer magic, I mean, I can feel that on all of you. But on her…”

“Spit it out, Red.”

“It’s twisted,” Willow says.

Faith goes very, very still. “She’s a plant.”

“No! Not that I know of, anyway. It’s just not Slayer magic, not what I worked. It’s more like what Buffy saw in her vision - the demon they forced into the First Slayer. It moves around her.”

Of course. Because that’s exactly what they need: more trouble. “How’s it not consuming her, then? Demon energy’s nothing to fuck around with. Are you holding it back?”

Willow shakes her head. “Isabelle is. But I don’t think she even realizes what she’s doing. She doesn’t know it’s something that needs to be fought.”

“Wonderful,” Faith says. “So we’ve got Small Fry, who might go crazy and evil on us at any time, and also someone out there, turning Slayers into demons.”

“That’s not exactly it.”

“Close enough, though, right? You just basically said someone put this magic on her. It’s not organic, it’s not part of what you did with the scythe.”

Willow blinks. “I didn’t say that.”

“Nah, but you almost did.”

“I hadn’t actually thought that far ahead.” Willow’s looking at her weirdly. Faith gives her a level stare back. “Okay,” Willow says. “So - so someone’s found a way to force the Slayer magic, and it’s a little wrong. They probably want it to be a little wrong.”

“We bring ‘em in, teach ‘em, and then the darkness takes over, and they kill us.”

“Maybe Slayers generally, maybe you guys specifically,” Willow says. “There’s a lot to be gained in killing off the Original Two.”

Faith rolls her eyes. “Oh, that’s what they’re calling us now?”

“We’ll talk about your whole legendary status later,” Willow says. “So. Slayer curse. That’s powerful magic.”

“You don’t gotta tell me.”

“It’s not a vampire,” Willow says.

“Huh, really?”

Willow shakes her head. “Even if most vampires who can work magic weren’t a little, you know.” She swirls her finger at her forehead. “Even if they weren’t, I don’t think vampires can touch Slayer magic. They’re polar opposites.”

They’d dealt with a vamp-Slayer a few years back. The girl almost leveled New York City. “Yeah,” Faith says. “Okay. So we’re dealing with, what, a summoner? Like Ethan Rayne?”

“No,” Willow says. She sounds - wistful. “We’re dealing with a witch. A very powerful, very crazy witch.”

“Great, my fave,” Faith says. “Are you gonna start angsting about that time you went crazy?”

Willow frowns. “That’s a pretty flippant way to put it.”

“Willow, you’re over thirty now, you were barely legal to drink back then.” Faith does her best to sound serious. Trustworthy. More like Buffy than herself. “If I can forgive myself for being a crazy murderer, I think you can handle forgiving yourself for -”

“Being a magic addict?” Willow looks at Faith, then spreads her right hand, palm facing the ceiling. A small, glowing red ball appears above it. “The part of me that wanted to kill Buffy is still there, you know. It never really goes away. I fight with it every day.”

“Cut the crap,” Faith says. “The part of me that killed -” Alan. “- the Mayor’s flunky is still there, too. You’re not the only one who tried to kill B, Willow, and I came a hell of a lot closer to doing actual damage.”

Willow closes her hand. The ball of power disappears. “You’ll need me,” she says. “With Isabelle, I think I can track the magic. Or at least, track where it’s been used. The actual witch might be harder to find.”

“You know I love a challenge.”

Willow smiles a little. “Yep.”

“So,” Faith says. “Who wants to break this news to Buffy?”

“Nose goes,” Willow says, hand on her nose before she finishes.

Faith sighs. “Right. You go make breakfast, or magic it, or whatever. I’ll talk to Buffy.”

It’s easier said than done. Faith hovers outside of Buffy’s room for a good minute, just hanging out, trying to work up the will. Talking to Buffy - really talking to her, about serious shit - still makes Faith feel a little off-balance. She’s almost ready to walk away entirely and come back later when Buffy says, “Come in, Faith. You’re screwing up my meditation.”

They’ve always been able to feel each other, but in the last three years or so, it’s been getting stronger. Faith should’ve thought of that. “Hey, B,” she says, pushing the door open.

Buffy opens her eyes. She’s not smiling, so Faith doesn’t try to pretend she’s got good news. “Someone’s fucking with us.”

“Oh?”

Faith explains the situation. At the end of it, Buffy wrinkles her nose. “Can’t it just be, I don’t know, summoning demons or turning people into vampires? Why does it have to be magic? I hate magic.”

“No clue, but we’ve got Red on rent for awhile,” Faith says. “Think we should call up Giles?”

“Tempting, but he’s busy being head of the Watcher’s Council, as much as that’s relevant,” Buffy says. “Which, they bankroll me, so who am I to complain? We’ll deal with this ourselves. Has Willow tracked the magic yet?”

“Says she’s gonna work on that this afternoon,” Faith says. “It’s your day to train Small Fry.”

“Y’know, you two might get along better if you’d use her name.” Buffy checks the clock and sighs. “Up I go,” she says, rolling off the bed and stretching.

Her arms are full of whipcord muscle, and the bit of her stomach that’s showing is toned and flat. Faith looks away.

“Anyway,” Faith says. “I’m gonna go on patrol, see if I can get some demons to talk. There’s some kind of power happening. I thought the nest was the end of it, but -”

“They might have just been someone trying to draw us out? Agreed.” Buffy drops her arms and looks at Faith. “Be careful.”

“Hey.” Faith spreads her hands and grins. “Aren’t I always?”

“You know that’s not true,” Buffy says, and shoves Faith out of her room. Faith pretends she doesn’t feel a little shiver down her spine when Buffy’s fingers brush her shoulder.

Patrolling during the day is always a little weird. Faith’s not going to ramble on about how they’re creatures of the night; she’s not Spike, and anyway, Slayers are still human. But it’s still kind of strange to be busting down a door at 2 PM, in broad daylight.

“Ow! What the hell, Faith!” says the occupant of the gross couch in the studio she’s broken into.

“You can bill me,” she says. “What’s happening, Jeeves?”

“That’s not my name.”

“I know,” Faith says. “It’s a saying.”

“No, it’s not.”

Faith raises her knife. “Wanna keep arguing?”

The demon, a floppy-eared, green-skinned sucker named Luke, raises his hands. “No,” he says. “Don’t hurt me. What do you want to know?”

“Girl. Twelve. Stuck in that nest of vamps we burned down the other day.”

“Oh, yeah, that was scary - I mean good! - work. Very intimidating. Sent lots of vampires running.”

Faith flicks the tip of her knife under her nails. They’re clean, but she’s all about impressions. “How about the demons?”

“Oh, you know,” Luke says. “What about the girl?”

Luke does the aw-shucks-I’m-just-a-guy act well enough, but he’s smart as hell. Not much gets past him. Faith looks him square in the eye and says, “She’s a Slayer. You know how impossible that should be. Don’t bullshit me about how you don’t.”

“Yeah, okay,” Luke says. He sits back down on his couch. “I don’t know. I felt a disturbance, but I thought it was just blowback from the magic your witch worked.”

Faith’s going to play this like she knows how magic works, she decides. “Disturbance? Like someone working magic from a distance?”

“Well, they sure as hell wouldn’t do it here, not with you two hanging around.” Luke sucks on his teeth. “It happened again, in the northwest,” he says. “My guess? Chicago, or thereabouts. But I wouldn’t follow it, if I were you.”

“Why not?”

“Even if the - whoever - isn’t there, you’ll run into trouble.”

“You think they’re not there?”

Luke shakes his head. “This is the work of a powerful wizard or witch,” he says. “My guess is you’ll find another young Slayer in Chicago, not whoever’s causing this.”

“What does the demon community think?”

“Honestly?”

“Nah,” Faith says. “I came here with a knife so you’d lie to me.”

“We’re all scared,” Luke says. “Anyone who can harness demons and drive them into people, anyone who can recreate the Slayer magic…that’s elemental, Faith. People aren’t supposed to be able to do that anymore.”

Faith has her own doubts, what with being friends with a witch like Willow. But she just says, “Thanks, Luke,” and tosses him a fifty. “That should cover the lock. Get a better one this time.”

“You’re welcome!” Luke yells after her.

She doesn’t answer. Her badass persona needs to stay intact.

She does a little more patrolling, but no one has better answers than Luke. She knew that, just like she knew if she questioned others first, he’d find a way to weasel away from her. But it’s nice to remind the local peaceful demon contingent that she and Buffy will bust their balls if they start preying on people. It’s not all about just their reputations, after all.

When she gets back, it’s six, and she’s starving. So she’s less than excited to walk into the kitchen and see Small Fry eating an apple and Buffy scraping halfheartedly at a pot.

“It smells like ass in here,” Faith says. “Did you try to make mac and cheese again?”

Buffy sighs. “Pizza’s on the way,” she says. She’s got that wry little smile on that Faith absolutely doesn’t find cute. “Someday I’ll get the hang of it.”

“You know what they say about old dogs,” Faith says, hoisting herself up on a stool at the counter.

Small Fry tosses the apple core in the trash. “What did the demons say?”

Faith looks at Buffy, who shrugs. “She’s a Slayer.”

So much for letting her have her childhood and not get involved. “Sure,” Faith says. “Well, long story short, there’s probably another Slayer in Chicago. A Slayer called with this magic. Luke thinks the actual magic-worker is holed up somewhere, but -”

“But we’ll need to track the kid who now has superpowers,” Buffy says. “Got it.”

“We’re going to Chicago?” Small Fry says.

I’m going to Chicago,” Buffy says. “Two Slayers can’t leave a city without arranging for backup, especially a city on a Hellmouth. Me and Willow will go to Chicago. Robin’s still there with a few Slayers - maybe he can help us track her down, if Willow’s spell doesn’t work.”

Faith ignores the twist in her stomach. It’s insane to be jealous of Robin Wood; Faith hasn’t even spoken to him in years, and she broke it off with him, long after he and Buffy had their date and all their other weird stuff. “Sure thing,” Faith says. “I’ll hold down the fort.”

Faith can’t interpret the look Buffy gives her. Not murderous rage, at any rate. Faith knows what that looks like. “I know you will,” Buffy says. “Keep taking Isabelle on patrol - it’s good for her.”

“I’m right here,” Isabelle says.

Buffy looks at her. “Try not to attempt to murder Faith,” she says, eyebrows raised. “Deal?”

“Deal,” Isabelle mutters.

The doorbell rings.

“Ooh, pizza,” Buffy says. She goes to the door, every inch the transplanted California cheerleader.

It’s not until she gets back with the pizza - extra large, with pepperoni and mushrooms - that Small Fry says, “This is bad, isn’t it.”

“It’s not great,” Willow says from behind her. She comes into the kitchen and pulls out paper plates. “The kind of power this must be taking…it’s elemental.”

Faith's not going to tell Willow she's got something in common with Luke the demon, but it does give her a nasty feeling in the pit of her stomach.

“You’ve worked elemental magic before,” Buffy says as she takes a slice of pizza.

“Sure I have,” Willow says. “But working it over and over, without going crazy?” Willow shakes her head. “I don’t like it.”

“Wonderful,” Buffy says. “Eat your pizza, everyone. It’s getting dark, and I want to patrol early. Willow, can you book us plane tickets?”

“I did already,” she says. “I was in the living room, not on Mars.”

Buffy smiles and takes her pizza to the kitchen table. Small Fry follows suit, but Faith stays standing up. She’s feeling jumpy. Not herself, almost.

The jumpy feeling persists when they go patrolling, which is a problem in the major sense. Slayers are pretty resilient, but Faith’s had her share of trauma. Usually, feeling this jumpy means something major happened recently, something that’s still bugging her. This isn’t that. This is different, more poisonous.

She’s not really surprised when they come across a pack of ten vamps. She’d prefer this wasn’t while they were out with the kid, but…well. Trial by fire happens sometimes.

“Hang back,” Buffy says to Isabelle. “We’ll do our best to shield you.”

“I don’t want to be shielded.”

“I’m aware,” Buffy says, “but that’s our job. Faith?”

“Ready when you are, B.”

They pull their stakes out and attack.

Faith gets one, two, three, four - Buffy gets four - and then Faith holds the second to last one while Buffy stakes him. Faith’s been keeping track of the last one, a little guy, as he approaches Small Fry. They’ll intervene if necessary; for now, they turn and watch her fight.

“Little girl,” the vampire snarls. “You should run and hide. I like when they run.”

Small Fry doesn’t answer. They’re gonna have to up her game. Then again, Faith thinks when she dives for the guy’s knees and slashes at his Achilles tendons, maybe not.

“Fuck!” the vampire wails. “What the hell!”

“I don’t play fair,” Small Fry says, and stakes him as he attempts to stumble upright.

It’s a hell of a performance. It shouldn’t send a chill down Faith’s spine.

“Not my style,” she says, trying for nonchalance, “but a pretty good show all the same.”

Small Fry looks at her, and Faith recoils: her eyes are glowing red. “Maybe you should let me work,” she says, poison lacing across every word.

“Isabelle.”

Buffy’s voice cracks like a whip, and Isabelle leans back, blinking. In just an instant, the red is gone.

“Isabelle?” Faith says, making her voice as gentle as she knows how.

“Huh?” Isabelle shakes herself. “Thanks,” she says, like she’d never responded to begin with.

Faith glances at Buffy. Buffy shakes her head, a tiny motion that Faith feels mentally more than sees.

Which, that’s a whole different thing to worry about. For now, she says, “Okay, Isabelle. Let’s go home.”

“We’ve only been patrolling for an hour.”

“There will always be more vampires,” Buffy says. “Call it an occupational hazard. Right now, I need to get home and pack for Chicago.”

“I could hunt with Faith.”

“True,” Buffy says. “But I’m tired, and so’s Faith. Come on, humor us. We’re not as young as we used to be.”

Isabelle stares at Buffy for a long, hard moment. “Fine,” she finally says, and tucks her stake back in her pocket. “Let’s go.”

-

Faith drives Buffy and Willow to the airport with some serious bad feeling in her stomach. The bad feeling worsens on the way home. It’s not a psychic bad feeling, or anything; just a good, old-fashioned, “We are in deep shit” feeling.

And maybe a little bit of not liking to be on her own. The last time she was holding down the fort alone was three years ago, when Buffy flew to England to put the fear of 2,000 Slayers into the Watcher’s Council. She was gone for a week and Faith jumped at every shadow. Mostly Faith thinks that means she’s gone soft, but since she has a kid to protect, it’s a seriously useless kind of feeling.

“Okay,” she says when she gets back to the house. Isabelle’s watching TV on the couch, frowning at Judge Mathis like it’ll make it something actually worth watching. “You ready to train, or do you wanna rot your brain all day?”

“I’m ready,” Isabelle says, and stalks downstairs.

Faith wonders if the macho stuff will ever wear off, then thinks of herself at 16 and winces. Maybe not for awhile, then.

They’re doing staff training - no padding, because Faith doesn’t really believe in it and Small Fry looked ready to kill her when she offered - when the doorbell rings. Faith doesn’t feel any vamps, and her sense of forboding is slowly fading, but she still holds a hand up to Small Fry and says, “Stay here.”

She goes upstairs almost silently, knife out. Vamps can’t come into the house, but they’re not the only nasties in Cleveland. “Hello?”

“It’s me,” Dawn says. “Open up.”

Faith lowers her knife and opens the door. “Baby Watcher, what’s up?”

“Full Watcher now,” Dawn says, coming in when Faith gestures at her. “And, a lot. As I’m sure you now know.”

“Who’s that?” Small Fry says from the basement stairs.

“Didn’t I tell you to stay downstairs?”

Small Fry shrugs. “Who are you?” she says to Dawn.

“I’m Dawn, Buffy’s sister. And you are?”

“Isabelle,” the girl says. “I’m a Slayer, like Faith.”

“Yeah,” Faith says when Dawn looks back at her. “We know about the trouble.”

“Emerald Isles,” Dawn says.

“Blue waters,” Faith says.

“Um, what?” Small Fry says.

“It’s code,” Faith says. “It means Watcher Junior here isn’t a demon in a little sis suit.”

“Do you ever call people by their names?”

“Sometimes,” Faith tells Isabelle. “C’mon, Dawn, downstairs. I have to beat the crap out of Isabelle while you tell me what the Council knows.”

Dawn doesn’t flinch when Faith comes at Isabelle, easing up on her blow just enough that she’s only knocked back by it, not knocked flat. “The Watcher’s Council has been working with covens in England, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Japan, China, South Africa, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Brazil -”

“I get it,” Faith says. “All over the world. So what have they noticed?”

“Elemental magic in the US,” Dawn says. “Like nothing we’ve seen before. Murder-Willow, only on a massive scale. It’s twisting ley lines, throwing the weather out of whack. Witches have been sent from various locations to try and track down the source, but by the time we show up at the site of the disturbances, no one’s there. It’s unclear if the disturbances are the site of the magic-working to begin with, but it’s the only evidence we’ve been able to come up with.”

“You’re listing on your left-hand side, get your guard up,” Faith says, and strikes. Small Fry parries, backing Faith up. Not bad, not bad. “So what you’re saying is we’re chasing a ghost.”

“Almost,” Dawn says. “Six months ago, there was a break-in at the Beijing Library of Witchcraft.”

“Uh-huh,” Faith says. “Learn to jump,” she tells Small Fry, and swipes at her feet. Small Fry leaps away - barely.

“A text was stolen, a text we didn’t even know existed until they emailed it to us. They’d watched over it for thousands of years. It’s a transcription of an oral spell - about Slayer magic.”

Faith dodges a stab from Small Fry, then brings their staffs together in a crack of wood. “Bad move,” she says. “Now I can overpower you. I’m bigger and stronger. What are you going to do now?”

Small Fry spits in her face, launches forward, stomps on Faith’s foot, and knocks her down with her staff.

Faith grins. “Not bad,” she says, wiping the spit off. “Ease up for a sec.” She stands up and looks at Dawn. “So, what you’re telling me is, someone found out about this magic book, broke into a Chinese library, took it to America, and is raising evil Slayers with it.”

“Evil?” Small Fry says. “Wait, am I evil? Why didn’t you tell me I was evil?”

“All in good time,” Faith says.

“And relax,” Dawn says. “Faith used to be evil too.”

“Why America?” Faith says. “Why here, of all places, where me and Buffy can track them down and kill them? Shit, even Angel’s still on the continent.” Holed up in Vancouver, but still. “So what’s the what?”

“That’s the thing,” Dawn says. “We’re pretty sure whoever it is wants to be close to you guys. That’s why, you know.” She gestures to Isabelle.

“Why?”

Dawn takes a deep breath. “The girls who’re being cursed - or, given the power,” she says. “They’re young. Untested. But if the spell can be refined, and the demony bits get into you and Buffy…”

Faith feels like her chest is being squeezed. “We work in tandem,” she says, voice dull. “We wipe out what we created ten years ago.”

“No more Slayers,” Dawn says. “Except the ones who are controlled by this person. Whoever it is.”

“And you’re sure it’s not a demon?”

Dawn nods. “Traces of human life were found in the library, and we’re not even sure a non-human could work the spells. Not as they’re written, anyway.”

“Great,” Faith says. “Wonderful. Nothing I love like crazy person with an agenda to kill me. It’s been so long.”

“Hey,” Dawn says. “It’s been, what, a year? You’re overdue.”

Faith eyes her suspiciously.

“Excuse me,” Small Fry says, “but can we, for just one second, talk about how I’m evil?”

Faith sighs. “C’mon, kids,” she says, putting her staff back in the stand. “Time to go upstairs and break this whole magic thing down.”

-

“I’m not evil,” Isabelle says as soon as Faith and Dawn have settled on the couch. Isabelle’s perched on the uncomfortable wicker chair in the corner, looking ready to straight leap out of a window if they say the wrong thing.

Faith would prefer to not have to do a cross-town chase in the bullshit shoes she’s wearing right now, so she says, “Obviously not. But the Slayer magic that you were hit with is - complicated.”

“Slayers are called at age 16,” Dawn says. “Anyone with potential. That’s how Willow engineered the magic.”

“But, and here’s the kicker, you weren’t called,” Faith says. “You still have the potential, I think - had the potential, whatever. But you weren’t called. You were cursed.”

“I don’t feel cursed.”

“The red eyes and the snarling from last night say otherwise, Small Fry,” Faith says. “Think about it, and you’ll know when I mean.”

She frowns and then turns red.

“Yeah,” Faith says. “See?”

“I thought I just blacked out. From the fight.”

“Nah,” Faith says. “You went full evil for a second there.”

She doesn’t really realize Small Fry is freaked out until Dawn says, “But there are protections we can put on you. Don’t worry. It’s even a spell I can do - no need for the big guns. See? It’ll be fine.”

“I’m not evil,” Isabelle says again.

And - okay, Faith might be a terrible Slayer foster parent, or whatever’s going on here. In fact, there’s no ‘might’ about it: she’s abysmal. But she’s not so terrible that she can’t tell when she needs to jump in. So she says, “No, of course you’re not. Everyone’s been hit with an evil spell a time or two. It’s just part of the business.”

“I’ve been hit with three,” Dawn says. “There’s a whole ritual we’ll need to do, it’s super involved, so I’m gonna go shop for ingredients. We’ll eat dinner, do the ritual, and then you’ll be protected from outside influence. And Buffy will find this person, and we’ll deal with them.”

“Kill them?” Small Fry says, maybe a little too bloodthirsty.

“Um,” Dawn says. “That’s not really our - we don’t really do that.”

“We’ll deal with them,” Faith says. Her voice says they might kill them. Faith’s not feeling too charitable right now.

Miracle of miracles, Small Fry relaxes at that. Well, it’s not like Faith’s ability to kill a human being is really in question. “Okay,” she says. “Okay.”

Dawn looks between them, then settles on Faith and says, “Do you have eggs, vegetables, and a pan?”

“What am I, an animal?”

“I’m going to make you some food,” Dawn says. “You guys hang out.” She leaves.

Faith sighs, looks at her hands, then looks back at the kids. Buffy handles the feelings talks with the teenagers, usually, but this kid is barely old enough to rate the word. And she’s scared - transparently, obviously, pathetically scared. Faith has no idea how to get through to her. This isn’t her strong point. It’s not even her weak point. It’s totally uncharted territory, and she can’t even go in with guns blazing like she usually would.

“Look,” Faith says. She pauses, trying to dredge up a thought. “This isn’t the first time we’ve dealt with fucked-up Slayer magic.”

“Buffy would yell at you for cursing,” Small Fry says.

“Well, it’s a good thing she’s off drowning suckers in Lake Michigan, huh,” Faith says. “C’mon, you know what I mean. People are always trying to screw with Slayers. There’s a ton of us now.”

“How many?”

“Registry’s at twelve thousand, with more being called every day,” Faith says. “A drop in the bucket of humanity, but trust me. A fully trained Slayer can pack a punch.”

“Okay,” Isabelle says. “But this kind of screwing with the magic. Dawn says it’s serious.”

“Sure it is,” Faith says. “And when the mayor of Sunnydale - that’s our old town - when the mayor tried to turn into a full-fledged demon, that was serious. When Buffy went mano a mano with a god, that was serious. When the origination of all evil on the fucking planet came after us, that was serious. Hell, two years ago, we had some necromancer controlling vamps who turned Slayers into vampires. That was so serious it leveled Topeka.”

“But this -”

“Is some big, bad, scary shit,” Faith says. “But we’ve dealt with all that before. And if you don’t believe me, ask Dawn for a book on it. There are enough of ‘em. But I’m not gonna keep telling you it’ll be okay, because the only way that’s true is if we make it okay. Welcome to being a Slayer.”

Isabelle’s vacant stare slowly turns into a glare. Faith just looks back. It would take a stronger glare than one from a baby Slayer to make her seriously reconsider her choices.

“Okay,” Isabelle says finally. “So - what now?”

“Now,” Faith says, “we go train. Then we bug Dawn till she’s done with dinner. And then Dawn casts a spell on you, and we go see if we can find a vamp old enough to know what witch is fucking with us.”

“Or wizard,” Isabelle says.

Faith has a hunch, but she’s not about to insist her hunch is definitely reality. “Sure. Or wizard.”

Dawn’s made them a frittata. It’s good, and Faith wolfs down three pieces before she feels ready to face up to the fact that little Dawnie’s going to cast some wicked huge spell on their shouldn’t-be-a-Slayer. She does, though. She draws a circle - some complicated Celtic shit, if Faith’s time in tattoo parlors taught her anything - and has Isabelle sit in the center of it. Then Dawn opens up some moldy old book and says, “Sky and sun, water and rock, I call on thee. I call on thee,” and tosses some herbs in the air.

Faith kind of tunes everything out after that. Red’s magic is advanced enough that it’s mostly glowing energy and her waving her hands around, with the occasional incantation. This is what Faith remembers from her time in Sunnydale as a teenager - more ritual that any idiot can do with the right book and tools. Not that Dawn’s an idiot; her execution is flawless. When a swirling blue-and-black disc appears over Isabelle, Isabelle gasps and Faith’s impressed. She’s more impressed when the disc folds itself around Isabelle and is absorbed by her skin. Dawn’s chanting slows, and the pressure in the room lets up.

“Thanks be to the goddess,” Dawn finishes.

“What goddess?” Faith says as Isabelle stands up and brushes various herbs off of her.

Dawn shrugs. “Willow and me are working on a complex theory about what invoking various gods and supernatural beings actually means, but. Who knows, really.”

“Fair enough.”

“Am I done?” Isabelle says. “I won’t go evil now?”

Faith opens her mouth to say something reassuring, but Dawn gets there first. “It’s a protection spell,” she says. “So, technically speaking, you’re not really free. The magic is still there for someone with the key - the spell, the originating spell - to pull on. But this will stop them from succeeding.”

“For sure?” Isabelle says.

Dawn raises her eyebrows. “I’m a Watcher,” she says. “And I’m staying, by the way. For the time being. You guys could do with some Watcher knowledge.”

“Hey,” Faith says. “We manage.”

“Sure you do, but I’m going to help.” Dawn gives her the kind of firm look she’s been developing over the years. It’s reminiscent of Buffy’s, in that it makes Faith feel vaguely guilty. “Fine, fine,” she says. “Get a dustbuster, help me clean this mess up. Magic, always getting shit all over the hardwood.”

That night, she and Small Fry go out on patrol. Dawn offers to help, and Faith knows she means it; baby Summers can pack a punch. All the Watchers can these days. But Faith kind of wants some alone time with the kid, and she’s pretty sure Isabelle’s a little freaked out by the protection spell still. So it’s just the two of them, strolling down Superior and looking for trouble. Faith’s broken up two muggings so far, and they’ve been asked how much about five times, but no vamps. Yet.

“I don’t understand how you do this,” Small Fry says finally. Her voice is pitched low; she’s got good instincts. Then again, she probably still had potential, even if she was chosen too young.

“Back in the day, kids like you would get chosen all the time,” Faith says. “I was called when I was sixteen, Buffy when she was fifteen.”

“Isn’t that -”

“The normal age now? Sure. But the Slayer before Buffy was called when she was thirteen. Died when she was nineteen, and she was old for a Slayer.”

She can practically feel Small Fry freaking out. “So, what, I’m gonna die?”

“We all will, probably young and bloody.” Faith’s not going to lie to the kid, even as her neck starts tingling, telling her a vamp’s close by. But - “But there are Slayers who are twenty-five, twenty-eight now, and me and Buffy are thirty-three. Oldest Slayers on the planet. Oldest ever, in fact.”

Isabelle swallows audibly. “I don’t want to die,” she says finally, voice small.

“None of us do,” Faith says. “We’ll make sure you make it to where you’re ready to fight on your own. After that, it’s up to you.”

“Slayers,” says a voice behind them.

Faith turns, deliberately nonchalant. A single vamp, average height. Fashion from the 90s, so relatively newly turned. “Isabelle?”

“Got it,” Isabelle says, and unsheathes her knife, pulling her stake out too.

She fights as viciously and efficiently as ever. Once the vampire’s dusted, Faith says, “Anyway. We’re not going to turn you loose on the world until you can defend yourself.”

“I could just not fight.”

“True,” Faith says. “Some don’t. But trouble usually finds ‘em, sooner or later.”

“You’re not alone.” Small Fry sounds sullen again. “You have Buffy.”

Faith doesn’t know how to explain that it’s not like that - she and Buffy are different. But all the words she wants to use get stuck in her throat. She and Buffy could be like that, only Buffy thinks of Faith as…not a sidekick, but a convenient partner. Someone she’s stuck with, from an accident. Drusilla’s nails in Kendra’s throat, and Faith was called. Nothing special there but circumstance.

“Sure,” Faith says finally. “But when one of us dies, the other’s not gonna follow.”

Isabelle doesn’t answer that, just starts walking a little more quickly. Faith matches her pace.

Small Fry tries to hide it, but she’s exhausted by the time they stop patrolling at three in the morning. She stumbles a little going up the stairs to Buffy and Faith’s house, and she goes straight to her room without saying anything to Faith at all. She dusted three vamps, a respectable number; Faith will tell her good job in the morning, or something.

She’s not surprised to see Dawn still up, reading some heavy book in the living room. “How was it?” she says quietly.

“Fine,” Faith says. “Kid knows her shit.”

“Who abused her, do you think?”

Faith doesn’t bother pretending the thought hadn’t occurred to her. “Schoolyard bullies. She fights dirty.”

Dawn nods. “The magic’s choosing well. Damaged people - Buffy got back to me. They found the girl. She’d been in juvenile detention for killing her stepfather.”

Faith can read between the lines. “So this fucker’s picking victimized girls. That’s great.”

“They’re probably easier to control,” Dawn says. “At first, anyway.”

“And then they go after her,” Faith says. “Unstable as fuck.”

“Yep. Pretty much.”

“Fuck,” Faith says. “Damn. Okay. Who do we have in New York?”

“Um, Angel’s got Illyria and Spike there, and we have Kennedy and Anne.”

“Great,” Faith says. “Who’s Anne?”

“Friend of Buffy’s,” Dawn says. “And Angel’s, actually.”

“Okay.” Kennedy’s way less of a brat these days, and more importantly, she won’t get the vapors at all of this news. “Call them,” Faith says. “My guess is the bitch behind this magic strikes there next.”

“Sure,” Dawn says. She pulls out her phone - of course she’s an iPhone girl - but looks at Faith questioningly. “What makes you think New York?”

“Big target,” Faith says. “Easy to hide. Just a hunch.”

“Good enough for me,” Dawn says, and dials.

Ten minutes later, the New York base knows to be on the lookout for a kid with Slayer powers, who shouldn’t have them. Dawn calls the Watchers, too, and warns them. Once she hangs up, Faith slumps back against the couch. “I’m too old for this shit.”

