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Flight Patterns

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Nobody made her do it.

Now, it was her choice. Her decision. The chooser and not the Chosen. Patrolling became something she did to keep her body busy and her brain from remembering.

…warmstickyrealrealreal…

There was a while there, right after she got to LA, when Buffy stopped. There were too many other issues---life and work and food and shelter---that took precedence over death.

…missmehelpmenonono…

Saving the world had to momentarily take a back seat to saving Buffy. That was new. Well, actually, that was old. It pre-dated slaying. In with the old, out with the new.

In with the new again.

~ ~ ~

Buffy’d been in LA for two months the first time she saw her.

Heard her was probably more accurate.

“…think I’m a fucking joke? Is that it? Well, step on up, boys. I’ll show you just how fucking funny I am.”

And Buffy watched. Ready to step in. Hidden by the shadows that had become her friend, though more than once she thought those brown eyes looked just too directly into hers.

Three vampires. The wannabe comedienne. No contest.

Buffy didn’t say a word, not even when the girl winked at her when it was all over. A flip of the long brown hair, a smile that was more of a smirk, and then the alley was empty again, devoid of life as the dust began to scuttle along the ground in its attempts to escape.

The incident was already forgotten when she went out on patrol the next night. Until the same brunette jumped down from a fire escape to land with a carnivorous grin at Buffy’s side in the middle of a fight. They didn’t speak until they were the only two left in the deserted street, and even then, all Buffy could say was, “Thank you.” No questions about who she was. No conversation. Just an acknowledgement of gratitude that seemed to satisfy both young women.

The girl showed up like that for a week, always in the middle of a fight, always with that wicked smile on her face like there was nothing more she wanted to be doing than dusting vampires in the dead of night. On the eighth day, Buffy finally got around to asking her name, and the two went to a coffee shop around the corner to have some pie.

Even then, Buffy thought it was ironic that the first hint of contact with her previous life would be called “Faith.”

~ ~ ~

It didn’t come as a surprise when she found out Faith was a Slayer, too. For three weeks, Buffy watched her fight, all seductive sway and lethal indulgence as she smiled in the faces of those she slaughtered. It was in the whisper of her stake when it plunged into a vampire’s chest. It pulsed in the dance of her feet when she’d stalk through the dust afterward. Hearing the words seemed redundant.

“But where’s your Watcher?” Buffy asked as they sat opposite each other in their usual spot. The coffee shop. With pie. Usually apple, but when the diner ran out, it was cherry and that was good, too. The nightly ritual was the best part of what she had any more.

“Where’s yours?” Faith shot back.

“Not here.”

“There’s your answer, then.”

She didn’t press. There was a lot about Faith she didn’t know. How she spent her daylight hours. Who it was who had trained her so well. What her favorite movie was. It was better that way, Buffy reasoned. When you knew the details of someone’s life, you started to connect with them, and she wasn’t ready to play connect the dots yet. She liked her lone dot standing all on its own. It was safer. Easier.

Lonelier.

Except now there was another black dot zigzagging around, like a fly looking for someplace to land. It wasn’t until Faith actually answered one of her questions for real that Buffy thought maybe the other Slayer had finally found the place she was seeking.

“It was this wicked ass dream,” Faith said. They were walking through a park where they’d just dusted a vamp macking on a teenaged girl. “This stuffed shirt was on a burning boat, bleeding like a stuck pig, and you jumped from the dock to help him get off. Next thing I know, a mess of vamps are all over both of us, and I’m helping you stake them before they can get to Mr. High and Mighty.” She shrugged. “Knew when I woke up it was the real deal and hitched a ride on the next bus to LA. End of story.”

Buffy disagreed. It wasn’t the end of the story, not when Slayer dreams were interceding to bring them together. But she stayed mute. It was enough to know that Faith trusted her enough to tell the truth about why she’d come to the city.

~ ~ ~

The subject of Angel first came up when Faith caught her watching a group of girls walking into a high school on the first day of school.

“Don’t tell me you miss it.”

Flashes of Willow. Xander. Giles behind the counter in the library. She blinked.

“Parts.”

“Just a bunch of kids,” Faith continued. She pulled out a cigarette, hitching a denim-clad hip to half-perch on the rail as she lit up. “Too busy coordinating their cars to their lipsticks to give a fuck about what’s really going on.”

“And you’re the queen of social awareness.”

