Chapter 1: Customs
As the plane descended into Heathrow, Buffy looked out her window at the rainy London afternoon. November in Britain was, in Dawn’s opinion, one of the main reasons the English had piled onto ships and gone to colonize as many sunny places as they could.
Times like this, she really missed California.
They landed, the pilot parked the plane, and Buffy stood to gather her things together. Her big designer handbag from Paris had her essentials: makeup, cell phone, passport, wallet, stake, trashy paperback romance novel, toothbrush, clean undies, and sunglasses. Her clothes, camera, jewelry, metal weaponry, and the last batch of souvenirs were packed away in her suitcases. She gave it a fifty-fifty chance that those had been left in Paris.
Getting processed through Immigration, Buffy was glad to have it be the last time for a while. Her time off had been amazing--going where the mood took her, buying what she wanted, lazing around for days at a time, interacting with people as people, not soldiers in an occult war--but for the last couple of months the itch to have purpose had disrupted her relaxation. Last week it had gotten too insistent to put off any longer, and so there she was, back in the same town with the people she hoped were still her closest friends.
She made it to baggage claim before she saw a face she knew - not too tall, hair still a rumpled brown mess, wearing a leather jacket a size too big for him and blue jeans a few washes short of the give-away pile, Xander Harris was still Xander Harris and completely incapable of sitting still without starting to browse. He was midway through a talk with a coffee girl, awkwardly putting out his best attempt at charm one eye and all, and she didn’t seem to be buying.
Then she moved around out of the blind spot on his left, he caught the bob of familiar gold in the crowd, and he ditched the conversation with an off-hand wave to come over and get a good look at her.
She kept her voice deliberately casual. He didn’t need to see how much his reaction to her meant right now.
“Hey, Cassanova. Long time no see.”
“Is that an eye joke? ‘Cause if you’re leading with an eye joke, I can totally believe you’re still Buffy and not some crazy robot or monster body-snatcher or dead evil thingy of some kind.” He smiled, so not-nervous that he seemed like a different person himself, then stepped in and hugged her firmly enough to make her glad her Slayer strength applied to her lungs, too.
“Oof,” she squeaked, grinning over his shoulder. “No, actually that was a horndog joke coupled with an unintentional off-color pun. I do have an eye joke, though, if you prefer.”
“Nah, you blew it. The moment has passed.” He leaned back and looked her over, still smiling, and she found herself remembering the pale, drink-soaked grief in his face when she’d gone by to see him before she left - like he’d lost himself, or at least something he’d never get back, and did his best coping with it at the wrong end of a half-bottle of grain alcohol. Seeing him like that, she almost hadn’t left, but Willow had promised to look out for him and in the end it was Dawn - the person who’d least wanted her to go - who had convinced her. If you wait for all of us to be better, you’ll never leave.
Now he was here, sober and straight in the shoulders, and there was something else about him that she’d never seen last more than a minute or two before. Standing in the baggage claim at Heathrow Airport, Xander Harris looked like he belonged exactly where he was.
The silence was getting long and signifigancy, but he broke it with an easy grin. “Welcome to the land of the pale-faces. Nice tan.”
Smiling, she scanned the bags had started to roll out onto the carousel. “Thanks. I expect I’ll lose it within a month of this cloud cover, but at least I can be fabulous for a little while.” She leaned into a gap in the crowd to grab a huge rolling suitcase. “You look a lot better since...well, ever, honestly. I hope that it’s because of something other than me being gone.”
“Well, you know, once I got away from the life-sucking void that was you....” he trailed off, then laughed and shook his head. “Nah, I got nothing. My joke-fu is weak. I’d also ask if you want help with the bag, but my bag-fu is equally weak and wimpy. So how about I tag along while you pull it to the car and tell you that I have fresh fish and chips in the car instead - not chip-chips, but crazy fry chips that are totally laced with something addictive because you try them a few times and think they’re nothing special and then suddenly you’re stopping by the stand to get them every few days because you’re a total chip junkie and why, oh why are you not stopping me?”
Laughing, Buffy let go of the suitcase to throw her arms around Xander again, not caring that she was tearing up a little. “You big goof.”
“Hey,” he said softly, his arms around her and his smile pressed to her hair, “I missed you too.”
They laughed their way to the doors, giant suitcase clearing a swath through the crowd.
“So, what kind of junker are you driving these days? Should I fear for life and limb?”
“You know how it is, just a hand-me-down. I thought about bringing one of our work cars, but they tend to be full of weapons and airports are all jumpy about that kind of thing for some weird reason so I just brought mine.” He checked the wall of the parking garage, did the same little nod he always did when he managed to remember his parking space, then walked right up to a black Honda Accord that couldn’t have been more than four years old and didn’t have a scratch on it. He missed her open-mouthed stare, popped the trunk, then walked around to the right side of the car and climbed in.
Blinking, she lifted the suitcase into the trunk. She became even more stunned when she opened the passenger door and was confronted with leather seats. “Uh. Xander? Are you working for the mob or something? Because, I’m all for diversity of lifestyle choices, but I’d rather not have to put you in the hospital for your own good.”
“Huh?” He blinked at her, looked down, looked up, then laughed. “Seats. Leather. Mob. Got it. Nah, it kinda came that way and it’s easier to get blood out of the leather so we do most of the cars that way. Besides, the girls like it.” There was a three second pause. “By which I mean the Slayers in training and not in any way random girls from London because I am known for my imitation of a monk and a priest and possibly a monk-priest as well when it comes to the sexings.”
Buffy squeezed her eyes shut and tried very hard not to think about fluids and seats. “Right. Soooo, did you get another carpentry job? Please, be detailed. I want to know.”
He kept his mouth shut while he pulled out into the totally-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-road traffic, wove his way down to the main flow of cars before leaning back in his seat and risking a quick smile at her. Awkward Xander was apparently back. “So I’m thinking that the whole not-in-the-loop thing that I was thinking you were on was kinda like in the next town over and the actual level of out of the loop was more like Siberia, ‘cause I haven’t been with the carpentry or even the construction industry for way past a year now. I thought Willow and Giles were on the filling-you-in detail?”
“Sibera had some nice parts, actually. But no, they made with the vague. Apparently, really vague.” If she avoided looking at the traffic, she could avoid absolute terror, she realized. “So, loop?”
It took most of the drive to Slayer HQ--and it really was a headquarters, not just a library or Giles’ house--to fill her in. She was glad it wasn’t longer, because coping with the fact that the shiny office tower they were parking under was theirs was hard enough even with explanation.
Once in the marble-lined lobby, Buffy stared. There was a reception slash information desk, a small group of what had to be witches coming in the front doors, tasteful decoration in a multi-cultural antique theme, and were those the Persian rugs she had sent back? Good thing they were now wall-hangings gracing a living room sized waiting area, because she had underestimated the scale of ‘the office’ just a tiny bit.
Like Xander said, Siberia.
The pert red-haired receptionist smiled to the witches, chatting with them briefly and finally directing them to the bank of elevators behind her, then turned and gave Xander the sort of familiar, expectant smile that in Buffy’s experience was usually reserved for bosses stopping by on an off day to see how things were going. “Checking in a new girl, Mister Harris, or just stopping by?”
New girl. Great. This was going to be awkward. Buffy took the bull by the ears or whatever it was you took bulls by and extended her hand. “I’m Buffy Summers,” she said politely.
“Mister Harris,” the young receptionist said far more sternly than her years should have allowed, “that isn’t at all funny. Spartacus was many years ago, I will have you know, and we are all very tired of the joke by now.” She turned back to Buffy, smiling warmly. “I apologize for my boss, miss - he has a very strange sense of humor. If I’m going to check you in as a new Slayer, I am going to need the name you were born under for our records. Procedure, you understand.”
Frowning, Buffy glanced at Xander, who was visibly, desperately trying not to crack up. She frowned a little more at him before returning to the receptionist.