“Please.” Dawn rolls her eyes. “Like thirty is dead, or something?”

“Kid, some days I feel dead.”

“Uh-huh,” Dawn says. “And some days I feel older than I can deal with, but that doesn’t make me actually old.”

Faith stabs a finger at her. “No one who’s not thirty gets to give me shit.”

Dawn gets a devious look on her face. “Should I call Giles? I bet he’ll have a thing or two to say about all this.”

“Fuck no,” Faith says. She sighs. She knows why she’s putting off going to bed; she doesn’t have Buffy to joke with as they trade showers and crash in their respective rooms. Five years ago, being this codependent would’ve made her panic. Now it just makes her feel kind of -

Well. Old.

“I’m going to bed,” she says. “Goodnight.”

Dawn nods and goes back to her book. Faith climbs the stairs, feeling every jolt in her knees.

She’s up at noon the next day, feeling fresh as a daisy. She goes out to check the mail - their carrier delivers freakishly early, which suits Faith just fine - and detours to the side of the house, where the daisies and begonias they’ve planted are being overtaken by some serious dandelions. Well, Small Fry is due for a break in training. She drops the mail off in the kitchen and goes out to weed.

“You know, you should really wear gloves for that,” says someone behind her.

Faith smiles and turns. Mrs. Green is leaning over the short fence separating their properties. She’s smiling, too, the fond smile she’s had for as long as Buffy and Faith have lived here. “Well, Buffy’s not here to yell at me,” Faith says.

“Ah, yes.” Something in Mrs. Green’s smile changes. “How is your roommate?”

Faith wasn’t born yesterday. She knows Mrs. Green thinks they’re roommates. She’s even talked with her before about it, but Mrs. Green is sixty-four and not likely to change her mind about what she thinks their relationship is. “We’re good,” Faith says. “How are you and Frank?”

“Oh, we persevere,” Mrs. Green says. “I noticed you’ve got another cousin staying with you.”

“Not a cousin,” Faith says. “Buffy’s niece. Nice kid, but you know, a bit of a disciplinary problem.”

“Ah, yes.” Mrs. Green nods. “Children.”

“Uh-huh,” Faith says. She tugs at a stubborn weed. “Anyway, I gotta do this before I make lunch. Good talking to you.”

“You too, dear,” Mrs. Green says, and leaves her alone.

Neighbors. Teenage Faith would kill adult Faith if she could see her now.

They get a lead later that day. Kennedy sends Faith a text: found the girl. Bring her to Cleveland?

Before replying, Faith calls Buffy.

“Whoa, what is it, 1998?” Buffy says, picking up the phone.

“Very funny,” Faith says. “I can use a phone.”

“Clearly.” Buffy makes a noise that means she’s cracking her neck. “What’s the what?”

“There’s another forced Slayer in New York. Kennedy’s got her.”

“Kennedy and Spike.”

“Uh huh,” Faith says. “And Illyria.” Who’s creepy as fuck. Not that Faith would tell it - her - to her face. “They want to know if we’re all converging on Cleveland.”

“Robin and I have ours pretty well in hand. Her name’s Keisha.”

“Great,” Faith says. “Are you two beffies now?”

“I don’t know, are you and Isabelle?”

Faith grinds her teeth. “Just call the shots, B. Are we bringing these kids back to Cleveland or not?”

“Robin has to stay in Chicago,” Buffy says, “but he’s got two good Slayers with him, who will hopefully keep an eye on the mayor.”

“The mayor’s not -”

“He might be.”

Giant snakes. Great. “Okay,” Faith says. “So you’re gonna bring the kid home?”

“Tell Kennedy to come, too. Spike and Illyria can hold down New York just fine, but Kennedy will need to babysit while we find whoever’s doing this and deal with them.”

Faith’s glad she’s in her room. It means she doesn’t have to check for other people before saying, “We’ll have to kill her, you know.”

“You think it’s a her?”

“Pretty sure,” Faith says. “Gut instinct.”

“Sure,” Buffy says. “Well - yeah. That’s why it has to be you and me, no one else.”

The two people whose judgement won’t be questioned; the two people who could, and will, get away with murder. Wonderful. “Gotcha,” Faith says. “So how’re we going to track this sucker down?”

“Oh, I thought I’d get Willow to send out an enchantment via one of the forced Slayers to suggest they curse us, then track the magic back to its source.”

“You think we can do that?”

“Our senses have been getting better.”

Faith would like to deny it, but denying things to Buffy is like - Faith doesn’t know, denying things to her right hand, or something. She doesn’t do it often, is the point. “Okay,” she says. “Well. I’m ready.”

“Great,” Buffy says. “We fly back tomorrow morning.”

“Great,” Faith says. “See you then.”

There’s a weird silence, like Buffy’s expecting Faith to say something else. Faith, for her part, has no idea what that “something” would be. So she just hangs up, and tries not to feel too weird about it.

She explains the situation to Small Fry and Dawn. Dawn nods, understanding the story perfectly - and, Faith’s pretty sure, understanding the implication of what they’re going to do with the witch when they find her. “So I get to share a house with Kennedy for awhile. Great. It’s like a throwback.”

“She’s way more mellow these days,” Faith says.

Dawn grimaces.

“Hey, could be worse. It could be Andrew.”

“Point taken and internalized,” Dawn says. “So - two more Slayers and Kennedy, right? Plus Willow?”

The house can hold them; Buffy and Faith made sure of that when they bought it with Watcher money. “Sounds about right.”

“I’ll get things ready. You train Isabelle,” Dawn says before Faith can object. “I know, you fold the sheets and do the cooking. Like Buffy ever would. But my official orders are to help, so.” Dawn rolls her eyes. “Helping away.”

“Got it,” Faith says. “Isabelle, come downstairs. I’m gonna teach you how to use throwing stars.”

Small Fry is way, way too excited about that, deadly little brat that she is. Faith almost laughs at how quickly she races for the basement stairs.

Buffy gets in just as Faith’s waking up the next morning. She knows, because Buffy comes straight into her room, huffs out a breath, and says, “Oh my God, Faith. It’s almost one. Wake up.”

Faith grins and reaches out, grabbing Buffy’s arm. One yank and Buffy’s on the ground next to the bed, shrieking indignantly.

“I was getting up,” Faith says. She sits up as Buffy gets to her feet, stretching. “How’s Chicago?”

“Dirty. Humid.” Buffy combs her fingers through her hair, then wrinkles her nose at Faith. “Um, you know I can see, like - full frontal. Right?”

Faith blinks and looks down at herself. Yep, the headlights are on. “It’s a white tank,” Faith says. “They get too old to go out and about in, I wear ‘em to bed. If you don’t want to see, don’t come into my room.”

Buffy’s always been a prude, so the blushing now isn’t exactly a surprise. “Any - anyway,” Buffy says. “Keisha’s downstairs. Any news from New York?”

“Kennedy’ll be landing this afternoon, Greta in tow,” Faith says. “And no, she’s not comically German, with little hair braids and an accent. Girl’s a homeless pickpocket. This bitch sure knows how to pick ‘em.”

“Great,” Buffy says. “So with any luck, Willow can cast her spell tomorrow, and then -”

Faith laughs outright. “Damn, you really don’t want Potentials, the sequel.”

“No,” Buffy says. “I really, really don’t.” She grabs a hoodie from its place of honor on Faith’s floor and thows it at her, still red. “Get decent. We need to be ready to split and deal with this crap.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Faith says. “Get out of my room.” She starts pulling her sleep shorts off. By the time she’s down to her underwear, Buffy’s gone.

Sometimes Faith wants to do a striptease just to see what she’d do. But - down, girl, she thinks. Those kinds of thoughts lead nowhere good, and they have some serious, major work to do.

“Sweet, Eggos,” she says when she gets downstairs. “Where’s the second problem Slayer?”

“We should really not call them that,” Buffy says.

“Who says I’m a problem?”

Faith glances at the girl. She’s young, black, and looks frightened. Another kid the world fucked with before this witch decided to fuck with her even more. “No one,” Faith says, and drops the waffles in the toaster. “How’s having superpowers treating you?”

“It’s weird,” Keisha says. “How’s being a Slayer treating you?”

“Hell, kid, just look at me,” Faith says. She rummages in the fridge and comes up with a Monster. She downs half of it in one long gulp, keeping an eye on Keisha as she does it.

If anything, she looks even younger than Isabelle. Isabelle at least has some - awareness, Faith thinks. She’s older than her age. Keisha looks like she could be anywhere between ten and thirteen. She’s got a little button nose and sweet, innocent eyes. Faith knows looks can deceive. Fuck, she knows looks can kill, if it comes to that. But it’s still fucked up, looking at this kid and knowing someone plans on using her as a tool for murder.

They don’t really talk after that. Faith finds out from Willow that the protective spell is already cast, which is good. Willow and Keisha are talking magic, and Small Fry’s reading with Dawn, and Buffy’s finishing up the dishes, and Faith -

Faith feels like a fucking idiot, because this isn’t nearly as crowded as their house has been, and yet she still feels antsy as fuck.

“Hey, B. Spar?”

“Let me finish this,” Buffy says. She gives the plate she’s working on one last swirl, sets it in the dish rack, and tosses some detergent packets in. “Great,” she says. “Let’s go.” She ties her hair back on the way downstairs.

When they get to the basement and the lights flicker on (motion sensors - never let it be said they didn’t milk the Watchers for money, once Faith got involved), Faith lets out a deep breath. Buffy watches her, obviously amused. “A full house not to your liking?”

“I’m not used to it,” Faith says. “Don’t play like you are.”

“I don’t know.” Buffy stretches her arms, jumps up and down a few times. “I kind of miss it, you know? I grew up with a family.”

“Yeah, yeah, spare me your Rockwellian laments,” Faith says. She cracks her neck and makes a ‘come at me’ motion at Buffy. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”

Buffy smiles at her. It’s a slow, sinuous smile. A smile Faith thinks she’d probably see after sex - not that she’ll ever know. But it’s a smile Faith’s into, because it means Buffy loves this, too.

No one fights like Buffy. No one. Fighting with her is as essential to Faith these days as breathing.

“Hope you’re ready,” Buffy says. That’s all the warning Faith gets before she pounces.

Her kicks and blocks are all textbook, but with improvisation - more and more, over the years. She fights with precision, knowing all of Faith’s weak points. But Faith knows hers, too, and she’s way more likely to surprise Buffy - jump in and flick her cheek, or tug her shirt until Buffy’s flying backwards. Neither of them has won a fight in years, but that doesn’t keep them from trying. Buffy tries a punch and Faith blocks, then sweeps at Buffy’s feet - Buffy jumps, and Faith’s on the mat, but she punches the back of Buffy’s knees and brings Buffy down with her. Then she’s rolling on the floor with her, both of them grappling for the advantage, until Faith locks her thighs around Buffy’s midsection and rolls them, ending up on top, pinning Buffy’s arms wide out on either side of her.

“That’s what you get for being a featherweight, Blondie,” Faith says. She’s breathing hard. They’re both dripping sweat, and they’re both smiling.

Buffy’s smile breaks, though, and she cranes her neck. “What’s that noise?” she says urgently.

Faith’s concentration shifts. “What noi - you bitch,” she says as Buffy rolls them, perching on top of Faith, one hand loosely around Faith’s neck.

“Snap your neck before you can move,” Buffy says. “This counts as a win.” She raises her eyebrows, smiling triumphantly.

“More of a cheater than the convicted felon,” Faith says. It means she yields, but Buffy doesn’t move, her eyes weirdly intent on Faith.

“Watchers paid to have that expunged. Judges and all.”

“Sure,” Faith says. “And next time we do this, I’ll get you.” She holds eye contact with Buffy. The air in the room seems to thicken, and for a second Buffy sways like she’s going to lean in -

But then, as quickly as it happened, it’s gone. Buffy’s expression is distant again, and she’s standing up. “That was good,” she says. “I liked that, let’s do it again. But ugh, first I have to shower. Willow’s picking up Greta and Kennedy from the airport in like an hour, I do not want to meet them looking like a gym rat.”

“I’m guessing you’re taking first shower, then.”

Buffy turns away from her, waving a hand. “Take the downstairs if you want, our tank’s big enough.”

Our tank. The downstairs. Stop it, Faith tells herself fiercely - fucking stop it, now. “Sure,” she hears herself say.

She lags behind Buffy on the way upstairs, very deliberately. Buffy’s making for the second floor by the time Faith even gets to the kitchen. Fine by Faith. She needs to get a hold on herself.

Her hair’s still drying when Kennedy shows up with Greta. Greta immediately makes friends with Keisha and Isabelle, which is good, because then she doesn’t balk when Willow puts the spell on her. It’s still kind of weird, though - there are now eight people in the house, and Faith seriously gets Buffy’s point about wanting to leave.

After dinner, the kids go up to one of their two rooms (Greta and Keisha are sharing, and they seem fine with it). Faith, Willow, Dawn, Buffy, and Faith relax downstairs, with wine. Well, everyone else has some fruity white wine. Faith’s drinking a jack and coke.

“So,” Faith says. “How long before we can track this bitch down?”

“I’d object,” Willow says, “except I’m pretty sure the power signature is female.”

“Great,” Faith says. “So, I repeat my question.”

Willow shrugs. “How fast do you want to leave? The magic - the Slayer magic - it’s pulling on them. The protection spell stops them from feeling it, and it stops the magic from controlling them, but it’s still there.”

“Will’s saying if you don’t patrol tonight - “

“If you’re strong enough,” Willow says.

“Then we can have coordinates for you by tomorrow,” Dawn finishes.

“What do you mean, strong enough?” Buffy scowls. “I’m plenty strong.”

“And yet, not patrolling tonight.” Dawn says it with exactly the level of bratty sisterly aggression it needs. “Get an actual night’s sleep. We’ll do the spell at, say, eight?”

“Gives us plenty of time to book a flight,” Willow says.

“A flight?” Faith says.

“It’s not like you’re going to fly there on a horse,” Dawn says. “Yes, a flight. And then maybe a rental car, who knows.”

“It depends on where they are,” Willow says. “And how hard it’ll be to get there.”

“Great,” Buffy says. “Then I guess we’ll finish the wine and watch Project Runway.”

As one, Faith, Willow, and Kennedy groan. “It’s great,” Buffy and Dawn say in unison. They high five, and Faith reluctantly passes Buffy the remote. Damn it.

Three hours later, the wine is gone and Faith’s in bed. She’s sober, which is really just a massive pity. Kennedy was eyeing Dawn up like a piece of meat, and Faith’s about ninety percent sure Dawn doesn’t swing that way - or at least, she goes for guys, and Faith’s not sure if she also goes for girls. But the sexual tension in the room was almost worse than Buffy being so fucking oblivious to it, so Faith said goodbye pretty quickly, escaping to upstairs. Eight is pretty early to be doing a ritual, anyway. She needs her beauty sleep.

She’s nursing a coffee by seven the next day. The baby Slayers are still sleeping like deadly little angels; about fifteen minutes after Faith gets her first cup of coffee, Buffy comes tromping down the stairs, blurry-eyed.

She grunts questioningly; Faith points at the pot. One too many fights over coffee resulted in them buying a massive machine, so there are two carafes, and one of them is still full. Buffy grunts again and pours herself a mug.

It’s not until she’s had a few sips that she says, “Remember when we used to wake up this early all the time? How’d we even survive high school?”

She realizes her mistake before Faith even has to open her mouth, a symptom of how long they’ve been roommates. She goes a little pink, and Faith says, “Red’ll be down soon, perky as ever.”

“We need all three of the kids, right?”

Faith nods. “Power of the spell, or something. I set an alarm for them. They just need to be in the living room, not awake.”

They nurse their coffees in silence. As if on cue, at quarter to eight, Willow comes downstairs, looking perky as a daisy in spring. “Hi, guys!” she says. “Oooh, coffee.”

Buffy and Faith trade long-suffering looks. They finish their second and third mugs each as Willow says, “You guys had some danish, right? Oh good, you did. I won’t need to draw on your energy, probably, but it’s always good to be prepared. At least it’s a beautiful day.”

Faith’s been cursing the sun all morning. “Sure thing, Red,” she says. “I’ll go wake the kids up.” She makes her escape. Willow’s Buffy’s friend; let B deal with her.

“Rise and shine, kiddos,” Faith says, opening both doors. She’s yelling like a drill sergeant, mostly because it’s fun. “It’s spell-working time.”

The nervousness doesn’t really set in until they’re sitting in the (sunny, so fucking sunny) living room, coffee table pushed aside so they can all sit on the floor in a ring. Buffy and Faith are on either side of Willow, and she’s holding both their hands; Dawn and Kennedy are on the opposite side, and the three kids are sitting in the middle. Logically, Faith knows that Red’s way past the point where she needs to use words to articulate whatever crazy magic shit she’s got going on. Logically, in fact, Faith knows that watching the kids glow and magic swirl in the room probably wouldn’t be any less creepy with some Latin intonations. But it still makes her spine stiff, makes her glad for the knife at her side.

And then Willow goes still and says, “Ssslayers.”

It’s obviously not her voice. Buffy glances at Faith and, when Faith nods, says, “We’re here.”

A chuckle, low and sick. “The vessel is reluctant,” it says. “But I welcome you. I welcome you, and your…magic. The vessel knows. I look forward to seeing you.”

Willow’s eyes fly open and she gasps, suddenly Willow again. “Will?” Buffy says. “Will, are you okay?”

“What a bastard,” Willow says. Her muddled eyes, still mostly pupil, focus on the kids. “Uh, sorry,” she says. “That was. Educational.”

“Where is he?” Faith knows she sounds a little on edge, but she doesn’t care. “He was strong enough to possess you, Willow, tell me where the fuck this bastard is.”

Faith really thought it was a she. A man wielding that magic, with that malevolent voice - Faith wants to hurt something. Bad.

Willow’s eyes are distant, her voice strained, when she says, “Sunnydale.”

Buffy’s eyes widen marginally.

“Wait, what?” Keisha says.

Faith says, very simply: “Fuck.”

“Sunnydale,” Buffy says, “is a crater.”

“Uh-huh,” Willow says. “A crater fortified by magic. And at the bottom is -” She closes her eyes briefly, then opens them again. They’re still black. “His name is Jed.”

“Jed?” Buffy’s all acid now, like she’s going to break someone’s neck. “His name is Jed? Who’s even named Jed?”

“Well, he’s four hundred years old,” Willow says. “Or, approximately, anyway. A wizard. Massive power.”

“Great,” Faith says. “Can’t wait. How do we take him out?”

“Wait, hang on,” Buffy says. “Are you going to live that long? What aren’t you telling me?”

Willow, to her credit, doesn’t even blink. “A lot,” she says. She looks over at Faith. “You can’t march on him. You should do recon, though. And there might be a trap we can plant.”

Faith feels like there’s a fucking rock in her stomach. Slayers are soldiers, she thinks - they’re meant to fight vamps one by one. All of this scheming, with traps and big bads, was never her style. Only now she’s thrown into the thick of it.

She really, really doesn’t like it.

“Okay,” she says. “So, we’ve got some nasty still sucking energy from the Hellmouth. If that’s what it still is.”

Willow shakes her head. “We destroyed that,” she says. “It’s more…you know about the Devil’s Stomping Ground?”

“Sure.”

“There are a lot of sites like it, where magic went wrong, or something truly evil happened. I know, that’s not very descriptive, but what’s left of Sunnydale fits the bill. A massive sinkhole, the remnants of evil. And some wizard is living in the middle of it. A devil’s circle. There’s still energy there, and he’s using it.”

Faith’s ready to ride in, guns blazing, but she knows Buffy’s not down for that. She’s gearing up for the inevitable argument when Greta says, in a small voice, “What about us?”

Faith’s first instinct is to say ‘what about you?’, so she keeps her mouth shut. Buffy’s the one who says, gently, “We’re not going to let anything happen to you.”

“Neither are we,” Kennedy says. “We’ll stay behind and guard while Buffy and Faith do their thing.”

“Recon, you said,” Buffy says. “Dawn, can you look into this Jed guy? Do we have any more information on him?”

Willow shakes her head. She looks - older, Faith thinks; not physically, but there's something about her that speaks of age, more than she actually has. Faith can’t help but wonder if this Jed guy is going to be the same way.

“Just Jed,” Willow says. “But that, plus his magic, should get us somewhere.”

“Trust me, I’ve worked with a lot less,” Dawn says. “And about 90% of the Watchers’ archives are digitized, even. Magic and technology, working together.”

Buffy raises an eyebrow.

Dawn rolls her eyes. “I’m going, I’m going,” she says, and gets up.

“Faith,” Buffy says. “This could be bigger than we thought. Get us some weapons together. We’ll drive there - no, Will,” she says before Willow can argue. “Even if we’re just planting magical bugs, or whatever, I want us armed and ready for whatever’s guarding him. No one’s gone near Sunnydale in ages, as far as I can tell. There are spells - wards - keeping people away. That means he could have an army and we wouldn’t know. We’re driving, and we’re bringing weapons.”

It’s glaringly obvious that Willow knows better than to argue with Buffy when Buffy’s talking like that. She nods and says, “Then there’s just the matter of Isabelle.”

“Wait, what?” Faith says, as Small Fry says, “Why me?”

“She’s bound to you,” Willow says. “It was a trap - an aspect of the Slayer magic. If you guys die…”

Willow trails off, but Faith doesn’t need the imagery to get the point. “Guess you’d better work on breaking that linkage, Red,” Faith says. When Willow frowns, she says, “Don’t get salty with me, just do it. Small Fry doesn’t deserve to die, and me and Buffy have to get this done. There’s an obvious solution to all this, so we’re gonna take it.”

“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I agree with Faith,” Buffy says. “We’ll drive out after dinner. Until then, we need to prepare.”

The house gets tense after that, with everyone running around, either doing something useful or doing dumb shit to feel like they’re being useful. Faith, for her part, gets them crossbows, knives - poisoned and plain - stakes, the whole nine yards. Everything but guns. She wonders when that’ll change, when they’ll have to give in to modernity and just use a damn gun. She’s pretty sure B would rather die, but Faith’s absolutely positive she’s not gonna give Buffy that choice.

But that’s a problem for another day. Right now, their main problem is packing all of this shit into the Corolla they share for when they don’t feel like walking.

“Okay,” Faith says at a tense dinner. They’re all eating some seriously mediocre pasta, courtesy of Dawn. “This is what it looks like when things get serious,” she tells the baby Slayers. “I know you feel like you can’t handle it, and trust me, I don’t want to handle it. But Kennedy’s gonna be training you up, so guess what? You have to handle it whether you like it or not.”

“Stirring,” Buffy says from across the table. “Beautiful. Motivating, even.”

Faith flips her off. That makes the girls giggle and relax - which, as far as Faith is concerned, is better than the opposite.

Willow hands them her project after dinner. It’s a series of stones - river stones, Faith thinks, weighing one in her hand. Each is about the side of her palm, smooth and round and humming with power.

“These should help us monitor him,” Willow says. “Track his power signatures until we can find out what he’s up to.”

“And stop him,” Buffy says, eyes intent on Willow.

If Willow’s bothered by the psycho staring, she doesn’t let on. “And stop him,” she says with a firm nod.

Faith’s never been one for the touchy-feely aspects of being friends with the Scoobies, but even she can recognize when thanks are in order. “Thanks for not getting blown up by that bastard,” she says. “We’ll do our best to get this ball rolling.”

Willow looks surprised. Faith’s vaguely insulted. “Thanks, Faith.”

Faith nods, then looks over at Buffy. “Your ten suitcases in the car?”

“Oh my God, Faith, it’s one suitcase. You know this is a three-day drive, right?”

“Two, if we push it.”

“Three, if we’re smart and conserve our strength.”

“Whatever,” Faith says. “My duffel’s in the car, and you’re driving.”

Willow’s looking between them like she thinks something’s funny, so Faith’s careful to give her a nice, long look. “Something wrong?”

But that just makes Willow look even more amused. “Nope. Nope, everything’s fine.”

“Good,” Faith says, and she and Buffy leave. Faith exits the house first, actually, unwilling to hang around for the usual Summers come-back-or-I’ll-kill-you bonding talk.

Buffy spends half her time on the way out of Cleveland tapping the steering wheel like it’ll give up all of its secrets. Finally, Faith says, “You’ve got something on your mind.”

“We’ve brought down a lot of big bads,” Buffy says. “Killed - God, I don’t even know how many.”

Now’s probably not the time to let on that Faith does, in fact, know. “Yeah.”

“This feels different.”

“What tipped you off, the asshole named Jed or the baby Slayers?”

Buffy looks away from the road for long enough to glare at her. “You know what I mean.”

Faith does, actually, so she doesn’t give Buffy any more shit. Instead, she says, “Yeah. It does.”

“You think we’ll make it out?”

Faith shrugs. Then, remembering Buffy can’t see her, she says, “I think we’ll try. We’re both old as balls anyway.”

Buffy snorts. “Good point,” she says.

They hit the freeway going west. Buffy lets her foot down on the accelerator, just a little. Faith leans back and looks at the sky.

The fact of living in Cleveland is that once you get past the city limits, there’s maybe half an hour of suburbs before you’re in the middle of a bunch of fucking cornfields. They’ve mostly been harvested - it’s late enough in the year for that - so at least Faith can see the whole lot of nothing that comes past the cornfields. Lights in the distance, sometimes. Buffy’s got some alt rock station on, and Faith knows better than to argue with that. Instead, she shifts a little and closes her eyes.

“Mind if I sleep?”

“We’ll be stopping at a hotel soon,” Buffy says. “We’re not going all out on this, remember?”

“You’re ruining my road trip vibe, B.”

“Oh, how dare I. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself.”

Faith snorts. “Bitch.”

“Same to you.”

That’s true enough. Another couple miles go by. It’s getting dark now, with the most unimpressive sunset Faith’s ever seen.

She’s not sure what compels her to say, “Hey, why don’t you have a boyfriend?”

“Great time to bring this up, Faith,” Buffy says. If she sounded any more sarcastic she’d be - Faith doesn’t even know. Dawn, maybe. “Why don’t you?”

“Hit and quit, B. I don’t need a boyfriend.” But Buffy hasn’t dated for awhile, Faith thinks. Two or three years. It doesn’t make sense.

“I just…” Buffy sighs. “I got tired of guys who didn’t get it.”

“Some of the ones you dated knew you were a Slayer.”

“Sure, but they didn’t get what that means. It was just too much work, too many explanations. Too much compromise. So I just kind of - stopped.”

“Huh.” Faith can admit she hasn’t spent much time thinking about compromise in relationships. Why bother? She has to force herself to compromise with Buffy enough that she’d never have room for doing it with a boyfriend.

Or girlfriend. But hell no, Faith is not going down that road right now.

“Well,” she says finally, “for what it’s worth, all the guys you dated were saps, anyway.”

“Thanks, Faith. You really know how to comfort a girl.”

“That’s what they all tell me,” Faith says, with just enough innuendo that she thinks Buffy might actually pick up on it, for once.

But Buffy just laughs a little and changes lanes.

They stop at a Days Inn around ten. The guy looks at them weird when they request a double, probably because Faith hipchecks Buffy when she can’t get her credit card out, and flicks a bit of lint off Buffy’s jacket. She’s being handsy, which is definitely not what this mission needs, but the guy was looking at Buffy like -

Okay, Faith needs to back off. Even if Buffy doesn’t even seem to be noticing anything wrong.

“You wanna shower now or in the morning?” she says when they get up to the room. She drops her bag on the bed closest to the window; Buffy takes the one closest to the door, and lays out two stakes and a knife on the bedside table.

“I’ll do it in the morning,” Buffy says. “God, we barely did anything and I’m so tired.”

“Getting old,” Faith says. She goes into the bathroom to brush her teeth and change. “Next thing you know, you’ll be too old to patrol.”

From behind the mostly-closed door, Buffy groans. “I’ll be eighty and they’ll still have me patrolling. Giles’ ghost will haunt me until I get up and do it.”

Buffy’s been joking about Giles dying more lately. Faith’s not sure what to make of it. “That’s ‘cuz you’ll be a lazy-ass old person, B.” She brushes her teeth, then comes back out. “Bathroom’s yours.”

Ten minutes later, they’re both trying to go to sleep. Faith’s tapping her fingers on the back of her hand in a stacatto rhythm, and Buffy keeps sighing and turning over, like if she twists her sheets into a knot, it’ll be easier to fall asleep.

“Okay,” Buffy says finally, into the empty room. “Maybe I do, actually, need to patrol.”

“Hard to patrol at a glorified truck stop.”

“I know,” Buffy says, transparently frustrated.

“Do some pushups,” Faith says. “Worked for me in prison. Jumping jacks, too.”

“This might as well be a prison.” Buffy’s clearly pouting as she drops to the floor. “You’re not going to join me?” she says between reps.

“I’m not that desperate to go to sleep. I’ll drive tomorrow, though.”

“Great,” Buffy says. She keeps going until she’s clearly exhausted, then flops back into bed. “Jesus,” she says, breathing hard.

Faith’s forced herself into a mostly-meditative state, and now she says, “Yep. Welcome to prison.”

Buffy laughs breathily. Meditation is a real miracle worker; it means Faith manages to fall asleep without doing something embarrassing, like begging Buffy to fuck her.

She actually hates driving, and makes up for it the next day by blasting music. They’re driving through the who-the-fuck-cares part of the country, which - okay, Faith’s lived in Cleveland for the last ten years, so maybe she’s not one to talk. But there aren’t even Hellmouths out here.

“You worried about what we’ll find when we get there?” Faith says. They made a pit stop at McDonald’s for lunch, and she’s plucking nuggets off the console between them as she drives.

“Nah,” Buffy says. “What could possibly be worse than a hell-pit full of ubervamps?”

“Point. But, I don’t know, harnessing the Slayer magic? It was bad enough when I thought it was just some pissed-off witch, but a wizard with the kind of plan that involves harnessing old Hellmouth energy…”

“I know,” Buffy says. “Big-time scary. I’m not looking forward to it, but we can handle planting some recon stuff. Probably.”

Faith doesn’t need to be a mind-reader to know what Buffy’s not saying. “You brought all those weapons because you think he’s got an army.”

Buffy’s quiet for a couple miles. Faith waits her out.

“I think if you were going to hide an army, that’s the best place in the country to do it,” she finally says. “And I think if he does have an army, we might want to pick a few off before we go home.”

“Dead of the morning style?”

“Hit and run,” Buffy says. “You know how it goes.”

“I like how you think,” Faith says.

What she doesn’t say is that if the cloaking spells Willow gave them don’t hold, they might be in for a way bigger fight than staking a couple vamps in the morning light. It’s not really tactically wise for them both to be going, but - they needed to, Faith thinks. They’ve spent too long in Cleveland; they need to shake things up.