“Damn straight.” One of those wicked grins that Buffy couldn’t help but respond to. “There’s no better way to tackle social injustice than by shoving a stake through its heart. Thought you knew that, B.”

She knew it, all right. Didn’t mean she liked it.

“High school boys are too green anyway.” Faith continued to ramble, like she had some secret mission to keep all silences filled lest Buffy say something neither one of them would like. “Give me a man who I can ride into oblivion without breaking his curfew any day.”

She wasn’t blowing smoke, either. Buffy’d witnessed Faith’s ability to pick up men firsthand. She probably could’ve witnessed it up close and personal if she’d wanted; the brunette had invited her along more than once. But the thought of sex…

Buffy’s almost imperceptible shudder in the harsh light of day did not go unnoticed. “Didn’t mean to shake your rafters there,” Faith drawled. “I just figured---.”

“Well, don’t.”

“What’s your damage?” She gestured toward the now-empty school grounds. “If you think it’s so crackerjack, why the hell are you out here and not in there whining about the quarterback wanting to get into your pants? Bells a’ringing, B. Only one holding you back is you.”

The school seemed tarnished after that, and Buffy turned abruptly away. “You don’t know anything about me, Faith,” she warned as she marched down the sidewalk. “You have no idea what I’ve done.”

“You mean Angel?”

His name had never been brought up between them. In the four months since she’d left the Hellmouth, Buffy hadn’t even uttered his name aloud, not to herself, not to Faith, not to the wino she passed on her way to work every morning.

…missmehelpmenonono…

To hear it now made her squeeze her eyes shut against the rush of memories, black and loud and avaricious in their bid for her attention, and she held her back rigid as the other Slayer came up behind her.

“Blame the dreams,” Faith said. “Telling me you’re here isn’t all they’ve been sharing.”

“I don’t want to talk about this.”

“Kind of guessed that. But just so you know, if you change your mind…you know where to find me.”

~ ~ ~

Nights began to blur.

So many constants…slaying with Faith, showering in her tiny bathroom to get the vampire dust out of her hair, Los Angeles twinkling its demonic taunts at every corner. It was easy to get lost.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

Lunge, stake, repeat.

Repeat, repeat, repeat.

So, on that fateful October eve, so like all the others that had preceded it, when Buffy heard the bell on the coffee shop door jingle as she bit into her pie, she didn’t even look up to see who had walked in.

She only glanced up when the arrival stopped at her table and spoke to her.

“Hello, Buffy,” said Giles.

Though the lines around his mouth were more pronounced, his eyes were exactly the same.

It made her want to weep.

~ ~ ~

Faith had known.

Faith had known all along.

Somehow, she couldn’t be mad at her for it.

That first night, Buffy fled into the night without saying a word, the tinny ring of that damn bell haunting her long after she’d left the coffee shop behind. Neither followed, and when the next dusk came without Faith appearing at her doorstep for their usual round of slaying, Buffy went to her.

And found Giles.

No more running after that. No point. Because if she wanted to be honest, Buffy was glad to see him. More glad than she’d been about anything in months.

He looked uncomfortable in Faith’s cramped studio apartment, too tall for the futon she’d lugged up from off the street, a Simpsons coffee cup steaming in his hand. The fact that he stood when he saw her standing on the other side of the threshold made her want to rush forward and hug him until she was fifteen again and freshly Chosen.

Ha. Fresh. Not exactly the word of choice to describe Buffy Summers these days.

“Don’t tell me you’re the stuffed shirt Faith saw in her dream,” she said in lieu of a greeting.

The conspirators exchanged a glance before Giles shook his head. “Actually, I found you first,” he replied. “Faith came…after.”

“And you never tried to talk to me?”

“You weren’t ready.”

“And you think I’m ready now?”

“Why don’t you tell me?”

For once, Faith was silent, hovering around the edges of her apartment with eyes that saw everything but didn’t know whether to accept what was unfolding. Buffy wanted to rail at her only friend, to yell and scream and pound and cry at the backhandedness of suppressing the truth. Instead, she laughed. Because the absurdity of feeling like Faith, and having Faith feel like her, and having Giles standing referee in the middle of it all, was suddenly the funniest thing she’d seen the entire time she’d been in LA.

Demons got a holiday that night. Faith ran out for Chinese---because having a pizza would just be too Sunnydale-like, especially with Giles there---and Buffy was left to try and catch up with her Watcher without either of them mentioning names that could hurt with just a few syllables.