“Ms. Gillan,” she read off the woman’s name plate, rummaging though her Versace bag, “I know Xander can be a doof sometimes-- lots of times--” she jabbed an elbow in his direction-- “but nobody is trying to prank you right now,” she said, handing her passport over. This homecoming was getting weirder and weirder. Hopefully there was a demon she could stab to make it all make sense.
The young woman behind the desk took the passport, still smiling crossly, then blinked. Turned it over, twice, and blinked again. Turned so pale that she was practically transparent. Opened her mouth. Closed it. Opened it again. Actually squeaked. Finally, mustering what dignity she could, she handed the passport back and cleared her throat before managing a voice that shook as if the Dalai Lama had just walked in the door and asked to see her credentials. “Miss Summers, I.... I honestly had no idea, and I apologize sincerely for my rudeness. If there is anything, anything at all I can do to make up for this dreadful behavior on my part, you must let me know. Please.” The last word emerged as something very like a plea. “If I’d known you were coming, of course I would have made sure that an escort was waiting to show you the facility and the staff was on hand to give you a proper welcome. I simply had no idea...”
“Anna,” Xander said, still obviously fighting down his laughter, “take a breath. I’ve got it, okay? Just give her a card and let it go.”
Anna - Ms. Gillan - fluttered for a moment or two more, still obviously horrified that she hadn’t arranged a reception fit for the Queen herself, and finally produced a blank black card of hard plastic from her desk. “Please,” she managed, “do be careful with these. A lot of the newer girls accidentally break them because they’re only rated for a few pounds of impact pressure, and the all-access cards have to be handled very carefully. For security.” She rallied, found a smile, and looked up at Buffy with stars in her eyes. “We’re all very happy to have you here, Miss Summers. Very happy.”
“Uh. Thanks,” Buffy managed, battling to keep the shock out of her voice and expression. She plucked a directory out of a shiny brochure rack, took the key card and her passport, and dragged Xander away slightly faster than politeness allowed.
“What. Was. That?” she ground out.
He looked at her, non-plussed, then pushed the button for the elevator and crooked a lop-sided smile. “It’s a joke the girls do. You know, ‘I am Spartacus’? With you. As Spartacus. I’m totally speaking into a knowledge free zone here, aren’t I?”
The filed into one of the nicer elevator cars Buffy had ever seen. More leather. Polished brassy fixture things. Glaring at him from behind her suitcase, Buffy leaned over to punch him on the arm. Lightly. For her.
“What? Who’s Spartacus? No, not the joke. The creepy devoted adoration thing. It’s like you started a cult to me while I wasn’t looking. I have a thing against cults.” She glared, tapping her foot. “Well?”
“Um,” he said eloquently, looking her up and down and visibly measuring his chances of surviving without any further bruises like the new one on his arm. “Maybe you ought to talk to Giles? Upstairs?”
Turning her glare to the shiny, well-appointed interior of the elevator, Buffy folded her arms. “Yes, I think I will,” she promised darkly. The Xander-reflection in the closing metal doors perked up a little. “And don’t you think you’re getting off the hook, mister.” He deflated again. It was moderately satisfying.
The elevator pinged.
“You have to put your card in, um, the slot,” Xander volunteered.
Gritting her teeth, Buffy very carefully inserted the delicate card. The little light next to the reader turned from red to green, and finally the numbered floor buttons lit up like she might actually go somewhere someday. She glared at the Xander-reflection again, and it produced more guidance. “Fifth floor,” he squeaked.
Figuring that the buttons, at least, could take it, Buffy jabbed number five viciously.
It jammed in its casing and cracked down the middle. Xander whimpered.
Fortunately for him, the car took the hint to start moving before more serious corrective violence was needed.
Giles had an Office and a Desk. The capitals were deserved: the office was the size of a studio apartment, walls lined with hand-built bookshelves (mostly empty) and endowed with a view of some park or other (clearly intended to be looked at and maybe sometimes walked in), and the desk looked like it must have been built from the timber of some old sailing ship or something because it was big enough to hold a dance party on. Okay, maybe not quite that big, but pretty close - close enough to leave Buffy standing there with her suitcase in one hand and her jaw in the other, staring at her Watcher - in a very smart gray suit, glasses firmly in place - making notes on a legal pad while he paged through some print-outs that looked like spreadsheets or something. He even had a computer on the side of his desk. A computer. Giles.
“ You have a computer? And it’s turned on and everything. Wow,” she announced, “And here I thought today couldn’t get any weirder.”
He glanced up at her, then at the computer, and his lips twitched slightly as though unsure of their expression. “The infernal machine. Not my idea, I’m afraid, but there seems to be no escaping it.” He stood up from the desk, laying his pen on the pad, and walked across the room to clasp her by the wrist. Held her there for a moment, as if testing the report of his fingers, then looked down at her and smiled for the first time.
The sun rose in his eyes.
Dropping her suitcase to the floor with a solid thump, Buffy pulled Giles in for a firm hug and let his warmth push away her discomfort with everything else.
“Missed you,” she said simply.
He held her tightly, breathing out a soft laugh that shook more than he would have admitted if pressed, then stepped back to look at her with a glitter of moisture in his eyes that - after a moment’s stubborn examination - he had to remove his glasses to wipe away. He finally managed to steady himself enough to trust his voice, and his tone was typical Giles - abashed, but with a well of emotion so deep behind it that you could have dropped an Old One down it. “Yes, well, quite.” He looked at her again, a slow assessing glance this time, and his smile grew. “You look very well, Buffy, though you obviously neglected every word I said about sunblock.”
Blinking away tears of her own, she laughed. “Not every word. I spent enough time in the sun that I’d be way crispier without the old SPF 30.” Looking around at the office again, she let her astonishment show. “So, I knew the Council was loaded, but I did not expect to come back to Slayers, Incorporated. Did we make a deal with Wolfram and Hart or something?”
His face changed, just enough to show she’d brushed on a sharp edge somewhere, but he seemed to dismiss the momentary discomfort and settle for a rueful shake of his head as he walked back to the table behind the desk, retrieved the Chinese tea set she’d sent him and filled the pot with hot water from a cute Japanese water heater. “Entirely the Council’s funds, fortunately. They were apparently sitting on quite a substantial fortune in Swiss accounts, and Willow was able to retrieve the relevant account numbers and passwords for us within a few weeks of our arrival. When we saw the size of the job, it only seemed sensible to establish the facilities for it - we could hardly go about training and coordinating an army out of the Circle’s sensible hut in Wales, after all.” He added the leaves to the water, carried the set to his desk, then waved to the small bowl at the front which had nestled itself between a stack of manila folders and a musty tome. “Chocolate?”
“Ooh, I love the rectangular ones.” Deep thoughts derailed by a mouthful of Belgian bliss, Buffy took a seat in one of the comfy-yet-expensive-looking chairs by the window. Giles, once he’d gotten the tea the way he liked, came to join her.
Her brain was more or less functional a few moments after she’d swallowed. “Army, huh? Just how many Slayers are there?”
“We actually haven’t any idea,” he admitted ruefully. “We’ve had every witch and warlock we can convince to help us scouring the globe for them since a few weeks after you left, not to mention sending our own Slayers to investigate anything suspicious we hear about, but the fact of the matter is that Willow’s spell seems to have activated far more Potentials than anyone guessed could exist - especially after the First’s efforts to purge the Slayer line. At last count we had roughly ninety-seven Slayers active in the organization in one capacity or another, plus the stock of trainees in Wales that never seems to stop growing. Willow estimates the next graduating class - that’s what we’ve taken to calling it, apparently - should be eleven, which will put us over a hundred active Slayers for the first time. The staff here has been planning something of a party, which I am not supposed to know about.” He paused to sip his tea, visibly suppressing an amused snort at the idea of that sort of thing staying a secret, then sobered. “We’re nearly certain that we haven’t even scratched the surface, and more are coming of age and activating all the time. I’m not certain whether it’s most astonishing thing I’ve ever witnessed or the most frightening - quite possibly both.”