Or at least, that’s what she tells herself. The other option is that she’s just as much of a thrill-seeker as she was when she was sixteen, and since Faith’s a goddamn adult, that option isn’t even something she’s going to consider.

“Okay,” she says when they stop that night. They’re in North Platte, Nebraska, and should get into Sunnydale late the next day. They’ve been taking it easy, which is part of Faith’s suspicions about the whole old-Slayers-need-a-break thing, but she has to admit it’s nice. They haven’t traveled much since they settled in Cleveland; Topeka's really the farthest they've gone. That’s the magic of the Hellmouth, Faith guesses.

“Earth to Faith,” Buffy says, waving a hand in front of her face. “What were you going to say?”

Faith blinks. “No clue. At least this place has a gym?”

“Like the weight room will be worth writing home about,” Buffy says, but they go downstairs and have some fun anyway.

They switch off driving on the final day. There are still signs for Sunnydale fifty miles out, and Faith can’t help but think - has no one noticed? Does the magic really extend that far? She doesn’t remember if it was on the news much, people evacuating the town when it got really bad. If it was - and how could it not have been? - then what do people think happened to the town? Come to think of it, why was the National Guard never sent in?

When she asks Buffy, about thirty miles outside of Sunnydale, Buffy gets weirdly quiet. “The Hellmouth’s magic,” she says. “It was - protective of the First’s desire to do evil, is I guess the best way to put it.”

“Fuck that,” Faith says.

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Buffy smile narrowly.

They stop five miles from the city limits. Ahead is nothing but desert, mountains in the distance. Faith can’t tell if there’s still a nasty crater, or if their wizard friend has gotten rid of that. Though it’d be a hell of a trick to fill a crater like that in.

And, obviously, she’s fixating on the crater because she doesn’t want to deal with what they might find when they get closer to Sunnydale.

“Walk on foot from here?” Faith says when they stop. “Harder to detect than a car with Ohio plates.”

Buffy nods. “God, it’s so warm.”

It’s October, which for California means it’s no longer hellishly hot. “Got that right,” Faith says, and gets out of the car. “Let’s motor.”

“Or walk,” Buffy says, with the look that means she thinks she’s being funny. Faith rolls her eyes and tosses Buffy a crossbow.

It’s eerily deserted. Stretches of the highway out here can be like this, but this is beyond that. Faith’s pretty sure if they weren’t who they are, they wouldn’t have even made it this far. They would’ve turned around at the last gas station, with an overwhelming feeling that they should change their course.

It’s creepy as fuck.

A mile from the crater, they see it. A spire rising out of the crater, twisting and sinuous. It looks like an office building, almost, except an office building from hell.

Faith stops. The spire only reaches maybe four stories above the crater, but that means it has to be a good hundred stories high in total.

And, more importantly, there’s no way for them to approach without being seen, if Willow’s spell doesn’t hold.

“We can plant the spell stuff at the edge of the crater,” Buffy says in a low voice. She’s obviously feeling the same way Faith is about this. “And then get the hell out of here.”

“If he’s got an army -”

“It’s either invisible or farther down,” Buffy says. “Good for us. I wasn’t sure what we’d find, but this -”

“I know,” Faith says. “This is beyond.”

“Let’s go,” Buffy says. “The sooner we get this done, the better.”

They split up and plant the devices a mile wide, all around their side of the crater. When they’re done and back together, Buffy says, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

“Not sso fast,” says a voice in the air.

Faith raises her crossbow. Buffy does the same, and they move back-to-back - but no one’s there.

“I felt you,” the voice says. “Creeping around my crater. Do you like what you ssaw?”

A wave of relief rushes over Faith. He might have seen them, and they might be about to die, but he didn’t realize what they were doing.

“Just checking out the place,” Buffy says. “I’m thinking of getting a vacation house here, you know, before property values get too high.”

This guy's, or thing’s, laugh is seriously unpleasant. Faith winces as he says, “Cute. It will be a pleassure to watch you die. But firsst…a taste of what the Sslayer magic is really for.”

The spell hits them out of nowhere, and Faith doubles over in pain. She doesn’t drop her crossbow because she’s not a fucking rookie, but she does yell, her voice swallowed up by the desert, overlaid by Buffy’s own yelling. It goes on forever, or for five minutes - it’s pretty fucking hard to tell. But then the pain lets up, and the voice doesn’t say anything else.

“Faith,” Buffy says, voice tight. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Agreed,” Faith says. They book it, running as fast as they can. Which is pretty fucking fast, because they might not be at the peak of their lives, but they’re still spry.

Faith distracts herself with thoughts like that until they’re back in the car and Buffy is going 105 away from Sunnydale. “What the fuck was that?” Faith says finally, when she can think past the terror.

“I don’t know,” Buffy says. “My guess is that he cursed us with the Slayer magic, but -”

Faith knows exactly where Buffy’s going with this. “We’re already Slayers. What’s it gonna do to us?”

“I don’t know,” Buffy says. Or at least, Faith hears her saying it. But Buffy’s mouth doesn’t move.

“Buffy,” Faith says slowly. “Did you just say something?”

Her mouth moves when she says, “What? No. I thought something.”

Faith looks straight ahead and thinks, Can you hear me?

Buffy swerves. Luckily, it’s still deserted out here. “Faith, what the hell.”

Faith laughs in spite of herself, hollow and crazy-sounding. “Congrats, B,” she says out loud. “He just made all the weird things we’ve been feeling lately worse.”

Buffy’s white as a sheet, but she’s never been one to back down from a calamity. She says, every word slow and deliberate, “We are not going to talk about this. We are going to get as far away from Sunnydale as possible, and we’re going to stop at another motel, and we’re going to call Willow. She’ll need to reinforce the magic on those rocks - or make it more subtle, I don’t know. But he can’t know they’re there.”

“Agreed,” Faith says. “Psychic weirdness later, driving now. I got you.”

“Good,” Buffy says, and speeds up just a little more.

She has to slow down as they return to civilization, but they’re still halfway to Iowa before they stop, at almost 2 AM.

Faith’s been able to feel Buffy’s emotions for about seven hours now, which is great - maybe this curse, or whatever it is, is degenerative. So she knows that Buffy’s upset, and she knows Buffy doesn’t want to talk about it. That’s fine by Faith, really; Faith’s not the chatty type, and she definitely doesn’t need a discussion to know they’re in some deep shit. She’s fine.

“You want to talk,” Buffy says quietly from the other bed.

“Huh?”

“I can feel it,” Buffy says. “You want to talk.”

It hits Faith suddenly: she’s going to have to be really fucking careful about what she lets Buffy hear. See. Whatever.

“I’m not a chatty Cathy, B,” she says. “Relax.”

“I just - I don’t know what there is to talk about.” Buffy sounds more than a little frustrated, which, Faith can’t blame her. “It’s possible he can control us now. We were so fucking stupid, and for what? Some listening devices.” She laughs hollowly. “And now we’re stuck.”

So much for not talking about it. “Look, B, you know that’s not true,” Faith says. “Well, most of it’s not true. We are in deep shit, but we’ve been in deep shit before. We’ll figure it out. And we’re not gonna have any useful information on how this curse works until we talk to Willow, anyway.”

“How do you know we’ll figure it out?” Buffy says.

“Shit, it’s that or die,” Faith says. “And I’m too young to die.”

Buffy’s silent, but the raging storm of feelings, or whatever it is that’s going on, dies down a little. Faith closes her eyes and tries to go to sleep. She can feel, if she concentrates, the bond with Buffy - a weird, glowing rope exiting her mind. She builds up as much of a shield as she can, wrapping it around the parts of her feelings, her stupid crushes, that she’s absolutely not going to let Buffy see. She can handle this sudden onset of psychic powers. She totally can. As long as Buffy doesn’t try to pry her brain open, and then never talk to Faith again out of sheer disgust, they’ll be fine.

Probably, Faith thinks. Most likely. There’ll be hell to pay if they’re not, anyway.

The thought of hell to pay cheers her up a little. She goes to sleep imagining fighting that fucker’s entire army, and sending his spire tumbling back into the crater, where it deserves to be.

They talk to Willow the next day, so when they get home at night, she’s waiting for them with a serious face on. “Small Fry?” Faith says, dropping her bags in the living room.

“Out with Kennedy,” Willow says. “The other girls are in bed.”

“Which is good, ‘cause I don’t know how much you want people to know about your whole psychic bond thing,” Dawn says.

Faith flops down on the couch. She can feel the tension coming from Buffy, bleeding through the shitty shields they’ve constructed. She also doesn’t miss that Buffy sits like Faith, not all pulled together the way she normally would. Christ, they’re in some deep shit.

“I don’t see what the point is,” Buffy says. “Of letting them know, I mean.”

“Ashamed of me, B?” Faith says, a little more sharply than she means to.

“Of course not,” Buffy snaps. Anger washes through the bond, like a bright light. “I just - they have enough to worry about.”

“Before we get all fighty,” Willow says, “let me see if I can break it, okay? Then no more living in each other’s heads.”

“Yeah, you guys are married enough already - jeez, sorry,” Dawn says when they both glare at her.

“Dawn, grab me a Luna bar from my bag, would you?” Willow says. “I might go into a trance. I want to eat first.”

“You eat Luna bars, seriously?” Faith says. “Does the irony ever get to you?”

Buffy rolls her eyes, but Faith’s surprised to feel a spark of amusement from her. But then Buffy blinks and the feeling is gone.

Someone doesn’t want to be living in Faith’s head. Well, that’s fair; neither does Faith, half the time.

“Sure, but it’s still delicious. Thanks,” Willow says when Dawn hands one to her. She eats it quickly, then holds out her hands. “Both of you, hold onto me. This might hurt.”

“It hurt like hell the first time,” Faith says.

“You’ve mentioned,” Willow says, and then her eyes go black.

Faith’s never actually been laid out on an examination table and dissected, even when they had that one mad scientist who wanted to use Slayer blood to create an elixir of life. But if she had been, she figures this is pretty much what it’d feel like. She feels laid bare, and it hurts - but she’s a goddamn Slayer, the second oldest Slayer in the world, so she clutches at the arm of the couch with one hand and a couch cushion with the other, and grits her teeth, staring into space.

“Oh,” she hears Willow say. It sounds like she’s saying it from far away. Intense pain is fun, Faith thinks. “This is…wow.”

“Very comforting, Will,” Buffy says.

Faith reaches out. It’s only half-conscious, but she barely gets her hand moved before Buffy’s grabbing it, their fingers lacing together. She can’t break Buffy, and that makes her relax a little, even as she clutches Buffy’s hand so hard it hurts them both.

After what feels like forever, Willow says, “Okay.” The magical pressure fades, and the black spots dancing in Faith’s vision slowly disappear. Faith looks down at her and Buffy’s joined hands, arms stretching across the couch, and lets go quickly.

“Break it to me, doc,” she says, forcing a smile. “How bad is it?”

“Not as bad as it could be,” Willow says. “Which is good, I guess. It doesn’t have the compulsion the other Slayers have. The darkness - it’s just not there.”

“Any guess as to why?” Buffy says.

“You already had demon magic in you,” Willow says. “A pure kind of demon, obviously, with the demony parts mostly burned out -”

“Mostly?” Faith says.

Buffy raises her eyebrows. “Do we really need a rehash of senior year?”

She’s got a point, but it still stings. “Whatever,” Faith says.

“Anyway,” Willow says, full kindergarten-teacher voice on, “my point was, it looks like your magic mostly absorbed the curse - or spell, whatever you want to call it. The remainder is this bond.”

“So, bad magic, magic goes wonky, now Faith can read my mind.”

“It’s not that bad,” Faith says. “Mostly. We’ve both figured out blocking.”

“Finally all of those times staring at crystals with Giles pays off,” Buffy says. “Can you remove it?”

“Not without leaving myself wide open for the curser to possess me,” Willow says. “This guy is drawing from some of the most powerful energy in the world. I’d need to connect with two, maybe three covens before I had that kind of juice.”

“And that’s for when we marshal an army and go after this guy.”

Willow twists her mouth and nods. “Something like that.”

“Okay,” Buffy says. Her vision goes distant for a minute, and Faith can hear her mind working. Or feel it, whatever. Then Buffy stands up.

“Dawn,” she says. “We need your researching here. Willow, I want you to put Greta and Keisha on a plane. Send them up to Chicago with Robin and Kennedy. You stay with us for now. Faith and I are going to patrol. My guess is this guy will want to test his experiment, and everyone knows where we live. I’ll eat my socks if he’s not going to throw some nasties at us in the next few weeks. We need to be ready for anything - vampire lord, demigod, twisty gross demon. Anything.”

“What about Small Fry?” Faith says. She’s still lounging on the couch, as different from Buffy’s ramrod-straight general posture as possible.

“Isabelle stays with us,” Buffy says. “She’s somewhat trained, and vicious. I want her to keep developing.”

And we like her, Faith thinks. She doesn’t mean to project it, but Buffy’s eyes narrow in a way that makes it obvious she did.

“Sounds good to me,” Faith says. “Let’s get moving.”

Faith feels kind of bad about sending Greta and Keisha off having barely spoken to them, but Robin and Kennedy will take good care of them. Now that she’s no longer on a permanent ego trip, Kennedy’s a decent person, and Robin’s always been solid. Plus, it means that their 4-bedroom is full, but not overflowing. And as on edge as Faith is with a full house, Buffy’s apparently been borderline flashing back to their time trying to figure out how to fight the First, which is definitely bad. So, all told, when the house is emptier two days later, it’s really fucking nice.

“You know, when I was with the Watchers, I got up at 5 AM,” Dawn says as they eat a noon breakfast.

“Oh, really?” Buffy says. “Did you also kill dozens of vampires every night, therefore making the world safer for normal people?”

“Hah, hah,” Dawn says. “I’m just saying, I used to be normal. Relatively.”

“Normal’s overrated,” Willow says. She flips another pancake. Faith doesn’t know how to feel about her housekeeping duties being taken over. Willow’s even paying rent this time, but she keeps insisting Faith needs all her time to train.

Okay, that’s probably true. But still.

“I’ve never been normal,” she says, taking a massive bite of her triple stack.

“We’re all well aware,” Buffy says.

There’s a flash of - affection? - but then Buffy locks that shit down. That’s been happening a lot. Both of them forget to keep their shields up, then one of them has a feeling, and they shut that shit down. Faith’s gonna kill this wizard.

“Okay,” Willow says, sitting down with her pancakes. “So what’s our agenda for today, exactly?”

“I’m incredibly not happy to tell you guys that last night, Faith and I heard rumors of a vampire moving in,” Buffy says. “Big, nasty, powerful. The works. We’ll have to check it out tonight.”

“And hopefully stake the sucker before he can build up a power base,” Faith says. “We’re also training Small Fry.”

“I’m going through some documents Giles sent me,” Dawn says. “The Watcher’s Council has records on a zillion wizards, and records of only some of them dying. It’s a little bit of a needle in a haystack situation.”

“Find me that needle,” Buffy says. “Will?”

“Oh, the usual. Reinforcing the watching spells, analyzing the magic they pick up.” Willow smiles wanly. It’s been stressing her out, Faith knows, and probably killing her magic reserves, too. Hopefully this vamp lord or whoever it is won’t require magic to take out.

“Sounds good,” Buffy says. “Faith, you want to go wake Isabelle up?”

Isabelle might be not even out of middle school yet - and jeez, they need to figure something out, education-wise - but she sleeps like Faith did in high school.

“Sure thing,” Faith says, and goes upstairs.

Small Fry inhales breakfast, and then thirty minutes later, they’re all down in the training room. “What do you want to do today?” Buffy asks Isabelle.

Isabelle looks at Buffy with what Faith’s starting to think of as her typical suspicion. “What do you think I should do?”

“I’m totally your teacher, don’t get me wrong,” Buffy says, “but sometimes self-directed stuff is good, don’t you think?”

“That’s not how you were trained,” Isabelle says. “Dawn gave me old Slayer diaries.”

“Yeah, Watchers have been dicks pretty much since the dawn of time,” Faith says. “But that’s not how we run things anymore. Me and Buffy have personally trained nine Slayers since we moved here. You’re the tenth.”

“We’re good at what we do; only one of them’s died since we sent them out to their posts,” Buffy says. “We let you decide what you want to learn, within reason, because that way you won’t try a move during battle that you’re not ready for.”

“I can handle myself in a fight,” Isabelle says.

“Sure you can,” Faith says. “So can I. But I still learn from Buffy.”

Isabelle looks between them. She’s suddenly got a devious look on her face, one Faith is definitely not a fan of. That look says that she’s got some kind of idea that Faith and Buffy aren’t gonna like.

“You two fight,” Small Fry says.

Score one for Faith thinking ahead.

“Excuse me?” Buffy says.

Her tone is so icy that a lesser brat would cower away from it, but Small Fry just says, “You said you learn from each other, so I’ll learn too. I want to watch you spar.”

Buffy and Faith haven’t spoken psychically since that first day. Faith thinks it’s pretty weird, and Buffy’s just flat-out freaked out by it, so they’ve been avoiding it. When Buffy looks over at Faith, though, it’s easy to guess what she’s thinking.

“Let’s do it,” Faith says. “Staffs?”

Buffy shakes her head. “Isabelle likes knives.”

Faith can feel the beginnings of a grin. It’s a dangerous smile, a 'come and get me”' smile. “Oh, yeah? You’re bad with knives, B.”

“I can hold my own.” Buffy pulls two knives from the wall and tosses one to Faith. The blades are barely dulled, but Faith catches it easily by the handle.

“Come at me, then,” Faith says.

Buffy does.

If Faith was ever in a position to watch Buffy fight, not have to fight herself, and be a sappy fuck about it, she’d call Buffy beautiful. Most of the time when Faith watches Buffy fight, it’s when they’re on the tail end of dusting some vamps, and Faith’s too busy wondering if she broke a rib. Right now, Buffy’s coming at her, but it’s - incredible, really, watching her slash and kick, even as Faith blocks and dodges.

“Faith’s on the defensive right now,” Buffy says. She sounds incredibly calm for someone who’s kicking Faith’s ass. “We’re only playing for three bloodings, which means I won’t be slicing her arm open today -”

“Today?” Faith says, and darts in. She almost manages to get Buffy’s shoulder, but at the last minute, Buffy drops and rolls.

“Today,” Buffy says. “But it takes more skill to fight to a certain injury point than to just kill someone. So pay attention to what we do.”

“And by the way,” Faith says, “I was on the defensive because I was distracted.” She knocks Buffy’s arm away, clips her under the chin with her free fist, and touches the tip of her blade to Buffy’s neck. “One for me. Small Fry, keep score.”

Isabelle doesn’t answer. Maybe she’s creeped out; people often are when she and Buffy do this. History and whatnot. Mostly, Faith thinks it’s fun. Not being stabbed in the stomach at the end is a nice perk, too.

“Faith’s in close, and could kill me right now,” Buffy says. She launches forward and headbutts Faith.

“Fuck,” Faith says, taking a step back. She moves to block Buffy’s thrust, but not before Buffy gets her blade against Faith’s shoulder.

“One,” Buffy says calmly, and steps back, circling Faith with her knife held high.

Knife fighting is something Faith did way back in the day, and she falls back into the rhythm easily now. Thrust and parry, jump and turn - dancing with Buffy is as easy as breathing, and she can tell from the spark in the back of her mind that Buffy feels the same way.

Buffy gets to three first, rolling Faith on the ground and pressing the knife against the small of her back. Faith shivers, just barely - but Buffy backs off right away.

“Three,” she says, voice a little hoarse.

“Congrats, B.” Faith hops to her feet and tosses Buffy the knife. Buffy puts both knives away, and Faith turns to Isabelle. “What’d you learn?”

“You’re both scary,” Isabelle says. “Also, you use a lot of hitting with the knives.”

“That’s because a knife isn’t something you can just wave around and hope for good results with,” Buffy says. “It’s a tool, and as such, it should be an extension of yourself. The knife isn’t separate from your arm. It’s a part of your arm.”

“What B’s trying to say is, use the knife like you’d use your nails,” Faith says. “Only, you know. Pointier.”

“Exactly,” Buffy says. “Now: staff work. Faith, do you mind making lunch?”

“Lunch” is actually almost dinner, but Faith catches Buffy’s meaning. “Sure thing,” she says, and goes upstairs.

She makes grilled cheese, trying to calm down - and keep the fact that she needs to calm down far away from Buffy. So what if she was kind of turned on by Buffy’s knife at the small of her back? Faith’s slept with tons of guys, and girls too, who were into all kinds of weird shit. The guy with the bullwhip was the least of it. She’s slept with people who wanted her to hold loaded guns against their heads, for God’s sake - two of them, states apart. It’s not weird to get turned on by someone pressing a knife against her skin.

Yeah, sure, she thinks. And the longer she insists to herself that it’s the knife and not Buffy, the better.

When Isabelle and Buffy emerge from the basement, she feeds them and kicks back with a bottle of water. Isabelle wolfs the food down, then goes to the counter without asking and bogarts two of their three bananas. Faith thinks about giving her shit, but she’s pretty sure this is a test, in a way, and she’s not gonna be the one responsible for sending the kid scurrying back downstairs. So she doesn’t comment on it, saying instead, “Another hour of balance and conditioning, and then we call it quits? I need a nap before we patrol.”

Buffy nods.

“Great,” Faith says. Silence falls again. Damn it, Faith needs to look away from Buffy and not notice the way her lips curl around her bottle of water, or the little drops of sweat on her neck. It’s old sweat. She probably smells like ass. Faith is just - not going there.

She finishes her water and says, “I’ll meet you guys downstairs.” After five minutes of side planks and handstands, she sees Isabelle coming downstairs.

“Buffy’s finishing outside,” Isabelle says.

Faith sighs and flips upright. “She always freaks the neighbors out when she does that. Oh, well. How do you feel about squats?”

“About what?”

“Damn, do you have a lot to learn,” Faith says, and grabs a weighted barbell. “Let’s go.”

Faith and Buffy go patrolling alone that night. They leave Small Fry at home, mostly because if there’s a big nasty in town, they don’t want to be towing a kid along when they run into him. Or her, but vampire big nasties tend to be guys. Faith figures it’ll be another couple generations before feminism hits vamps.

“We could use our scary mind talk,” Faith says. “Be more stealthy.”

“I’d rather not,” Buffy says.

Her tone is quelling, but Faith’s been living with Buffy for ten years, and knows better than to pay attention to that tone. She spreads her arms. “C’mon, B. We have a new superpower and you don’t even wanna test it out.”

“You’re right,” Buffy says, “I don’t. Nothing good can come from me being in your head. Or you being in mine.”

“Damn.” Faith drops her arms. “This really is fucking you up.”

“I’m sorry, is this feelings talk time? I could’ve sworn it was hunt the bad guys time.”

“Mix and match,” Faith says. “But if you don’t wanna talk about it, I’ll leave you alone.”

“Okay, who are you and what have you done with Faith?”

“You’re not the only one who’s allowed to grow up, B. I’m old enough, I can wait you out ‘till you either tell me or a therapist.”

“God, therapists.”

They’d both tried it for awhile, but as it turns out, Watcher-trained therapists are just as incompetent as most other aspects of the old Watcher’s Council. Maybe in a few more years they can go back. “I’m sayin’,” Faith says.

They stake a few vamps who don’t know anything about a big new player in town. They’ve wandered for almost two miles by the time Buffy says, “I just - I felt so helpless against the First. I lost it, multiple times. I felt like everyone was asking me for things I wasn’t ready for. And now I’m old and I should have it together more, but I still feel like I don’t know anything.”

Oh, Christ. They really are going to talk about this.

“Look,” Faith says. “We were a train wreck that year, okay? I helped kick you out of your house. We were a mess. But we’re not actually that old, and we haven’t really had to direct people like that since it happened. It would’ve been nice to have a dry run, you know? But we don’t. So we have to figure it out.”

“Thanks. Inspiring.”

“Fuck off,” Faith says, with a sudden wave of feeling. “You’re not alone, okay? Leaving aside the fact that you’re in my head, we’ve worked together for a decade, B. I’m not just gonna back off and throw you to the wolves. We’re going to kill this bastard forever, and then get Willow to ward the crater so hard no one even remembers Sunnydale ever existed. You hear me?”

She doesn’t realize until she stops talked that they’re no longer walking, and that they’re almost nose to nose. Faith steps back quickly, breathing just a little harder than the situation warrants.

Buffy’s looking at her like she’s never seen her before. “Yeah,” she says finally. “Yeah, I hear you.”

“Good,” Faith says. She grits her teeth. “Let’s go find a sucker and squeeze the truth from him. I want to figure out what idiot thinks they can move in on our town.”

Lucky them, the next vamp they find is a guy dressed like a disco DJ. Buffy holds a stake against his chest, and Faith squeezes his neck. “How about you tell us who’s moved in?”

“Listen, I don’t know what you guys are talking about,” he says in a Boston accent that sounds fake as fuck.

“That’s great, pal,” Faith says. “Buffy?”

“On it,” Buffy says, and increases the stake pressure.

This guy’s a sucker - metaphorically, not vampirically. He caves and says, “It’s a woman, a vampire. Her name’s Gigli. People worship her, have for years. She has acolytes, dozens of them. And she’s going to rule Cleveland, have your heads on -”

“That’s enough,” Buffy says. “Where’s her hideout?”

“On Prospect, by the arena. A nice condo. Please -”

Buffy stakes him.

“A vampire goddess?” Buffy says as they dust off their hands. “I figured vampires were too narcissistic for that.”

“And too demony,” Faith says. “The night’s young, you wanna check it out?”

“Sure,” Buffy says. They change direction and head towards Prospect. “Gigli, like the movie? That movie sucked.”

“I didn’t think it was that bad.”

“When did you watch it?”

“On a date, after we got to Cleveland,” Faith says. “The guy sucked, though. Cut a hole in the popcorn.”

“You’re kidding.”

“If only, B. If only.”

Buffy snorts. “Well, it wasn’t good. You’re lying about that.”

Faith cracks up. “I’m lying about the whole thing.”

“You -” Buffy punches her shoulder.

But things relax a little between them after that, because it’s proof they can still lie to each other.

Prospect is nothing but condos, and by the arena, the condos just get a little nicer. Theoretically, the vamp goddess - or whatever she is - could be in any of them, but Faith’s done some tracking like this before, and she knows what to look for. “How about it?” she says, nodding to a vacant building with an overhang. “Climb up top, watch the whole street?”

“You do this building,” Buffy says. “I saw another one awhile back. We’ll cover more ground that way.”

“And if I see suspiciously pale guys going in and out of a building?”

Buffy smiles, sharply. “You’re the one who wants to use the bond.”

“Noted,” Faith says, feeling weirdly stung. Buffy’s smile stays fixed in place as she jogs down the street.

Faith would break into the building if that was her only option, though it looks like it might have security, abandoned and all. But she doesn’t need to. She jumps five feet into the air to catch the bottom of the fire escape and climbs up to the roof that way.

Once she’s settled, she instantly wishes she had some snacks. Pork rinds, even some of Buffy’s frou-frou fat-free Greek yogurt. Anything to distract her while she scans the street, overly alert, looking for any sign of vamps.

She doesn’t see anything. Not a mugging, not vamps, not some weird energy aura that makes their target obvious, simple though that would be. But the minutes stretch into an hour, and then two, and Faith is itching to play Angry Birds or something, but she can’t. She has to watch.

Midway through the third hour, Buffy speaks in her mind. I’ve got it. Yellow limestone building, 515 Prospect Ave. Get here quickly.

Faith would point out that she doesn’t need the high-handed instructions, thanks, but that would take too much time. She silently climbs down to the street and jogs to the address. Buffy’s waiting across the street, in the darkness - Faith wouldn’t be able to see her if she couldn’t also feel her. Faith casually jogs down to the next block, then turns into the alleys behind those buildings, looping back. Buffy’s waiting for her in the alley.

“What’s the what?” Faith says quietly.

Buffy motions for her to come forward, until they’re in the shadows just across the street from the condo building. I don’t know which floor she’s on - we’ll need to follow them in.

Faith surveys the building. Yellow limestone, like Buffy said; balconies, big picture windows. But the curtains on the top floor are drawn, and there’s light coming through them despite the fact that it’s almost one in the morning on a weeknight. Don’t think we need to. Top floor.

Yeah, thanks, this is not my first day on the job. I still want to make absolutely sure.

What do you want to do, climb through the air ducts?

Catch a vamp, follow them to the door, abduct them, have Willow help us.

Faith’s always down for some magical vamp torture, moral ambiguity aside. Sure thing, B. What about -

Voices in the alley. Faith goes on autopilot, grabbing Buffy and pressing her against the wall, kissing her.

Alarm bells are going off in Faith’s head, from both herself and Buffy. Buffy tastes sweet, her lip gloss is sticky, and Faith can’t even enjoy this, because she’s busy listening to the vampires approach.

“…gonna have to tell her it can’t be done - what the fuck?”

Faith breaks away from Buffy. “Oh!” She doesn’t even have to fake being a little out of breath. “Hey, where’s Club 44? I could’ve sworn the DJ said Prospect, by the arena, but I was so fuckin’ wasted, man, who even knows.”

One of the vamps gets his face on. “Run,” he growls.

Buffy and Faith are all too happy to oblige. When they get a mile away, Faith slows down. “They didn’t bring us to her, and they didn’t kill us. Why?”

“Unless they have vamp super-sense, it’s not because we’re Slayers.” Buffy licks her lips. Faith very deliberately doesn’t watch her. “That says long con.”

“What can’t be done?” Faith says. “God, I hate the tricky cases.”

“We could just burn the condo down.” Buffy sounds like she’s half considering it.

“Too high profile,” Faith says. “Let’s go home. We’ll get Red to see if there are any records of vampire goddesses, or call Giles or something.”

“Calling Giles is definitely a good idea,” Buffy says. “I think if we give Will more work, she might turn us into toads.”

“Desperate times, man.”

Buffy doesn’t answer until they’ve walked another mile and are a few blocks from home. “So that’s what this is, huh?”

“What?” Faith’s been thinking about how you might go about killing a vampire demigod.

“Desperate times.”

Faith snorts. “C’mon, B, when hasn’t it been desperate times with us?”

“We’ve had some peaceful times.”

Faith slants Buffy a suspicious look.

“A few,” Buffy says. “Here and there.”

“Sure thing,” Faith says. “Anyway, we’re not that desperate.” Yet, she doesn’t say.

“Either way,” Buffy says, “we’ll get someone looking up vampire demigods. In the meantime, stakeout tomorrow? Willow can go out with Isabelle - she can fry a vampire if Isabelle’s in trouble. I think we need to figure out what this vampire’s doing in our city.”