Generally speaking, they succeeded.

~ ~ ~

Giles’ apartment was head and shoulders over hers or Faith’s, and too soon, Buffy was spending more of her time there than she was any place else. It wasn’t that it reminded her of Sunnydale, because it didn’t. Not situated in the middle of a high-rise with a spanking view of Robinson & May’s. Not with its over-abundance of cream and rented furniture. Only the stacks of books offered a hint of home, and for some reason, Giles tried to hide those whenever Buffy was around.

It was just that it was better. Nicer. With a real bathtub and an elevator instead of six flights of stairs and a remarkable absence of empty beer bottles littering the front walk. It would be stupid not to spend more time there, especially when Giles seemed to accept the fact that she wasn’t going back to Sunnydale any time soon.

And then it got stupid to keep paying rent for her crappy apartment when she wasn’t even there any more. By Thanksgiving, she was ensconced in Giles’ spare room.

Nothing ever got said about Joyce. Nothing ever got said about going to school. When Giles was gone during the day, Buffy did the unthinkable and snooped through his old phone bills to confirm that he never even called Sunnydale any more. He’d cut all his ties for her, and after, she felt shamed for taking so long to embrace him back into her life. That night, he found her sobbing in the corner of the couch, but when he asked what was wrong, she could only say, “I’m just glad you’re here,” before grabbing her stake and running off to meet with Faith.

“Mine was killed,” Faith explained when Buffy brought up the issue of Watchers again. The time for slip and evade seemed to be past. “This vamp named Kakistos started jonesing for a piece of me, and my Watcher got in the way. Hightailed it out of there before things could get too ugly.”

“You didn’t dust him before you went?”

“More like couldn’t. Way too powerful. I figured I’d get a few more vamps under my belt, and then go back and make it really hurt.” She grinned. “I might be punchy, but I’m not stupid.”

Sharing Giles was inevitable.

Especially since Faith had had him first in LA.

Surprisingly, that didn’t bother Buffy as much as she thought it would. They became their own little unit. In sync. There for each other. She figured all they needed to become a status quo family was a pet.

~ ~ ~

One serious drawback to living with Giles arose almost immediately.

Her sleeping patterns had become even more erratic after leaving Sunnydale. Choice borne of necessity. It sucked to sleep and fall immediately into dreams that should’ve been nightmares if they hadn’t been true. Maybe that still qualified them as nightmares.

For Buffy, that qualified as life.

…missmehelpmenonono…

Faith didn’t know. Or hadn’t. What they’d shared hadn’t stretched that far. It was just too much of a relief to talk superficially again without dragging in the not so superficial.

…closeyoureyescloseyoureyescloseyoureyes...

Buffy didn’t know she spoke in her sleep. She didn’t know she cried in her sleep. She only knew that when she slept, it all came back.

…Red. Then dark. And tears. Hers. His. And so much blood…

And then there was Giles, shaking her awake, all eyes so close where were his glasses? but there, really there, not like the dream. Thank god not like the dream.

“Buffy, wake up. It’s just a dream. I’m here. You’re fine. You’re safe. I’m here.”

A litany of comfort that took too long to penetrate her fugue.

And the tears that didn’t stop when he pulled her into his arms opened the door to talk about the dreams. To talk about Angel. To tell what had happened, and to explain once and for all why she had run.

It didn’t mean she stopped crying, though. It just meant she didn’t have to hold the secret as her own any longer.

~ ~ ~

It came with a thump.

They were sitting in Giles’ living room, listening to Faith regale them with how she’d fought off two blue-haired biddies down at Ralph’s, and even Giles was chuckling at the animated tale. It felt good to laugh. This was a kind of ache Buffy could get used to again.

And then the plate glass window almost shattered from the unknown impact. No more joking. Nerves on instant alert, everyone to their feet, all eyes staring at the covered window that overlooked the shopping center.

Faith was the first to move. Darting to the side of the window, she cast a glance back to confirm the others were ready, and then pulled the cord for the blinds, tense and poised to attack whatever it was that had tried to break in.

They saw nothing. Just the shimmery reflection of three pale faces staring back at them against the sooty LA night. Buffy thought it made her face look fat.