The information began its trip into Buffy’s head. “Oh.” Then it went a little bit further. “Oh. Oh, wow.” A moment passed in which she stuffed another chocolate in her mouth and chewed with a thoroughness suggesting a hope that proper mastication would force the world to make sense. Finally, the main points and a number of relevant details clicked into place.
“You’re saying we created a large and constantly increasing group of super-powered teenagers, we don’t know who or where most of them are, given the numbers at least some of them will go bad, and that even our senior members have a year and a half of training, tops.”
The Watcher nodded. Buffy sat there pole-axed, or at least as close as you could get without an actual pole-ax.
“Shit,” she finally murmured.
They sat in silence for another moment or three.
“Shit.” Buffy shook her head. “Have you had many problems with rogue Slayers?
“Only one, so far, and she was not precisely rogue. A very disturbed young woman in Los Angeles last year.” Giles sipped his tea. “I sent Andrew and some of the girls to deal with it, and they convinced Angel and his colleagues to turn her over to us. Dana is doing well now, I understand, though she requires fairly constant psychological attention. She’s part of the permanent staff at the Wales facility or a patient there, depending on the week.”
“Ah.” Flopping back against the chair and sliding into a first-class slouch she was sure the Watcher would disapprove of, Buffy closed her eyes for a moment. Once she’d rubbed her temples a little, she looked at Giles again.
“So, I realize I might regret asking this, but why did the front desk lady go all fangirl on me?”
“Fangirl?” he temporized, in a way that suggested he knew exactly what she was talking about but was looking to duck the subject behind a veil of Britishness.
Her eyes narrowed and she broke into a mocking falsetto that made an odd counterpoint to her expression. “‘Oh, I’m so terribly sorry, I didn’t know it was you, I would have arranged for a parade and fifteen-course banquet if I’d known you were coming, please oh please don’t behead me, Your Mercifulness.’” Her voice slid back into her normal range. “It was like one of Glory’s dwarves had gotten a really great make-over and changed allegiance to me.”
“Ah,” Giles said over his teacup, “that.”
Buffy’s eyes, though it hardly seemed possible, narrowed her glare to laser-focus.
“Yes. ‘That.’ That thing you obviously know about and that you will god-damned explain or I will find new and creative uses for that tea set.”
“There really are plenty of creative uses for it already invented, you know.” He paused for a beat. “Not that I really ought to spend time on that just now. It’s really quite natural, when you come down to it - you accomplished a great deal in Sunnydale, and every young woman who’s chosen to become part of the organization has needed a role-model to try to live up to. When you combine that with the story of the battle in the Hellmouth, a certain level of respect and admiration is quite understandable. Even the other survivors of that battle are accorded a certain level of seniority from it, and most of them have formed the cores for the teams we’ve set up away from England, so the woman who trained and led them....” He trailed off, smiling faintly, and adjusted his glasses. “It’s really quite charming, the way they look up to you. I’m sure they’re going to be thrilled to meet you at last.”
A look of mingled terror and horror crept onto Buffy’s face. “Charming. Right. God, as if I didn’t feel weird enough when there were just twenty of them and I was the drill sergeant.” Standing up, she crossed to the windows, looking for something that didn’t make her feel out of place. The trees were okay. Trees didn’t ask for much.
Giles watched her for a long minute, his face softening, and then stood and walked over to rest his hand gently on her shoulder. “It’s all right, you know.” His voice was very gentle, and the fatherly concern in it was almost thick enough to wear like a blanket. “We have a good system in place, and good people to manage it. You won’t have to train them directly, not unless you want to - we’ve got on quite well with that while you were gone, and it doesn’t require repair. The independent field teams practically manage themselves, so long as we’re ready to send them help when they need it, and Faith’s suggestion to focus the Watchers we’ve trained on knowledge and psychological health rather than instructing their Slayers in how or why to fight has made it possible to put Watchers with each team as we’ve established them. It’s quite remarkable how well it’s all gone, actually, which means that really all we need you to do is...”
“Stand on the balcony and wave?” She raised an arm beauty-queen style. “Elbow, elbow, wrist, wrist.”
He chuckled quietly, giving her shoulder another squeeze, and shook his head. “I was going to say that all we needed was for you to be yourself.”
With a quizzical look up at Giles, she leaned sideways against his comforting solidity. “Myself. I guess I can be the Chief Shopping and Decorating Officer. It looks like I’ve even started while I was away.”
“The rugs have been very decorative,” he said, and smiled. “Dawn is particularly attached to hers.”
“Oh! Right, people! When can I see people, Giles? I missed everyone a lot.”
That earned her another chuckle and a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “You didn’t give us much notice, but most everyone except Willow is here in the building. Dawn will be coming up for the afternoon briefing in half an hour or so, though you can probably find her in the library before then, and Xander is likely in the watchroom if he hasn’t escaped the building entirely - he says he has trouble leaving if he doesn’t check his ‘duty station.’”
This was answered with more blinking, though by this point Buffy was getting used to being bewildered. “Okay, thanks. To the library with me, then.” She glanced at her suitcase, which seemed of reasonable size in Giles’ huge office. “Can I leave that here for the rest of the day?”
“Yes, of course,” he replied, adjusting his glasses and taking up his notes again. “You’re welcome at the briefing, though I think it would be quite understandable if you wanted to avoid it.”
Rolling the suitcase into a corner, Buffy smiled. “Thanks. I’ll make sure to come by again before you leave for the day.”
She closed the big oak door behind her and stepped quietly down the hallway. The directory in her pocket led her to the library, which appeared to fill most of an entire floor near the middle of the building. The directory, as it turned out, had understated the case - the library stretched up for a good three stories, with plenty of open vertical space so you could see the books go on and on and on like a forest, and had dozens of little reading and study rooms jutting off it. The shelves were only about half full, from the look of it, but whoever had built the place certainly hadn’t lacked for ambition.
There was even a librarian by the door, an older woman with graying hair whose “My word, young lady, but you are the spitting image of Buffy Summers” only got an ironic, “I get that a lot” before she asked where the younger Ms. Summers could be found.
The receptionist, pleasantly helpful, leaned over and picked up the phone from her desk. Pressed one of the buttons on it - when had phones developed so many buttons? - and spoke into it politely. “Miss Summers? There’s someone here to see you - where shall I send them? Ah, of course. Thank you very much, ma’am.” Then, as if she hadn’t just violated the laws of physics or something by calling a seventeen year old girl ‘ma’am,’ the receptionist turned back to Buffy and smiled. “Second level, near the chandelier. She’s in Raising Rituals, you see - some sort of demon summoning issue in Cleveland, I understand.”
Nodding as if she knew the layout of the library, she thanked the woman and found a staircase. It was one of those pretty wrought-iron spiral ones, the kind she had seen in the few pictures and movies that contained old libraries. Maybe there were real rolly-ladders. She’d always wanted to ride a rolly-ladder.
The chandelier was beautiful, too, all crystal and light. Maybe if she wore a mask she could enjoy spending time here.
As she passed the end of a long shelf, her sister came into view.
Dawn Summers was not yet quite eighteen, but she dressed like a woman ten years her senior - a crisp black suit jacket with a matching skirt, a blue blouse with a sensible lack of frills, and inch-heeled sensible boots that were tucked up under her while she browsed through the three books she had spread out in front of her and made notes on a thick, yellow, extra-long legal pad. Her face was composed and thoughtful, eyes flicking from one text to another with the quick comparative attention that Giles did so well, and for a few seconds Buffy’s chest got tight. It was like she had been gone for a decade, not eighteen months, and missed all the growing up that Dawn had done in the process. She felt like a stranger, unsure that she would still know anything about the sleek, intelligent girl at the table.
Well, might as well get going. She cleared her throat. “Hi, sis.”
Dawn looked up, eyes bright and started, and then put her pen down and bounded out of her seat. The pleasure in her face dampened for a moment, then - a kind of caution that tightened Buffy’s chest again - and Dawn took three more measured steps toward her until she could reach out and wrap her hand firmly around Buffy’s wrist to squeeze. She waited a few seconds, then brightened like a cloud lifting from a summer day and threw her arms around her sister hard. “Buffy!”