Buffy always gets like this, intense and protective. Faith never has the heart to point out that there’s not a vamp in the world who takes the ‘our city’ stuff seriously.

“Sounds good,” Faith says. “I’m sleeping in tomorrow. Stakeouts aren’t my style.”

“More fighting and fucking?”

Faith’s breath catches a little. There’s no good fucking reason for her to remember kissing Buffy right now, she tells herself. No goddamn reason.

“Something like that,” she manages to say. She even sounds light. Uncaring.

She maintains that illusion until she’s home and in her own bed. She’d jerk off or something, get Buffy out of her system, but she falls asleep altogether too quickly.

They Skype with Giles the next day. It’s better to conserve Willow’s magic, and Skype works just fine for them.

“We don’t know much past her name,” Buffy says. “Or - anything about her, actually, except she likes condos and wants impossible things. Name’s Gigli. And vampires worship her.”

“Well.” Giles adjusts his glasses. “A surname would certainly help, but I can’t imagine there are many vampire demigods just wandering the streets of North America. I’ll have my people look into it.”

“Sounds good,” Buffy says. “How are you?”

They’re in Buffy’s room, and Faith knows this is her cue to skedaddle. She rolls off the bed and leaves without comment.

If she’s beating up a punching bag in the basement after that, who cares? Giles is Buffy’s father figure, not Faith’s. Faith doesn’t have - or need - a father. Buffy and Giles will talk, and then maybe Buffy will stop freaking out about how she’s a bad leader or whatever, and things will go back to normal. More or less. Hopefully more; the whole vampire goddess thing seems to point to less.

Faith punches the bag some more, then goes upstairs for lunch.

She’s surprised when they get a call around eight that night, right before she and Buffy leave for patrol. She can hear Giles say, on the phone with Buffy, “Put me on speaker, please.” Buffy obeys wordlessly.

“Hey, Giles,” Faith says.

“Hello, Faith. Who else am I speaking with?”

“Dawn and Willow,” Dawn says. Isabelle’s still getting ready in the basement.

“Ah, excellent. Hello to you all. The vampire you’re dealing with is named Georgia Lemaire. She’s a noted mass murderer from the time of the French Revolution. In the late 1800s, vampires began worshipping her, ostensibly because of her ability to kill without touching. Rumors of her powers are elevated in modern times, though it’s unclear whether the worship has in fact enhanced whatever power she may have. Either way, she’s killed three Slayers and untold numbers of people.”

“Great,” Buffy says. “And here I was hoping you were going to say she’s here to open a Build-A-Bear factory.”

“Do we kill her like the normal vamps?” Faith says.

“Yes; she’s not old enough for anything else. Staking, beheading, fire, and sun.”

“Thanks,” Faith says. “Email us all the details?”

“Dawn should already have it.”

“Great,” Buffy says. “Seriously, thank you.”

“Of course, Buffy. Please let me know how it goes.”

“I will,” Buffy says.

Faith gets the feeling there would be some father-daughter platitudes normally, but right now, Buffy just says, “We’ll talk to you later,” and hangs up.

“So,” Faith says into the uncomfortable silence. “She’s a jumped-up vampire who people think is a god. Shouldn’t be too hard to handle.”

“Is no one else worried about the whole 'killing without touching' thing?” Buffy says. “Because, not to speak for everyone else, but I am pretty worried.”

“We’ll deal with it when we come to it,” Faith says. “Maybe it’s only vamps, or only humans. Who knows?”

“We’re human,” Buffy says, a little too sharply.

“Sure,” Faith says. “But we’re not only human.”

“Okay,” Willow says brightly. “Dawn’s going to go over the files Giles sent. Why don’t you guys do some patrolling? Isabelle wants to go down to the docks, so anywhere but there should work.”

Faith’s half tempted to protest, like she’s some kind of mad parent at the PTA. Not that Faith knows anything about the PTA, really. Instead of protesting, she just says, “Sure, whatever. Maybe we’ll get lucky and she’ll leave the condo alone.”

“Jump and kill?” Buffy says. “I guess stranger things have happened.”

“Yeah, but like, never to you guys,” Dawn says. “I’ll read the files and tell you how to do it the hard way in the morning.”

“Thanks,” Buffy says. She stands up and hugs Dawn. “Faith, suit up. We’re going out.”

“I’m already suited up, Captain America,” Faith says. “Change into non-heeled boots and we’re golden.”

“I like these boots,” Buffy says, a distinct whine to her voice.

“And yet, you’re not as young as you used to be. I don’t want to hear you bitching about how much your back hurts in the morning. Change.”

Buffy goes upstairs to change. Faith looks away from her, and sees Dawn and Willow looking at her with some seriously fucking annoying knowing glances.

“What?” Faith says. “She would bitch, you know I’m right.”

“Uh-huh,” Willow says. “Have a good patrol.”

Faith sneers, deliberately putting on a little bit of her usual evil-bitch persona. “We always do.”

They don’t bother to pretend they’re not planning on staking out Gigli’s place; they walk straight for it. They’re about halfway there when Buffy says, “You don’t really think Gigli is a good movie, right? That was a joke.”

“Damn,” Faith says. “All the bullshit I say, and this is what you stick on?”

“Gigli was a seriously bad movie.”

Faith rolls her eyes. “I like bad movies, bad TV, bad food, and bad books. You got a problem with that, Miss Dawson’s Creek?”

“I’m not answering that,” Buffy says. She sounds like she’s taken classes, Dignity For Valley Girls 101.

Faith snorts and doesn’t answer. She doesn’t need any fucking dignity.

Gigli’s apartment is as lively-looking as ever. They loiter a few buildings down, watching for vamp activity. Faith’s still down for kidnapping, and there are other ways to do recon. Such as - “You want to try and get on her roof?”

“I’m not going to take it for granted that she wouldn’t hear us,” Buffy says. “And that condo could have a nest of ten, fifteen. You never know. She might’ve rented lower floors, too.”

“Sure, and all the ‘kill without touching’ stuff might not be the total horseshit it sounds like, but let’s not hold our breaths.”

“Faith.”

“I know, I know,” Faith says. “I’ll lay off. But -”

“We should be watching,” Buffy says. “I know. So how about the gentleman in the cape?”

“You’re joking,” Faith says, but she turns to follow the direction Buffy’s pointing in. Sure enough, there’s some jackass in a cape walking towards Gigli’s condo.

“There’s a man who thought Gigli was a good movie,” Faith mutters. “You want to deal with him?”

“Believe me, I’d love to,” Buffy says. She cracks her knuckles and leaves the alley.

Faith leans against the wall and watches Buffy work. Quip, charming smile, fake-helpless act…somehow, it works on mid-thirties Buffy just as well as it did on teenage Buffy. Maybe Buffy’s got a painting somewhere. Nah, if she did, she’d be rubbing it in to Faith more. Buffy’s just -

Faith isn’t going to keep thinking about this. No. No fucking way.

Less than five minutes later, Buffy’s got a garrote around the vampire’s neck and is leading him over to Faith. “Honey, I’m home,” Buffy says. “Should we make him talk here, or at home?”

The guy’s big, and looks like he’s trying to figure out a way to give Buffy and Faith the slip. The last thing they need is their descriptions getting back to Gigli, so Faith says, “Willow’s probably better at the whole torture thing than me, but I’ve had my practice. Pull him to the back, we’ll do him there.”

Buffy drags the guy to the back alley and shoves him into the dirt contemptuously. Faith casually rips a metal bar from the nearest fence. “You going to run, vamp?” she says.

The vampire shakes his head frantically, eyes moving between them. Memorizing their appearances. Yeah, he’s gonna try to run.

“’Cause here’s the thing,” Faith says. She strokes the metal bar, nice and slow. “I’d really love to use this on you. Pin you to the ground like a bug. But then you’d scream, and - honestly, I’m just laying it out here - we’d have to cut and run, after we cut your tongue out. Maybe gouged out your eyes. Made sure you couldn’t tell anyone what we look like, you catch my meaning?”

“Or,” Buffy says, “we could just stake him?”

Faith sends her a mostly-fake-annoyed look. “Are you trying to ruin my bit, here?”

“I’m just saying, making sure he can’t tell anyone is easy.” She waves her stake. “I could just kill him.”

“Sure,” Faith says. “You’re welcome to it. He runs, you stake him. No muss, no fuss.” She looks at the vampire, then down at the puddle of piss he’s making, then back up to his eyes. “We clear?”

“I’ll tell you anything you need to know,” he says, backing against the garage door wall, hands digging into the snow.

“Good,” Faith says. “We know who Gigli is. My question is, she’s picking a hell of a nasty brawl, moving to Cleveland. Why?”

The vamp licks his lips and looks between them.

“Now would be better,” Buffy says, in her quiet-scary voice.

“She wants to kill you, okay?” the vamps says. He sounds so whiny that Faith can’t help but abstractly think he should really be embarrassed. “She looks at you and you’re dead, man, a fuckin’ aneurysm or something like that. She’s gonna move into your town, get herself an army, and kill you.”

“Boring,” Buffy says. “Faith. Kill him.”

“And and and she’s got magic!” the vampire says. “In the arena, in the basement. She’s workin’ some kind of spell, talkin’ to someone. If you go there, you’ll find something. I swear!”

“On your word as a vampire?”

Damn, B actually does sound a little scary there. But the vampire, being an idiot, just says again, “I swear.”

“Faith.”

Faith stakes him.

Buffy watches expressionlessly, then jerks her head. They walk away from the condo, enough blocks that Faith bets they won’t run into any henchmen. “So,” Buffy says.

Faith ticks off the points on her fingers. “Bitch knows who we are, bitch knows we’re here, bitch wants to kill us, bitch has a boss. Did I miss anything?”

Buffy looks up at the looming mass of Quicken Loans Arena. “How do you break into an arena?”

“You’re asking me?”

“Of the two of us, you’re the hardened criminal.”

“Harsh, Buffy.”

“But true.” Buffy turns to her. “How do you do it? Be honest with me. Can you get us inside?”

Faith answers honestly. How can she not? She’s pretty sure Buffy’d know if she was lying. “That place’s security is probably totally shit. Find me a fence to hop, and we’re in.”

They hop a fence, flirt with a guard, steal his keys, and let themselves in. It’s all very Ocean’s Two, but Faith’s not feeling it. She has a sinking feeling that whatever they find in the basement, it’s not going to be good, and it might point back to that Jed asshole who's setting up shop in used-to-be-Sunnydale right now. But Buffy wants to see, and it’s not like staking a couple vamps would be a better use of their time tonight. So Faith gets them in, and together, they creep into the basement.

The basement, as it turns out, is a winding series of hallways. There’s beige paint on the cement walls, dry globs of it from where it tried to drip, gloopy over the cement. The floor is panel carpet, some kind of awful matte purple, and the doors are all gray and locked down tight.

“How the fuck are we going to find an evil spell in here?” Faith says as they walk down yet another featureless hallway. “Screw that, how are we even gonna get out?”

“You have to admit, it looks like a horror story,” Buffy says. “Cliché-wise, it’s promising.”

“Good thing all I’m worried about is cliché,” Faith says. “Seriously, where are we going?”

“I’ll know it when I see it,” Buffy says.

They come across a door, room 2045. It’s at the end of a hallway, and under the door, pink light glows.

“See?” Buffy says, very quietly. “I told you.”

“I can feel how scared you are,” Faith hisses.

Buffy rolls her eyes and motions at the lock.

Faith’s not sure if it means she’s grown that nowadays, instead of busting down a door with who knows what on the other side, she just picks the lock. But either way, she rolls her eyes at Buffy and pulls out the kit she’s got rolled and tucked in the back of her jeans, going to work on the lock. It’s laughably simple; she cracks it in under a moment, and slowly pushes the door open.

They’re greeted by a row of metal shelving units. Beyond that, a person stands over a pit. It’s glowing and sending up sparks - clearly magical, since they’re all an unnatural shade of green.

Faith’s not going to lay money on the woman being Gigli, but she’s also not going to risk getting mind-whammied. She and Buffy ease the door shut and creep behind some crates, peeking out at the ritual happening in front of them.

There’s no human sacrifices, at least. No one to rescue, or be traumatized by when they die. It’s just the vampire woman, standing over a pit with blood dripping from her hand.

“I am establishing my base as quickly as possible,” she says in a low, tense voice. “I do as you order. But Rome was not built in a day, sir, and I thank you to remember that you couldn’t trust any of your other acolytes with this test.”

So she’s a demi-goddess, but reports to someone else. Makes sense. Kind of.

“Yes,” Gigli says. Psychic communication, great. “I will divide them. I will find a way. Thank you, Master.”

She bows her head, and the glowing green light fades. Faith barely jerks back in time - Gigli turns and storms out, locking the door behind her.

Faith takes a deep breath. “Safe to talk?” she mumbles to Buffy.

“Guess we’ll find out,” Buffy says. She calls out, “Hey! Bad guy. Still in your magic pit?”

Silence.

“Smart,” Faith says. “What happened to the Buffy who lectured me about foresight and shit?”

“She got tired of screwing around,” Buffy says. She stands up and leads Faith over to the pit. “This guy really likes his magic,” she says, looking down at it.

In the center of the pit is a human skull. It’s surrounded by miscellaneous bones that are either an animal’s or a child’s; Faith really has no idea, and she’s pretty sure she doesn’t want to know.

“If it’s him,” Faith says.

“If I believed in coincidence, I wouldn’t be a Slayer.” Buffy points to the smooth, pink rock on the human skull’s - top. “That’s a focus. I’d bet anything.”

Faith’s been around witch types long enough to agree. “Should we palm it?”

“This room probably has all kinds of magical security,” Buffy says.

But that’s not a no, so Faith crouches and swipes the stone.

“Faith!” Buffy says, sounding scandalized.

“No time,” Faith says. The green glow has started up again. “Run now, yell at me later.”

They book it out of the arena, Buffy hot on Faith’s heels. They blow past the confused guard, over the fence, and then they’re on the street. The magic stone is glowing, showing in beams of light through Faith’s hand. She gets the feeling it’s getting close to melting her flesh off, so she tucks it in her pocket and says, “We have a safe, right? A magic safe? Tell me I’m not making that up.”

“Birthday present from Willow last year,” Buffy says. “I wanted a Sephora gift card.”

“Great,” Faith says. “Race you home.” She takes off running.

-

Willow's not home when they get back to the house. They get the magical safe from the living room - a nondescript wooden box with a simple latch - and throw the rock in. The second it's closed, Faith feels like she can breathe again.

"Okay," she says. "So. This Gigli person is in contact with what's-his-name. She's building up a power base. She's psychic. Did I miss anything important?"

B looks wicked disturbed - as disturbed as Faith feels. "I don't know," she says. "I haven't run into that many vampires with any kind of non-vampy powers - except for..." She shakes her head.

"Spit it out," Faith says. Now is not the time for faint hearts, or whatever.

"Drusilla," Buffy says. "When I was sixteen, and she and Spike were in town. She got vibes, and stuff."

"Vibes and stuff. Descriptive. You should write a book."

Buffy glares at her. "You know what I mean."

"Yeah, I know." Faith's done the reading. Drusilla could read the future, read energy, get in people's heads. Mesmerize them. "It doesn't sound like this Gigli chick has exactly the same powers."

"Similar, though," Buffy says. "Similar enough that I might need to call Spike."

Ease off, girlfriend, Faith thinks as she feels jealousy snaking through her. "I wouldn't bother," she says, deliberately casual. "Spike's not an intellectual. We should talk to Dawn, see if Watcher Junior can get us any information on blocking out psychic vamps."

"Drusilla killed Kendra," Buffy says. It's amazing to Faith that even now, years later, Buffy can still be choked up over a girl she barely knew. If Faith was like that - well. If Faith was like that, her whole fucking origin story would be just a little different. "I don't want that to happen again."

"Small Fry's safe," Faith says. "Don't worry about that. We'll keep her away from the super-vamp."

It's not until Buffy looks at Faith, expression tight, that Faith realizes that Buffy wasn't talking about Isabelle.

"Come on," Faith says. "Don't be stupid. Obviously I'll be fine too."

"That remains to be seen," Buffy says.

"Maybe I should worry about you, huh? Ghosts of your past, all kinds of stress - who's to say I'm the one who's gonna slip?"

Faith's working up into a nice, huge fight, when Willow and Isabelle come inside. Faith turns - and immediately zeroes in on the cut on Small Fry's arm. "What the hell?" she says. "Willow, you were supposed to keep her safe!"

"Faith," Buffy says quietly, but Faith's having none of Buffy's shit. Not right now. "Safe doesn't include cuts that need stitches, Red."

"I was fine," Small Fry says. "I was handling it, I told her to stay out of it."

"Clearly you weren't."

"The vamp is dead, and I killed it, and it's just a cut! You have tons of scars!" Small Fry glares at her. "Back off, Faith."

Faith opens her mouth to say something she's absolutely sure she'll regret when Buffy says, "That's enough. Will, we stole a magical object from the new vampire in town. Some kind of focus stone she's using to communicate with the guy in Sunnydale. It's in the safe, you can check it out tomorrow. Isabelle, come downstairs and we'll stitch your arm. Faith - go to bed."

The absurdity of being sent to bed, like a third grader who fucked up her multiplication homework, doesn't escape Faith. But she'd like to think she's capable of recognizing when she needs to simmer down, so she nods stiffly and goes upstairs.

Small Fry doesn't get it, and no wonder. It's not like she's used to having people who care about her. Faith knows how that feels, and knows she would've lashed out, too, back in the day. So it's not that big a deal, really, except for how Faith's stomach feels tight and she half wants to apologize, half wants to yell. She settles for kicking the side of her bed and changing into pajamas.

A focus stone. It feels so small, not like an achievement at all, even though she knows damn good and well how slowly these cases can go. What's-his-name in Sunnydale will strike again, and again, before they finally figure out how to kill the bastard. Faith hates cases with magic; she'd rather some nice, straightforward demon activity. Even when vamps were building underground blood houses with the help of the Italian mob, that mostly involved getting a few cops on their side and then doing targeted strikes until the head honchos were dead. This is more complicated, more dangerous, and Faith doesn't have a good feeling about it. At all.

Eventually, though, she manages to fall asleep.

Gray, gray, gray. Gray grass, gray sky, gray flowers. Nothing living, nothing animal. Faith can't breathe - she can barely remember how to breathe. She walks, one hand on her knife, but nothing appears to challenge her. She walks towards the mountains in the distance. Monsters in the mountains; the field keeps them away from the ground. She'll fight the monsters, ascend the mountains, and find her way out. She has to. She's not leaving Buffy alone, not anymore.

A bird flies overhead. Faith looks up. Its eyes glow green, and as it dives, crying out, she raises her arms -

Faith wakes with a start. Outwardly, all she does is stiffen a little; inwardly, she's screaming. That felt like a prophetic dream, but if it was, it's a weird fucking prophecy. And she knows from experience that they don't always come true.

Reasoning doesn't make her heart stop racing, but stretching does. She rolls out of bed and checks the time - almost noon. Plenty of time to figure out how to apologize to Small Fry without actually admitting she was wrong.

Of course, a good role model would open with, "I was wrong." Good thing Faith's a shit role model.

She wanders downstairs and grabs the coffee that someone - probably Dawn - made. She's nursing it when Buffy comes downstairs, yawning and pushing hair out of her eyes.

It makes Faith crack up in spite of herself. "Dude, you've got a rat's nest from here to the ceiling."

"Good morning to you, too," Buffy says with a slight smile. "Feeling less ready to murder small children today?"

"Small Fry's not that small," Faith says, but it's an answer in itself. Buffy nods and rummages through the fridge.

Too casually, she says, "So. You had a dream last night."

"Man, I thought having psychic powers would be cool. Instead it's like having a nannycam on me."

"We don't have to talk about it."

Faith shrugs. "We might as well. It's not like there's a lot to talk about. No idea what it's about, no clue why I dreamed it, no idea how I might end up there."

"Descriptive," Buffy says.

"You know it."

Buffy sighs, looking out the window over the sink with a bagel in hand. "There's so much out there we don't know. I wish -"

She goes silent when Dawn wanders into the kitchen. "I made coffee," she says.

Faith raises her mug. "Got it."

"Good," Dawn says, "because we've got some intel on the guy in Sunnydale, and you're going to want coffee for it."

"Should we get Willow and Small Fry?"

Dawn shrugs. "It's not that time sensitive. A little more rest is probably good." She looks at Faith in a way that makes Faith sure Buffy'd talked about her little explosion the night before. "Willow says you picked up a focus?"

"Stole it straight from Gigli's warehouse," Faith says.

"That name," Dawn says.

"Yeah, I know," Buffy says. "But she's dangerous, Dawn. Stay away from her."

"I don't even know what she looks like."

"Blue hair," Faith says. "She's not here to be incognito. See a vamp with blue hair, run. Easy as that." She takes a bite of her apple.

"Got it," Dawn says. "Guess this means Willow's going to be doing magic all day."

"And hopefully not burning the house down," Buffy says. She looks down at the bagel in her hand like she forgot it was there. "Toaster," she says, and makes a beeline for it.

Dawn raises her eyebrows at Faith. Faith shrugs; fuck if she knows what's wrong with Buffy.

Well, she has an idea. But Dawn doesn't need to know that.

Dawn wanders back out to the living room, and Faith finishes her apple and grabs some leftover fried rice. Breakfast of champions.

"We'll need to explain Gigli to Isabelle," Buffy says. "If she sees her..."

"The kid'll probably try to take her on."

"Right. So in the interest of her not being made super dead, she needs to know exactly what makes vampires like this so dangerous."

"Sure thing, B," Faith says. "I'm behind you."

"Last night -"

"Was just me freaking out," Faith says. "I've got it under control. Don't worry about it."

She can tell Buffy doesn't believe her, but she doesn't say anything else.

Faith trains in the basement until Small Fry sticks her head in and says, "Buffy says to come to the living room." Upstairs, everyone is gathered on the couch and loveseat. Every single one of them looks nervous, except for Dawn. Kid sis worship? Stupidity? Faith doesn't know.

"Faith and I investigated the newcomer last night," Buffy says. "Her name is Gigli, and she's psychic."

"Vampires can be psychic?" Small Fry says.

Here we go. Faith grits her teeth, keeping her mouth shut.

"Rarely, but yes," Buffy says. "The last time I ran into one, she killed my friend."

"Vampires kill people all the time," Small Fry says.

She feels a wave of rage from Buffy, so strong Faith almost jumps. She holds herself still, though, and Buffy says calmly, "This friend was a Slayer, and Drusilla slit her throat."

"Okay," Small Fry says. "So. I'll stay away from her?"

Faith can tell it's costing her a lot to say that. If she could, she'd say something approving - but she has the sneaking feeling that would just make the kid go on a one-girl mission to find Gigli. Faith is apparently not the parenting type.

"Good," Buffy says. "She's communicating with the guy in Sunnydale. Which, Dawn?"

Dawn clears her throat. "There are a handful of wizards with the power to draw from a collapsed Hellmouth," Dawn says. "It doesn't happen all the time, obviously, but we've gotten readings from a few places that are similar to Sunnydale - well, what used to be Sunnydale - anyway, it takes a lot of power, because if you don't have a lot of power, trying to tap into the negative energy will kill you." She glances at Buffy. Buffy nods.

"So we're dealing with a very powerful, very old wizard. We narrowed it down to just a few names. Most of them are dead or accounted for. The London Coven narrowed it down to a single guy." Dawn lays a picture on the coffee table. It's the most generic-looking dude in the world: narrow face, dark brown eyes, dark brown hair. White. He could be anyone. "His name's Jed Wheeler, and -"

"Seriously?" Faith says.

"Seriously," Dawn says. "He's been alive since the 1400s. Mostly based in England, but he's traveled. He was responsible for the dissolution of the monasteries, among other things."

"How can someone stay alive that long?" Buffy says. "He looks thirty."

"It's possible," Willow says. "Just, not likely."

"Great," Buffy says.

"So, he likes fucking around with religion," Faith says. "Any idea what he's doing in Sunnydale?"

"Well," Dawn says, "he's killed five Slayers that we know of. My guess? The usual. Wipe out Slayers, have an army of the night, rule the world."

"Great," Buffy says. "I love the usual. It's so...boringly hard to deal with."

Faith has to agree with her there. "So how do we ice the guy?"

"We're still working on that," Willow says. "We figured, for now, concentrate on the big bad at home?"

"That's what we were planning on doing," Buffy says. She takes a deep breath. "So, functionally, this changes nothing. Except that now we have a full name."

"You can do a lot with a name," Willow says. She sounds cold as fuck.

"Whoa, Red, dial down the murder eyes," Faith says. "We need a man inside Gigli's compound."

"Too bad we don't have vampire friends," Buffy says. "I'm sure that would end well."

"Who said anything about vampires? If she's moving in, and she's smart, she'll have all kinds of people on her rope. And I fucked Don in Homicide that one time -"

"Faith!"

"Just 'cause you're not getting any," Faith says. "But he'll be a good resource."

"You had sex with a dirty cop?" Dawn says. "Um, not that we all haven't made mistakes."

"He wasn't dirty when I had sex with him." That's a lie, but no one needs to know that.

"Faith's sexual escapades aside," Buffy says tightly, "can we focus on the important stuff here? If Don's dirty and in with vampires, then - we can use him."

That's part of why Faith slept with him last year. The other part was that she was trying to forget Buffy. That part didn't really work out, but she's got some - leverage. It's amazing what smartphones can pick up if you just happen to leave them on.

"Oh, we'll use him," Faith says. "I'll pay him a visit."

"Because that's not creepy and gross," Buffy says.

"Hey, take it up with my therapist."

"You don't have a therapist."

"Exactly," Faith says, and gives Buffy her best predatory smile.

For a second, the air is weirdly charged. Faith can feel the connection between them, like a spark moving rapidly end to end. It's trippy as hell, and it only ends when Willow says, "Guys?"

Buffy slams up a barrier between them. "We'll use him," she says, pressing her lips together. "And tonight, Will, you'll go out with Isabelle again."

"Me too," Dawn says.

"You're nonpowered and -"

"And this argument is so not gonna make me do what you say," Dawn says.

"Fine," Buffy says. "Faith and I will be splitting up tonight. We need to cover as much ground as possible, figure out how far Gigli's territory extends so far."

"How do you plan on doing that?" Faith says.

"I thought I'd just strangle vampires 'till they told me if they work for her."

"What do you know, that's one of my favorite methods."

"I kind of thought so. Okay. Any questions?"

"I'm good," Faith says.

She is. She's totally fine, which is why she ends up downstairs as Buffy trains the kid, beating the shit out of a punching bag. Because she's fine, and that weird moment between her and Buffy doesn't mean jack. It was just Faith being mouthy. She's done it before, plenty of times.

The thing is, for all that they've been living together for ten years, Faith and Buffy have had rough spots. A lot of them. During year four, a curse made them lose six years of memories, and they'd almost killed each other. Since then, they've been careful around each other. Old scars fade, sure, but both of them have too many sharp edges and not enough time to dull them down. So they live together, but they almost never talk about the past. And usually, when Willow or Dawn or Giles or Xander visits, Faith finds a reason to be out of town. Or drunk in a bar for four days straight, stumbling back to a motel to sleep.

Healthy? Of course not. But it's been working for them. Only now they've got this bond, and Faith's got her inconvenient crush, and she can practically feel the house of cards they've built tumbling down around her ears.

The worst thing, she thinks as she starts slowing down and shaking out her muscles, is she can't even go out and party. The stakes are too high for that.

"Faith," Buffy says.

Faith blinks, shaking sweat out of her eyes. Isabelle's gone, and her stomach's grumbling. "Yeah?"

"Can we talk?"

"Hit me," Faith says. She leans against the wall, unwilling to betray that her arms feel like rubber. They'll be fine by the time they go patrolling.

"I need to know you're with me."

Faith blinks. "Did I miss something?"

Buffy crosses her arms and keeps looking at Faith. "You've been erratic. Uncontrolled. I know Isabelle is an obstacle, something you weren't expecting, but I need to know we're partners in this. Bringing down Gigli and Jed."

"Fuck, B, how can you even ask that? Of course we are. If I didn't want to be partners, I would've moved to Boston by now." Even if that would mean sharing a city with Xander and Andrew.

"You know what I mean," Buffy says. "Don't make this difficult. This is calling up memories, and we weren't exactly friends, back in the day."

So that's it. "Yeah, we were," Faith says. Suddenly, she can't hide how tired she is. "Don't pretend we weren't, B. You were practically picking out the curtains for our dorm room."

"I'm not the one who made that impossible."

"No," Faith says. "And I'm not the one who's been acting like it's 2003 again, and we're fighting an enemy we can't even kick in the jaw."

Score one for Faith. A muscle in Buffy's neck jumps. "That's not the point."

"Sure it is," Faith says. "I might still be unstable, maybe a little too prone to staying on the wrong side of the law -"

"You think?"

"But," Faith says loudly, over Buffy, "I'm not the one freaking out about my past. That's you."

Buffy shakes her head. "You're unbelievable."

"And right." Faith looks at Buffy. She's blushing bright red, eyes darting back and forth. Faith's hit the mark, maybe a little too accurately. "Look," she says, more gently. "It's normal, okay? I spent years in jail, jumping at every noise, acting like every Betty with a grudge was a big nasty. But you can't just insist the problem is with everyone else, you know? Meditate, call Giles, whatever. But don't come after me just because that's what you're used to."

Buffy blinks. Once, twice, three times, and she doesn't try to hit Faith. Progress, Faith guesses. In a way.

"Okay," Buffy says finally. "Much though it pains me to admit, you're probably right."

"Jinkies," Faith says. "An admission from the Oldest Slayer that I'm not totally wrong? Oh my God, does it come with a cash prize?"

"Very funny," Buffy says. "I've been kind of a bitch, I guess."

"Not the point," Faith says. "We're all tense. Don't worry about it."

That's about as magnanimous as she's ever been, so she appreciates it when Buffy nods and says, "I'll order lunch."

"Sweet," Faith says. She gets up on the pommel horse, effectively ending the conversation. Hopefully lunch will come with some hardcore meditating. Faith's a badass, but she's not a solo badass. They need Buffy to be on her A game.

There's no way Faith's gonna admit how much it scares her that Buffy might not be. No fucking way.