Silently, Giles grabbed a sword from the display by the door, approaching the spidery mesh that was now his living room window, and peered out into the darkness. After a moment, he pulled away, tilting his head back so that he could better squint through his glasses, and lifted a single finger to the epicenter of the fault.

“What is it?” Buffy asked.

“Feathers.” Setting down the weapon, Giles slipped the latch on the window. He was careful when he slid it open, and the sudden rush of noise from the street almost hurt her ears, but nobody was paying any attention to the mundane of the city. They stared instead as he leaned over the sill and scanned the faux balcony that adorned the exterior of the window, ultimately bending to reach for something unseen in its depths.

It was a bird. A big one. Black, with a wingspan of several feet. It flapped halfheartedly against Giles’ chest when he pulled it into the apartment, but the bright lights seemed to stun it into submission, leaving it blinking rapidly as he set it carefully on the floor.

“It must not have seen the glass,” Giles speculated as he examined it.

“Is it hurt?”

She crouched down beside him and watched as he extended the wing. The bird struggled at the movement, squawking its displeasure in unmistakable pain, and she winced along with it when a loose feather clung to the carpet.

“Don’t touch it,” Giles instructed when her hand reached unbidden toward it. “It’s not a pet.”

“But what are you going to do with it?” Buffy didn’t want to see it destroyed. It was just a bird who’d made a serious error in its flight path.

It stared at her with black, beady eyes, as if it understood what she was asking. It didn’t even struggle again when Giles grabbed his jacket from a nearby chair and wrapped the animal into it.

“I’m sure there’s an animal hospital or some sort open at this hour,” he said. “We’ll let a veterinarian take care of it.”

That seemed the right thing to do. The bird was hurt, ergo it needed a doctor. The doctor would make everything right again.

She insisted on holding it in her lap while Giles drove. Buffy could’ve sworn it stared at her the entire way.

~ ~ ~

It came back.

They’d left it at the animal hospital with an explanation of what had happened, and then returned to the apartment in silence, sobered by such a ridiculously ordinary thing occurring in their very unordinary lives. The hospital called the next day to say the wing had been mended, but that some time during the shift change that morning, the bird had escaped its cage. Odds weren’t good that it would survive long with its damaged wing.

But a week later, Buffy went to draw the blinds and was startled by the black outline barely discernible on the railing outside the window. It cocked its head when it saw her, but didn’t fly away.

“Not that hard, B,” Faith teased from the couch when Buffy continued to stand there motionless. “All you have to do is pull the string.”

She did. Slowly. And decided that it must be a different bird than the one they’d saved. Because being the same would just be too weird.

It was gone the next morning, but as soon as it was dark outside, Buffy heard a soft whisper against the glass, and looked up in time to see the black bird roosting in the very same spot. She approached it, cautiously, curiously. It never moved.

“What is it?” Giles asked, coming in from the kitchen.

She only pointed. She saw her Watcher’s frown in the faint reflection from the glass, the slight tilt of his body as he tried to more closely examine the bird without actually getting nearer to it. There was no doubt that it was the same one any more. Around its leg was a tiny ID bracelet that she’d seen the nurse at the animal hospital put on when it was injured, and in the middle of its breast was the tiny fluff of red feathers she’d stared at the entire trip in.

“Remarkable,” he muttered.

“Because it came back?” she asked.

“Because it’s still alive. It shouldn’t have survived.”

“So why did it come back?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps because we rescued it.”

Suddenly, she was drowning in an unexpected burden. She’d saved its life and now it looked like it was giving its life to her.

Eye for an eye.

Wing for a wing.

…missmehelpmenonono…

But she didn’t want that kind of responsibility. She’d run from that kind of responsibility. She did enough with her slaying not to feel like she had to take care of a homeless wild bird on top of it.

She was still staring out at the animal when Faith showed up to patrol.

“C’mon, B,” she said, coming up to stand beside her. “The night’s a-waiting.”

“It’s not the only thing,” she replied.

Faith’s gaze slid to match hers. “Well, will you look at that.”

Buffy caught her grinning widely. “You don’t think it’s weird?”

“Nah. As much fucked up shit we see every night? This is almost Cleaverville.”

They left it behind to wander the dead streets of the city in search of adding more death. More than once, Buffy could’ve sworn she heard the faint rustle of large wings cutting through the night, but every time she looked behind her, nothing was there.