“Hey, Dawny,” the older girl laughed, hugging her close and planting a kiss on her forehead, a feat only possible with a little bending on Dawn’s part. “God, I missed you so much.”
“Missed you, too.” Dawn held on to her as hard as she could, dignity forgotten, and there were restrained tears in her voice when she whispered against Buffy’s shoulder. “We’ve all missed you, and sometimes I thought you were never coming home.”
“Shh, there now,” the older Summers soothed. “I’m here. I would never leave you.” She pulled back to look her sister in the eye, hands on Dawn’s shoulders. “As long as I live--were you checking my pulse? I guess I can’t blame you--I’ll always come back to you.”
“You better,” Dawn whispered, eyes shying a little before she finally crooked a little grin and squeezed Buffy’s wrist again, tenderly this time. “Kinda, yeah. It’s a ritual thing. We meet, we squeeze wrists to check for vampires or Firstiness. It was Willow’s idea for big meetings at first, but it kinda spread from there. Now we all do it.” She looked up, finally meeting Buffy’s eyes fully, and her smile was as full of affection as it was gentle. “I really didn’t want you to go, but Faith finally talked me around and I guess she was right. You look good - really good. Happy.”
It was an elegantly simple way to save a whole lot of trouble, Buffy figured, though it was a little frightening to come back to a world where you had to check the vital status of everyone you talked to, every time.
On the other hand, you’d never take your life, or theirs, for granted.
Taking her sister’s hand again, Buffy smiled. “Thanks, I feel a lot better. Boy howdy did I need that vacation. And you’re all purposeful and sophisticated and stuff. It looks good on you.”
“Watcher Junior, that’s me.” It was an old joke by now, and the way Dawn smiled when she said it made it clear that it was exactly that - a joke. The substance of things had come a long way in two years. “Giles keeps promising he’ll give me my own Slayers when I’m old enough to vote, but I think he just keeps me around so he doesn’t have to do the work with the computers himself or admit he needs a real secretary.”
Buffy’s eyes widened. “Slayers, plural? How many do they give a Watcher these days?”
“Well, it kinda depends.” Dawn smiled, shrugging in a what-can-you-do gesture. “We figure two Watchers - one real and one kinda in training - per group of five to seven Slayers is good, but mostly they just get as many Slayers as Headquarters sends out for a given city and hope we crank out a second Watcher candidate fast enough to back them up before the next batch of Slayers gets set up with a city. It’s a lot to manage, especially with the whole establishing local ties and magic support thing, but the Slayers help out and look out for each other - that helps a lot.”
There was blinking again. Lots of blinking.
“Dawny, I have no idea what bizzaro universe I came back to, but I am so, so proud of you. You’ve come a long way from Designated Weekly Kidnap Victim.”
“Yeah, that sucked.” Dawn grinned a little, and her eyes got a mischievous little sparkle. “I guess I shouldn’t talk about how the local community initiative thing is totally your fault, huh?”
Summers Senior pouted. “I don’t even know what a ‘local community initiative’ is. How can that be my fault?”
“A Slayer with friends and family had never been done before, right? But it worked, and it kept you alive - well, mostly - and Faith insisted that we should try to set the girls up the same way. Giles and Xander and I were all thinking roving teams of monster-killing Slayers was the way to go, but she talked us all down and said we’d wind up with more girls like her that way than girls like you - I mean, old her. Crazy. So when they finish training as a group, the Slayers that don’t get picked for the Hounds get assigned a Watcher and shipped off to a perpetual trouble spot together, and their first job after fighting evil is to get to know people. Make friends. Have big social events. You know, the stuff you always wanted us to do and that kept getting interrupted by monsters - Bronze stuff. No brooding in the dark allowed.” Dawn was really into it now, giving the talk like she’d given this speech a hundred times except in less shorthand. “The Watchers, we’re there to provide the information they need and backstop the mystical backup - local or import - but mainly we’re there to make sure they stay healthy and don’t forget to actually live a little. Working in groups helps with that - they get nights off now. They get really close, though, so they usually take it off together. The nights, I mean, not their clothes or something freaky like that.”
Blinking was becoming a theme for the day. “Ah. Is there, um, like a general info pamphlet that has this and all the other stuff I missed? Because yeah, much of this is the way things used to be on steroids, but then other things are very ‘wha?’ and I’d like to get the dumb questions all out of the way at once. Please.”
Dawn turned thoughtful.“Um... we don’t have one, I don’t think. I mean, there’s the orientation guidebook, but that’d be full of stuff you already know and not so much on the organizational side. It comes in the welcome gift bag, though, so if you want one of those I can so get one for you. I could make you up a special briefing packet, though - that wouldn’t be too hard.”
“That would be gr--there’s a welcome gift bag?!” She was definitely, very much in Weirdsville, where everyone she knew was happily working on things like Local Community Initiatives and Hounds and giving out orientation guidebooks, like all the jokes she had made had somehow come true, and she had no idea what to expect next. Maybe the First Slayer with Kraft cheese slices.
“Uh-huh.” Dawn’s bland smile cracked, just a little bit, and the hint of mischief was back in her eyes again. “It has a warm jacket, a stake, the orientation guidebook and comfortable shoes. Plus some goodies - iPod, chocolate, that kind of thing. It was Kennedy and Faith’s idea.”
Eyes wide and jaw dangling, Buffy had a brief flash of a memory--a clear night on top of a warehouse, junk food and soda and sleeping bags spread out, warm, rough hands on her skin....
She hadn’t thought about that in a long time.
Shaking it off, she laughed. “Okay, that is pretty awesome, I have to admit. Hey, speaking of goodies, I have some more souvenirs for everyone in my luggage. I can pass it out after the afternoon briefing.”
Dawn brightened, grinning. “More daggers? Those were awesome.”
“Yes, and they were for Slayers...though I did not send nearly enough, I found out. Maybe we can get a contract with that foundry? Do you know the Spanish for ‘fuck-ton’?”
“Por favor, señor, ¿me puede enviar una tonelada jodida de navajas?” Dawn laughed. “Language lessons are part of the Watcher curriculum. Spanish is really dirty.”
“Yeah, and piggish. I had to have some ‘words’ with a few cabrones . I even learned that word just to yell at them.”
Dawn, still laughing, hugged her fiercely and winked. “I bet they’re still running scared.”
Wrapping an arm around the younger girl, hoping to steer her away from the books, Buffy agreed. “Man, you should have seen the looks on their faces. Priceless.”
Dawn let her without protest, still chuckling, books seemingly forgotten. “No kidding. I was in South London with Faith and one of the new training groups a few weeks ago and we hit this group of vamps just coming out of a bar, and the big guy in the front looks us up and down and says ‘What, is there delivery now and nobody told me?’ Faith just busts out the scythe - he recognizes it instantly - and all the girls pop wood. The look on his face was the biggest ‘oh, shit’ I have ever seen in my life.”
Pop wood? Oh. Right. Crap. Now there was an association she’d pay money to not have.
“Yay for scaredy-vamps.” Tugging more insistently on Dawn’s sleeve, Buffy gave her puppy eyes. “Can we go now? Maybe I’ll actually learn something at the meeting. Also, do you have a paper bag or mask I can borrow?”
“No,” Dawn grinned, “but I can probably get you a name tag.”
Her sister glared. “I hate you.”
Dawn’s grin only widened. “It’s what sisters are for.”
Chapter 2: Immigration
“Wait, wait. My house is where? Say that again.” Buffy was somewhere between incredulous and deeply, maliciously amused.
“Chipping Ongar.It’s a perfectly good name, you know.” He held himself straight in the driver’s seat, all bruised dignity on behalf of his homeland.
Buffy had dissolved into snickering giggles on her side of the car. Apparently, the respect between Watcher and Slayer only went so far.
Giles sighed again, then started to chuckle quietly. When she looked up at him, still giggling, he shrugged without taking his eyes off the road. “I was just thinking,” he said in a voice that wasn’t quite serious and wasn’t really anything else, “how much I had gotten out of the habit of doing that.”