She feels pretty guilty about it, but that doesn't stop her from being glad when she's solo for patrol that night. It's crisp out, not winter yet but with the gnarly feel fall has right before the weather takes a nosedive. Faith would never admit it in front of Buffy, who's so Little Miss California it hurts, but she kind of likes the weather here. It reminds her of home. Or at least, it reminds her of home more than California did. And every winter she gets to see Buffy bundled up in a coat and a giant fuzzy pink hat, whining up a storm, and -

Whoa, cowgirl. She pulls herself out of her thoughts and deliberately focuses on the path in front of her.

Gigli, right. A psychic vamp moving into their town has gotta be a test of their strength. They're pretty amped up right now, with the best young Watcher and one of the most powerful witches in the world, but Faith knows it's not the auxiliary powers this Jed guy wants to test. It's them.

Faith's seen all kinds of juiced vamps in her time. Some of them use chemicals of some kind, others drink older vamps' blood. Every hyper-powerful sucker has a secret, though, some kind of weak spot that can be exploited. So what would a psychic vampire's be? A dog whistle?

Her train of thought is derailed by seeing a woman pressing a man against a tree. From the bumps on her forehead, Faith's guessing this isn't just some romance novel roleplay.

"Hey, man," she says, walking up, "can I get a light?"

By the time the vampire's raised her head, the demon face is gone. "You don't have a cigarette."

"Yeah, no shit," Faith says. "And you're a vampire." She punches the vamp square in the nose and shoves the guy away. "Run!"

Luckily, the guy doesn't try to play hero. It's just her and the vampire now. Faith's fists are up and her blood is singing.

"Gigli," Faith says, throwing a punch. The vamp dodges and knocks her back. Faith goes down, rolling and hopping to her feet again. "New vamp in town. This her territory?"

"Slayer," the vampire says.

"Yeah, and not the perky one, either." Faith rushes the vampire, stake out. One-two punch, kick her knees, and the vamp's falling onto the ground. Faith pins her there with a foot on her neck, the stake against her chest.

"Talk and you walk," Faith says. "Where's Gigli's territory?"

"Downtown," the vampire says. "She likes the nice areas. She makes people invite her in, she - she wants downtown."

"Great, thanks," Faith says, and stakes her.

Vamps. They're alive for decades, centuries even, and they don't have the trust issues Faith's developed.

So, Gigli wants downtown. That makes sense. A psychic vampire who can psychic-vampire her way into people's homes doesn't need to have an abandoned warehouse to do her business. If she and Buffy concentrate their search on downtown, they can probably take out her associates one by one. As for the queen herself, well, it'll be an interesting experiment, seeing if she can hold two Slayers under thrall at once. Faith's betting no.

Of course, they could just bring Willow in and torch her. But Faith's pretty sure that's what Jed's expecting - a threat to Cleveland, and Buffy and Faith bring out everything they've got. Two Slayers is a lot of firepower, though not as much these days as it used to be; there was a fight in Japan that involved a 30-Slayer mini-army. Still, Buffy and Faith are nothing to sneeze at. They're also known quantities. She doesn't know what kind of intelligence this Jed guy has, but the more they can conceal their weapons, the better. And that includes Willow.

Faith shakes her head. She has no head for tactics. That's half the reason she's still with Buffy - she brings more firepower and daring, and Buffy brings a head for actual war.

The other half is the part Faith doesn't think about. She has options, always had. Hell, she could hop on a motorcycle tomorrow and be halfway across the country in just a couple days. But that's not what she's chosen. For better or worse, she's chosen Buffy.

"You fucking sap," she mutters, and starts up into a jog. She wants to case downtown.

She doesn't turn up much. Gigli's crew is either minimal or subtle; given that she's meant to be a credible threat, Faith's betting they're just good at blending. Downtown Cleveland isn't exactly hopping at 2 in the morning on a weeknight, but the people Faith does see don't set her vamp-dar tingling. She'd be on Gigli shielding them, but she's not gonna start staking people till she's absolutely certain.

"Nope," she mutters to herself as she turns onto their street. She's not going to let the past get to her, not after she just yelled at Buffy for that. She's not -

Fighting. At the end of the street, directly outside Buffy and Faith's house. It's Buffy, fighting six vamps - two women, four men. She's got a stake out and is wearing heeled boots, because of course she is. As Faith watches, Buffy jams a heel in one vamp's eye socket.

Right. Faith circles the block, cutting through a neighbor's hedges. The floodlights flick on, but by then Faith's on the sidewalk. A vamp turns as the light hits him.

"Hey there," Faith says, and punches him.

She fights her way to Buffy, staking two vamps and breaking another's neck. Buffy leans down and stakes the broken-neck one, then says, "Thanks for showing up."

"We agreed to meet at 2 AM."

"It's 2."

"Been fighting long?"

"They were waiting to ambush me."

"Goody," Faith says, and launches forward, staking another one.

They're down to two now. "How many starting?"

"Ten," Buffy says. "Gigli's not fucking around."

"Good thing we're not either," Faith says.

The two vamps snarl. One of them says, "Are you done chatting, or should we come back later?"

"There's no later for you, vamp," Faith says, and throws her stake. Buffy does the same, and both vampires crumble into dust.

"Ten," Faith says, unlocking the fence. "I'm not sure if I should be insulted or not."

"Hey, I'm the one they attacked."

"What's your highest kill count?"

"You were there," Buffy says. She sounds weirdly hurt. Faith rolls her eyes as she lets them into the house. "Okay, yeah, I'm sorry I forgot our anniversary. What is it?"

"Thirteen," Buffy says. "The night we killed that demon-summoner - Gerald or whoever."

"Gerard," Faith says. "He thought he was the romcom guy."

"I love those movies."

"You would," Faith says.

They walk into the kitchen. Dawn and Willow are sitting there, drinking tea and very deliberately not looking out the windows.

"Smart," Buffy says. "We don't want Gigli to know what we've got up our sleeves."

"I wish it were that," Willow says. "I peeked in on Jed today. I'm so drained, I doubt I could even twirl a pencil."

"We totally would've gone out, though," Dawn says. "But you handled it."

"Sweet hero worship," Faith says, "but let's talk about what we actually discovered today."

If she's a little snappish, whatever. She knows a de-powered Red and Dawn would've just been a distraction. But ten isn't that much lower than thirteen. What if Faith had been late?

"Faith," Buffy says quietly. Faith snaps to. Everyone but her is sitting.

Faith sits down next to Buffy. She almost jumps a mile high when Buffy finds her hand under the table and squeezes quickly, before releasing it. She and Buffy aren't the huggy types.

"I talked to a vamp who knows about Gigli," Faith says, to distract herself from the sudden touchy-feely bullshit. "She says she wants downtown."

"So did mine," Buffy says. "Apparently it's easy for her to get invitations into people's homes."

"Being psychic'll do that for you, I guess," Faith says.

"Drusilla was crazy, right?" Willow says. "Not all there. Is she crazy? Can we use that?"

"Far as I can tell, she's as sane as you or me," Buffy says. "My thinking is we'll have to take out her flunkies faster than she can replace them, and then -"

"See if her psychic powers can take down two Slayers at once," Faith says. "Hey, were you thinking about this earlier?"

"Yes," Buffy says. "As I was walking. Why?"

"So was I," Faith says.

Buffy goes pale. Willow squints between them. "I can't see auras," she says. "But I could run a test tomorrow."

"No," Buffy says quickly. "No, if it's - if it's getting worse, that's fine. Unless we actually become one person, I don't care. It probably has tactical advantages, and right now, you need your strength."

"If you say so," Willow says, but she's giving Buffy a look that means Blondie's in for some BFF time when Faith and Dawn leave the room. Faith would be interested, but she's too busy not thinking about...a lot of things.

"Anyway," Faith says. "We pick off the flunkies, one by one. We're gonna need to patrol for longer. Harder hours. Looking for nests during the day, the whole nine yards."

"Be careful," Dawn says. "Jed might be counting on this. You guys losing your strength fighting Gigli, and then he strikes."

"If it's the difference of a few nights' sleep, we've already lost," Buffy says. "But I get the feeling he's playing a longer game than that."

"Whatever it is," Faith says, "I'm sure we'll figure it out. But I'm wiped."

"Same," Buffy says. "We'll talk this over more in the morning."

"With Isabelle?" Willow says. "She's starting to get -" Willow makes a face. "Impatient."

"Sure," Buffy says. "Baby's first apocalypse. Why not." She sighs. "Okay. 'night, all."

"I'll walk up with you," Willow says. She gives Faith a look that might as well be a needle pinning Faith to the chair. Faith rolls her eyes and gets a glass of water. "I'll go in a minute," she says.

As soon as Willow and Buffy are upstairs, Dawn says, "What did you do?"

"Nothing to warrant the kid sis inquisition."

"Willow only acts like that when there's something Buffy won't tell me, or you," Dawn says. "And I'm her sister, and you're her -" Dawn waves a hand. "Roommate. So what's up?"

"It's probably just the bond," Faith says. "You know B, she's a total control freak. The idea of someone rummaging around her head is winding her up, that's all. That's probably what this asshole wanted when he cursed us."

"Well, that, or for you to become evil psycho killers."

"One of the two for sure," Faith says. She drains the glass of water. "I'm sure it's nothing. I'll catch you tomorrow."

Walking quickly so Dawn can't catch up, she thinks, is definitely not running away. It's just being efficient.

No, it's totally running away. But Faith's had a long day. The sooner she can crash, the better.

As she approaches the foothills, she comes across a woman. Her feet are rooted in the ground, her head covered in twisting vines. If she was once human, she isn't now.

"You want to get out," the old woman says. Her voice sounds like rocks grating against each other.

"I need to get out," Faith says. "This isn't where my story ends."

"You cannot," the old woman says. "There are monsters in the hills, and you are ill-equipped to slay them."

"I'm a Slayer. It's what I do. Are you gonna tell me how to get out, or not?"

The old woman coughs. Worms come out of her mouth, splattering on the ground. "There is a gate," she says. "Go through the pass. Follow the tracks of the wyvern, and you will find it."

"How the fuck am I supposed to do that?"

The old woman opens her mouth again, and -

Faith wakes up.

Okay. This is getting creepy. If this ends in Faith being stuck in some weird colorless hell dimension, Faith would just as soon not know, for now. The future can be changed, she reminds herself, and rolls out of bed.

Willow and Buffy are talking when Faith gets downstairs. “Oh, good, you’re up,” Buffy says. “Will has an idea.”

“I was just thinking, witches use wards all the time - you know, safety, protection, don’t burn the pancakes. So if I made you and Buffy wards against psychic involvement, that might make it easier to take Gigli on.”

“Keep talking,” Faith says.

Willow nods. “It’ll take me a couple days - that kind of thing is more complicated than pancakes. But I think I can do it, and cast the spells on you. After that, you won’t have to worry about her mind-whammying you.”

“What about you guys? Don’t wanna let her make you invite her in.”

Willow’s expression gets kind of scary. “That won’t happen. The house is covered in protective spells, and a psychic vampire can’t take over my mind.”

“Okay,” Faith says slowly. “Well, knock ‘em dead. That’s not the kind of thing that’ll tell Jed we’ve got major help, so I’m all for it.”

“Great!” Buffy says, a little too brightly. “I’m going to go shower. Faith, put a bra on.”

Faith looks down. She’s dressed like she always is. Her tank’s even dark. “Okay,” she mutters, and goes to grab a bagel.

“You and Buffy work really well together,” Willow says as Faith drinks her coffee. “None of us thought it would work out, you know.”

“You and me both. I dunno, she’s not terrible when you can tell her to get her head out of her ass.”

“Uh-huh,” Willow says. “Well, I’m going to go back upstairs. Lots of spell-work to do.”

Faith raises her mug in acknowledgement. Willow grabs her notebook and goes upstairs.

Everyone in this house is weird lately. Faith needs to hang out with Small Fry more. At least she’ll just yell at you when she’s not feeling it.

Think of the devil. Small Fry comes downstairs. She hesitates when she sees Faith, so Faith says, “Come on in, I don’t bite. Coffee?”

“I’m twelve,” Small Fry says, and pours herself some orange juice.

Faith snorts. “Like that ever stopped you. Come on, you’re talking to a full-on child criminal. What’s coffee compared to some B&E?”

“It stunts your growth,” Small Fry says, and hoists herself up on a stool.

She’s getting more collected, Faith thinks. Fewer jerky movements like she’s afraid she’ll break things, more fluid movement. She’s turning into a Slayer, even if she is still a scrawny little brat. “Well, congrats,” Faith says, “but when you’re sleepy all morning, don’t bitch and moan to me.”

“I won’t,” she says, and takes a drink of her orange juice.

Faith’s done with her bagel and is pretty much just fucking around at this point, so she finishes her coffee and goes upstairs. It’s so nice, she thinks as she rifles through her closet, when there’s no big bad looming on the horizon. When it’s just her and Buffy, training Slayers - actual, grown-up Slayers - and going on patrols. This Gigli chick has fucked that up, and fucking Jed, and Faith is just itching to get a stake in them. Or in Jed’s case, a pick-axe, or whatever will send him to sleep. Faith’s not totally clear on that point, but then, she’s pretty sure none of them are.

They spend the day training. Dawn’s busy researching Jed and his magic, which tends to involve making a lot of faces and saying “hmm” a bunch. Faith practices throwing stars with Small Fry, and makes a joke about how bloodthirsty she is that ends in Small Fry storming upstairs. Again. It’s bad enough that Buffy pauses in going through tai chi motions to say, “Someday you’ll get it.”

“Yeah, when she’s twenty,” Faith says, and follows the kid upstairs. It’s lunchtime anyway.

They suit up that night. Small Fry’s confined to the house, because Willow’s too tired to take her out, and Buffy and Faith are planning on splitting up again. She takes it surprisingly well, probably because Buffy’s the one to break the news to her. Or because she’s planning on sneaking out - though Faith’s pretty sure being told in gory detail about Drusilla is crushing that particular teenage impulse to rebel.

“Ready?” Buffy says. She’s got three stakes in holsters, and is carrying a fourth. Faith’s dressed pretty much the same: stakes on each leg, one stake up her sleeve, one in her hand. She’s more prepared these days, even if it does kind of kill her to look like this much of a try-hard.

“Let’s go,” Faith says, and opens the door.

There’s a brunette standing there, hand raised to knock. She’s wearing bright red lipstick, and when she sees Buffy, her eyes widen. “Buffy, oh my God,” she says. She breaks down crying. “Buffy, I - I need your help.”

“Siobhan,” Buffy says.

“Can I come in? There are these things, they’re chasing me.”

“It’s okay,” Buffy says in a soothing voice. “They can’t hurt you.” She steps out onto the deck. “Tell me what happened.”

“Thank God I found you,” Siobhan says, and throws her arms around Buffy, kissing her.

Faith feels like she’s been hit over the head with a two-by-four when Buffy kisses back. Like, serious kissing, slipping her tongue and everything. But then she sees Buffy raise her arm, and before Faith can count to three. Siobhan’s a pile of dust on the deck.

“Okay,” Faith says, voice cracking in spite of herself, “what just happened?”

Buffy’s expression is distant. “I, um. Hooked up with her a few times.”

She doesn’t say it like she’s ashamed, but she doesn’t sound proud, either. Faith counts to three before saying, “You fuck chicks? Shit, B, I didn’t know you had it in you.”

“Just her,” Buffy says. “A couple years ago. I don’t know how Gigli found her.”

Faith fishes for something to say. She comes up with, “Maybe she was bragging. You know, I banged a Slayer.”

“We only slept together a few times,” Buffy says. “She was sweet, but I -” She shrugs. “It didn’t work out.”

Faith stares at her. Buffy looks washed-out suddenly. Not old, but tired, like she hasn’t looked since those last few weeks before they defeated the First. And Faith seriously does not know how to deal.

“Let’s go,” she says finally. “We’re burning moonlight.”

Buffy shakes herself, and suddenly she’s together again. “Right,” she says. “Let’s go.”

They split up pretty early on, which is good, because the urge to yell at Buffy for not trusting her is growing to the point where Faith’s pretty sure Buffy would be able to feel it, even with all their careful shielding. She’s not even sure what she’d yell, really; “why couldn’t I be your straight-girl experiment” sounds obnoxious even in her head. But damn, she wants to kick something, thinking about Buffy sleeping with some pretty brunette who’s never murdered a single person, much less slain countless vamps.

“Never crush on your beautiful roommate,” she tells the vamp she’s fighting.

He stares at her like she’s crazy. Oh well. It’s a good distraction for when she stakes him.

She develops a smart strategy for knowing when she’s killing one of Gigli’s lackeys; namely, she says, “Gigli,” and sees if they react. It’s working great when, as she’s walking down the street, she doubles over in pain, shoulder on fire.

For two seconds she looks around for whoever shot her. But then she realizes: Buffy.

“Buffy!” she yells. She blasts the shields wide open to feel Buffy reaching for her. She’s close, so Faith takes off at a run, letting their connection guide her. She feels nothing but panic - she can’t lose Buffy, she can’t; that’s not an option.

When she gets to Buffy, Buffy's leaning against a tree, hand pressed against her shoulder. "Gun," she says. "He had a gun."

"One of Gigli's?"

Buffy shakes her head. "His eyes -"

"Come on," Faith says. "We'll get you to Willow, we'll -"

"Hospital," Buffy says. "Take me to a hospital."

Faith wants to fly into pieces, but she doesn't have time for that. She flags down a cab and rides with Buffy to the hospital. The cabbie takes her wad of cash, and then they're in the emergency room and Faith's filling out forms while they take Buffy back and fuck, fuck, Faith's not even sure whose terror she's feeling, until she feels blankness that means Buffy's been sedated. Then she knows the fear is all her.

A gun. A guy with a gun, maybe supernatural, maybe just some random shooter. Faith hates guns almost as much as Buffy, and she might hate them more now. Buffy can't die. She can't die, she can't die.

Faith spends what feels like forever in the emergency room, until a nurse tells her Buffy's stable. They won't let her visit, though; it's after hours, and Faith's not even family. Faith wants to protest, but judging by the woozy feeling in the bond, Buffy won't be able to describe the perp right now anyway.

She'll go home. She'll go back during visiting hours. She can do this.

It's not until she gets home that she realizes she didn't even contact Dawn or Willow. Dawn's still up, despite the fact that it's six AM. "Faith, what the hell? Why haven't you been answering your phone?"

"My -" Faith feels her pocket. "It must've fallen out."

"Why is there blood on your jeans?" Dawn's eyes widen. "Faith, where's Buffy? What happened?"

"Slow down," Faith says. "Buffy's...she's fine. She's sleeping."

"Where? What happened?"

"Guy with a gun," Faith says. "That's all I know. She's at the hospital. Stable."

"Why didn't you call us from the hospital?"

"Dawn," Willow says. "Sit on the couch, Faith. I'll make you some tea."

Faith doesn't have a wisecrack ready. She can barely even think. She sits down on the couch, in a daze, and listens to Willow and Dawn having a whispered argument in the kitchen. Buffy's sleeping; the shields they both kept so carefully up are still down. Faith feels like a crazy person. First Buffy kisses a girl, then she gets shot - what the hell is going on?

"Faith," Willow says. Her voice hints that she's been saying it for awhile.

"What? Thanks," Faith says, accepting the tea.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Faith says, sitting down on the chair across from Faith.

Faith recovers enough of herself to snort. "What are you, my therapist? I'm drinking this, and then I'm crashing. Buffy's stable, they dug a bullet out of her shoulder. There's not much more to say. We'll visit her tomorrow."

"When?" Dawn says.

"Noon," Faith says. "I'll be up."

"The kind of bond you have, you must've felt it."

Faith looks at Willow. Willow's eyes are wide, and she looks open and sympathetic. Faith just feels tired. "Look, I felt it, it sucked, it's over. Can we just leave it at that?" She gulps the tea down, ignoring the way it scalds her throat. "Thanks for the tea. Goodnight."

She lies awake until seven in the goddamn morning, trying to make the phantom pain in her shoulder go away. Buffy's sedated, and damn it, Faith thought the shields were tight. But right now she can feel an absence, like a phantom limb. She didn't ask for this, she never wanted it - and now she's just trying to keep her anger locked up tight, where Buffy can't see it. Or feel it. Whatever.

In the end, she only gets a couple hours of sleep. Better than nothing, but a lot less than she needs. She drags herself out of bed and brushes her hair before going downstairs and getting coffee.

Dawn's already up and dressed - no big surprise there. "Will you be ready to go soon?"

"Is Red coming?"

"Willow's going to scry." Dawn shrugs. "She says it's faster, and she's still working on the amulets."

Knowing Buffy, she really will be up and ready to go in a couple days. The thought cheers Faith up a little, even though she can just barely feel Buffy on the other end of the bond. She's groggy at best. "Okay," she says when she realizes Dawn's looking at her. "I'll - hang on." She pours the coffee into a travel mug. "Let's bounce."

They walk to the hospital, partly because it's not that far and partly because Faith still doesn't drive if she can avoid it. When they get to Buffy's room, she's asleep. There's a bandage peeking out of her hospital gown, and she looks wan. Faith seriously hates hospitals, and her stomach twists as Dawn touches Buffy's head and says, quietly, "Buffy. We're here."

Buffy yawns and blinks. "I heard you coming," she says. It takes Faith a minute to realize she means she felt it, through the bond.

"What's the sitch?" Faith says.

"Don't play with guns," Buffy says. "Nasty bullet wound, blood loss. I can check out today, though."

"Can you actually, or are you just saying that?" Dawn says suspiciously.

"Well, they can't stop me," Buffy says. "And I'm not gonna die, so I'd rather leave before they realize how quickly I heal."

"Not quickly enough," Faith says. "Christ, B, what happened?"

"This guy came up to me," Buffy says. Her voice sounds dull. Faith hands her the plastic glass of water she got in the hallway. "Thanks," Buffy says. "He comes up to me, and says, 'Buffy Summers?', and when I said, who's asking, he shot me." She looks up at them. "His eyes glowed red when he pulled the trigger. Seriously creepy."

"So," Faith says. "Either Gigli or Jed are using weird methods..."

"Or someone else is looking for some revenge," Buffy says. "Yep."

"Great," Faith says. "A third player. Just what we need."

"Maybe it's not," Dawn says slowly.

"Come again?" Buffy says.

"Someone under an enchantment," Dawn says. "But someone asking for you by name. They weren't trying to kill a Slayer, they were trying to kill you. Or just send a message."

Buffy shakes her head. "I tried to dodge. If I hadn't, it would've killed me."

"Maybe Jed and Gigli only want to take on one Slayer," Dawn says. "The younger one."

"Bagging the oldest living Slayer is a pretty big thing to brag about," Faith says. "I'll look around - where do you even look for gun sales? I can't just shake a demon 'till something falls out."

"I can look into that," Dawn says. "You guys should rest."

"Hey, I didn't get shot," Faith says.

Dawn levels her a look. Jesus, Faith doesn't even have a family. She shouldn't be getting the bratty kid sis looks. "Uh-huh," Dawn says. "I'm going to walk home. I'll see you later." She kisses Buffy's cheek and leaves.

Faith and Buffy stare at each other for a long time after Dawn leaves. Faith's put her shields back up as best as she can, and so has Buffy, but there's still a weird kind of interplay between them. Shared relief, maybe.

Finally, Faith says, "You know, next time you should just say, who?"

Buffy shakes her head. "Yeah, next time someone rushes me with a gun."

"It might happen again. Until we know who's sending them, anyway."

"Why now?" Buffy says. "That's what I want to know. I know it's possible that someone else hired this guy, or enchanted him, or whatever, but -"

"That's not what your gut says?"

"If I was a cliché cop on a CBS show? Exactly."

"Slayers have gut too, even if you think you're too cool for it." Faith tilts her head, thinking. "Shit, B, I don't know. Is it better or worse if it's not a coincidence?"

Buffy opens her mouth to answer, then frowns. "I don't know."

"Exactly."

They sit in silence for awhile before Faith says, "You look like hell. They don't even do sponge baths here?"

"I didn't want it. I told them to just stitch me up."

"How do I get a doctor so you can leave?"

"Let's find out," Buffy says, and mashes the button on her bed.

It turns out that springing someone from a hospital, when you're doing it by the books and not just walking out and punching everyone you see, takes time. Faith's starving by the time they're walking home. They had to pretend to get lost in the parking lot just so the nurses wouldn't realize Buffy was planning on walking. But Faith doesn't regret not bringing the car, not when Buffy takes a deep breath and tilts her head up to the sun like they're back in California.

"Shit, you really thought you were gonna die," she says without thinking.

"I kind of did," Buffy says. "I mean, not that it was a mortal wound, but I'm not so experienced with the guns."

"Uh-huh," Faith says. "Well. Congrats on not being dead."

Buffy smiles. It's weaker than a prom queen's virginity on prom night. "Congrats on getting me to the hospital."

"So we're just not gonna talk about it, huh?"

"There's nothing to talk about."

"Giles would be pissed at us ignoring an obvious strategic advantage."

Buffy looks away. "It's not an advantage. At best, it's an inconvenience."

"You sure about that? I felt you get hurt. I came running. I could find you with it."

"And the rest of the time? When there's not a calamity that we don't have our phones for - and you're not answering your texts, by the way, we have smartphones for a reason -"

"I dropped mine," Faith says. "I'll go to Verizon, it's insured."

"Good," Buffy says. She opens her mouth again, but then closes it, looking a little lost.

"You were saying?"

"It's stupid," Buffy says. "You're right, I know you're right. Is it terrible that I just - would like for an invasion in my head to not be a tactical advantage? Just this once?"

"There are worse things."

"You sound like you're enjoying it."

Guilt twinges. "No," Faith says. "Shit, B, I value my privacy, but you gotta admit. If we had to be cursed, this curse is wicked easy to deal with."

"Provided it doesn't end in one of us going mega evil."

"It won't. Probably."

Buffy smiles a little at the 'probably'. Faith smiles back.

Things are more relaxed by the time they get back to their house. Dawn's obviously relieved to see them, slumping down on the couch and saying, "Don't ever scare me like that again."

"Next time I'm about to get shot, I'll be sure to tell them they shouldn't do it, my baby sister will be mad," Buffy says. "Do you have anything?"

"Not yet. Gun might've been attained via magical means, or 3D printed. Anything's possible." Dawn sighs. "But I'll keep looking."

Willow comes into the living room to say, "It's a powerful enchantment that can force someone to try to kill someone. You're sure his eyes flashed red?"

"Positive."

"Probably Spanish Compulsion, then." Willow smiles a little. "Developed back when they were a-conquerin' and inquisit...ing."

"Gotcha," Buffy says. "Whatever it was, it was nasty, and I don't want it to happen again."

"Well, we at least know to be on the lookout for baddies with guns," Faith says. "Bright side to everything, right?"

"Sure," Dawn says. "Buffy, you should get some rest."

"I'll solo patrol tonight," Faith says.

"Get a new phone first," Buffy says. "Expense it."

"Won't Giles love that." But Faith doesn't say it like she's pissed. Giles and company are pretty much infinitely better than Quentin Travers and his gang.

It's not until Small Fry creeps into the room that Faith realizes she completely forgot about her. Shit. She opens her mouth, but Dawn cuts in smoothly, saying, "We told Isabelle what happened. It's cool, you were overwhelmed."

Small Fry's mouth is in a small, straight line when she tells Buffy, "I'm glad you're okay."

"Me too," Buffy says. "And no worries, I can still be Drill Sergeant Buffy today. You just can't hit me for a few days."

Small Fry nods. She glances at Faith, then looks away.

Well, at least the status quo there is maintained.

Faith spends the rest of the day very deliberately not freaking out. Willow should have their amulets by tomorrow night, and Buffy'll be fine in the interim. She can patrol tonight and knock out a couple more goons. It'll be fine. Buffy's safe, and Faith is probably, almost definitely, not going to get shot too. They went after Buffy Summers, Slayer Legend, not Faith Lehane, Fuckup Legend. There has to be a reason for that.

Unless the order was Buffy first, then Faith. Which is entirely possible. Whatever - she'll just avoid people. All people. Unless they're vamps.

Right. Good thing she has a plan.

She's jumpy all night, one hand on her phone and the other on her stake. She stakes a few of Gigli's minions - how many does the girl have? Who knows - and gets another couple vamps who must've been living under a rock the past week or so, since they have no idea who Gigli is. Then it's back to the ranch to crash until she wakes up with Small Fry staring at her.

"Buffy said you'd be training me today," she says.

"Shit, yeah." Faith groans. "Basement in an hour."

"Okay," Small Fry says, and leaves.

Faith's not an expert on kids, or anything, but that kid is planning something. She'd bet her life on it. She groans and gets out of bed, cracking her back. Her super-Slayer strength should mean she never feels like she desperately needs a massage.

An hour later, she's in the basement, more or less ready to get her teacher on. Small Fry is waiting for her, knife in hand. "You don't want to try a stake?" Faith says.

Small Fry raises her left hand. In it is a stake. "I thought I'd switch. That's important, right?"

"Right," Faith says, hoping Small Fry gets the impression that she thought that all along. "Totally. Let's get to work."

At first she thinks she was wrong about the kid being up to something, but then Small Fry just out and says, "I want to go out with you tonight."

“No,” Faith says. She doesn’t even have to think about it; that’s a question with a really, really simple answer. “Out of the question.”

“Faith -”

“Buffy just almost died,” Faith says. “Buffy. Do you even understand what that means? She’s not some new Slayer, just been called, who thinks she can take on a nest of vamps alone. Buffy’s the smartest, most cautious Slayer I’ve ever known - and one of the best of all time. All time, kid. Stretching back thousands of years. And she just got shot when her guard wasn’t even down. Do you really think you can go up against that?”

It’s an impressive speech, and for a second she thinks Small Fry is going to fuck off and leave Faith alone. But instead Small Fry says, “So?”

“So - so, I’m not going to let you go out in that environment.”

“I’m a Slayer,” Small Fry says. “Even if it’s not the pure Slayer magic, or whatever. I’m still a Slayer. And you need more feet on the ground.”

Faith opens her mouth to protest, but Isabelle cuts her off, eyes burning. “No. You’ll let me go, or I’ll go myself. I’ll find a way.”

For a second, Faith wishes she could - she doesn’t even know. Shove the kid in a closet, or something. But child abuse is generally not a good idea, so finally she says, “Fine. But if you get killed, the last thing you’ll hear is me saying I told you so.”

“Sounds good,” Isabelle says. “I want to use the punching bag.”

“To the pommel horse I go,” Faith says.

It’s not until they’re going out - over Buffy’s vocal protests, but she realizes how stubborn Small Fry’s being pretty quickly - that Faith realizes she and Small Fry haven’t spent much time together.

“So,” Faith says. “Aside from being angry and slaying vamps, what are your interests, exactly?”

Small Fry looks over at her sharply, like she suspects a trap. Faith keeps her expression as neutral as possible.