~ ~ ~

As Christmas neared, demon activity seemed to pick up, driving her harder and further than she’d gone since running to LA. Patrols grew longer. Bloodier. Less of the fun. Even Faith seemed to be enjoying them less.

She caught Giles researching more than once. She’d walk into a room unexpectedly, and he’d hide the book he was reading with a newspaper or another book and once even tried using his tie before giving up and just leaning forward to cover it with his arms. It saddened her to think he still felt the need to pretend, but then, she was still pretending so could she really blame him?

“I don’t think the answers are in there anyway,” she finally said after the umpteenth interruption. “I think it’s just that time of year.”

“The…holiday spirit infecting the demon population?” he said with a small smile.

“It wouldn’t surprise me. Have you seen the way people act at Christmas? It has to be possession. Maybe an angry elf sprinkling evil Santa dust around for revenge.”

For a moment, something gleamed in Giles’ eyes. Like a shutter had been lifted from a window to allow a single ray of sunlight to shine through. It took Buffy several seconds of non-comprehension to realize she’d made a joke. An old school joke. An old Buffy-style joke. She’d actually forgotten that new Buffy-style didn’t include joking.

“Or, maybe it’s just coincidence,” she added.

The shutter closed again. Giles merely nodded.

“Perhaps.”

~ ~ ~

It was inevitable that one of them would eventually get seriously hurt. Buffy just always figured that it would be Faith and not her.

One minute, she was delivering a roundhouse kick to a scaled demon they’d witnessed torch a pet shop, and the next, a sword was slicing into her side, piercing leather, skin, flesh, and finding soft insides to chop and dice.

She fell, feeling it get yanked from her body when Faith turned on the surprise attacker, and watched through a reddened haze as the brunette went berserker on both of them.

…warmstickyrealrealreal…

Hers.

Not on her hands this time.

She felt more than saw the other Slayer drop to her side, the strong hands tearing at Buffy’s coat to reveal the wound in all its scarlet and tan glory. “At least it’s a clean in and out,” Faith said. “But you’re bleeding pretty bad. C’mon.”

Pain sluiced through Buffy’s body when Faith tried to help her to her feet, drawing out a ragged cry into the now-still night. “Go,” she rasped, pushing the other woman away. “Get Giles.”

“I’m not leaving you here!”

She shook her head. Fingers scrabbled for the hem of her coat to press against the flow of blood. “You don’t have a choice.”

“Fuck that. Get your ass up and walk yourself if you won’t let me carry you.”

“Giles is just a few blocks away. This isn’t our usual boy scout bandage badge. I’m going to need a hospital.”

“Even more reason for me not to leave you alone.”

Whispers.

Familiar.

And then black beady eyes gazing solemnly at both of them as the bird floated to a stop right next to Buffy.

“What if one of those things has a buddy?” Faith continued, ignoring the new arrival. “I leave you, and you’re dead.”

Before she could reply, the bird hopped onto Buffy’s calf, pincer feet needling through her trousers and into her skin as it perched firmly between the two Slayers. It forced Faith to redirect her attention, and she drew back to regard them more fully.

“If you die, I’m killing that fucking bird,” she snapped, shooting the animal in question a dirty look. “You hear that, Edgar? Anything happens to B, and you’re the next pie on the menu.”

Only when she was gone did Buffy release the groan she’d been holding, squeezing her eyes shut against the pain. It hurt. More than anything had hurt in a long time.

She felt tiny needles in her flesh as the bird turned around, and she opened her eyes to meet the animal’s. “Edgar, huh?” she mused out loud. Better to talk. She’d stay conscious that way. She had to stay awake for Giles and Faith’s return. “I never figured you for an Edgar.”

And she talked. Babbled. Said anything just to keep her brain going long enough for the cavalry to arrive.

She was still talking when she heard the car door slam shut. Footsteps echoing.

Edgar only moved when Giles appeared at her side.

~ ~ ~

Answers arrived while she was laid up recuperating. Literally. In a big fat envelope postmarked from England.

“Acathla’s gone missing.”

Giles said it with a matter-of-factness that brooked no apology for mentioning the unmentionable. Acathla. The big stone part of the reason she’d run away from Sunnydale in the first place.

“What do you mean, missing? What happened to it after…after I left?” Nope. She wasn’t going to say it. Everybody might know about Angel, but that didn’t mean she had to go around announcing it whenever the opportunity arose. Of course, everybody constituted three people, all of whom were in the room when Giles made the announcement, but Buffy didn’t care about the semantics of it.