“What, being annoyed by my uncultured, American ways?” The city streets were beginning to give way to what could only be described as quaint country lanes. “You can take the Slayer out of Cali, but you can’t take the Cali out of the Slayer. Or something.”
“I suppose I shall have to endure, somehow.” His lips twitched, and there was that carefully suppressed smile again. Her Watcher might have picked up some of his British airs again, but he hadn’t lost the gracious warmth he’d bought so painfully or his sense of humor.
“Don’t worry. I’m sure I’ll pick up some of the local culture. Not as much as Dawn--does she always make five kinds of tea in a meeting?--but some. Xander’s already converted me to fish and fry-chips,” she added helpfully.
“Yes. Well.” Giles cleared his throat, then finally gave in and cracked a genuine smile. “Xander as the ambassador of British culture. I could not possibly have imagined.”
“The ambassador for British fried food, anyway,” she smiled. “Glad to hear I’m not alone in my weirded-outed-ness.”
There was a pause in which Buffy assumed that Giles was parsing her ‘abuse of the English language’ before he answered. “It is all a bit strange, yes,” he finally managed, turning off the quaint country lane onto something that in the dusk light only vaguely resembled a road. “Most of the time I’m entirely too busy to think on it, but occasionally it strikes me that I never really had a desire to be promoted to the Council and now I - for all intents and purposes, at least - am the Watchers’ Council. It’s a bit like having awoken one day to find one’s self Prime Minster, Thane of Cawdor and king hereafter.”
Suspecting that he had added the last bit just to confuse her, Buffy nevertheless gave her Watcher a sympathetic smile. “I know the feeling.”
They were still bumping along the little dirt road. She was almost beginning to wonder if Giles was taking her on a welcome-home patrol in some abandoned cemetery.
Patrol. She hadn’t done that in years; it hadn’t been a topic in the afternoon briefing, either. Just who needs what, how the trainees were doing, that sort of thing. No actual talk of slayage.
“So, seems like managing the Slayer army is your big priority now, huh?”
Something in her tone must have struck him, because he almost turned to look at her before driving training reasserted itself and got his eyes back on the road. When he finally spoke again, two turns later, his voice was probing. “You don’t approve?”
“Well...the army does need managing. Can’t have untrained or rouge Slayers running around.” Dark hedgerows crawled by outside. “It’s good that you’re doing that. But for a meeting at Slayer HQ, there sure wasn’t much talk of fighting evil.” She looked at the Watcher’s profile in the glow of the dashboard. “It’s the reason the Slayers exist in the first place.”
“There is a good deal of fighting evil being done, I assure you. We get reports on it all the time - requests for assistance, research help, back-up. Not to mention the training in London, though I’ll admit that it rarely seems to put much of a dent in the supply of local vampires. Terrible city for attracting those.” He frowned thoughtfully, fingertips tapping lightly on the wheel as he turned it through another broad curve of the road. “It’s all been pest control for the last two years - as if world-ending evil has taken a holiday and left us with an oversupply of grave-fresh vampires and minion demons. Very helpful, really.”
There was a pause while Buffy did her best ‘oh-no-you-didn’t’ eyebrow raise, which was of course lost on Giles because he was being a good driver and looking at the road. Well, it was the principle of the thing.
“Giles,” she pointed out, “you just described evil as ‘helpful.’ What’s wrong with this picture?”
A flash of irritation in his eyes - well, that was something. Not Unflappable British Man after all. “That’s quite out of context, Buffy, and you know it. I simply meant that in a time when we have so few resources stretched over so many Slayers, not having to fend off any greater evils has been a relief. Surely you, of all people, can appreciate the benefits of a brief respite.”
“I do, believe me.” She sighed. “But really? We took our game to the big leagues eighteen months ago and the underworld is just rolling over and taking it? It’s too quiet. Something’s up.”
That simmered in the air between them for another five minutes, long enough for Giles to pull off the road and into a hole in the hedges that turned out to be a driveway. He cut the headlights before she could get a really good look at the house, then sat there for a moment with his face still illuminated by the dash and his fingers tapping at the wheel before finally reaching up and taking his glasses off so he could rub his eyes. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to look into it with a little more care,” he conceded, and then offered her a faint smile in the dark as he shut the car down entirely. “You know, I thought I was supposed to be the one who worries and you were supposed to be the one who argues we have nothing to fear but a lack of donuts.”
“An apocalypse or five tends to make you a little jumpy.” Laying a hand on her Watcher’s arm, a wry smile quirked the Slayer’s lips. “I’d put lack of donuts at a close second, though. Not a world worth living in without delicious fried sugar.”
“Quite.” He walked her up the dark steps, careful because he couldn’t see nearly as well as she could, and then crossed the broad front porch to unlock the front door and flick a switch just inside. Light blossomed inside and outside the house, casting the whole world in fluorescent white, and he stepped back enough into the broad entry hall to let pass with a private, paternal smile. He didn’t say anything because no words were needed - this was hers, entirely, and he wanted her to know it.
Once her eyes adjusted to the brightness, Buffy’s mouth opened into a silent ‘O’. The front hall, kitchen, and living room all shared the same vaulted, peaked ceiling, wooden beams exposed and stained a luminous, warm brown. Richly colored, deep-pile rugs accented the stone floors, flowing curtains covered big windows, and the lighting came from wall sconces and charming floor lamps.
“Oh, Giles, it’s beautiful!” Forgetting herself, Buffy began to explore unselfconsciously. The well-appointed kitchen elicited a gleeful “I don’t even know what half of these are !”, while the basement fitness and training center complete with sauna, extra-strength punching bag, and mahogany weapons rack got a low “ooo, nice .” Her eyes goggled at the big-screen, twelve-recliner home theater with surround sound (“Seriously, I’ll never leave at this rate”). The two guest bedrooms gave her warm fuzzy feelings.
She ended the tour in her own master suite. The shiny bathroom complete with jacuzzi was fit for a queen, the walk-in closet was almost as big as most bedrooms she was familiar with, and the elegant four-poster bed stood between gauzy-curtained windows, cushy armchairs, and pretty lamps.
Once she’d put her purse down on her new bed, she turned to her Watcher, eyes bright with emotion.
“It’s perfect.” Her fingertips brushed the tears away. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
“I can hardly take all the credit,” he began, and then stopped - he was polishing his glasses and smiling, his eyes glinting with the slightest hint of moisture, and he had to clear his throat carefully before he went on. “It’s only that we all thought you ought to have a place of your own, and the feeling was that Joyce would have wanted something like this for you. Somewhere quiet, you see. It’s quite secure, and there’s a car in the garage, so you can come in tomorrow whenever you like. Or the next day, really. When you’re ready.”
The house, Giles, thoughts about her mother--they all propelled Buffy forward into the Watcher’s arms. Hugging him tightly, she choked out a half-laugh, half-sob. “Drive? On these crazy roads? They’ll have a special law against me in no time.”
He held her, not giving a damn about the rumpling of his suit or the tears on his shoulder, and kissed her forehead as gently as any father could have. “If you’d prefer,” he murmured, “I could have one of the staff drive out and pick you up when you call in.”
“Okay,” she agreed, slowly releasing Giles after a moment. “You can have them bring groceries and my dry cleaning, too.” Her grin let him know she was kidding.
“Of course.” He kept his voice absolutely deadpan. “Shall I have our armorer come by to clean and sharpen everything, as well? Perhaps assign you a social secretary to handle your correspondence?”
Finally, she cracked up. “Social secretary? Seriously, people do that?” Shaking her head, she pulled her Tweedy Godfather in for another hug. “Nah, I’ll be fine. Probably I’ll see you in the next couple of days. Feel free to call if you start to miss me too much.”
“I always miss you,” he said simply, and then kissed her forehead gently and released her. “Try not to stay up all night watching movies.”
She grinned sleepily. “Maybe. Maybe I’ll have a weekly movie marathon just because.”