“I had a home,” Small Fry says. “Before…”

Could be a fire, could be an abusive parent. Hell, it could just be that her family had hard times. Faith’s not going down that line of questioning; she’s not going to upset Small Fry while they’re out patrolling. “Never mind.”

“Legos,” Small Fry says. “I liked - I like Legos. I like building things.”

“Huh,” Faith says. “We could pick some up if -”

“No,” Small Fry says. “I was a baby then. This is fine.” She lifts the arm with the stake, then drops it again.

Yeah, sure, kid. Faith shrugs. “No skin off my nose.”

They walk in silence until they hear a woman’s voice. “Come just a little closer, babe…this won’t hurt, I promise.”

Another girl whimpers in fear.

God, what’s with all the close encounters of the dykey kind lately? Her own adventures in sleeping with women aside. Faith rolls her eyes and says, “Hey, girl. Run.” They round a corner and see the vamp, holding someone against a light post. “Not so smart, not doing it in the dark,” Faith says. She kicks the vamp, and sure enough, the girl who was being held runs.

“See, that, that’s smart,” Faith says. “Gigli.”

The vampire starts and snarls.

“That means it’s a minion,” Faith tells Small Fry. Then she’s busy with the fight.

If she were Buffy, she’d be cool and collected enough to put on a clinic. Give Small Fry a lesson, make sure she realizes how important all of this shit is. But Faith’s still on edge, feeling like she’s jumping through her skin. So she just fights, gets lost in the movement. It’s not until Small Fry yells, “Faith!” that she realizes there are more.

Shit. She pins the vamp and stakes her, then leaps to her feet. There are two, and one of them is menacing Small Fry.

First, take care of the other one. Faith leaps, catches his head between her legs, and snaps his neck. On the tumble, she stakes him. She’s ready to run and take care of the other one, but Small Fry’s fighting in a fury, knife and stake out in that weird style of hers, slashing the vampire to ribbons. He can’t get a hold on her, and Faith’s not even surprised when Small Fry finally gets past his defenses and stakes him. She’s that fast.

“Damn,” Faith says when Small Fry turns to her. “You know, there’s a downside to this whole Kill Bill style you’ve got going on.”

“Huh?”

Dated. Right. “You’re covered in blood.”

Small Fry looks down at herself and scowls. “This is why I wear black.”

Faith just barely manages not to laugh at that. “Sure thing, kid. Let’s go. We’re gonna be out awhile.”

They run across a few more vamps, but none of Gigli’s minions. Faith would like to be the kind of nice, trusting girl who assumed that just meant they’d killed most of them; unfortunately, hardened Slayer that she is, she’s more inclined to think Gigli’s planning something. Good thing the amulets will be ready for tomorrow. Hopefully Red’s graduated from the weird sachets. Faith doesn’t have a uniform when she slays, except for baddassery, and a cloth sachet full of herbs and shit isn’t badass.

Everyone’s in the living room when they get home, very deliberately not rushing to inspect Small Fry. Faith’s never been big on elephants in the room, so she says, “See? I didn’t break her. She killed two vamps, all on her own.”

“That’s great!” Willow says. “I’m proud of you.”

She’s beaming, even when Small Fry glares. “I’m going to go get changed,” she says, going upstairs.

Buffy rolls her eyes a little, but she’s also smiling. Even Dawn looks fond. It’s a real laugh riot. “She’s fucking fierce,” Faith says. “Not sure about the blood spatters, though.”

“The two-handed style is interesting,” Willow says. “I’m guessing she didn’t learn it growing up with idyllic, loving parents.”

“Not so much,” Faith says. “Look, I’m wiped. Full report in the morning, for now, you guys should know that Gigli’s planning something. We only staked four vamps, and only one of them was her minion.”

“Gotcha,” Buffy says. “An apocalypse. Fun.”

“Or maybe just a blood bank heist or something,” Faith says. “But we should all get some rest.”

She catches Buffy looking at her weirdly - smiling a little, like something’s on Faith’s nose. “What?”

“Nothing,” Buffy says. “I’m beat. Hole in the shoulder, and whatnot.” She stands up. “Thanks for taking Isabelle out,” she says, putting a hand on Faith’s shoulder as she goes upstairs.

Faith ignores the shiver that provokes. As soon as all of this bullshit is over, she’s spending an entire week having sex. With twins. Dark-haired twins, from Boston. Fuck this California sunshine crush bullshit.

-

Unfortunately for Faith, and the citizens of the greater Cleveland area, the whole mess does not, in fact, end the next day. On the contrary. The front page of the local paper has a totally different story: the arena across from Gigli’s condo is being bought by “Wheeler Holdings.”

Buffy slams the paper down, anger all over her face. “Now he’s just fucking with us.”

“You guys still get the paper?” Small Fry says. She’s eating cereal, as neatly and quietly as she does most things. “Seriously?”

“Beside the point, kid,” Faith says. “So, what, should we burn it down?”

“That’s a little anvil-y,” Buffy says. “We need to make him afraid, preferably without major arson happenings. Plus, Taylor Swift is in town soon.”

Faith stares. “Taylor Swift.”

Buffy flushes. “I’d go with…okay, I wouldn’t go. But her music is dancey and it’s fun and I like that.”

She’s so fucking cute that Faith wants to punch something. “Yeah, okay,” Faith says. “So, we won’t burn the place down. What’s our plan, then? That doesn’t even sound like a shell corporation. Do we get the Watchers involved?”

“Giles has said he would,” Buffy says. “I just…”

“Don’t want to go running to him every time something’s wrong.”

Buffy makes a face. “I’m transparent, huh.”

"I know what it's like," Faith says. "I could call in Angel, but he'd bring the big guns and the heavy judgement."

"He is good at that," Buffy says. Lately, she's dropped the wistful sad-romance-novel-girl thing she's had in the past about Angel. It's kind of refreshing.

Faith's quiet until Small Fry leaves - whether because she knows Faith's not going to talk about this in front of her, or because she's bored, Faith doesn't know. "So. What are we going to do about this?"

"Much though I'd like to get my suit on and ruin them financially, I'm going to be realistic about my ability to hack it in the business world," Buffy says. "We're much better at the punching and the slaying. We go after Gigli."

"When?"

"Tonight," Buffy says. Before Faith can object, she says, "I know, I'm still nine kinds of beat up. I know, okay? But if this sale has made the papers, they can move sooner, rather than later. I want to beat them to it."

"Fair," Faith says. She can't argue with that, and she suspects Buffy knows it. "So. How do we wanna play this?"

"I'm the one with a bullet hole in her," Buffy says. Faith can feel nervous energy dancing along the bond, but Buffy doesn't acknowledge it. "I go in as bait. Tell Gigli I'm tired, I want a cut, and she can do her business if I get it. You take out the lackeys. We kill her."

"Small Fry's gonna be pissed."

"I'm not letting her come along," Buffy says. "I'll tie her up if I have to."

"Ease off, I know. I wasn't saying she should. Just, you know, we should probably pay attention to her moods, and stuff."

Buffy raises her eyebrows. "Trying to be a good parent?"

Faith flushes in spite of herself. "I'm trying to be responsible. Why, is it a bad color on me?"

Affection through the bond, and Buffy doesn't even try to hide it. "No. It looks good."

"Good," Faith says. "I'll go break the news to everyone else."

"Good luck," Buffy says.

"You being infirm is a pain in the ass. Heal up."

Buffy flicks off a sarcastic salute. "Working on it."

Willow's finished with the amulets by that afternoon. She gets Buffy and Faith into the living room and hands them each a necklace with a single pearl setting.

"Fancy," Faith says. "This isn't gonna explode on me, is it?"

Willow shakes her head. "It's not a pearl, either. It's magic, condensed and holding itself together. This should keep Gigli out of your heads, but it's not protection beyond that."

"That's all we need." Buffy fastens it around her neck. "Thanks, Will."

Willow smiles, still a little awkward. "Anything to keep you from being shot again. When Giles hears about this, he's going to throw a fit."

"And I will be too busy telling him about our victory to worry about it," Buffy says. She makes a face. "Or - that's the plan, anyway."

Faith looks around their living room. In a way, it doesn't look like they've lived here for eight years. They lived in a rental for the first two years, and then just moved all their shit to this house. There are prints that Faith thinks Joyce would've liked on the walls, mostly soft-painted flowers. That's Buffy's contribution. Faith's the one who picked out the dark wood shelves, the handmade wood coffee table. She got it on the cheap for saving a carpenter's life, and it kind of clashes with the flowers. But at the same time, it works. Just like the fancy French-looking chair works with the giant, comfy couch. It kind of looks like the room of a crazy person, but it's not. It's just Faith's and Buffy's room.

Buffy touches her hand, and for a second, the bond goes crazy with sensation. Faith yanks her hand away. "Sorry," she says quickly, before Buffy can say anything. "Spaced. What's going on, now?"

"Just planning how we're going to assault the stronghold," Buffy says. "Willow doesn't like me being bait."

"Of course she doesn't," Faith says. "Bait might get killed."

"Incapable of defending herself, that's me."

Faith looks straight at Red. "It's a solid strategy," she says. "One of us needs to be a distraction, and I'm not the chatty type. Buffy's gonna go in and tell Gigli she's willing to deal."

"And you think she'll buy that Slayers just all of a sudden went corrupt?"

Buffy looks at Willow. Her posture straightens, and her voice gets dry, angry. Powerful. "Here's the deal. You leave me and my people alone. We kill people who aren't associated with you, provided your crew doesn't get unmanageable. In return, we get a cut of your earnings. And don't pretend you're not pulling a profit. I'm not an idiot."

"Um," Willow says. "Very convincing." She looks a little scared. Faith has to bite back a laugh.

Buffy relaxes. "Thanks."

"So...I guess tonight you're launching the assault."

"That's the plan," Buffy says.

Willow shakes her head. "Do you ever think, maybe we'll be sixty and there will be no more apocalypses? Or only little ones?"

"Not really," Buffy says.

"Hell no," Faith says.

"Right," Willow says. "Slayers."

That's pretty much it, Faith thinks. "And now we wait," she says, and kicks back.

"Um, training?" Buffy says.

"Lunch break," Faith says. "I'll get there eventually."

Buffy rolls her eyes, but Faith feels a distant glow of fondness through the bond.

Hope's a bitch, but at least tonight there'll be fighting.

They split up early that night. Faith's got her jacket on, various knives and stakes hidden underneath. She's going to have to be subtle. Stealthy, even. It's never really been her strong suit, but the other option is Buffy being the one to take out all the vamps in the condo and surrounding areas, and Buffy's bullet wound is still pretty gnarly. At least Small Fry didn't kick up that big a stink. They didn't even have to tie her to a chair.

There are more vamps as Faith gets closer to Gigli's place. First one, then two together, then three standing in the alley outside the condo. Faith would normally chat, but she's all business tonight; she comes out of the darkness and stakes the three of them in a hurry before they have time to sound an alarm.

Vamps hating technology really works for her. She jumps up and grabs the fire escape, hoisting herself up to the first floor. The first three windows are dark; only the fourth and fifth floors are lit up. That could be a red herring, and they end up getting ambushed by vamps on the first three floors, but Faith doubts it. Gigli's still getting set up, and besides - between the hair and the name, Faith doesn't think she's that big on planning.

The fourth floor is the same as the others: a small window overlooks the fire escape. Faith thinks about breaking it, but everyone will hear that. She could jimmy the lock - she's had enough practice - but that takes time she's not sure she has. Buffy's supposed to walk in in the next ten minutes. So she tries the window first, and to her surprise, it slides open.

Gigli's not an idiot. That means they're expecting some kind of infiltration event.

Sure enough, someone tries to break a chair over her head as soon as she touches down in the study inside. She moves out of the way and elbows the guy in the back of the head, staking him. If there are humans in here - she's not going to think about that. She's too busy kicking the knees out from under the other guy and staking him.

She makes her way through the house like that. After clearing the first room, she has the advantage, so she claps her hand over guys' mouths and stakes them, moving almost silently. The apartment's not huge, and it's not long before she's cleared the entire fourth floor.

Then she hears Buffy's voice. "I'm here to make a deal."

She sounds as cold as she did in the living room earlier today. Faith looks around. There's an open hallway/balcony with slanted, vaulted ceilings leading to the staircase - totally mundane construction for Cleveland, but also luckily ensuring that Faith can drop right in on the action without alerting anyone. Of course, that also means it'll be more noticeable that there are ten piles of dust on the upper floor. She drops to her stomach and crawls out into the hallway, peeking over the edge of the balcony. She can just see the top of Gigli's head, plus four vamps with crossbows trained on Buffy. Faith dropping in will be a distraction, at least, and if she rolls and takes one of the vamps out, she might even not get shot.

When Gigli speaks, her voice is sweetly poisonous; she hasn't bothered updating her speech for modern times. Blue hair aside, she's old fashioned. "Why, pray tell, would I help you?"

"You tell me," Buffy says. "You're the one who picked the only town in the country with two senior Slayers to settle in."

"That's a matter of perception," Gigli says.

"We're the two oldest Slayers in the world. Between us we've stopped vampires three times as old as you, gods, the most powerful witches in the world -"

"Spare me your resumé," Gigli says. "Believe me, what I've got up my sleeve is far more valuable than all of that combined."

Buffy laughs. It's a sound Faith hasn't heard from her in a long time, harsh and cold. When she speaks, Faith feels like she's the one being dressed down. Feeling anger through the bond doesn't help. "You couldn't have anything that powerful if you tried."

"What if I drained you?" Gigli says. "Someone stabbed you. I could easily turn you."

"People have tried that," Buffy says. "It ends badly."

Stabbed her? So Gigli doesn't know about the shooting. Or at least, she wants Buffy and Faith to think she doesn't know.

"We'll see," Gigli says. "Seize her."

That's Faith's cue. She leaps up, rolls over the balcony, and lands on one of the guards. "Hey, B," she says, and throws a stake at the guard who's lining up to shoot her.

"May I?" Buffy says, and grabs one of the stakes from Faith's leg. Faith grins and dances with another guard, getting a couple jabs in before he grabs her in a chokehold.

Buffy's already staked one. It's just Faith's and another one she's fighting with. Gigli's standing aside, looking bored, which means she's going to try her psychic crap. No skin off Faith's nose. "Hey, big guy," she tells the vamp who's holding her. "Mind letting me go so I can kill your boss?"

"Not fucking likely," he says, and leans in to bite her.

Right. Faith headbutts him, knees him in the balls, and stakes him. Easy fucking peasy.

Buffy takes care of hers almost at the same time. Later, Faith thinks, she'll worry about how they're syncing up. Right now, they both advance on Gigli, who's looking between them with a smile.

"How are you liking each other's heads?" she says.

Was the curse her idea? She'd know from psychic bonds. "You felt them die," Faith says. There's no way she wouldn't be panicking, otherwise, when her guards on the second floor didn't come down.

"Of course I did, you child," Gigli says. "You think you're important? I've been around for ten times as long as you've been alive, much less using your piddling little Slayer powers to fight us. And now you'll be mine." She raises a hand, point it at them. "Come closer."

Buffy's the one who walks closer, but the bond's sending nothing but grim anger. The pearls are working. Faith walks forward too, until they're a foot away from Gigli. She's got her vamp face on now, and is smiling.

"My first boyfriend was fifteen times older than me," Buffy says.

Gigli blinks. "What?"

Buffy sucker punches her. When she bends over in shock, Faith meets her with a stake.

"You know," Faith says, pocketing the stake and dusting her hands off, "when you put it like that, the whole Angel thing sounds creepy."

"Mega," Buffy says. "Ugh, my shoulder hurts. Let's go home."

They walk home together, silently. They have a lot to talk about - Gigli not knowing about the gun plot, what they're going to do when she fails to check in with Jed and he decides to rain hellfire on Cleveland, or whatever his next move is. But the way Gigli was set up, how small her operation she was, makes Faith think that she was only ever a pawn. Jed's old, so old she's surprised he's not off in a mountain somewhere, muttering evilly; but no, he's the mastermind. So they have to figure out a way to touch him.

At least everyone who knows they've got magic on their side is dead.

They're not even halfway up the walk when Dawn opens the door and yells into the house, "They're not dead! Congrats on not being dead," she adds, letting Buffy and Faith in.

"Thanks," Buffy says. "It was fairly painless, overall."

"And the world has about fifteen fewer vamps," Faith says. "Including Gigli."

"Did you sack the place?"

Buffy shakes her head. "I'm tired. I figured we'd look tomorrow. We need to search her things, figure out what she knows."

"Tomorrow as in, during the day?"

Buffy nods. "We've got a little time before Jed figures out we killed her."

"We might've been supposed to," Faith adds. "That's part of what we want to find out."

"Cool," Dawn says. "I'll come with tomorrow. For now, I'm going to bed." She goes to the stairs, then hesitates. "You guys might want to tell Isabelle you're home," she says, then goes upstairs.

Faith and Buffy trade a glance. "Okay," Buffy mutters. They go upstairs together, and Faith knocks on Small Fry's door.

She opens it immediately. For a second her eyes are wide; then she goes expressionless. "Good. You're not dead."

"The default state I aim for," Buffy says. "I thought we'd work on throwing knives tomorrow, if that works? I know you like getting in close, but distance work can be fun too."

Small Fry eyes Buffy, then Faith. "That's good," she says. "Will Faith be there?"

"I can be," Faith says.

"Yes," Small Fry says, and closes her door in their faces.

"She's fun," Faith says.

"Life of the party," Buffy says. "Goodnight, Faith."

"Goodnight," Faith says, and goes to her room, at the end of the hall.

It's not until she's lying in bed, trying to convince her body to go the fuck to sleep, that she realizes that she and Buffy didn't exactly plan out what they're gonna do tomorrow. Buffy laid out the plan, and Faith totally agreed, but they didn't talk about it. At all. And yet, Faith wasn't surprised to hear it.

She groans. Damn it. Fuck. They're going to have to talk to Willow about this.

Tomorrow, though. For now, Faith does the only thing that's sure-fire guaranteed to get her to sleep: she double-checks that she's shielded Buffy, and then she puts her hands down her pants.

-

They go over to Gigli's house after breakfast, at mid-afternoon the next day. Willow and Small Fry are at home; Willow's showing Isabelle some meditation. Better than Giles demanding they stare at beach balls and think about the meaning of life, Faith thinks. Not that she's knocking Giles; in the end, his methods worked. But Willow's got a softer touch.

"So, what are we looking for?" Dawn says. "Kitchen sink?"

"Yep," Buffy says. "Downstairs is bigger. We'll cover that. Faith?"

"I got upstairs," Faith says. When they get into the house, she looks at the balcony and releases a burst of power. She makes it up to the second floor banister, where she can easily haul herself up.

When she looks down, Buffy's rolling her eyes with a fond smile. "Show-off."

"You'd do the same," Faith says, even though Buffy totally wouldn't.

"Uh-huh," Buffy says. "We'll see you in a bit."

Faith gets serious after that. There's a study, a bathroom, and three bedrooms up here. She starts with the study, because if she was a vamp with an over-inflated sense of importance, that's where she'd hide her shit. But the desk is empty - as in, it looks like it's never been used. There are books on the shelves, but Faith rifles through each of them and doesn't find anything. She checks the walls, the floorboards - nothing.

Her search is the same in the bedrooms. She even checks the medicine cabinet in the bathroom and doesn't find anything. When she joins Buffy and Dawn downstairs, she knows they've found the same shit - or rather, the lack of it.

"So," Buffy says. "She was using the focus we found to communicate with Jed."

"Yep," Faith says.

"And that's it."

"Looks like."

"No papers. No records of the sale. Nothing."

"Nope."

Buffy takes a deep breath. "This is fine," she says, totally unconvincingly. "This is great. I'm not worried. Why would I be worried about what looks like a total setup? It's no big deal, I'm sure." She whirls on one heel and stomps out of the house.

"She gets like this sometimes," Dawn says.

"You think I don't know that?" Faith says, and follows Buffy.

"You're not wrong," Faith says on the walk home.

"I know I'm not."

"And I'm reinforcing that, so chill," Faith says. "That was a setup. An evaluation of our skills, or something - I don't know. But it was a setup."

"Maybe Jed was spying on us?"

"He's definitely spying on us," Faith says. "But if he ID'd the necklaces..."

"He possessed Willow," Buffy says. "He knows she's here. But we've been keeping her power under wraps, and these pearls took a lot of juice."

"Maybe he'll think you just got lucky," Dawn says, catching up with them. "Or maybe it was a test for Gigli. There are a lot of options here."

Faith tamps down frustration. Buffy's mentally raging enough for both of them. "We need intel," she says. "You know what the next step is."

"The Watcher's Council," Buffy says. "I cannot even tell you how much I was hoping it would be something else."

"On the bright side, you have a brilliant, charming young liaison." Dawn grins at Buffy.

Buffy narrows her eyes.

"Okay, Grumpy," Dawn says. "But seriously, I'll get in contact with them, see if they can get something more substantial than the stuff they've been emailing me. Maybe more manpower, even."

"That's what Willow needs," Faith says. "Me and Buffy just need something to do." Gigli was too easy.

"Sure," Dawn says. "I'll get in contact with them. Maybe the shell corporation will lead somewhere."

"Thanks," Faith says.

"Yes - thanks, Dawn," Buffy says.

But she doesn't say anything else the rest of the way. Faith's tense with both their frustration, so much that when they get back to the house, she says, "Hey, Buffy, can I talk to you for a sec?"

Buffy eyes her warily. "Okay," she says, and leads Faith up to her room.

"You know what I'm going to bring up," Faith says, shutting Buffy's door.

Buffy crosses her arms. She's wearing pink lip gloss, and she fits in perfectly in this room. It's all airy and white, delicate floral stencils by the molding, a pale blue dresser. It's so - Buffy, and not the Buffy Faith knew back in the day. Grown-up Buffy.

Faith shakes herself and focuses on Buffy. Like she was waiting for Faith to pay attention, Buffy finally says, "This is about the bond."

"Yep," Faith says. "We're not even using it to talk, and yet -"

"We already know what the other is thinking," Faith says. "I know. This is a problem."

"To say the least," Buffy says. "But we can't do much about it."

"You know that's not true."

"Whoever Giles is sending for help -"

"Could help us with this."

"Maybe," Buffy says. "But then, maybe not. And maybe it gets out, and maybe someone grabs one of us and incapacitates the other via torturing the captured one. We don't know."

"You don't trust Giles?"

"Of course I trust Giles," Buffy says. "I just don't necessarily trust whoever he sends." She runs her hands through her hair. "I don't know, okay? I don't know what to do about this."

Faith's the one who tried to argue that this thing has tactical advantages, but she didn't think it would be subconscious. If it's subconscious, then Buffy might realize Faith is thinking about her.

This is such a fucking mess. "We'll talk to Giles," Faith says. "Directly to Giles."

"I kind of figured he knew," Buffy says. "With Dawn, and everything."

"He probably does, but he's not going to go in guns a'blazing until you actually talk to him."

"So we tell him outright what's going on," Buffy says. "I know."

"Good," Faith says. "Then - we're good."

Buffy offers her a wan smile. "We're good."

"Good," Faith says again, and leaves before she can get any ideas. Or think of any ideas. Jesus.

They decide on taking a rest day and calling Giles the next day. It's a Sunday, anyway, and while Faith's not sure if Giles does a normal 9-5 as head of the new Watcher's Council, she's pretty sure he'd rather be given this problem on a Monday. She definitely would.

Which means they have a pretty chill day. Buffy and Faith work on throwing knives with Small Fry, who - Faith's impressed to note - doesn't actually slam her shit down on the ground and stomp off when her knives don't go in right away. They all hang out and watch old Whose Line episodes for a few hours while Small Fry grumbles about how lame the jokes are, and then they go to bed. Easy-peasy.

Faith thinks it's probably that she let her guard down. That's why, that night, she dreams about Buffy. Lying on Buffy's giant bed, stripping her shirt off and then lowering herself over Buffy. Kissing her. Touching her.

She wakes with a start, right as things are getting good. Or terrible, depending on how you look at it. For a second she's blind with panic that Buffy might've seen, or felt it somehow. But Buffy's sleeping, and Faith's shields are up like an iron wall. In fact, she's as alone as she's been since before Buffy got shot. And she's aching.

It's been a long time since she jerked off thinking about Buffy. She does it quickly, feeling vaguely dirty the whole time, and paranoid as fuck about Buffy somehow sensing her. But when she comes like a freight train, her shields are still up.

She lies in bed for awhile after she’s done, thinking about how she got into this mess. She and Buffy used to be - well. They came to Cleveland on a knife’s edge. Buffy was ready to fly apart, and Faith was still jumpy, what with being a federal fugitive. She kind of figured they’d rent separate apartments, maybe coordinate patrolling territory, so it was weird when Buffy came into the motel room on the second day with rental applications.

And from there things just sort of…snowballed. After two and a half years, Giles and company had pretty thoroughly taken over the Watcher’s Council - what was left of it, anyway. Somewhere out there, Quentin Travers is bitter and plotting - but most of the Council was gone, and Giles stepped into the void. He got them funding, because the First couldn’t blow up the Council’s bank accounts. And by the time they were twenty-six, Faith figured she was just kind of stuck with Buffy. Maybe she wasn’t thinking about relationships on purpose, because she wanted Buffy to stay. The weird part is that Buffy actually, despite all odds, stayed.

Faith’s over-thinking things and she knows it. She kind of misses the kid who’d dive into sewers and almost get herself killed, murderous impulses aside. She tries to put it out of her mind, tossing and turning until she fucking finally falls back asleep.

The next morning, they call Giles. They wake up early and everything for it. Time differences, and all.

Buffy leads the call, her iPhone sitting in the center of the table, on speaker. “Giles, hey,” she says.

“Buffy, hello. It’s good to hear from you.”

“Dawn’s been talking to you guys, I know, I’ve just been busy and - anyway,” Buffy says. “I’m sure you’ve heard.”

“About your difficulties? I have.”

“Yeah, they’re a little…more. Than Dawn may have told you.”

Buffy explains the whole thing, start to finish. She doesn’t make it sound like a sob story - actually, Faith is pretty sure a stranger would think she was fine with the whole thing. But Faith’s not a stranger. It’s obvious to her, even without the bond, that Buffy’s freaking out in a serious way. And Giles knows Buffy at least as well as Faith does - maybe better, since they still talk every week, and she’s been more honest with him than anyone else currently alive. So it’s not a surprise to her when Giles says, “Well. This is rather more serious than Dawn implied, yes.”

“I’m glad for that,” Buffy says hurriedly. “I didn’t want - I mean, I wanted to be the one to tell you. That’s not Dawn’s job. That’s my job.”

Our job, Faith thinks, but doesn’t say it. She knows Buffy gets the thought, though. She blinks and looks at Faith like she’s surprised.

Faith nods at the phone: keep going. “Anyway,” Buffy says. “Any information you have on the Slayer magic would help.”

“I’ll send it over, of course, but Buffy - when you went into a trance…that was the first we knew of how the Original Slayer actually became the Slayer. To discover how to break, or alter, the bond that you and Faith have, may require similarly extreme methods.”

“I know,” Buffy says. “Believe me, I’ve thought of that.”

“And I’ll look into it,” Willow says. “The North American coven has this database, it’s top of the line, non-relational…and I’m making everyone make the bored face.”

“I appreciate it, though,” Buffy says. “And anything on Jed Wheeler’s financials -”

“I will forward to you directly,” Gile says. “Buffy. You’ll get through this.”

Everyone else is looking at the phone like it’ll make Giles magically materialize. Faith’s the one looking at Buffy; she’s the one who sees Buffy’s hands tense on the table, who watches her take a deep breath. “Thanks, Giles,” she says finally.

“Call me with updates, please. Regularly.”

Buffy smiles, still pale. “Will do.”

“Have a good day, Buffy.”

“You too,” Buffy says, and hangs up.

“Well,” Faith says.

“This changes nothing in the short-term,” Buffy says. “We still need to figure out a plan of attack with Wheeler. Anything we have, anything we can do. I want everyone on it.” She looks at Small Fry. “You, too. This is what being a Slayer is.”

“Why not just get the earth to swallow him up?” Small Fry says.

“Sure, we’ll just cause an earthquake over a Hellmouth,” Faith says, ignoring Buffy’s glare. “What could possibly go wrong.”

“No, stupid,” Small Fry says. “The earth doesn’t like Hellmouths. So we get the earth to swallow him, like it did with Sunnydale.”

“How do you know the earth doesn’t like Hellmouths?” Willow says quietly.

Small Fry blinks at her. “It told me.”

“It - what?” Faith says.

“When I walk,” Small Fry says. “It doesn’t like it. Here, too. It wants to fold together and protect itself, but it can’t.”

“That not being generally how plate tectonics work,” Buffy says. “Um, have you always been able to - talk to the earth?”

Small Fry shrugs. “Since I got my powers. I thought it was normal.”

Buffy opens her mouth, then closes it again. Faith’s the one who says, “We’ll talk about this later. How do you think the earth would swallow him up?”

“Magic,” Small Fry says. “The Hellmouth is still there, it’s just covered up.”

“Destabilize the earth and, what, just push him in?” Faith says.

Small Fry nods.

As plans go, it’s not exactly sophisticated. And there’s a problem with it: they need Willow to remove protections, just to ensure they get to Wheeler in the first place. Faith thinks it over, feeling Buffy doing the same thing. It occurs to her that they’re both sitting with their legs crossed the same way, leaning back against their chairs. Faith shifts, moving her legs and leaning forward on her elbows. “We’ll have to fight our way up the tower,” Faith says. “Me and Buffy.”

“Should we bring in reinforcements to hold down the fort?” Dawn says. “Kennedy, maybe Angel?”

“Maybe,” Faith says. She doesn’t like the idea of Angel being here, but then, she probably can’t just avoid the guy forever. “Probably,” she says. “So, a two-man strike team gets up to Wheeler. Red’s somewhere off-site, removing all the protections she can. Then what?”

“Destabilization,” Small Fry says. “I can do it.”

“You sure about that?”

She nods.

“I hate to be Buzzkill Central,” Buffy says, “but have you ever tried?”

Small Fry shrugs. “I can try before we go.”

“Right,” Buffy says. “And cause an earthquake in Cleveland.”

“Then I’ll try when we get there.” She gives Buffy a hard look. “I can do this.”

“Okay,” Buffy says, leaning back. “I’m not going to argue. It’s better than what we have right now.”

And if they don’t destabilize the earth enough to toss this guy into hell - or, a hell - then they can always put a knife in his back. Faith catches Buffy’s meaning. “Right,” she says. “So, we’ve got a plan. Now what?”

“Now,” Buffy says, “We train.”