“The Council took it into their custody.”

“And now they’ve lost it? Why didn’t they destroy it when they had the chance?”

He began to pace around the edges of the room, keeping as much distance from her on the couch as possible, but it was still too frighteningly like Sunnydale, like before, like everything that wasn’t the now. She should’ve known that all paths led back to the start. The world was just one big circle so it should only be expected that ends were beginnings and vice versa. She should’ve known.

“They wanted to study it,” he was saying. “They wanted to discover why the apocalypse failed.”

Her wounds itched. “The apocalypse failed because of me. It failed because I killed Angel. If they wanted to know, all they had to do was ask!”

“Well, you weren’t there, now were you?”

It was the harshest thing he’d said to her since showing up on Los Angeles. He wasn’t sorry for it, either. The grimness of his mouth told Buffy it had been a long time coming, and she shrank into the cushions of the couch.

“So this dude is the reason we’ve been so busy lately?” Leave it to Faith to cut through the crap.

“That’s not possible,” said Buffy. “It’s just a big rock. Unless the Council did something to it. In which case, I really don’t want to hear any more.”

Giles wasn’t done. Giles was far from done, by the looks of it. “Mr. Travers believes demon activity is on the rise in the area because Acathla is here and anything remotely evil is trying to locate it.”

“Including the Council. Color me so not surprised.”

She only half-heard the rest of the conversation. It was a replay of the previous spring. If she didn’t want to watch the world disintegrate into chaos should someone figure out how to work Acathla again, she had to find it first.

The story of Buffy’s life.

And here she’d thought she was finally starting a new chapter.

~ ~ ~

“What’s the bug up your ass, B? It’s a fucking rock. It doesn’t have anything do with Angel.”

It had everything to do with Angel.

“We find it, we smash it, we get back to the good old days where we only had to take down ten vamps a night instead of twenty. Sounds five by five to me.”

She couldn’t know. She always left love behind with wet sheets and a killer hangover.

“At least get off your bony ass and help me find it. Giles said that Travers dude is coming out to see what’s taking us so long. I’d rather be long gone before he gets here.”

“So go.”

“Well, look. Queen B decides to speak. Lucky me.”

“Yeah, lucky you. Now go away.”

It was silent for so long, Buffy almost thought Faith had actually left.

“And here I thought you’d figured out it’s not just you any more,” Faith finally said.

That was when she decided to stomp out.

Buffy thought it was a much better exiting line.

~ ~ ~

She patrolled alone until after the New Year. Mostly alone. Edgar followed her everywhere she went when she was out at night. If she was in, he stayed perched on the balcony railing, eating the balls of bird food Giles bought and tried to hide in the back of the cupboard.

Missing Faith got to be too much. It was harder doing it on her own after so many months as a tag team, and harder still to walk in and see Faith and Giles huddled over a map of the city at the dining room table. Her Watcher. Her friend.

Her problem.

…missmehelpmenonono…

The night before Travers was supposed to show up, Buffy found Faith in a parking lot with two vamps pinned to the tinny doors of a red Ford Festiva. They hung on the swords she’d skewered them with, one already unconscious from the beating she had given him, and the other only barely awake as her fists turned his jaw into jelly.

“Kind of hard to get him to talk if his mouth doesn’t work,” Buffy commented from the sidelines.

“Already found out what I need to know,” came the reply. Another hard-hitting blow. Out for the count and Faith turned away from the car, her eyes shiny. “That was just to relieve a little tension.”

She dusted them almost casually, then stooped to retrieve the two swords that fell to the concrete. Buffy knew those weapons. They were Giles’.

“Did it work?”

“Like a Lucky Charm.”

They fell into step as if they’d never stopped their nightly patrols together. Silently, Faith handed over one of the swords.

Buffy sighed. Her heart felt better with a weapon in her hand.

“What did you find out?” she asked. “Do you know where…it is?” Damn it. She still couldn’t say the name.

“On a boat, if you can fucking believe it. Our rock god’s supposed to go for a little ride tomorrow.”

“Then I guess we better go give it a visit tonight, don’t you think?”

“Night’s early. Feel like some pie first?”

~ ~ ~

The bird circled overhead as they neared the docks.

“Wait.”

Faith’s hand wrapped around Buffy’s bicep, stopped her from going ahead. She was frowning. It almost didn’t look natural to see the brunette so serious.