At the door, Buffy stood on the granite step to wave Giles goodnight. Once his headlights faded down the lane, the Slayer turned her face up to the night sky. With London and the clouds, she couldn’t see many stars, but she couldn’t see any streetlamps, either. The cozy lights of her nearest neighbor were a low glow through some foliage about half a mile away. There were faint rustling sounds of leaves, a cricket somewhere in her garden. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, letting the quiet wash over her like waves.
She slept well that night.
Chapter 3: Naturalization
When she finally put the tastefully understated BMW in park and killed the engine, Buffy let out a long sigh of relief. The drive between her house and the office had been forty-five minutes of nerves and prayer as she’d done her best to navigate the backwards English roads. Thanks to luck or Slayer reflexes or some heretofore unknown patron deity, the blonde had arrived safe, sound, and lawsuit-free.
Once her blood pressure had reduced to normal levels, Buffy got out, gleefully locked the car with a push of her remote, and made her way to the elevators.
There were a number of things-slash-people she was being careful not to think about, because like getting a dental procedure some things were best left uncontemplated. She was very much not thinking about the weird dream she’d had the night before. The one where half the Slayers had fallen onto their knees as she passed, chanting her name, and the other half hadn’t believed she was herself even after passport, old California driver’s licence, childhood photos and a blood test.
Nope. Everything was going to be fine.
She’d start with the on-site training room, she decided. See how the newer girls were getting along. Hopefully go unnoticed while everyone focused on not getting their asses kicked.
The elevator chimed softly, four floors below street level, and then opened into a broad room almost as wide and tall as the library upstairs. Padded concrete support pillars broke up the openness of it, obstructing her view of the weapons racks on the walls and the variety of targets arranged for weapons practice, but they couldn’t do much to hide massive plywood construct dominating a quarter of the space which was - it took her a moment to realize - probably some sort of training course. A mock-up of a large house or a few floors of a big building, something that could let Slayers train on entering and exiting quietly or violently as needed. Cheap materials, easy to fix - smart. Very smart.
Most of the space was empty at the moment, pairs or small knots of girls moving here and there - training archery, practicing throwing knives, fencing, practicing and honing their staking skills. Most of the girls there, though, were clustered up in a group on the heavy training mats twenty so feet in front of her and watching something really, really interesting. She couldn’t see it, but she could hear it - the hard thump of gloved hands hitting skin or padded flooring, the louder smack of bodies bouncing off training mats. It was either the most vigorous training she’d ever heard or an impromptu fight, and the dead silence of the watching girls wasn’t giving away any clues.
Quietly skirting the groups of trainees, Buffy approached the big fight, working her way around the crowd until she had a good view.
Faith was at the center of it, of course. Really, she should have known.
There were five of them, young and quick and already sporting an impressive constellation of bruises, and they were going after her together. At least, that was the theory. They mostly came in two at a time, sometimes three - though she caught a lot of eye-to-eye communication before those, because three people on one target was a great way to get your friend’s fist in your face even with Slayer instincts - because usually the ones who weren’t rushing in were on the ground sucking air and trying to get their limbs to talk to them. Pretty normal, really - not what she would have called good, not after seven years of kicking evil’s ass, but they were probably a fair bit better than she’d been when she’d taken down the Judge. They ought to have been cleaning up on the right side of five to one odds.
Watching Faith move... it wasn’t like anything she’d ever seen the other girl do before, not like anything she’d been ready to see. There wasn’t any anger in it, no pumped-up aggression or violent in-your-face ass-kicking; for all the strain of what she was doing showed on her face, Faith might have been meditating on the floor with her hands on her knees. Every time one of the Slayers moved, she moved - small shifts of her weight, a hand up inside the wrist of a striking punch, a smooth leg sweep to take the force out of a roundhouse headed for her head, a hand on the back of a shoulder to throw one of her opponents into the other. Every one of them hit the mats every ten to twenty seconds, regular as clockwork, and it went on like that until none of the five of them could pick herself up off the floor anymore.
Faith, immaculate and without a bruise on her, turned to her audience and bowed. Then she straightened up and put her hands on her hips, and gave them all a stern look that would have done Mrs. Hall of Sunnydale High proud. “So, your five best hand-to-hand fighters just got their asses kicked by one girl - one Slayer. What went wrong?”
Faith hadn’t spotted her yet, or hadn’t shown it if she had. Buffy stayed still near the back of the crowd, doing her best to look amazed in a dignified sort of way rather than a gaping fish.
One of the younger girls near the front raised a tentative hand. Faith chucked, shook her head and waved. “You’re kidding me with the hand in the air thing, right? Come on, Yana - we’re all Slayers here. Spit it out.”
The girl’s accent was thick Hungarian, her words very carefully chosen. “You fa- are faster. Stronger. Better.”
“Wrong.” Faith shook her head and reached out with the hand she’d waved, wrapping it around Yana’s and squeezing until the other girl squeezed back hard enough to make Faith wince. “Damn, girl, good grip on you. See? Same hands. Just as fast. I know more, I’ve been doing this longer, but not enough longer to make me better than five of you.” One of the girls on the floor finally managed to get to her knees, and Faith reached down to pull her the rest of the way up with a firm hand. “You okay?” She waited until she got a nod, then went on. “No, the problem here is that you’re all good - you all know you’re good - but you’re still running on instinct. Thinking like individual hunters. You gotta think pack, okay? Every time they tried to gang me, they had to arrange it on the spot - eyes flicking everywhere, plenty of telegraphing. A couple of them had trained together, but it was against each other - not cooperative. Even if they knew each other’s moves, they didn’t know which moves went with which. You gotta train until you know how the other girl’s gonna move, know how she’s gonna think, until she’s as much a part of you as your own hand and you don’t even have to look to see where she’s gonna go. Five fingers, one fist.” She held up her hand, closed it, opened it again. “See? Otherwise you’re just getting in each other’s way. Think about it.”
There was a moment of dutifully thoughtful silence. Buffy knew she’d have to deal with her legendary status sooner or later. Nothing like snark to break a mystique, she thought.
“That zen looks great on you, Faith. Where’d you get it? Mine shrunk in the wash.”
The look on Faith’s face was totally priceless. Shock didn’t even start to cover it, and if the girls hadn’t been so busy spinning around to stare at her like she’d just poked a lion with a sharp stick she was pretty sure most of them would have busted up laughing. It was just too perfect a ‘wait, what?’ expression not to merit the laugh.
Yana, halting English and all, managed to recover before anyone else did. “Who are you?” she asked - demanded, really - and her hands were ready at her sides for any answer she didn’t like.
Enjoying the looks on all their faces for a moment more, Buffy finally took pity on them. She approached Yana with an open hand. “I’m Buffy. Nice to meet you.”
Yana took her wrist, squeezed for the pulse, and got halfway through the greeting before her brain caught up with her mouth. “Hello, Buffy. I am Yana Rochenkov, and it is good to....” Full stop. Wide eyes. There went the jaw.
Patting the girl’s hand before releasing it, she gave her a gentle smile. A ripple of surprise, recognition, confusion flowed through the group of girls as she approached the front. Even the girls who’d been groaning on the floor picked themselves up to stare.
Coming to a mostly-comfortable stop before Faith, Buffy offered a soft smile. “I mean it. That was beautiful. You’re gonna have to teach me.”
“Sure.” Faith had her expression under control now, was even managing a cocky smile, but her eyes clung to Buffy in a way that had nothing to do with friendly welcome. She took the blond Slayer’s wrist firmly in her hand, squeezed it, then stepped back and made a formal bow from the waist. “Good to have you back, boss. You want to show these kids how Buffy Summers does it?”
Blinking at the bow, Buffy gave a self-deprecating grin. “I can show them how I take an ass-kicking. My vacation was pretty tame.” Skimming off her jacket, she pulled her hair up into a ponytail, kicked off her shoes, and rolled her shoulders before bowing to Faith in return.
“Let’s do this.”
Faith took a step back, bracing on her back leg and lifting both hands in ready defense, and then beckoned Buffy in with a flick of her fingers. Relaxed. Calm. In no way radiating the desire to get her hands on Buffy in every way imaginable.