Giles gets back to them the next day. He’s got details on Wheeler’s financials and they’re already shutting the shell corporation down. “And I’m sending you Nisha,” he says, “one of our brightest witches. She’ll help Willow ensure Wheeler’s defenses are truly down.”

“After that, we just have to go up 50 stories of vampires,” Buffy says.

“That is accurate, yes,” Giles says. “But I’ve directed Kennedy to relocate to Cleveland in preparation for your travel, and I believe Angel will be there as well.”

“What about Spike?” Faith says. Of the two of them, she prefers Spike. Probably because Buffy’s not likely to end up doing the nasty with him again.

Okay, fine, Buffy’s not into Angel anymore. But still.

“Occupied,” Giles says. “He’s taking care of a self-styled vampire lord in Moscow.”

“Lot of that going around,” Faith says. “When’s this operation schedule to go down?”

“Nisha will help Willow create simulacra of you all,” Giles says. “Then you’ll fly to San Diego. From there, you’ll drive to Sunnydale.”

“Sounds good,” Buffy says. “Um, by simulacra, you mean magic impressions, right? Not actual bodies.”

“Even I don’t have that kind of power,” Willow says.

“Precisely,” Giles says. “I wish I could be there, but -”

“No need,” Buffy says. “We’ll take care of this guy. And I’d rather lead a small strike team than an army.”

“Be careful,” Giles says. “I’ll talk to you when you touch down in San Diego.” He hangs up without saying goodbye, which means he’s nervous.

Faith cracks her knuckles. “Okay,” she says. “Well, this is a better plan than we used to come up with.”

“Hey,” Buffy says. “I’ve come up with good plans.”

“Sure,” Faith says. “I’m complimenting you, all right?”

There’s warmth in the bond as Buffy smiles at Faith. Faith can feel her face getting hot, which is ridiculous, because she’s not a blusher. She looks away.

“Okay!” Willow says. “Well. I am going to go, and - and look over the spells for simulacra. Yep.” She leaves.

Buffy says, “Isabelle, do you want to work outside? I think Faith needs to do some serious landscaping.”

If this were two years ago, Faith would make a dirty joke. As it is, she just says, “I gotta rake some leaves.”

“Sure,” Small Fry says. “Can we work on tai chi?”

“Absolutely,” Buffy says.

There’s a faint hint of disappointment as they leave. Faith decides to ignore it.

She does watch Buffy and Small Fry, though, after she’s done raking the front yard. Buffy’s so fucking patient with her corrections. They’ve both learned how to be, in the years they’ve been training Slayers, but Buffy goes beyond. She guides Small Fry, and cracks jokes that make her smile a little, and is generally the better half of Faith, just standing there, doing her thing.

Faith’s being mushy and she knows it, and she’s half certain Buffy can feel it. But if she can, she doesn’t look Faith’s way. Hopefully she can’t. But more and more, Faith’s feeling like these shields are a joke. They’ll probably have to deal with it after they kill Wheeler.

Unless killing Wheeler kills them, in which case, Faith will at least be free of having to admit her stupid crush.

She beats the shit out of three vampires that night, staking them faster and more violently than she normally would. It’s stupid to waste her energy like this, and she knows it, but her least favorite part of gearing up to stop the world from ending is waiting on other people to do shit. She wants to attack Wheeler now, and it’ll probably be a week or so. She’s going out of her mind with waiting.

“Wow,” Small Fry says when she kills the third.

“Faith’s exuberant,” Buffy says.

Faith stares at them, and then suddenly gets an idea. “Hey, Small Fry. Isabelle. You said the earth talks to you?”

Isabelle nods.

They’re in one of Cleveland’s parks - Faith’s not sure which one - and there are some sad day lilies languishing under a tree. It’s late fall, so that’s not surprising. It’s also exactly what Faith needs. “Can you make these grow?”

She doesn’t want to phrase it like a challenge, because then Small Fry might kill herself trying to work magic Faith’s not totally sure she has. But despite the fact that she asks the question as gently as she knows how, Isabelle gets a determined look on her face. She kneels and cups her hands around the flowers.

“I know,” she says out loud. “I know it’s late. But just for a day. After that, they can go back to the cycle.”

Her forehead wrinkles, and she sighs a little, and then stands up. The flowers have perked up, blossoms bright, leaves healthy.

“The earth doesn’t like it when I do that,” she tells Faith. “They don’t want to.”

“They, huh?”

Isabelle shrugs.

Faith leans down and looks at the flowers. They look fine. It might as well be the middle of the summer, as far as those flowers are concerned.

“Cool,” she says. “Well, then. Everyone else ready to go home?”

Buffy nods, looking a little stunned. Isabelle says, “I’m tired.”

So they go home, even though it’s early. Willow’s still in her room, and Dawn’s gone to bed early, probably because she needs to talk with the Council in the morning. Isabelle goes straight to bed; Faith’s a little worried about the kid’s energy levels, but then, she staked a vamp. And she said the earth didn’t want to grow the flower, and it wants to swallow Wheeler whole.

“I know,” Buffy says when they settle in the kitchen. Faith makes them tea, and hands it to Buffy, feeling a weird sense of satisfaction when she curls her hands around it.

“You know what?”

Buffy shrugs. “That you’re worried about Isabelle.”

“How much are you picking up from me?”

“Only the stuff you’re not careful about hiding.”

Faith opens her mouth to defend herself, but Buffy holds up a hand. “Relax. I know why you do it. I hide stuff, too. It’s cool, we’re cool. But Isabelle - she might not be strong enough.”

“You’re saying we might kill the kid.”

Buffy nods. She’s got circles under her eyes, Faith realizes, and for once she looks like she's actively out of it. Faith probably does too, but it kind of freaks her out, when it’s Buffy.

“I don’t want to say that’s a risk we have to take,” Faith says. “She’s just a kid. But -”

“But that’s pretty much our best option at this point,” Buffy says. “I know. I just wish - God. I don’t even know what I wish, at this point.”

Faith stays quiet. This is something Buffy needs to get out.

“I thought I could end it,” she says. “When we made other girls Slayers…for a second, I thought I could retire. But I couldn’t. It took me maybe two days to realize that.”

“Because Giles kept bringing up Cleveland?”

Buffy shakes her head. “Because I still have this power. And somewhere along the way, I realized I can’t get rid of it, and I can’t just ignore when bad things happen, no matter how much I want to.”

“But you still want to,” Faith says.

Buffy nods.

“I think that’s pretty normal,” Faith says. “I mean. It’s not any weirder than the rest of our lives, anyway.”

Buffy snorts. “That would be hard.”

“True,” Faith says. “Still.”

She doesn’t have a talent for subtlety, or comforting people, so she’s relieved when Buffy’s shoulders relax and she stops looking like she’s going to fly off the handle and do something really scary, like cry. They drink their tea in silence after that, a vague vein of comfort running between them in the bond. It’s nice. For the first time since they found Small Fry, Faith goes to bed almost calm.

And yeah, it’s the calm before the proverbial storm, but who cares? She’ll take what she can get.

Five days after their last conversation with Giles, Willow says, “The simulacrum is done. I’ve booked a flight for tonight. Nisha will meet us in San Diego tomorrow morning.”

The next couple hours are a flurry of packing. Faith books a motel in San Diego, and then they all go to the airport. It’s kind of comfortingly mundane, checking their bags and going through security. Faith’s mildly worried that they’ll die in a plane crash, but then, she always feels like that when she gets in a plane.

They stay at a Holiday Inn near the airport, across from a rental car place. They check in silently; Willow takes Small Fry, Dawn has her own room, and Buffy and Faith share a room. Faith actually thinks Buffy will room with Dawn, but Buffy sticks to Faith’s side and Dawn looks at them like she knows something, so that’s that. Maybe Dawn thinks they’re dating; fuck if Faith knows. She’s not even sure it really matters, at this point.

She and Buffy put their suitcases on opposite sides of the room. Buffy does some pushups and lunges, then brushes her teeth. Faith does the same. When she comes out of the bathroom, sweatpants on, Buffy’s staring into space.

Faith opens her mouth to say something, and Buffy jumps and looks at her. For a second - just a second - Faith’s shields slip, and she feels Buffy wanting.

It’s not fast. It’s not desperate. Faith very deliberately walks around the two beds, so that she’s inches from Buffy. She turns the air conditioning down a little, and stands back up.

Buffy looks at her and licks her lips.

Faith leans in, still slowly, and kisses Buffy.

Buffy reacts immediately, mouth opening on a soft sigh. She reaches down and grabs Faith’s wrists, pulling her in close. Faith dips her tongue into Buffy’s mouth, and Buffy meets her, pressing back and curling a hand around the back of Faith’s neck.

It’s not soft anymore, but it’s still slow. Buffy’s tense and so is Faith, standing locked against each other. Faith spreads her hand on Buffy’s lower back, nails digging into her, and Buffy bites Faith’s lip. When Faith gasps, Buffy slides her hand up to Faith’s head and grabs her hair, tugging.

They go to bed after that, on mutual agreement. Faith can feel Buffy in her head, and it makes her dizzy with want - Buffy’s presence, the tension in her mind. The tension in both their minds. Faith sinks into the bed, and Buffy hovers above her, eyes intent on Faith. She leans in and kisses Faith again, straddling Faith’s thigh. Faith rocks her hips slowly as they kiss, already so turned on she can barely think. She slides a hand into Buffy’s shirt, dragging her nails up Buffy’s back. Buffy gasps and her hips jerk; Faith smirks, kissing the corner of Buffy’s mouth and then ducking her head, biting the curve of her neck and shoulder. Buffy makes an unhappy noise and reaches down, sliding her hand up Faith’s shirt, running her fingers over Faith’s bra. Faith widens her legs, grinding against Buffy shamelessly, curling her lip a little at the feeling of satisfaction coming from Buffy.

Buffy looks smug as fuck when she pulls Faith’s shirt off, but Faith doesn’t even care. She just taps Buffy’s hip until Buffy takes her own shirt off, too. And fuck, she’s wearing a dark purple bra that’s dark against her skin - paler now that they don’t live in California anymore. Faith skims her fingers along the undersides of the bra as Buffy sits back, watching Faith with careful eyes. Finally, Faith sits up enough that she can get Buffy’s bra off.

She leans back and Buffy hovers over her. The angle’s wrong for Faith’s mouth, so she runs her thumbs over Buffy’s nipples instead, laughing a little when Buffy gasps, choked-off. She’s caught off balance when Buffy jerks away, going straight for Faith’s jeans and pulling them off. She gets her own off, too, and their underwear, all in one flurry of motion - and then they’re naked, and Faith’s touching Buffy’s skin, warm all over. Buffy, her mind supplies, not anyone else - just Buffy. She can smell sex, and that just makes it better; Buffy’s wet against her thigh when Faith pulls her in for another kiss, reaching between them to pinch Buffy’s nipple.

Buffy moans then, the first loud noise either of them have made. Faith laughs a little and rolls them in one movement, so that Buffy’s under her, legs spread wide. Faith takes a moment to just look at her, raising her eyebrows when Buffy’s blush travels down her shoulders, spreading over her chest. But Buffy’s right there, and Faith can touch her however she wants; so finally, she gets on her stomach and bites Buffy’s thigh, thrusting a finger directly into Buffy’s cunt.

She was right about this. Buffy gasps and her back arches, hips bucking so sharply Faith’s almost knocked off. Faith wraps a hand around Buffy’s hip and holds her down as she drags her tongue over the folds of Buffy’s cunt, thrusting sharply with her finger. Buffy’s tight and she tightens even more when Faith sucks on her clit, as she moans, bracing her legs against the bed. Faith tongues her clit and slips a second finger in, curling them, fucking Buffy slowly and deliberately.

Seventeen years. Seventeen years of thinking about this, of trying not to think about this - and now she’s tasting Buffy, bringing her closer and closer to the edge. She’s so turned on, feeling how Buffy feels through the bond, and for once she embraces it, gets lost in it. She bears down on Buffy and keeps fucking her, rides Buffy through her movements until she finally comes, a white-hot flare in Faith’s mind.

After, Buffy tugs on her weakly until Faith flops next to her. And Buffy’s hands are small, but she knows what to do with them, moving them in response to Faith’s mental feedback until she gets it just right, fucking Faith and sucking a dark mark onto Faith’s thigh. Faith comes with one hand on her tits and one hand digging into the bed, just barely holding herself back from ripping the sheets. It feels like something’s breaking inside of her, and for a second she blacks out - and when she comes to, Buffy’s resting her head on Faith’s stomach, breathing hard, legs at odd angles and half off the bed.

She moves up next to Faith, and for a horrible second, Faith thinks this is all going to go south. But then Buffy curls up next to Faith, one hand resting on Faith’s upper arm. Faith tugs the sheet up and kicks the comforter off, and they fall asleep like that, dropping off at the same moment.

Faith wakes up the next morning to the alarm blaring, with a heavy feeling in her stomach. Buffy’s already showering, which is good, because it undercuts the inevitable weirdness that would result from them waking up together. Faith stretches, deliberately doesn’t think about how she might’ve made the world’s most terrible choice last night, and taps her feet, waiting for Buffy to be done.

When she comes out, Faith goes into the shower without comment. She pulls her wet hair back and puts on jeans and a tank top, then comes out of the bathroom. Buffy’s standing there in pretty much the same clothes, except she’s wearing heeled boots.

“Let’s roll,” Faith says, and they go to knock on the others’ doors.

“Heya,” Willow says when they get to her room. “We’re ready.”

“Awesome,” Buffy says. “Let’s, um. Let’s go.”

Willow looks between Buffy and Faith, brow crinkling like she’s surprised. Faith’s stomach lurches, because she can’t possibly know - but then Small Fry elbows past the two of them with a simple, “Come on, let’s go,” and Willow looks away.

“Coming,” Dawn says, stumbling out of her room. Her duffel is knocking against her leg.

“It’s going to be fun trying to fit all of this into one car,” Buffy says with false cheer. “I’m excited.”

Down in the lobby, they meet up with Nisha. She’s pretty and young, but Faith knows that doesn’t mean much. Willow seems happy to have her, anyway. She’s got her own rental car, and is going to be following them. “I promise not to lose you,” she says with a calm smile. Faith’s not totally sure she’s been apprised of how serious the situation is, but whatever.

Dawn’s the one who drives, because, “I actually took my driver’s test at a normal age, Buffy.” Buffy acquiesces without saying much, but it’s not a coincidence that Faith’s squished in the back with Willow and Small Fry, and Buffy’s up front.

“So, the plan,” Buffy says as they drive out of San Diego. “We stop a little ways from the city limits, like Faith and I did before. Will, you and Nisha will work your magic, and signal us when you’re ready.”

“Got it,” Faith says.

“Roger that,” Willow says.

“Dawn -”

“Make sure Isabelle’s safe,” Dawn says. “Believe me, I’m ready.”

“Okay,” Buffy says. “Good. This will go well. I have a feeling.”

Bullshit, Faith thinks, but she doesn’t say anything out loud. Both their shields are up, so who knows if Buffy even hears her. It’s probably best if they don’t fight in front of the children.

They stop in roughly the same place Buffy and Faith stopped before. Nisha gets out of the car behind them, shading her eyes from the sun. “It’s desolate,” she says as they all join together, standing in a loose circle.

“Uh-huh,” Buffy says. “Are we ready to do this?”

Everyone nods. Nisha looks a lot less calm than she did in San Diego, but then, Faith’s also feeling less calm. She can’t really fault her for that.

“Once we go in there, there’s no going back,” Buffy says.

“Do or die,” Faith says. “Small Fry, you feeling up to the magic?”

Isabelle closes her eyes. She was wearing flip-flops, and she’s stepped out of them. “They’re angry.”

Faith’s going to assume she means the earth. “Good,” Faith says. “They should be pissed.”

Isabelle nods, toes wiggling.

“Okay,” Faith says. “B, let’s get our weapons. It’s go time.”

Buffy hugs Dawn; Faith nods at everyone. They go over to the car together and load up on weapons: a crossbow for each of them, knives, stakes. Buffy’s got the scythe, and Faith’s got a wicked short sword. They look at each other, and for a second, Faith can feel Buffy in her head, strong and scared.

“Let’s roll,” Faith says, and together they walk towards the crater.

If Faith had thought about it, she would’ve made them bring grapple hooks. The crater’s not a straight drop, but it’s not easy to get down, either. “You know those goats who stand on the edges of cliffs all, fuck you?” Faith says as they pick their way down.

“Uh-huh,” Buffy says. “You send me pictures all the time.”

“Yeah, I feel like one of those,” Faith says, taking a short leap down.

“Think Willow will have the shields down by the time we get there?”

“Maybe,” Faith says. “This whole plan hinges on a whole lot of chance.”

“There is that,” Buffy says. “Listen, about last night -”

Faith feels minor panic twisting in her chest. “At least we have these sweetass necklaces, so he can’t get in our heads,” she says. “And how about my sword? Badass central.”

Buffy frowns a little and shakes her head, but she re-focuses on getting down the crater.

After what feels like forever - but was, according to Faith’s phone, only an hour - they’re at the bottom of the crater. They’re about a mile away from the tower, maybe less. From here, it looms impressively. Faith wonders if demon/wizard/bastard towers come with elevators. Probably not. Wheeler can just magic himself wherever he wants, if he’s that powerful.

They walk together silently. When they’re about a hundred yards away, a host of people walk out of the tower. Ten of them. Faith readies herself for crossbow fire, praying the magic Willow and Nisha are working will hold out - but it doesn’t come.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” she says quietly.

Buffy nods. “Wheeler wants to face us.”

“Those are people, too.” Slaves? Lackeys?

“Doesn’t matter,” Buffy says. “We’re going to get through them.”

Damn. Maybe Faith’s murderous tendencies are contagious.

“No,” Buffy says. “I just want to get rid of this bastard before he ruins all of our lives.”

“Fair enough,” Faith says.

They get closer. The ten people unsheath their swords. They’re a mix of women and men, but they’re all built as fuck. Faith pulls her sword out; Buffy shifts her grip on her scythe.

“Go time,” Faith says when they’re twenty feet away.

As one, the people rush forward. Buffy and Faith launch themselves into the fight.

It’s fast and bloody. These people are more organized than your average vampire, and high-kicking them only keeps them away for so long. Luckily Faith’s spent years getting better at swords, and is capable of throwing knives to kill them. She loses two knives that way, then cuts one lackey’s head off, moving on to another one. Finally, it’s just Buffy, blocking a chop from the last one, then swinging her scythe, cutting him through the middle.

“Messy way to die,” Faith says.

Buffy nods. Her face is flecked with blood, but she looks fine. “But necessary,” she says.

Neither of them are even out of breath yet. Faith looks up, craning her neck to try and see the top of the tower. “We’re harder than that to kill, asshole!” she yells.

“C’mon,” Buffy says, and they retrieve their knives and head for the entrance.

For a second Faith’s worried that they’ll have to break in; but as they approach, the heavy wood door swings open. Nice and horror story-ish, Faith thinks. That, or Mario-y. “I feel like we’re in a video game,” she says.

“Sadly without the extra lives,” Buffy says.

“No kidding,” Faith says.

Beneath them, the earth moves.

“Small Fry,” Faith says.

Buffy nods, and they enter the tower together.

The windows must be that magic glass shit Wolfram & Hart had in LA, because on the first floor, they’re met by vampires - a lot of them - and they can’t break the glass. They settle for killing them, all 20, leading them to a hallway and then hacking them apart one by one. Wheeler at least doesn’t have access to ubervamps.

Faith’s calves are burning by the tenth floor. The magical attacks just roll off of them - fucking lasers, and curses that rain down on their heads. Faith snarls at them anyway, furious that this is something she can’t beat up.

They keep going up, occasionally cutting down whoever gets in their way. Twenty floors, then thirty, then forty - and then they reach a platform on the fiftieth floor, with a spiral staircase leading to a small red door.

Buffy and Faith look at each other. They’ve got all kinds of gunk on them, and yet Faith leans forward and kisses Buffy once, fast and hard. “C’mon,” she says, hefting her sword. Buffy’s eyes are wide, but she follows Faith up the stairs.

The red door, like the entrance, opens for them. It leads onto what looks like an observation deck, an open room with a massive glass window overlooking the desert. There’s hardly anything else there - a desk in one corner, a crystal on a stand next to it, but no human heads or bones. Nothing sinister.

As on edge as Faith was before, that triples when she sees Wheeler standing at the window, his back to them.

In for a penny, she thinks, and throws a knife at him. At the last minute, he whirls around and raises his hand. The knife stops in midair, inches from his eye.

“Welcome,” he says.

“To your humble abode?” Faith says.

He ignores her. “I’m sso glad you could make it.”

“Yeah, how could we not? You practically engraved the invitation. You know we can’t resist a nice and evil vamp.”

“Gigli was a loyal sservant,” he says. “She will be missed.”

“Cut the chit-chat,” Buffy says. Outside, there’s a low rumbling noise. The pen on the desk rolls off one side.

“You have a girl,” Wheeler says. “My best.”

“She’s ours,” Faith says.

“I don’t think sso,” Wheeler says. His eyes turn red.

The earth shakes again, this time rolling. Faith and Buffy stumble. Wheeler stays still, but the glass behind him shatters.

“I wanted to ssee,” he says, “what I was up against. And I find two women, unworthy of the gift of the Sslayer.”

“Fuck off,” Buffy says, and takes a step forward, and another step. Faith follows, feeling like she’s walking through concrete.

Outside, there’s a screaming noise. Faith sees a chasm opening outside. There’s nothing but blackness in it, and it stretches out for miles, so far she can see it from this high up.

“I could have molded her,” he says. “To be better than you.” He raises a hand, and suddenly Nisha and Willow’s shields are pierced, and Buffy cries out. Slashes of red appear all over - her arms, her forehead, her legs, jeans ripping. It’s not until Faith realizes she’s also yelling that she knows it’s happened to her, too.

“You’re helpless,” Wheeler says.

“Not quite,” Buffy grits out, and she raises the scythe, swinging it at him.

It bounces off an invisible shield and rips itself out of Buffy’s hands, flying across the room.

The earth shakes again. The ceiling cracks. It’s going to go down, Faith realizes, taking all three of them with it. And Wheeler’s not worried. Wheeler will survive, and she and Buffy will die.

Today’s not the day Buffy’s going to die.

Faith gathers all the strength she has, all the explosive speed. They’re just a few feet away from him, and she tenses her legs, ready for one last push.

“Faith!” Buffy yells.

“Say goodbye, asshole,” Faith says, and launches herself at him. His eyes widen in surprise, but he’s too slow to stop her. She latches onto him, one hand around his throat, and together they tumble out the window.

The second they’re in open air, Wheeler screams out a spell. But it doesn’t help; Faith can feel them rushing towards the chasm, being pulled there by magic stronger than anything Faith’s ever felt. As they reach the ground, Wheeler bares his teeth. “Travers says hello.”

Fuck. “Yeah? Fuck him,” Faith says, and breaks Wheeler’s neck.

They fall into the chasm. Pain screams through Faith, lighting up her entire body.

And then everything goes black.

-

Her first thought when she wakes up is that she’s dead. She has to be.

Her second thought is that she should open her eyes, so she does.

The world around her is pale - gray, she realizes, and groans. Shit. Her dream was prophetic.

Also, Wheeler’s dead body is on top of her.

She shoves it aside and sits up. The sky is an indeterminate color, and she wonders if this is some weird pocket of the Hellmouth, or something else. There’s no indication of where the light’s coming from - what light there is, anyway. It just suffuses everything, Faith included. Her hands still have some color to them, but it’s muted. So is the grass. Everything is not-quite shades of gray.

Then she remembers what Wheeler said, and feels sick. Travers. Quentin fucking Travers. It suddenly makes sense, why Wheeler would build this tower and attack them. He must’ve been in hiding for years, but with an army of demented, fucked-up Slayers at his back, Travers could take the Council back. He could do anything. And all it took was bargaining with an old, powerful wizard.

And now Travers is still alive in the real world, and he’ll come up with another scheme, some way to get rid of Buffy once and for all. Faith stares up at the black sky.

“I’m not dead,” she says out loud. Her voice is rusty. She stands up and, for good measure, kicks Wheeler’s body. “Fuck you,” she says. She looks back up at the sky and yells, “And fuck you, too!”

Her voice doesn’t even echo.

“I’m getting out of here,” she says. She sounds crazy and desperate and knows it, but fuck that. She dreamed this. She turns around, and sure enough, there’s the mountain range. She’ll make it there, she’ll slay whatever demons she has to slay, and she’ll find a way to get back to her world. If this is a hell dimension, then there has to be a way out. She’ll get back to the real world and warn Buffy about Travers - or help her fight if she takes long enough that he has another plan. She’s not going to stay here until she dies, or withers away and becomes a fucking tree or something.

She still has her sword, gripping it tight, and her knives are all still strapped against her. She sheathes her sword and starts walking towards the mountains.

First things first, Faith thinks as she walks. She needs to make sure she can survive in this world. She's not even sure if she's technically dead; and if she is dead, she's not sure if she needs food and water or not. But as she walks, she starts to get thirsty, so unless this is a really weird hell, she guesses she needs sustenance.

Luckily, a stream meanders into view before things get really bad. It's mostly gray, with the occasional flash of drab blue as the water burbles by, but it doesn't look actively poisoned. Faith kneels and splashes some water into her mouth.

Now: food.

She's a city girl. There's no way she's gonna look at some tubers and think, cool, I can totally eat these. And on the off chance that she's not dead, she's not gonna risk dying in this dimension by eating some weird mushrooms. So she's only going to eat shit she recognizes, which means...what, exactly?

Meat. But she has to eat vegetables eventually. That's a problem to deal with later, though, along with the fact that she knows she can kill vamps but is pretty unclear on the rabbits thing. She keeps walking.

There are rabbits, occasionally, and squirrels. Can she even make a fire? She stops as she starts getting hungry, and looks around.

There's a tree nearby, so she goes to it. Heavy fruits, or vegetables, are hanging off of it. She eyes them dubiously, then sees a rabbit munching one on the ground, apparently totally unafraid of her.

Well. If it's not killing the rabbit, hopefully it won't kill her. She grabs one of the melons from the tree and then, as the rustling makes the rabbit start hopping away, throws it at the rabbit.

The rabbit's stunned. Faith runs over and snaps its neck. Skinning it is a little harder, but she manages to get most of the fur off of enough meat to eat. She cleans her knife in the stream she's been half-following - it goes towards the mountains, or flows away from them, or whatever - and slices the melon open.

"Truth time," she mutters, and tries to start a fire.

The only method she knows is rubbing sticks, and at first it doesn't work on her little pile of dead leaves. But then there's a spark, and another one, and after what feels like forever, she has enough of a fire to cook the rabbit.

It tastes like ass and the melon is bitter as fuck, but Faith eats all of the rabbit that she cooks and the entire melon. She's not hungry at the end, so she figures it's worked out okay. She is tired - she was walking for what felt like hours - but now's not the time to worry about that. She needs to get to the mountains as soon as possible, if her dream was right. She has to protect Buffy.

She sheathes the knife she used and hauls herself to her feet, continuing towards the mountains.

She sleeps that night and doesn't dream. Maybe this is a dreamless dimension, or maybe she's repressing like fuck; who knows, really. But either way, she wakes up in the morning feeling a little dulled, like all her senses aren't quite working. She's gonna choose to interpret that as a bad sign. She grits her teeth and gets moving.

It's a rough slog. She eats twice a day, and walks as quickly as she can. By day three, she's in the foothills. On day four, she sees the house.

It's a tiny, rickety-looking thing, sitting on top of a tall hill. There's a path leading up to it that can't have been made by anything bigger than a person walking up and down it, over and over. Faith doesn't even think about it - she diverts her path, climbing up the hill and knocking on the door.

"Hello?" she says. Her voice is rusty with disuse. "Anyone home?"

"Come in," someone calls. "The door's open."

Faith turns the doorknob and walks in, one hand on her knife. A woman stands at a fireplace with a pot over it. She looks at Faith with a smile. "Nothing threatening in these hills uses English," she says.

Her voice is soft and lyrical. She's black, wearing a red dress that Faith can't identify the era of, speaking English with an accent Faith can't place. Unlike Faith, she's full color, not washed out. But none of that matters, really, because looking at her, Faith knows exactly what she is. She's a Slayer.

“Holy shit,” Faith says.

“And a good day to you too,” the woman says. “I’m Alice. You are?”

“Faith,” Faith says.

“Interesting.” Her eyes skirt over Faith’s outfit. “What year is it, where you came from?”

“2013,” Faith says.

“Ah.” Alice nods. “I am from 1943.”

“World War II got you, huh?”

“No,” Alice says. “A vampire, using unnatural magics, opened a portal. I fell.”

“Are there more of us?”

“Not that I know of,” Alice says. “There are many dimensions for Slayers to be imprisoned in.”

Or happily exist in, Faith thinks, like Buffy did. Out loud, she says, “How do you hang out here and not go crazy?”

“I was a Slayer from 1934 to 1943,” Alice says. “In that time, I fought monsters, demons, and all manner of horrors.” She stirs the pot. “These years of peace have been a blessing.”

Faith doesn’t get that at all, but she’s not going to start an argument with the one person who might be able to help her get out of here. “So,” she says, “how would I get out of here, if I wanted to?”

Alice raises her eyebrows. She's silent as she pulls the pot off the fire, swinging it around on an iron hook, and ladles out two bowls of soup. Faith’s learned how to be patient, hard-won lessons that pay off now while she waits for Alice to spit it out. Finally, Alice says, “It’s not easy.”

“Yeah,” Faith says. “I wasn’t really expecting it to be.”

“Further in the mountains there is a gate,” Alice says. “You can get anywhere you want in it, but only where you want. If you don’t truly want to go back, then you’ll be spat right back out here. If you truly want to go to a hell dimension, you’ll be sent there.”

“I really, really want to go home,” Faith says.

“I’m coming to understand that,” Alice says. “But to get there, there are trials you have to pass. Monsters. Everything you fear.”

“What is this, ancient Greece?” Faith has a vague impression of myths, and this sounds like one.

Alice smiles a little. “Something like that. Now you see why I chose a peaceful life here.”

Faith shakes her head. “I can’t do that. My friends are in danger.”

“Danger that won’t disperse once the Slayer is dead?”

“Um, no,” Faith says. She’ll skip the big long explanation about things being totally different now. “Definitely not.”

“Very well,” Alice says. “Continue into the mountains. There’s no real west or east here. If you’re looking for the gate, it will find you.”

“Gotta love alternate dimensions,” Faith says. “And if I really want to get home, I’ll get there?”

“Without a doubt,” Alice says. “It’s only a matter of wanting it badly enough. And not getting killed by monsters.”