“What’s wrong?”

“I dreamed this. This was my dream.”

So, Buffy looked. Really looked. She didn’t need to ask what dream Faith was talking about; in all their talks, only one dream could be referenced so directly.

The water shimmered. Its surface looked like an oil slick under the pale moon, ready to suck the unsuspecting down into chilly depths, and a lone boat was moored near the shore. The smell of sulfur made Buffy’s nose itch.

“Wasn’t the boat on fire in your dream?” she asked.

“What is it you think you’re sniffing? Those aren’t marshmallows on an open fire, B.”

“Is this the boat…” She swallowed. “…Acathla is on?”

Silence.

Which was loud and clear as an answer.

Before she could think otherwise, Buffy’s feet were pounding against the dock, leading her at breakneck speed to the boat.

“B!” Faith shouted. “What the hell are you doing?”

Jump.

Tuck.

Roll.

She thought it was pretty clear what she was doing.

There was no time for stopping. Stopping would mean second-guessing and she couldn’t do that, wouldn’t do that, not now not again. She’d come so far and it had to be here for a reason. It had to be here to give her the chance to let it go for real.

To let Angel go for real.

…missmehelpmenonono…

And she didn’t need to ask any more. She could ignore the cries that echoed inside her head. Hers. His. She could do this one thing and bury the past under its rubble. She could climb over the debris, and take her life back. The one with Giles. The one with Faith.

The one where she wasn’t alone.

It was possible there might even be room for others once the ghosts of the past were gone.

One huge ghost loomed in front of her too quickly after she started searching the ship, and Buffy skidded to a halt when she saw it wasn’t alone. She frowned when the middle-aged man standing in front of Acathla turned back to look at her. She hadn’t been expecting an audience.

“Miss Summers. This is quite the surprise.”

“For both of us. Who are you?”

“That would be the stuffed shirt.”

The man’s small eyes darted over Buffy’s shoulder, but his face remained impassive. “And Miss Robinson. Is Rupert with you as well?”

She felt Faith come up to stand just behind her shoulder. “Why? You feel like having a tea party?” the brunette said.

Buffy knew then. It hadn’t been her dream, and this was the first time she’d ever seen this man, but her instincts were screaming at her to listen to them for a change. “Quentin Travers.”

That provoked a response. A small smile. She imagined he didn’t do it very often. “Yes,” he murmured. “Quite the surprise.”

“It’s a little early for you, isn’t it? I thought you weren’t due in until tomorrow.”

“And I thought you would’ve found Acathla before tonight. It would seem we were both mistaken.”

A loud crash overhead jerked all three sets of eyes upward.

“Give you three to one those are the vamps I dreamed about,” Faith said.

A scream pierced the heavy wood to resound throughout the hold. That was all it took to drive both Slayers back to the stairs, up into the chilly night. Into the throng that awaited them.

The scream had been demonic. As Buffy and Faith slipped into the fight, Buffy saw the black shape of a bird swoop away from a vampire clutching at his bleeding eyesocket. Edgar. Like negative space against the night. There, but not.

There were easily a dozen, each trying to get a piece of a Slayer, each armed with only the most rudimentary of weapons. The girls leapt and pirouetted amongst the demons, deadly blades slicing through skin and sinew, the blood spattering every which way and more. Hers. Hers. Theirs. The air stank of it.

A club made contact with Buffy’s bad side. She ignored the pain to swing her sword in a full circle, severing a head from its body, and rushed through the falling ash to tackle the vampire trying to make its way to the hold below.

Help came from an unexpected quarter. Dodging fangs that seemed determine to meet her throat, Buffy felt a soft brush against her cheek and turned her head in time to see Edgar return to the fray. His beak was suddenly lethal, his claws just as deadly, and he attacked with full force at the vampire who’d dared to bare his teeth. It was enough to give Buffy the advantage she needed, and she grabbed her stake from her waistband to plunge it into the vamp’s back.

And then there was none.

Just a lot---a lot---of dust. The smell of smoke. Heat rising from somewhere.

“Is that it?” Faith wasn’t even that breathless. In fact, she looked kind of pissed off. “That seemed way harder in my dream.”

“We didn’t miss any, did we?” Buffy looked around at the empty deck. “I think I got five.”

“You had time to count? And here I thought we were just trying to clear the field.”