Right. Sure. Maybe somebody would believe that if they were, you know, deaf and blind.
Buffy’s gave her a wicked smirk that said that she certainly saw something on Faith’s face. The who and the what and the why - that would wait for later. It had been a long time since clean fights in the library where the worst they got was bruises and sweat. Too long.
With a fluid motion, the blonde darted in for a simple punch to her opponent’s ribs - Faith’s hand came down, moving for a deflection, and Buffy reversed her own motion for an elbow shot at Faith’s shoulder that barely missed its target when the taller girl twisted around it like an eel. Faith tried for a riposte, a quick shove to the shoulder, and Buffy bounced into it instead and banged their bodies together hard enough to rattle teeth. Separation. Breath. Reengagement. After a few exchanges of blows and blocks, she felt her lips curve up in a smile - her body remembered. Apparently slaying was like riding a bicycle. Faith rocked back a step, wiped a hand across her split lip, then grinned in return and went over to the attack. Buffy was ready for her.
They waded in in earnest, and the rest of the world melted into background mist.
The last time Faith hit the ground, Buffy went down on top of her and caught the side-hand jab on her own wrist, turning and grabbing to capture the wrist and lock it down against the ground. Faith went for the head-butt, Buffy blocked that on her free forearm, then jabbed down with her elbow to hit the nerve cluster in Faith’s free arm and give her the mother of all dead-arms. A twist of Faith’s hips came next, and she jammed her own knee into a vulnerable thigh to head that off at the pass, and then her hand came down in a quick punch under Faith’s jaw that knocked the dark-haired Slayer’s head back and let Buffy get three fingers against the vulnerable arch of her jaw.
Five years ago, even when they were friends ( lovers , Buffy’s blood sang) Faith would have kept going. Would have made Buffy hurt her, work the joint lock on her wrist until the pain was too much to handle, maybe even after that because nobody had ever taught Faith Lehane there was a time you were beaten.
Faith’s free hand, still awkward from the nerve strike, hit the mat three times. Tap out. Done. It was done.
Buffy was suddenly, almost painfully aware of the slick heat of her own sweat on her skin.
Faith’s eyes were wide, dark, full of so many things that couldn’t and shouldn’t get dragged out in front of the trainees. Buffy knew her own eyes were just as wide and intense, and as she released her hold she blinked rapidly to try to get herself under control.
“Good fight,” she breathed, still panting slightly, holding out a hand to help Faith up.
“Thanks.” Faith took it and pulled herself up, rolling stiff shoulders and wincing at the feel of bruises that were already forming, then kept her grip on Buffy’s hand to pull her in for a quick, sharp hug that was over almost before Buffy had a chance to realize it was happening. Faith released her entirely after that, wiping their mingled sweat from pale skin, and flashed the gaping crowd of girls - plus more than a few other spectators who’d apparently run down fast enough to be in on the end - a devil-may-care smile. “See that, ladies? Speed, improvisation, aggression, grace and power. Do it just like that, every time, and maybe some day you’ll be laying me out as well as she does. I gotta talk to the boss for a few, get the marching orders for the day, but I want five-on-five drills until I tell you different or until Kennedy breaks you for lunch. Coordination, right?”
She got a dazed, general agreement and seemed willing to settle for it, then waited for the older girls - most of them eighteen, a few even younger - to herd the trainees off and get them back to work. Even when that was done, she kept watching them. Whether that was to keep an eye on them or give herself something to look at beside the sweaty-soaked, flushed heat of Buffy’s skin was a lot less clear.
Wincing at bruises of her own, Buffy started to stretch out. “Oof. I’m gonna feel that one in the morning. I guess I had to break myself back in sometime.”
“You wanted me to break you in, B, you could have asked for a private session.” Faith’s voice was a little rough with tangled emotion, but she managed to make the remark sound good-humored even so. She still didn’t turn around.
Glad that her cheeks were already flushed from exertion, the need in Faith’s voice hit her some place deep, stirring up old feelings. She looked away herself. Her eyes fell on the groups of Slayers training together, working up sweats, trying to learn what their elders were teaching them.
“Huh. They’re doing their homework and everything. Makes my younger self look like a total slacker.”
“Be fair, all you had was Giles teaching you. Couldn’t exactly work yourself out on him, y’know?” Faith shook her head, a little smile of pride growing on her lips that was just visible when she turned her head to watch Yana break off from one group to grab up a brace of throwing knives and start dead-centering the targets. “Slayers training Slayers to fight - that was a big break, when I got everyone to agree to that. Nobody knows how to do that part of it like we do, B.”
“True,” she said, her amazement growing to see Faith be nurturing, albeit via instructive ass-whooping. “You’ve done a great job with them.”
Faith turned away from the rest of the room then, because the sudden raw surprise and gratitude on her face was something she was more afraid of letting them see than letting Buffy get a glimpse of. She tried to speak, failed, tried again, then finally gave up and simply pressed her hand to her eyes to try to stop the pressure of tears there.
Biting her lip, Buffy raised a hand as if to lay it on Faith’s shoulder but stopped in mid-air, unsure. A slow second passed and she crossed her arms, sidled a step closer. Thought about saying something else. Wound up just watching the room, hoping her silence was closer to companionable than cold.
“So,” Faith finally murmured when her voice was under control again and she could lift her face from her hand, “you’re really back?’
Buffy nodded. “Yeah. I haven’t figured out what my job will be yet, but I’m not going anywhere.” She turned a serious expression on Faith, then stacked on a hint of a smile. “The office might find itself awash in cupcakes and other baked goods. I think this place could use a serious sugar infusion.”
“Never turn down a cupcake. Especially chocolate mocha.” Faith tried out a smile of her own, managed to get it working a little, then lifted her hand about a sixth of an inch before dropping it back to her side. It was enough for Buffy to know exactly what the gesture would have been - fingers under her jaw, enough to tilt her head back and let Faith get a good long look in her eyes before their lips came together and....
Cupcakes. Think about the cupcakes. Not Faith or her hands or anything to do with the unrelieved sexual tension between them that would not die despite everything they’d put each other through. Yummy cupcakes.
“So, I know some of how you guys are doing things these days, but still with the confusion. Who or what are the hounds, for instance?” Shiny, shiny subject change.
Faith, either out of mercy or her own need to think about something other than Buffy Summers, picked it up and ran with it. “The Hounds are kinda our SWAT team - best fighters we’ve got that are stable enough to keep charging in and handling stuff too big for the local girls or places we don’t have a team.” She spread her hands, taking in the training room, then pointed out two or three of the older girls with quick jabs of her fingers. “D, Satsu, Ariel are on training duty today; they’re all new since the battle, but they’ve cut their teeth pretty well. The rest of the girls are out hunting, having a day off - y’know, normal stuff. We average about nine of them, plus me and maybe Kennedy if I need an extra hand. Used to be more of the Sunnydale graduates aboard, but most of them are running their own teams now. Vi’s in New York, Rona’s in Cleveland, Chao-Ahn’s in Beijing, Shannon’s bouncing around the Med, Turkey and the Middle East ‘cause we’ve got too many hot spots and not enough teams yet to fill them in. We keep swearing we’ll let her settle down, but it hasn’t happened yet and I kinda think she likes jet-setting.”
“Huh. So a Slayer can actually call for back-up. I like it.” Leveling a look at Faith--it was probably safe now--she raised an eyebrow. “Why do they call it the Hounds?”
“Oh. Um.” Faith’s lips twitched, and then she started to grin. “Vi’s idea. She’s a Simpson’s fan.” There was a beat. Buffy stared. Faith sighed. “Look.... ‘release the hounds’? Yes? No?”
“I used to be all up on the pop culture references, you know? That was me. The reference-getter.” A sigh and a grin. “Anyway. It’s a great idea. I especially like that stability is a qualification.”
“Yeah. Kinda my idea.” Faith grinned back, though the shine of it couldn’t quite hide the shadows in her eyes. “Don’t want anyone getting so in love with the fight and the crunch they forget why they’re out there in the first place. Been there, done that, not a good look.”