“So, does that mean I’m alive? If I can be killed?”

Alice shrugs, an easy, fluid motion. “It means you’re not dead.”

That’s not really an answer, but Faith knows better than to press. Whatever Alice says, it can’t have been easy, being here for seventy years without someone else to talk to. Assuming there are no others. Maybe there are. Actually, Faith thinks, looking around the cabin, there probably are. There are two chairs at the table.

She’s over-analyzing. “Thank you for your help,” she says, and takes another sip of soup.

After she finishes, Alice very gently hustles her out. Faith’s not offended. She’s got a mission, and Alice clearly values her privacy. Anyway, there might be two chairs, but there’s only one bed, and Faith’s not in love with the idea of sleeping on a wooden floor. The ground might have rocks, but at least the grass is soft. Mostly.

She keeps walking for as long as she can without feeling too tired to deal with shit, should shit show up. She keeps calling up images in her mind: Buffy and Dawn, Angel and Kennedy, Willow and even Spike. They keep her going, make every step she takes seem more meaningful.

She doesn’t run into any monsters by the time she gets tired enough to make camp. She once again kills a rabbit and eats the world’s least appetizing meal, then goes to sleep, one hand on her knife.

When she wakes up, the ground is shaking.

She rolls to her feet and grabs her weapons, strapping them on. This might be a test; then again, it might just be how this world works. Since she has no idea, she gets her back against a tree and tries to stay upright.

After a few minutes, it stops. There are downed branches everywhere, and some rocks shook free of nearby cliffs. Faith grits her teeth. She’s going to have to really work on not freaking out every time something weird happens. If this is a dimension fighters go to - and Faith’s pretty sure that interpretation works as well as any - then there’ll be a lot of shit like this. She has to be ready.

She’s not expecting to see the Mayor. She’s not sure why. It makes sense that she would, trials and all; and it’s been long enough, she’s worked through her shit enough, that she thinks of him as “the Mayor”. Not…not how she thought of him before, as some kind of fucked-up father figure. Still, it’s weird to round the bend of a tall hill and see him in the grass, sitting at his desk from Sunnydale.

Her hand goes to her sword. “What do you want?” she says warily.

“Oh, nothing in particular,” the Mayor says. “This is a nice place, isn’t it?”

“If you like ‘em boring and colorless,” Faith says.

“You always did like color.” He stands up, not approaching her, but looking at her with a kind smile on his face. She’s more aware than most just how much of a lie that smile is. She doesn’t react. “You lived a tempestuous life, Faith. Do you really want to go back there?”

Don’t talk to him, she thinks, but she can’t resist answering. “Buffy’s in trouble. I’m not just gonna stand aside while Quentin fucking Travers fucks with her.”

“Language, Faith.”

“You don’t own me,” Faith snaps. “And you know what? You wanted to, but you never really did. Get lost.”

He takes a step forward. That’s all it takes; she launches herself forward and swings her sword at him.

He disappears.

She’s not totally sure he was ever really there to begin with; but in the end, she guesses it doesn’t matter. If that was a trial, she’s passed it. She sheathes her sword and keeps walking.

She doesn’t run into anything else, and after awhile, she gets tired. She keeps seeing the Mayor’s face - as though it matters, she thinks angrily. It’s been years, more than a decade. She knew the guy for less than a year. She should be over it. But the ghosts of that awful year are still haunting her, until she finally lies down to sleep. She pushes them away, then, and focuses on Buffy and Small Fry. She’s doing this to get back to them. This gray world isn’t gonna swallow her. She’s got to get out.

She’s starting eating mostly vegetarian just because she’s so bad at skinning and cooking animals. There are berries and, she finds out when she pulls a plant up by the roots, potato-type things that don’t seem to be deadly. She walks into the mountains for most of a day when a shadow flashes by overhead.

It’s there and then it’s gone, faster than Faith can unsheathe her sword. She’s in deeper hills now, stretching up maybe three hundred feet above her head. So at first she thinks she’s seeing things when she just glimpses a long, scaly tail disappearing behind one of the hills.

Then the shadow happens again, and this time she’s looking up to see what’s causing it. “A dragon?” she says out loud. “Are you fucking kidding me? What’s this supposed to symbolize, exactly?”

The world is silent.

The dragon’s gray, but Faith gets the feeling that won’t make its firebreathing any better. This has to be a test, which means eventually the big nasty’ll be looking for her; but for now, Faith needs a plan for killing the thing. She takes cover under some trees on the underside of a hill, thinking frantically.

A single short sword and some knives. How the hell is she supposed to slay a dragon? “No one ever said the odds would be fair,” she mutters to herself. It sounds like something the Mayor might say. That doesn’t make it any less true.

Before she has a chance to think it over, though, the dragon lands in front of her.

It doesn't talk, exactly, but it tilts its head, and then there's a voice in Faith's head. Why do you want to go back?

"I've got a job to do," Faith says. "I'm not done yet."

Many have settled here. Many are happy.

"Not me, man," Faith says. "You don't want to go down that road with me. Buffy's in trouble, I'm getting back to help her. That's the end of it."

The dragon considers her for a long, freak-out-causing moment. Then it says, Very well. You'll find what you're looking for at the top of this bluff, and flies away.

"Okay," Faith mutters. "Not as bad as it could've been." She gets out from the trees and starts walking.

She makes it three steps when someone shoots her. Or, rather, when a wound appeared, unwelcome and unexpected, in her shoulder. It's bleeding buckets and it hurts like a bitch, but it seems to be a clean wound. Faith rips off part of her shirt and shoves it against the hole, and keeps walking.

But as she climbs, she realizes something's waiting for her at the top. A lot of somethings. Demons, with tentacles and oozing pustules all over them. And Faith's got a short sword and a knife.

Well, shit. At least they're courteous enough to wait for her. They even back off a little to give her space when she gets to the top of the bluff.

There are five of them, each taller than Faith. "Five, really?" she says. "I'm starting to think this dimension wants me to get out."

The demons snarl. Faith shrugs and says, "Yeah, whatever," and launches herself at the closest one.

Fighting she can do. She stabs, parries, ducks the spikes on one demon's arm that look poisonous as shit. She keeps Buffy in mind, Buffy and Small Fry, Dawn and Willow. She's not letting these assholes kill her.

One of them stabs straight through the bullet hole in her shoulder. That doesn't matter. She slices his head off, then stops, panting.

Five dead bodies surround her.

"Finally," she mutters, and goes to the edge of the bluff.

She almost vomits at what she sees. A whirling vortex, vividly red and black, is devouring the gray valley below her.

The dragon told her this was it, and Alice mentioned a gate. Can she trust a dragon in a purgatory universe?

She doesn't have much of a choice. If she keeps hurting this bad, she's going to pass out.

In for a penny, Faith thinks. She holds the image of Buffy and Small Fry in her mind and takes a flying leap off the bluff.

-

At first she thinks she’s dreamed it.

Everything hurts, which isn’t always a feature of her dreams, but certainly isn’t all that unusual. She tries to get up and stumbles, then manages to stand. The bullet wound is gone, and her skin is smooth like it never happened. She looks around, her eyes blurry. She’s trying to adjust to the sunlight again - she didn’t realize how gray it was in that other world until just now. The colors of the world around her feel like they’re cutting her eyeballs.

She’s standing on the side of the road. It’s a major highway, and cars are whizzing by without even stopping for her. Which is good, as far as Faith’s concerned; she’s wearing her fighting clothes, and she knows she looks pretty gnarly. Judging by the corn on both sides of the highway, she’s not in California anymore. She’s ready to just pick a direction and start walking when she sees the sign: Cleveland: 20 miles.

After her journey in that other dimension, twenty miles is nothing. She turns towards the sign and starts walking.

She’s not expecting Buffy to fling the door open when Faith’s still coming up the walk and run out, thudding into Faith and clutching her close.

“Um, hey,” Faith says.

“We thought you were dead,” Buffy says.

“Only technically,” Faith says. “Kind of. It’s a long story.”

Buffy pulls away, looking at Faith like if she stares hard enough she can read Faith’s mind. Which - suddenly it occurs to Faith that she can't. The bond is gone. “Did they hurt you?”

“Nah,” Faith says. “I’m right as rain.”

“You weren’t in hell?”

“Just some weird limbo dimension,” Faith says. “Nothing to worry about.” She looks over Buffy’s shoulder. “Hey, Small Fry.”

Isabelle gives a little wave.

“Also, about that,” Faith says. “How long was I gone?”

“Three days.”

“Not bad,” she says. “I spent, I dunno. A month under.”

“What happened?” Buffy says.

“Let’s go inside and give me a hot dog or something,” Faith says. “I’ll explain.”

Faith goes over the last month or so while eating a peanut butter sandwich. The house is kind of a mess, and Buffy stares at Faith the entire time, like Faith might disappear if Buffy takes her eyes off of her. Faith figures she’s got a day, tops, before the fact that she and Buffy fucked four days ago - to Buffy - catches up to Buffy. Right now, when Faith says, “So, upshot of it is, Quentin Travers is a dick,” Buffy closes her eyes and sighs deeply.

“I should’ve known,” she says. Her voice is heavy; she’s not even trying to hide it from Small Fry. She must be tired as fuck. “I don’t know how I didn’t. It makes so much more sense than a wizard just…showing up out of nowhere.”

“None of us knew,” Faith says. “It’s not like the big bads of the past have obeyed some kind of cosmic logic. We didn’t know. That’s not - it’s not your fault, B.”

“You died,” Buffy says. “You died and I don’t - I don’t -” Her eyes flick over to Small Fry and she takes a deep breath, her forehead becoming smooth. “We’ll deal with it,” she says. “Do you want to sleep in a bed?”

Faith seriously does, but it’s not even five. “Tonight,” Faith says. “How about you and me spar?”

Buffy smiles a little. “I could be interested in that,” she says.

Small Fry stands up. “I’ll be outside.” She hesitates, then darts over and hugs Faith. “I’m glad you’re back,” she says, and scurries away.

“She got older,” Faith says.

“It was a long three days,” Buffy says. They go down to the basement together.

Faith’s kind of wondering if this will turn - weird. She feels jumpy with anticipation, and she’s spent enough time alone that she can recognize that she really, really wants to touch Buffy. But fighting is the first way they communicated, and it’s still the best. If Faith wants to figure out what’s going on in Buffy’s head, there’s no better way to do it than to spar with her.

“Did your skills slip in the mountains, I wonder,” Buffy says.

“You’ll have to come over here and find out,” Faith says, making a ‘bring it’ motion with her hand.

Buffy smiles and charges.

She’s so fucking fast, and Faith’s rusty. Faith dodges and sweeps a foot under Buffy, bringing her down to the mat. Buffy rolls and hooks an arm around Faith’s leg, hauling her down. Before she can pin Faith, Faith leaps to her feet and aims a kick at Buffy’s head. Buffy dodges, as Faith knew she would, springing up and throwing a punch. Faith catches the punch and uses the momentum to slam Buffy down on the mat, then pins that arm over Buffy’s head, straddling her.

Buffy gasps, and that’s it: Faith knows. “B,” she says, easing up on Buffy’s arms.

“I thought you were dead,” Buffy says, and grabs a fistful of Faith’s hair, yanking her down and kissing her.

Faith’s had some wild sex in her day, but this makes all of that seem insignificant. She feels like she’s on fire, and when Buffy rolls them and pins Faith, Faith just goes with it. Buffy’s hair hangs down around them, and Faith’s surrounded by her, her smell, Buffy shifting to the side so she can shove a hand up Faith’s shirt. There’s no finesse here, no smooth sell, just Buffy pinching Faith’s nipples, biting Faith’s lower lip, like she’s reassuring herself that Faith’s actually here.

Faith spreads her legs so easily once Buffy gets her pants off, gasping when Buffy goes straight for her clit. She could tell Buffy to be gentler, but she doesn’t want it like that, because she thought she was dead, too, and she’s never felt more alive than she does right now. Buffy sucks her clit, thrusts two fingers into her easy as anything, and Faith just lets herself get lost, trusting Buffy to take care of her.

After, when Buffy’s gotten herself off while Faith kisses her, Buffy turns her face into Faith’s shoulder and laughs helplessly.

“What?” Faith says. “Sex with me is funny now?”

“We’re going to have to air it out,” Buffy says. “We just had sex on practice mats.”

That cracks Faith up, too, though she sobers up pretty quickly. They’ve got too much shit to do right now to get involved. Even if she wants - more than she’s wanted with anyone else. For awhile.

“This doesn’t have to be a thing, right?” Buffy says.

Faith goes very still.

Buffy traces a circle on Faith’s stomach. “I like how we are now,” Buffy says. “Now that we're out of each other's heads. And it’s not like I have time to find a girlfriend. But a friends with benefits thing, that could be nice.”

Faith closes her eyes for just a second, then opens them again. “Yeah, totally,” she says in a flawlessly casual voice. “Same for me.”

“Good,” Buffy says, and rolls to her feet. “Clothes back on before someone comes down.”

Faith pulls her pants on, a hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach.

She doesn’t have time to mope, though. Willow’s gone back to England, apparently, and so Buffy engineers a conference call over lunch - what’s most people’s dinner time, and what’s the middle of the night in England - so that they can hash out what they’re supposed to do.

“Quentin’s just a person,” Willow says, frowning at them over Skype. “I could try to track him, but we don’t have any of his belongings and it’s been years since I even saw him.”

“Believe me, I’m aware,” Buffy says. “But there must be something, Will. Like, your old hacker days - bank records, some kind of record of him contacting Wheeler. Anything. We’ll try and track him too, but -”

“I’ll try,” Willow says. “Dawn’s on it too, right?”

“Yep,” Buffy says. “And Angel’s on his way, so once we know where he is, the three of us will take care of it.”

“While I’m on babysitting duty,” Dawn says. The effort to make things a little lighter is so transparent it’s kind of painful, Faith thinks.

Small Fry hangs around them pretty much all the time for the rest of the day. Around ten, Buffy says, "Patrolling?" and looks at Faith.

Faith's down, even if it does feel pretty weird, going from being in a purgatory realm to being in her normal life again. She says, "Sure, why not," and gets her stakes.

She doesn't know what she expects from Buffy. But apparently Buffy and Small Fry have gotten a lot closer in Faith's three-day absence, because Buffy talks to Small Fry almost constantly, in between staking vamps. Activity's low right now - maybe they were scared off by the fiasco in Sunnydale. It's not exactly a secret that they live here, though the dumber suckers still come around. They can't help it, the Hellmouth pulls them.

Faith - Faith feels like she's in a dream. A dream where she still has to be stealthy about checking out Buffy's ass, because she's pretty sure patrolling isn't on Buffy's fuckbuddy fun-times list. And that's leaving aside that Small Fry is observant as fuck and would probably catch on to any hanky-panky on Faith's part.

So Faith stakes some vamps and mostly keeps to herself. It's not until they've gotten home and sent Small Fry to bed that Buffy braces her hand on Faith's lower back. Right there, in the kitchen, she steps in behind Faith and says, "Are you okay?"

"As okay as I'll ever be," Faith says.

"Where you were. It wasn't - it -"

"It wasn't heaven or hell, B," Faith says. "Just a shitty dimension dreamed up by someone who'd read one too many Lord of the Rings books. Okay?"

"Okay," Buffy says. She goes stiff suddenly, and pulls away. "Anyway, I'm super gross, I'm going to shower - do you need anything?"

Faith tells herself she doesn't feel disappointed. She's pushing thirty-five; she's too old for this shit. "Nah, I'm fine," she says. "Go get clean, you smell like ass."

It's not true, and Buffy laughs and rolls her eyes. Faith waits until she's all the way upstairs before following.

Luckily, patrolling generally makes her too exhausted to brood. She's asleep as soon as her head hits the pillow.

Willow calls them at 4 the next afternoon. "I've got a hit," she says. "He was dumb enough to sign a lease. He's in Texas."

"Texas? Travers?" Out of everything that's happened, Faith finds that the hardest to believe. "Isn't he old and ugly as hell?"

"It's possible he's been artificially extending his life," Willow says. "I did some scrying, and there are traces of dark magic around his house. I'll email you the address."

"Thanks, Red," Faith says. "It'll be good to put a blade in this sucker's heart."

"Uh-huh okay bye," Willow says, and cuts the Skype connection. Faith's not sure why until she turns and sees that Buffy's staring at her, looking pissed as all hell.

"What?" Faith says. Then it occurs to her. "Look, you can't tell me we can't kill Travers. What else are we going to do with him? It's not like the cops will take him. We killed Wheeler. We killed his lackies."

"Anything," Buffy says. "We'll do anything other than killing another person. A person we know. Faith, we've been through this!"

"No," Faith says. "We've been lucky enough not to face a person we know since we started - whatever. That doesn't mean I've been opposed to it the whole time."

"I can't believe you'd say that. Like it's somehow easy?"

Years of habit have kicked in. Buffy's getting more and more worked up, and so in response, Faith's getting calmer and calmer. "Look. Maybe we can lock him up somewhere. Doesn't Angel control what's left of Wolfram and Hart? He's gotta have dungeons, right?"

Buffy turns away. Damn it. "The man's evil," Faith says. "You might not like being judge, jury, and executioner, and I don't either. You know how much I hate it. But that's our responsibility. This isn't going to be like -" Ten-plus years ago, Faith going evil, Buffy stabbing her. Faith's stomach twists, like she's remembering the blow. "Whatever," she finishes. "We'll ask Angel about it when he gets here."

"I'm going for a run," Buffy says in a low voice, and leaves.

"Well," Faith tells the computer, "I really fucked that up." She shuts the lid and goes upstairs.

Angel arrives at ten. He taxis to their house, and comes in while they're eating dinner. "Honey, I'm home," he says with an awkward smile aimed in Buffy's direction.

Buffy says, "Hi," in the deadened voice she's been using since Faith suggested the obvious.

"Oh, boy," Angel says, looking between Faith and Buffy. Small Fry and Dawn have long since decamped to the basement, but Faith's too stubborn to leave. Stubborn, or maybe stupid. "Please tell me no one's going to shoot me with a poisoned arrow."

"No," Buffy says. "But we might end up doing that to Travers."

"Is that a bad thing?" Angel says. He looks between them again. "He did try to end the world, Buffy."

"I can't have this conversation," Buffy says. She brushes past Angel and storms upstairs, not even looking at him, much less at Faith.

"And it's my job to do the dishes," Faith says. "Great."

"Okay, what changed?" Angel says. "Buffy's always been a little...morally upright. But she's never been like this."

"Easy," Faith says. She's had a few hours to think about it, and now she knows for sure. "We're fucking, and she figures she's caught the evil from me. Ten years and nothing's changed." She maybe clangs the plates a little too hard as she puts them in the sink. Buffy's not the only one who can regress.

"That explains the smell," Angel says.

Faith stops, water running, to stare at Angel. "That's disgusting," she says finally. "You know that, right?"

"Oh, I know," Angel says. "But it's true."

Faith shakes her head and starts rinsing the plates. "It's not like that," she says. "It's just a casual thing."

Angel leans against the counter next to the sink. "Is it casual for you?"

He says it like he's her dad or something, and Faith has to shove down a rush of stupid, immature anger. She's not the girl she once was, not in any way, and it's stupid to let Buffy's little hissy fit make her into someone she's not anymore. She washes three plates before saying, "No. Of course not. You've known me for too long to think that."

"I've known Buffy for a long time, too," Angel says. "She tends to fall in love with the wrong people."

"You including yourself in that assessment, big boy?"

"Absolutely," Angel says. "Even if it took me awhile to realize it."

"So I'm the wrong person, is what you're saying. Thanks."

Faith loads the dishwasher with bowls, then glasses, before Angel speaks. "No," he says. "I think you're the right person, and she's scared."

Faith tosses a pod in the dishwasher and turns it on. Now she can dry her hands and face Angel, trying as hard as she can not to fly off the handle. "So she's projecting all of this crap on me? You didn't see the way she looked at me, Angel. It was like I'd just killed someone again, someone innocent, like I haven't been trying -"

"And living with her for ten years," Angel says. "Even for vampires, that counts pretty solidly as a decent amount of time. For humans?" He shakes his head. "Buffy spent years thinking she'd die at any moment. Now she's sleeping with someone she lives with, her...mirror image, if you will."

Faith won't, actually, but she doesn't object. She stays silent when Angel says, "You need to tell her you're head over heels, or she'll keep insisting it's casual. And if it's casual, well."

"That makes me a killer?"

"No," Angel says. "That makes Buffy scared."

Faith looks at Angel. He does such a good job hiding that he's old as fuck that sometimes Faith forgets, even with her vamp-sense tingling. But she can't forget it right now, looking at him. He looks like he's seen everything, and she's not surprised that he can see straight through Buffy's - and Faith's own - shit.

"Okay," she says finally. "I'll talk to her."

"I'll ignore the inevitable noises," Angel says. "Is Dawn downstairs?"

"And Small Fry - um, Isabelle," Faith says. "The girl we've been taking care of."

"Thanks," Angel says. He pats Faith on the shoulder, only a little awkwardly, and leaves.

Faith takes a deep breath. This is too important to fuck up. She might not only have one chance to get it right, but it kind of feels like she's just got the one. So she wipes her hands on the towel again, steels herself for rejection, and goes upstairs.

She knocks, and Buffy doesn't answer, so she pushes the door open. Buffy's sitting there, in a pretty standard patrolling outfit for her: tight skinny jeans, glittery tank top, leather jacket. Hair pulled back, for once.

She doesn't look at Faith when Faith comes in. "I don't want to talk."

"Sure," Faith says. "Neither do I. But since you accused me of being a murderer, I'm thinking we probably should."

"I didn't -"

"Spare me the bullshit," Faith says. "We both know you did."

"I didn't mean it," Buffy says. She finally stops staring at the wall and looks at Faith. "I just -"

"Angel already psychoanalyzed you for me," Faith says. "Why didn't you just say you wanted us to be serious?"

Buffy rolls her eyes. "Please. Are you kidding me?"

"Not so much, B."

"You've never been serious. With anyone. You kicked Robin to the road, you've had a million one night stands, you dated what's his name - Topher - for like, three dates before you stopped seeing him, you told Grace to, and I quote, 'take a walk', you -"

"Okay, okay," Faith says. "Admittedly, I'm not always great with this kind of thing."

Buffy makes a sound that might be agreement. Murderous agreement.

"But I could be," Faith says.

"Could you?"

"We bought a house together, B. How much more commitment do you need? A ring?" She's being sarcastic, but the thought sends a rush of feeling through her. She's not gonna jump into that feet-first, but she could see herself doing it, in a year or two. A real wedding, attended by all kinds of weirdos. Buffy would probably be a total bridezilla about it, and even that thought doesn't send Faith running.

But then Buffy snaps her back into reality by saying, "I didn't expect you to agree."

Faith blinks. "What?"

"I thought you'd say you wanted more. When we were talking."

"When we were naked on the practice mats, you mean."

Buffy blushes. She's so fucking pretty, and Faith wishes they could just kiss and make up, literally. But she knows that's not how these things go. "I just thought -"

"I didn't tell you before," Faith says. "I'm telling you now. I want us to be a thing, Buffy. An actual item."

"No one says 'item' anymore," Buffy says.

"Fuck off," Faith says, but she doesn't mean it. And Buffy's smiling, so she must know.

"Come here," Buffy says, patting the bed.

Faith takes a deep breath and sits down next to her. She's wondering if this is going to go to a weird place, but she didn't need to worry; Buffy rolls over and pins Faith, and then kisses her. Hard.

After that, Faith's a little too busy feeling smug to worry about little things like Quentin Travers, apocalypse specialist.

-

Unfortunately, the next day, they can't have a sex vacation. They have to go to Texas and kill a possibly magically amped-up Travers.

Small Fry is noticably nervous as they're packing to leave. "Come back," she says urgently. "Quickly. Call us when it's done."

Angel's agreed to lock Travers up somewhere dark and dank, provided he can be taken alive. So that debate is done with. But Faith has the itchy, bad feeling that means they're walking into trouble.

She's not gonna tell a twelve-year-old that, though. She hugs Small Fry and says, "Buck up. We'll be fine."

"You better be," Small Fry says, glaring.

Buffy and Faith don't hold hands in the airport, or anything. But when they get to the gate, Buffy leans against Faith minutely. Faith will take it.

They touch down in Dallas at 5PM local time. Faith waits until they get to their hotel to groan and roll her neck. "Jesus, I hate planes."

"Because you took so many, back in the day," Buffy says.

Faith flips her off. "It's the principle of the thing."

Angel knocks on their door, and Buffy lets him in. "Don't fight, kids," he says.

It's a kind of creepy reminder that if they fuck tonight, he'll be able to hear them. "Sure thing, grandpa," Faith says. "Any other wise advice?"

Angel gets serious then. "Suit up," he says. "He's here in Dallas, and it's almost nightfall."

They hash out a general tactic, then strap on weapons. Faith takes two stakes, in case Travers is using vamps to protect himself, and three knives, in case he isn't. They get into their rental - a black Toyota, just about as inconspicuous at it gets - and drive to Travers' house.

Faith thinks, as they go down the walk, that it can't be this simple. There's no sign of vamps, and the little magic detector Willow gave Buffy a few years ago isn't even twitching.

Buffy knocks on the door. No one answers. She sighs, rolls her eyes, and kicks it in -

And they walk into a massive room full of vampires, impossibly bigger than the entire outside of the house.

"Shit," Faith says.

That's all the warning they get before all hell breaks loose. Vampires rush them, and Faith pulls out a stake, getting two right away and landing a roundhouse kick to a third's head. There are maybe forty of them in the room - Faith doesn't like the odds, but that doesn't mean she's not going to fight. A vamp gets her in the shoulder with a wicked-looking knife, and Faith retaliates by burying her stake in his chest. Four town, thirty - okay, twenty-five - to go.

When Buffy stakes the last one, a gravelly voice says, "Very good. But of course, you understand that this was just a greeting."

Faith turns. Travers is standing there, on an elevated dais she hadn't had time to notice before. "You call forty magic'd up vamps a greeting?"

"Something like that." Travers looks at each of them. He's leaning heavily on a cane, and Faith itches to just grab a knife and throw it at him.

He can't possibly hear her thoughts, but he says, "I wouldn't do that, if I were you."

"Why not?" Faith says. "You're helpless, old man."

"Not exactly," Travers says.

Faith's expecting a big ball of fire or something. She's not expecting the arrows that just appear in Buffy and Angel's shoulders. They're not mortal wounds, but Buffy's eyes roll back in her head and she falls. Angel, impossibly, falls too.

Cold anger overwhelms Faith. She turns back to Travers. "That was a mistake," she says, and takes a step towards him.

An invisible force opens a wound in her stomach. It's not a killing wound. Faith takes another step forward.

"What are you going to do, Faith?" Travers says. "Are you going to kill me?"

"If I have to." Another wound on her leg. She's bleeding kind of a lot now. She keeps going. This feels like being in purgatory, only this time, Faith's even more resolved.

"You'll be dead before you reach me." Searing pain in her shoulder.

"Fuck you," Faith says. She takes another step, then another, until she's right below Travers.

A vein on her wrist opens up. She's covered in blood, but it doesn't matter. "Fuck you, you fucking bastard," she says, and throws her last knife, the one enchanted by Willow to always fly true.

Not that she needs the help. But either way, it lands in Travers' chest. His eyes widen, and then he falls.

Faith tries to turn to look at Buffy and Angel, but she collapses before she fully rotates, the entire world going dark.

-

She's aware she's awake before she opens her eyes. She hurts pretty much everywhere, but someone's holding her hand.

"Tell me I'm not in purgatory," she says. "Please tell me I'm in an actual place. A hell dimension would be fine."

"You're not in purgatory," Buffy says, and Faith opens her eyes.

Buffy smiles at her. She's got a nasty bandage on her shoulder, but otherwise looks fine. "What'd he knock you out with?"

"Some poison. I didn't listen to the doctor." Buffy shrugs. "We did it."

"The body?"

"Angel's kind of disturbingly good at arson," Buffy says.

Disturbingly. "I couldn't - I had to kill him," Faith says. "Buffy, you have to know, I didn't - I don't -"

"Faith. Chill. It's okay." Buffy squeezes her hand hard, reassuringly. "Seriously, it's fine."

Faith relaxes back against the pillows, but only marginally. "I hate hospitals."

"I know."

"Small Fry?"

"Safe with Dawn. It's over, Faith."

Faith closes her eyes.

"Um, but don't fall asleep. We've got maybe an hour to get you out of here before they realize you're not healing like a normal person."

Faith groans. "You've gotta be kidding me."

"'fraid not," Buffy says. "Actually, your clothes are on the other chair, if you want to get dressed."

"Close the door," Faith says. She pulls the IV out and groans as she gets to her feet. "I feel like ass and a half," she says.

"You'll have a few scars."

Faith's back is to Buffy, so she's feeling brave enough to say, "You like scars."

"I do," Buffy says.

When Faith turns around, Buffy's close behind her. Faith kisses her, easy as that, and Buffy opens her mouth to the kiss, putting her hands on Faith's waist. Faith's heart is starting to gallop in a way that's probably seriously not helping her recovery, but Buffy steps back.

"We have to go home," she says. "Then - you know."

"Fucking?"

It's good to know a single word can still make Buffy blush. "That," she says.

They meet Angel outside. He drives them to the airport, and they go through security together. They keep the conversation light until they're standing outside Buffy and Faith's gate.

"I'm glad you guys figured it out," Angel says. "You're good as a team."

"A sex team?" Faith says.

Angel makes a face, but there's no real jealousy there. "If you have to."

"Oh, we do," Buffy says. "We'll see you later."

This time, when they sit down, Buffy holds Faith's hand.

-

A few weeks later, Faith's trimming the bushes along the fence when Mrs. Green totters over to her side of the yard. "Faith. How are you and Buffy?"

"Oh, you know," she says. "We're good."

"I like those curtains you have on the second floor," Mrs. Green says. "Though they're a little thin, don't you think?"

Faith's stomach flips. She looks at Mrs. Green.

Mrs. Green looks back, smirking a little. "You seem like good roommates," she says. "You have a nice day, now."

"Uh, thanks," Faith says. "You too."

She makes it inside before she slumps against the door, laughing. "What's going on?" Buffy says. "Is something wrong?"

"No," Faith says. "No, it's - remember when I went down on you upstairs yesterday?"

"Um," Buffy says, going red.

"Mrs. Green got a show," Faith says, and starts laughing again.

"Oh my God." Buffy looks horrified. "Faith!"

But Faith just keeps cracking up, right until she kisses Buffy. After that, it's just a matter of sneaking upstairs - and making sure they stay away from the window.