“If that’s so, then why do I get the feeling we’re missing someone?”

She didn’t wait for a reply. There was someone. Down below. Someone who wasn’t even supposed to be here.

He didn’t even turn around when they came back down. Focused on Acathla, Quentin’s hands were skimming across the cold stone, his voice unintelligible as he muttered something not in English under his breath. Creepy. Very non-Watcher-like.

“What’re you doing?” Buffy demanded.

He didn’t stop. He didn’t move. He just kept touching. And chanting.

A sudden squawk from behind her was followed by a flurry of wings, and Edgar was beating around Quentin’s head, scratching and diverting and drawing him away just enough for Buffy to rush forward. She leapt at the stone statue, and the magic surged at her hands as she made contact. It had to be magic. It always burned.

“No!” Quentin shouted.

But it was too late.

It shattered.

Brittle shards peppered the air, but it was nothing compared to the magic as it exploded.

Brilliant.

White.

Painful.

And a bird’s scream.

As it deepened into the throaty cry of a man.

Then…

Blackness.

~ ~ ~

She woke up on the dock. Her throat burned from the thick smoke that now rolled in waves off the water, and Buffy struggled to prop herself up on her elbows to get a better look. She needed to see. She needed to see that it was gone.

What she saw instead were people. Lots of them. Mostly firemen, maybe a few dockworkers. Faith was flirting with a cute cop. The soot from the fire made her look somehow sultry, not dirty. Figured. Lucky bitch.

There was Giles. And a bowed Quentin. Both obviously weary by the slump in their shoulders. At their feet was another man, one with dark hair, wrapped up in a blanket, wrapped up in a ball. Pale skin.

…missmehelpmenonono…

Shaking, Buffy rose to her feet, pushing past the hands that wanted to help as she wound a path to her Watcher. Before she could say anything, he was looking up. He was seeing her. And then he was looking down, at the man huddled around his legs, drawing Buffy’s eyes with him to stare and wish and not believe.

She couldn’t believe.

“Is it gone?” she asked instead. She tore her eyes away, stopping several feet away from the three. Out of touching distance, she added, “Tell me it’s gone.”

“It’s gone.” Giles’ voice was scratchy from the smoke, and he pulled his glasses off to rub at his eyes, as if that would clear the haze from his vision. “Buffy,” he added, but stopped. Deep breath. He was going to try again.

She wouldn’t let him. “Then it’s over.” For some reason, the declaration made her want to cry. No. It was the fire’s fault. Outside influences, not inside.

“Not quite.”

“It has to be.”

“But it’s not.”

“But---.”

Listen to me, Buffy.”

But he didn’t speak further. Not with words. Instead, Giles shook his head, knelt, and hesitated before putting an arm around the shoulders of the man on the ground. He guided him to stand, taking care to keep the blanket wrapped around him as bare legs became exposed beneath the hem of the wool.

Dark hair. Pale skin.

He lifted his head.

Eyes so dark they seemed black in the night. Staring at her. Watching her as they’d watched for so many weeks now.

“Angel…”

She couldn’t move. She couldn’t even look at him. She looked at Quentin.

“What did you do?” Her voice was a whisper, but it stretched to forever, making each word hang like a jewel in the velvet night. Diamond-sharp and just as clear.

The Council Head lifted a proud head. There was no shame in his features. “We freed him,” he said coldly. “When we were studying Acathla. Our coven bound him to an earthly form so that he wouldn’t be a threat. When the statue went missing, so did he. That is why it was imperative Acathla be found. But when you destroyed it, Miss Summers, you destroyed the spell. I do hope you’re happy.”

Her eyes shut.

Happiness was not a word she could use to describe herself. It was a word that had been foreign to her for months, too many whispers, too much running, too much wrong. There had been flashes, and there had been small pieces slowly being fitted back into the puzzle of her world, but they had been oddly shaped, taking work to make them fit, slicing her fingers as she fought to notch it all together.

It was still foreign. But there were no more ghosts. Her ghosts now stood before her, each brought back into her life when the time was deemed to be right. And she could stop trying to hide from them.

No.

She was wrong.

There was one more ghost. One more piece to make right in the new order of things.

She felt Faith come up behind her, hesitate. Wait.

Buffy lifted her head, her chin high, her eyes clear as they darted from Angel to Giles. A small smile---not one of joy, but peace---curved her mouth as she said, “Let’s go home.”