“No.” Buffy’s voice was low, sadness lurking in there somewhere. She gave it a moment to crawl back into its cave.
“So, Slayers setting up actual lives in their cities, they’ve got Slayer friends and Watcher back-up, things get bad we send in the Hounds--was that a song?--generally a good set-up.” Buffy ticked off the facts on her fingers. “We’ve got witch and non-magic-based info gathering to find the new girls, a Slayer boot camp in Wales, more training here, general administrativey stuff. Am I missing anything?”
“Nope, that’s about it. Well, Watcher training, but that’s Giles and Andrew’s thing so I won’t pretend I know about that. Willow kinda runs the magic end, too, so don’t ask me how that’s working except really hard.” Faith crooked a smile, shifted a little awkwardly on her feet. “The Slayers thing, though, that I know. Basically, the new girls do six to eight months in Wales for basics and then come here to get their hands dusty and pick up some street smarts. Seems to help with the whole keeping them alive thing.”
Buffy nodded gravely. She really didn’t want to hear the answer to her next question. She asked anyway. “What casualties have we had so far?”
“Some,” Faith admitted, and there was no hiding the buried edge of hurt in her voice. “New York’s down one so far - Tammy - and Cleveland's lost two. I didn’t even get to meet one of those; they recruited her local, didn’t get her on a plane ‘cause she had some personal stuff to take care of and it took care of her instead. I’d rather not let that happen, but we’re not in the kidnap business so there’s not much we can do about it. We’ve lost five training in London - four newbies in the same batch, when they jumped what turned out to be a seriously tough ass vampire that took the whole Hound team to bring down after the survivor and their trainer got back to us, and Gretta from the Hounds when she walked into a bar and found out it was a demon drinking convention. She took most of the bar with her, but she didn’t make it.”
“Eight.” Buffy let out a breath long and slow so she wouldn’t do something unprofessional. “War sucks.”
“No shit,” Faith agreed, and Buffy could hear the crack of the other girl’s knuckles when her hands flexed.
“Do we have anyone on long-term, big-picture strategy?” Stepping into her shoes again, Buffy slung her jacket over her shoulder and gestured for Faith to follow. “‘Cause Giles and Dawn seem to be focusing on day-to-day stuff, which, obviously important, but I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a pattern we’re missing that’s going to bite us on the collective jugular one of these days. Maybe just the paranoia talking, but it would be good to at least have someone keeping an eye out for that kind of thing.”
Faith fell in next to her, fingers twitching and toying with the air they way they sometimes did when she was thinking - if she’d had a weapon handy, she’d have been spinning it from hand to hand - and she could almost hear the weight of the younger Slayer’s concentration. “Dunno, B. I guess that’s Giles and Dawn and Red and me, but we’re kinda trying to do the day to day too and maybe that’s not working so good. On the other hand... what are we gonna do? We’ve got the Circle making with the big magic eye, but they’re not seeing anything and yeah, the lack-of-anything they’re seeing is starting to make me a little jumpy too, but it’s not like we can send one of the girls up to door of Evil, Inc and knock on the door, politely ask ‘hey, I’d like a job and can I see your super-secret evil plans,’ y’know? ‘Cause even if we knew where to send her, I don’t think I could give that job out, B. Angel gave it the college try, and it didn’t work out so good for him and his.”
Sliding her key card into the elevator’s reader, Buffy bit her lip, trying not to think too much about her ex. Both of them. Whatever. Everything she’d heard about California in the last year and a half had indicated that while Angel and Spike might still be in one piece (or back in one piece, or whatever it was this year), nothing like victory or even a stale-mate was on the table.
“A, there are more ways to keep tabs on evil and B, you don’t have to assign anyone to that,” Buffy said as the elevator whooshed silently upwards. “I’ll figure something out.”
“Yeah.” Faith jabbed one of the buttons - second floor, right over the lobby - then leaned back into the wall of the elevator, digging her fingers into the pockets of her jean. After a heartbeat or two, she cleared her throat. “About that... you figuring things out, I mean. I guess you’re gonna be making the assignments, now, so if you want me to, you know...” She didn’t say the rest of it. She didn’t have to. Send me off to Wales to teach. Send me off to run a field team. Send me to solo L.A. and the rest of SoCal, ‘cause I’ve said enough about sending Angel some help that maybe y’all don’t trust me anymore. Tell me to get lost. I won’t fight it, B. Just tell me and I’m gone.
“Huh?” Buffy’s head whipped around in confusion. “I mean, if you want to do something else, sure, but I meant it when I said you’d done a great job. I don’t think I could do better. And I don’t want to deal with people who think I’m a legend. Creeps me out.” She rolled her shoulders as if to shake of the feeling. “You guys have the Slayer training and management figured out. I think I’d muck things up if I tried to take over. Probably I’ll do the most good with the big-picture strategy and intel thing.” She grinned. “And cupcakes.”
The way the weight rolled off Faith’s shoulder and the fresh relief that flooded her face left the dark-haired Slayer almost visibly giddy. She threw back her head and laughed, letting the sound roll off the walls of the elevator, then reached out and wrapped her hand tight around Buffy’s wrist. Held on for a long minute, feeling her pulse like it was something she was drinking in. Finally let her eyes meet Buffy’s for the first time since they got up off the floor downstairs, a long lingering stare that burned with a tangle of emotion as beautiful and sharp as a tree of swords. When she finally spoke, her voice was low smoke that barely carried over the soft hum of the elevator cables above them. “They call me the Captain, you know. Blame Kennedy, but it kinda seems to have stuck. Wanna guess what they call you, B?”
The elevator stopped, and Faith’s free hand shot out to hit the door close button before they could open. Her eyes didn’t leave Buffy’s.
“Jesus,” Buffy gasped, pretty sure the whole fucking building could hear her heart pounding.
“Not exactly, but pretty close.” Faith’s lips parted around a throaty laugh, and the air in the room got thick enough to drink as she leaned in enough for a whisper that was practically a vibration in Buffy’s bones. “They call you the General, B. Guess it’s as good a name as any, huh? You watch the big picture, you give the orders, I put your troops in the field and run the bad guys down when they need running down. Heard worse ideas.”
“Yeah,” Buffy breathed, trying desperately to regain something like poise. “Sounds good.”
“Yeah,” Faith echoed, “good.” The taller girl was up in her space, their lips almost touching, and those brown eyes were as wide and bottomless as they had been on the ground under her. Wide enough to drink a world down. Those lips moved, about to make an offer both of them wouldn’t have the strength to refuse. Stopped, teeth pressing together and squeezing the words down to a slow exhale.
Buffy’s breath stopped.
Faith backed up. Just a step, at first, her fingertips sliding loose from the hammer of Buffy’s blood in her veins. Then two.
Disappointed and so, so grateful, Buffy took a long, shaky breath with her eyes closed. When she opened them again, Faith was staring hard at the inside of the elevator door, hand still on the close button. She could see - couldn’t not see - the way the younger girl’s chest was heaving with the pressure of every inhale, like she was wrestling something big enough to juggle cars. Like she was barely standing still.
“I oughta shower.” It was stupid, mundane, crazy-small compared to what was raging in the air around them, but Faith still made it sound like it was worth talking about. Or maybe like it would have been an invitation if she weren’t standing on it quite so hard. “Change clothes. Get presentable.”
She was watching Buffy in the reflective metal, and the heat of that gaze ought to have melted the heavy steel of the door like ice in a California afternoon.
Still focusing on breathing, Buffy nodded. “Okay. I’m going to look around, talk to people.” She swallowed. “See you around.”
“Yeah.” Faith finally let her finger off the close button, let the doors open and the cool air of the hall outside pour in, and risked a single glance over her shoulder and a smile that could have made a nun weak in the knees. “Good to have you back, B.”
She went out, back straight and dignity intact, and left Buffy standing tall with a death-grip on the elevator’s polished steel rail.
The bruises on her wrist sang where Faith’s fingers had marked her.